It’s true what they say. Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Especially when those pictures are drawn by Robert Crumb.
And especially when those words come from the Bible.
For those who haven’t heard yet: Legendary comics artist Robert Crumb has just come out with his new book: The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb, a magnum opus, five years in the making, telling the complete, unedited book of Genesis in graphic novel form. And I’m finding it fascinating. It’s masterfully illustrated, of course, Crumb being among the very best creators in this burgeoning literary form. And it’s getting Genesis across to me, deep into my brain and my imagination, in a way that it had never quite gotten there before.
Of course I’ve read Genesis. More than once. It’s been a little while since I’ve read the whole thing all the way through, but it’s not like it’s unfamiliar. But there’s something about seeing the story fleshed out in images to make some of its more striking narrative turns leap out and grab your brain by the root. There’s nothing quite like seeing the two different creation stories enacted on the page to make you go, “Hey! That’s right! Two completely different creation stories!” There’s nothing quite like seeing Lot offer his daughters to be gang-raped to make you recoil in shock and moral horror. There’s nothing quite like seeing the crazed dread and burning determination in Abraham’s eyes as he prepares the sacrifice of his own son to make you feel the enormity of this act. Reading these stories in words conveys the ideas; seeing them in images conveys the visceral impact. It makes it all seem vividly, immediately, humanly real.
Now, that is something of a mixed blessing. Spending a few days with the characters in Genesis isn’t the most relaxing literary vacation you’ll ever take. Richard Dawkins wasn’t kidding when he said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” The God character in Genesis is cruel, violent, callous, insecure, power-hungry, paranoid, hot-tempered, morally fickle… I could go on and on. And God’s followers aren’t much better. They lie, they scheme, they cheat one another, they conquer other villages with bloodthirsty imperialist glee, they kill at the drop of a hat. This isn’t Beatrix Potter here. It’s more like Dangerous Liaisons by way of Quentin Tarantino. With tents, sand, and sheep.
Yet at the same time, there’s an unexpected side effect to reading this story in images as well as words. And that’s that the story becomes more… well, more of a story. Reading it in comics form made it easier for me to set aside, just for a moment, the relentless hammering on the text that I typically engage in when I read the Bible: the theological debates, the treasure hunt for inaccuracies and inconsistencies, the incessant “How did this pissy, jealous, temperamental warrior god get shoehorned into the All-Knowing All-Powerful All-Good ideal again?” bafflement. It made it easier to set all that aside… and just read it as a story. A story about some very human, very fallible characters: strong and interesting, but not moral paragons by any stretch of the imagination… and not really intended to be.
Including the God character. Who, in many ways, is the most human and the most fallible of them all.
A big part of that comes from Crumb’s art style. His drawing is not photorealistic, but his portraits — fleshy, emotional, idiosyncratic, expressive — emphasize, above all else, the humanity of his characters. The deeply familiar characters in this story — Abraham, Noah, Joseph, Adam and Eve — seem less like iconic figures from a fairy tale, and more like human beings: just some Bronze Age sheepherders, squabbling and screwing and struggling for survival.
But a big part of the “story, not theology” aspect of this book comes from the choices Crumb made as an illustrator. Crumb’s Genesis emphasizes biblical accuracy — he’s a non-believer, but he has a deep respect for the book’s historical and cultural importance. So he created this graphic novel as a straight, word- for- word illustration job.
And so, when it came to illustrating the freakier and more unsettling aspects of the narrative, he pulled no punches. The multiple marriages, the concubines, the brutal wars, the enslavements, Jacob extorting Esau out of his birthright, Abraham lying to the Pharaoh and saying that his wife was his sister,
Noah’s Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and screwing him, the deliberate deception and massacre of an entire town, Joseph taking advantage of famine and drought to seize the wealth of an entire region… it’s all here, fleshed out in blood and sweat and tears, in vivid, unforgettable, often nightmarish detail. It’s really hard to see all that, and still see this book as a divinely inspired guide to living an ethical life. It’s really hard to see all that, and see this book as anything other than a story of survival and conquest in a brutal and bloody period of human history.
(I’d like to take a moment here to point out that I’m not going out of my way to find the ugly and unpleasant stories in Genesis. Ugly and unpleasant is all over Genesis like a cheap suit. If anything, the opposite is true: it’s a bit of a challenge to find a story in Genesis that’s purely uplifting and inspiring, with no nasty aspects at all.)
And I haven’t even gotten to the God character. God’s actions aren’t bowdlerized or treated with kid gloves in Crumb’s Genesis, any more than any other character’s. The capricious changing of whims, the inexplicable inconsistency of his moral judgments, the torturing to death of an entire town by fire, the drowning of almost every living creature in the Flood, the paranoid vengefulness anytime humanity gets a scrap of power that threatens his own… again, it’s really hard to see these stories fleshed out in unignorable visual imagery, and still see God as bearing any resemblance whatsoever to the rather abstract Greek ideal of all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good perfection. It’s really hard to see the God character fleshed out, and see him as anything other than another more or less human character in the story. With somewhat more power than most, and a somewhat greater tendency to abuse that power.
All of which makes this book a must-read — for any atheist, and for any Christian or Jew or Muslim who wants to honestly examine the origins of their religion.
Many formerly- Christian atheists say that one of the most important steps on their journey to atheism was actually reading the Bible, and seeing that (a) it’s a horror show, and (b) it makes no sense. And we atheists are always asking believers to actually read the sacred texts of their beliefs, to find out if they actually believe that stuff. This vivid, unforgettable, beautifully delineated, sometimes touching, often horrifying, intensely human, word- for- word graphic depiction of the seminal book of the Bible is right up our alley. I recommend it heartily.
Conflict of interest alert: This book is carried by a company I work for, Last Gasp.
The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN-13: 9780393061024. Hardcover. $24.95.