Straight Illustration Job
By Max Dunbar.
Famous mainly for his intense, surreal 1960s-era comics featuring Mr Natural, Fritz the Cat and Devil Girl, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb has now turned his attention to the Bible (Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis: All 50 Chapters). This coffee-table slab is the glorious result.
Throughout the book I kept getting little primary-school resolutions, the answers to small mysteries — so that’s what they mean when they talk of selling your birthright for a mess of pottage, that’s what happened to Lot’s wife when she looked back at the burning city. Biblical traces are woven so closely into contemporary art, cliché and commentary that it’s easy to forget their roots.
Yet the illustrated Bible stories you used to go through in RE were bland and tepid, with (out of necessity) much of the content excised. Crumb’s version leaves nothing out, and his depictions of the human form are so realistic that you can practically smell his characters. Crumb’s Genesis gives you an aura of what it would be like to live in biblical times. The stench of cattle, of old clothes in desert heat, the screams of slaughtered animals, the hot blood of childbirth, the sweat, the hair.
He does not spare us the horror. Abraham is ready to kill his child on God’s command (and for some reason, this story is continually cited as evidence to Christianity’s credit). The destruction of Sodom is genuinely scary, living bodies covered in flames. Crumb, in his commentary, also makes a point of the story of Ham, who looked at his father drunk and naked, and as a punishment his ancestors are destined to be ‘the lowliest of slaves’. From the commentary: ‘Thus were black Africans later designated as the descendants of Ham by white Christians, this biblical passage serving as a righteous rationale for their enslavement’.
What’s interesting is Crumb’s feminist angle: he argues that there was a powerful matriarchy in Mesopotamia and Egypt, with female leaders and high priestesses; there were hives and swarms of gods, not all of them male. This had been suppressed by the time Genesis was written, and female influence revised out of its pages. The misogyny of the text is indisputable: women are pimped out and sold into slavery, it’s Eve’s susceptibility to temptation that gets humanity thrown out of the sacred garden, and Crumb writes that there is a Sumerian myth that has the tree of knowledge possessed by a kind of she-demon.
Another concept excised from the final draft was the ‘sacred marriage’ in which any powerful man who wanted a position of leadership had to be ‘invited’ into the bedchamber of the high priestess, ‘guardian of the grain stores’, and he had to meet with her approval. If somehow he failed the test, it went bad for him’. Still, the spirit of the high priestess is not quite airbrushed, with Rebekah and Sarah using intelligence and force to direct the course of events.
Crumb says in his introduction that: ‘Every other comic book version of the Bible that I’ve seen contains passages of completely made-up narrative and dialogue, in an attempt to streamline and ‘modernise’ the old scriptures, and still, these various comic book Bibles all claim to adhere to the belief that the Bible is ‘the word of God’ or ‘inspired by God’ whereas I, ironically, do not believe the Bible is ‘the word of God’. I believe it is the words of men.’ It is ironic that one of the most impressive biblical renderings has been drawn by an atheist, but there is no denying Crumb’s great talent and artistic ambition.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 27th, 2009.