Thursday, August 05, 2010


The book (above).....

....and the author (above), Robert Crumb.

He chose his subject well.  Genesis is a true masterpiece, arguably the best book of its kind ever written, regardless of the religious convictions of the reader. It's also pretty doggone weird.

The weird parts start with the old age of Noah.

Noah (above, click to enlarge)) has too much to drink and falls asleep naked in his tent. One of his sons, Ham,  happens to see his father  naked and tells his brothers about it, maybe (I'm not sure) in a humorous way.  The brothers are appalled and take pains to cover the father before he's seen by anyone else.  

When Noah awakens and sees what happened, he's outraged  and condemns  Ham's son to slavery.  Why Noah chose such an extreme punishment, and why he took it out on Ham's kid isn't clear. There's tons of Jewish and Christian commentary on this, but I'm not familiar with it. 

I don't think it's fair to say that God justifies slavery in this story. At this point in history the Jewish faith doesn't exist yet. Genesis is chronicling the prehistory of that religion, when Hebrews shared most of the beliefs and prejudices of the society around them. The writer has God take a special interest in them, but we don't yet know where that interest will lead. Even's weird.

Afterwards, God is compelled to take sides in endless disputes among the Hebrews.  A deity who recently had been involved with the creation of the universe and was steeped in the mechanics of black holes and such, was forced to mediate zillions of oddball disputes among sheepherders.

Surprisingly we don't question it, maybe because the atmosphere in Genesis is alive with growing potential.  In the writer's view, these people are being nudged inch by inch toward a more sophisticated law and a higher destiny.  It's what Merlin tried to do to Arthur and his friends in the film "Excalibur."

Surprisingly Crumb tells this story with great understatement and empathy.  The book is worth having.



Jorge said...

It was a Dick move on Bobert's part not giving Moses a writing credit. Greedy bastard.

Rafi said...

This book looks fascinating.

Regarding the extreme punishment Noah gives the son of Ham - some commentaries explain that Ham actually castrated Noah, disabling him from bearing any more offspring (who could compete with the existing sons), which is why Noah punished the offspring of Ham in return.

regarding slavery - there are laws about them in the Jewish faith, but considering the times they were presented, these laws are very humane and are actually meant to give a fairer treatment to slaves than what existed at the time.

I love your perspectives on random subjects, including the bible...

Lester Hunt said...

You, too, choose your subjects well, Eddie! The book is wonderful. I put it in the same league as Gustave Dore's illustrations of the Bible.

On a related note, when Harvey Pekar died a couple of weeks ago, I viewed "American Splendor," in which Crumb figures as an important character, again. It is brilliant and moving. And funny. And has hand-drawn animation! That's a combo that's hard to beat. I blogged about it briefly (click on my name).

RooniMan said...

Good job for Mr. Crumb.

Jake said...

The exhibit is here in Portland, Oregon, now. I think it was 207 pages.
Pretty awesome. Looks like 11"x14" watercolor paper with ink. Beautifully drawn. The text is great. And for me it was amazing how miniscule the corrections were.
Plus, the book itself is very reasonably priced.

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed at how Robert Crumb is still drawing cartoons to this very day. These three pages blow the usual amateur Sunday Funnies out of the water. I'm glad there are still fun cartoonists like him out there bucking the current trends and status quo. Personally, I like Crumb's "itchy" style, and this proves he's still got it after all these decades.

I apologize if I already submitted this comment twice. The Blogger thing wasn't working when I initially did it, so I didn't know if you saw that one or not.

Jenny Lerew said...

"Afterwards, God is compelled to take sides in endless disputes among the Hebrews. A deity who recently had been involved with the creation of the universe and was steeped in the mechanics of black holes and such, was forced to mediate zillions of oddball disputes among sheepherders."

Probably the best paragraph you've written here. Hilarious and true.

And now that I've got my compliments out of the way, here's yet more carping from me:
WHY is is surprising that Bob Crumb "tells this story with great understatement and empathy"? I'm not the least surprised and neither should you be, as I know you've been keeping up his latter-day output. He's been introspective, philosophical, fascinated by the ugly/inspiring/hopeful/wretched side of hapless humanity forever-especially lately when he does less and less of what anyone would call "funny" stories. I'd expect no less from him. He's perfect for it.
I've read the whole thing and love it. Yeah, two thumbs up.

Anonymous said... reminded me of this.

Anonymous said...

I love the book of Genesis too! Its an ancient book and it mentions all these fantastical things in passing. I love to imagine what the story is behind the story. For example, hybrid human giants are mentioned in one part. Are these neanderthals?

I hope you don't mind me pointing this out: among the descendants of Ham are the folks who populated Sodom. It's been theorized something foreboding happened between the lines here.

btw glad to see the format fixed!

-Jimmy K

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Rafi: Castration!? Fascinating.

Crumb's book reminds me of Alan Derschowitz's (spelled right?) recent book on Genesis. I was amazed that he was able to derive so much from what seemed like simple, straightforward stories.

Lester: Thanks for the link. That was a terrific meditation on Pekar and the vanishing institution of the "crappy, low-paying government job." If you ever compile a best-of collection from your blog, that should be in it.

Jake: That was done on watercolor paper!? I'm surprised.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Thanks for the link. That professor Brothers video was hilarious, and surprisingly well-done.

Jenny: Yeah, Crumb is an artist for the ages, apparently. Even as a curmudgeon he manages to say things that are worth hearing.

Jimmy: Unfortunately I didn't manage to lick that problem. The opening picture just happened to be narrow, and so didn't interfere with the sidebar.

Jorge said...

Eddie, I would have thought you would disagree when Leonard said that if it sounds like writing, he rewrites it.

Personally, I love writing that sounds like writing.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jorge: Good point! I'm with you. I don't agree with all of Leonard's writing tips. I like adverbs and exclamation points, and writing that sounds like writing

Some people, even some ignorant criminal types, have an ear for the sound of words and the way they speak is above the level of ordinary speech. Leonard does a good job of capturing the way people like that sound, so he sounds natural and better than life at the same time. .

Kirk said...

Are you familiar with Basil Wolverton's body of biblical illustration? Wolverton was evidently a fairly devout Christian affiliated with bizarre sectarian permutations which we grow domestically with such odd variety, here in the states.

Crumb seems to approach working with the bible from a sort of academic remove, so to speak. I wonder if he fancies himself a sort of Gully Jimson, anachronistically taking on the great religious subjects of classical painting to reify the totally bogus likening of him to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, by Robert Hughes.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Kirk: I love Wolverton, but I'm not a fan of his Bible illustration. The sketches make Wolverton seem crazy.

Oisin O'Sullivan said...

I love Robert Crumb, he's on of my favourite cartoonists.
He said in interviews that he slaved over drawing this daily for four years straight just to get the illustrations right. That's dedication right there.

talkingtj said...

didnt like it. seemed like an obvious attempt at an interview with crumb where he also expressed his dissatisfaction with it. i dont read crumb for literal interpretation,i read crumb for his own twisted take and perspective, younger crumb wouldve had a field day with this material! i dont put any faith at all in any interpretation of the bible, i have zero faith in the bible, the stories, even as morality plays, leave me cold. how this ridiculous book caused so much confusion and pain is beyond me. i suspect even crumb realized that this one was a bomb creatively. hopefully he'll chose something more worthy of his distinct talents next time around.

lastangelman said...

Genesis ( heck, the Old Testament ) is one of the most remarkable documents ever created and translated and retranslated over and and over again. On, one of the regular contributors read it from cover to cover and commented on everything as he was reading it.
I had fun poring over Crumb's illustrations over Christmas holidays, I have to say, probably over the consternation of the ignorant fundamentalists, he was pretty damn faithful to the book. An excellent job, I'd recommend this for every home, especially the holy rollers who always leave the best bits out or misinterpret them.

Jenny Lerew said...

Well, Eddie was right when he said Crumb was a curmudgeon--I wouldn't be surprised if he did express dissatisfaction with his Genesis- he's dissatisfied with most everything he does.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Talking: Fascinating! Maybe you feel that way because you think of humanity as a kind and rational species whose natural benign instincts were derailed by religion. Me, I think humanity has the capacity for both good and evil, and I welcome the nudge toward the good side provided by humane religion.

if you want, you can see religion in terms of horrific events like witch trials and inquisitions. Me, I see it as a minute to minute reminder to treat other people with fairness and decency.

Jenny: Thanks!

Last: I agree. It reads better, and is somehow more moving, when you don't skip the awkward parts.

Anon: I went to that link and now I can't remember what it was.

Hans Flagon said...

I like the movie Excalibur as well, and it changed my views on Arthur considerably, which were previously sort of 'meh', except for the bit I heard earlier about "sword from stone' possibly actually meaning a transition from Bronze to Iron Age. But the same person who told me that bit couldn't handle Boorman's variation (I suppose he preferred Mallory? I've no idea)

Thanks for both reminding me to look at, and ignore, Wolvertons Bible again. I haven't been able to make it very far into Crumbs, as he kept the tedious bits in as well.

Kirk said...

Have ever read Joyce Carey's The Horse's Mouth, - or seen the Alec Guinness movie adaptation of the novel, Ed? Worth a read. I've a good friend who quixotically pursues art under the auspices of the wisdom of Gulley Jimson!

Kirk said...

I love Wolverton's Book of Revelation plates. There's something truly macabre in his straight style, under which lurks that zany imagination with which we are all familiar.

Last summer, at Barbara Gladstone gallery here in NY, on blue-chip, contempo row, she hosted a show of all Wolverton originals, from nearly every phase of his career!!...all presented in the wonderfully neutral space of the contemporary art gallery, the clean white box. Wolverton's work jumped from the wall. Most cartoon oriented art shows have the worst possible approach to hanging art... like La Luz de Jesus, like a goddam cheap toy-store. Anyway, it was nice to see work from this unrecognized cordon treated with so much respect and...class.

Pseudonym said...

I was given this as a present last Christmas. I agree, it's a brilliant work. It's the first time I think I've ever seen the Book of Genesis presented as it is, no more, no less, with no agenda either for it or against it.

I feel like I understand more about humanity as a whole having read it, and that's not something that you can usually say about Crumb!

Kirk said...

Hhhhmmmm, Mallory or Boorman? HHmmmmm, yes, yes,'s a toss-up, eh wot?

Dan Jackson said...

Oooh, can't wait to read the part about Lot where the angels visit him and the crowd is at his door demanding to rape the angels, so he implores them not to, but gives up his virgin daughters. Also the part in the cave after god kills everyone in his hometown, where Lot's daughters get him drunk and "repopulate" with him.

And I can't wait to see Crumb's version of the story about Elisha the Prophet, who asked god to punish a bunch of kids for calling him bald, so god sent a few bears, who then ate all 42 children.

It's amazing how much repugnant stuff is in that book. Who needs overstatement when you have content like that.

Dave said...

"And I can't wait to see Crumb's version of the story about Elisha the Prophet, who asked god to punish a bunch of kids for calling him bald, so god sent a few bears, who then ate all 42 children. "

You won't see that in this book (Genesis), because that strange episode with Elisha happens in the book of Kings, not in Genesis.

I like really Crumb's Genesis illustrations , but there's an odd aura of "fundamentalism" to the whole idea of undertaking a "literal" illustration of the words. This is what Jack Chick would do if he were as good an artist as Crumb (which he is not).

Classical Jewish and Christian commentary has a lot of informed wisdom about interpreting the book which doesn't fall into the trap of being "literal" .