Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated is one of the most exciting books of the year. I reviewed the volume for Bookforum, which can be found here. On the Inkstuds radio program, I engaged in an extended conversation on the book with Paul Stanwood, an English professor at the University of British Columbia. You can listen to our talk here.
I was greatful for the radio talk, because it allowed me to bring up issues that I had to skimp in the review, in particular Crumb’s use of ethnicity (unlike many other visual represenations of these stories, the characters actually look Middle Eastern), the fact that Crumb is working in the tradition of the grotesque rather than the heroic, and the merits of the translation Crumb relied on.
Here is an excerpt from the Bookforum review:
As presented in the Bible, the characters in Genesis have no internal lives: We see them speak and act, with little sense of their motivations. When a primary character (God or one of the patriarchs) speaks at length, we can only guess at how the words were received. Crumb’s major interpretive act is to offer reaction shots to this biblical speech making. When God tells Noah that divine justice demands the destruction of almost all life on earth, the poor farmer is aghast. In chapter 35, Jacob calls on the members of his household to cleanse themselves and destroy their idols. The text is silent about their reactions, but Crumb shows the women of the family quietly crying as they hand over their beloved objects.
Among its many riches, Genesis is a book about bodies, a book where men and women constantly grapple with one another, where a servant swears an oath by putting his hand under his master’s thigh, where even angels are threatened with sexual violation. Crumb has long been the preeminent cartoonist of the body. His women are notoriously full-figured, with ample butts and protruding nipples (a motif he uses in this book). But more significantly, the bodies he draws—whether they are quivering or standing still, dancing or drooping—have a visceral impact few artists can match. That’s why he was the perfect cartoonist to illustrate the Book of Genesis, a fitting capstone to a great career.