The Midrash of R. Crumb: Part 1, The Book of Genesis Illustrated

Last year, the famous artist, cartoonist and illustrator R. Crumb published his The Book of Genesis Illustrated. Given that Crumb's work has often been satirical, subversive and not particularly chaste, people were curious about what Crumb would do with the first book of the bible. By and large, Crumb got good reviews. Mainly, it seems, because Genesis contains a lot of sex and violence which suits Crumb's style. Indeed, the cover of the book warns: Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors and The First Book of the Bible Graphically Depicted! Nothing Left Out! This isn't your Sunday School version of Genesis.

Despite the titillating warnings on the cover, Crumb was praised for keeping things fairly restrained in his illustrations of Genesis. Here is David Hajdu from his review in the New York Times:

Crumb’s is a Genesis for adults — indeed, for adults only, as one might and should expect from an artist whose importance is rooted in his ability to give vivid form to taboos of the imagination with unapologetic bluntness and extravagant explicitness. The prospect of Crumb’s doing the Bible might seem at first a stunt, an all-too-obvious mash-up of the most sacred and the most profane. When I heard about it, I thought immediately of Norman Mailer’s “Gospel According to the Son,” a fictive memoir by Jesus — and an agent’s pitch passing for a novel. Crumb’s book is serious and, for Crumb, restrained. He resists the temptation to go all-out Crumb on us and exaggerate the sordidness, the primitivism and the outright strangeness (by contemporary standards) of parts of the text. What is Genesis about, after all, but resisting temptation?
Crumb's book, from an illustration standpoint, is a massive accomplishment. The entire text of Genesis is given and Crumb illustrates every line of it, producing a complete and detailed visual interpretation of the book of Genesis.

And that's what interests me about Crumb's book. A great deal in the bible leaves a lot to the imagination. So if you set out to illustrate every line of Genesis you need to make some interpretive judgments. You need to think about character motivations, natural settings, emotional reactions, physical behaviors, and about the sheer oddity of the story. In his preface to the book Crumb states that he approached his task as a "straightforward illustration job." But nothing could be further from the truth. Crumb's project was inherently hermeneutical and interpretive. Crumb's claim about "straightforward illustration" reminds me of fundamentalists who say they can read the bible without a hermeneutical filter, the "plain sense" of the text is what drives their interpretation. But Crumb shows us that no reading--visual or otherwise--can be straightforward, particularly where the bible is concerned. It's just too strange. And we either have to ignore the strangeness or make sense of it, often without any clear guides on how to do so.

While reading Crumb's book it struck me that he was essentially engaged in a form of visual Midrash. Midrash is a from of Jewish exegesis that is much more speculative than "plain sense" modes of interpretation. Midrash often, creatively so, fills in the backstory to help us understand oddities in the text or to help us come to grips with the holes in the story. Many reviewers of Crumb's book made the same connection. As Robert Alter notes:
The process of interpreting Genesis began in the Bible itself--in passages from the Former Prophets that elaborately allude to it, in the Prophets, and in late biblical texts such as Esther and Daniel, which are, among other things, interpretive re-castings of the Joseph story. The Midrash, produced in late antiquity, is often an interpretive fleshing-out of the spare biblical narratives, an attempt to fill in the narrative gaps and read closely and imaginatively between the lines. And this is essentially what Crumb does graphically, with a special emphasis on the element of flesh.
Consider the binding of Isaac. What was Sarah thinking when Abraham rode off to sacrifice her son? Did she even know what was going on? And if she did, what were her feelings on the matter? The bible doesn't day. But you can't help but speculate on the subject. So the Midrash steps in and ponders the backstory. Crumb had to do something quite similar. From Hadju's review showing how Crumb does Midrash on another odd Abraham and Sarah story:
Doing a comic book, rather than a book of text with spot illustrations, Crumb had to provide a drawing for every short passage — often six or more pieces of art per page — frequently with little indication in the language of what, exactly, to show. Many of the illustrations, then, constitute revisions of the text to some degree, and not mere amplifications. When Abram decides to offer Sarai to the king of Egypt, Crumb shows us Sarai at first baffled — in the grammar of comics, a question mark appears in a thought balloon beside her — and, in the next panel, distraught, a tear trickling down her cheek. The Scripture gives no hint of her feelings. Here and throughout the book, Crumb seems to be making a point to flesh out the female characters in an apparent effort to offset the relentless male orientation of the text. In the introduction, he explains that he treated the work as “a straight illustration job.” Yet his task was hardly ­straightforward.
So in the coming posts I want to treat Crumb's Genesis as a type of visual Midrash. The goal is simply to point out illustrations in Crumb's book that, in my opinion, make interesting, arresting, or odd interpretations of the first book of the bible.

Just remember going forward: Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors...

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2 thoughts on “The Midrash of R. Crumb: Part 1, The Book of Genesis Illustrated”

  1. I'll get Crumb's book -- thanks for the suggestion. The idea of the unfortunate Isaac being hauled off to be roasted, while poor, old Abram believed he had to off his beloved son, convinces me that Genesis is indeed Midrashic rather than factually accurate. A God whose ego would in truth demand that particular test of Abram's fealty is not one I would wish to worship. Human sacrifice was not uncommon at that time, as it has been in every Bronze Age culture. I think the real story was probably that Abram considered offering up Isaac as a sacrifice because it was a custom of the time, but he decided that God would not want this to happen. And kudos to Crumb for considering that the women of Genesis had feelings too! If my husband turned to that sort of child abuse with our son, I'd be doing a lot more than shedding a quiet tear!:-)

  2. This is really interesting. I'm interested to see the progress of this. We were just talking today in one of my COMS classes about Muted Group Theory and how when men write the history and create the language, sometimes women get left out of it as a muted group. So I'm intrigued to see how Crumb interprets Genesis from a viewpoint that has to take in and illustrate more than the text gives.

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