Sunday, October 9, 2011

Comics Review: The Book of Genesis Illustrated, R. Crumb

This is a slightly revised version of an expanded review that was originally published in The Comics Journal #301. The original, unexpanded essay was in published on October 4, 2009 on Pol Culture.

The master cartoonist's long-awaited Biblical adaptation is finally here, and it is a stodgy, repetitive effort--one that suggests the graphic novel is beyond his creative capacities.

Robert Crumb is undeniably one of our greatest cartoonists. Before him, the best comics artists--for example, Winsor McCay, Harvey Kurtzman and Charles M. Schulz--were commercial entertainers before they were anything else. They always produced their work with one eye on the audience. If they had to make a choice between following their muse and alienating their readers, concern for their readers always won out. Crumb was the first to embrace the Romantic ideal of the artist. Following his muse was paramount, with self-expression and art for art’s sake the highest goals. There were no limits on subject matter with Crumb. And he has used his freedom to develop a satirical eye and command of nuance that is unmatched by any of his peers. Each new Crumb strip has been an event for readers for over four decades now.

Ironically, it has always been a challenge to recommend work by him to those unfamiliar with his œuvre. Most people need to get acclimated before being confronted with his more extreme material. There is also the problem of format. Crumb has always embraced the increasingly anachronistic magazine format for comics; he doesn’t like thinking about his work in graphic-novel terms. (He once said the thought of the work involved in producing a book-length effort was enough to make him physically ill.) My usual solution has been to refer people to the Kafka for Beginners book he produced with writer David Zane Mairowitz. The underlying material is familiar to most readers to at least some degree, and Crumb keeps his excesses in check. Most importantly, his earthy, anxious artwork is very much at home with the adaptations of Kafka excerpts, dramatizations of the writer’s life and satirical pokes at Kafka’s contemporary readership. My only reservation in recommending it is that Crumb was perhaps a bit too sympathetic to Kafka’s work. A great adaptation would have had the two’s sensibilities at odds to a degree; it would provide a great reading of both Kafka and Crumb as artists.

The Book of Genesis, when it was announced as a work-in-progress a few years back, was promoted as the magnum opus we have never gotten from Crumb. When considered relative to the Kafka effort, it promised to duplicate that book’s strengths and transcend its shortcomings. Described as a comprehensive adaptation of the Biblical material, the Genesis project would be a book-length effort. The material would make it accessible beyond the coterie of Crumb’s readership. And best of all, it promised the enlightening discords readers didn’t get from Crumb’s handling of Kafka. The thought of Crumb’s trenchantly satirical perspective illuminating this hoariest of ancient texts was irresistible. One hoped for the pot at the end of the artistic rainbow: a rich, defining statement from a great contemporary talent, and a brilliantly irreverent reading of a monolithic cultural touchstone. One anticipated a work that could redefine one's view of both artist and subject. This material has managed it before; just think of John Milton and Paradise Lost.

Well, the book has now been published, and it is a strong reminder of the truism that one should never get one's hopes up in the arts. (I hasten to add that I didn’t anticipate anything as accomplished as Milton.) Anyone expecting an imaginative retelling of the Biblical material, or an inspired effort from Crumb, isn't going to find it here. In his introduction, Crumb writes, "I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes." He can say that again. His treatment of the material is grindingly literal-minded. It is barren of any hint of satire, irony or even allegory. In short, it is a plodding, R-rated Classics Illustrated rendering of the Biblical text. Crumb often isn't even in especially good form visually.

Crumb's timidity in imposing his point of view on the material goes beyond eschewing a satirical or other conspicuously re-imaginative approach. He won't even give it his own narrative rhythms. One of the pleasures of Crumb's work is the loose, open pacing he employs; combined with his incomparable eye for detail, it gives his work a lifelike texture that few cartoonists can duplicate. However, in Genesis, he doesn't allow scenes to play out and find their own shape. Instead, he largely adopts the monotonous, illustrated-text approach of Prince Valiant cartoonist Hal Foster. A snippet of exposition is accompanied by a panel that largely repeats the same information. No thought has been given to using the text as a counterpoint to the images. The dialogue scenes aren't much different. Talking heads and indifferently posed figures tediously expound at one another. Crumb's usually acute dramatic sense largely abandons him. He grossly overuses manic-eyed, raised-hair expressions for dramatic emphasis, numbing whatever effect they might have if used more sparingly. The rare, reasonably well-dramatized scene, such as Tamar's seduction of Judah in Chapter 38, isn't enjoyable so much as it is a relief from the rest of book's dramatically repetitive tedium.

The individual drawings aren't especially interesting, either. Crumb's figure drawing is frequently desultory, and his treatment of the character's faces is often hackneyed. He makes an effort to individualize the men's faces, but the refusal to shape the scenes dramatically makes the characters largely indistinguishable from another. In one chapter, he models a trio of brothers after the Three Stooges, and it barely registers. The female characters fare even worse. The most prominent ones, including Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, all look like Crumb's Devil Girl. Crumb's vision of God is a retread of the Michelangelo cliché of the stern, robust old man with a long, flowing beard. The one character I was really looking forward to seeing Crumb's treatment of was the Garden of Eden's serpent. It's a letdown; Crumb makes the character an indifferently drawn rehash of one of Wallace Wood or Mark Schultz's lizard people.

The drawing is probably at its most interesting when Crumb models it after the work of one of his idols, Pieter Breughel the Elder. Crumb frequently falls back on Breughel imagery when the text requires him to illustrate the more abstract verses. However, even that wears out its welcome. One can take only so many images of earthy peasants tilling the land, or herding livestock, or sitting down at communal gatherings before the sight has one's eyes sliding off the page.

The overwhelming problem with Genesis is that Crumb doesn't seem to have thought it through as a dramatic piece. The scenes are not played off each other for dramatic effect, and he doesn't imagine the characters as distinct, idiosyncratic personalities whose interactions are greater than the sum of the parts. He just seems to have illustrated each verse, one after the other, without any consideration as to how they might contribute to a larger whole. When one reads the most accomplished graphic novels, such as Maus, Watchmen, or Black Hole, one sees that the authors carefully weigh each moment with an eye on the reading experience of the entire book. It’s the main reason the books are so understated dramatically; it makes the climactic passages all the more effective. At their poetic best, they take an idea, and seeing the need to present it in different terms for the sake of their and the reader’s interest, reimagine it as a trope--a metaphor, an ironic moment or whatnot. As the books develop, they create new tropes out of the previous ones, and one reaches the end with one’s view of the original idea transformed again and again. Compared to these books, Genesis seems creatively lazy. It comes across as hackneyed, and the saddest aspect of it is that it is hackneyed in Crumb’s own terms. His unrelenting dramatic fortissimo makes the entire book feel flat, and he doesn’t build his ideas into tropes--he lets them degenerate into clichés.

Genesis isn’t a slothful effort; producing it took five years of Crumb's life, with the effort apparent in every intensively cross-hatched panel. But it comes across as more of a test of his artistic endurance than an opportunity to expand his creative range. Perhaps he was right to once feel physically ill at the prospect of having to produce a book-length effort. The problem, though, has proved not to be the amount of work that would need completion; it's that he's not up to the creative challenges such a project entails. I should emphasize that there's no shame in being only a master of short pieces, as Crumb most assuredly is. I love Alice Munro and Ernest Hemingway's work, but I've never been that taken with their novels, either.

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