This pertains to the quotation which you provide from Crumb in which he states that he:
“…went back and checked against the text and it’s not in there. And they claim to be honoring the word of God, and that the Bible is a sacred text… the most significant thing is actually illustrating everything that’s in there. That’s the most significant contribution I made. It brings everything out.”
Or as you elaborate in your own words:
“Crumb’s work explores and attempts to reconstruct the cultural life of Genesis as a literary, historical, and spiritual work on its own terms…..The original audiences for these tales had an understanding and shared context that we have lost. Crumb subjected the text to a rigorously close reading and made a solid attempt to visualize the largely conjectural cultural setting (laying out his methods, which I haven’t heard anyone challenge, in the introduction.) His adaptation must be regarded as an experiment, in painting a full picture from a collection of hints, and such totality cannot have the exactness of scholarship.”
“If you adhere to the view that theology is critical for a true engagement with the text, then Crumb’s scene-and-character-sensitive construction of a credible world from Scripture alone- with the help of modern Biblical criticism- more on that later) clings to the letter in a crude, childish, even insolent way…..What’s dangerous about treating any depth in Genesis as if it lies in the theological edifice of later times is that, if the critic isn’t up front about the values he’s bringing to bear, it can sound very much as if he’s saying that a treatment that fails to engage with that edifice isn’t engaging with it on levels we commonly understand literature to have.”
The “unfortunate” circumstance with which we are faced here is that Genesis is a religious book. As such, it is incontestable that the finest minds who have worked on Genesis though the ages have been of a religious disposition. If we are to understand Genesis on both a superficial and deeper level, the issues presented by these individuals must be grappled with and developed upon or rejected to better effect.
Further, what we find in these statements is a needless conflation of theology with scholarship which must be rejected unless by “theology” one means archaeology, the application of linguistic skills and the study of textural information. As I’ve said in my original article, I’m not demanding any form of spiritual engagement from Crumb even if this severely restricts his options as an artist.
Knowledge in our present age is rarely built from the ground up but on “the shoulder of giants”. I would suggest that the study of literature in its highest form always engages with the “edifice” of earlier times. That this edifice was mainly constructed by scholars with a religious bent might make it painful for the atheist to traverse, but it is possible to divorce oneself from these theological overtones; there is much modern scholarship which is undertaken from a perspective which is secular, non-traditional and disinterested
Scholarship steps in where context is lost to bring forth the text. It would be impossible to “reconstruct” Genesis on “its own terms” unless one fully understood what those terms are. Far better to suggest that Crumb’s Genesis was built largely on the author’s own modern sensibilities as filtered through a smattering of research; that is, largely on his own terms. This brings him closer to your point: that he was able to “bring out subtle parallels, irony, and humor difficult for the modern reader to grasp” and that he had a…
“…deep involvement with the identity and journey of the characters. He had to create likenesses for them and live deeply in their stories to make their journeys credible, etching each face and detail in monkish isolation.”
This is in fact where Crumb’s comic succeeds best. The Book of Genesis is a secular construction based in reality (at least, as far as the text allows). Crumb’s skill as a draftsman does not elude me nor does his talent for depicting human physiognomy. I have already remarked on his proficiency with adaptation as well as his attention to detail in my original article though, perhaps, not as forcefully as you would have liked. Alex Buchet and Ken Parille have elaborated on this fleshing out of events in their own remarks; this skillful placement of characters into a stained world of the ordinary. You add to this by advising us of the “staggering wealth of quotidian detail”, “the moral stamp on each face in the headshots” which “give the genealogies a weight that is hard to analyze but ridiculous to deny.”
To which must be appended the question of whether this is a satisfactory alternative to the wealth of ideas on the text which have come down to us through the centuries. The answer in your case and, perhaps, in most readers’ minds would be “yes”. For those who wish to see comics moving beyond the act of drawing and simple adaptation into a full intellectual and philosophical engagement with the text, the answer can only be in the negative. Matthias Wivel tells us that “art is art, not theory (or theology)”, but should art not be based on superior ideas as well, especially when these ideas are so thoroughly engrained in the text?
The act of approaching and envisioning Genesis as literature is time tested and well trodden. As you put it:
“…Crumb’s adaptation is thoroughly in the letter. But the lack of effort to unify Genesis with later tradition hardly means that his handling has no moral, psychological, intellectual, or spiritual- in other words, literary- interest. It is strange that an alert, sensitive, and rigorously faithful adaptation is being treated as if it must lose all the “subtext and power” of the original, and be devoid of any deeper engagement.” and later, “A literary endeavor can often teasingly resemble a religious one, because so many of the ways we relate to literature are descended from religion.”
As children and adults through the ages will attest, Genesis read purely as a story has a power all its own. It is at this level that many religious Jews and Christians engage with Genesis; sieving through the psychological and ethical depths of the figures who populate the text. But what you see as “subtext” is merely the first layer of a work which has inspired authors for centuries.
It is perhaps telling that you find a straight reading more engaging than one further illuminated by interpretation. To read Genesis as only story and narrative is acceptable but not praiseworthy. The same might be said of finding one’s own path through the text while ignoring all other avenues of engagement. It would be as if someone worked out a simple algebraic proof by himself, which is fine as it stands though one should not expect a significant degree of adulation from those who have moved beyond this level of inquiry. While it may be desirous for a student to work out equations in such a manner, to ignore the much greater work which has been done through the ages can only be accounted arrogance in the extreme, especially when the final product carries so little intellectual weight.
Of tangential relation to this and on the issue of juxtaposing classical art with Crumb’s comics, Jeet Heer argues that I should have been more mindful of the “historical differences between the early 21st century and previous eras” and that my original post was “bluntly ahistorical and unresponsive to the way comics work as comics.” I would suggest that Jeet reexamine his own antiquated ideas when it comes to art and comics. This is an age where art is no longer shackled to the dictates of the church, where even laymen have at their feet a surfeit of knowledge concerning these religious texts, and where we have come to appreciate concepts as much as skill. What has been placed before us is literal, disregarding of erudition and appreciated best by readers displaying a sharp preference for craft over ideas. If paintings of a certain antiquity are placed alongside Crumb’s images, it would not be to merely highlight a difference in skills, but also to suggest that a comic of our times should be able to move beyond the restrictions of drawing and painting to achieve even greater richness in terms of form and content.
At the end of your article you state that “Crumb’s work can serve to cut through the arrogance of modernity and captivate a reader who would be likely to dismiss the text itself as an irrelevant artifact”. I don’t believe I have ever denied this and if we were to engage with The Book of Genesis purely at this level, I do believe that there would be very little left for us to debate; condescending as this approach would be to Crumb, comics in general and to modern readers without religious affiliation. Now you might say that this is “dismissive of the beginner, or the person who might find Genesis easier to enter through a work like this”. It is not. My original critique was targeted at a very particular readership, one whose focus is not solely on a comic’s utilitarian aspects. My approach was simple, I gave the comic a level of respect as was appropriate for a book by one of the most celebrated living cartoonists. You seem to have understood this as you contend that:
“This set Suat to assessing whether it “could not be ignored” in connection with art and literature surrounding the Bible- raising the bar quite high, since most believers don’t even read the Bible from cover to cover”
This is precisely my intention; to appraise Crumb’s comics in the context of all art and at the highest level. Some will think that my reservations concerning Crumbs comics amounts to a wholesale rejection of it. This would be a mistake. Rather I am attempting to place its achievements in the proper context within the entire spectrum of Western art and intellectual thought. This may seem like a silly endeavor but it is a point which is often lost when discussing comics. It is not “hostility” “to a faithful adaptation” which you detect, but an attitude which demands more from art beyond a careful transcription which fills in the logical lacunae; one which insists that the text speak beyond its human drama and one which seeks to understand the nature of that primal strangeness and mysticism which is tied inextricably to the narrative. One artist will see and describe the beautiful ripples on the surface of a lake while another will move beyond this and look beneath the surface and see life. It is the latter artist and his approach which I treasure the most.