Firstly, Alan, thanks for putting all these thoughts down. Given their length, you might have been better served by a proper blog entry rebutting my article but we’ll have to make do with what we have. My first instinct was to let your comments stand as a useful antidote to the ambivalence or sheer negativity you detect in my article. But allow me to take on a few of them if in haste:
(1) “A comprehensive visual dramatization of Genesis is unprecedented. This is a major part of this project’s reason for being. As Crumb says, “they gloss over it. When you’re a kid, they don’t inform you that Lot has sex with his daughters. Or that Judah slept with his daughter-in-law. Those parts are just glossed over. In illustrating everything and every word, everything is brought equally to the surface. The stories about incest have the same importance as the more famous stories of Noah and the Flood or the Tower of Babel or Adam and Eve or whatever. I think that’s the most significant thing about making a comic book out of Genesis. Everything is illuminated.”
“By contrast, the Garden of Eden scenes are playful and fanciful. You point out this lightness, comparing the moment when Adam and Eve cuddle next to God and the woodland creatures to Disney. And you’re not wrong. (Though this is right before a startling tonal and narrative shift when it to a different version of man’s creation, this one primal and stark, right on the same page- a bold feature that I’ve never seen in an adaptation.) But your handling suggests that the tone of these parts is consistent with the rest of the book.“
There’s little doubt that The Book of Genesis is an ambitious undertaking and this project interesting in its breath but these are issues which must be put aside when assessing a comic’s ultimate quality and worth.
More importantly, I think you underestimate the degree to which long time readers and artists have engaged with the text of Genesis. I would say that every “difficult” section of the Bible (not just Genesis) has been examined with a fine tooth comb by scholars, apologists and other serious readers. The passage concerning Judah and Tamar you cite by way of Crumb, for example, is a critical part of Jesus’ genealogy at the start of Matthew and has been portrayed in paintings and in the adaptation of Matthew by Chester Brown. You will remember also the comics collection called “Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament” (there are much more “problematic” stories in the rest of the OT) which had the participation of a number of British luminaries. These stories are like mother’s milk to cartoonists.
What this means is that a vision of biblical figures as “primal”, “stark” and ugly – a certain irreverence – is quite typical of modern comics . Rather I would suggest that it is the ordinariness of the figures in The Book of Genesis which is the more interesting. Or should I say they are as ordinary as Crumb has always perceived reality. Perhaps this is what you meant to say when you used the words I quoted. I think Alex Buchet’s citation of Genesis Chapter 11 works better to bolster your case. You can see my short response to him in the comments of the original article..
(2) ” But you miss the way Crumb does emphasize Adam’s name and connection to the ground after these three panels. You’re not much impressed with the high-volume dressing down Crumb has God give Adam and Eve…But surely you noticed God’s jabbing finger. He does it a lot in that scene. The action through the Creation has been led by what God does with his hands- always with open palms, arranging things, introducing people to each other and their habitat.”
It is an observation certainly but which I cannot hold in high regard. The finger is accusatory and the first instance in Genesis where it has been needful. Crumb emphasises certain passages (with bolds and larger lettering) throughout his adaptation to ensure that certain simple concepts are picked up by the first time reader. The employment of both these tools is useful but hardly a mark of erudition or an occasion for wonderment. The more important question in this instance is whether you are satisfied with these simple portrayals of anger, sadness and surprise in relation to the text. Some admirers have enjoyed these gentle dramatizations but I’m less enamored of them. I need more from art than the depiction of earthy bodies and sensible expression; I need more flesh beneath this layer of skin. There is an engagement but what is portrayed only touches the surface of the text.
(3) “You claim that this line in Crumb’s notes: “after closely reading the beginning of the Creation, I suddenly imagined an ancient man standing on the shore of a sea, and gazing out at the horizon, and seeing only water meeting the sky”- is “an explication of his choice to so portray the Almighty.” It’s not. Crumb’s “ancient man” is not God, but to a man of ancient times trying to figure out his world. Crumb is describing the Hebrew vision of the universe (diagrammed here) and speculating about how they might have come up with it.”
That’s certainly what Crumb’s commentary on Genesis chapter 1 is talking about and I think, on balance, you may be right about the “ancient man” here being only just another man considering Crumb’s secular leanings. The simplest reading would appear to be the correct one.
I was giving Crumb the benefit of the doubt here considering the mystical “tone of voice” and because it leads to some interesting ideas. The assumption on my part was that this “man” was in fact Crumb’s conception of the God of Genesis; a human myth maker and the oldest patriarch. This is in keeping with his more prosaic thoughts on how he came to depict God as an old man with a long beard in Vanity Fair:
“Vanity Fair: I expected your version of God to be a little more radical. He looks like a cross between Gandalf and a Michelangelo painting.
Crumb: Yeah, I guess so. I had several different approaches to making God. One was a tall thin man with no beard and another was a young looking man with long straight hair that looked more like an angel than a god. He had pupil-less eyes that were beaming light. But I decided to go with the standard, severe patriarchal God. It just felt like the right choice. That just seems to be what the God of Genesis is all about. He’s older than the oldest patriarch.”
The choice is yours but I like my version better.
(4) “However, there is a sense in which his choice is personal, as he’s said this God resembles his father and came to him in a dream. (From the Paris Review: “He was warning me about something… about some destructive force that was getting stronger…. he was enlisting me to be one of the people to protect this reality from that force. When I was trying to figure out how to draw God I remembered that image, which I could only look at for a split second, it was painful to look at this face, it was so severe and anguished… I tried to [give him that face in Genesis]. It doesn’t quite capture it. That was my reference point. All the way through I would go back and rework the face, I kept whiting it out and redoing it, to try and get it right.” This actually resembles the last appearance of God in the book, to Jacob in a dream- see if you agree.) But can you reconcile that with your claim that Crumb had no emotional investment?”
The idea that the God of The Book of Genesis was based on Crumb’s father is known to me and has been mentioned more than once in online reviews. The first time I read of it was in the David Hajdu’s review for the New York Times which I linked to in my article. This knowledge has led one or two reviewers to attempt a bit of pop psychology where Crumb’s father is seen as a mercurial authoritarian figure. I’m not opposed to this method of reading The Book of Genesis but I chose a different approach in this particular instance – one based on the comic itself and my initial isolated reactions to the book.
Ken Parille recently mentioned the moral neutrality of Crumb’s Genesis. I see spiritual neutrality and soft intellectual engagement resulting in a “hackneyed” and emotionally bland depiction of God. The Hajdu review indicates that Robert Hughes saw a tinge of Mr. Natural in Crumb’s depiction of God. We all bring our prejudices to our readings. It’s a question of to what degree we want to be influenced by the author’s stated intentions.
(5) “Finally, can we admit that Crumb could plausibly have had an interest in using this figure, with his unusual physical presence that I’ve described elsewhere, to startle us and make us consider our own concept of God, and what the concept, and the idea of having encounters with him, might have meant for these people at the time?”
As I’ve explained above, an almost total failure in this regard from my point of view but I’m more than willing to accept that these elements have been important to many readers. They’re the lucky ones. Blake had aesthetic differences with the paintings of Titian and Rembrandt so better persons than I have been “wrong” before.
(6) “To me, the image suggests a genealogical table. By contrast, the tree of knowledge of good and evil squats in the corner, visible but less differentiated from the dark woods. It’s low, undulating and twisty, with a negligible trunk and branches that cover one another before they’re cloaked with a huge mass of leaves. What might that say about “knowledge of good and evil”? We don’t have to treat this like an English class, but surely he wants to make us consider the issue. Is “only a fruit-bearing tree” fair? (You suggest it’s a contrast of masculine and feminine, but that might be a mistake to see in an artist who’s stated his intention to bring out the buried evidence of a matriarchy that lived on equal footing with the patriarchy [shown in his repeated drawings of Adam & Eve standing together with God behind them]- although I agree the trunk for the tree of life is phallic.)”
“A less attentive artist would simply have drawn the tree of life with fruit, but Crumb has addressed a textual problem. If God didn’t want them to eat from the tree of life, why didn’t he forbid it? Why did he tell them they could eat from every fruit in the garden but that of the tree of knowledge? Another telling detail is that the tree of knowledge is quite low, with fruit that’s easy to grab. But whatever the humans might take from the tree of life, they’d have a hard time, because the branches are so far off the ground.”
I like your description of the tree of life as a genealogical table (a family tree if you like) and your description of Crumb’s problem solving skills later in that comment is certainly worth pointing out. It’s not the only example of this and there are many instances where Crumb shows his ability to read between the lines; to create a rational theater out of the bare text. I don’t think this was ever at issue. On the other hand, you also state that:
“Crumb did not set out to address the speculations of Ibn Ezra and the ages, he set out to explore the original text. You appear determined not to perceive this.” and later…
“Personal mythology” is wildly inappropriate given Crumb’s minute fidelity to the text.”
Every significant commentator makes the text of Genesis his own. Starting with the bare facts before applying research and creativity thus crafting a personal reading. This is what I meant by Crumb’s “personal mythology”; he’s the ancient man standing on the shore of the sea, the “god” of this “world” . As you yourself indicate, there is in fact very little evidence from the comic itself that Crumb chose to use (not read) significant amounts of biblical scholarship in his adaptation. He divorced himself from it when it came to this recreation. What we find is a relatively engaging, personal and dramatic approach but one which lacks intellectual and spiritual meat.
As you know, I’m well aware of Crumb’s views on a strong matriarchal order in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. I offered my interpretation of the possible symbolism in his depictions of the trees of knowledge and life (feminine and masculine) despite this. The author’s intentions are only one strong voice in the conversation that surrounds art. Authorial intention is problematic: there are his statements in his commentary on chapter 12 of The Book of Genesis and there are also his comic books filled as they are with misogyny, aggression and masculine uncertainty around women. I chose to go with what I saw.
Thanks for posting your essay on The Book of Genesis, Alan. I would answer in more depth but this answer is getting ridiculously long as is. And as I’ve said the comments section of a blog is not an ideal place to put all these ideas of yours. They need to be read in a more comfortable environment. The article wasn’t meant as an end in itself so these opposing thoughts, politely stated, aren’t exactly unwelcome.
Update by Noah: The ongoing conversation on Crumb’s Genesis can all be read here.