Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Genesis Arrives in Comic Book Form (PG)

No, the PG does not stand for Please God. It stands for Parental Guidance, which is what the publisher, W. W. Norton, recommends for readers of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Comic strip icon R. Crumb.

In meticulously drawn detail, the creator of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and other 1960's comic classics successfully tackles the formal English text of the first book of the Bible and brings it to life in a surprisingly sympathetic and non-critical form.

This book is hard to put down as it draws you from one page to the next, pulling you deeper and deeper into the stories that have been told and retold for millennia. The difference is that this time, seeing each sentence depicted with images of real people forces a human connection between the reader and the characters who we thought we knew so well, but who always seemed distant and other-worldly.

The characters that Crumb draws are real, maybe too real. The women are zoftig and the men are hairy and grubby, probably a more accurate depiction than the people we imagined while reading the weekly portion of the Torah. After all, the events depicted predate Avon, Clinique, Gillette, and Aqua Velva.

The illustrator, a declared atheist, surprised me with his reverential treatment of all the Bible stories. In his introduction to the book and in the endnotes for the chapters, he uses the term B.C.E., not B.C. as is usual in non-Jewish writings. He also reveals that he studied the midrash on Bereishit to get perspectives on the stories that enabled him to make them come alive.

I was prepared to dislike this book, given Crumb's association with the hippie movement of the 1960's, but he deserves a lot of credit for bringing new life to the oldest book known. He even draws a unique face for each of the "begats", not an easy piece of work.

Though it took Crumb three years to produce this volume, the material he had to work with in Genesis included lots of interesting characters and lots of stories. I can't wait to see what he does to illustrate Vayikra (Leviticus.)