Illustrating the Hebrew Bible has been a grand quest for painters, with Michelangelo and Tintoretto perhaps dividing the palm. A cartoon or comic book reduction of Genesis ideally should be the work of an unlikely fusion of Rembrandt and William Blake. That is not a fair criterion to invoke when considering R. Crumb’s venture into the Book of Genesis. Staring at the women and men of Crumb’s Genesis, I dimly recall someone showing me an issue of Mad magazine. To my untutored view the work of Crumb recalls that publication yet somehow also is touched with what I remember as the doughty proletarian style of Ben Shahn. At the least, Crumb’s cartoons have the initial merit of strangeness in their portrayal of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the first book of the Hebrew Bible.
“Strangeness” is a very rich term and needs narrowing down here. The people of Genesis are indeed picturesque but powerfully ugly in Crumb’s vision. I do not regret the men but the women, from Eve to Rachel, are so dreadful that I am made unhappy. They hardly suffice even if you try to defend Crumb’s approach as one of a healthy realism. What reply could suggest itself to me if a Crumb admirer asserted: “That is what they really looked like, back then”? There was no “back then.” Genesis, like Exodus and Numbers after it, is fabulous tale-telling, and not historical fact. You can call it myth if you want to or whatever you think best fits the tale of the tribe.
The sages said that there were “seventy faces to the Torah”; they might as well have said seven hundred and seventy-seven. By “faces” they meant interpretations, but viewing Crumb I literalize their metaphor and wish he had indeed limned seventy faces. I may put it too drably yet I seem to see just two Crumbian countenances in his Genesis, one female and one male. That may be his dark wit, and I will abandon him awhile for the text of Genesis itself, and then for some personal history of reading the most beautiful modern retelling of Genesis, by Thomas Mann in his tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers.
The central literary character in Genesis is Yahweh or the God. I mean this precisely in the sense that the richest literary character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays is Sir John Falstaff, or is Prince Hamlet in his tragedy, or is the Knight of the Sad Countenance in Don Quixote. To assert that the worship of God by Muslims, Christians, and Jews is prayer and praise for a literary character is a reasonable observation but still not advisable in Muslim countries. Even in the United States there are many millions of people who are offended if told that they believe in a literary character, whether the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible or the Jesus of the gospels or both. Since …