R. Crumb: Beyond Mr. Natural

R. Crumb, the underground cartoonist, has illustrated Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

It starts out with brass-band grandeur: the Creation. "When God began to create heaven and earth ..." Not just something out of nothing, but (begin ital) everything (end ital)out of nothing.

"And God said, 'Let there be light.' "

The words come from both the King James Version and a recent translation by Robert Alter. The pictures come from Crumb's pen, the same sort of art pen that he's done all of his life's work with — all of it, no pastels, watercolors, pencil, just this pen scritching away for half a century in a fury of crosshatching and black-and-white starkness. He's that geeky kid in the class who drew all the time with the funny-looking pen, a Rapidograph probably, and the boys wanted him to draw porn, which Robert Crumb did, publishing a lot of it in '60s underground comics such as Zap or Despair.

A lot of his stuff was funny, like the "Keep on Truckin' " sequence that ended up on T-shirts and vans all over America, and a lot was porn: fetishy comic extravaganzas featuring geeky little males in erotic combat with big-bottomed women with massive legs. In all of it, everything was rounded, Disney-style, but with hair on the legs, nipple pops and people skulking down city sidewalks under telephone-pole skies.

God said ... R. Crumb? Here they are, together at last on the first page of this book, Crumb drawing God as if he were a madman inventor, beard and hair down to his ankles, and the whites of his eyes showing over the tops of his irises and his hairy, thick-fingered hands grasping what looks like a combination of a circle saw and a black hole, "without form, and void."

Digression: Actually, God appeared 40 years ago in a Crumb comic-book story called "Dirty Dog." Back then, he was a malevolently gleeful bunny operating a television camera and saying, "Hi! I'm God! Let's get going!" Beneath him, Dirty Dog hunches down a city street accompanied by blues lyrics — "Rather drink muddy water, Lord, sleep in a hollow log, than to be up here in New York treated like a dirty dog." Poor DD ends up slavering over magazines in a porn store, and the bunny is long gone.

Religion has never been far from Crumb's mind, thanks in part to a troubled Catholic boyhood.

But God said R. Crumb should illustrate Genesis?

It's not as long a reach as you might think. I'm guessing there will be much celebration of the outrageous liberality, the thrilling perversity of giving Crumb the job, but in fact, after some reading you see that he's perfect for it, that there's a lot of Dirty Dog in Genesis and a stupendous amount of squalid human failing of the sort that Crumb has always mined for his comedy.

The big difference between this book and Crumb's other work is that there's no comedy, except on the dustjacket, which lures potential buyers with an ironic: "Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors," and "The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! NOTHING LEFT OUT!" That's Crumb's sense of humor, and it's the last you'll see of it. He tells the story the way it's always been told.

"And God said, 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts,' " and so on through the creation of Adam and Eve, and then the forbidden fruit, the expulsion from the Garden, Cain slaying Abel, mankind condemned to feed itself by work, "the sweat of your brow," the end of the free-lunch program that was Eden.

There's so much more. "And to Enoch was born Irad, and Irad begot Mehuael, and Mehuael begot Methusael, and Methusael begot Lamech. And Lamech took unto him two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of ..." As the cover says, nothing is left out.

This is tough stuff, too. "The Lord saw that the wickedness of the human creature was great on the earth, and that every scheme of his heart's devising was only perpetually evil." You see a lot of white over God's irises now, and he decides to kill everybody and everything. Except for Noah, for some unexplained reason. Noah builds the ark, and after God's flood exterminates the sinners, Noah's alive with his sons and his animals to repopulate Earth.

More begots. Shem, Ham, Japheth, Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan ...

And more Crumb, drawing four to nine panels on most pages, and inking in the words in capital letters, comic book-style. But a primitive comic style that derives from Disney and fuzzy-animal comics, with little of the extreme cinematic angles, close-ups and diagonally split panels that artists such as Will Eisner brought to comics art in the 1940s — techniques that live on in graphic novels and newspaper strips such as "Judge Parker." Crumb stays with a head-on, eye-level style as if he were drawing for small children. Part of his energy has always come from the ongoing joke of putting a fuzzy-animal style together with heinous perversities and despairs, a mating dance done to the music of his creepy obsessions with women built like linebackers, with his Rapidograph pen and with his style, which never changes, regardless of topic. It's as if Picasso had spent his entire career in his blue period, doing art as ritual.

Of course, we are talking about religion here in Genesis, which is a sort of ritual in itself, like Crumb's drawing.

And so, just as Genesis itself gets tiresome, so does Crumb's drawing. (If you're hoping for a bit of juiciness in the Sodom and Gomorrah sequence, you'll be disappointed.) But should we fault Crumb for this? We're not allowed to fault Genesis, are we? Anyway, the story goes on.

Art critic Robert Hughes talks about "Crumb's mean, grubby vision of human beings trapped in their meshes of hysterical frustration and lust." Crumb's wife, Aline, says, "Well, he is a sexist, racist, anti-Semitic misogynist." (As for anti-Semitic, Crumb flirts with big-nosed Jewish stereotypes — the demanding female, the wily, voracious male.)

Since the '60s, Crumb has shown a world that fits his vision. There's the prankster-pederast guru, Mr. Natural, revealing the meaning of life (as I recall from long memory): "Don't mean diddy-wah-diddy." Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos are nightmare feminists avenging themselves on men. Angelfood McSpade is a thick-lipped black stereotype, uptight Whiteman can find sexual satisfaction only with a yeti. Little Mr. Snoid climbs up the backs of Crumb's amazons to work out his id-rage and perversities. Chuck the Duck is hip to the sweat of one's brow; he says, "Life is mostly hard work."

Crumb himself has written: "I am constantly disgusted by reality, horrified and afraid. I cling desperately to the few things that give me some solace, that make me feel good. For me to be human is, for the most part, to hate what I am. When I suddenly realize I am one of them, I want to scream in horror."

Not unlike the God of Genesis beholding the depravity of his children, even his greatest servants. Abraham pimps his wife, Sarah, Jacob cheats his brother, Esau. How very Old Testament.

Faults are very few in the heroes of the New Testament. And an angry, smiting Jehovah is transformed by the Christians into a god of love.

There are times when Genesis reads like a tell-all, one of those enraged bits of revisionist history that tell us George Washington was actually a drug-addict or Emily Dickinson was into sadomasochism. Except nobody revised Jewish history to make it the way it is in Genesis. And it has remained not as a guide to transcendence into heavenly realms, but as a description of life as we see it every day in our neighborhoods and newspapers.

(End optional trim)

Genesis doesn't need an R. Crumb to provide perversity and failure. It's got enough all by itself. This is one reason that Crumb could play it straight with his art, no cloacal Snoid comedy, no gratuitous sex. Yes, there is sex — men and women are shown discreetly coupling. But no irony, no joking around here. Just one pen-and-ink panel after another until Joseph — he of the coat of many colors — dies and the book ends.

How strange it all is, how ordinary. How biblical, how Crumb.

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