R. Crumb’s original pages for The Book of Genesis -- all of them, all 201 pages of comics plus the covers and other interior images -- were exhibited recently at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in west Los Angeles. On Saturday, February 7, the night before the exhibit’s final day, my wife Michele and I paid a visit and spent the better part of two hours among those pages (having already gone to the very well-attended Crumb/Françoise Mouly talk at UCLA’s Royce Hall back on Oct. 29).
Crumb’s Introduction to Genesis describes the project as “a straight illustration job,” as if to head off expectations that his treatment might be a radical adaptation or satirical hatchet job. Bear in mind that readers outside the orbit of comics may not know of Crumb’s reputation for dutiful adaptations of found texts (Boswell, Sartre, Kafka, etc.) and may expect comix hijinx served up with a subversive wink-nudge; I bet Crumb wanted to foreclose that kind of reading right off the bat. But saying that his Genesis is “straight illustration” is misleading. It’s right insofar as Crumb faithfully sought to subserve the text, observe its details, and bring it to life, but it’s wrong because it soft-pedals the role that Crumb’s own tics, preoccupations, and imaginative graphic input play in the project. It is still a R. Crumb comic, after all.
Before talking about the exhibition, I have to say that Crumb’s Genesis impresses me most as a prodigious feat of illustration, in the sense of imaginative entry into and patient unraveling and interpretation of the source text (I should say texts plural, though Crumb’s main source is Robert Alter’s recent translation, Genesis). Crumb obviously took exquisite care with the text, and made himself entirely submissive to it, or rather to his interpretation of it, which clearly he entered into with an attitude of respectful curiosity.
I have to say that his envisionment of the Old Testament world does not strike me as original, but rather as a distillation of popular, even clichéd, visualizations, down to his stern, white-bearded God the father. I’ve thought this ever since seeing the book previewed in The New Yorker (June 8-15, 2009). Crumb’s Genesis is, characteristically, an interpretation of interpretations. After all, his art has always riffed on, or warped, often to unsettling effect, received imagery: the cuteness of greeting cards, the shamelessness of advertising, the archive of half-remembered cartoon and comics characters from the past. If nostalgia was and is a big part of underground and alternative comics, a queasy anti-nostalgia has long been Crumb’s beat. I'm reminded of an observation once made by Don Ault, passed on to me by Rusty Witek: Crumb’s style has nostalgia for itself (!). I think that's spot-on. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by Crumb’s Genesis, then; anyway, I was expecting not comix hijinx but a sober illustration job, along the lines of Crumb’s Kraft-Ebbing or Philip K. Dick. I have to admit, though, that my first response to that New Yorker teaser was one of mingled admiration for Crumb’s technical skill and disappointment over the conventionality of his choices. It was only delving further into the book and reading it for long periods that brought me around to, one, being immersed in Crumb’s visual world, and, two, digging the telltale signs of Crumb, for example the blunt intimacy and unembarrassed sensuality, which keep surfacing over the long haul despite, or perhaps because, of his fidelity to the text. In this sense Crumb’s Genesis does what I want great illustrators to do: it suffuses the source with the artist’s own sensibility even while trying to be self-effacing. And it was this sensibility that leapt out of Crumb’s originals as I walked back and forth across the exhibit, visiting and revisiting certain pages, watching other visitors respond to the pages, and trying to pick up, for want of a better word, a vibe that exceeded and pulled together those 200-plus boards.
Now, it wasn’t possible for me to reread large portions of the book in sequence at the exhibition. Not only were there too many other visitors (attendance was healthy when we got there and a hindrance to movement by the time we left), but also the work is dense and fairly begs for a deep reading, not just gazing, experience. Truth to tell, my feet often begin to hurt in museum exhibits, not from walking but from standing still, so I have to circulate pretty constantly, and step forward and back and around the items on view, if I want to get an up-close, personal, and sustained take on the work. I try to reconcile what might look like roving physical restlessness with careful attention to the art; in other words, I do spend a long time in exhibits that interest me but I usually don’t stay in one spot for more than a minute. I prowl. What this means is that the terms of my attention are continually shifting: for example, I go from ignoring other attendees entirely to observing them closely. I did look at a lot of Crumb’s pages over other lookers’ shoulders, so to speak.
I should say that I got to gaze at dozens of Crumb’s pages and did get to reread carefully some of them, maybe as many as a score. The pages were traditional inked originals on Bristol board, maybe (I’m guesstimating) not quite half again as large as their printed counterparts, so minute attention was needed. I was able to seek out marks of correction, or adjustment, in the inking: for instance, Crumb’s subtle use of white-out, sometimes for texturing, sometimes because he apparently changed his mind about minute elements of the text. Evidence of “mistakes” or second-guessing was pretty minimal, though; Crumb’s facility and focus remain mind-blowing. The underdrawing was completely hidden by his tight inks, and the hypnotic textures of the rendering were, well, just that. What I particularly enjoyed was seeing other viewers -- ones unversed in Crumb’s work, or so I inferred from their sotto voce comments -- confronting the pages in all their stubborn individuality, marveling at their strangeness, and often trying faithfully to read them in their entirety, one after another, until, in most cases, they gave up from the sheer surfeit. I heard more than one visitor remark on the impossibility of taking it all in.
There isn’t much to say about the design of the exhibitry as such, that is, the organization and mounting of the show. After all, this was not a show defined by a curatorial vision: it did not bring together like or unlike pieces by various artists in the search for a higher unity, did not represent a fresh way of seeing disparate objects, did not trace a movement or document a scene or anatomize a genre, and did not have an explicit cultural or ideological through-line. It was simply Crumb’s Genesis, and little else. For those curious about the physical details of the exhibition, the following couple of paragraphs may serve as a kind of virtual walk-through:
Upon entering, the visitor was greeting by wall-sized
blowups of Crumb’s hand-lettered Introduction and the opening splash
conjuring creation out of, aptly enough, a swirling pool of ink).
visitors would have noted the framed original of the book’s dedication
reading simply “for Aline,” off to one side (again, the entire book was
but for the indicia and Crumb’s typeset textual commentaries). A turn
left revealed the first of many walls displaying Crumb’s pages, this
starting with the original of the opening splash -- dig that painterly
white-out -- followed clockwise by many, many identical framed pages,
all on the same
plane, all at roughly eye-level, one after another after another, the
between them narrow, the pages all in reading sequence. The sequence
beyond that wall to the next, neatly rounding the corner without
eventually going all the way around the squarish room.
But that wasn’t all there was to it, for inside the room was another room, or walled chamber rather, circular in shape, perhaps twenty-five to thirty feet in diameter, its wall going up to about two-thirds ceiling height and forming a not-quite-enclosed yet still separate space within the larger exhibition: a circle inside the square, so to speak, taking up most of what otherwise might have been bare floor, so that the main exhibit space ended up being pretty narrow, like a corridor squeezed between outer and inner walls. Once you got all the way around the outer or “square” walls -- that is, to page 130 and nearly back to where you came in -- Crumb’s pages continued in reverse direction, counterclockwise, around the inner or circular wall (131-201), which was only a step away. This transition occasioned momentary confusion for me (and evidently other viewers too) because the pages wrapped all the way around the circle like a snake swallowing its own tail, so that page 201 and page 131 were very close to each other, with only the phrase “The End” (hand-painted in Crumbian style on the wall) to signal the divide between start and finish. In other words, the synapse between pages 130 and 131, or between square reading path and circular reading path, was a bit confusing: the one bump in the otherwise intuitive reading order of the exhibit.
In all, the show’s design seemed to have been the result of simply trying to fit all of Crumb’s pages into a tight space while preserving their readability, and for the most part it did a good, spartan job of that, giving the viewer an easy trail to follow but for that one break.
I would guess that comics aficionados and traditional museum-goers were both well represented in the crowds of people Mich and I navigated through that evening (as had been the case at the UCLA talk, where I was surprised by the signs of gentrification all around me). The most interesting attendees, of course, were those who seemed non-comics-oriented and had come to encounter the work of a talked-about Artist. Maybe some of these people were impressed; maybe some were just bewildered or mildly amused. Most seemed rapt. It was fascinating to see people apparently treating Crumb as a destination stop for the first time, that is, having their first sustained, deliberate, self-conscious “experience” of his work. Whereas my own response to the work, unavoidably, partook of that proprietary sense of affection that comix fans have for the very idea of Crumb, the Crumb style, and the Crumb persona, and I must admit I chuckled occasionally over elements in the work that had in-joke value (why do the strong women generally look like Aline?), the sober or bemused responses of other museum-goers gave me a new window on the work and left me thinking about the newfound cultural mobility of comic art. I was also delighted by the fact that Crumb’s untrammeled eccentricity asserted itself even in this context.
That eccentricity was especially obvious in the center or inner chamber of the exhibit, inside the circle, which displayed some of Crumb’s research, that is, his visual references. This inner space was basically a resting and reading spot (offering a sofa, chairs, and many copies of the printed Genesis) that also displayed Crumb’s originals for the title pages and jacket art,
including an alternate, and I thought better, cover depicting Eve and Adam in close two-shot, huddled guiltily as if hiding from God (first picture in the image above).
Most interesting were several vitrines filled with reference material,
including magazine clippings, scholarly journal or reference book articles, movie stills, drawings of artifacts, and prior illustrated books and even comics depicting the Old Testament world. Yellow folders and cursory notes that appeared to be in Crumb’s own hand suggested a ragtag and idiosyncratic reference library. Stills from Cecile B. DeMille and B-movies revealed the twice-removed or predigested nature of much of Crumb’s reference.
So did The Picture Bible, shown in the Chariot Books edition of 1998 (though research reveals that the work, originally serialized in the weekly Sunday school paper PIX, actually dates to 1959 and was first collected c. 1978). This perennial Bible comic, still in print today, was here presented as an anonymous, unsourced “found” object; artist André Le Blanc and scripter Iva Hoth were not credited. This was a cheat and a shame, since LeBlanc’s work on The Picture Bible is accomplished and its visual details were reportedly informed by much research. For the sake of reference, I include here an example that was not on view (courtesy of the website Bread on the Waters), from an adaptation of the book of Jonah:
I’d like to read more of this. (As an aside, my fellow blogger Rodrigo Baeza pointed out to me that this page was likely lettered by the great Ben Oda, which has piqued my curiosity, once again, about the man's career.) Certainly LeBlanc’s scenic details are impressive. I noted, BTW, a bookmark in the exhibited copy of The Picture Bible bearing a note, good clothing motifs, written in Crumb’s hand.
Also on view, open to the Jacob and Esau story from Chapter 25 of Genesis, was M.C. Gaines’ brainchild Picture Stories from the Bible: Complete Old Testament Edition, in essence a graphic novel compilation of the Picture Stories from the Bible comic books, which were in fact the germ of Gaines’ company Educational Comics (EC) in the mid-forties.
Whether this edition of the Complete Old Testament would have been nominally published by EC or by DC I couldn’t tell (the Grand Comics Database lists five printings under “DC” between 1943-45, then subsequent printings under “EC”; WorldCat, though, gives the original publisher as “J.R. Pub. Co.,” which was apparently another name for Gaines’ All-American Comics outfit). In any case, once again the creators, this time scripter Montgomery Mulford and artist Don Cameron (an All-American regular), went uncredited. No historical context was provided. I couldn’t see much of this book, of course, but to my eyes it appeared nowhere near as enticing as LeBlanc; still, I would have liked to see it, and its important place in comic book history, more fully acknowledged and contextualized. I note that Crumb's back jacket illustration echoes the back cover of the Gaines (in the same way that, say, his XYZ Comics riffs on Little Lulu, Mad, and Humbug):
Suffice to say that, from a historian’s POV, documentation in this section of the exhibit was distressingly scant. Provenance was sketchy, artists, writers, and filmmakers (but for DeMille) were unnamed, and the materials were treated rather like the kind of cultural detritus one might find in Rauschenberg’s “combines.” That is, they were presented as anonymous.
One source of likely inspiration for Crumb, decidedly not anonymous, was nowhere shown or mentioned in the exhibit –- namely, Basil Wolverton’s illustrations for The Bible Story, commissioned by the Worldwide Church of God and first serialized between 1958 and 1972. Wolverton, known for his serious and lasting influence on Crumb’s style, illustrated stories from Genesis between 1954 and 1959 (they were published in the WCG’s Plain Truth magazine, then collected in book form in the sixties). The go-to source for this material is Fantagraphics’ excellent volume The Wolverton Bible, edited by Monte Wolverton and published in 2009. Comparison of the imagery in that book and in Crumb’s Genesis turns up some striking similarities, not only because Wolverton’s intricate, obsessive manner of hatching and stippling informs Crumb’s, but also because the latter’s specific compositional choices often echo the former’s. Whether this is because Crumb owes a specific unacknowledged debt to Wolverton, or because both artists are indebted to antecedent illustrators, is not a question I know the answer to, but, in a spirit of celebration rather than accusation, I present a couple of side-by-side examples here (click the thumbnails for larger views):a
I don’t bring all this up to diminish Crumb’s achievement with Genesis, which is remarkable. I’m simply pointing out that there is a long history of adapting the Bible to comics, and Genesis comes as a culmination of that, one that perhaps ought to send us back to others -- to Wolverton, to LeBlanc et al. -- to better appreciate what we’ve been overlooking.
Finally, what Crumb’s Genesis became for me during our visit to the exhibit was an anthology of images, some from Crumb’s pages, some mental snapshots of other people looking at Crumb’s pages. Since I couldn’t take it all in sequentially -- thankfully I have the book for that, otherwise my feet would still be killing me -- I found myself focusing on moments of special power in the book: cruxes of interpretation, or places where Crumb’s gifts seemed particularly to shine. There are many of these. Some are subtle, as when Abraham leads Isaac to the site of sacrifice (Ch. 22); or when the Lord God walks alongside Abraham, wondering to himself, in a thought balloons no less, what he should do (Ch. 18); or the numerous genealogy pages, all those lists of begettings and clans and chieftains, in which every person seems to have distinctly different features (I call these the “yearbook pages”). Some are unsubtle and in your face, as when Adam tackles Eve in sheer, guiltless joy (Ch. 2); or when we see the depravity of the fallen world before the Flood (Ch. 6); or when Lot’s daughters “lie with him” so that they may conceive (Ch. 19); or when Jacob and Esau are born (Ch. 25); or when, at last, in a kind of tearful melodrama, Joseph is reunited with and revealed to his brothers (Ch. 45). Crumb’s complete sympathy with the characters, his utter confidence in rendering, and his ability to balance subtle insinuation against shirt-rending, sweatdrop-splashing pantomime make his Genesis, for all its indulgence of the clichéd and familiar, a breathtaking wayside monument.
I’m glad to have seen it out in the world.