The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

After my review of another of their books, I asked W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. to send me a review copy of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. They didn’t respond. However, I saw the book in a bookstore and was so impressed that I went ahead and bought it for myself.

There are two notes on the cover that immediately grab attention.

The first says “adult supervision recommended for minors,” and I agree, at least as far as younger kids go, solely because the book of Genesis itself is filled with stories and themes that children will not fully comprehend or that they are not developmentally ready to deal with, just as a parent wouldn’t let a child watch an intense movie alone or perhaps at all while they are young, something like Schindler’s List for example, because there are things they don’t need to confront or know about quite yet. That doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the content. There is also some nudity and violence in the book, and although it is of the pen and ink comic illustration variety and merely illustrating what is clearly described in the text, some may not be comfortable with children seeing it in some of the contexts in this narrative.

The second note says “the first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” This is the first time I have ever seen a graphic version of any portion of the Bible that both included the complete text and also chose not to add anything like dialogue to “help the narrative” or “assist comprehension.” As a result, there is no editorializing whatsoever, neither positive nor negative. The text is presented as it is with illustrations along the way.

I have a feeling that religious people could be offended because R. Crumb is known not to be a religious person. Those fears are not well founded as this text is treated respectfully and with no sense of judgment or editorial comment whatsoever implying anything negative about any belief system. What is presented in the illustrations is what is clearly stated in the text.

It is just as likely that non-religious people could be offended because an illustrator and artist of such quality and stature has chosen a religious text as his subject matter. Those fears are not well founded as this text is stated to have been chosen because of its historical importance and with no sense of judgment or editorial comment whatsoever implying anything positive about any belief system. What is presented in the illustrations is what is clearly stated in the text.

For many readers, the most important facet of this review is the question of whether this work stands up as a piece of art. I wholeheartedly believe it does. Some may not prefer R. Crumb’s style, and this is a pretty typical example of what he has focused on doing for years, but I don’t think anyone could complain that he has not done it well. The illustrations are focused, clear, emotive, and powerful. At times he demonstrates his cultural perspective as a modern-era westerner and some of the motifs are almost clichéd (eg. God is pictured as an old man with long white hair and a flowing beard wearing a white robe, almost Gandalf the White like, but with more hair, a bigger beard, and a larger halo of light around him), but those are the exception, and they don’t progress from overused but commonly understood symbols into caricature or parody. Most of the time the illustrations are interesting with what appear to be culturally appropriate styles of dress and terrain. The bottom line for me is that the illustrations never detract from the story; they add to it by making things more clear.

This is one I will definitely recommend, but in the case of children, only with parental consent.

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