undefinedR. Crumb at his drawing table in 2009.

 

Robert Crumb asked me to say that he lives in Albania, to discourage would-be pilgrims from beating a path to his doorstep. He doesn’t, but his medieval hamlet is so far from the United States in every sense that it takes some perseverance to find, and upon locating it, I discovered that the streets of his walled village are too narrow to penetrate with even the tiniest French rental car. I mean, Albanian.

But even this tiny community was too distracting when it came time to draw and ink the extraordinarily detailed illustrations for The Book of Genesis, which was published last year. Like a monastic scribe, he pursued his vision in a desolate shelter in the mountains outside town, working for weeks without human contact. These mountains have harbored many heretics over the centuries, but Crumb’s Genesis was an act of textual devotion, precise to the last “begat.”

Crumb is perhaps the most influential cartoonist of his or any generation, famous for decades of work that reflect an idiosyncratic variety of fascinations—arcane twenties music, everyday street scenes, the female form—yet have proved capable of mass appeal. But “cartoonist” fails to convey the full scope of the Crumb oeuvre, which includes the handmade comics he created as a teenager; the underground periodicals he generated by the score in the sixties; and the increasingly realistic work he has produced since then, probing the lives of twenties bluesmen, authors, biblical patriarchs, and his own family. In all of the places he has lived, Crumb has been a creator of books on his own terms, helping to spawn a thriving DIY print culture of zines and graphic novels that has revived and reinvented the comic form. It is a remarkable achievement for someone who came of age when the comic book was the lowest form of literary life imaginable, attacked by Congress and shunned or ignored by respectable society.

When the weary traveler finally locates Crumb’s house, where he lives with his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, a small sign in his unmistakable hand warns the mailman, pas de pub svp—no advertisements, please. Crumb is equally jaundiced toward the media, and remains distrustful of many aspects of contemporary life, including e-mail and the Internet. But modernity is not much of a threat inside his seventeenth-century home. Books are packed in everywhere, and in his collections the centuries begin to crowd each other out—a Brueghel print from the fifteen hundreds hangs on the wall next to a racy ad from the nineteen forties. When the tape was not rolling, we listened to many of Crumb’s favorites from a library of more than five thousand 78-rpm records—including Blind Mamie Forehand, Chubby Parker, and Skip James—witnesses to a past that never ceases to exist as long as the record is intact and the turntable spins.

 

INTERVIEWER

Let’s begin with Genesis. Where did this book come from?

CRUMB

Well, the truth is kind of dumb, actually. I did it for the money and I quickly began to regret it. It was an enormous amount of work—four years of work and barely worth it. I was too compulsive about the detail. With comics, you’ve got to develop some kind of shorthand. You can’t make every drawing look like a detailed etching. The average reader actually doesn’t want all that detail, it interferes with the flow of the reading process. But I just can’t help myself—obsessive-compulsive disorder.

INTERVIEWER

But it does also seem like a labor of love.

CRUMB

I did try to be respectful. I decided not to make fun of the text, not to put any kind of jokey stuff in there. I was tempted a few times. But I whited it out later because it distracts from the text. The text itself is so compelling that merely illustrating it is enough. But people who believe that the Bible is the word of God, you’re not going to please them. They’ll find faults. The Jews won’t like it because you actually portray God. And the fact that I show people actually having sex, that’s going to eliminate a lot of the Christians. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve shown how much strangeness is in the story.

CRUMB

I think that the best public service that it has to offer is that it brings everything out. It illustrates everything equally. Even the strangest stories, stories that don’t make much sense. The Bible was not written for entertainment purposes so it’s a real hodgepodge and a compendium of all kinds of stuff.

 INTERVIEWER

Did you read the comic-book versions of the Bible as a kid?

 CRUMB

I didn’t. I wasn’t interested. In my midteens I went through a brief stage of religious fanaticism but it was very much about just saying prayers and stuff like that, reciting rosaries and spending a lot of time on that kind of Catholic ritual. My brother Charles admired Saint Francis, he’d walk around with stones in his shoes. But soon we started to see through it, my brother and I started questioning the church and it fell apart very quickly for us. 

INTERVIEWER

You wrote in your introduction that you actually stay truer to the words of Genesis than a lot of those comic-book versions. 

CRUMB

In all the comic-book versions I was able to find, they just made up dialogue, pages of it that are not in the Bible. I was reading this one thing and I thought—did I miss this? And I went back and checked against the text and it’s not in there. And they claim to be honoring the word of God, and that the Bible is a sacred text. But they’re just making shit up! If you’re not going to make it up, then the only way is to tell the whole thing. You have to put in every word, and that’s a very cumbersome task that only a fool would take on.

INTERVIEWER

Genesis is obviously a graphic novel, but the cover is like a fifties comic-book cover.

CRUMB

It’s a Classics Illustrated! I had to argue with them to let me call it “illustrated.” They wanted to call it The Book of Genesis According to R. Crumb but I preferred “illustrated by.” I wanted a humbler position. It’s an illustration job, OK? Illustration has a bad name in modern culture because for decades artists who were “mere illustrators” were considered inferior to fine artists. Being an illustrator was looked down upon. It meant you were not really a creative person, you just had the technical skills that you were lending to someone else’s ideas. It’s all bullshit though—the fine-art world, the myth of the creative genius artist.

I made the drawings nice, and the people who like that kind of thing, the aesthetics, are impressed, but the most significant thing is actually illustrating everything that’s in there. That’s the most significant contribution I made. It brings everything out. Comic books are good for that. Many of the educational experiences I’ve had about important things, I got from comic books. A Japanese artist did a comic book about his childhood growing up in militaristic Japan and about the dropping of the bomb. It’s called Gen of Hiroshima. It’s so powerful and vivid. Also Joe Sacco’s book Palestine and his book about Bosnia, or Spiegelman’s Maus, a powerful story of the Holocaust. Those are some of the strongest revelations of what happened.

 INTERVIEWER

How did you get your hands on the research material for Genesis from a medieval village in Southern France?

CRUMB

Hey, come on, this is the electronic age! You can get anything, anywhere! A friend got me the DVD of The Ten Commandments and some other biblical epics and he freeze-framed them and he took hundreds of photos. I developed a great respect for Cecil B. DeMille. When you freeze-frame it and look at it closely, every detail is really interesting. You’ve got these donkeys pulling primitive carts with big urns all tied up with ropes, and I used all of that. All the statuary, the rows of the lions as you come out of the city of the pharaoh. It’s beautifully made and all the craft and attention to detail, it was really quite remarkable.