Interpretive treatments of Genesis in Comics: R. Crumb & Dave Sim.

Author:Jolly, Don
Position:Essay
 
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In the last ten years, the biblical Genesis has been the subject of two high-profile works of comic art by two prominent independent (1) cartoonists. Most visible, and most recent, is Robert Crumb's 2009 Book of Genesis Illustrated. Crumb, a legendary cartoonist best known for his work in Zap Comics and other "underground" titles, describes his Genesis as "the first book of the Bible graphically depicted" with "nothing left out" (Crumb 2009, Cover). It is a full text of Genesis arranged in the comic book format, with accompanying illustrations--a "visual, literal interpretation" (Crumb 2009, Introduction). Not as visible, but far more intricate, is the work of Canadian artist Dave Sim, a cartoonist immune to effective summary. His Cerebus series is a singular work, a narrative spanning 6,000 comic book pages whose writing and artwork remain the exclusive domain of Sim and his background artist Gerhard. Cerebus is, ostensibly, the biography of a barbarian aardvark, freebooting through a fantastical ancient world roughly based on the Hyborean (2) age created by Robert E. Howard to house his "ripping yarns" of Conan the Barbarian. Within this frame, Sim experimented wildly. Cerebus contains a novella in the style of Oscar Wilde, a heartbreaking account of the last days of Ernest Hemingway, parodies of nearly every popular emergent superhero from 1977 to 2004, several metaphysical epics, and even a brief and bucolic illustrated tribute to sheep farming. In the highly variable fabric of Sim's work, the presence of a full-length Genesis commentary is almost to be expected. Cerebus's penultimate volume, Latter Days, devotes many of its pages to the titular aardvark's transformation into a biblical scholar, and the production of a deeply idiosyncratic reading of the Genesis text. Whereas Crumb's work endeavours to completeness and the "literal," Sim's attempts to produce a wholly individual interpretation.

It is tempting, in reading Crumb and Sim together, to look for points of commonality. Both men are highly prominent artists of independent comics, both eccentrics, both controversial in their treatment of women. These biographical similarities are, however, superficial: any true connection between the works must be found in the comic book format from which each is derived. This study attempts to explore, through each author's treatment of Genesis 1-2, the rudiments of the interpretive techniques employed by Sim and Crumb, and the common ways in which the comic format contextualizes and inspires their exegetical works.

"Bible Stories for Young Folks"

A Brief Introduction to Biblical Comics

The comic book, as a publishing phenomenon, is a child of the American twentieth century. There is a certain family resemblance. Comics are exciting, cheap, sometimes threatening, often imperial--always ephemeral. They began as a format for the reprinting of popular newspaper strips, but soon took on a distinct cultural identity and became the focus of an increasingly organized and populous subculture of fans. While the men in "long underwear," like Superman, are the most visible contribution of comics to American culture, the books themselves have always covered a broad range of topics (Daniels 1993, 17). In the 1950s, for example, the most popular genres in American comic books were horror, crime, and suspense. However, "with sales ... at an all time high, publishers searched everywhere for new [ones]" (Daniels 1993, 77).

Atlas Comics, forerunner of Marvel, provides a clear demonstration of this breadth in a selection of 1953 titles. "Speed Carter, Spaceman" promised "Science Fiction Tales of Men in Space!," while "Lorna the Jungle Queen" boasted "one valiant girl alone and unafraid against the savage terrors of the jungle!" (Daniels 1993, 72). More terror was on offer in "Menace," a horror title depicting a gruesome creature with "one head too many" (Daniels 1993, 73). Along with these somewhat lurid offerings, 1953 saw one Atlas release that promised neither action nor fear. This odd book's cover depicted three grey-haired men staring at a young boy with a staff, a halo of white framing his serene face, with a backdrop of placid evening stars. The title of this contribution was "Bible Tales for Young Folk." It may not have been the first comic book to adapt and interpret the biblical text, but it was an early and representative example of the form. In each issue of "Tales," several Bible stories were adapted, in a slightly reduced and "cleaned-up" format, eliminating violence, sex, and textual confusion to produce a collection of toothless Midrash.

The 1950s were a decade of controversy in comics, along with record sales. Critics of the comic book, led primarily by the psychologist Fredrick Wertham and his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, accused comic books of inciting children to acts of violence, crime, and homosexuality. This public outcry eventually reached the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, forcing the comics industry to adopt a system of self-censorship as a means to escape federal regulation. It is significant that, in this tumultuous decade, a major publisher such as Atlas chose to publish a title adapting and sanitizing biblical stories. Who were its intended purchasers? Certainly not children and adolescents, the primary audience for comics--they preferred horror, science fiction, and adventure. Then as now, however, a child's purchasing power was mediated by his or her parents. At a time when adults were growing more and more uncomfortable with the comic book, what better way to appeal to them than with the promise of wholesome Bible stories? Bible comics such as "Young Folks" existed for parents to buy on behalf of their children. Materially, they were comic books, but culturally they were something else. Bible comics in the mould of "Young Folks" still exist today, although usually expanded beyond the twenty-four-page scope of typical comic book issue. Examples of such works currently in print include Iva Hoth's The Picture Bible, Sergio Cariello's The Action Bible, and The Lion Graphic Bible by Jeff Anderson and Mike Maddox. Although my survey of this literature is far from complete, works such as Hoth's retain the central interpretive mission of "Bible Stories for Young Folks" in that they present somewhat "cleaned-up" versions of biblical stories to an intended audience of children. In the years since 1953, however, the divide between the biblical and non-biblical comic has only grown wider. Comic book Bibles are, simply, not a part of the contemporary culture surrounding comic books, nor are they part of its material infrastructure. The "direct market" of comic book specialty shops, through which dedicated fans obtain new superhero and "independent" titles every Wednesday, feature comic book Bibles sparingly, if they feature them at all. My local comic book store, (3) for example, had none of the titles mentioned above at the time of this writing. Crumb's Genesis, however, remains prominently displayed--four years after its initial release.

Crumb and Sim distinguish themselves from other comic book Bibles in that their biblical works are articulated from within the culture and the marketplace of comic books and comic fans. Both Crumb and Sim are considered important figures in the emerging field of the literary comic book, and both occupy highly unusual positions within the industry. Both of their biblical works also contain frank depictions of violence and sex, distinguishing them further from graphic Bibles that sought to downplay or eliminate objectionable content. In Crumb's case, however, a rudimentary knowledge of previous biblical comics is required in order to grasp the author's hermeneutic. For both Crumb and Sim, the adoption of the biblical subject represented a conscious reaching out: an embrace of topics typically outside the cultural (if not the formal) boundaries of "comics."

Robert Crumb's "Genesis"

In his introduction, Crumb describes his approach to the biblical text as "visual, literal interpretation" (Crumb 2009, Introduction). On the cover of his book, he boasts that nothing has been "left out," that his work covers "all 50 chapters" of Genesis. His book contains a "full" version of the text constructed from an eclectic mix of translations, primarily Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses (2008). This text is then formatted into the descriptive narration boxes, dialogue balloons, and thought bubbles of a typical comic book story. Crumb acknowledges that "in a few places I ventured to do a little [textual] interpretation of my own ... but I refrained in indulging too often in such 'creativity'" (Crumb 2009...

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