R. Crumb, Darshan

MOST REVIEWS OF R. CRUMB’S “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” seem astonished that the man who kept us truckin’ through the ’60s could possibly give the Goode Booke such a serious rendering.

But what astonishes me is that Crumb has added yet another level to the endless depth of serious Torah study.

First, about the art: Crumb is one of those Heavy Guys (like Will Eisner and Moebius) whose art defines comics through mastery of the medium and extending its possibilities. His compositions pull the reader into each panel, where subtle figures express humanity unadorned — crankiness and weird smells along with idealism and tenderness. Given this, it’s unsurprising that Crumb chose not to summarize Genesis, but rather to illustrate it.

All of this perfectly suits Crumb for the task of bringing Torah (or at least the first 20 percent of it) to the paneled page. Those unfamiliar with the actual text may be surprised that the key players look so, well, human, and ethnically human at that. Most Bible illustrations tend to imbue them with a phenothiazine-tinged radiance that’s lacking from the original text (as well as uninspiring — after all, if the matriarchs and patriarchs exemplify the religious life, and religious life includes transcendence, then what exactly are these Perfect Beings supposed to transcend?). But Crumb’s figures are heroic despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws. His Abraham looks like the guy next door (if next door is Boro Park), with near-palpable compassion in pleading with God to spare Sodom — as well as incredulity that “the Judge of all the earth [might] not do justly.”

(Of course, I do have one quibble (if I didn’t, as Ann would tell you, it means I wasn’t really into it): as a strict antianthropomorphist, the idea of God-as-angry-grandpa isn’t one I’m eager to embrace. But if Crumb had gone the (Jewishly) theologically correct route and portrayed some approximation of incorporeality, we’d be deprived of the visual thread of who’s made in God’s image (and, in some cases, Eve’s).)

As for the adaptation itself: For thousands of years, Jews have been turning the text over and over, arguing, playing, expanding, wrestling, all to understand and apply it in new and evolving ways. We call this process “midrash,” from the Hebrew root D.R.Sh (dalet, resh, shin) whose meanings include “explain, interpret, seek, inquire.” One who makes midrash is called a “darshan,” and while there are many schools of darshaning (e.g., mystical, homiletical, historical, political, even musical) Crumb seems to have added illustration to the darshan’s tool set; after God kicks Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but before they actually leave, Genesis 3:20 says, “And the man called his wife’s name Eve (Heb. “chava”), because she was mother of all the living (“chai”).” In the text, this verse’s placement seems almost random, but Crumb’s “translation” shows a weeping Eve being held by a gently smiling Adam — as though Adam’s trying to console Eve by telling her that, despite their troubles and the loss of everything they know, it’ll all be okay. What husband wouldn’t do the same in his place?

Torah is more than “just” a history book, legal document, ethical code or ethnic narrative. Likewise, “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” is more than “just” an illustrated text or graphic novel. No modernly-hip Torah nerd should be without it.

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