Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Atheist's Review of the Book of Genesis Illustrated by a Legendary Comics Artist

By Greta Christina, Greta Christina's Blog. Posted October 24, 2009.

This isn't Beatrix Potter here. It's more like "Dangerous Liaisons" by way of Quentin Tarantino. With tents, sand, and sheep.

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An Atheist's Review of the Book of Genesis Illustrated by a Legendary Comics Artist
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More stories by Greta Christina

It's true what they say. Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Especially when those pictures are drawn by Robert Crumb.

And especially when those words come from the Bible.

For those who haven't heard yet: Legendary comics artist Robert Crumb has just come out with his new book: The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb, a magnum opus, five years in the making, telling the complete, unedited book of Genesis in graphic novel form. And I'm finding it fascinating. It's masterfully illustrated, of course, Crumb being among the very best creators in this burgeoning literary form. And it's getting Genesis across to me, deep into my brain and my imagination, in a way that it had never quite gotten there before.

Of course I've read Genesis. More than once. It's been a little while since I've read the whole thing all the way through, but it's not like it's unfamiliar. But there's something about seeing the story fleshed out in images to make some of its more striking narrative turns leap out and grab your brain by the root. There's nothing quite like seeing the two different creation stories enacted on the page to make you go, "Hey! That's right! Two completely different creation stories!" There's nothing quite like seeing Lot offer his daughters to be gang-raped to make you recoil in shock and moral horror. There's nothing quite like seeing the crazed dread and burning determination in Abraham's eyes as he prepares the sacrifice of his own son to make you feel the enormity of this act. Reading these stories in words conveys the ideas; seeing them in images conveys the visceral impact. It makes it all seem vividly, immediately, humanly real.

Now, that is something of a mixed blessing. Spending a few days with the characters in Genesis isn't the most relaxing literary vacation you'll ever take. Richard Dawkins wasn't kidding when he said, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction." The God character in Genesis is cruel, violent, callous, insecure, power-hungry, paranoid, hot-tempered, morally fickle... I could go on and on. And God's followers aren't much better. They lie, they scheme, they cheat one another, they conquer other villages with bloodthirsty imperialist glee, they kill at the drop of a hat. This isn't Beatrix Potter here. It's more like Dangerous Liaisons by way of Quentin Tarantino. With tents, sand, and sheep.

Yet at the same time, there's an unexpected side effect to reading this story in images as well as words. And that's that the story becomes more... well, more of a story. Reading it in comics form made it easier for me to set aside, just for a moment, the relentless hammering on the text that I typically engage in when I read the Bible: the theological debates, the treasure hunt for inaccuracies and inconsistencies, the incessant "How did this pissy, jealous, temperamental warrior god get shoehorned into the All-Knowing All-Powerful All-Good ideal again?" bafflement. It made it easier to set all that aside... and just read it as a story. A story about some very human, very fallible characters: strong and interesting, but not moral paragons by any stretch of the imagination... and not really intended to be.

Including the God character. Who, in many ways, is the most human and the most fallible of them all.

A big part of that comes from Crumb's art style. His drawing is not photorealistic, but his portraits -- fleshy, emotional, idiosyncratic, expressive -- emphasize, above all else, the humanity of his characters. The deeply familiar characters in this story -- Abraham, Noah, Joseph, Adam and Eve -- seem less like iconic figures from a fairy tale, and more like human beings: just some Bronze Age sheepherders, squabbling and screwing and struggling for survival.

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