Respect Without Reverence
Gary Groth: Speaking of the lurid comic-book aspect, it seemed to me that there were two opposing strains in your adaptation, and the first is that you were paying homage to the more lurid comics of the ’40s and ’50s, especially with the covers for example. And you actually see the book in terms of those comics. You once said, “The original is so strong and strange in its own right, there’s so much in there that’s lurid and lends itself to comic-book adaptation.”
Robert Crumb: That’s right, there are lurid things in the text.
Groth: But then, the problem is its stature as a divine document of religious history, considered by its adherents as a monumental touchstone of civilization, and how reverently and respectfully you adapted it. So you have these opposing strains within the work — lurid mass-produced comics and reverence toward the original document.
Crumb: I did not adapt it reverently. I respected the text insofar as I did not want to ridicule it. But I see the text as actually a quite primitive document. It’s primitive; it’s full of ancient, very old, ritualistic ideas, which are very crude. And there’s a lot going on there that is not consciously understood by the people who are telling the stories. And then you have pasted over that this really annoying religious priestly stuff, which is trying to nail the whole thing down so that people can’t get out from under it. [Laughs.]
At a certain point while I was working on it, after about 25 pages, I actually started to despise the text. For a while I went through this phase of hating it. It is really a hateful thing actually. A hateful document that kept people down, kept people in ignorance and darkness, and from advancing intellectually or mentally. To hold a text like that over people as the only thing that they should take seriously, that that’s their whole prescription for living and for morality and all that, is a terrible thing to do. It just proves how insane and crazy the human race is that still in this day and age, to take a text like that as a source of moral guidance. That just causes nothing but trouble. [Laughs.] And the same can be said of the New Testament, the Qur’an, all the Western religious stuff. The Eastern thing is different, the Buddhist and the Hindu things are very different. They’re much more democratic and open, and not as rigid.
Groth: And more generous spirited?
Crumb: Well, they are not as hard-line. They’re not as defined. Like the Hindu religion has 4,000 different gods and you can take your pick of which ones you want to revere according to how they appeal to you. You can worship this one or that one. You can worship Ganesh, symbolized by an elephant, whatever you want. So it’s different, it’s very different. But the Western religions are pretty awful, actually. All three of the major Western religions are contentious and antagonistic and aggressive.
Crumb: Yeah, hard-edged. All three of ’em: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Groth: Did you see a conflict between your wanting to pay homage to certain lurid conventions of comics and transcribing this?
Crumb: None at all. [Laughs.] No conflict whatsoever [Groth laughs.] Like if you wanted to illustrate an ancient folktale or a folk song. I did that, I did illustrations of an old Grimm’s Fairy Tale, “Mother Hulda,” and it’s the same thing. It’s full of lurid detail, incredibly, all the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Besides from the fact that the Bible is considered the word of God — Genesis particularly is full of the most harrowing, lurid goings-on. Chapter 34 is probably the ugliest chapter in the whole book. That’s the one where the sons of Jacob decide they’re gonna kill all the men of Shechem because the prince slept with their sister Dinah.
Groth: Yeah, that was a terrifying act of treachery and betrayal.
Crumb: Wasn’t it, though? And what’s the moral resolve of that? Jacob scolds them for it and says, “You have made me odious in the eyes of all the people around here, and if they decide to attack us, they could kill us because we are few and they are many.”
And the sons say, “What, our sister should be treated like a whore?” And that’s the end of it. [Groth laughs.] So what lesson are we supposed to gain? What’s the moral inspiration? What is God telling us there, if it’s the word of God?
Groth: Have you come to a conclusion? Have you resolved that yourself?
Crumb: It’s like, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s obvious from the resolve that it’s not the word of God, it’s some ancient crazy fuckin’ tribal shit [laughter]: some guys defending their sister’s honor.
Groth: I was quite taken aback by that.
Crumb: I think that when modern religious people read the Bible for inspiration, they just pass over stuff like that. I read a lot of commentary about Genesis. In the Jewish Publication Society version it’s full of commentaries from different scholars over centuries. And like the story of Abraham telling his wife Sarah to tell the pharaoh that she’s his sister. The explanations by these scholars who are also religious believers, trying to give that story some moral justification, just bending over backwards trying to figure out what God meant to tell us in that story or what the real meaning of that is. Because it has to — it’s the Bible; it has to have a higher moral purpose, right? When in fact it doesn’t: How ’bout it?
So I would say in that way, by literally illustrating all of that stuff, there is a slightly subversive quality to it. As you say, secular interpretation. It’s slightly subversive to show a story like that, illustrate it, literally show it. What it’s really about. And it’s very hard to give any moral rationale to a story like that. And then in my commentary in the back of the book I bring up Savina Teubal, this Israeli woman writer, and her explanation for those stories, for the “she’s my sister” routine, and how her reasons make much more cogent sense than any of the previous explanations that I’ve come across, and she wrote this stuff in the 1980s. It’s probably the first time anyone has ever examined that stuff from that matrilineal, matriarchal angle. I think she’s probably right about it.
Groth: Obviously the matrilineal angle interested you quite a bit. How much research did you do prior to finding her book, Sarah the Priestess?
Crumb: Well, I’d read a lot. And then there’s this woman in Oregon, this really interesting woman — Kelpie Wilson is her name — I told her I was working on Genesis, and she’s like this really strong feminist woman, and she sent me Savina Teubal’s book, and said, “You should read this.” And I read that thing and it really excited me. I was shaking when I read that book. It was so incredible what she reveals. I was turning the pages, reading as fast as I could the first time I read it, and I went back and read it over again two or three times. She really did her homework. For what it’s worth, as far as the Bible’s concerned, it’s really significant what she comes up with. I haven’t spent a lifetime studying the Bible so I’m not a Bible scholar or anything, but on the other hand, some of the stuff I’ve read, the scholarly stuff … If people basically start from the point of believing it’s the word of God, then right away I think they’re very hampered and crippled from examining the text in a disinterested way and analyzing it correctly. It’s a big handicap to start from that premise, that it’s the word of God. Because then you have to constantly rationalize: “What does God mean here? What is God trying to tell us?” That’s just ridiculous.
Groth: When you say you’re a non-believer, does that mean you’re an agnostic or an atheist, or what?
Crumb: I’m a Gnostic.
Groth: A Gnostic.
Crumb: Yeah. I told a lot of reporters that I was a Gnostic and they’d never heard of it, so they’d write, “Crumb says he’s an agnostic.” [Groth laughs.] I’m not an agnostic, I’m a Gnostic. But that’s only a loose definition. I’m sure there’re official Gnostics out there who’d say, “You’re not a real Gnostic! You’re just throwing that word around!” And that’s true, I am. I’m sure there’s some very specific definition of a Gnostic, but my rough, crude definition of a Gnostic is someone who’s interested in the idea of higher spiritual existence or being or reality — a greater reality that you could call divine, you could call it God, you can call it the great spirit, all-that-is, whatever you want. But I’m interested in that, and I spend time studying that and seeking that, and seeking communication with it, a connection with it: the higher reality. So I call that Gnosticism.
Groth: Gnosticism indicates that you do believe in a god or gods.
Crumb: A god?
Groth: A god or gods, yeah.
Crumb: Well, look at it this way. Would you agree that we live in a reality that’s a unified field?
Groth: [Pause.] Sure. I’ll go that far.
Crumb: Everything’s interconnected, right? Every time you breathe you affect the universe.
Groth: That’s right.
Crumb: So if it’s all a unified field, it’s all one. And that means that we are all part of some giant entity, some kind of organism, whatever you want to call it, and it’s huge and vast, and beyond our comprehension because we can’t know what’s going on everywhere all the time. We can’t. We can’t even know what’s going on in the house next door let alone out there in the billions of stars and planets. So it’s bigger than we can possibly, in our little limited human existence, understand fully. But at the same time, something in us wants to know, something has a desire for knowledge. That’s where “gnosis” actually comes from, “knowledge.” So it’s seeking after that knowledge that’s interesting. We all have some interest in that, but we get stuck in dogmatic, doctrinal thinking, which makes us feel secure. It’s like building a wall around yourself, against the unknown, you know? And people feel secure inside that wall. It’s familiar, always the same. And then of course, you’ve got people who take advantage of that fear of the unknown to put themselves in positions of power. Something like the Catholic church, or any priesthood, or political entities, corporate entities that will use some kind of fixed beliefs to try to control people. I grew up in the Catholic Church, so I know what that’s all about.
So that’s a lot of what’s happened to something like the Bible. A long time ago they started using that text as a way to clobber people over the head with these narrow, fixed beliefs. Since the time it was written down and turned into a sacred scroll, and became the raison d’être of the Hebrew people.
Groth: How do you think your Catholic upbringing affected your perception of Genesis?
Crumb: I’m not sure … maybe. We had that standard image of God as the severe patriarch with the long white beard. That was in a lot of the books we looked at. But in the Catholic Church you’re not actually encouraged to read the Bible. They teach you the catechism and the rules and regulations of the church, and the Sunday mass and all that, and the seven sacraments and blah blah blah. I remember we had a book when I was in fourth grade: Stories From the Bible. They rewrote the stories because it’s too tedious to read the original and that’s about the extent of familiarity with the Bible when you’re raised Catholic.
Groth: You never read Genesis as a kid, right?
Crumb: No. It’s funny that the various other comic book versions that I’ve seen of it, they’re all rewritten. In the EC Picture Stories From the Bible, there’s a big pompous introduction at the beginning about how “we’re bringing the holy word of God to children,” and then you read it and it’s completely rewritten! [Laughter.] There’re pages and pages that have nothing to do with the original text [Groth laughs].
Groth: And badly drawn as I recall.
Crumb: Yeah, it’s terrible. I have another Bible comic from the ’70s. Not the big one that Pete gave me, but another one, a smaller, thicker one. It’s the whole thing, I think, the whole Bible, and I was reading an episode from Genesis in it, and I thought “Wait a minute, did I miss this in the original?” I went back and checked and there’re whole pages of stuff that have nothing to do with the original at all. It’s funny, this thing that I did seems like an obvious thing to do, but nobody’s ever done it before: an unabridged, comic version following the original text; it’s a simple, straightforward task to set yourself. You’re on a track, you just have to illustrate the text as it’s written to the best of your ability, as closely as possible, and in order to interpret it as closely as possible, you must read a lot of background material and understand something about the context of it, to some degree. And really study Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments very closely. [Laughter.]
Groth: You know, I was slightly appalled to have heard that you studied that
Crumb: Oh, you snob.
Groth: C’mon, talk about schmaltz.
Crumb: Take a look at it closely. Freeze-frame the scenes from the Exodus, where they’re leaving Egypt and look at the detail; it’s marvelous. They did an incredible job on the details in that film.
Groth: Now, you’re talking about the set designs?
Crumb: The set designs, the costumes, the clothing on the people: such a rich variety of people in the Exodus scene. There’s a woman carrying a cage full of chickens on her head. There’re mules pulling a cart with big terracotta urns tied to it: just great detail. Full of rich, very well-thought-out, very well-produced detail, the whole movie. All those sets in Egypt: those aren’t computer generated, that’s all fuckin’ real. The only thing that’s fake is the parting of the Red Sea. It looks very fake. But the avenue of the lion statues, or whatever, sphinx statues, they built all that! It’s incredible. Incredible.
Groth: And do you think all that stuff was accurately recreated?
Crumb: I dunno. I dunno how accurate. [Groth laughs.] Probably as accurate as anybody could do. I thought that the scenes in the poor part of the village were pretty Disneyland-looking, pretty fakey-looking. They show these people that are supposed to be poor sitting at a table. I don’t think poor people had tables then. They sat on the floor. Tables were for rich people only. But still, I studied very closely the costumes of the Egyptian people and used a lot of that for my illustrations. Pete Poplaski was very helpful. He freeze-framed and took hundreds of photos from that movie and a couple other biblical epics, a couple of later ones that he found that are really low-budget and chintzy-looking. Compared to Cecil DeMille they were really chintzy. But even there, it’s a comic book so I thought, “There’s no way to find accurate, historically precise pictures of how people really dressed then. There’s no way to know. These movies, these Hollywood versions — it’ll do, close enough. What the hell, it’s just a comic book.”[Laughs.]
Groth: I found it hard to believe that all that armor that Yul Brynner was wearing could possibly have been accurate. It just looked cheesy and Hollywoodized to me.
Crumb: Sure. Absolutely. But it’s close enough; it works. I’m sure that in many ways, those illustrations I did were not historically accurate. In fact, as I progressed, I became more educated that way and I started to realize as I got toward the end and it was too late to go back and change it, that probably the early semi-nomadic Hebrews and other people who wandered around with their herds of animals and lived in tents — we’re talking 2000 B.C. here, the time of Abraham and Jacob and all those people — I realized toward the end that, oh yeah, they didn’t actually dress like modern desert-dwelling Arabs with those long robes and all that stuff as I depicted them. They probably dressed more like the ancient Aztecs.
Groth: Well, Teubal argues that Genesis is closer to myth than reality. And if that’s the case, then that kind of historical perfection is probably less important.
Crumb: Yeah, that’s right. That’s one of the attitudes that I took on: that historical accuracy is not the most important thing actually.
Groth: You could drive yourself insane trying to get that right.
Crumb: Yeah, you could. It could take forever. I spent a lot of time looking at ancient visual imagery from Egypt and Mesopotamia. And in Mesopotamia there’s not much going all the way back to 2000 B.C.; there’s not much visual stuff. There’s some Sumerian stuff, not much. Sumerian-Akkadian visual imagery is very limited. In all the books, you come across the same images over and over because there’s a limited amount of it. Egyptian, there’s more, but it’s so highly stylized, it’s very hard to extrapolate, to apply it to illustrating scenes of everyday life.
Groth: The drawing in Genesis is so illustrative, it’s so different from what a lot of people expect from you. One thing I wanted to ask you about is your slow evolution toward drawing more realistically. You said, in some interview I read that you “started trying to draw realistically in the late ’70s. I was trying to learn to draw a more realistic style.” And I remembered that you did a lot of proto-Genesis work in the ’80s. You adapted Psychopathia Sexualis in ’85, you drew a Charley Patton story in ’85.
Crumb: I did classic-comic-type things, yeah.
Groth: Right. Jelly Roll Morton …
Crumb: Phillip K. Dick.
Groth: Phillip K. Dick in ’86.
Crumb: I did the Kafka thing in the early ’90s.
Groth: Right, so you seemed to be moving in that direction in fits and starts. You were also doing your more big-foot style and things like Mystic Funnies and Hup, but you were simultaneously working in a more realistic mode. So I assume it wasn’t that discomforting for you to take that to the nth degree.
Crumb: No it wasn’t, but I set myself a very hard task. I didn’t realize how grueling it was gonna be when I said I would do it. It was very hard. No one will ever know. [Laughter.] They won’t ever know how much white-out I used.
Groth: Was it hard to inhibit your more exuberant, cartoony side?
Crumb: No, uh-uh. Not at all. But I just had to learn fuckin’ anatomy, that’s all. [Laughs.]
In the first 50 pages I did, I was correcting anatomy with white-out so often, because I thought, “Oh shit, look at that, I made his arms way too long for the body,” and “Oh my God, look how short I made his legs,” etc., etc.. “Look how awkward that pose is, ridiculous.” So I made a lot of corrections, lots of corrections.
Groth: As literal as you tried to be, you still had to do a lot of interpretation because there’s ambiguity in the work.
Crumb: The text is often very terse. When they say that God was angry at the human race and its evil ways, and He was going to destroy them with a flood, it doesn’t tell you what the evil ways are. It doesn’t tell you what exactly made God so angry. What were people doing that was so bad? Well, I basically made it up. I’d just show some really bad shit, some bad behavior. I just had to think that up on my own. And there’s lots of stuff like that where you just have to fill in the missing bits, and I was very careful about that; I didn’t want to take too much liberty that way. I didn’t want to get on any kind of polemic of my own in those instances, where I had that freedom of interpretation. I usually took the conservative route with that.
Groth: Right. But you obviously had to visualize that, and that does change the reader’s reading experience. Because instead of him —
Crumb: … Imagining his own view of human evil.
Groth: That’s right; you do it for him with your view of human evil.
Crumb: In that one version of Genesis that Pete lent me, that comic-book version illustrated by that Latin American guy, [probably Nestor Redondo] he shows the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, why God is down on Sodom and Gomorrah, which is a big panel, a big splash panel showing a town square with lots of things going on, small figures doing bad things. And what are they doing? They’re all just having fun. There’s like a couple making out, there’s some people gambling, there’s some people that are drunk. So that’s his interpretation of it. He’s probably Catholic, you know? They’re just enjoying themselves. [Laughter.] So my Sodom and Gomorrah, I mean the only way I could show bad stuff is to show people hurting each other: people doing really nasty shit to each other.
Groth: Well now, do you think that does some damage to the text in the sense that it forecloses people’s imagination?
Crumb: That was one criticism that was given in one review. It was … who was that guy?
Groth: I think it might have been Robert Alter’s.
Crumb: It wasn’t Alter. Who was it? This other old guy that —
Groth: Harold Bloom?
Crumb: Harold Bloom! Yeah, him. He said — maybe it was Alter — that it precludes people’s own imagination of the text. Any illustrated text is gonna do that, sorry. Y’know? OK, go back and read the original then if you want to let your own imagination play out. [Groth laughs.] But I think that appropriating the imagination can be carried too far, like with Disney doing Winnie the Pooh or something: It really robs Winnie the Pooh of a lot of its original mood and feeling and charm. Putting the Disney take on something …Or Alice in Wonderland, you know? Although I thought Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was a masterpiece in itself, but if you see that and then go back and read Lewis Carroll [laughs], if you grew up on the Disney version, it’s hard to go to Lewis Carroll. So that can be taken too far, robbing people of their imagination. But comic books? I don’t think so. But I thought about that while I was working on it, too.
Groth: I mean it’s still reductionist. You’re still reducing something that’s open to multiple forms of …
Groth: Imagination, yeah. And thereby restricting the reader’s imagination, in a way.
Crumb: Yes, you are. You’re right.
Groth: And you considered that an acceptable artistic risk.
Crumb: I don’t think that that condemns the job, you know? But it is a downside, yeah. On the other hand, that’s a hard text to get through. To read the text of Genesis all the way through, to have the patience for it, to let your imagination play with it is a hard job, too hard a job for most people. And most people are not going to bother to do that unless they have a scholarly interest or they’re religious (and if they’re religious, then their imagination has already been robbed by the people that pushed their face in it to begin with). There’re things that they’re not allowed to imagine, and if they’re gonna continue to believe in the religious part of it, they have to stop themselves from thinking certain things. So already they’re screwed. [Laughs.] So other than that, there’s not a whole lot of people who are going to, in a disinterested manner, read the Bible and let their imagination go with it. So I don’t feel too bad about robbing people’s imaginations of the pleasure of thinking up their own ways that Sodom and Gomorrah were evil.
(Continued in issue 301.)