Cartoonist turns religious text into graphic novel

In addition to the many interpretations of the Bible already available, it is now available in comic book form.

But this isn’t a cheesy, stick-figure comic book. Instead, it’s a graphic novel created by the hands of famous underground comic book artist R. Crumb, and it comes with a warning sticker on its cover: “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors.”

In the beginning · Underground comic book artist R. Crumb’s latest project — The Book of Genesis Illustrated, a word-for-word visual interpretation of the first book of the Bible — is on display until Feb. 7. - Photos courtesy of R. Crumb

Crumb spent nearly five years researching, drawing and perfecting his latest creation, The Book of Genesis Illustrated — the pages of which are on display at the Hammer Museum until Feb. 7 — but the real question: Why?

What prompted Crumb — a man known for his outrageous and often vulgar comics — to draw every scene, word for word, from the first book of the Bible?

In the posted introduction to the exhibit, “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis,” Crumb writes that he does not believe the Bible to be inspired by God, but instead by man. And that is what “The Book of Genesis” is about — man.

Too often the Bible is given an innocent veneer, but “The Book of Genesis” is full of raw and scandalous stories. The people it follows experienced serious issues and real temptations. And they were rugged, dirty and naked. With this perspective, then, it seems — after taking into consideration the nature of his past work — that Crumb might be the only artist appropriate for a project like this.

Because of the explicit nudity present throughout most of his repertoire, Crumb’s work could be considered controversial, but, when put in the context of the Bible, it becomes less offensive and more realistic than ever.

The exhibit is simply each page of his illustrated “Book of Genesis” laid out in chronological order in a round circle. Crumb made the book first and then decided to display it within the museum. The Hammer was able to maintain the integrity of the work’s intended storybook feel.

Mounted in simple black frames, the pages hang at eye level and then continue onto the inner circle of the exhibit. It is a simplistic setup, but still gives off the overwhelming sense of being in a whirlwind, as if the God who created the universe in Crumb’s introduction had also created the exhibit design.

In this setting, the images are impossible to ignore — you truly become immersed in the world of Genesis as the pages line every wall and the stories seem to jump out at you.

Crumb’s interpretations make the Bible real. There isn’t a distance between the viewer and the page — there is a connection, one that makes a dense and heavily religious subject easy to understand and more enjoyable.

In addition to the whirlpool of comic book pages, the exhibit takes Crumb’s project one step further. Presumably to prove the validity of his illustrations — and possibly to fend off accusations that he is a nudity-obsessed pervert — the museum also displayed the research Crumb conducted on biblical times and several other comic book bibles, all opened to the chapter of Genesis.

Crumb compares these comic book bibles and criticizes them for claiming to be the “word of God.” He points out that these bibles ad lib, paraphrase and add conversations between the characters while he took the bible word for word and added more historically accurate and ethnic-looking pictures.

These comparisons are not to say that his is more “the word of God” than the other, but to raise the question: When is something the “word of God” and when is it the word of man?

To his credit, Crumb’s work prompts much discussion on what is blasphemous, and, regardless of his intentions, his illustrated “Book of Genesis” forces viewers to confront both religious and social taboos that are ordinarily avoided.

Crumb’s work is both thought-provoking and entertaining, and the exhibit is worth going to see simply for the impeccable artistic skills that has made him such an infamous figure in the art world.

R. Crumb has been a master of the comic book arts for more than half a century, and to see his work for free in a museum is a rare opportunity. Definitely take advantage.