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Revelations At Angoulême 2010:

Robert Crumb On Genesis

Normally a reluctant public interviewee, Robert Crumb was a surprise guest on Saturday January 30th at the 2010 Angoulême International Comics Festival in France. Acompanied by his wife Aline Kominsky, his agent and his French publisher, Crumb was a bit poorly and his voice was almost hoarse, and yet he came, he stayed and he managed to answer the questions from host Jean-Pierre Mercier and a packed, enthused Salle Nemo with wit and brio, especially about his interpretation of The Book of Genesis. So were there any Christian fundamentalists in the house? At one point, Crumb asked if there was anyone in the audience who believed everything in the Bible, and only one person raised their hand. It was only after about half an hour of interviewer Jean-Pierre Mercier trawling through fairly familiar past territory that we finally got onto the meaty topic of his Biblical opus. So from this point on, here are the main edited revelations of this Q&A session, starting with the genesis of Genesis.

Jean-Pierre Mercier:
Coming to your adaptation of Genesis, did you refer to any version by your prestigious forerunners, for example by Gustave Doré, or did you just put them to one side and try not to be influenced by them?

Robert Crumb:
I looked at everything, mostly for sources of clothing, animals and all that stuff. Doré was almost completely useless as that stuff is so romanticised. And all the old Renaissance stuff was useless, because I couldn’t possibly do the dramatic poses and the robes all unfurling in the wind and all that. So I mostly used other comic book references and stills from Hollywood Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille. Those were actually very useful for source material. Pete Poplaski took hundreds of stills for me from The Ten Commandments and I had them spread out all around me. Because what did things look like in 2000BC really? It’s very hard… I looked at the old Egyptian stuff, that was only semi-useful, and the Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Assyrian was even less so. Because it’s very simple and a slightly later period. What did things really look like among Hebrew herdsmen of 2000BC? They probably looked more like the Aztecs than like modern Bedouins, we don’t know. Hard to say.

That was a big problem, trying to figure out how much to get obsessed about being authentic. I did want to express as much of the truth of this text, the truth of what it was to me, as I possibly could. As I really got into it, to literally illustrate as much as possible what was really going on in this text. Which is hard as sometimes this text is very vague and very terse. It doesn’t give you much, often. Like when they say “God said Sodom and Gomorrah were evil”, it doesn’t say what they were doing that was evil. So in some comic book version I have, they show Sodom and Gomorrah being evil and what is it? They’re people having fun. (Laughter) They’re making out, the women are cavorting, they’re drinking, gambling, they’re having a good time! I didn’t think that was really good enough to show evil.

So I had to show something more brutal, people being attacked and robbed and beaten, and stuff like that. But the text itself says nothing about it, so it is open to interpretation. But I really wanted to limit myself very much in interpreting it too freely. I didn’t want to stick my ego into it to that extent, I wanted to keep me ego at bay. But also the temptation to make any kind of humorous commentary, which often came up, I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t want people to start looking for Crumb’s little humorous asides. I didn’t want to be Will Elder [Mad artist famed for his crazy extra gags] in this thing, you know? I wanted to do it as straight illustration and express the truth of the text as much as possible. Which sometimes is tedious also. But the truth of it was that very dogmatic, priestly language. Like when Abraham was making this deal with the Hittites for this burial ground for his wife and they’re bargaining for 400 shekels for the ground. OK, go ahead and bury your dead. It’s priestly, tedious stuff but even that is interesting in its own way. It expresses an attitude that is so old, and strange, and tribal.

How did you decide to represent God as this big hard man with a long white beard?

Of course, that’s God! Come on, how else would you draw God?

Aline Kominsky from the audience:
Like Charlton Heston!

Yes, Charlton Heston as Moses. That’s what God always looked like in my mind. Once I had this deep, profound dream in the year 2001 and I saw God for a split second and that’s what he looked like.

Your Book of Genesis is not easy but it’s been a big success.

It was never meant to be an easy read, that wasn’t its purpose. When it was originally written, obviously it was a history of people, it was a very sacred thing, it’s not modern entertainment. It’s not Avatar, it’s something else. And translating it into a comic book, it makes it a little easier to read because the text is broken up and the illustrations make it a little more palatable. For modern people, I think that’s one of the useful purposes of it.

Being such a success, did it modify the image you have of the American public?

Yeah, it’s flying off the shelves over there! Because it’s the Christians who are buying it. Who knew?

And Jews are endorsing it.

But so far there’s not been much hostility from the religious people, not yet, nobody’s attacked me personally that way.

No news from The Bible Belt.

Not yet but you know, I don’t hang around in The Bible Belt.

For quite a while you’ve had this image of being Mr. Sixties. Do you get any feedback now, do you hear people say that your public image has changed yet again?

No I haven’t heard that but it wouldn’t really frighten me. That Mr. Sixties image isn’t something I did deliberately, it just gets stuck on me.  So I just tried a little of this, a little of that, try keep being experimental. I always abhorred the idea, dread the idea of being stuck doing Dagwood and Blondie for sixty years, and Mr. Natural for sixty years. I couldn’t do that. Gilbert [Shelton], God love him, with the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers went on and on forever, way past the hippy period but there was always still an audience for it. I just couldn’t see myself doing that, like with Fritz the Cat, I had to kill him off.

JPM opens it up to questions from various members of the audience.

I’m interested in that guy who spoke earlier, there in the yellow shirt. Why you couldn’t stand the book?

It was very tough for me to read it, because I spend so much time for this comic book but I cannot find the sense. I think perhaps you have thought that it would not be a long job, so I take maybe one year to finish and I get so much money for that, so I make that.

Well, once I got started I had to finish it. It was a tremendous about of work and you’re right. But still I put my best into it, I didn’t start hacking it. 

Now that you know how much work it took, would you take it on again?

Good question. You know what? Probably not. (Laughter) If I’d known the amount of work it would be, I probably wouldn’t have started it. Often while I was working on it, I’d ask myself, does this really deserve this amount of labour? I did ask myself that question, on page 105 slaving away, is it really worth it, this text? There’s a lot of dumb, cockamamie things about that text, but it still remained interesting all the way through. You know, why does this book get so much attention? Why is this book still so important in Western civilisation? It’s incredible, the amount of attention this has got, way beyond just because I did it. It has a life of its own. ‘Cause it’s the Bible, it’s very important, it’s a phenomenon unto itself. I had no idea, I didn’t know what to expect, I had no assurance that it would go over this way. Some people said nobody is going to read this, and the Crumb fans won’t like it, and the religious people won’t buy it, so who’s going to buy it?

I see this as a homecoming spiritually for you to meditate on this book that you were raised with and also, like you said, it’s the foundation of Western culture. So you can’t get much deeper in analysing why we’re here and what culture means than this book. But you’ve said that it is not a good moral guide and I wonder have you found another text that is a good moral guide for you?

Well I take a little bit from this one and that one. For me there’s more to be gained from Eastern religious texts than this Western stuff. The Bible is very tribal. I get a little more maybe from Jesus but from the Old Testament, it’s so tribal, it’s us against them. It’s very interesting historically, it’s very different from other pre-Christian Western texts that are all heroic myths, or even going back to Sumerians with Gilgamesh, it’s all about fighting heroes. Gilgamesh is the same story as 24. (Laughter) Fighting kick-ass hero stuff, that same morality. So the ancient Hebrew thing is different, partly because it has that matriarchal thing going on in it, which makes it really special and different, it’s family soap opera, it’s funny, you know. And Abraham says, “God, how am I going to deal with Sarah, what should I do?”, and God says, “Listen to your wife, and do what she says.” That’s unusual. But I don’t really look at Genesis as a religious work. It has no religious message for me.

Paul Gravett:
You say that there’s no message for you in Genesis, but in your commentaries in the book you have addressed the view of women in the Bible and you do choose in some ways to subvert the very patriarchal text with your images, to bring out the suppression of matriarchy. So this is something you want people to get from this book, this interpretation?

Yes, I did a lot of background reading to get as accurate a take on the different stories as I could and that one book on the matriarchal thing was really useful in a lot of places. I even actually altered some of the text according to Savina Teubal who wrote the book Sarah The Priestess: The First Matriarch Of Genesis, and how she interpreted the text, which has always before only been interpreted, deciphered, translated by men, always up until recently. She did a very close examination and compared it to some Babylonian and other early Mesopotamian lists of laws and rules and the place of women and priestesses and marriage rules, which fit precisely with the underlying matriarchal content of some of the Abraham and Jacob stories. Like why are does the story repeat three times about giving their wife to this King, and telling her to tell him you’re my sister? What the hell? So this matriarchal aspect is explained very well by her investigations. I wanted to get that across, I thought that was a good truth to show, not a religious thing, just a historical thing.

Yes, but it is almost a feminist message. Who would have imagined a feminist reading of the Bible coming from you? (Laughter)

Yes, it’s curious. I didn’t expect that when I was starting on it, that just came out as I was working on it, it was very curious. What is the sense behind these stories? All the explanations by the Jewish scholars didn’t add up. God couldn’t have meant that, there’s something missing here. And sure enough. Those stories are so old, it’s like the weather has worn away a lot of the clarity of it, the stories have been handed down so many times, and their context has changed over time, and the original details are lost, which is interesting in itself. So for modern people to take this seriously and literally is crazy. Some critic said, “By illustrating everything, you’ve robbed the reader’s imagination of interpreting it for themselves.” But otherwise people aren’t going to read it, it’s too tedious. Most people who react positively to this comic book version say, “I never would have read it before if it hadn’t been for your comic.” So it’s actually interesting people in reading it.

It seems to me that you almost began this on a whim.

You’re right.

And now people are reading it, and reading the Bible. I wish you’d draw the rest of it!

No! (Laughter)

And then do the other religions while you’re at it! The Koran!

I’ll do the Koran next! (Laughter)

You seem, from a moral point of view, kind of disappointed? Did you expect more?

No, I didn’t expect it to be a book of moral guidance for people, I never expected that of it.

So is it meant to dissuade?

Probably, more a matter of dissuasion than persuasion. But now I’m just going to go back to doing pornography. (Applause) I’ve paid my dues.

Did you find any inspiration from the tribalism in Genesis?

I wouldn’t say that was any source of inspiration. I think there’s a lot of things wrong with tribal thinking. What we really need is some kind of blend, some evolution towards people being able to be part of a tribe while still thinking of the universal brotherhood at the same time. Rather than “We are the select, we are the chosen”, and everybody else, their ass is grass as far as God is concerned. Many times, God tells those guys in Genesis, “I give this land to you. These other people, the Amorites, Canaanites, they’re dirt, they’re nothing.” They’re just to be pushed out. That’s no good. And for people to still live by that, that’s no good. You can’t throw away tribalism completely because people need group identity. And that has to be somewhat local and regional, because climates are different,  every place is different, so that’s a nice thing in certain ways. And I like tribal music. Universal music is not a good idea, it doesn’t work, it’s too bland. So culturally some tribal things are nice, but we also have to have this universal idea too at the same time. So that’s my take on that subject. (Applause)

Posted: February 14, 2010


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