R. Crumb, the bespectacled, gray-bearded artist who is regarded around the world as granddaddy of underground comics, has taken on what might be his biggest subject ever: the first book of the Bible.
Crumb's new comic, The Book of Genesis Illustrated, contains all 50 chapters of Genesis and comes with a warning on its cover: "Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors."
The warning is not just because of the relentless sex that peppers the story, but also, as Crumb explained at a press conference in Paris, because of the "violence" and "nastiness" of the story:
"[It's about] ruling elites, victimizing people in sadistic ways, which is human beings at their nastiest. They have power over others, and they derive pleasure from inflecting pain on other humans. That's about as nasty as people get," he said.
French publisher Jean-Luc Fromental, who's been a Crumb fan since he was a kid, says that at first he couldn't imagine what Crumb would do with the Bible.
"To me, only way Crumb could get to this was through blasphemy," he says. "Gradually the pages came in, and [I] understood the nature of what he was trying to do, which is to reread the whole text from a humanistic point of view without changing a single word, without adding a single written commentary to the whole thing, but using only his graphic art."
Crumb spent four years working up his illustrations, during which time he studied both ancient and modern translations of Genesis and also researched parallel Babylonian and Sumerian myths. But as fellow cartoonist and French resident Gilbert Shelton sees it, the brilliance of Crumb's Genesis is in the art.
"His technique is rich, rich as any draftsman I know," says Shelton. "[The images are] just fascinating in their clarity. He's an artist's artist."
The characters in The Book of Genesis Illustrated are all vintage Crumb: women with the breasts and hips of a young Sophia Loren; men who are hairy, hungry animals. (Check out an excerpt of the first book, in which God creates the universe.)
During an hour-and-a-half press conference about the book, Crumb was repeatedly questioned about his spiritual views and his belief in the Bible. A woman from Finland asked the artist if he believes in God.
"I'm a Gnostic — someone who seeks knowledge of God," Crumb responded. "There's some force that rules our destiny: This is obvious. But what it is — this is a mystery we cannot possibly understand."
Taking the Bible as a sacred truth, however, is another matter: "The idea that people for a couple thousand years have taken this so seriously seems completely insane and crazy, totally nuts. But the human race is crazy if nothing else," Crumb said.
Crazy story, perhaps, but the initial print run exceeds 100,000 books around the world — a figure unheard of in comic-book land.