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Thursday, August 4, 2011

R. Crumb Says He Regrets Doing Genesis, a Project Taken Apart in The Comics Journal

Posted By on Thu, Aug 4, 2011 at 1:30 PM

click to enlarge The Comics Journal #301 cover was designed by Eric Skillman.
  • The Comics Journal #301 cover was designed by Eric Skillman.

"Four fucking years later and hundreds of hours of labor, and it barely seems worth it. ... It was a dumb decision. ... I think any good comic illustrator worth his salt could've pretty much done the same thing I did."

So says comics icon R. Crumb of his recent opus, The Book of Genesis Illustrated. This startling revelation is contained in the new issue of The Comics Journal, back in print this week with issue #301 following a two-year hiatus.

Since 1977, The Comics Journal has been a source of insightful essays and interviews covering comics past and present. It's been expanded and redesigned to pay tribute to the medium.

The first 200 (of 624 total) pages are devoted to Crumb's book, which has been a controversy-making machine since it was announced several years ago. Much of the controversy, then and now, reflects confusion over an unexpected marriage of artist and subject. R. Crumb, a former San Franciscan, is known as an iconic cartoonist, the creator of characters Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, and the subject of Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed documentary Crumb. So why would this expressive, sex-crazed, id-driven satirist illustrate such a stodgy -- if important -- text?

click to enlarge From R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis Illustrated
  • From R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis Illustrated

The lengthy interview with Crumb conducted by Journal editor Gary Groth sheds some light on that question. Beyond voicing the regret quoted above, Crumb says that he took the job for the money -- $250,000 -- and that he had no idea it would take so long. Crumb claims that he approached Genesis as a "straight illustration job," and it's worth pointing out that it is decidedly literal -- not satirical -- in tone.

The book has drawn harsh criticism as well as wild acclaim -- samples of which can be found in the "roundtable" discussion of the book following the interview. The roundtable starts with six critical essays from the likes of Christian apologist and comics historian (that's right) Rick Marschall, novelist Alexander Theroux, and certifiable lunatic Kenneth R. Smith (read his essay and disagree, if you can). It's interesting stuff, but it can get a little long-winded and "inside baseball," as you might imagine.*

But wait -- this is only the first portion of The Comics Journal #301. It's crammed with fantastic content. The volume's texture, heft, and text make it the readers' equivalent of a dense slab of chocolate cake.

click to enlarge A Mad fold-in, created by Al Jaffee
  • A Mad fold-in, created by Al Jaffee

Additional highlights include a long conversation between Mad magazine's Al Jaffee (age 90, creator of the famous Mad fold-in) and comic artist/humorist Michael Kupperman. Jaffee is an absolute legend, and he reflects on his career with great clarity.

click to enlarge folded.jpg

Although best known for his work with Mad, Jaffee started his career in the 1930s working for Will Eisner (The Spirit) at the very time that comic books were being born. Jaffee's chat with Kupperman is inspiring, as the artists -- separated by two or three generations -- discuss how they have developed careers that straddle creative and commercial work.

It would be criminal not to call out the interview contained herein with the great graphic journalist Joe Sacco, author of Safe Area Gorazde and Footnotes in Gaza. Sacco does the same thing any foreign correspondent does, spending long periods of time in far-off locales, absorbing the culture, mood, politics, and personalities -- except that he records his findings in comics instead of prose. The insights he offers here on his experiences and methods are invaluable.

All of this, and I've said nothing about the sketchbooks from Jim Woodring and others, the essay about early-20th-century newspaper cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, or the complete reprint of the 1950s-era comics based on Dr. Seuss's Oscar-winning short film Gerald McBoing Boing. In short, Gary Groth and his editorial team have produced a stellar contribution to comics history and scholarship. It is a feast for comics aficionados and neophytes alike.

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* These six essays are followed by six rebuttals, in which the writers respond to their colleagues' essays. Yes, it starts to feel incestuous. But, despite the fact that I find Crumb's vision of Genesis to be a minor work devoid of the personality Crumb is known for, there is still plenty in these critical responses to keep the interested reader engaged in this occasionally backbitey debate.

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Casey Burchby

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