Like a lot of a kids who grew up during the 70s and 80s, I read Robert Crumb’s comics for the tits. The women he drew, with their badunkadunk asses and nipples the size of baby fists, were somehow more titillating than the pictures of actual flesh-and-blood women published in nudie magazines. And while there may’ve been better-written and more sharply satirical comics, only Crumb could draw the sexual exploits of an anthropomorphic cat and make it crackle with genuine eroticism.
Crumb’s latest collection, The Book of Genesis Illustrated, is a literal rendering of that Old Testament classic—including the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and all the incest high jinks you half-remember from Bible class. In true Crumb form, there are plenty of creepily sexy moments, like Onan diddling his brother’s wife, Lot getting drunk-raped by his own daughters, and Judah being tricked into sleeping with his daughter-in-law. It’s also got lots of gore and bloody action, from the bobbing corpses during the Great Flood to the perverts burned alive in Sodom. The stories are often so engaging, it’s easy to forget that they’re technically (if you believe the religiously devout) the Word of God. Not bad for a guy whose last collaboration was with Charles Bukowski.
I called the 66-year-old comic legend at his home in the south of France. In a weird coincidence, our conversation took place while we were both in the middle of lightning storms, despite being on separate corners of the globe. At one point, Crumb was interrupted by a roar of thunder that he felt was a little too close for comfort. When I suggested that this might be a message from God—a warning shot, if you will, to express his displeasure—Crumb didn’t seem all that worried. “Watch your step, dude,” he said, in a sneering imitation of the Creator. “Don’t get too cocky.” And then he burst into laughter, as only somebody who isn’t particularly concerned with the prospect of eternal damnation could.
Scroll through for an exclusive excerpt from The Book of Genesis Illustrated.
Eric Spitznagel: I consider myself an agnostic, but I was still fascinated by this book. I read the entire thing cover to cover in one sitting. Did you trick me into reading the Bible?
Robert Crumb: Well, you don’t have to be a Fundamentalist Christian to be interested in the Bible. It’s really a fascinating mythology. Genesis in particular is really interesting to me. These books weren’t buried and forgotten and then dug up later by some archaeologists, like the myths of other ancient peoples. They’ve been in continuous use. The scrolls have been kept and studied by the Hebrew people for thousands of years, continuously. It contains this morality that’s so lurid, and it’s set in an ancient world that’s so grindingly primitive and brutal. It lends itself so well to lurid comic-book types of illustrations. It just invited it. And in a way, it’s kind of an audacious thing to do.
How is it audacious?
By showing things that they think shouldn’t be shown. For Orthodox Jews, the image of God is a profane thing. They think all that Catholic imagery, all those images of God, are just heathenistic. It’s like with the Muslims, who say you’re not allowed to show Muhammad. The visual image for those people is blasphemous. I’m sure I’m gonna lose all of them right away.
Your U.K. publisher predicted that this book will provoke the religious right. Have the death threats started to roll in yet?
(Laughs.) Not yet, no.
Do you expect them?
I really don’t. My publisher said that without even reading the book. He also said that I’d done a “scandalous satire” of the Bible. And that word “scandalous” got picked up and reprinted everywhere. I called my agent yesterday and complained about it. I said, “You’ve got to stop them from calling it a ‘scandalous satire.’ That’s not what it is, and it wasn’t my intention at all. They got it wrong.” She got back to me and said, “Yeah, they apologized. They hadn’t even read the book when they wrote that.”
It might not be intended as a satire, but you don’t have much control over whether it’s considered scandalous. The Bible has a funny way of making people crazy. It’s very loaded.
It is loaded, yeah. It’s very, very loaded. It’s ridiculously loaded. When you read it, you think, “It’s absurd that people kill each other over these texts. And that people are fighting over some miserable piece of earth because of this text.” It’s just sad and tragic.
Your book comes with the warning: “Adult supervision recommended for minors.” Was that meant as sarcasm?
Not at all. That was my idea. And when I told the publishers about it, their first thought was, “Oh boy, that’s great, the kids will really want to read it now.”
That’s probably true. Bible stories aimed at kids tend to leave out the dirty parts.
Yeah, they gloss over it. When you’re a kid, they don’t inform you that Lot has sex with his daughters. Or that Judas slept with his daughter-in-law. Those parts are just glossed over. In illustrating everything and every word, everything is brought equally to the surface. The stories about incest have the same importance as the more famous stories of Noah and the Flood or the Tower of Babel or Adam and Eve or whatever. I think that’s the most significant thing about making a comic book out of Genesis. Everything is illuminated.
Isn’t it kinda ironic that you need to include a warning about the Bible to protect the very people who consider it a sacred text?
It is a little ironic, yeah. (Laughs.) But pictures have a lot more power than text. Text is just a bunch of little symbols. You have to actually read it and imagine it, and even that can be censored. With pictures, it’s a lot more immediate.
Would you use the adjective “God-fearing” to describe yourself?
(Laughs.) I wouldn’t.
How about “God-believing”?
Well, you called yourself an agnostic. I would call myself a Gnostic. Which means, I’m interested in pursuing and understanding the spiritual nature of things. A Gnostic is somebody seeking knowledge of that aspect of reality. That’s more of an Eastern idea, like Buddhism.
When was the last time you set foot in a church?
I was raised Catholic and I went to church until I was 16. I went through a phase when I was 15 of being quite fanatically Catholic. I was going to church a lot, receiving communion, saying the Rosary, praying, all that stuff. But when I started scrutinizing it, it just fell apart so quickly. I asked the local priest, an Irish priest named Father Donahie, some questions that angered him so much, he came right at me with his fist. (Laughs.) I wasn’t being rude, I was just politely asking about some of my doubts. Obviously he wasn’t a thinking man. And I suddenly realized, “Oh, I get it. The people who hold these ranks in the church and pretend or presume to be the intermediator between us and God actually haven’t thought this thing out very well.” That was a big eye-opener for me.
It’s funny, you don’t meet a lot of former Catholics who aren’t bitter. They’re never like, “Y’know, it just wasn’t for me.”
I received an intense Roman Catholic brain-washing when I was a small child in Catholic school. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do to a child. It might still have some subconscious hold on me. But consciously and intellectually, I’ve worked my way through that a long time ago.
What do you think of somebody like Bill Maher, who’s been very vocal about his disgust with organized religion?
I saw that documentary he did, Religulous or something. Although some parts of the movie were really funny, I thought he was a little too contemptuous. Remember the part where he was talking to the guy dressed like Jesus? I thought the guy dressed like Jesus had some good points! And Bill Maher just sounded like a jerk. He dismissed all spirituality in a way that I just don’t like. I also don’t like it when people completely dismiss the idea of U.F.O.’s as totally nuts. I think that whole phenomenon is something that should be seriously examined. We don’t really know, so don’t just presume it’s some nutty delusion.
Do the stories in Genesis seem more silly or less silly than before you took such a long hard look at them?
When you study these stories really closely, you realize that they don’t make a lot of sense. They’re filled with contradictions. When Cain gets condemned by God, he goes out and finds a city. But wait a minute, isn’t Cain part of the first generation of Adam and Eve? How the hell did he find a city? Who are these people who started a city? I guess it could be the later offspring of Adam and Eve, but they’d need to have spread out and multiplied quite rapidly for Cain to have found a city.
I guess plot holes weren’t such a big deal when the Old Testament was being written.
When they originally told those stories, that wasn’t how their minds worked. They weren’t as nitpicky as we are. The American Indians have these great creation stories about the origins of the earth, and they don’t hold up to a lot of questions. They had this one great story about the rabbit and the fox who were living in the void and they decided they wanted some land to stand on so blah blah blah. The anthropologist hears this and asks, “Well, where did the rabbit and the fox come from?” And the Indian says, “I don’t know, doc. Do you want to hear the fucking story or not?”
I was a little surprised by how tame some of your illustrations were for The Book of Genesis. A lot of the sex was done in shadow. Was that a conscious attempt to tone yourself down?
I didn’t want to show sex organs, cause then the thing becomes X-rated and it limits the sales. I’ve done my share of explicit sexual drawings, as anybody who knows my work can certainly attest. I just decided it wasn’t really necessary.
That must’ve been challenging. There’s so much rampant fucking going on in Genesis.
It could be difficult. I wondered how I was going to show Onan spilling his seed. Without, you know, actually showing him jerking off. I consulted with my wife about that, and she said, “Oh, just show him sideways. You don’t have to show him actually holding his dick or anything.”
What about Lot and his daughters? How did you choreograph that so it didn’t look like something out of Zap?
Well, obviously Lot was drunk, so that probably meant that his daughters had to be on top. If he’s drunk and he doesn’t know what’s going on, he couldn’t be taking a very active part. They probably had to work him up before they could even get it in.
These aren’t things that a casual reader of the Bible would ever think about. They’re not wondering, “Well, obviously Lot didn’t fuck his daughters doggystyle.”
(Laughs.) I guess not, no.
Was there ever a temptation to slip in something personal, maybe include a small visual joke as a wink to your readers?
Yeah, I was certainly tempted by that. But I decided not to do it. Cause I thought that would distract people from the meaning of the text. And then they’d just read the book looking for these little bits of hidden visual humor. I did put one little joke in towards the beginning. I had a panel where the serpent was talking to Eve and he was kinda touching her nipple. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. It doesn’t say anything like that in the text, so I decided to go back and just take it out. It felt like Froggy the Gremlin syndrome, where a guy is giving a serious talk and Froggy is back there making jokes and innuendos. The guy up front is actually the main show, and Froggy is distracting from it with his jokes and asides. I decided that no, I’m not going to do that.
But you still managed to keep in some personal touches. Your female characters all had a little junk in their trunk.
Yeah, I just can’t help that. I can’t help but draw women that way. I could’ve tried to restrain myself and draw a bunch of skinny, bony women. But I had to give myself some pleasure in the drawing. I think there were one or two skinny women in there.
There were? I must’ve missed them.
I think Hagar the slave girl isn’t that voluptuous. But then again, she’s Egyptian.
Egyptian women aren’t bootylicious?
Well, when you look at those wall paintings in the pyramids, they’re always portrayed as having trim physiques, almost like swimmer bodies. But I’m sure that’s a fiction. I’m sure they didn’t all look like that.
I expected your version of God to be a little more radical. He looks like a cross between Gandalf and a Michelangelo painting.
Yeah, I guess so. I had several different approaches to making God. One was a tall thin man with no beard and another was a young looking man with long straight hair that looked more like an angel than a god. He had pupil-less eyes that were beaming light. But I decided to go with the standard, severe patriarchal God. It just felt like the right choice. That just seems to be what the God of Genesis is all about. He’s older than the oldest patriarch.
For at least the first half of the book, God isn’t just some ethereal, booming voice in the sky. He’s a regular guy, just hanging out with his creations and shootin’ the shit.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. When Adam and Eve are hiding from him, he’s walking around in the Garden of Eden, just enjoying the evening breeze. He’s very anthropomorphic.
My favorite part is when he meets up with Abraham just outside of Sodom.
I love that part too. He shows up at Abraham’s campsite with these other two guys, these messengers or angels or whatever they are, and Abraham doesn’t even recognize him as anything special. And then he reveals that he’s the Lord.
He’s talking about Sodom and Gomorrah, and he basically says, “I better go down there and check it out.”
(Laughs.) That’s right. It’s odd, it’s very odd.
He’s an all-seeing, all-knowing entity who apparently isn’t entirely sure what’s going on in that city a few miles away.
It doesn’t make much sense. But he gets more and more distant as you get towards the end of Genesis. He talks intimately with Abraham, and he talks with Noah, but I don’t think Joseph ever talks directly to God, does he?
I don’t think so. But that may be because Joseph is always crying.
He is something of a weeper.
Mark Twain once speculated that the God of Genesis was obsessive-compulsive. Do you think God might have some psychological problems?
Probably, yeah. There’s lot of evidence to suggest that he does. Look at something like the story of Noah and the Flood. God creates this rainbow and says it’s a sign to himself that he’ll never again destroy the human race by flooding. When I read that, I thought, “Wow, God is actually crazy.” He has to find a way to remind himself not to kill everybody again. That’s crazy behavior.
The divine creator shouldn’t be saying: “Note to self: Don’t wipe out all of humanity on a whim.”
But then again, if God wants to be irrational, that’s his business. Rationality is a human concept. Consistency and being reasonable, those are all human concepts, and we can’t impose those on the creator. He can be as irrational and inconsistent and whimsical as he damn well pleases. He wants to destroy us in a moment with a snap of his fingers, that’s his business. We can’t say, “God, you shouldn’t do that.” We’ve broken his heart. It’s like having a kid and the kid turns out bad. What are you going to do?
Well, for one thing, you probably shouldn’t drown him or burn down his room.
Yeah, but in an odd way, the God of Genesis is quite benevolent and passionate. There’s no reason on earth why he has to allow us to continue existing when he sees how disgustingly we behave. If I was God, I might do it too. “O.K., you’re all out of here. It’s over, forget it.” You don’t want to disown the kid, because you still love him. There’s some hope that he’ll actually make something of himself.
I always thought that the whole Garden of Eden banishment thing was a pretty huge overreaction on God’s part.
(Laughs.) Kind of, yeah. But as I said, he created it. If the slightest thing about it displeases him, it’s his prerogative to destroy the whole thing or send them packing. “Get the fuck out. You’re stupid, you’re worthless. You’d rather listen to the serpent than me? O.K., fine, fuck you, get out of here. Beat it. Go. You’re going to have pain in childbirth because you’re just too stupid to understand what you had here.” (Laughs.) Sometimes you learn the hard way.
I gotta take the contrary opinion. Original sin can kiss my ass. Is there any reasonable response to the God of Genesis other than “Fuck you, Dad”?
Maybe. But if you created it, would you want some fuck-ups like Adam and Eve hanging around? No, you wouldn’t. You created a perfect place, and a fucking serpent was able to trick what you thought were the highest of your creations. And you gave them free will! That’s what makes Adam and Eve such a profound story with so many layers of meaning. The implications of free will are still with us today. That question of the evolution of our autonomous selves, our autonomous intelligence and what we do with it. It’s still with us.
If you were able to offer God some constructive criticism, what would it be?
Boy, that’s a good question. Well, the word that comes up all the time in the Gnostic spiritual search is why. Why are you putting us through this game and making us suffer? Why are we going through this? Is it just for the excitement of it? Are we just particles of God, some small speck of a greater force of knowledge and understanding in the universe that wanted to hide from itself, that wanted to trick itself and make itself find itself again by creating a barrier that we had to penetrate back through to find our way back? Is that what it’s about?
Whoa. I’m pretty sure you’ve just blown God’s mind.
(Laughs.) I hope not. It’d be depressing if it was that easy.
Do you believe in divine intervention? Is there some kind of intelligent design to the universe?
As a Gnostic, yeah, I would say there’s a bigger design. Sometimes you have a split-second glimpses of it. For a second you catch the greater meaning, but then it’s lost.
So you think God reveals himself in the details? You’re not necessarily looking for a burning bush?
Hey, if a burning bush started talking to me, I would fucking listen, dude. If that happened to me, I would listen as carefully as I could.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com