Eleanor and I just picked up the new R. Crumb book, his take on the book of Genesis. It’s been rumbling down the pipes for a while (he’s been working on if for five years,) and the early preview pages of Adam and Eve in the Garden didn’t really pique my interest. Those still seem like the weakest bits to me. He hasn’t really found his footing yet, and it’s almost the kind of “R Crumb does the bible” thing that you’d expect – a little too wink-nudge, a little too boringly literal. But the book gains as it goes.

The cover does a disservice to the contents, but I guess Crumb couldn’t work so long on what turned out to be a very serious project, without taking the piss out of it somehow. In this case, with a Zap-style cover image (only missing a couple snarky word balloons) that suggests an cheap, underground-style goof on the bible (that Crumb must have at least considered, judging by some 2003 sketchbook pages in “The R. Crumb Handbook” from a few years back). And I think some people are upset that they didn’t get THAT book. I’ve seen comparisons to insipid old Classics Illustrateds – critics bothered by the straightforwardness of it all, claiming that Crumb didn’t bring much to it. But it’s obvious! What Crumb brought is in every line, every crumbly texture, every furrowed brow and sweat bead (or plewd, if you prefer). His art creates this world of grubby, fleshy, very solid people, a world without a single factory-made good or even a ruled line. And the conceit of “the literal, unedited bible” (and this could very well be a gimmick in many other artists hands!) is vital to this world-creation.

I admire his guts to play it straight. Yes, it’s a succession of grizzled, beardy guys in robes doing weird things in the desert – and that’s important. That’s what the Bible is. And it forced me to think about the very concept of a book as holy – it must have seemed so self-evident to this tribe of wandering herdsmen. And then reexamining the idea of holiness when the book’s been separated from its people and adapted to Christianity; holiness in purely conceptual terms, and why it was so successful. I’m a very modern liberal skeptic type, I know a bunch of obscure facts from the Bible that I could use as conversational zingers (Did you know Jesus had brothers and sisters!) but I’ve never read the damn thing. And stances of boredom and cynicism make for cute jpegs and are very funny in internet debates, but we’re talking about thousands of years of human existence.

Beyond that, this really is an aesthetically beautiful book, a word not often applied to Crumb, I suspect. I wonder if he has any interest in continuing with more books from the Bible – like Eleanor said after she read it (her highest compliment, I think): It’s worth his time.