Doing Justice to Crumb


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Crumb's Boswell.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been disappointed by the critical response to Crumb’s Genesis book. It is not so much a matter that the book hasn’t won enough praise, but rather that the critics, with a handful of exceptions, haven’t had the intellectual resources to tackle the challenge presented by Crumb’s handling of the Bible. Ideally, the critics of the book should be well-versed in both comics and Biblical scholarship. Instead, we’ve had many reviews from critics who know about comics but not the Bible (most of the reviews, I’d say) and a few from scholars who are well-versed in the Bible but are clearly unfamiliar with the history and language of comics (Harold Bloom being the prime case). Robert Alter wrote one of the best reviews of the book, but even he was hampered by his inability to fully respond to visual storytelling, leading him to make the theoretically dubious argument that print is inherently more ambiguous than pictures.

The response to Crumb’s Genesis got me thinking about how little good writing there is on Crumb, in part because his oeuvre is so challenging and complex. So I was happy to find a critic who could do justice to Crumb. Will Pritchard, a scholar of 17th and 18th English literature, wrote a superb piece called “New Light on Crumb’s Boswell,” which can be found in the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies  (Volume 42, Number 2, Winter 2009, page 289-307). Pritchard’s essay examines Crumb’s adaptation of Boswell’s London Journal. What makes Pritchard’s essay worth reading is that he’s clearly grounded in both Crumb and Boswell (although I suspect he knew Boswell before he knew Crumb). The essay looks at how Crumb selected passages and scenes from the journal and re-shaped them in the classic Crumbian style while also borrowing from 18th century visual sources (Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds). In the course of the article, Pritchard draws some telling parallels between Crumb and Boswell (which makes Crumb’s story a form of disguised autobiography) and also comments on the larger tradition of comics adapting classic works (the unfashionable Classics Illustrated tradition that Crumb has repeatedly revisted).

Pritchard’s essay is a strong piece of work, and I regret that it’s not available online. Readers who have access to a university library should look it up. In the meantime, here is an excerpt:


Despite this severe abridgment, Crumb manages to adumbrate the London Journal’s two main plot lines: Boswell’s affair with the actress he calls “Louisa” and the beginnings of his friendship with Samuel Johnson. More importantly, as Boswell does in his great “Flemish picture” of Johnson, Crumb manages both to show his subject as he was and to remake him in his own image. For Crumb, Boswell is both a figure of fun and a mirror at which he cannot quite bear to look. He places Boswell at some distance, and then repeatedly collapses that distance; portrait continually verges on self-portrait.
The following discussion has three sections, each of which considers Crumb’s Boswell in relation to a different genre. The first is autobiography, the genre to which Boswell’s original text might be said to belong. The twist here is that Crumb’s Boswell comic is both an aspect of his own autobiography and a graphic adaptation of Boswell’s: a portrait of the artist as well as of his ostensible subject. Crumb was engaged at this time in what D. K. Holm has termed “confessionalism by other means”; Crumb, he writes, sought to “reveal facets of his changing personality . . . under the guise of creating objective accounts of other artists.” The elements of autobiographical self-disclosure in the Boswell comic, however, stand in an uncertain relation to a second genre: satire. While Crumb does not mock Boswell as overtly as Rowlandson does, his overall effect is decidedly satiric. He depicts Boswell (and, implicitly, himself) with an ironic distance and (self-)deprecation that Boswell mostly lacks. Crumb shows us a Boswell who is lecherous, buffoonish, and self-deceived. His comic resembles one of Hogarth’s “Progress” series: an unsparing, third-person rendering of a young man’s misadventures in London. Blending autobiography and satire, first- and third-person perspectives, Crumb’s comic complicates our view of Boswell. Boswell invites us to see him; Crumb invites us to see through him—”him” being both Boswell and Crumb himself.

I should add that before reading this essay I wasn’t familiar with Will Pritchard’s work, aside from an essay he wrote in a festschrift devoted to his father William H. Pritchard (whose own fine literary criticism has been a mainstay of The Hudson Review for decades). But after reading his Crumb piece I did find one little fact that might explain why Will Pritchard turned his attention to Crumb. Pritchard is the author of Outward Appearances: The Female Exterior In Restoration London (2008). Crumb’s been known for his own observations on female exteriors.

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9 Responses to “Doing Justice to Crumb”
  1. Alan Choate says:

    I thought Alter’s essay was illuminating in its own right but damaged by a certain nervousness over having his own translation used (“does this mean people will think they don’t need to read my book?”) and some possible professional jealousy. Look at Alter’s Five Books of Moses and you’ll see that his (valuable) footnotes take up most of any given page. He criticizes Crumb for doing the same job he does: interpreting and expanding on the ancient, densely packed, cryptic original.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    @Alan Choate. I think you’re right. I have an essay on Crumb’s Genesis in the upcoming Comics Journal and I take up this very point, that Crumb was performing exegesis through his adaptation and thus is part of a long tradition of Biblical commentary.

  3. brad mackay says:

    Personally, i couldn’t get past his deployment of “adumbrate.” I’ve been saying it over and over again in my head.

  4. nicole rudick says:

    I also found an odd tone in Alter’s essay, which wasn’t helped by his persnickety declaration at the very beginning that Crumb’s cover copy, “The first book of the Bible graphically depicted,” was confusing. He seemed to want to find fault with the book. I think I would have enjoyed the essay more had he been able to discuss with some authority its interpretation in comic-book form. In all fairness, though, how may people are well-versed in Biblical scholarship AND Crumb? Other than you, Jeet, which is precisely why I asked you to review it in Bookforum, and that’s also why that review, for my money, is among the best critical reviews of the book. I’m looking forward to your CJ piece.

  5. simon says:

    “upcoming Comics journal” or a new print issue of the journal?

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    @Nicole Rudick. Thanks for the kind words.
    @simon. It’ll be in the upcoming print issue of the Journal, #301.

  7. Jonathan Bass says:

    There’s an earlier essay on Crumb’s Boswell by Walter Pape, published in a collection called “Icons – Texts – Iconotexts” edited by Peter Wagner (de Gruyter, 1995). Much of the essay can be previewed via Google Books.

    It’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, Pape’s interested in processes of abbreviation — both in Crumb’s adaptation and as a feature of comics in general.

    Which focus may be what Pritchard is alluding to with his posing “adumbrate” and “abridgment” so near to each other in the same sentence.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    Pritchard refers to Pape’s essay and builds on it, so your guess is right.

  9. […] let’s be fair. Remember what inspired this critique: some remarks that Crumb’s achievement was beyond most critics’ resources, as it demanded Biblical and […]

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