Saturday, October 24, 2009

I’ve futzed around with this piece after initially publishing it, retaining the ideas but rearranging and clarifying a bit, I hope. Anyhow, I normally try (though not that hard) to avoid writing about press, but I must note a few things about David Hajdu’s review of Crumb’s Genesis in the NY Times Book Review. Look, I’m not cynical enough to dismiss the Times, as many do, as stodgy or useless, etc. Instead, I’m somehow naive enough to still believe in it as an institution that has tremendous resources and can produce great work. Nevertheless, I also realize that (and sort of understand, from a logistical point of view) irresponsible or ill-informed writers like Hajdu slip by when writing about a somewhat specialized topic. After all, this stuff matters most to those of us who take it as a primary subject. But in the spirit of trying to improve the discourse around comics, Hajdu should be addressed. Especially because again and again Hajdu pops up with some ill-formed opinion or straight up error (and we at Comics Comics, like groundhogs, pop up and object like the big fucking nerds we are). So, onto the review. In a somewhat positive, though oddly condescending piece, Hajdu commits a number of blunders. We’ll start with this doozy:

“The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” brags a banner on the cover. This is scarcely the first time the Bible has been adapted to comics pages, of course. In the first decade of the comic-book business, the man who claimed to have invented the medium, M. C. Gaines, founded a whole company on a line of ‘Picture Stories From the Bible.’ (When he died suddenly, his young son, William M. Gaines, inherited the company, and in a 20th-century case study in the enduring vagaries of primogeniture, the son discontinued the Bible strips and started publishing lurid, spicy crime and horror comics.)

Given that Hajdu wrote a book (The Ten Cent Plague) involving those exact “lurid” comics, he should also know that Crumb’s “brag” on the cover is a knowing nod to his medium. As with the works inside, Crumb’s cover text and design is a consciously mid-century comics stance. That is, like Crumb’s childhood comics, the cover is garish and loud, and interior pages rely on established cultural/visual types and straightforward storytelling in the Stanley/Barks vein. It’s a brilliant, thoroughly subversive choice that works both on a literal and meta level, commenting on the history and form of comics-the-medium. And further, as Hajdu well knows, Bill Gaines sought to produce, yes, sensationalist comics, but he also instituted the most rigorous set of standards yet (and in the case of crime and horror comics, maybe ever) imposed on comic books. He aimed for literary quality as he understood it. Hardly just the “lurid, spicy” comics of Hajdu’s description, though he was obviously trying to make a cocktail party smarty pants comment about fathers and sons, blah blah). And yes, the Bible has been in truncated comics form many many times. But as Hajdu also knows, that is hardly Crumb’s point. His task was a word-for-word adaptation.

And then there is this classic:

At points, Crumb withholds exactly the kind of graphic details he built a career on revealing: In an image of circumcision, he shows us two splatters of blood, rather than the actual penis being cut. Onan practices coitus interruptus turned away from us. This book, I believe, is the first thing by Crumb ever published without a single image of flying sperm or a sharp blade approaching male genitalia.

Besides the sheer idiocy of saying Crumb “built a career” (whatever that means in an underground context) on anything besides drawing exactly what he needed to draw, the facts are simply wrong. Crumb has been making “clean” comics right alongside his “dirty” stuff for over 30 years now: American Splendor; the blues biographies; the P.K. Dick biography; the Kafka book; right up to his recent masterful memoir of his brother Charles. This kinda knowledge is not the area of specialists — it’s the stuff of and Wikipedia. Crumb doesn’t need me to defend him (oy vey) but his efforts deserve better than this utterly wrong characterization. It is all the stranger since Hajdu has, in fact, interviewed Crumb himself and would have to be willfully and then persistently ignorant not to know better.

But wait, there’s more:

For all its narrative potency and raw beauty, Crumb’s “Book of Genesis” is missing something that just does not interest its illustrator: a sense of the sacred. What Genesis demonstrates in dramatic terms are beliefs in an orderly universe and the godlike nature of man. Crumb, a fearless anarchist and proud cynic, clearly believes in other things, and to hold those beliefs — they are kinds of beliefs, too — is his prerogative.

This seems an especially disingenuous statement. First, Hajdu’s interpretation of Genesis is strictly that of a believer — I can’t see how, as an irreligious reader, you come away with that interpretation. I mean, there are two conflicting accounts of creation. Not exactly orderly. Also, Crumb is not, as far as I know, an anarchist, but he is, by his own account, spiritual. Which is to say, Crumb seems to be exploring the sacred. Maybe not Hajdu’s sacred, but sacred nonetheless. A quick scan of Crumb’s statements (From Vanity Fair, just one Google search away: “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”) on the matter will give you that much.

Anyhow, one wonders why an author would persist in writing about a subject he clearly disdains and isn’t interested in actually learning about, but I guess that’s between Hajdu and his own idea of the sacred. Next post I’ll be happy, I promise.

[UPDATE: I realize it seems odd/rash to pick on this one piece of writing out of the avalanche of material devoted to Crumb’s Genesis, but it strikes me so wrong headed that it just needed to be addressed. If nothing else, given the talk of mature comics criticism, etc., it seems important to me to address writing that, whatever else I might say about it, aims for seriousness, and is generated by someone who claims a certain authority in the field.]

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23 Responses to “Cynical/Naive”
  1. Chris Mautner says:

    I was willing to give Hadju at least a little benefit of the doubt (a better way to write that second quote would have been to say it's the first time when faced with the opportunity for full frontal nudity that he turns away) until that last quote. Crumb as anarchist? Um, I don't think so. Not even in his early Zap years. That's a real lazy choice of words.

    I still like Ten Cent Plague though.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well it is a crummy review, but its always interesting to read reviews of Crumb et al outside the comix 'world' – at least they don't necessarily have the de rigeur ecstatic praise you find in the usual circles.

    Just got the book yesterday. As someone who can barely draw the fruit bowl without Crumb's influence sneaking in, I have to say I'm vaguely disappointed by it. To early to quite know why, but…

    It's just not 'Crumb' enough. The characterisation seems a bit flat. Too pedestrian. It does seem to 'drag' (and yeah, I've read the original). I don't think longer forms are Crumb's forte. And I'm not looking for riotous laffs from the old testament, but it does seem determinedly humorless and unemotional to the point of feeling redundant.


  3. Anonymous says:

    ps. Does anyone remember this?

    Kim Deitch's Book of Job had a helluva lot more humour and character than Crumb's Genesis, while being pretty respectful of the text.

    But maybe I'll change my mind sometime soon.

    W. Wedge

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I'm not a fan of Hadju's especially. That quote of Crumb's about gnosticism is as ridiculously pompous and irritatingly meaningless as anything you quote from the review, though.

  5. A.B. says:

    Hadju's criticism is symptomatic of the problem with most criticism, in that it is concerned with the externalities surrounding the work, instead of the thing in itself. It's an article about daddy issues, traditions in comics, and religious differences vaguely orbiting Crumb's book. The rhetoric is certainly obnoxious, but empty persuasion has to be phrased like that in order to make anyone read it.

    And I didn't particularly like Crumb's take on Genesis either.

  6. Anonymous says:

    oooh Why you be hatin' so much on Hadju, mang? I'm thinkin' you were ticked off and dismissive of him as a 'believer' and used that as an excuse to nit-pick everything else he said. Eh? When was the last time you interviewed Crumb? Eh?! I keed, I keed.

  7. Travis McGee says:

    To be honest, this just struck me as the usual potboiler review fare; admittedly the sweeping but inaccurate rhetorical flourishes are fairly annoying, but hardly worth having an apoplectic fit over.

    As to your qualifying update – I guess you could regard the piece as representative of certain inadequacies in the field of comics criticism … it reminds me a little of the polemic Ng Suat Tong had over at the Hooded Utilitarian recently about the lamentable state of comics criticism. My general feeling is that that you'll still see these reviews in high-profile avenues for a while yet. Despite all the excitement we've had in the past decade or so with the legitimization of the medium as serious 'art' etc, comics still don't have the same sort of culture cachet as novels and other art forms and there tends to be a lot of misunderstanding on the part of enthusiastic but undereducated reviewers like Hadju. I guess I tend to be fairly patient; as time progresses, and especially as 'naturalized' younger comics readers of today mature in thought, I'm hopeful that you'll see fewer reviews of this kind(then again, railing against the idiocies of reviewers is dignified with centuries of practice, so some things never change…).

  8. Anonymous says:

    Another point about the 'outsider' critics –

    In their favour, when they do review 'prestige' comix, they don't tip-toe around as much as 'inside' critics do on the (frequently embarassing) pretentions or uglier aspects of comix 'heroes' – like the obsessive, bullying misogyny of the underground generation or Crumb's (weakly justified) racism – itself an unsavoury influence on those that followed him, like too many other 'Weirdo' contributors.

    Even Wertham was sensitive to the overt sexism and racism of (children's) comics, despite his 'McCarthyite' image (sorry – only insular fanboys can't see that 90% of E.C. was trash).

    Perhaps the universal acclaim that the Hernandez Bros. have got in mainstream circles since the early 80s is that they have been able to communicate (openly and beautifully) to an audience outside fanboy circles, while also being to true to the form.

    On a side note – am I alone in thinking that comics creators (of either 'side') have a higher degree of mystical pretensions than other artists? What's the connection?


  9. Noah Berlatsky says:

    The idea that this sort of thing will pass as comics "mature" seems wishful thinking at best. Hajdu's review of Beyonce's last album was a lot more irritating — and, yeah, a lot more ignorant in numerous ways — than his take on Crumb. (Of course, I like Beyonce's art more than I like Crumb's art, so maybe I took it more personally.) In any case, people say dumb stuff (translated as "stuff I don't agree with") about every art form almost constantly. Pointing it out is reasonable enough; assuming progress will magically improve things, though, seems like setting yourself up for a long life of disappointment.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hi Noah – be interested to know why you dislike Crumb – never seen you discussion of him on your blog or in TCJ.

    As for Beyonce – I thought she was a psy-ops genetic experiment to neuter black American music cos Michael Jackson couldn't quite finish the job!


  11. Anonymous says:

    After looking at the Genesis book again, I'm even more disappointed – wishing Joe Kubert did it!

    Why him I'm not sure -its kinda like mentally 're-casting' disappointing movies.

    Or even better – Gary Panter! Now that would be awesome – someone commission him to do Leviticus!


  12. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey now! Beyonce's awesome! So's Michael Jackson for that matter; wash your mouth out (or you're keyboard, I guess.)

    I think Crumb's drawing is great. I don't think he has all that much to say, though. Even his most controversial stuff seems partially digested rather than really thought through, and his satire tends to strike me as pretty obvious.

    Since he doesn't thrill me, I haven't read anywhere near everything he's done, and my mileage varies, so it's possible that somewhere out there there's some work of his I"d really be enthusiastic about. But in general he's just not my favorite creator (though again, I appreciate his drawing skills.)

    It makes sense that if you're into Crumb you wouldn't like Beyonce, I guess. She's not about authenticity. "Neuter" is maybe an unfortunate choice, though; she is the heir of the disco/Michael Jackson/pop wing of R&B — which is, of course, very much gay influenced. (Hadju made a similar crack in his piece about how she was dressing like a drag queen, which is kind of a dumb thing to turn into a slur, because if you think she's unaware that she's been influenced by drag queens, you're very much mistaken. As just one example, one of the performers in the Single Ladies video is trans.)

    I would rather see Gary Panter do Genesis; that'd be pretty great.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hey I can do 'synthetic' as much as 'authenticity' – but I draw the line at L'Oreal spokeswomen with a computer singing for a voice (or undead, yelping Pepsi poppers for that matter).

    Ditto any guy (and its almost always a guy) with serious mental health issues scratching his guitar/pen/brush and getting a whoop from trust fund babies in dungarees and Karl Marx beards. I think Crumb is way too refined an artist for that schtick anyway, but of course not everything he does is great.


  14. Dan Nadel says:

    As much as we love discussion (and Beyonce. And Crumb), we'd like to ask that commenters stay on the topic at hand rather than use this forum as a free form discussion board. Thanks very much.
    -Ye Eds

  15. Noah Berlatsky says:

    My apologies, Dan. Thank you for your patience. I'll bow out, then.

  16. T. Hodler says:

    You know, I'm surprised at myself, but I have to admit I don't have that much problem with the Hajdu review (and it is spelled "Hajdu," people), and think you're reading a lot of things into his piece that aren't really there.

    I agree that not every word is perfectly chosen, but even the part where he says this is probably the first Crumb comic ever to not include "flying sperm" is clearly supposed to be a joke, and isn't worth taking umbrage over, I don't think.

    But that Vanity Fair interview you link to is great, so I still like the post.

  17. Chad says:

    Looking at this page from Crumb's Genesis, I have a hard time agreeing with Hajdu that this book is "the first thing by Crumb ever published without a single image of flying sperm."

  18. Robert Boyd says:

    Chad, are you suggesting that Crumb has drawn God destroying Sodom by cumming on it? If so, that is a truly radical interpretation of the Bible…

  19. T. Hodler says:

    I want to qualify my last comment, because while I disagree with you about your particular claims, Dan, I do think that Hajdu's review is typically Times-esque, just one more attempt to either banish or water down art that doesn't flatter middlebrow assumptions.

    In that sense, I found Hajdu's final paragraph reassuring rather than irritating: Even in his "wise elder statesman" phase, Crumb is still capable of making the cultural gatekeepers uncomfortable.

  20. Jahfurry says:

    Funnily enough, from another recent piece in the NYTimes, this one by someone who gets him, Allen Salkin who did that by NY Times Mag piece on Crumb/Aline in '07 and stayed by them in france, etc, but check this out re: Crumb and the sacred, this was in the Times on 10/16 "But he has been driven less by his sexual impulses in recent years and more by the 45 minutes he spends in seated meditation every morning in the medieval town house he shares with his wife, Aline (they became grandparents this month), in the south of France."
    and here's the piece, kinda a delight, especially when compared with the atrocious hajdu one
    and here's the Mag one from '07

  21. Jeet Heer says:

    I agree with Tim's first comment. I review was fluently written and very close to my own reaction to the book, so I was happy to see it in the Times. I had more problems with the Alter review in The New Republic, although I was very pleased to see his take on the book (which I was curious to konw about). And Alter is also a very fine writer. But Alter's review was based on creating a fundamental dichotomy between print and visual culture that doesn't quite work once you think about it (images can be as rich in meaning as words after all, and in comics what counts is the interaction between the words and the pictures.) On a theoretical level, Alter was just a mess. That's what I'd like to Dan and Tim write about.

  22. T. Hodler says:

    I think you're right about that Alter piece, Jeet, and I've been surprised at the praise it's gotten from comics quarters. Clearly, the man knows his Bible (to understate matters), and his comments about his area of expertise are valuable, but it's a mystery to me why so many people are also nodding their heads to his aesthetic judgments.

    Especially sequences like this:

    "Imagine for a moment an illustrated version of Anna Karenina or The Charterhouse of Parma, in which there would be one or more graphic frame for every sentence of the novel. An artist with Crumb’s inventive energy might provide many pleasures along the way, but what is enabled in the novel through words–the deft slide in and out of the point of view of the characters, the subtle play of irony, the nice discriminations of the narrator’s analytic observations–would inevitably be flattened in the pictorial representation."

    I mean it's sort of true as far as it goes, but Alter doesn't then go on to recognize that the choices Crumb makes enable an entirely new set of ambiguities and artistic effects that aren't present in the original text, and make the book worth evaluating as its own entity, and not strictly as a one-to-one translation. I mean, this is Comics Appreciation 101 type stuff.

    So yes, I agree with you, Jeet: the Alter piece is far more problematic than the Hajdu, especially since it's been taken so much more seriously by people who should know better.

  23. T. Hodler says:

    Correction at the end there: "taken so much more seriously" should be "accepted so uncritically."

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