by Dan Nadel
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 Amazon.com 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.]