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Illuminated manuscript: R. Crumb's Bible

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Just in time to make your Christmas shopping list is R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis,” now on display at the Hammer Museum. Display is really the wrong word; It’s more of an interactive exhibition. Every page, all 200 of them, is framed and hung and yes, people really do start “in the beginning” and read their way along the wall to the end. Why, you might ask, wouldn’t you just buy the book and read it sitting down? What’s presented at the museum are Crumb’s original drawings, including all his corrections and whiteout marks. The pages “become incredibly alive when you see the hand of the artist in the work,” says Crumb’s gallerist, Paul Morris. In fact, while Crumb was perusing the exhibit, he noticed one last mistake and took the page out of its frame to fix it.

More impressive than the fact that Crumb didn’t edit a single word of the first book of the Old Testament are his efforts to create realistic depictions of “the people of The Fertile Crescent.” Crumb’s characters have never been what one could call pretty, and “The Book of Genesis” is no exception. But it’s not as if everything is grotesque either (though that’s in there, too). Adam and Eve and Noah and Isaac all look like real people. Charlton Heston, or any of Cecil B. DeMille’s actors did not serve as inspiration. All these elements combined make for excellent storytelling. When I had to read the Bible in third grade, the story about Abraham slaughtering his son as an offering to God was just one group of small words crammed up against other small words, jammed together without pause. But to see that story get the real estate it deserves, not to mention that it’s illustrated, makes it really come to life. Of course, the fact that it took two thousand years for someone like R. Crumb to come along and do this gives it a whole other ironic twist.