Sunday, June 14, 2009

Two mad geniuses

The June 8 & 15 double issue of The New Yorker devotes several pages to the important new book by R. Crumb, The Book of Genesis. Crumb has been important to me since the 1960s when I first saw his artwork, and I've followed his career ever since.

Click on the pictures to make them bigger.
Crumb drew Genesis in a cottage in the south of France, where he now lives with his wife and family. He decided to forego his usual satiric style and do the book straight. There is a warning that adult supervision should be used for children who read it. Based on the nudity alone in the New Yorker preview I'd say it's appropriate. Or is it? Why not let kids see an uncensored version of the Bible. Kids are shown publumized versions of the Bible, which has a tendency to reduce critical thinking.

Crumb grew up Catholic, but drifted away. He studied various versions of the Bible. His drawings are powerful, like all of his work, whether humorous (his early specialty) or illustrative, like this work. If I have a criticism it's that he portrays God as an old man with long hair and long white beard. This is a cliché, like the images of Jesus I frequently complain about, which take Christ out of the Middle East and portray him as a Northern European.

That's a small quibble, though, because it's what people expect when they see images of God. Crumb will be taking enough heat for his particular way of looking at the Bible. You start talking religion, you make enemies, and he'll have a few of them spitting brimstone while they stone him in absentia. Unreligious as I am I'll be looking for a copy of The Book of Genesis for myself.

One of Crumb's heroes--maybe his biggest hero--is Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. Yesterday I got The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, the Mad Genius of Comics, from my brother.

Kurtzman is one of my heroes, too. Along with other comedic geniuses like TV's Sid Caesar, radio and recording artists Stan Freberg and Bob and Ray, Kurtzman set the tone in the early 1950s for what became the comedy of the last half of the Twentieth Century and into the Twenty-First. Kurtzman was himself an artist, but employed other artists who carried out his visions. Despite being over 55 years old now, the early Mad, which was a 10¢ comic book until 1955, was extremely popular and influenced many young people who went on to become the comedians of the 1960s and 1970s. Mad readers created Saturday Night Live and the shows we consider to be the standards of comedy now. After 1955 Kurtzman left Mad and went on to other endeavors, but he kept his high standards all the rest of his life.

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