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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Before the invention of the printing press, Bible stories sometimes were conveyed in depictions of stained glass in churches. Today, this tradition is being revived by an unlikely illustrator. R. Crumb is famous for his satirical cartoons. Well, now he's taken his pen to the Old Testament: Genesis.

Susan Jane Gilman has this review.

SUSAN JANE GILMAN: When I first heard that R. Crumb had illustrated the Book of Genesis, I thought, oh, this ought to be good. Crumb, after all, penned such infamous underground comics as "Zap," "Snatch" and "Weirdo." His prior project, a book entitled "Robert Crumb's Sex Obsessions." He's the godfather of the cartoon counterculture.

I therefore assumed that his depiction of the Bible would be the funniest, most subversive, most profane ever. But to my surprise, "The Book of Genesis" illustrated by R. Crumb is straight-faced. The illustrator writes in the introduction that he has faithfully reproduced every word of the original text.

The result is 224 pages of meticulous drawings that situate Genesis in a distinct culture and place. It's a cartoonist's equivalent of the Sistine Chapel - and it's awesome. Crumb has done a real artist's turn here. He's challenged himself and defied expectation. You'd expect, after all, that in Crumb's Genesis, God would look like Crumb's own iconic creation, Mr. Natural. And he does, but only in that he's an old white man with a long beard. Otherwise, this God is a somber, craggy, commanding presence. There is not an Earth shoe or a wisecrack in sight.

This isn't say to that the illustrations aren't in Crumb's trademark style. Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, the multitudes of Canaanites, Hittites, Egyptians, they're a grungy bunch. They've got coarse features, freaky hair, fleshy builds. Everyone here looks like they could use a shave, including some of the women. And we all know that there is sex in the Bible, and Crumb reproduces this, too. But the pictures, like the stories themselves, are serious.

So, what's it like to read? I have to tell you, it took me a while to get used to the Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb. Crumb, after all, is one of those innately funny people whose mere way of expressing things makes you laugh. Even when he shows the men of Sodom threatening Lot, there's something inherently comical in his drawing. Maybe he can't help it. Maybe it's just me. But for the first 19 chapters, I experienced discord between image and prose.

But by the 20th, I was hooked. I've read Genesis before. But never have I found it so compelling. By placing it squarely in the Middle East and populating it with distinctly Semitic-looking people, Crumb makes it come alive brilliantly. You feel the dust, the heat, the anguish, the toil involved in crossing the desert. You even smell the lamb roasting.

Crumb is at his best when he does people, not panoramas. The most intimate scenes are the most affecting. Reading Chapter 27, where Jacob steals Esau's blessing from their father, I actually cried. And by the end, I said aloud, oh, don't stop. What happens next?

The Bible has always provoked questions. The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb is no different. Reading it, you wonder, is this blasphemy? Is it art? Does it make a mockery of the Bible simply by illustrating it? All I can answer is this, you expect it to be sardonic, it's not. You may expect it to be psychedelically spiritual. It's not either. Rather, it's humanizing. Crumb takes the sacred and makes it more accessible, more down-to-earth, less idealized. And this may be a blessing, or it may be subversion itself.

NORRIS: Susan Jane Gilman's new book is titled "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven."

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