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And a rather large and unusual comic book hits bookstores today. It's the work of the bespeckled, gray-bearded artist who is regarded around the world as the granddaddy of underground comics. R. Crumb created "Mr. Natural" and "Fritz the Cat" in the 1960s. Now, he's taken on what might be his biggest subject ever.

Frank Browning reports.

FRANK BROWNING: We all know how this book starts.

Unidentified Man #1: When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth was then without form and void. And darkness was over the deep, and God's breath hovering over the waters. And God said, let there be light, and there was light.

BROWNING: The book, of course, is "Genesis," all 50 chapters fully illustrated by Robert Crumb, but with a warning on the cover: Adult supervision recommended for minors. The warning is not just because of the relentless sex that peppers the story but also, as Crumb said at a press conference, it's a vicious story.

Mr. ROBERT CRUMB (Author, "The Book of Genesis Illustrated"): Violence, nastiness, people in a position of power, ruling elites who derive pleasure from inflicting pain and suffering on other humans. It's, you know, it's about as nasty as people get.

BROWNING: French publisher Jean-Luc Fromental, who's been a Crumb fan since he was a kid, says that at first, he couldn't imagine what Robert Crumb would do with the Bible.

Mr. JEAN-LUC FROMENTAL (Publisher): To me, I mean, the only way Crumb could get to a project like this was through blasphemy. And then gradually, I discovered the pages when they came in, you know, and understood the nature of what he was trying to do, which is reread the whole text from a humanistic point of view without adding a single written commentary to the whole thing, but using only his graphic art.

BROWNING: The characters are all vintage Crumb - the women with the breasts and hips of a young Sophia Loren; the men hairy, hungry animals. Crumb refused any prepublication broadcast interviews, but he did suggest music to accompany the passage of Eve meeting the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Blowers Blues")

BROWNING: Crumb, who's a world class collector of 78 RPMs, chose a 1928 version of "Blue Blowers Blues" by Curtis Mosby and his Dixieland Blue Blowers.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Blowers Blues")

Unidentified Man #2: Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the beasts that the Lord God had made, and he said to the woman…

Unidentified Man #3: …even though God said, you shall not eat from any tree of the garden…

Unidentified Man #2: …and the woman said to the serpent…

Unidentified Woman: We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God has said, you shall not eat from it. You shall not touch it, or you will die.

Unidentified Man #2: And the serpent said to the woman…

Unidentified Man #3: Ye shall not be doomed to die, for God knows that on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become as divine beings knowing good and evil.

Unidentified Man #2: And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was lust to the eyes and lovely to look at. And she took of its fruit and ate.

(Soundbite of someone biting an apple)

BROWNING: Crumb spent four years working up the illustrations and studying both ancient and modern translations of Genesis, as well as researching parallel Babylonian and Sumerian myths. But as cartoonist and fellow French expat Gilbert Shelton sees it, the brilliance of Crumb's "Genesis" is in the art.

Mr. GILBERT SHELTON (Cartoonist): His technique is rich as any draftsman that I know of. The drawings in this "Book of Genesis" are complicated and realistic - just fascinating in their clarity. He's an artist's artist.

BROWNING: During an hour-and-a-half press conference, Crumb was repeatedly questioned about his spiritual views and his belief in the Bible. A woman from Finland asked if Crumb believes in God.

Mr. CRUMB: Do I believe in God? Well, I tell people I'm a gnostic. I'm not an agnostic. I'm a gnostic — someone who seeks knowledge of God. I believe that obviously, there's some force bigger than us that rules our destinies. This is obvious, you know. But what it is, is a mystery. That's the problem. We - it's a mystery we cannot possibly understand. We're limited. We're animals, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROWNING: Taking the Bible as a sacred truth, however, is another matter.

Mr. CRUMB: The idea that millions of people for - couple thousand years have taken this so seriously seemed completely insane and crazy. It doesn't need to be satirized. It's already so crazy. I decided it didn't need to be made fun of at all.

BROWNING: Crazy story, perhaps, but the initial print run exceeds 100,000 books around the world - all of which leaves the painfully shy artist more than a little bemused, as when this Danish journalist posed a personal question.

Unidentified Man #4: I get that you find people take religious texts too seriously. But don't you think we take comic books, maybe Robert Crumb, too seriously?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRUMB: Do I think people in the comic book world take me too seriously? Quite often they do, yes.

Unidentified Man #4: Thank you.

Mr. CRUMB: That's a sad thing to see this happening in the world, with comics taking comics so seriously, but so it goes.

BROWNING: Coming to a book store near you, the "Book of Genesis," breasts bared and knuckles bloodied, just as it was originally written.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Blowers Blues")

MONTAGNE: You'll find an excerpt and a review of R. Crumb's "Book of Genesis Illustrated" on our Web site, npr.org.

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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