Monday, November 2, 2009

The Genesis of R. Crumb's Genesis

This Halloween, Marc and I went to see R. Crumb, in SF to discuss and promote his epic illustrated work The Book of Genesis. Presented at the JCCSF’s intimate Kanbar Hall, the format was “a conversation” between Crumb and New Yorker art editor/author/publisher Fran├žoise Mouly. Half biography and half discussion of the new work, a frank and often humorous exchange between the two old friends followed.

As this image of Crumb at 13 was projected behind them (thanks artolog for posting this photo), Crumb told the story of how he lost his front tooth in that photo. He said he’d seen an older boy flinging large pieces of cinderblock over a wall and thought, “If anyone was over on the other side of that wall, they could be hurt.” Before he knew it, he found himself on the other side of the wall, and sure enough, he was hit in the mouth with a piece of concrete. He went on to talk about how he began drawing, and the influence of early New Yorker cartoons.

Crumb told many stories about the evolution and making of the Genesis project, which he originally estimated would take him a year and a half, and instead took four years of intensive work and study. The story of the “begats” was particularly funny, as Crumb decided that each descendant needed to have an individual portrait. “If it was just a block of text,” he said, “people would skip right over it.” The “begats” were an important element of Genesis, he explained, because this was how people traced the origins of the tribes, possibly going back to the oral storytelling tradition.

In a discussion of how the illustrated Genesis came to be published, Crumb mentioned Denis Kitchen, and said that Kitchen called him and said, “Norton will give you a big advance for your Genesis book.” Crumb said he was excited by the deal and the money, but his enthusiasm faded as he realized how much work it was really going to be. I asked Denis Kitchen about this and he told me the following story:

“The background is that in 1998 I was visiting Crumb in the south of France when I was still the publisher of Kitchen Sink Press. I generally made an annual trip there to discuss upcoming projects. We talked about a variety of things, mainly his Devil Girl candy that was especially popular for us at the time. But then I asked him if there was any project he’d really like to do that, for whatever reason, he hadn’t. He told me he had been thinking about doing Genesis. That surprised me, but I shared his fascination with the stories in the Old Testament and encouraged it. We left with a handshake on it... But that year my company, after thirty years, was seriously struggling and there was no practical way to take on the Genesis project. By the start of 1999 Kitchen Sink Press was under and I reinvented myself as, among other things, a literary agent.

In 2004 I had a lunch meeting in New York with my agency partner and an editor at a major house who happened to inquire about what R. Crumb was up to. “I’d love to do something with him,” he said. I mentioned the aborted Genesis project and his eyes lit up. “Oh, I’d jump on that one,” he said. He said it with such relish that I had to call Robert to see if he was still up for the notion. “

Kitchen went back to Crumb and the two of them outlined a deal that Crumb felt he could commit to. With this information in hand, Kitchen “went back to his partner and we decided to hold a mini-auction with three target publishers. W. W. Norton came back with the highest bid. When I passed along the news, he was pleasantly surprised, we formalized the deal, and he began to clear his schedule. Ultimately Genesis was a grueling task, requiring much more research and time, something he periodically blamed me for, and it ultimately took him over four years to complete. But, in a strange way, this could also end up his magnum opus ---it’s by far his single most unified work, and one with probably the widest appeal. And, ironically, given the longstanding sexual and racial controversies over his underground comix work, his Biblical stories could end up the most controversial of all.” Kitchen could be right about the controversy, as excerpts of Genesis published in the New Yorker generated many irate letters from readers. Crumb delighted in these and read several to the audience.

The audience itself was actually pretty interesting, as this was Halloween night in San Francisco. At one point during the Q&A period, an athletic blonde Amazon, perfectly attired in a “Crumb Girl” outfit (braless, tank top, short Catholic girl plaid skirt and low heeled pumps) appeared at the microphone to ask her question. When Crumb invited her up on stage to show off her costume, she bounded up on stage, loomed over him (he was sitting) and said “Now that I’ve seen you, I don’t know if I should ask a question or give you a piggyback ride.” She finally leaned over him and asked her question directly into his mic, and was he was visibly overwhelmed. As the next person asking a question said, “I really don’t know how to follow that…”