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R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis Illustrated | by R. Crumb | W.W. Norton | 224 pages | $25

In 1967, R. Crumb's Mr. Natural— draped in simple raiment, his snowy beard flowing— walked the panels of Crumb's comix uttering adages about the path to salvation. Four decades later, Crumb's latest (and greatest) work features another character with long white whiskers, swathed in simple robes, this one drawn in more detail. "I don't doubt the existence of God," Crumb said in a recent interview. "I just don't quite know what God is." But he is sure that the Bible isn't the word of God. "I believe it is the words of men," he writes in his introduction. He approached Genesis "as a straight illustration job . . . with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes." That's not to say he doesn't draw his Biblical women with heavy-duty haunches and callipygian cheeks. (That's just what he does.) But he did take the text exactingly seriously, working primarily from the King James Version and omitting not a word.

That meant putting a different crosshatched face to each and every one of those "bores" and "begots." But it also meant having fun with the chapter's ageless sex and violence: Adam and Eve canoodling nude in a shady grove, Simeon and Levi slaughtering the Shechemites, the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah charred and writhing in showers of brimstone. The scope and intricacy of Crumb's vision is breathtaking. He draws everything beneath God's "vault in the midst of the water" with the same sense of purpose — from the tiniest ant in Eden, to the low-slung mountains surrounding the wadi of Gerar, to the confused and panicked builders of the Tower of Babel, suddenly finding their speech balloons filled with Hebrew, Sanskrit, and hieroglyphics.

— Mike Miliard

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