Cartoonist Liana Finck on the rewriting of Genesis, with God as a woman – J.
In Liana Finck’s Book of Genesis, Lilith is the Serpent, Joseph wears a man’s tail and God is a woman.
The New York cartoonist’s latest graphic novel, “Let There Be Light: The True Story of Its Creation,” envisions the Almighty as a work in progress. She is alone, so She creates people. In a moment of self-loathing, she destroys the world, but spares Noah, her “first love”. Artistically frustrated, she offers New York to a painter named Abram so he can do great works, ghosts him for two decades, scolds him for his own miscommunication, and, in a sudden pivot, blesses him with a son.
Later, mature enough to be a laissez-faire deity, she will appear to Joseph in a future underwater Egypt, but only through dreams. For fear of not being taken seriously, she only tells a few people that she is a woman.
Finck’s retelling of the first book of the Bible highlights a female creator while addressing the many ways female characters are sidelined, only Lilith – God’s original co-creation alongside Adam – s very interesting to them.
“Noah had a wife,” the reader says of this unnamed character, “but she was only decorative.” Leah, Jacob’s least favorite wife, is not a person in Finck’s panels, but a golem-like idol worshiped by Laban. The bizarre erasure of women in the “Begats” genealogy is underscored, with Methusala and Seth – true to the source – “fathering” their children solo via their chests, mouths and armpits. (Finck, who found Genesis 10 distressing, had fun drawing this biblical body horror.)
Finck, a longtime Forward collaborator whose previous books include a riff on Forward’s “Bintel Brief” column and the graphic memoir “Passing For Human,” revisited her memories of Jewish day school for the book, while bringing together some footnotes on Hebrew Etymology and Kabbalistic Concepts. Jumping between time and time, his Genesis is overflowing with new insights into our oldest histories. It will take another talented graphic designer to draw the Midrash.
I spoke with Finck, who was walking “dog and baby,” about his process, his inspiration, and why Abraham’s story sounds like a Philip Roth novel. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PJ Grisar: Excuse me for the grunt, but what was the genesis of this book?
Liana Fick: The genesis of this book is actually The Forward. I did a play, kind of a literal adaptation — well, literal words and wilder imagery — for a regular feature I was doing in The Forward. I think it started at the very beginning and ended with the apple and God closing the garden.
Was God a woman in there?
God was a woman. I don’t remember why I made God a woman. I always consider artists as God and God as an artist, which explains why I am not so religious. That’s not to say that I think artists are like, very, very powerful – it’s to say that I don’t think God is very powerful. I also made this piece kind of a love poem for someone I had a crush on, which is why it didn’t work out. It was like showing me as God and him as Adam. Inadvertently really not a good love poem.
That’s such a part of it though. It ends with Elle saying “We writhe in the desire to be loved by men.” It is interesting to imagine the relationship between God and creation in this way.
But she has such a big ego through it, even though she turns into a worm to try to impress these men, she still thinks of herself as God and still thinks of herself as far more important than these men, which I think, is probably the way I’ve always been, deep down.
One thing that’s exciting about this book is that there are these major changes. We start in the past, then we come to the present and we are in the future. How did you end up making this choice?
This choice came late as I was writing. When I started working, I didn’t really understand how many different vibrations the book of Genesis had in it. I felt like it was – I don’t know if it’s true – but I felt like it was three different books written at three different times by three different authors. And so the early creation stories seem so old and kind of like the epic of Gilgamesh. And they suited this kind of innocent-of-God character that I created. And then the story of Abraham and Isaac is so different and kinda reminds me of a Philip Roth novel or something. There’s this kind of powerful character, and we’re supposed to be interested in everything he does, all his real estate deals, and his kids. Abraham is the one I had the most trouble with – it’s just like a book that I wouldn’t necessarily read. But I love Jacob and Joseph, they’re pretty brilliant. They remind me of “Middlemarch”. I know, “Middlemarch” was written before Philip Roth, but somehow it feels more current to me and so it felt like past, present and future.
You ended up making Abraham an artist – someone reading this might be like “she sees something of herself here”.
I thought of Abraham as an artist as a character in Philip Roth, as a very determined male genius writer, who I identify with because I always wanted to be an artist. [Abraham] was the artist persona I was raised with, but could never be too.
There are times here where you have fun with the translation, you know, the “crawling things” in the creation story become “crawl-crawlies”. Adam has just been called “Man”, because, well, Adam simply means “Man” or “Human”. What translations did you use?
This is the one I had in high school [The Rosenbaum and Silbermann Penteteuch]. And I was reading in Hebrew. And then I read in English, Robert Alter’s translation, which I love.
That’s what I’m reading now, actually.
What are you doing?
Actually, I’m just doing Parsha, so I’m in Leviticus now. [Reader: I am current, this interview took place a few weeks ago.]
Oh cool. What’s going on in there?
Not a lot. You know, it’s not exactly story-heavy. But actually, this one just had a narrative. I think two of Aaron’s sons were killed, because they lit incense that they weren’t supposed to. Were you looking at some of Alter’s glosses and footnotes to his word choices – did that inform some of the ways you wrote things?
Consciously, I didn’t do a ton of research on this book. There is too much. I find that when I want to do something good, I get overwhelmed and mistaken for not being a perfectionist. I write with great bravado. Diving into biblical scholarship is worth many things for many lifetimes. I just relied on what I learned, like 20 years ago in school.
What do you hope people get out of reading the stories this way – or how has imagining them like this changed the way you go through the story?
What I took away from it was that I felt really close to the Torah while I was working on it, which was very, very meaningful to me, and I also really believed in God while I was working on it. I feel like I created a God I could believe in and I want to keep thinking about her—I had forgotten about her. I don’t think it’s been that long since I finished working on it, but it feels so long to me. It’s that pandemic feeling.
I mean, you have been creating life ever since!
I know. I was thinking really hard about having a kid while I was working on it, so there’s a lot of that in there.
Has your way of working with this book changed at all? I know you mentioned you had some iPad brushes that you borrowed for the cover.
I made the cover as a moment of experimentation with an iPad painting app. I think there are some things that I’ve figured out about my style with graphic novels that I try to stick to – like this grid of square boxes. I draw the grid in dots and then I freely draw the lines between them. I find that whenever I try to write with a certain voice, the pen or writing tool I use has to match the voice. I had planned to really work in one style in this book to give myself more brain space for the story, but I ended up having to really experiment with the style because the voice changed so much in all three stories different. For Abraham, I used pencil and lots of shading. I think deep down I’m really more comfortable drawing all over the page and not in those comic book styles.
Can we expect Exodus next?
Exodus. I have to read it first and then maybe I’ll write it. They’re very steeped to me in the class I was in when we learned them, so yeah, creating feels like freshman year. But then my school was very slow. So by the time we read Exodus, I mean I was in 12th grade. And it was kind of like school. Exodus looks like school.
There’s this Jamaica Kincaid epigraph you use: “When I came across the book of Genesis, I immediately knew it was a children’s book.” Maybe that’s why it resonated with you.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. I never really thought about that. But as I think that’s why it’s the child at the beginning, because I was a child when I learned this story.