W. W. Norton executive editor Robert Weil is best described as an editor’s editor. Which is to say that he publishes books of great intellectual depth and literary substance that also manage to sell quite well. He is the editor of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemings: An American Family, a scrupulous and lively history of the lives and relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, which was awarded the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction. Weil’s books have also received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critic Circles Award.
While nonfiction is his specialty, he has also published fiction of great literary distinction including books by such authors as Henry Roth, Primo Levi, J. G. Ballad, Isaac Babel and Patricia Highsmith in addition to poetry translations by John Ashbery and books by the distinguished nonfiction writers Edmund S. Morgan, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and biologist E. O. Wilson. More recently Weil has taken to editing graphic books and his authors include the late Will Eisner and David Small, whose graphic memoir Stitcheswas recently nominated for a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Weil is passionate about great books and great authors so it's not surprising that he’s the editor of R. Crumb, the gifted underground cartoonist and arguably the most acclaimed comics artist of our time. Weil has overseen the publication of Crumb’s new book, The Book of Genesis Illustrated, published this month by W. W. Norton, an effort to transform the complete text of the Book of Genesis into comics, to impressive critical acclaim.PW Comics Weektalked with Weil about the process of editing a graphic book as opposed to straight prose works; working with Crumb onGenesis Illustratedand an upcoming slate of books coming from Norton over the next few years by Crumb and his wife and fellow cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb.
PW Comics Week: You’re the editor of the most famous “underground” cartoonist in the world.
Robert Weil: I’ve just come back from an author/editor’s lunch with Robert Crumb and we had a great conversation. He’s arrived from France [where he lives with his wife Aline, daughter Sophie and now, a new grandson]. He even brought me something—a grift wrapped package of new Brooks Bros. boxer shorts—32” waist. He already had three pairs so he gave me one. They’re very good shorts.
PWCW: What’s been his reaction to the publication and praise for The Book of Genesis Illustrated?
RW: He’s very pleased. I think he’s always seen himself as an “underground” comics guy, but the reviews in the mainstream media regard the book as a major work of art. He’s really not viewed as some sort of cult figure any longer.
PWCW: What’s it like editing him; what was the process of getting this book produced?
RW: With a figure like Crumb I can’t really presume to tell him how to work. He knows what he’s doing. We have a great relationship—I call him Mr. Crumb; he calls me Mr. Weil. His father was a Marine and a very proud man and there’s a great deal of civility to R. Crumb despite his reputation. I listened to him and what he wanted to do. I think he appreciates that we, here at Norton, didn’t concede that the book was some sort of commercial project; that it was always seen as a work art with transcendent values. We were consistent in caring about what’s good for the book as art and not as a business project.
But it’s no different for me editing prose or a graphic book. They’re both symphonic units and must be approached as a whole. Both the language and the artwork have the same effect on readers. I’ve edited Will Eisner [whose literary works, including his classic Contract with God, are published by Norton] but I’m not really a graphics editor and I really haven’t done anything different working with this book. I’m not even looking for graphic books.
I did get a chance to go over the first 50 pages and told him that I thought the language needed to be smoother and he kept that in mind. We got a lot of technical assistance from Francoise Mouly, Art Speigelman and Chris Ware. In early January we got the manuscript and I went over it with Francoise. I’d like to mention that the book has also been guided to publication by Lora Fountain, Crumb’s main literary agent. She made all the arrangements for the foreign language co-editions and made sure scans of the pages were ready for international translations. Lora deals with Robert and his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb every day and she also works closely with his U.S. literary agent Judy Hansen.
PWCW: The book seems a departure from Crumb’s irreverent and sharply satirical sensibility. In the introduction to the book he is very respectful of Genesis as a revered sacred text, even though he acknowledges that he isn’t very religious. And that tone extends to his visual interpretation of this ancient text. He calls the book, “a straight illustration job, with no intent to ridicule or make visual jokes.”
RW:It’s not a send-up or even satirical. Years ago he might have thought to do a comic send-up of the text. But you know, Crumb is capaciously well-read in a wide range of subjects which I think is one reason why he was attracted to publishing with Norton. He’s a very deep reader and he felt he couldn’t do a send-up. We never challenged that. We weren’t concerned about him being funny. He’s very pleased to be taken seriously. And the reviews —from USA Today, the L.A. Times, the New York Times, Beliefnet, have been terrific.
PWCW: I understand that some evangelicals are upset over the sexual depictions.
RW: Well, no doubt, but most reviewers are loving this book. And if you’re teenager, what better way to read the bible! You know, even the adult supervision label [a cover warning to parents about the book's sexual depictions] was Crumb’s idea—although that will likely do more to attract teenagers than anything els
PWCW: Can you list the projects you’ve done with Crumb at W. W. Norton and what you’ve got coming from both Crumb and his wife Aline, who I understand is extensively revising and rewriting a previously published work that reviews her own very influential career as a cartoonist?
RW:We will publish a new and revised edition of a collection of Crumb drawings called, The Sweeter Side of Crumb; we’re publishing Aline’s new book in 2012; as well as a collection of Robert and Aline’s collaborative comics; including some that were published in the New Yorker as well as other collaborative comics they've done. That will be published in the fall of 2011.
Aline is really his muse; he shows everything he does to her and I’m sure Robert is Aline’s first editor. I think its one of the best marriages I’ve ever seen. People who’ve seen the Crumb film think they’re going to be strange, but they’re not. They’re both very comfortable with each other.