Let There Be Light: The Real Sto­ry of Her Creation

By – April 11, 2022

Liana Finck’s invig­o­rat­ing­ly reimag­ined Book of Gen­e­sis is by turns hilar­i­ous, trag­ic, poet­ic, mys­te­ri­ous, and always rap­tur­ous­ly imag­i­na­tive. Such is its last­ing pow­er that, after read­ing it, some may find it dif­fi­cult to ever read the orig­i­nal in quite the same way again.

A pop­u­lar New York­er car­toon­ist whose pre­vi­ous books include the high­ly praised graph­ic mem­oir Pass­ing for Human, Finck is one of our bravest and most idio­syn­crat­ic con­tem­po­rary comics artists. Yet even devo­tees of her ear­li­er work may find them­selves star­tled by the lev­el of enchant­ment she achieves here. Aside from an exu­ber­ant retelling of bib­li­cal myth, Let There Be Light is per­haps most pro­found­ly an extend­ed inquiry into the nature of cre­ative process, artis­tic respon­si­bil­i­ty, and the sheer strange­ness of existence.

Though bib­li­cal lit­er­a­cy is by no means a req­ui­site, read­ers may wish to reac­quaint them­selves with Gen­e­sis to ful­ly appre­ci­ate this deeply affect­ing jour­ney, which is brim­ming with com­ic irrev­er­ence, dis­qui­et­ing melan­choly, and res­o­nant emo­tion­al truths. Let There Be Light unfolds with its own aching­ly beau­ti­ful log­ic, ren­der­ing a com­pelling fem­i­nist and mys­ti­cal spin on the anx­i­eties and rap­tures of the cre­ative process.

Hov­er­ing above cre­ation on a cloud, Finck’s full-bod­ied God­dess is much like her human cre­ations: lone­ly, lov­ing, self-doubt­ing, and, at times, venge­ful. Through­out, Finck has a great deal of sub­ver­sive fun with gen­der, often in delight­ful, unex­pect­ed ways. It is hard to think of an artist who so bril­liant­ly cap­tured Eve’s thun­der­struck epiphan­ic state after eat­ing from the Tree of Knowl­edge, cer­tain­ly not with such star­tling imagery and lan­guage. In anoth­er unset­tling exam­ple of gen­der mis­chief, the noto­ri­ous begats” sequence, prog­e­ny com­i­cal­ly erupt from men’s bod­ies, arrest­ing images that cast an excru­ci­at­ing­ly satir­i­cal judg­ment on the pre­sump­tions of bib­li­cal patriarchy.

Finck’s sto­ries about the strug­gle to be guests and hosts on a strange plan­et are ren­dered in her spare pen-and-ink style, a decep­tive­ly sim­ple approach that cap­tures a sophis­ti­cat­ed blend of emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al states: vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, oth­er­ness, regret, and fierce love. With deep dives into the human psy­che, Finck’s artistry feels both rawly inti­mate and uni­ver­sal. When her severe­ly dis­en­chant­ed God­dess with­draws from the pages of her own Cre­ation, we are almost vis­cer­al­ly unset­tled by a per­va­sive sense of loss, but also stirred by the narrative’s res­olute insis­tence on human agency.

There are sim­ply too many spell­bind­ing high­lights to recount here, but Finck is per­haps at her most auda­cious when recast­ing Abra(ha)m as a strug­gling young artist in a mod­ern world of dis­trac­tions. With a visu­al style like no one else’s, Finck is nev­er mere­ly self-indul­gent, so that even when Let There Be Light morphs into sur­re­al­ism, as with the sto­ry of Joseph in Egypt, that shift only deep­ens the narrative’s pro­found­ly poignant impact.

Con­stant­ly thought-pro­vok­ing and enter­tain­ing, this strange and won­der­ful work deserves to reach a wide read­er­ship. A tour de force of fem­i­nist midrashic cre­ativ­i­ty, Let There Be Light is brim­ming with the kind of breath­tak­ing­ly deep philo­soph­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and even mys­ti­cal insights that rewards repeat read­ings. This is the kind of rare book that leaves one with the irre­sistible com­pul­sion to approach strangers in book­stores and thrust it in their hands.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions

Can one con­ceive of a more dif­fi­cult sub­ject to illus­trate than Cre­ation? How to do it with­out pre­ten­tious­ness, mock­ery, or kitschy and pablum reli­gious sen­ti­ment? Liana Finck’s wry, poet­ic, and beau­ti­ful Let There Be Light man­ages to grap­ple with exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult and some­times dis­tant ideas in a way that is per­son­al, respect­ful, and moving.

What­ev­er God is or is not, the lit­er­ary char­ac­ter called God” in Scrip­ture is prob­lem­at­ic. Pin­ning down God in text gels and coa­lesces inef­fa­bil­i­ty into per­son­al­i­ty. It lim­its the God Who Is A Verb (“I am being what I am becom­ing,” Exo­dus 3:14,) mak­ing God into a more sta­t­ic and less dynam­ic enti­ty. Finck takes those lim­i­ta­tions and runs with them, imag­in­ing the inner life of the Deity, who is here gen­dered female and acts as — well — a cre­ative artist.

Such reflex­iv­i­ty is fair play, giv­en that those who first wrote down the bib­li­cal text were them­selves writ­ers, whose stock in trade was lan­guage. They cre­at­ed the char­ac­ter God” out of words, thus in their image. And they had that char­ac­ter turn around and return the favor, cre­at­ing all that is (includ­ing us— in God’s image”) from words (and from clay, in a hat tip to artists work­ing in oth­er media).

Finck’s text is by turns poet­ic and prag­mat­ic, lilt­ing and down to earth. Her line and wash illus­tra­tions — sim­ple, yet high­ly evoca­tive — are a per­fect com­ple­ment. They may seem child-like, but try pro­duc­ing a child-like illus­tra­tion” and you will find that only a con­sum­mate artist is capa­ble of doing so. In their time­less straight­for­ward­ness, these images leave room for a panoply of emo­tions and make space for us to project our­selves into the sto­ry and, dare one say it, into the Divine per­son­al­i­ty as well.

The result moves us well beyond what we ever might have expect­ed from a graph­ic nov­el so sim­ple” in appear­ance. We expe­ri­ence an intense and per­son­al iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the Cre­ator, and sym­pa­thy for Her mon­u­men­tal task. We are moved to sor­row for the dev­as­tat­ing­ly sad parts of the tale, we rise with ela­tion when the sto­ry soars. Most of all, we are gift­ed with encom­pass­ing love and appre­ci­a­tion for the time­less rel­e­vance of these tales of the ear­li­est times of Earth — the sto­ry of us— that Liana Finck has cap­tured with such pro­found love and empathy.