Saturday, September 6, 2008

Cerebus #s 1-300

by Dave Sim (Writer/Artist), w/ Gerhard (Backgrounds)

What can I write about Dave Sim’s “Cerebus?” Either you’re already aware of Sim and his 300-issue comic book epic, in which case you’ve probably formed your opinion, or the whole thing is so far under your radar that even if you were familiar with it, you probably wouldn’t care. So what can I write about Dave Sim’s “Cerebus?”

He did it. On one level that is all you can really write. But what exactly is it that he did?

Dave Sim is one of the most, if not the most, ambitious and technically gifted writer/artists working in the western comics idiom. He is a dazzling draftsman. He possesses an extraordinary ear and excels at dialogue – both in its capacity for characterization and its potential to affect pace. Over a 27-year period ending March 2004, Sim crafted a masterpiece as sprawling, exhilarating and impressive as any work ever attempted in the medium.

But Dave Sim is also responsible for the most reprehensible, immature and malicious, as well as insurmountably tedious large-scale comic ever completed. It is an inherently and fatally flawed mess whose mistakes are yawning and impossible to ignore. To top it off, the final two 100-issue cycles of the three-hundred issue work each culminate in dense “walls” almost designed for the reader to crash against- huge chunks of redundant, tedious text that do nothing less than attempt to explain Everything. And by Everything, that is exactly what I mean.

Everything -the beginning of the universe, God, man, all of existence. Each hundred-issue cycle climaxes with another attempt made by Sim to sum up all of existence within his extremist, gender-paranoid worldview. These exegeses are questionable in both aesthetics and ideology. Are they some sort of gauntlet to see if the reader can make it past the breaking point? The reader is tempted to write off the whole thing as the work of a deluded and paranoid schizophrenic. For instance, by the end of the series, Sim claims to have both discovered the Unifying Theory that eluded Einstein (even though Sim admits his only scientific training encompassed the few weeks he set aside to research for his comic-book), as well as being the first person in human history to provide a unified and complete reading of the early books of the Bible.

A masterpiece. A train-wreck. “Cerebus” somehow encompasses them both. This is a great comic, and I hope to give a critical assessment that will account for and incorporate its troubling ideology in my appraisal. I readily admit “Cerebus” isn’t the type of graphic novel that will ever be picked up with the candor of, say, “Watchmen.” If and when a legitimate scholarship of the medium solidifies, the book will most likely find a comfortable spot on college curriculums, in excerpts of course. Maybe “High Society” will be assigned, or “Jaka’s Story,” or even the first part of “Going Home.”. You see, “Cerebus” is sprawling, yes, and ambitious, yes, but it is also intimidating. Infuriating. The saga in totality has similarities with such unwieldy “epics” as Gertrude Stein’s “The Making of Americans,” James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” or, perhaps the most apt comparison, Ezra Pound’s “Cantos,” – particularly “the Pisan Canto.” These are works of massive power and prodigiousness considered by their authors’ to be creative pinnacles, but which are rarely read in their entirety.

“Cerebus” might not ultimately have the pedigree of the above-mentioned works – I’d be the first to admit that. The comparison is still an excellent manner to contextualize the comic book I will be writing about here. I would also like to apologize beforehand for my inadequacies. I fear I will fall short of the totality of this work. It’s too large. Its virtues are too large. Its failures are too large. I can only hope to provide some scattered critical thoughts on a work that has been buried underneath the controversy surrounding its iconoclastic creator.

Just reading through this massive work, literally thousands of pages in length, is a feat in and of itself. But to then actively engage the text is something else, it requires confronting the controversial world-view with which Sim has suffused the entire saga. It is likely that you will disagree – strongly – with Sim’s gender politics. He is so far to the right that is almost impossible for you not to disagree. See why the Ezra Pound comparison is apt? Sim nestles some pretty despicable opinions next to seemingly innocuous bald satire. The two are so well integrated that one finds themselves simply rolling with some cheap joke or jab that is not just offensive, but despicable. The acting of reading “Cerebus” is complicated and fraught. And by reading, I mean moving beyond simple evaluation of the text and towards an investigation of the reader’s reaction to the book, and inevitably of Sim’s worldview.

Let’s digress for a moment and think about the idea of canon as it refers to something on the scale of “Cerebus.” Just the concept of canon alone is a pretty funny thing – what sorts of value judgments are being passed in order to institute a canon? Does a canon reflect and even maintain the status quo of a certain set of ethical, economic and political values? Canon itself is already fraught, but assessing a comics’ canon is another matter entirely. Here we see a medium isolated from the mainstream critical apparatus until roughly five to ten years ago. As a result of this hermetic withdrawal, the industry generated its own critical body over the last forty-so years, complete with its canonical works. You can even see the splintering of the comics’ industry into a series of connected, but separate spheres, each with its canon. A canonical terrain represented by Gary Groth and the Comics Journal has its “Love & Rockets,” “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” and “Jimmy Corrigan,” while another critical sphere that can be represented by Wizard magazine has its canon – “Kingdom Come,” “The Dark Knight Returns,” or “Preacher.” Keep in mind how broad of a generalization this is – and how it fails to consider the complexities of the medium.

An interesting side effect of the mainstreaming of comics is that the mainstream is now assessing, as outsiders, a canon instituted by the insiders of the medium. How will the “classics” hold up under outside appraisal? Another result of this new assessment of comics as literature is that the analogies between the literary canon and the comics-literature canon are finally coming into focus. What becomes of a book like the above-mentioned “Cantos” or “The Making of Americans” which falls outside general readership due to either aesthetic or ideological roadblocks? Are these works any less valid? Don’t they also have something to say? Maybe looking at the ignored or marginalized canon can be just as fun, if not more fun, than the mainstream classics. Maybe appraising these marginalized classics help us to see the ideological biases and harmful maintenance of a status quo that a canon implies. Maybe “Cerebus” is the perfect work for just such a discussion.

First, I have a quick work about structure. The series can be broken up a number of ways. The entire 300-issue run is collected into 16 volumes, called “phonebooks” due to the massive length they frequently run. These volumes are as follows:
1. Cerebus the Aardvark (issues 1-25)
2. High Society (issues 26-50)
3. Church & State I (issues 52-80)
4. Church & State II (issues 81-111)
5. Jaka’s Story (issues 114-136)
6. Melmoth (issues 139-150)
7. Flight (issues 151-162)
8. Women (issues 163-174)
9. Reads (issues 175-186)
10. Minds (issues 187-200)
11. Guys (issues 201-219)
12. Rick’s Story (issues 220-231)
13. Going Home (issues 232- 250)
14. Form & Void (issues 251-265)
15. Latter Days (issues 266- 288)
16. The Last Day (issues 289-300)
Now when I discuss a particular story arc, you can refer back to this list for an exact idea as to where a particular book fits into the larger story. “Flight” through “Minds” can be read collectively as “Mothers & Daughters,” while “Going Home” and “Form & Void” together form a larger book also called “Going Home.” The series can also be divided in three cycles of a hundred issues each. Each cycle, as I wrote earlier, culminates with a revelation concerning the origin of the universe. Of course, each subsequent revelation discredits the previous one. Basically, history and ontology is subjective, susceptible to political bias; history can also be subverted as a means to acquire and maintain power. “Cerebus” frequently returns to those two themes – subjectivity and power.

So, what is it all about? I’ve written around the issue for too long already –seeing as how most people who come across this blog probably won’t be familiar with the comic. “Cerebus” ostentatiously chronicles a life, the adventures of a greedy, self-centered and petty anthropomorphic aardvark. He begins the series as a 26-year old barbarian mercenary and is tossed from political faction to political faction as he is exploited for his peculiar “magnifying” abilities. You see, things always inexplicably fall into place around Cerebus. Astoria, progressive political agitator and perhaps the most interesting character in the series, mentions how the text on political documents literally shift across the page in the presence of Cerebus. Later on in the series, a dying soldier springs back to life, reciting a doom-laden prophecy, all on account of Cerebus passing by on a horse-drawn cart. When the cart passes out of range of the reanimated soldier, she slumps over again, dead.

Cerebus is a generally passive character. When he acts, he does so rashly and is mostly motivated by lust or pride. The extraordinary positions of power he possesses throughout the series seem to fall unbidden into his lap. At various points of the story, he finds himself prime minister, pope, and finally the absolute dictator of a fascist empire encompassing the entirety of Estarcion, a continent strongly reminiscent of medieval/early Industrial Europe. Cerebus is ultimately a helpless character. When he is prime minister, he spends most of his time drinking or sleeping off a hangover. Whenever Cerebus finds his power overthrown, as always happens, he finds himself no longer encumbered by the advisors and hanger-ons. The shackles of responsibility and power having been removed, Cerebus could theoretically do whatever he wants. But Cerebus is an extraordinarily inert character. Without any outside motivation, Cerebus grinds to a halt. Look at how Cerebus wastes his time as a houseguest playing ball games in “Jaka’s Story.” Cerebus’ alcoholism ultimately keeps him inert. He spends all of “Guys” and Rick’s Story” in a bar, drinking scotch. The final 150 years-plus of the character’s life is spend locked away in Sanctuary, a religious sanctum which is itself modeled after the very bar Cerebus used to drink in with his friends.

Much of the “plot” of the series, especially as it progresses, tends to occur off-panel. Characters age, kill each other and die of old age while Cerebus is drunk, sleeping, or simply not paying any attention. Two of the most dramatic world-changing events in the series are the violent take-over of Estarcion by the Cirinists, a militant-feminist faction, and the bloody overthrow of the Cirinists over a hundred years later by the chauvinist Cerebites.

The Cirinist coup displaces Cerebus from the papal throne during his journey to the moon – the first of the series’ three ascensions. It is important to note that Cerebus’ empire falls apart during his absence, but when Cirin travels into outer space with Cerebus at the climax of “Mother’s & Daughters,” the series’ second ascension, her Cirinist empire only strengthens. In fact, look at how she parleys the failed ascension into the gospel seen in “Going Home.”

The second important military coup, the massacre of the Cirinists by the Cerebites led by the Three Wise Fellows and Todd McSpahn, is only shown after the result of the rebellion is a foregone conclusion. Cerebus is pivotal not as an active force, but as a symbol for others to distort to their own ends.

An inattentive reader is in danger of missing many of the series’ other important moments – a lot of them occur off-panel. Rick, who first appears as Jaka’s affable husband in “Jaka’s Story” is next seen in “Rick’s Story” as an unstable and deluded religious fanatic beset by madness and alcoholism. Rick’s crucifixion by the Cirinists happens off-panel and is casually mentioned once in the text of the series itself. Because the series keeps such a static camera on Cerebus and those in his immediate vicinity, the reader could be forgiven for noticing that as the pacing of the story slows to crawl, the progression of time itself is rapidly picking up pace. Two large chronological leaps occur in “Guys” and “Latter Days” respectively.

In “Guys” you can chart the progression of time by the graying of Bear’s beard and hair. At the start of the book, Cerebus has just returned from Juno and the Second Ascension, to find himself in a bar. After the Cirinists took over, currency was abolished and men are allowed to stay indefinitely in the tavern as a resident, with food, lodging and alcohol provided free of charge. Bear is also a resident of this bar. Bear, who first appeared in “Church & State,” is a friend of Cerebus’ from his twenties when they were both mercenaries in the Northlands. This isn’t revealed at the time in “Church & State,” but as is usually the case with “Cerebus,” much of the most important plot information and characterization needs to be inferred, oftentimes after the fact. The passing of time is indicated first through the hair on top of Bear’s head going grey, followed by his beard. Bear leaves the bar about two-thirds of the way through “Guys” with Ziggy, his ex-lover. When Bear returns at the end of Rick’s Story, we’re reminded just how much time has past – his hair is all white.

It is in “Latter Days” that time really begins to speed by, while the pacing itself has just about halted altogether. Having been disowned from his hometown of Sand Hills Creek, Cerebus heads into Northern Isshura. There, he becomes a professional athlete playing Five-Bar Gate, a sort of take-off on Hockey first seen in “Guys.” He makes it to the National Championship each year, only to be defeated by reigning champion, Paul “Coffee” Annan. Over three panels we see Annan’s young wife become an aging mother with a grown son. Cerebus just keeps on playing Five-Bar Gate, until Paul “Coffee” Annan eventually drops dead, of old age. This is followed by a quote from Roger Langridge, “Everything dies in the end. No In the end everyone is dead. It’s not the same thing at all.” Well, and that’s the thing, by the end of the series the entire cast of the series save from Cerebus, and we learn in the final pages, Cirin, are long dead, and mostly forgotten. Even the names of places have become irreparably changed.

Cerebus’ inertia reaches an extreme in “Latter Days.” Aside from a few pages of the Three Wise Fellows that allow Sim to show off his mastery of the Three Stooges’ physical comedy, the scenes that actually progress through sequential paneling are of Cerebus alone. Cerebus is predominantly in dialogue with himself, rambling madly about God and Rick. One of the pleasures of the series is Sim’s physical comedy, character interaction and exaggerated phonetic dialogue. By “Latter Days,” these elements have either disappeared, as in character interaction, or become so gross a caricature as to be incomprehensible. For instance, Sim “casts” Moe of the Three Stooges in the role of Moshie of the Three Wise Fellows. Moshie does not just speak in a phonetic approximation of Moe’s pattern of speech, but also in an exaggerated version of King James English – both at the same time.

The series is a staunchly independent work – all three hundred issues are comics done exactly how Dave Sim wants. But comics have, though not everyone would like to admit it, been as much an editor’s art as it is a creator’s. Dave Sim could have benefited from following outside advice and curtailing some of his more indulgent tendencies. But then, “Cerebus” wouldn’t be the same without said tendencies, would it?

Let’s look at an instance where Dave Sim’s freedom to make comics entirely on his own terms paid off. “High Society” is the most reader-friendly of the phonebooks. It stands alone reasonably well, if only on account of how early on in the series it occurs. It runs from issues 26 to 50 of Cerebus and was Dave Sim’s first conscious attempt to craft a series of issues into one larger book – still a new idea for the western comics idiom in the early eighties. Sim is not only aware of the totality of “High Society,” but is clearly cogent of the cohesion needed, and the sprawl that is inevitable, in undertaking a 300-issue project. Sim was aware, even that early on, that for the entire work to stand together in any comprehensible sense he needed to find a method in which serendipity and whim can be accounted for and brought into the fold of the greater totality.

Let’s look at “The Night Before,” in “High Society.” It’s the issue where Jaka comes to Cerebus at the Regency. Cerebus is now prime minister of the city-state of Iest and this is the first time they’re been reunited since the first handful of issues. Everything about the issue, its length, the picturesque starlit backdrop, and the weighted dialogue screams that this is an important scene – an emotional climax for Cerebus and a turning point within “High Society.” Sim plays everything up for the greatest possible dramatic and romantic effect. I mean – this is the reunion of Cerebus and Jaka after all! This is serious stuff!

But is it? You see, this is where Sim subtly starts to play with the reader’s expectations. The first meeting between Cerebus and Jaka, now that was an important scene both for the series and in Cerebus’ life. It’s just played for laughs- neither of the two characters know each other very well and to top it off, Cerebus is only coming on to Jaka because he’s doped up. It’s a stupid, inconsequential scene, but those end up being the moments where our lives change, and that is one of the chief things Sim is saying in “Cerebus.” You also need to hand it to Sim, by adopting this tactic he is able to retcon previous scenes and characters in the book that he didn’t give much thought to at the time and revise it within the greater scheme of the book later on.

Again, let’s return to “The Night Before.” Everything about how the story is told suggests this is an important interaction. But remember what Dave Sim (as a character when the two meet at the end of “Mothers & Daughters) said to Cerebus during the Second Ascension. Dave points out that Cerebus hasn’t ever really known anything substantial about Jaka. He doesn’t know what she cares about, what her interests. Cerebus doesn’t know much other than that he wants to be with Jaka. Their relationship is mostly a fantasy generated by Cerebus’ wishful thinking and which the reader is only happy to enable – after all, every story should have a strong, viable romance at its heart, right?

That’s not really what Cerebus is about though. One of the running jokes throughout the series is that scenes that play out like simple gags at the time often end up being the moments with the widest repercussions for the series. At the same time, scenes that feel like they’re important often end us as inconsequential, like “The Night Before.” For instance, when Moon Roach drops a rock on the Grand Inquisitor and kills him, it’s played for laughs. Then it’s forgotten, right? Actually, it isn’t. The death of the Grand Inquisitor sets off major changes for the papacy. The things we think don’t matter end up meaning the most to us.

Same goes with people. Weisshaupt, Lord Julius, even Cirin, are supposedly major players in Cerebus’ life. In a way, they are, but not as much as Bear, Jaka or Rick. Look at Cirin. She’s more of a non-character than anything else, though perhaps that can be blamed more on Dave Sim’s antagonism towards women more than anything else. Her name isn’t even her own, her real name is Serna; while Cirin is the name of the woman she overthrew in order to assume power. Cirin’s first appearance towards the end of “Church & State” is one of the big “reveals” in the series. Cirin is shown to be the second of three aardvarks seen in the series. But it isn’t only the reader’s first view of Cirin that makes this scene important, but something that looks inconsequential. We see that Cirin has a jar of seedling in water next to her bed. Cirin is using her aardvark magnifying skills to cause the seed to artificially blossom. The Cirinists, we see here, are undergoing experiments attempting to manipulate organic material – plants. This is first used to grow an herb that serves as a contraceptive drug. It isn’t until the very end of the series that we see where Cirin’s seemingly slight play leads.

In “The Last Day,” we are introduced to Sheshep, Cerebus’ son by a woman referred to as “the New Joanne.” The thing is, “The New Joanne” is actually a dead ringer for Jaka, who by this point in the narrative is long dead. Cerebus marries “the New Joanne” on account of this resemblance, and fathers Sheshep. “The Last Day” climaxes with a now full-grown Sheshep visiting Cerebus on his deathbed at Sanctuary. Sheshep reveals that Cirin is still alive, though supposedly in even worse shape than Cerebus. Sheshep and his mother have located Cirin and, apparently, tortured her until she gave them her secrets concerning bioorganic morphing. Cirin’s experiments didn’t stop at herbs, we learn as Sheshep pulls an infant clone of himself grafted onto a lion cub’s torso. It’s a natural progression from what we see in “Church & State,” but it’s only with hindsight that the reader is finally able to “connect the dots.”

I’ve mostly avoided discussion of the more tedious aspects of “Cerebus.” Its weaknesses are obvious. Look as far back to Cerebus’ First Ascension and you can see the first inkling of what would become the misogynistic text rants of “Reads” and the Cerebexegesis of “Latter Days,” where Cerebus dissects the first books of the Torah, word by excruciating word. Even the character reading the Cerebexegesis in the narrative begins skimming through it. What makes the First Ascension more palpable is its attention to visual pacing. The First Ascension concludes with Cerebus rising to the moon on a mountain of blackened skulls, where he meets the Judge, an omnipresent being who proceeds to tell Cerebus how the universe began. We learn later on in the series that the Judge got it all wrong, but it reads as pretty authoritative at that point in the narrative.

The problem is that Dave Sim abandons the visual playfulness of the First Ascension for “Reads” and the Cerebexegesis. Instead, we get text, dry, redundantly overwritten and malicious text. Sim prides himself on his incorporation of text within the comic book, but his prose is overripe and tedious. Look at the text pieces in “Jaka’s Story,” they’re horribly overwritten and only marginally get-by on the conceit that they’re “supposed” to have been written in that style by Oscar, the narrative’s stand-in for the decadent author, Oscar Wilde. Later prose excursions crop up throughout the remainder of the series, and also house some of the more offensive gender-politics in the series.

Sim maintains that the world is run by a coalition of Marxist-Feminists, though by the way he portrays it, he actually just means women and anyone left of himself regarding politics. His attacks are broad, ill informed and unfortunately aren’t remiss to stooping low enough to insult his “Marxist-Feminists” by depicting them as grossly unattractive and obese. A reappraisal of “Cerebus” after reading something like issue 186, an infamous text rant about the Male Light and the Female Void, uncovers some disquieting misogyny as early as the first book. Red Sophia’s mother is the typical “beast of a mother-in-law” that is the punch line of so many chauvinist jokes.

It’s funny then, that perhaps the most interesting and ultimately redeemable character in the entire series is a woman. I can’t even be certain Sim intends her as such, but Astoria comes out of the series as one of the, if not the only, character to escape the pitfalls of power. Like Jaka, Astoria first came to prominence in Estarcion as the “niece” of Lord Julius, a Groucho Marx stand-in who rules the city-state of Palnu and maintains a stranglehold on Estarcion through the control of interest rates. But whereas Jaka is ultimately beholden to Lord Julius for her position, Astoria forges her own path, both politically and personally, in her life. Astoria solidifies the teachings of Kevil, a sort of radical Zen philosopher, into Kevillism, a more progressive feminist doctrine ultimately promoting civil liberties and the freedom of the individual over Cirinism’s militant-agrarian fascism. When Astoria exits the series in “Mothers & Daughters,” she has renounced the religious fanaticism that could potentially have established her a position of power comparable to that wielded by different times by Cerebus or Cirin. Astoria follows the example of Suenteus Po, the third aardvark. Both Astoria and Suenteus Po denounce power and retreat to lives of solitude and intellectual study. Astoria departs from the cathedral where Cirin and Cerebus will later engage in bloody battle and leaves to become a gardener. A character without the greed and power-lust so central to almost everyone else in the series has no place in the narrative, and that is the last the reader sees of Astoria.

“Cerebus” isn’t an easy comic –not just in density or length, but also in ideology. Can a work of art be great if its ethics are reprehensible? Such a supposition would then force a certain status quo – this, then, is right, and this, then, is wrong. A work of art may judge us, but as we judge art in the capacity of readers, we should not narrow ourselves into qualifying on the basis of ethics. If we are to do so, then what exactly is “right?” Passing such a judgment wis a supreme arrogance. Then you’re no better than someone like Dave Sim, when he smugly writes off William S. Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” as “typing, not writing,” or when he supposes to have crafted a unified theory of the universe that scientifically debases and devalues womankind. It is uncomfortable and disquieting that “Cerebus,” a work of such hate and diffident pride, is one of the greatest works of art the graphic novel medium has yet produced, but it is exactly that, and to grapple with this angry and misogynist text might not harm you, it might actually cause you to better evaluate your own belief structure.

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