Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sixteen thoughts about Cerebus

This last weekend I finished reading the 16th and final collected edition of Dave Sim's Cerebus. It's taken me some time to get through the series so I thought it fitting to gather up some of my impressions into Sixteen Thoughts About Cerebus. As befits Cerebus, the following is a bit of rambling:

#1: Coming at Cerebus so many years after its inclusion has given me a strange perspective on the series - I say "strange" because my years as a comic book fan and collector ran parallel to the development of Cerebus, yet not once did I seek the series out nor even glimpse it on the shelves. From all I knew of Cerebus - first gleaning it was very well-considered in the 80s, later ill-favoured in the 90s & 00s - I determined I wasn't in the target audience. Who was this assumed target audience? I have no clue, although I may have imagined them as caricatures of beatniks, replete with turtlenecks, goatees and bongo drums.

When I read of Cerebus on the internet today, it's difficult to untangle how people feel about the series because they all seem to have lived through the 300-issue run. They hitched their waggons to the Dave Sim pony, only to later grow furious at said pony for choosing to ride through a muddy, swampy bog. I lack the original context Cerebus was published against and while I likely missed many, many situational references, I think I'm better off reading Cerebus now. I doubt I would have had the patience to last until #300 if I had begun any sooner.

#2: The availability of Cerebus is a tricky thing. Even though my local shop keeps two shelves worth of Dave Sim material in-stock, some volumes of the trades are not easily acquired. This delayed me from reading the series as quickly as I'd hoped - I actually thought I could read 1 volume per week when I began this more than 2 years ago! It was also during this two year period that 1) I supported the High Society Digital Kickstarter and 2) my employers (University of Calgary Library) set out to acquire a full set of Cerebus. It seems as though there was something in the air.

#3: Part of what eventually drew me to Cerebus was the knowledge Dave Sim is a fellow Canadian. Which, I think I had known for decades, yet because Canadian media tends to lower your expectations when compared to British or US standards, I think I assumed Cerebus and by extension Sim were inferior. Mea culpa. I had already come to enjoy Sim's storytelling via Judenhass and glamourpuss - finally, I know him for his most widely-read work and recognize he is easily numbered among the greatest comic book creators.

#4: I'm even fond of the very early Sim when he was still learning his craft. It's not great, but it's an earnest effort. One of the joys of the first volume of Cerebus was seeing Sim discover his talent story-by-story, until he was essentially fully-formed by the end. Gerhard's later backgrounds were certainly very fine, but the panel shapes & sizes, the facial expressions, the carefully-considered placement of captions - that's what I marvelled at.

#5: However, for me, Sim's lettering was easily the most astonishing aspect of the series. Lettering is one of those disciplines (like colouring) which fans only ever seem to bring up when it's done poorly. Sim's lettering is phenomenal. So much of his characters' personalities came through in the way their speech was designed - the shape of their words were as important as the words themselves. It became particularly noticeable in later volumes where often verbal repartee was the only "action" on the page.

#6: I'm not normally one who enjoys fiction about horrible people (hence my spurning Mad Men), and yet Cerebus' cast of terribly disappointing people are fairly tolerable. Certainly the humourous bend of the series helps. Cerebus himself was clearly unlovable by the end of the first volume and that's firmly cemented through Church & State. Yet I was willing to carry on with his story in a large part because of the humour. Even then, as awful a person as Cerebus was and as certain as I was that the prophecy of Cerebus' death would come true, I did want to see good things happen to him. Even though I'm very forgiving to fictional characters, it's strange I should be so forgiving to someone whose author was clearly not going to let off the hook. Colour me naive.

#7: Speaking of humour - Sim's range runs the gamut from pratfalls to jokes so tasteless they cross the line twice. This was a series which makes gags about hurling infants to their doom. That's jokes, plural. Fortunately, comedy was never too far from the centre of this series. I thought the Roach was an odd distraction the first time he appeared, but oh, how I came to appreciate his appearances as the series progressed.

#8: I can't say I share in those interests of Sim's which become part of the narrative, being indifferent to Woody Allen and the Three Stooges, more interested in the fiction of Oscar Wilde & F. Scott Fitzgerald than I am in their personal lives and as of yet uninterested in Ernest Hemingway. Heck, I'm not even a huge Barry Windsor-Smith fan and the series originated as one great BWS/Conan parody. Regardless, at no point was I unable to follow the narrative because of Sim's references; no one ever seems to interpret art in the way its creator would prefer, but even though I may have been on the outside of many of Sim's references, I didn't feel excluded.

#9: The plots, though - whew! By Church & State I was having considerable difficulty keeping up with the references to the Cirinists and Kevillists, etc. Because the series was usually told from Cerebus' perspective, frequently significant events occurred outside his ken and I found it difficult to catch-up on what was occurring off-panel.

#10: For that matter, the series had a tendency to become text-heavy (oh, you think so? sneers everyone who read to the finish). Giant, staggering blocks of text broken up by illustrations, rendering the series as much of an illustrated novel as it was a comic book. This is the one place where I think serialization held an edge over the collected format - I think I would have been a more attentive reader had I been handed an issue of text-heavy Cerebus, as opposed to, say, 100 text-heavy pages in the Latter Days trade. Similarly, while I digested glamourpuss just fine as a serial, I doubt I could endure it as a collected work.

#11: Is the later Cerebus any good? I think so. The religious commentary seemed to be a diabolical test of the audience's willpower, but Latter Days contained many gems: notably, the tournament between Cerebus and Paul "Coffee" Annan was Sim at his best; the Spawn parody brought back fond memories of earlier Roach gags; I even found a lot of humour in the Three Wise Fellows, despite my lack of interest in the Stooges. It's only when Woody Allen entered Latter Days that I began to tune out; fortunately, I found the Last Day to be a very strong finish. I don't regret reading the entire series, despite the many internet screeds exhorting readers to quit after Melmoth.

#12: Misogyny. As a human on the internet writing about Cerebus, I am contractually obliged to mention it somewhere, yes? I signed the I Don't Believe Dave Sim is a Misogynist petition before ever reading Cerebus and I still hold to that opinion. I do believe Cerebus' content was, at times, misogynist - but I don't hold to the popular opinion that this content is the true face of Dave Sim. I appreciate that Cerebus tackles issues about male/female relationships from a perspective many would balk at assuming. Again, you are free to call me naive - but I enjoyed approaching these ideas from an unorthodox viewpoint. I like to question authority and people's innate assumptions - perhaps that's why I found the ideas Sim expressed fascinating. Opposing the mainstream was surely part of why I decided to tackle Cerebus to begin with.

#13: After Church & State, there's a terrible sense of melancholy which permeates Cerebus. Cerebus was informed he'd die alone and unloved and we readers had no reason to doubt he both deserved it and would get it in the end. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Cerebus - moreso than anything to do with hurled infants or its relationship to feminism - was that promise of Cerebus getting what he was due. It lurked behind every fleeting moment of happiness the character achieved in the remaining twelve (!) volumes. But then, even Cerebus' latter debauchery (opening a titty bar or founding a terrible religion) seemed fleeting - things were terrible but never so bad they couldn't get worse. At least there was nothing good to look forward to!

#14: Melancholy crept over me as well. Cerebus was doomed to struggle through 12 more volumes of his book and I, having determined I would finish reading the series, was doomed to struggle with him. Humourous asides such as Cerebus' suspenseful climbing of his chair (in the Last Day) or bizarre diversions such as Roarin' Rick lecturing Cerebus (in Guys) could only briefly distract me from the overall pointlessness of it all. The gradual thinning of the cast down to merely Cerebus himself just reinforced the sense of futility. If you dared invest yourself in the Regency Elf, Lord Julius, Elrod, Astoria, or, Tarim help us, Cirin (oh, how I perked up when her name appeared in the Last Day!), you were damned to disappointment.

#15: And there, I have to applaud Sim for daring to refuse fan service. He could have coasted from on the format popularized by High Society and Church & State for the rest of the series. He could have made Cerebus (gasp!) a decent person. Cerebus wouldn't be the only misanthropic cynic who audiences found favourable. Thinking (for instance) of Howard the Duck, there you have an outsider who sits in judgment over the rest of culture and we (presumably) want to see Howard stick it to The Man (even if The Man is us) because we identify with the underdog. Early in the series you could mistake Cerebus for an underdog protagonist who outwitted people which were his seeming betters (it even felt as though High Society were leading him to such an end). And yet, it was gradually clear that Cerebus' myopic avarice was not a design flaw for him to repair - it was his built-in feature. He was terrible and if we did see ourselves in him... well, congratulations, we're terrible too. Just because you're a cynic and an outcast, it doesn't imbue you with righteousness. All those muttonheads you look down upon? There always someone else looking down on you.

#16: The conclusion of Cerebus, in which our titular protagonist was drawn into The Light, held some interesting commentary from Sim about readers mistaking this as some form of Heavenly reaward - understandably, seeing as Cerebus' fallen castmates were waiting for him on the other side. All the same, I'm surprised so many people fell for it. Why would an eternity with all of his semi-friends be rewarding when he was so supremely unsatisfied to be with them in life? Come on, Elrod is on the other side. Ah say, it's The Other Place. Hades, that is, and ah don't mean Missouri. That's a joke, son.


R. W. Watkins said...

Do you mind if I repost this essay on my Comics Decoder website? I could use a nice Dave Sim piece. I posted my email address in one of your comment boxes but you never got in touch for some reason...

Michael Hoskin said...


I've given it some thought and concluded I'd rather not re-post my work elsewhere - it's not really fit for a wider audience and best suited for publication on my personal blog.

R. W. Watkins said...

Suit yourself; but I fail to understand why someone would bother writing anything for the Internet at all if they're not looking for a wider audience. When I write something, I expect everyone from Pope Francis to Jesus to be tuning in. Your essays/reviews are certainly better than average; I can't see why you would want to limit access to them. It's interesting that you should be Canadian. With the exceptions of poet/cartoonist Jessica Tremblay and myself (both Canadian), I think everyone who has written and/or drawn for my site has been American or British. Canadians tend to hide their light under a bushel for whatever reason--or simply take a nonchalant approach. I've never understood that. I know from personal experience that it doesn't go down too well with American editors, publishers, etc.

Michael Hoskin said...

It might be because I'm still getting over eight years spent writing for Marvel - I've sought that larger audience, found it wasn't what I wanted, and am now happier writing to please myself.