May 6th, 2014

image from Cerebus 1

The problem with Cerebus is that it’s simply the wrong place to start. You throw people in with this as the starter and they’ll immediately turn away. It’s the work of an amateur, someone who was trying to break into the comics field, and who initially had no plan at all. Where the other Cerebus phonebooks are telling a coherent story, this one is a collection of snippets which only start to cohere into a proper story towards the end.

image from Cerebus 2

We do need to talk about Sim’s “anti-feminism” at some point, of course. Suffice to say, in these early stories, we don’t get much in the way of a hint of what is to come. We have neither the craft that is to follow, nor the disgusting views that were to turn Sim from hero of the alternative comics set to the pariah he became. You can, of course, see things in there now, looking back. No-one saw them then.

image from Cerebus 3

Cerebus, in its first few issues, was designed to do precisely one thing — appeal to the Marvel fanboy. The covers were designed to look just like Marvel covers, and the comics themselves were conscious imitations of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan, but with a Howard the Duck style funny animal protagonist. This was not meant to be an innovative comic — Sim thought it might last three issues and be able to get him some real work, by which he meant, yes, Marvel.

Even this early, we can see that Dave Sim is a man who is fundamentally not happy in his time. While the comic was as modern as it could be — perfectly fitting in with the Marvel comics of 1978 — his humour was that of an earlier time. Throughout Cerebus Sim would hark back to 1930s comedy, and that started early on, with Elrod — a parody of Elric who talked like Foghorn Leghorn, and who was Sim’s first truly inspired creation.

The only reason Cerebus had any kind of success is because Sim got in at the start of the direct market, when the comics industry was small enough that there were people who bought literally every comic that came out. At the time there were no real independent comic creators — there were the underground people, but they weren’t selling through the same shops as Marvel and DC. Only Cerebus and Elfquest were selling to the people who were buying Marvel.

image from Cerebus 6

While Sim later became an advocate of self-publishing, Aardvark-Vanaheim Publications was managed at first by Deni Loubert, Sim’s girlfriend (later wife), who also accidentally came up with the title of the comic, a misspelling of Cerberus. Loubert’s brother, Michael, came up with the map of Cerebus’ world that was printed in the back of early issues, and invented most of the place names. While Sim was writing, drawing, and lettering the whole comic, he was still reliant on other people.

Reading these early issues, it’s clear that Sim has no idea what kind of comic he wants to do. He jumps about between serious sword-and-sorcery fantasy stories that could be straight out of Robert E Howard and broad farce inspired by Warner Bros cartoons, not with the assured eclecticism that would come later, but with a sense of confusion, like he’s trying to figure out what this Cerebus thing is meant to be. But no matter what, he keeps going.

Cerebus became something of a success relatively quickly, doubling its circulation from the initial 2000-copy print run to 4000 copies by issue eight. It meant that Sim was no longer thinking in terms of getting work with Marvel, but criticising them in his letters page — saying he couldn’t work for them until they became “interested in solid storytelling and parallel development of art and story by the same creator.” How much of that was a pose is hard to say.

We will be talking a lot more about Sim’s attitude to creators’ rights as these essays progress, but it is important to note that Cerebus started out at a time when the Superman film was in preparation, and for the first time the public were becoming aware of just how shabbily Siegel and Shuster had been treated by DC Comics. Being a creator who owned his own work was suddenly something that began to look like a smart business move.

This early on, with little continuity between the issues, the only thing that held the stories together was the presence of recurring characters, mostly parodies of well-known figures from fantasy comics. While Elrod worked well, Red Sophia (a version of Red Sonja who is easy to beat in a fight and a bit of a ditz) was a sad pointer to the future, while Bran Mak Muffin had nothing going for him but the bad pun that was his name.

Then, after issue 11, something happened. Sim “had a nervous breakdown and played bull goose loony in the psychiatric ward of the local hospital for four days”, as he put it in the letters page of issue 12. While he was there, he had what can best be described as a vision. He got the shape of a storyline in his head, one that could take twenty-six years to tell. The story that started in 1977 would finish in 2004.

The story was originally going to be 156 issues, but by issue 14 the comic had gone monthly, and Sim decided to round it off to an even three hundred. As soon as he had his vision, though, the style of the comic started to change, and become more connected. Recurring characters started to interact with each other rather than just reappear as one-off companions for an issue. But Sim’s vision would affect far, far more than just his comic.

Cerebus was the direct inspiration for J. Michael Straczynski when he created Babylon 5, more than a decade later. In particular, Straczynski was inspired by the idea of doing a longform story in a serialised medium, one that had a well-defined end and structure and that lasted a number of years. He used Sim as the example of someone who had managed to do this successfully. Straczynski’s idea has now, of course, become the standard way of doing “cult” TV.

This means that Cerebus may be the most influential comic of its time on today’s culture — everything from Breaking Bad to Hannibal, every current TV show that relies on a planned, multi-season, story arc, is essentially the grandchild of Cerebus — and if Sim had achieved nothing else with his comic, that would in itself be enough to say he was one of the most influential comic creators of his generation. But Sim was improving fast as an artist and writer.

The story quickly moved away from the barbarian millieu in which it started (prompting the first of what would be a regular sight in the comic’s letters page, as people started to complain that it wasn’t like it had been when they started reading) and started to focus on two other subjects — satirising politics in the style of the Duck Soup era Marx Brothers, and parodying superhero comics in the style of Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s Mad strip “Superduperman”.

But these parodies hinted at elements of the larger story Sim was working on. Lord Julius may have been just the character of Groucho Marx (Paramount-era Groucho, obviously) dropped into generic medieval fantasy land, but his chaotic methods were those of the Illusionists, a faction that Sim would make one of the major players in his larger storyline. Not only that, but he was also revealed as the uncle of Jaka, a seemingly one-off love interest introduced in issue six.

The move to longer-form stories was accompanied by a change in Sim’s art. Rather than the slavish imitation of Barry Windsor-Smith which had been the style of the first few issues, now Sim was allowing himself to be influenced by classic comic artists such as Mort Drucker and Will Eisner, as well as contemporaries like Neal Adams and Frank Miller. The mixture of Drucker’s broad caricature and Eisner’s noirish layouts led Sim to a style unlike any other in comics.

Of course, that style was still that of a young, inexperienced, artist, and in some issues it’s very clear that the strain of writing, pencilling, inking, and lettering a comic every month made Sim cut corners — there are some issues with backgrounds that are mostly shadow — but the growth in his ability over these twenty-five issues is remarkable. It’s hard to believe that the last few issues in this first collection are by the same artist as the early ones.

What had started out as little more than a fanzine had now become a consistently interesting title, and Cerebus was, by late 1980, the most intelligent, witty, comic on the market. And it was about to get a whole lot more interesting. Issue 19 was when, as Sim put it in his annotations for the story, “the story started to get a little weird”, as he started to put the pieces in place for the multiple conspiracies in his plotline.

Issue twenty was something wholly different from anything that had come before — a story taking place entirely in Cerebus’ head, while he is in a coma (and communicating telepathically with one character while deep under, and talking to another in periods of lucidity), in which form followed content exactly — each page’s layout made sense on its own terms, but when put together they made one giant image of Cerebus. It’s a bravura piece, something that no-one else would have attempted.

But Cerebus wasn’t an art comic. It was still a funny animal comic aimed at a superhero audience, and with characters like The Cockroach (a superhero who, in this volume, parodies Batman as The Cockroach and Captain America as Captain Cockroach, and who Sim would use for much of the next few decades in various guises) it was closer in appeal to Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew than to something like Raw, which started at around this time.

The question was, would the people who were reading the comic to see Elrod, as Bunky the companion of Captain Cockroach, die and become Deadalbino (a parody of the DC Comics character Deadman) — a joke that required a huge amount of knowledge of and investment in superhero comics — want to see Cerebus become something more artistic, and not just the comedy it had been to that point? Given that some were still sore about the barbarian adventures ending, perhaps not.

While Sim was planning the most ambitious Cerebus storyline yet, though, he gave those readers a break, with something filled to the brim with pop-culture references. The last three issues in the Cerebus collection, issues twenty-three to twenty-five, take the basic storyline of Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiling (a wounded soldier behind enemy lines trapped in a girls’ school) and fill it with the kind of spot-the-reference jokes that comic fans loved as much then as now. The headmistress of the

girls’ school is secretly the bald psychic Charles X Claremont, who has made a monster named Woman Thing (who in turn later fights the Sump Thing), while all the enemy soldiers speak like Chico Marx (which is, unsurprisingly, setting things up for the next major storyline). The three issues at the end of the Cerebus collection, then, are comparatively unambitious compared to the issues immediately before them, but they were keeping a continuing narrative going in a way that simply

hadn’t been the case in Cerebus before. Cerebus was now a serial, as opposed to a series, and anyone who had struggled through those early, bitty, stories was now going to get something they hadn’t bargained for. In comics at the time, a three-issue story was a major event . In a world without reprints or trades, you had to keep stories short, so new readers could jump on. The next storyline in Cerebus was going to be twenty-five issues long…

32 Responses to “Cerebus”

  1. New Post on Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Cerebus, the first volume. Share [...]

  2. Matthew Craig Says:

    Fantastic intro, Andrew. It’s nearly ten years since I read the first phonebook – that and Issue Zero are the sum total of my Cerebus experience – and it’s nice to get such a comprehensive grounding in the series beyond the Windsor-Smithisms and parody figures.

    That Stracyznski drew inspiration from the grand holography (or something) of Cerebus when conceiving Babylon 5 should be less of a surprise than it is. That would have been an interesting thought process to peek in on…although, perhaps I might have waited until he’d finished his shower. Comics’ ranging influence on the wider culture, man. Peanut butter, criminology, television. Always something new and surprising.

    Funny how nobody mentioned that self-assembly Cerebus macro-comic when Alan Moore, J H Williams III and Todd Klein published their final issue of Promethea. (Disclaimer: I’m sure somebody would have)

    Excellent work, Andrew. Looking forward to the next chapter.


  3. tam Says:

    Really good, thoughtful article but I think it’s a bit unfair to make too much of the early representation of Red Sofia or suggest it’s representative of what came later. For one thing she’s a parody of Red Sonja who if memory serves behaved in pretty much the same way in many crappy 1970s marvel comics.
    For another, Sim had a pretty wide range of female characters including Jaka, Astoria, etc who were much more rounded and believable than any other comics around at the time. Although admittedly, that’s not saying much… By all means, have a go at Sim for his opinions, but don’t make the mistake of blaming him for all the cultural sins of the 1970s!

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    None of the more rounded female characters appear in the first volume (Jaka’s there, but very far from being a rounded character at this point). I will be looking at them more as the series progresses.
    I think it is interesting to point out the casual sexism in the very early issues, because while it then goes away for a long while, I think it *does* say something about Sim’s attitudes and where they come from.

    a couple of people did bring up Mind Game in their reviews of Promethea’s last issue. I mentioned it to Moore on one of the brief occasions I got to meet him (at a meet and greet/signing after a talk he did) and he said “we wanted to show that you can be clever *without* being a misogynist”…

  5. Oliver Says:

    I think Sim’s views were at the time very feminist and liberal. However the work might play in hindsight and whatever missteps were taken -Red Sophia was meant as a satire of the casual sexism in comics.
    I know it’s hard to wrap one’s head around how one person can do a 180 on politics, religion and gender etc and you must think it was there all along.
    If you want to read his views on women from when he was young -you can read this article he wrote in the 70s “Men and Women, the Feiffer theories” http://comicscomicsmag.com/posts/2009-11-12-dave-sim-versus-jack-kirby.html He takes his hero Jules Feiffer to task for not being feminist enough -as you can see Sim had given this a lot of thought and is by all accounts an extreme feminist. If there’s a red thread to his life that you are looking for…i’d say it is that he always does things to the fullest.

  6. Greg Hunter Says:

    “This means that Cerebus may be the most influential comic of its time on today’s culture — everything from Breaking Bad to Hannibal, every current TV show that relies on a planned, multi-season, story arc, is essentially the grandchild of Cerebus ”

    Doesn’t this assume an awful lot about the influence of a marginal program like Babylon 5? Or its uniqueness, for that matter? I have to think someone like David Chase would have proceeded in much the same way whether or not Babylon 5 made it to air. Even among ’90s genre stuff, Buffy and The X-Files did similar things with larger cults.

  7. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Greg — neither Buffy nor The X-Files had a clearly defined narrative, over a number of seasons, set out in advance, with a predetermined end point. Babylon 5 was, so far as I’m aware, the first series to do that, *ever*, and it was a proof of concept that showed it could be done. And according to Straczynski, at least, the main reason it took so long to make it to TV was precisely because no networks believed that a planned multi-year storyline was possible.

    (I also think both Buffy and The X-Files started after Babylon 5, but I’m not sure — Buffy’s the only one of the three series I’ve watched more than one or two episodes of.)

  8. Andrew Ducker Says:

    X-Files and Babylon 5 were contemporaneous – both started in 1993. However, X-Files clearly didn’t have thee same kind of long-running plot. There was a background arc, but it rarely took over show in the same way.

    Buffy did intra-series plots very well, but always tied up by the end of the season (albeit sometimes with deliberately dangling threads, much like most comic series do).

  9. Illusionator Says:

    Really interesting points re story plotting, and a fair assessment of the first phone book Andrew. Your writing brings so much that I didn’t know about a subject to mind, yet not in an intimidating way (I also loved your 50 stories for 50 years pieces). Also this “community” (i.e. comments sections on this site) feels like a really healthy forum for discussion and disagreement. Anywho, I did keep thinking of The Prisoner as a story with multi-season (well, 2 I think) plot “arc”, but I’m not entirely sure I’m on firm ground there as it’s a long time since I re-watched that or read anything about it’s conception, and am even less sure there was as much planning to its resolution/story plotting as has been ret-conned by those responsible.

    Not having read Cerebus as a monthly, I was unaware of the psychotic episode (or period of being institutionalised) Sim underwent. Between which stories in this phonebook did it happen (purely out of interest)?

  10. Andrew Hickey Says:

    The Prisoner’s an interesting one, but I wouldn’t think of it as having a plotted story as such — basically you could shuffle all the episodes except the first and last, and it would work pretty much as well (although then again that’s also true for the chapters in The Trial).

    Sim’s period in the hospital happened between the first and second Cockroach issues.

    And I’m glad you like the community here. We try to keep it somewhere where people are very welcome to express their opinions, so long as they don’t act like complete arseholes too often. It seems to work more often than not.

  11. Illusionator Says:

    Thanks for the response Andrew. Yeah re The Prisoner, I think I was maybe starting to feel down those lines. It takes more than just having a definite end to make an arc(I.e. The story needs to take some kind of cogent path to get there).

    Looking forward to reading along with this

  12. Mercy Says:

    It’s certainly easy to read Sims’ misogyny back into the Red Sonja parody, and I know I did when I first read it. The issue isn’t so much her character as Cerebus’ reactions to her, which match a sort of resentful fantasy of sexual invulnerability that crops up a lot in military/sf fiction. A side villianess assumes she can wrap the hero round her little finger with her womanly wiles, and is enraged when he sees through and dismisses her attempts.

    It’s a sort of “put her in her place” fantasy that’s rather revealing of the author’s sexual hang ups. The “what do you think of these” bit is as condensed a summary as you’ll find, but Sim repeats variations on it every time the character shows up.

    Anyway my point is I think, having read further into the series, that I was wrong to jump to conclusions about it. The glee that Cerebus feels at shutting down a seduction attempt is clearly linked to his emotional insecurity and problems with Jaka later. It’s playing off a misogynistic trope, but not blindly – Sim sees, and demonstrates, that this sort of hypersensitivity to sexual manipulation and pride in shutting it down, reflects a fear of emotional intimacy and/or women.

  13. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Mercy — the problem is that Sim thinks that fear of emotional intimacy and women *is a good thing*…

  14. Oliver Says:

    Just a reminder: Cerebus is that way with everybody in the early series. It’s not so much a reflection of Dave Sim as it’s a reflection of Cerebus’ nature. Mickey Mouse he ain’t:) Cerebus’ misanthropy was the hallmark of the series back then.
    There is actually a certain equality at play here….to just focus on when it happens to be with a female in the series and not the men might be telling more of the reader than of Sim in this instance.
    @Mercy not wanting to be sexually manipulated doesn’t reflect a fear of intimacy and/or women. That’s a scary proposition and I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, but it might reflect some misandry or something…or maybe not:)

  15. Joe Vecchio Says:

    I wasn’t aware that JMS had patterned Babylon 5′s long-term storyline after what Sim was doing with Cerebus, but even so, while B5 may have been the first American scifi series to do that, it was far from the first. In England for example you had Blake’s 7 and of course anime had several, from Space Cruiser Yamato to Mobile Suit Gundam or even a more mundane storyline like Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku. Just a thought.

  16. Andrew Hickey Says:

    JMS definitely patterned Babylon Five after Cerebus — he said so in an interview with Sim in an issue of Following Cerebus magazine.

    As for the other examples you give, Terry Nation never even had enough ideas to flesh out the first series of Blake’s Seven without Chris Boucher’s help, let alone coming up with a multi-season plot in advance. I know nothing of anime, but having googled the examples you give, Space Cruiser Yamato seems not to have had any sort of advance plan, Mobile Suit Gundam ran for less than a year, and Maison Ikkoku was an adaptation of a pre-existing series from another format.

    I don’t know of any other series before Babylon 5 that was plotted out in advance, that was not an adaptation of anything else, and that spanned multiple years, with a set end-point.

  17. Owen Says:

    I look forward keenly to more articles on this subject, Mindless people.

    Just wanted to mention that personally I had not thought about Cerebus for years, until just recently – Stewart Lee’s recent show included an episode where he had a pop at UKIP. I felt there was an uncanny resemblance between an actor portraying an overweight UKIP activist on a beach, and the Judge/Man in the Moon featured in subsequent Cerebus stories.

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  19. David Says:

    Breaking Bad doesn’t really seem like a good fit for this. Season 2 was heavily planned, but 3 was heavily winged (which is why there’s a weird shift in the middle of the season – the writers reached a season endpoint way too early and had to rearrange and try different things) and the flash forward scene at the start of s5 was written before the series finale. The Nazis were added as a way to explain the opening (and it’s also why there’s a shot of Walt leaving behind his watch – Cranston/White wasn’t wearing it in that shot so they had to write around that). There were some end goals for the series, but a lot of it was created as it went along. I see it more like The Fugitive than Cerebus; eventually The Fugitive would find the one armed man and Walt would end, but it didn’t seem as planned as you make JMS’s B5 out to be.

  20. Andrew Farrell Says:

    I can well believe that Sim had the general plan as regards time scales and political movements mapped out, certainly more than I can that he was planning a Three Stooges pastiche or a close read of the Torah.

    The order I was always told to read Cerebus was second volume, then first volume, then second volume again, then onwards.

  21. grant Says:

    >>I don’t know of any other series before Babylon 5 that was plotted out in advance, that was not an adaptation of anything else, and that spanned multiple years, with a set end-point.<<

    Wrote a longer comment about this, but it's been vanished or something.

    Shorter version: *telenovela*! Not terribly well known genre before *Ugly Betty* in English-speaking television, but definitely a part of growing up and flipping channels in South Florida and Southern California.

    I watched a little bit of one called *El Samurai Fugitivo* – based on the same story I'd later see in comics as *Lone Wolf & Cub*. I think it was produced in the 70s….

    Anyway, the oldest telenovelas go back to the 1950s, and the first thing I thought of when I heard of JMS's Babylon 5 plans was that he was doing an English-language science fiction telenovela.

    Beginning-middle-end, plotted out to cover many months or years. I think in their original format, they were broadcast daily, so lots and lots of episodes.

  22. grant Says:

    Oh NOW the comment appears in the “awaiting moderation” queue. That’ll show me to go switching between computers!

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