Cerebus: High Society

June 5th, 2014

(Some of the images here are very blurred, but can be seen more clearly in the full-sized versions, viewable by clicking through the bandwidth-optimised ones used on this page)

We all think we could make a difference.

In 2008, Gorton North was held by the Liberal Democrats with 42.8% of the vote. In May 2014, the same council seat had the Liberal Democrats coming third, with 13.2% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats ended with no council seats in the whole of Manchester, which is now a one-party state.

The reason I mention this is because in the second of those elections, a week and a half ago as of this writing, I was the Liberal Democrat candidate. It would be pointless trying to write from a position of detachment about High Society, the second Cerebus phonebook, which is almost entirely based around an election campaign, so I’m not even going to try.

High Society is where, by common consensus, Cerebus really gets good. It’s a political satire, combining elements of the Marx brothers, Looney Tunes cartoons, and comic book culture, and it lasted for twenty-five issues — a ridiculous length back when a three-issue storyline in a superhero comic would be considered an “epic”.

It’s also, as many people have pointed out, almost completely incoherent when it comes to the actual politicking involved. Sim at this point clearly knew little or nothing about politics, and it’s clear that he had several conflicting aims — he wanted to show the rise and fall of Cerebus in the political arena, which had been established as existing at the whim of Lord Julius, an absolute dictator, and yet he also wanted to satirise the electoral process. So we get Cerebus arriving as “the ranking diplomatic representative from Palnu” — an appointed position, but then Elrod is nominated by Lord Julius as the new ranking diplomatic representative. However, rather than this leading to Elrod just taking on the role, there is instead an election — an election voted for not by the people of Palnu, but by the people of Iest, the state to which he is to be the representative.

This makes no sense on any level — even after Sim’s revelation in a chat on the Cerebus Yahoo group that Lord Julius (the dictator and Groucho Marx figure) is intended to be a plant working for the Illusionists (a group of drug-mystic anarchists who are one of the minor factions who are fighting in the background throughout the first two thirds of Cerebus) and so the political system is meant to be as confusing as possible. And it gets worse when the first of the political conventions portrayed is shown as a comic convention, with Cerebus and Elrod signing autographs and doing sketches for fans.

[ETA Michael Peterson has pointed out on Twitter that I don’t make it clear here that while the election starts as the election for ranking diplomatic representative, Cerebus ends up standing for Prime Minister]

What Sim appears to have done, in fact, is to read Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (a classic account of the 1972 election campaign when George McGovern lost massively to Richard Nixon) and use that as the basis of his story, twisting it to fit the plot points he needed to hit in his grand narrative, and filling in the gaps with comic culture references and a kind of bargain-basement populist politician hatred, of the South Park/UKIP/Russell Brand variety.

And yet…and yet…

The feeling of the book will be utterly familiar to anyone who has taken any kind of active part in political campaigning. It feels like real politics — building up a coalition of diverse interests with nothing in common except that the candidate they support will get them some of what they want, desperately figuring out which interest group’s votes you can count on and which you can’t, negotiating policy positions…

In a situation like that it becomes very easy for the idealists to become obsessed with the machinery and lose sight of their ideals, but it also becomes easy for the egotists and machine politicians to get swept along with the enthusiasm for change. People have criticised the moment when Cerebus says “For a while there, Cerebus thought he could… make a difference…” as being unearned sentimentality — Cerebus only gets involved in the campaign at all for the same reasons he does anything, to get money, power, and an easy life, and he has no ideals at all, so for him to say he wanted to make a difference seems like the worst kind of mawkishness.

But in fact, it rings as true as anything in the book. For every idealist who loses sight of their principles as soon as they get a sniff of power, there’s a machine politician who, once they realise that the levers of power are theirs to pull, starts thinking “hang on, I could actually do something good here”. Everyone has a view of how the world should be, however incoherent, and when presented with the opportunity to reshape the world very few people will not have some ideas for improvement.

That makes High Society sound like it’s a serious political work, however, and it’s not. It is, in fact, as funny as Cerebus ever gets. While Sim is laying the groundwork for a much bigger, longer, story to come, he’s also working on a more sophisticated version of the joke that made up the very first issue of the comic.

Cerebus, at this stage, is all about genre clashes, and by this point Sim has got the clashing down to a fine art. Each of Sim’s characters belongs to one genre, is in a story of another genre, and quite often thinks they belong in a third genre. The prime example is Cerebus himself, a funny animal who thinks he’s a barbarian hero:

But there’s also Elrod, a Looney Tunes character who thinks he’s a high fantasy Moorcock character:

The Moon Roach (the character who was formerly the Batman parody The Cockroach and then Captain Cockroach has now become a multiple-personality parody of Moon Knight who drops enormous stone crescent moons on bankers while shouting “Unorthodox economic revenge!”) thinks he’s in a superhero story, and most of the supporting cast think they’re in a Regency novel.

Only Lord Julius, who remains somewhat in the background in this story, seems to have a clue what’s really going on — but then Groucho always did seem to be the only person in any of the Marx Brothers’ films who had any kind of genre awareness, at least if you don’t count his brothers, and while Bran Mak Muffin is here reconfigured as the Zeppo figure, a comic as writer-driven as Cerebus would never have had room for a character as visual as Harpo. And as for Chico — or “Duke Leonardi” — well…

Let’s just say that Duke Leonardi isn’t great at understanding things.

The result is that the narrative, while structured like a political campaign story in the same genre as Primary Colors or All The King’s Men, is driven entirely by characters working not just at cross-purposes, but towards purposes which none of the other characters can even comprehend.

As well as the All The King’s Men similarities (although Cerebus’ arc from ego-driven thug to principled leader is the opposite of that of Willie Stark), the obvious comparison is Being There, a film which had come out a little under two years before the High Society storyline started. Much like Chauncey Gardner, Cerebus is someone with so little in common with the political world that his plain-speaking stupidity is taken as great political wisdom (although unlike Gardner, Cerebus has a huge amount of cunning). This only works because everyone is talking past each other the entire time.

While Sim was, of course, to move away from this formula in later storylines, there is a hint of it in everything up to issue two hundred, in the games and counter-games, strategies and plots, that dominate Church and State and Mothers and Daughters and make up the background on which Cerebus’ life plays out. There’s a very thin line between politics and farce, as anyone who watches the news will attest, and in this genre clashing Sim has found the perfect engine to generate farcical political intrigue.

But part of the reason Sim couldn’t keep this kind of storytelling going indefinitely is that people — and aardvaarks — are changed by their environment, and realistically there was no way to keep Cerebus as a barbarian after two years of political intriguing in a setting whose culture is closer to the late eighteenth century than to Hyperborea. No matter how rough and uncultured Cerebus remained, there was no way he could go back to questing to defeat nameless demons and steal gold and jewels. Once he had a taste for politics, like many of us, Cerebus couldn’t turn back.

The story ends with Cerebus’ dreams of power crushed, his supporters dispersed or locked up, and his power-base gone, seemingly for good. Yet, as we shall see, he can’t stay out of politics now he’s been in it. Cerebus is down, but he’s not out.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the more idealistic of his supporters. It’s revealed at the end that the hilariously inaccurate history of Cerebus’ abortive political movement, excerpts from which have been peppered throughout the story, is being written by a political prisoner, who despite everything is keeping alive the dream, even though it was a dream that his leaders didn’t share.

More than a few of us know how he feels…

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