June 11th, 2014
There are various things that are crucial to understanding Dave Sim’s work, but which the essays on the phonebooks themselves won’t give me enough time to discuss. So after every two phonebooks we cover, I’m going to take time out to look at these subjects. The plan as of this writing is that there will be essays on Oscar Wilde, Sandman, Sim’s misogyny, Warner Brothers cartoons, the self-publishing field in the 80s and 90s, and the documentary hypothesis of the writing of the Old Testament.
June 5th, 2014
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:
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…
May 6th, 2014
March 31st, 2014
“What do you think he’ll do now, then?”
“Kill himself, I suppose”.
Those were the words I heard, between the man behind the counter who was ignoring me, and the customer leaning on that counter, when I went to Forbidden Planet ten years ago to purchase my first Cerebus trade, High Society, after reading good things about it in Neil Gaiman’s Adventures In The Dream Trade and… strange things about it on Andrew Rilstone’s website. I didn’t realise at the time, but they were talking about Dave Sim, the writer, artist, letterer, and publisher of the comic I was buying, who had just released the 300th and final issue of Cerebus, cover-dated March 2004.
That is the kind of coincidence upon which Sim, who is thankfully still alive and well, would build a whole cosmology. He’s not a man who believes in coincidence. It may, in fact, be the only thing in which he doesn’t believe.
There are only two opinions anyone holds about Sim’s magnum opus. Either they think it’s one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time, or they haven’t read it.
This is literally true. But it’s not as uncritical an endorsement as it may sound. Put simply, Cerebus is a work that does everything it can to put readers off, so the only people who’ve managed to get to the end of the story (which takes place over the whole three hundred issues) are those who are predisposed to like it.
There are many reasons for this. One is the sheer daunting size of the thing. It’s six thousand pages of comics, all telling a single story. That’s a *massive* work. That’s Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four, plus Sandman, plus Watchmen, plus Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, plus From Hell, plus all the Alec comics. It’s the length of every Judge Dredd strip in 2000AD up to about 1997. And it’s all the work of two men — Dave Sim doing pencils, inks, writing, lettering and publishing, with, for the last 225 issues, background artist Gerhard (who draws possibly the most exquisitely detailed photorealistic line art in comics history).
On the other hand, it’s less than six months’ current output of DC superhero titles. So, you know, it’s not that much more of a commitment than many comics fans are willing to make.
The second and third problems are really the same problem. It’s a man’s entire life’s work (Sim has since done 26 issues of Glamourpuss, a short work of graphic non-fiction called Judenhaas, a couple of jam strips and some covers for IDW, but Cerebus is what he devoted his life to), but it’s one story. Reading it is rather like being told one has to listen to all the Beatles’ records in order, from the very first recording of John singing Puttin’ On The Style at a village fete in 1957, through all the stuff on the Anthologies as well as the released records, through to Paul, George and Ringo recording I Me Mine in 1970. Fascinating, no doubt, but one would quickly want to just skip to Revolver and leave the recordings made in Paul’s room for another day.
The first few issues of Cerebus are painfully amateurish — they look like the kind of stuff that kid in your class at school who was quite good at drawing and really liked Dungeons & Dragons would draw, because that is to all intents and purposes what Sim was at that stage. But they’re part of the story and you’re meant to have paid attention, because Sim is going to expect you to *remember* in issue 151 that in issue 4 Cerebus picked up a gem but later dropped it into a sewer. So there’s a tendency to just bounce off before you get to the good stuff.
Then there’s the fact that no two Cerebus storylines are anything alike. It contains parodies of Spawn and Preacher, a potted biography of the Three Stooges, potshots against The Comics Journal, fantasy sequences with Woody Allen appearing in Bergman films, and a close, line by line, reading of the first five books of the King James Version of the Bible. And that’s all just in one of the sixteen books. If you like one aspect of Cerebus that’s no guarantee you’ll like the rest.
The way I recommend people approach Cerebus is one I got from Andrew Rilstone — start at the beginning, and keep reading until you hit two volumes in a row you don’t like. Once you hit two you dislike, you’ll probably not like any more. But if you just hit one, the next one might be different.
If you don’t like the love-triangle domestic drama you might like the non-fiction account of the last days of Oscar Wilde’s life. If you don’t like the barbarian story with a funny animal protagonist you might like the Marx Brothers pastiche political satire. If you don’t like the blokey comedy set in a bar where 60s pop icons mix with 90s indie comic characters, you might like the three-hander about the schizophrenic having religious visions. If you don’t like the vicious parody of Sandman you might like the long diatribe about how women are evil leech-like creatures who exist only to sap all the creativity from men and leave them hollow husks…
Here we get to the third, and biggest, obstacle to people wanting to read Cerebus. Sim himself.
The usual one-word summary of Sim is “misogynist”, but that’s not strictly true. He *was* a misogynist, for a while, in the early 90s, but his views are now far, far stranger than that. Put simply, he believes that all women, all LGBT people, anyone who holds any post-Enlightenment views whatsoever, people like Wahabist Muslims who hold the wrong *pre*-Enlightenment views, his parents, his sister, the Canadian government and press, the comic industry, atheists, liberals, socialists, and all major Christian denominations, are all, mostly consciously, working for an evil trans* demiurge called YooHWHoo, who lives in the centre of the earth and who caused the 2004 tsunami because she was angry that Sim had revealed the truth about this in his comic.
He also believes that he, and he alone, can see the true message in the Bible and Koran, from which he has created his own syncretic religion, and that women were psychically spying on him when he masturbated.
He is, in short, quite obviously mentally ill, and while that illness initially seemed to fixate on women, it has widened to encompass everyone in the world who isn’t named David Victor Sim.
(Oddly, Sim seems quite friendly with all these groups of people who he thinks are working for the most evil being in the universe. He’s said that other people’s immortal souls are their own business, and is quite happy to consort with the evil creativity-sucking infidels).
And this can definitely put people off from reading Cerebus — understandably so. Had I known about Sim’s views before starting to read it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. But I did, and ten years later it’s still one of those works that make up a large chunk of my mental architecture, whether in little ways like additions to my stock of phrases (“your other left, most holy”, “you can get what you want and still not be happy”, “Capostrophe! Calumnity! Catachresisclysm!”, “”One less mouth to feed is one less mouth to feed”, “Mind your manners, son! I’ve got a tall pointy hat! Status, boy! You can argue with me, but you can’t argue with status!”) or in larger ways (I can honestly say that reading Jaka’s Story did more to make me something approaching an emotionally mature adult than any single other experience I’ve ever had).
So over the next few months, I’m going to look at each volume in turn, and try to persuade you of the opinion I hold, the one that everyone who’s read the whole of Cerebus holds. On the way, we’ll take a lot of digressions — we’ll talk about comic creators’ rights, the black and white boom of the 80s, 1930s comedians, an unfinished Beach Boys album, Warner Brothers cartoons, Philip K Dick and more.
Or at least, that’s the plan. No plan survives contact with the enemy. After all, when Dave Sim got the plan for the 300-issue Cerebus story, he was a self-described atheist feminist. But then, as Suenteus Po said, “The more worthwhile the Road, the more seductive will be those paths divergent from it.”
September 19th, 2012
Dave Sim, who since the death of Will Eisner has been probably the greatest living all-round comics creator, is releasing his classic graphic novel High Society as a Kickstarter-funded digital version on October 10.
To promote this release, he is doing a virtual tour of comics sites, including Mindless Ones, on October 10, answering interview questions. However, he’s doing it with a twist — he wants us to post the questions we’re asking here *now*, in advance of the blog tour, and leave comments open for readers to ask questions, some of which he will also answer. Anyone whose question is chosen will receive a free autographed back-issue of Cerebus, with a personalised head sketch.