Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Covering Cerebus, Part One: In Which I Walk the Standard Line

So I've been reading Cerebus.

Aside from those who respond to such a sentence with "what's that?" (or, "don't you mean Cerberus?"), there are two general reactions to this statement: "At last! What took you so long!" and "Why would you want to read that?!" This sort of divided opinion is, perhaps, not unusual; what is unusual about Cerebus is that most people who've read it are likely to have at least some of both -- and to often have both in a very strong form. I want to talk about some of what produces this divided reaction -- and why I have greatly enjoyed much of the series, while simultaneously hesitating to recommend it to anyone, certainly not without loud and repeated warnings.

But first a bit of background for those who's reaction was "Cerebus who?"

Cerebus was an independent comics series, written and largely illustrated by its creator, Dave Sim. Written, illustrated, and published, I should say, since one of the several reasons that Cerebus was legendary in the comics world was Dave Sim's practice (and general promotion) of self-publishing. Sim was a pioneer in this practice (which is, I should mention, both more common and more respected in the world of comics than in the world of prose publishing); he began at a time when Marvel and DC were even more dominant in the market than they are now, and managed to successfully publish his comic (including making a living at it) for decades. He also encouraged others to self-publish, put out guides about how to do so, and directly and indirectly inspired many other artists in their own self-publishing ventures, including Jeff Smith's Bone and Eddie Campbell's Bacchus. Sim also promoted the work of other comics artists in his book, publishing sample pages and occasionally longer excerpts as back-ups to his main story.

That's the first reason that Cerebus is legendary. The second is its sheer length, as part and parcel of its ambition. Although originally bimonthly, it quickly become a monthly comic, and Sim announced fairly early on that it was going to run 300 issues -- quite an ambition even for a mainstream comic worked on by rotating teams of writers and artists, to say nothing of a largely one-man operation. But Sim stuck with it, and, between 1977 and 2004, did in fact put out 300 issues of Cerebus -- to date a record for a single title being worked on by a single writer/illustrator, I believe. So it was quite an achievement in terms of its sheer existence. (These issues have since been collected into 16 volumes -- graphic novels avant la lettre -- the form in which they are most often read today; these are known to Cerebus aficionados as "phonebooks" due to their size (particularly the early ones) and their (comparatively poor) paper quality.) Nor was it simply 300 disconnected issues; while there were, as mentioned, occasional back-up features, the main story continued over the entire run, and in fact Sim considers the entire 300-issue, 16-volume, 6,000-page series a single graphic novel.

But that's also where the problems begin.

For while Cerebus's admirers are legion -- Sim's friends, supporters and (former or current) boosters are a who's who of the comics industry -- almost no one admires the entire 6000-page series; it might even be accurate to say that literally no one likes the entire thing save for Dave Sim himself, although probably there's someone out there who will prove this wrong. But overall Cerebus is held to be a decidedly -- quite possibly a fatally -- flawed masterpiece. Indeed, it's generally held to be flawed in two distinct ways.

The first flaw is the less serious one: the beginning is both amateurish and decidedly less ambitious than the remainder of the series.

Cerebus began its run as a parody of then then-popular Marvel Comics series Conan the Barbarian: Cerebus himself is described as "Cerebus the Aardvark" -- for yes, Noble Readers, although I have not mentioned it until now, Cerebus himself is an Aardvark. (This turns out not to mean what it seems to mean early in the series, but for many dozens of issues at least, Cerebus is just that: an aardvark, a walking, talking animal in a world of humans. (Sim has said in defense of this that "we're all funny animals in a world of humans.")) So the early issues are simply an aardvark running around doing the sort of bashing-people and hell-raising that Conan does -- with a light and humorous touch, to be sure, but it still feels rather like a Conan comic. Not really a promising beginning for a 6,000 page work.

Sim soon began adding multiple other layers to this format, until soon the Conan-parody was buried underneath a literary artifice of some complexity. It's still there -- and it persists in having (at least in some of the volumes) parodies of other then-popular comics crop up in the story, not always in the most smoothly-integrated of ways. This is but one reason I would hesitate to recommend the series to anyone, despite its many good points: if you haven't read the comics Sim is parodying, then a fair chunk of the humor will be lost. My first intensive comics-reading period was roughly concurrent with the original publication of the Cerebus issues serialized in volumes two and three, so I got most of the jokes (less so in volume one, I suspect), but for those who don't parts of it will seem odd at best -- still funny in many places (Sim is among other things a very good cartoonist in the draw-funny-pictures sense of the term), but readers will be left wondering why a character called, of all things, "Moon Roach" is wandering around in a story which he seems to fit poorly at best.*

Add to this the fact that Sim's drawing started out as far from the polished, beautiful production that it would soon become (it gets visibly got better over the early issues) and it makes the beginning of the series flawed indeed.

The reason that this isn't as serious a flaw, however, is that it has a fairly simple, fairly effective solution: you can simply skip volume one, and begin with volume two, High Society. You'll have the sense that there are things going on that you don't understand -- but if you go back and read volume one (as I eventually did, since Bob told me to) you'll discover that far less of that is explained than you'd think: much about Cerebus's world simply begins mysteriously and is revealed only slowly. The main thing you'll miss is the introduction of a number of characters who, however brief, amateurish or low-aiming the stories they debut in, become important later on. The most significant of these is Jaka, Cerebus's true but unrequited love for much of the series. She reappears in High Society, and while it's obvious that they have some history, you won't know what it is. But if you in fact go back and read about it, you'll find the reality is much less than you thought -- whatever you imagined is probably richer than what you'll find there. Other characters are introduced in Volume One as well -- Lord Julius, the politician who is drawn as a spot-on Groucho Marx pastiche; Red Sophia, a parody of Conan character Red Sonia who like her goes around in a chainmail bikini; and so forth. But you can more or less figure out what's going on, at least in the first few volumes, without reading volume one.

This is not an original point of mine, incidentally; while opinions differ, the most common advice on the net is to skip volume one and begin with volume two (which is why I did so); and I'm here to tell you that the common opinion is right. You don't need to read volume one. Certainly don't start with it, or you'll never get to what's good.

The second flaw is more serious -- and harder to avoid.

The second commonly-held flaw is the fact that Dave Sim reveals himself to be a blatant misogynist -- and I don't mean a misogynist in the "if-you-deconstruct-the-work-you'll-see-subtle- -ideas-which-portray-women-in-a-sexist-light" sense: rather, Sim begins inserting directly into his work a misogyny of the sort that one usually finds only in the ranting letters of gunmen who shot up a school-full of women before committing suicide. Sim also comes across as crazy -- quite possibly in the literal, medical sense -- although I think this is less agreed upon. These two phenomena are connected: Sim starts unveiling a worldview which is both fundamentally hateful and totally loony. Finally, some even start to say that Sim's late work is dull.

But it's the misogyny that really kills it. It is because of this that you could reverse the sentence I wrote earlier and note that Sim's detractors are legion as well: not because, as Sim himself apparently thinks, he is some sort of persecuted minority, but because his views are, simply, wrong both factually and morally.

But what's worse is that they are also explicitly inserted into Sim's work.

This is the point (if I'm not already long past it) to note that I am still in the middle of reading Cerebus: I haven't finished it yet. I've read volumes one to five, which collect all but three of the first 136 issues,** or just shy of forty-five percent of the series. (And yes, I have volume six on order.) So while I can talk about the amateurish nature of the beginning, or the multiple fine qualities of the middle, with personal authority, I can't talk about the ending that way.

...except for the fact of the most serious piece of misogyny in the series, a ten-page text excerpt that was inserted in the middle of the infamous issue #186. (Sim inserts prose into the series here and there; that in itself is not unusual.) That essay -- about, basically, how horrible women are -- has been reprinted online; so I've read it -- or enough of it to see that the charges of horrific misogyny are clearly true. (Although no one I've ever seen has disputed them, save for Sim himself.) So while for the rest I'm going by reputation, for that I'm not.

Now, one could easily do with the end what I have suggested with the beginning -- skip it -- except that where to end is much, much less clear. The "begin with volume two" advice is pretty solid: but while (almost?) everybody bails on Cerebus at some point -- in terms of admiration for the story, even if they actually keep reading it -- there is a lot of disagreement about when it goes off the rails.

Part of the problem is that some early elements are arguably misogynistic -- especially in light of what was to come -- but in a way that is disputable. For example, a rather horrific rape scene was seen by some as a sign of misogyny -- but it's portrayed (largely off-panel, I might add) as horrible; has bad consequences for the perpetrator (at least predicted -- they haven't come to pass in the part I've read thus far); and is -- given the circumstances -- in character for the rapist. So it is arguable: some say that more-or-less any rape in fiction is a sign of misogyny, a point that would be more easily arguable in this context if Sim didn't later sign up for the misogynist camp so openly.

Then there is the matriarchal religious cult that gains power: a satire on feminists, to be sure -- but then Sim also satired patriarchal religions earlier on, and their rise to power occurs in the midst of a lengthy and sympathetic character study of Jaka, a sensitively portrayed female character. (Ironically, at one point Cerebus was known for its strong, rich female characters -- for a while Sim had an unusually high female readership.) So maybe it's just satire, presented (as Bob says) as SF.

So it's hard to say where Sim looses it. His infamous screed occurs late in a fifty-issue storyline, Mothers and Daughters, which is collected in volumes seven through ten. One of the reason I haven't read the whole thing yet is that, as I continue, I am increasingly set with trepidation -- will this be the place where Sim looses it? And of course his later hatefulness can't help but color the earlier books somewhat, even if they are, on balance, fine works. With each volume I read, I grow increasingly fearful that the next one will be bad: a sort of literary Russian Roulette: you know the bullet's in there somewhere. One is increasingly tempted to quit while one's ahead.

But why start? Sim starts out bad and goes mad: what's to like? Sure he did a lot for self-publishing, but who cares if the work sucks? A Conan parody that descends into misogyny -- what's to like? Or, to return to one of my earlier reactions -- "Why would you want to read that?!"

In part two -- to be posted in a few days, work willing -- I will attempt to answer that question. There will be illustrations. Stay tuned.

Continued in Part Two.

* The answer is that the Roach -- who keeps getting new identities, so he starts at the Roach, then is Captain Cockroach, then the Wolverroach, then the Moon Roach, and so on -- is the single superhero in Cerebus's world, who is used to parody whatever superheroes were hot at the time (in the examples listed, Batman, Captain America, Wolverine and Moon Knight); later he parodied Neil Gaiman's Endless by becoming Swoon. Sim has said that the Roach's odd intrusions to the story mimic the way he experienced comics -- why do superheroes keep coming into things? -- but this doesn't lessen the oddity of the experience for readers from a later generation, particularly those who read few (or no) superhero comics.

** Somewhat frustratingly, issue #51 (which would fall between volumes two and three) and issues #112 - 113 (which would fall between volumes four and five) were not put in any of the phonebooks -- though not, apparently, because they are sub-standard: in fact, they are widely praised. Along with two other uncollected issues which follow volume five, they are available as "issue zero", which I hope to read but haven't yet got ahold of.


Matt Brady said...

Stephen, this is really great stuff. I haven't had a chance to read parts 2-4 yet, but I can't wait. I think I've only read most of volume 1, so I should definitely read more, since as you and everybody else says, it gets better. Keep up the good work!

Stephen said...

Thanks, Matt.

Yeah, volume one is simply not as good -- not nearly as good -- as the later volumes. Try two; if you don't like that, well, maybe Cerebus isn't for you.

Meanwhile, in parts three & four I try to give some sense of Sim's talents by looking at the Cerebus covers. Maybe it'll whet your appetite.

grendelkhan said...

It's not the longest single-creator comic ever written. I believe it's the longest-running single-writer comic (if you gloss over Gerhard's absence from most of the first quarter, longest-running single-team comic) in English, followed by Erik Larson's The Savage Dragon. There are manga series which are much longer (though I don't have page counts); consider Hajime no Ippo (81 books) or Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen-mae Hashutsujo (156 books)--I believe both were single-author, though they've gone through a number of "assistants" for the art.