Friday, February 16, 2007

Covering Cerebus, Part Five: In Which Further Books Are Judged by Their Covers

Part five of a series. The earlier parts are here: part one, part two, part three, part four.

Before moving on to discuss the covers of Melmoth, the story collected in the sixth "phonebook" compilation of the Cerebus comics, I thought I would pause for a moment to discuss a few other covers that aren't part of the ordinary run of 300 issues of Cerebus.

First up are the dual covers for Cerebus Issue Zero. "Issue Zero" was sort of a mini-compilation, released in 1993, which collects the issues which were left out of the early collections (#51, #112-113, #137 & part of #138). (In fact, the proprietor of the central Cerebus site on the net, Cerebus Fangirl, says that in her view Issue Zero is the best introduction to Cerebus, since it's a good selection of different styles while also being reasonably priced.) In 1993, Sim was still early in the second half of the Cerebus storyline; but he had definitely moved beyond his "earlier, funnier" phase -- parts of which could be found in Issue Zero. So Sim's cover alludes to that, as well as displaying Cerebus's characteristic truculence:

But that wasn't the only cover: there was another, the "gold" edition. In the early 1990's, there was a trend of releasing comics with variant covers -- the same comic, the same contents, just with two different covers. This is still done today, but was particularly widespread in the 1990's -- and, back then, more than a few poor saps still suffered under the misapprehension that these comics (often printed in runs of hundreds of thousands, occasionally even more) would be worth a lot of money, and thus bought all of the various covers. In any event, Sim made fun of this by releasing Issue Zero with a second -- and I believe rarer, although I might simply be making that up -- cover: but this cover wasn't even a different cover. The title was in a different color -- and the dialogue was different. Otherwise, not only were the contents identical, the actual cover images were too:

Of course the dialog is quite funny -- or at least I find it so -- displaying a bit of Sim's humor, usually not the aspect of the series most evident from the covers. And it's fun how Sim double-purposes the image to fit with two sets of dialogue. (The speaker's skateboard, incidentally, says "Spawn" -- another self-published comic (recall Sim was a great advocate of self-publishing), one which was quite popular at the time, and also one to which Sim had actually contributed (for a single issue.))

Then there are the covers to the actual phonebook collections themselves. I'm not sure I like these quite as much as the covers to the individual issues -- partly because, except for the last few, they aren't in color; partly because there isn't the sheer multiplicity of them which allows Sim to play so many fun games with the covers to the individual comics. They can be wonderful, though. (Another fan site, Cerebus the, has a few of the phonebook covers without their titles and so forth -- and in their full, wraparound version rather than just the front covers -- available as wallpapers, so where possible I'm going to use those. Mostly I think the Cerebus covers integrate the titles very well -- often they are essentially to the images -- but in the case of the phonebooks, the cover images seem to work best plain.)

The cover to the collection High Society shows Cerebus approaching the Regency, the hotel at which most of the story is centered -- and works, basically, as an opening panel for the first issue:

This is one image where the effect is, I believe, mostly Gerhard's -- but it's appropriate to highlight this too since he was, after all, Sim's artistic collaborator for much of the series (although, as it happens, not for the part included in High Society), and his art adds a lot to Cerebus overall.

Also wonderful is the cover to Church and State II, showing a scene from Cerebus's religious quest, with the figure of the aardvark dwarfed by the surrounding dark:

That one makes a pretty fine wallpaper, actually.

The cover to Jaka's Story actually shows part of the childhood storyline, unlike most of the covers to the individual issues in which it was serialized (couldn't find a wallpaper version of this one, alas, so here it is with titles -- and less resolution):

And the cover to Melmoth is wonderfully evocative of that book's depiction of a slow, hard, natural death -- the death of Oscar Wilde, as well as the tavern in which it is largely set:

-- And that brings me back to Melmoth, and the covers for its individual issues.

Melmoth was a brief storyline: only 12 issues (#139-150); it looks downright skinny next to the large, hulking collections that collect the earlier issues, although by the standards of other graphic novels it's not particularly short (just shy of 250 pages). Apparently the shorter, slightly cheaper format sold well, which is why the first half of the Cerebus run is collected in six volumes but the second half is spread over ten. As I mentioned, Melmoth deals with the death of Oscar Wilde -- or his avatar in Cerebus's world, but in this case the parallel is as close as possible: place names are substituted (Iest for Paris), but otherwise the story is taken rather closely from the documentary sources we have about Wilde's death: many of the letters of the friends who attended him are quoted nearly word-for-word as the text of the comic. ("Melmoth", incidentally, is the name under which Wilde was registered at the hotel in which he died.)

Many of the covers are exteriors rather similar to the exteriors used in Jaka's Story -- although the color palette is different and there usually isn't the ominous sense of watching that there is is so many of the Jaka's Story covers. Here are a few in this style, from issues #139, 140 and 146:

These are simply quiet, beautiful images (click for the larger version to really see); the contrast between the day and the night in the first two is particularly nice, as is Wilde's friend walking him home. The cover of #146 again has someone at the window, but he is looking at something inside the room, and has more of a sense of loss and waiting than of disturbed, voyeuristic watching.

The other common type of cover in the Melmoth storyline are interior views of the sickroom in which Wilde lays dying, such as these from #143, 144 and 148:

Here we have Wilde's sickbed, Wilde's friend writing one of the letters whose text makes up the issue, and an aerial view. I think that the aerial view is particularly well done: it is the death issue, and there is the sense of distance which could be interpreted either as the disorientation of grief, or as a heavenly view, perhaps even of a departing spirit. And again, the color schemes in all three covers are lovely, particularly the light in the cover to #144.

Throughout this story, Cerebus sits outside the inn where Wilde lays dying, in shock from (his misinterpretation of) the events of Jaka's Story. Neither he nor Wilde is at all aware of the other; the stories are simultaneous but detached. (Not everyone thinks the juxtaposition works, although I felt it did.) Only one cover in this sequence shows Cerebus, #145:

Again we are outside the same inn, although this time without the lush backgrounds that are present in most of the storyline's covers, perhaps to indicate Cerebus's detachment from the world, perhaps to distinguish the fantasy of his storyline with the realism of the story of Wilde's death.

Then, in the final issue of the storyline (#150), we get this image:

Seemingly yet another inn exterior, if anything simpler and with less interest than the previous ones... except that, as we look again, we see the blood splattered on the inn's door. This recreates the effect of the issue itself: starting with Cerebus outside the inn, there is a radical shift in tone, a sudden outbreak of violence, as events suddenly ramp up after two slow, quiet storylines and a bloody confrontation sets up the second half of the overall Cerebus story (or at least I presume it does; I don't know for certain, since this is the last issue I've read!) It's a wonderful off-panel effect, in which the central subject is not shown, in which the tone of the overall image, deceptively similar to the other recent ones, is disrupted by the blood splattered within it.

How much stylistic variation there is within any particular storyline's covers itself varies: there was a huge range of styles in the "Church and State" storyline, whereas the covers from Jaka's Story and Melmoth are more tightly integrated, stylistically, within each series. I think it's fair to say that the stylistic unity of the covers for Cerebus's storylines tend to increase over the course of the run, but this is not at all a hard and fast rule: it's a general trend that seems to appear in a scattered field of data, and whether you see a trend with lots of exceptions or a simple chaotic variance probably says more about you than about it. In any event, after the (comparatively) tightly unified style of the Melmoth covers, the next storyline contains considerably more internal variation. This storyline was labeled "Mothers and Daughters" on the covers of the issues themselves, but it was published in four separate phonebook collections, each with its own title -- sub-storylines, if you will.

The first of those volumes was called Flight, and the covers of the issues collected in it (#151-162) are, as I said, a varied lot. Many of them could be said to "simply" depict moments from the story -- except a lot of them are both stranger and prettier than this would imply, depicting scenes that are abstract or symbolic or strange, as the story takes increasingly metaphysical twists. And of course, even some of the more straightforward covers are quite beautiful, such as this cover to issue #151:
-- Although the context is a bit bleak once you read the story, the actual image is simply gorgeous.

Other covers from this run reflect the bloody events promised by the cover to issue #150. For example the cover to issue #153 shows Cerebus, covered with blood, sword out, exhorting the people of Iest; the cover to the following issue shows the same scene a moment later, as the people react to his sudden and inexplicable appearance:

I find the first image quite funny (the people's expressions are incongruous with Cerebus's bloody pose) -- perhaps unintentionally so, since there's nothing very humorous about the scene itself; but the second image is deliberately and appropriately creepy, particularly when paired with its predecessor.

My favorite cover from this sub-storyline, however, is the cover to #157; but to explain why I'll need to back up a bit. Several issues of Cerebus are titled "Mind Games" (after the John Lennon album, apparently), numbered in sequence -- so that #29, for instance, was "Mind Game II". There isn't a totally consistent pattern for the covers to these issues, although they tend to have a motif of Cerebus repeated multiple times. "Mind Game V" was #156, and its cover was an explicit throwback to Mind Game II, as you can see:

In both cases the multiplied Cerebus is shown in a window, with a similar border, and against a black background.

Now look at the cover to #155-157 in sequence:

In the cover to #155, we have Cerebus in flight (as per the title of the phonebook); this is interrupted by the cover to "Mind Game V" (as happens in the story). And then in issue #157 we have "Mind Game VI" -- as it is indeed so-called -- but Cerebus deliberately refuses it: flies away (continuing, as it were, his journey from #155 -- although far more confident now). We can see the window-image, the 'Mind Game' logo, indeed the Cerebus: Mothers and Daughter logo too, all at the bottom of the image: Cerebus flies away from it, refusing (or trying to) the next Mind Game. On its own it's simply a nice image, but in context, it's genuinely wonderful.

The second phonebook in the "Mothers and Daughters" storyline is called Women. A few of the covers of the twelve issues (#163-174) it collects are, like many of the covers from the issues collected in Flight, simply scenes illustrating the story within; but most of them are in fact based on a very particular pattern: showing a character (or characters) important in the issue against a solid black background. Good examples are these covers to issues #166, 169 & 170:

Actually these are also examples of covers that (however odd it may sound) each portray a scene that takes place within the comic; but the scenes are portrayed in a common (and striking) style.

Sometimes this style is combined with other features as well. In at least one case, for example, it is combined with a parody. In the Women sub-arc, the 'Roach' character, who over the course of the series had parodied a great number of superheroes, becomes a parody of Neil Gaiman's Sandman (perhaps a reflection of the shift that occurred in the comics market about then) -- a parody that Gaiman himself has called "easily the best parody of Sandman anyone's ever done", saying that it had him "curling his toes when he read it." Appropriately, then, one of the covers for this run of Cerebus -- that of issue #165 -- is a parody of the style of cover that Dave McKean did for the beginning of the Sandman run. Compare the cover of Cerebus #165 with the cover of Sandman #1 and 3, and you'll see what I mean:

The face of characters in the issue (in the case of Cerebus, Roach reborn as Swoon, with his 'sister', Snuff) are surrounded by a series of boxes with small images of various mysterious (and presumably symbolic) objects. But of course in the case of the cover to Cerebus #165, this is set within a black background, making it similar to the covers from the later issues as well. It's just that the characters of Swoon and Snuff are also portrayed in a way which mimics a McKean Sandman cover.

Finally, the covers of the last four issues collected within the Women phonebook, #171-174, make a lovely tetrad:

Again we get a character, important to the issue, surrounded by a black background. But in this case the characters are stylized to look like Tarot cards (on the left of each cover), and are paired with a collage of other artistic images (on the right) which match the personality of the figure depicted in the "Tarot" image in various ways. (Actually, in its use of collage, I think there is a distinct (if less direct) McKeanian influence upon these as well, but it's less clear than in the case of issue #165.)

And that brings us up to the next phonebook -- and, again, the limit of what I've read thus far. So I'll stop here for now. I do plan to do one or two more posts analyzing the rest of the covers in the run, plus a final post with concluding thoughts on Cerebus as a whole -- and getting to reccomendations at last. The next post won't be up immediately -- it may be a couple of days or more -- but (FSM willing) it'll be up eventually. So stay tuned.

(Update: In case any of you are waiting brethlessly for part six, it's coming. The delay on the next part is due to a shipping delay in my order containing the next few trades. Hopefully this one will come in another week at most, but it all depends on the mail.)

Further Update: Part Six is now online here. I've also put up an index post with links to the entire series.


Matt Brady said...

Good stuff, as always, Stephen. One question: on the Sandman parody cover, there's a photograph on the top of the image border. Is that Dave Sim wearing Neil Gaiman-style sunglasses?

Stephen said...

And as always, thanks for the positive feedback, Matt.

As for the picture: you know, it doesn't look like Sim to me... but I've got a bad eye for faces. I can't really tell who it is. (Anyone out there know & want to jump in?) Be neat if you were right, though.

Steve B. said...

You're close. It's Gerhard. There are several photos of both Dave and Gerhard on the *back* covers over the years, and I've met them both in person. No doubt about it.

Interesting series of essays, by the way.

Steve Bolhafner