Thursday, February 08, 2007

Covering Cerebus, Part Four: In Which I Continue to Illustrate the Books with the Covers

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

The Church and State storyline (whose covers I have been discussing) is sixty issues long, so I have only begun to touch on its covers (and don't worry: I don't intend to talk about them all). I thought that at this point I'd move away from talking about the "mini-series" to mention a few specific, individual covers -- largely because I like them, though in most cases I also have a few points I want to make about them.

Here, for example, is the cover to issue #61:

Pretty simple, but still very effective. I also like the staccato nature of the titles: this issue is a series of short scenes, all with their own names: putting their titles in a list like that is both funny and intriguing.

The cover to issue #68 --

-- is, first and foremost, a marvelous piece of design: the from-above angle is wonderful, particularly with the title's lettering matching the window as the other "wall" to the cavern in which Cerebus sleeps (or, more accurately, tosses and turns: the cover is an illustration of a very particular two pages in the comic, when Cerebus tries to sleep as the light from the window moves across his ceiling. The cover shows a wholly different view of it than the interior, though.) Then there's the delicious fact that the logo is decidedly not shown from the same angle as Cerebus and the story title -- and is, indeed, outside the window, adding to the sense of vertigo. And of course the contrast of the black background with the blue night-sky and the white of the bed and the lettering is very nice too. Both these two covers show Sim's juxtaposition of black with the night-sky, in very different but equally interesting ways.

Next look at the cover to issue #85:

The gentleman in the foreground here is (basically) Mick Jagger who -- along with Keith Richards (still in the carriage) is one of the many real-world figures to be calqued into Cerebus's world. This cover is actually pretty basic as covers go -- nicely done but nothing all that out of the ordinary. What makes it work for me, however, is Cerebus's very subtle reaching out towards the bottle that Mick Jagger carries in his hand -- an indication of desire for drink that is both funny in itself and which promises further humor inside.

For the cover to issue #100, Sim took slices of four of his earlier covers -- those to issues one, fifty and seventy-five (all previously discussed), plus a bit of the cover to issue twenty-five which I didn't get around to mentioning. The overall effect is not all that overwhelming, but it's a nice way to mark where he's been and how far he's come:

A few of the issues from the "Church and State" story also allow me to show a bit of Sim's use of parody. One early three-issue sequence shows the sole superhero of Cerebus's world, the Roach, transform into his latest incarnation, Wolveroach, a direct parody of Marvel comics' Wolverine, who was then just getting popular. The covers were in particular a reference to Wolverine's first four-issue individual series, which was penciled by the then-emerging star artist Frank Miller (and written by the X-Men's then-current writer, Chris Claremont). Sim did three "Woveroach" covers, each of which is, basically, an iconic Wolverine image -- to the point where, if I recall correctly, Marvel made some noises about suing him for trademark infringement. In any event, compare Sim's cover to issue #56 with this two-panel sequence from the early pages of Claremont & Miller's 1982 Wolverine #2:

I think that this cover is pretty clearly not only taken from Miller's Wolverine, but from this sequence in particular. Most of Sim's parodies aren't that direct, but you can see the way he incorporates then-current comics elements into his work from this cover.

One other parody which Sim uses is more subtle, to the degree that not everyone might even agree that it's a parody -- but I think it is. On a number of Sim's covers, he uses a style of lettering which (it seems to me) is directly modeled on the style that comics great Will Eisner used in his stories of Jewish life on the lower east side, a sort of dramatic style merged with a "religious" look. Not everyone may see it, but I see the lettering in this cover to issue #64 --

-- as being not only a distinctly Eisnerian font (and layout), but a deliberately Eisnerian one.

Incidentally, on this list of comics' ten greatest letterers, Will Eisner was #2, and Dave Sim was #1. The listmaker explains why, in his opinion, Dave Sim is the greatest comics letterer of all time:
Novelty balloons. Novelty letters. Balloons that form panel borders. Balloons that fade into crosshatched blackness. "Telepathic" balloons that strike like pointed weapons. Thought balloons that-- get this-- do NOT belong to the character they point to, but belong to a Godlike Creator-Figure TALKING IN THAT CHARACTER'S HEAD. One character with four different internal monologues. I'm only scratching the surface here. Dave Sim has, quite simply, done more with lettering in Cerebus than anyone else has, anywhere. If you HATE Cerebus and want to be a letterer... buy it anyway.
-- Just another piece of evidence as to Sim's originality in the field.

Back to the covers.

A nice two-image sequence are the covers to issues #65-66. The first is simply a text on a black background -- illustrating Sim's talent for titles, but not really a striking design as such. The second rips away part of the previous image, to show Cerebus and one of his toadies creeping around in a basement looking for something:

It's an effective juxtaposition, alike in many ways but also clearly two different types of covers.

The final series from "Church and State" that I wish to mention are the three covers from issues #71-73:

All three are portraits against a background, with a slowly diminishing number of gold coins. But the groupings of the portraits here are also significant: the two groupings in the second portrait are two separate conversations from the issue; the tear across the third portrait represents the rend in relationships that occurs in that issue.

Finally, various elements of some of the series are brought back. So in this cover to issue #83:

-- we see a one-time return to the portrait-on-wall motif, with a very different wall, appropriate to the changed setting the story has taken us too. Also, of course, we have a return of the religious-font, working that motif in as well.

So those are the covers to the "Church and State" series. Immediately after that, as I have noted before, we get a very different storyline, one in which Cerebus and a few other characters live together in a tight, emotionally fraught setting: this is the story collected in the phonebook Jaka's Story (issues #114-137).

All of the sudden the covers are quiet, lushly colored, with characters shown reflectively, often partly obscured or turned away from the viewer. Typical are these early covers for issues #115-117:

The stories generally take place in (or near) the inn shown; the covers show us the outside, with people looking through windows or walking about. The change in tone very much captures the change of tone within the volume: the sense of a slow, quiet, small-scale drama, almost claustrophobic, is very much in keeping with the opening of the book.

While the covers for "Church and State" varied widely -- jumping about in tone -- the covers for Jaka's story change (for the most part) slowly, forming an ordered progression which recapitulates, in simple graphic form, the entire story of the book. (Thus we are going to have some spoilers for Jaka's Story in the next batch of images.) The above images are distant, for instance, but the framing creeps slowly closer while staying similar in tone, as in these covers to issues #118 (again Jaka walking) and #119 (again a character looking out a window):

Until, a few issues later, we get this image for the cover of #122:

Still, we have the outside of the building and the person looking out. But we are now moved in; and the change from a simple view out of the window to the voyeurism inherent in this image intensifies the feeling in a way consonant with the increasing tension in the story.

Then Sim shifts his viewpoint and shows us Pud (the person shown above)'s fractured view of himself on the cover to issue #123:

Still quite, still a person obscured, here however by the multiplication effect of the puddle in which Pud (the pun is clearly deliberate) views himself.

Then, in the next cover, we are inside: a reverse view of the window, with Jaka looking out -- obscured now not by the window frame but by her turning her back to us. Merely implied is the voyeurism of the viewer, looking at Jaka's wet and clinging dress from behind her (and that voyeurism too is part of the tale):

Over the next several issues we get more buildings (interiors and exteriors), more characters shown alone, often obscured or turned away; until at last we come to Jaka's climactic dance in issue #129:

The voyeurism is now blatant, Jaka's shown only by her legs (in an odd blue color -- I'm not sure why), as most of the other characters watch the viewer watching her.

But the dance is interrupted (#130) -- note the close-up, the subtly implied dramatic tension as we see only the smashing of the door without knowing who is breaking it or why:

And the story ends in a very different place than it began, a series of evocative covers -- again of interiors, but now of a prison; the major similarity with the opening covers being simply in the coloration, as otherwise the scene is now wholly different:

Note that even here we get a dramatic progression, with Jaka being led into a cell, a view from within the cell, and then, ominously, the door open as she is let out again (but, to increase the unnerving feeling of the image, the sense that this is not an escape, she is not shown in this last image -- only the empty cell).

And then the scene shifts yet again, to Jaka's interrogation (with a white color scheme displacing the black) for the final few issues of the story:

The white contrasting with the black of the previous few covers; the narrowness of the images embodying the way that Jaka is increasingly trapped, with no good ways out, by those in whose power she is.

And the final issue of the story -- the epilogue -- in which some high-society people discuss the ending is marvelously and quite differently shown with a photograph of what they might discuss it over:

-- the luxury of the tea-set contrasting with the plain exteriors of the inn in which our story began.

For now, I shall stop here. Those are some of the covers from the first 45% or so of the series -- all that I had read when I began to write it (although I have since read one further volume, Melmoth, an extended aftewards of sorts to Jaka's Story). I think I'd like to keep discussing Cerebus covers -- if only because I like them, so they're fun to write about -- but if I haven't convinced you of the marvel of Sim's covers by now, I probably won't. I also may add a final post simply adding a few thoughts about Cerebus as a whole in the wake of the discussion thus far, or reviewing the further volumes as I read them.

So while I doubt I'll be able to find the time to write it any time soon, watch this space for an eventual part five.

Update: Part five is now online here.


Matt Brady said...

Again, great commentary. I'm getting redundant. This really shows Sim's artistic talent, and although I haven't read it, I love the way he illustrates the progression of Jaka's Story. Very cool. I think the cover looking down on the bed might be my favorite here. That's an amazing image. I hope you get to write more soon!

Stephen said...

Thanks for all the positive feedback, Matt. It's terrific to hear!

The next part will probably be a week if not two -- I'm waiting on a few more volumes which I want to read before I comment on the covers. But I will definitely put up a part five, and maybe a par six. then. So stay tuned!

casinosoul said...

Hi, really enjoyed this analysis. Just wanted to add that one of the things I love about the Jaka's Story covers is the way they give the sense of the comic itself being like a doll's house - we start each issue looking at the scene from outside, and then open the comic, as if removing the front facade from the house, to get a closer look at the soap opera taking place within.

Anonymous said...

i thought jaka's legs were blue because she's wearing tights