Thursday, March 08, 2007

Covering Cerebus, Part Eight: A Conclusion, in Which Recommendations Are At Last Made, with General Ruminations about the Nature of Love

Part Eight of an eight-part series. An index with links to the entire series can be found here.

So after all that, am I suggesting that everyone run right out and read themselves some Cerebus?

Not quite.

I will say that anyone who is specifically a comics fan should read Cerebus -- at least the central volumes which, from my current perspective (i.e. someone who read the first 2/3 of the series and then bailed) are volumes 2-5: High Society, Church and State I, Church and State II and Jaka's Story. (After that, people will know more than enough to decide whether to go on for themselves. I will say that while you can safely read volumes 2-5 without having read 1 -- and, in fact, probably should read them without having read 1, since if you try to read 1 you won't get to the others -- that if you intend to go much past volume 6 you should probably go back and read volume 1.) As to why I think that comics fans should read those volumes... I hope that this entire series, particularly parts three through seven in which I surveyed the covers of the monthly Cerebus comic, will show why: it's a marvelously innovative comic which is glorious in its use and exploration of the medium. So if you care about the medium, you should read it.

-- But that's just comics fans: people who are the equivalent of film buffs, who care about the medium as such.* We all know that most people don't fall into this category; but what is, I think (although this may be wishful thinking) increasingly true, is that even most people who actually read (some) comics don't fall into this category, in the same way that most people who see movies aren't film buffs, and most people who read novels aren't people devoted broadly and generally to the novel as such. With the ongoing mainstream acceptance of comics is coming (or will come, if it continues and is successful) people who just read some comics the way they just see some movies or just read some books -- who have various types of interests that intersect with some comics, or who are willing to just pick one up if it's good (by whatever their standards are). Comics fans often indicate a wish to convert other people into being comics fans, fans of the medium as such; but a far more reasonable goal is to get people to simply see comics as one more medium to occasionally seek out entertainment, enlightenment or information from -- one that is (potentially) equal to any other.

And to those people -- people who don't have a developed interest in the medium -- I can't really recommend Cerebus. There are a whole lot of graphic novels that they can try, and I encourage them to do so; but not Cerebus.


Well, a bunch of reasons.

A lot of them are just all those negative reasons I talked about in part one: as the series goes on, Sim reveals himself to be a misogynist, if not a flat-out lunatic; the series starts weakly and ends badly, so that it's not a satisfying overall work of art. And so on. I shan't repeat myself about these reasons... except to note that that last reason is really quite unfortunate: there are a lot of serials (or even just plain stories -- think Huckleberry Finn) that start out weakly and then get better, or that start out well and then end disappointingly, and for the most part we feel that we can recommend them anyway, encouraging people to (in the former case) skip or bull through the weak parts to get to the good, or (in the latter) endure or skip the end after enjoying the beginning. It's not ideal, obviously, but it's not quite fatal either. But somehow a series that starts and ends poorly is much harder: it feels much more like a simple mess, and the good parts begin to seem to buried and partial to be worth digging out.

So that's one set of reasons.

A second set of reasons are that so much of what makes Cerebus good are things that will appeal, centrally, to fans of the comics medium, namely his talent with and innovation in it. While Sim certainly does have moments of sublime humor or awe or any of those other things art can invoke, his good points are too tied up with being a path-breaking cartoonist to recommend to the general public.

And a third set of reasons are a cousin of those, namely, that even some of Sim's other good points won't be clear to those without a grounding in comics. This is true above all of his parodies: they are some of his funniest material, but unless you've read the relevant comics (which comics fans are likely to have, since they're pretty-well known, but others aren't, since they're not that well known), they'll fall on deaf ears.

This relates to yet another point, one I haven't managed to work in before this, namely, that for all Sim's ambitions to create genuine graphic novels, with the weight (in every sense) of real novels, what he created feels to me very much a comic book series -- not in form or genre or anything like that, but in its simply being a work created over time, reacting -- often in quite specific and now-dated ways -- to the changes of the time, without the possibilities of retrospective revision. SF critic Samuel R. Delany has talked about how SF series are often packaged as novels, where in fact that is a misleading metaphor: he suggests as a comparison the serially-composed poem such as Ezra Pound's Cantos, where the later number critique the earlier ones, and it is much more a process than a single artistic unity the way (we imagine that) novels are. The same may be said for many comics later collected as graphic novels, I think; and it is true in particular of Cerebus: it is a work produced over time, with later issues critiquing (changing, rewriting, undermining) the earlier ones, in reaction to changes in history and the creator's life and the artistic field and all those things. And yet again this is a reason not to recommend it: it is not one work, that a casual fan might pick up and enjoy, but rather a whole complex artistic and intellectual process that you need to really dig into to get what's worth getting.

Ultimately, Cerebus is simply a series which one has to forgive too much to enjoy. Comics fans will forgive it, enough to get a lot out of it; others probably won't. Read another comic. There are lots of good ones out there.

I suspect that Cerebus fans will be annoyed with me at this point. They will claim, with some justification, that I am underselling the series' good points. But it's not just funny and gripping and doesn't just have great characters and amazing moments of beauty and terror and awe, I imagine them saying; it's funny and gripping and has great characters and amazing moments of beauty and terror and awe!

And they're right, of course, as far as that goes. This is the reaction of love: that what we love is not replaceable, that it is unique and valuable in ways that nothing else in the world can replicate. This is why, if we say to a broken-hearted lover, that there are other fish in the sea, that it sounds so utterly empty: they don't want anyone else, they want the person they love who is absolutely unique and irreplaceable.

And they're right. They are. They're also just a human being, one of more than six billion, most of them loveable in some way or another.

Artistic works are, like people, unique: to those who love them, their virtues are not replicable, and must be savored in themselves.

But -- and this is what broken-hearted lovers cannot see -- to those who don't love them, they're not unique. And to anyone who doesn't yet love Cerebus, who is standing in that detached position where there are many different artistic wonders to be sampled, they won't feel that tug. And to them we can say: there are a lot of great works out there. Choose another.

Don't fall in love with this person, however intelligent and creative and funny and brilliant they are. For they're also misogynistic and crazy and are not going to end well and you don't want them to drag you down with them. And while those of us who love them can't abandon them -- because we love them, for who they are, not simply for any list of their virtues -- everyone else can find plenty of other intelligent and creative and funny and brilliant people out there, however pale that substitution will seem to those of us who are already smitten.

So, to end where I began:

I've been reading Cerebus.

I've enjoyed it tremendously, and gotten a lot out of it. Dave Sim and Gerhard are brilliant creators, and have made -- in places -- a brilliant creation.

But, Noble Reader, I'm not quite sure that I'd recommend it to you.

* This paragraph is indebted to the writings of Paul O'Brien -- I don't have a specific link, but he's made this point a couple of times -- who likes to point out that many (most?) comics fans aren't fans of comics as such, but of something else -- in the case of "mainstream" comics, of the superhero genre, and they read comics to get their fix of that genre: and so they really have no particular interest in non-superhero comics (or, at any rate, no interest beyond their natural interest in other things or in anything new).


Matt Brady said...

Since I've commented on most of your other Cerebus posts, I'll add a final comment here. Once again, nicely done, and if nothing else, you've convinced me to one day read more of the series. As I mentioned before, I've read some of it, but all from the first volume. I did know that you have to get past the early issues to get to the good stuff, but I ended up moving on to something else before I ever got there. So someday I'll definitely read more of it. Thanks for getting me interested!

Stephen said...

And, as always, thanks for the positive feedback, Matt! I might have lost heart in the series before I finished it if I hadn't known that someone was reading & enjoying it.

And let me know if you get into Cerebus. I really did enjoy it quite a bit, for all my caviling...

badMike said...

As a longtime Cerebus fan, I really enjoyed your series of essays on an overlooked aspect of Dave's comic. I started getting into the book around the Church & State mid-point and the covers were a real selling point to get me hooked.

I'm a little disappointed that you didn't make it to the end where you've missed out on Dave's bizarre multi-issue rant against Ernest Hemingway and (particularly) his wife as well as Dave's just way-out-there late in life religious conversion that dominated the end of the series. If you think the book got misogynist and off track with Jaka's Story and Guys, you haven't seen anything yet.

While I certainly never "bailed" on the series and was committed to the end, I did at least "check out" emotionally and intellectually from my early enthusiasm for the book. "Reads" was misogynist, but he printed an even uglier essay a few years later that was more than very disappointing.

Still, all in all, Cerebus is probably the most unique series in the history of comics and when it was great, it was GREAT!

Matthew J. Brady said...

Stephen, I don't know if you'll read this comment (I hope so, I know I've got Blogger set to email me whenever somebody comments), but I wanted to let you know I finally got around to reading more of Cerebus. I just finished reading through Church and State, and now I'm finally understanding why everybody thinks it's so great. Sim has such a particular style that you can't imagine anybody else coming up with something like it. It's funny, beautifully illustrated, and just plain fascinating in parts.

I got the volumes from my local library, and I think they also have Jaka's Story and Melmoth, so I'll probably get to those soon. I have no idea if I'll be able to get to the others anytime, but I'll see how it goes. Great stuff; I'm glad I was able to get to it.