I’ll be posting the first essay in my series of posts on Cerebus tonight. I tried this last year, though, and didn’t get very far,so I thought I’d repost the introduction I wrote then, so people would know what I was and wasn’t going to be doing:
I am planning, over the next few weeks, to review the whole of Cerebus on here, roughly one post per ‘phonebook’ (some of the more interesting ones may take two posts, and I may do supplementary posts on subjects like the Marx Brothers, Oscar Wilde, Rick Veitch’s dream comics, Eddie Campbell’s Alec stories and other things which have clearly influenced the series).
I am doing this because I believe one can and should separate the wonderful work itself from the views of the creator. If it’s acceptable for me to say that Bernard Shaw is one of my favourite playwrights, despite his vociferous support for Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, then surely it is possible at least to take Sim & Gerhard’s work as a thing in itself, separate from the noxious views of (one of) the creator(s).
Except that it’s not quite that simple, is it? Because Dave Sim clearly thinks differently to other people, and that difference in thought informs his writing, and is quite possibly one of the things that make his work more interesting.
Simply put, anyone who says something like:
I think YHWH’s contribution back in the early sixties was Peter, Paul and Mary. I mean it is a way of looking at Christianity, seeing Peter, Paul and Mary a the three cornerstones after Jesus. Of course, being YHWH her point was; if you have Peter, Paul and Mary what do you need Jesus for? I think that amused God a great deal — to the extent that he countered with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Paul of course, was actually James: James Paul McCartney. SO John and James were the leaders of the band, like the sons of Zebedee, John and James, the brothers Boanerges, the sons of thunder…
So it was a good joke that on the cusp of being famous John and James had ditched Peter, Pete Best, the drummer since this is basically what the biblical John and James had attempted to do with Peter the apostle.
The George part I think was God’s way of saying that leapfrogging Peter – that is the Vatican – lands you in England and Henry VIII’s decision to make himself not only king, but head of the church as well. There have been three king Georges.
Now, having ditched Peter, that meant you had three kings or a Ring of Stars.
The Beatles were the template that attracted their own disciples, the Rolling Stones, which was another play, in my view, on the fact that there had been a pool of disciples for the two Jesus’. There was Peter, Cephas, the rock or stone, but he rolled back and forth between the two Jesus’s.
is clearly not thinking ‘normally’, whatever ‘normally’ means.
But what I don’t want to do is turn the whole thing into me trying to psychoanalyse Dave Sim through the medium of his cartoon drawings of an aardvaark. So what I propose is this – in the rest of this post I’ll identify what I think is the most relevant of Dave Sim’s differences. I’ll talk a little about it, and then not mention this again directly. The connection will be there to be made in future posts, but won’t be explicit. Those who don’t care about my untrained opinion about the mental health of someone I’ve never met can skip this bit. I really don’t even like doing this, but it’s *so* difficult to disentangle man and work…
I think Dave Sim’s problems fundamentally come down to an overactive theory of mind. Now, theory of mind is usually just an ill-defined stick with which unscientific psychologists choose to hit people with autism, by claiming that people with autism don’t have one, without actually asking them. But there’s a core meaning there, which is that most people will, if they see someone behaving a particular way, assume a set of motives for that person’s actions. (Autistic people can do this, just as anyone else can – but they’re more aware than other people that they may be assuming the *wrong* motives, because they know other people think differently from them. Normal people are more likely to assume that everyone thinks the way they do.)
However, in some people this instinct goes into overdrive. With those people, they become convinced that they know others’ motivations, even when provided with evidence to the contrary. Some people even start to impute motivation to inanimate objects and natural processes. It has even been suggested that this is the basis of religious belief, although based on spurious evidence – this study just shows that when religious people think about the emotions and behaviour of God, who they consider a really-existing being, they use the same part of the brain as when thinking about other really-existing beings, while the discussion manages to be equally offensive to both religious people and autistic people.
But this gives us a lot of explanatory power for a *lot* of Sim’s stranger behaviours – his belief that natural phenomena are caused by spirits (e.g. YHWH causing the Asian tsunami of 2004) or that historical events have some hidden meaning (see the quote above), and his attributions of frankly bizarre motivations to others (e.g. his belief that a gift from his parents was cursed, detailed in the notes to Latter Days) would seem to stem from this.
More importantly – and the only reason I bring this up, as I consider speculation about the mental problems of someone I’ve never met distasteful at best and extremely unethical at worst – is that this explains a good deal about his writing. Often – almost always – Sim’s characters are sharply observed in their behaviours. They often behave in unexpected or unusual ways, but after we read this we think “Yes, that is *exactly* what Jaka [or Julius, or Cerebus, or Pud] would do.”
Sometimes we can even identify with the characters, and say “Yes, I hadn’t realised it, but that’s exactly how I’d react in that situation”.
But this observation rarely extends to internal states. Apart from the utterly chilling portrayal of ‘nice guy’ nerd and attempted-rapist Pud Withers’ mental state, and the caricature that is Cerebus, we’re rarely given a glimpse of anyone’s internal monologue (understandably, as for most of the story Cerebus is the viewpoint character), and when we are, it often seems somehow… off.
And when Sim talks in text pieces about why he had characters behave as they do, his reasons often make so little sense that he might as well be saying ‘curious green ideas sleep furiously’ – there’s a basic cause-and-effect disconnect there.
This disconnect will come up time and again in our discussions of Cerebus, as I attempt to go through the whole thing, but I promise the only further mention I’ll make of how it connects to his mental state will come, if at all, in the discussions of Rick’s Story (about someone who had a lot of similarities with Sim, but had a mental breakdown and became convinced he was the Messiah) and Latter Days (the vast bulk of which is taken up with an exploration of Sim’s idiosyncratic theology, which seems very hard to detach from his mental problems). I hope to avoid it even then.
But now that the elephant in the room has been dealt with, we can get on with talking about the aardvaark.
Cerebus is possibly the most daunting work in the whole history of art. This is not an exaggeration.
In every other field of art, other than comics, an artist works on different projects over the course of her career. James Joyce starts with the relatively straightforward short stories of Dubliners, progressess to the modernist-realism of Ulysses and ends up in the impenetrable brilliance of Finnegans Wake. Duke Ellington starts out with the ‘jungle music’ of the Cotton Club era, progressing to the lush big bands of the forties and then to his sacred concerts. The Beach Boys start with Surfin’ Safari, go on to the experimental work like Pet Sounds and Smile, then mature albums like Holland or Love You, before the dreck of Summer In Paradise. The Marx Brothers start with the poor The Cocoanuts, go on to the sublime Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers and end with Love Happy.
With few exceptions, then, one can pick and choose an artist’s best work, from the period of her life when she is at her most creative, and analyse that more-or-less in isolation. Even in comics, even when one writer or artist has stayed with a title or strip for decades, usually that is still not one single work. When Charles Schulz drew a strip with Lucy taking the ball away when Charlie Brown tried to kick it in the 1970s, we weren’t meant to see that as the 220th (or whatever) time that had happened to the same people — the characters didn’t grow in any meaningful way, and there was no expectation that a reader in 1975 had been reading in 1960 or would still be reading in 1990.
Similarly, reading Jerry Siegel’s 1960s Superman scripts, they bear little or no relation to the scripts he wrote in the 1930s for the same character, and one is not expected to have read the earlier work to understand the later.
But Cerebus is one man’s life’s work. We see, in the pages of this one comic, twenty-seven years of a man’s life and work, in order. And it’s all one coherent story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. There are some parts of it that almost work as stand-alone ‘graphic novels’ in the conventional sense, but in general it makes absolutely no concessions to the fact that it is a serialised work released over multiple decades. If Sir Gerrick is mentioned in issue 54, in September 1983, then when he’s mentioned again in issue 163, nine years later, you’re just damned well meant to remember which one he is. Haven’t you been paying attention?
So even without all the other things that make this work so difficult (its complexity, its length, Sim’s views, the difficulty of obtaining the books through bookshops) there is the major barrier of Sim’s learning curve to overcome. It’s no wonder this series is read so little these days — nobody would be listening to the Beatles if the only way to hear Strawberry Fields was first to listen all the way through all John Lennon’s attempts to teach himself the guitar. In the same way, no matter how sublime Jaka’s Story is (and it is easily the best ‘graphic novel’ I have ever read in my life), most people who would enjoy it will never get to it.
Sim’s early work, collected in the first volume of the series, simply titled Cerebus, is at a double disadvantage because he had no peers. At the time there were only a very small number of comics published in the US (Sim is Canadian, but has always been part of the American comics scene). There were the comics made by DC and Marvel, which had a certain minimal level of professionalism, there were the underground comics, which were dying off, and a handful of ‘ground-level’ comics, which were mostly people working for DC or Marvel trying to make comics that were a bit like the underground comics.
The only other people self-publishing a comic aimed at the same audience as the superhero comics (which Cerebus definitely was, at the beginning) at the time were Wendy and Richard Pini, with their series Elfquest. Otherwise, Sim was pretty much alone, and the field of indie comics was built on his work in more ways than a lot of the people involved would now acknowledge.
This had advantages and disadvantages. At the time, it was an advantage — it was perfectly possible at the time for someone to buy every comic that came out. DC and Marvel between them, in the month that Cerebus #1 was issued, put out 85 comics. This may seem a lot, but in March 2012, the same two companies put out 154 comics, and that’s not counting the publications by Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Dynamite and so on competing for the same shelf space.
Something as amateurish as the first few issues of Cerebus, then, would be bought in 1977 just because it was a comic. Without that lack of competition, it is doubtful that Cerebus would have lasted more than a couple of issues.
On the other hand, it means there’s no peer group against which to compare this early work. Later self-publishers wanted to be Frank Miller or Alan Moore (or Sim himself — the early issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are an attempt to cross Sim’s early style with that of Miller), and there’s no real context of amateurish comics attempting to be like Barry Windsor-Smith or Steve Gerber that this work can be judged against.
Because make no mistake, much of the first volume of Cerebus is amateurish. It’s the record of a bright high school dropout stoner trying to integrate all the influences that an intelligent misfit would have when growing up in the mid-1970s (the Beatles, the Marx Brothers, Warner Brothers cartoons, Robert Anton Wilson, Harvey Kurtzmann, but especially Marvel comics and especially those written by Gerber or drawn by Windsor-Smith), and its main point of interest is seeing Sim’s style coming together, as he figures out ways to make these influences work together. If nothing else, it’s a testament to the power of hard work — start out with work that looks like the work of that kid in your class at school who could draw a bit, and do a page a day every day, and within a couple of years you’ll be pretty good (and within a couple of decades you’ll be the greatest creative force ever to have worked in your medium).
Even at the end, this doesn’t feel like the work of Dave Sim, but like a fill-in issue of Howard The Duck. But we do have the introduction of two of Sim’s greatest comic creations, Elrod of Melvinbone (who is simply Michael Moorcock’s Elric but with his speech patterns and whole lines of dialogue lifted from Foghorn Leghorn) and The Roach (a superhero parody character we’ll be looking at in much more detail in future). There’s also the first “Mind Game” issue, a great formal game with the comic book page of a type that few if any comics creators would dare to do. But if this was the only record of Sim’s work, he’d be a minor figure at best.
But early in the run of Cerebus, Dave Sim had a vision. He saw a rough structure of a 300-issue story, and he decided he was going to do it. After this juvenilia, he started a twenty-six issue story, which would still be one of the shorter stories he would do from this point on. We will deal with it, in a much longer post than this one, next week.
This blog has been becoming more chaotic recently, and I’ve started more and more projects that I haven’t finished. So I’m going to try to set myself an actual schedule, so I can complete some of these. So for at least the next few weeks this is the plan:
Cerebus Fridays – A book-by-book look at the whole of Cerebus, in the style of my An Incomprehensible Condition. I have tried this a couple of times in the past, but I think I know where I’m going with it.
Saturday MindlessWho – Who posts for the Mindless Ones, on a more sensible schedule. These may not always appear on the site on Saturdays, as there are a large number of other things that have to be posted there, some time-sensitive, but I’ll try to post a link here every Saturday.
Wednesday Peculiar Branch – the continuing Peculiar Branch novel.
Other days will be for linkblogs, rants, etc. I may also post extra chapters of any of the above on any other day if I feel especially inspired to.
Once each of these is finished, I’ll drop in one of the other projects I want to do — How We Know What We Know, Bigger On The Outside, Time Detective and the second volume of the Beach Boys book, to start with.
The opening night was last night, and while I wasn’t there (I repeat, I *wasn’t there*, this is not a review, I’ll be posting my own reviews in July, when I go to Italy to see the tour), a LOT of people are hitting my blog looking for information, so I thought I’d post a quick summary. Most of this comes from ‘Prodigal Son’ on the blue board, plus bits of information from newspaper reviews etc.
Apparently all the band were in good voice. Brian was nervous in the first half, but more relaxed in the second. It was a 42-song set, and the songs they played were essentially a normal Beach Boys set, plus the following songs that either Mike & Bruce don’t normally play in the US or never play at all:
The Little Girl I Once Knew, This Whole World, You’re So Good To Me, Cottonfields, Disney Girls, Please Let Me Wonder, Forever, Sail On Sailor, Heroes & Villains, All This Is That, That’s Why God Made The Radio.
The band were pretty much exactly what we’d been hearing for a while, with the odd addition of Mike D’Amico rather than Brett on bass (odd because Mike is a drummer). David Marks took almost all of the lead guitar. The rest of the band were Scott Totten (guitar and co-musical-director), Paul Von Mertens (woodwinds and co-musical-director), Darian Sahanaja (keyboards), Nick Walusko (guitar), Probyn Gregory (everything), Mike D’Amico (bass), Nelson Bragg (percussion), Scott Bennett (keyboards), Jeff Foskett (guitar) and John Cowsill (drums).
Oddly, and I’m worried that this could be very tacky, but reports from people who were there say it worked, Forever and God Only Knows had the lead vocals performed by videos of Dennis and Carl, with the band backing. Jeff Foskett took lead on Don’t Worry Baby, and Darian sang Carl’s part on All This Is That, but otherwise all lead vocals (other than the falsetto parts) were by one of the band members.
Again, I wasn’t there, but it sounds like while it wasn’t exactly what I’d have liked to see (I would have liked them to come out, do the whole Love You, Smiley Smile, Smile, and Friends albums, in order, then encore with Mt Vernon And Fairway.) it was done well enough, and with enough stuff to keep people like me happy (as well as people who just go to throw beach balls and shout for Kokomo) that it’ll be worth the trip to Italy.