A few days ago Mike Taylor emailed me, asking what, if any, Grant Morrison stories could be read without knowing more about a fictional universe — he’d been reading Seven Soldiers, and found it difficult going, as he doesn’t have the decades of experience with a fictional universe that most modern superhero comics require (and I might have to write something about *that* soon, possibly a Mindless post tomorrow…).
It’s a good question — Morrison is a favourite writer of mine, but the vast majority of his best or most interesting work (Seven Soldiers, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, New X-Men) requires a great deal of familiarity with the major superhero shared universes. You can definitely read and enjoy Animal Man, for example, without having read any other DC comics — some bits, like the Invasion crossover, would be confusing, but you could get quite a lot out of it — but you’re definitely missing a lot if you don’t realise it’s at least in part a commentary on Crisis On Infinite Earths, and that it’s also riffing on things like the Pog issue of Swamp Thing.
But he *has* done some good work outside those shared universes, so here’s a brief list of the more newbie-friendly stories (so not something like The Invisibles, but also not trifles like Big Dave) he’s done — the ones you can get in one volume (or a small number of volumes):
We3 (with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant) — this is pitched as “the Incredible Journey meets Terminator”. Three animals (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) who have been turned into cyborg weapons, escape from the lab in which they were created and try to get home. Much of the comic is silent, and a lot of the dialogue is between the animals (who can talk, but only use a handful of words each). It’s touching, beautiful, and extremely violent, and has some of the best work Quitely’s ever done.
Zenith, with Steve Yeowell, is a story that ran in 2000AD in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s a superhero story that starts as a satire of Thatcherism and celebrity culture, and the death of 60s idealism, before becoming a Lovecraftian horror in its final pages. Finally getting reissued in an affordable edition soon.
The Filth, with Chris Weston, is a book about being depressed when your cat dies (pretty much every good Grant Morrison comic, in fact, seems to be inspired by his cats dying). Greg Feely, the protagonist, is either a sad, lonely, bald, suicidal compulsive masturbator whose only friend is his dying cat and who’s suffering from a serious dissociative delusional disorder, or he’s a “para-personality” for an agent for a secret Bondesque sci-fi spy organisation, or both. It’s a vicious, dark, but cathartic work, something like Stewart Lee’s “vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ” routine — something that achieves a kind of beauty through its sheer desperation and ugliness.
Seaguy with Cameron Stewart is an absurdist superhero story, something like what you’d get if you made a five-year-old watch every episode of The Prisoner, interspersed with the 1966 Batman TV series, and then got them to write a story about what they’d seen. It’s utterly brilliant, but very difficult to sum up neatly. You can point at things it has a flavour of — Philip K Dick, The Prisoner, Spike Milligan, James Joyce, Douglas Adams — but it’s very much sui generis.
Flex Mentallo, with Frank Quitely, is technically a spin-off from Doom Patrol, but really its own thing, a meditation on superhero comics and redemption, as seen through the mind of someone talking on the phone after taking an overdose. Difficult, but worth the effort.
Vimanarama is a gloriously silly, fun, story about Jack Kirby-esque ancient astronauts set among Bradford’s Asian community. Unfortunately, it’s more than a little culturally insensitive, mixing and matching between Hindu and Muslim imagery in a way that can come off as a little uncomfortable. If you can overlook that fairly glaring fault, though, it’s fun.
and All-Star Superman, with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant, is a Superman story, but one that’s deliberately out of continuity, with the intention of being readable by anyone with the most basic pop-culture knowledge of Superman. It’s one of a very, very small number of Superman stories one can point to and say “this is what the character is about, this has everything about why Superman and his supporting characters work”. Frank Quitely’s “acting” for the characters, in particular, is just stunning.
And that’s about it, as far as standalone Morrison stuff. There were a handful of standalone stories for Vertigo in the early 90s (Kid Eternity, Sebastian O, The Mystery Play, and Kill Your Boyfriend), none of which I suspect have aged especially well, though I’ve not read them recently, some bits for 2000AD, oddities like The New Adventures Of Hitler that are out of print, and a couple of weak recent things that read more like film pitches than proper comics themselves. Everything else has either been in long-running superhero universes or his own massive, long-running story The Invisibles.
The ones listed above, though, are the things he’s done that, to my mind at least, have a lot of artistic value, are *relatively* new-reader friendly (in as much as any Morrison comic is) and can be obtained relatively easily (or, in the case of Zenith, soon will be). It’s a short list, but a good one…
Today I did something I’ve never done before. I went to a comic shop and bought more Marvel comics than DC ones. I picked up sixteen comics, and only six were DC. Seven were Marvel, and three were Image.
This is a very depressing figure, because three years ago I’d have bought that many comics in a week, and this was ten weeks’ worth of comics I was picking up. And the reason I’m buying so few comics is precisely because up until now I’ve always preferred DC to Marvel.
While I appreciate and love comics’ potential as an artistic medium as much as anyone — give me an Alice In Sunderland or Alec and I’ll rave about it for hours — comics are one of the few media I also turn to for pure entertainment, the way other people watch the football or soap operas. I can’t cope with those things, but I can enjoy an equally mindless comic, so long as it’s done to a basic level.
And throughout my life, since I was about ten, I’ve always looked to DC Comics for that kind of thing.
It’s a kind of brand loyalty I don’t usually have about most things, and think is ridiculous, but when I was first becoming a comics fan, DC was producing comics that were so far superior to Marvel’s it’s hard to think of them even as the same media. While DC were putting out things like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and even fun brainless stuff like Alan Grant’s work on Batman, Lobo and The Demon, Marvel were going all in on the proto-Image GUNS-WITH-A-CAPITAL-GUNS “aesthetic”.
And this meant that at a formative age, I got to grok DC Comics (and 2000AD, which I thought of as essentially the same thing, since the DC comics I liked were mostly made by British writers and artists who were also working for The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic) in a way I never did with Marvel. STAR Labs, Black Canary, the Daily Planet building, WGBS-TV, Lexcorp, all have instant associations for me in a way that, say, Stark Industries, Ms. Marvel, the Baxter Building and so on just don’t.
And so what this has meant is that whenever Marvel have put out something truly, exceptionally, good, I’ve bought it, but I’ve never bought the dozens of basically competent titles Marvel put out every month. I have, on the other hand, bought and enjoyed plenty of DC comics that merely showed a basic competence — I bought every issue of the 2008-2011 Booster Gold series, for example, which no-one is ever going to accuse of being a masterpiece but which had a witticism-spouting man in a gaudy costume having time travel adventures.
Since the New 52 started in late 2011, though, DC has descended into something close to the level of utter incompetence that Marvel where at when I first started buying comics. When the New 52 started out, I put something like thirty titles from it on my pull list, because there were interesting concepts like Demon Knights and Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, and people like Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, J.H. Williams, George Perez — people who knew how to make good comics — working on many of the books.
Most of the more interesting titles are now cancelled, and none of those people are working on the comics they were working on. In three years, my DC pull list has gone from around thirty titles to two — Swamp Thing and Justice League 3000. And they’re the two comics I’m least interested in out of all the ones I’m buying.
Sorry, make that three — I’ve also got the Sandman miniseries on my list, the monthly one that’s released two issues in the last nine months.
The vast majority of DC’s output has turned into a sludgy morass of underdressed women, men with too many muscles and too many pockets, and “homages” to “classic” stories but with more violence and misogyny. Some of the titles I’m not reading might have got good again, and some of the new titles might be good. I know people have been saying nothing but good things about Batgirl (but even with Gail Simone writing, or now with Cameron Stewart working on it, I can’t get over the editorially-mandated destruction of Oracle), but DC are not only not making any great comics at the moment, they’re not even making any of those adequately-enjoyable ones they used to make.
And this means that not only am I buying fewer DC comics, I’m not buying as much by anyone as I used to. As recently as 2011 I used to eagerly go to the comic shop every week, and I’d pick a lot of stuff off the shelf to go with my regular purchases. Now I turn up every few months and pick up a handful of comics, and if there’s anything interesting on the shelves it’s usually up to issue three or four and I’ve missed the start of the story.
Luckily for my comics-reading, Marvel have started putting out a few titles so good I’ve ended up adding a few to my pull list, and I intend to add more, so I’ll be going to the shop more regularly. And with Grant Morrison’s Multiversity starting next month, I’ll even have a regular DC comic I’m actually looking forward to for at least six months (and that really does look like the best thing ever).
But if DC don’t change their editorial stance soon, once that’s over I may well, for the first time since I started reading comics, be left reading not a single DC title, and going to the comic shop and saying “Make Mine Marvel”. And as good as many of the current Marvel titles are, nothing in them can replace the thing in my brain that clicks with recognition when I see Etrigan or Bizarro, Darkseid or Booster Gold, Deadman or Zatanna. Those characters, and thousands of other DC characters, are like old friends I’ve known since childhood, and I want them back. I miss them.
(Thanks to Andrew Rilstone for reminding me of the Jack Kirby quote that’s titled this).
February 6 is the anniversary of the deaths of two of my favourite creative artists. The first, Jack Kirby, lived a relatively long life, but not long enough — he revolutionised an art-form several times over, and created or co-created more great comic characters than any five other people. Darkseid, Captain America, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Etrigan the Demon, The Fantastic Four, The Challengers Of The Unknown, The New Gods, The X-Men, Mister Miracle, OMAC, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Silver Surfer, The Eternals, Thor… to create even *one* of these would have been enough to make Kirby one of the greats. To come up with all of them is truly spectacular.
And that’s not even counting the fact that he, along with Joe Simon, made sure there was a comics industry at all in the 1950s by inventing the romance comics genre, without which the industry would have collapsed.
But all that pales next to two things — firstly, that all his work, throughout his life, from Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw through to the fight to stop Darkseid from having the anti-life equation, is about the fight between freedom and fascism, and he always comes down on the side of liberty. I’ve written more about that here, and here, and here, and in great chunks of a couple of my books.
The second, and possibly most important, is that he was just *such a bloody good artist*. Just look at this:
And four years to the day after Kirby died, so did Carl Wilson.
Carl Wilson wasn’t the creative giant that Kirby was — he wrote a handful of very good songs, and was a far better record producer than people give him credit for, but he didn’t have that fizzing energy, the outpouring of ideas, that Kirby did.
What he was, though, was one of the great interpreters of popular song of all time, with an almost Sinatra-esque ability to sell a song, along with a voice that I would kill for.
He was only 17 when he played the lead guitar on Fun Fun Fun, only 19 when he sang lead on God Only Knows and Good Vibrations. His vocals on Surf’s Up, or the entire Wild Honey album, or All This Is That, are as good as any vocal ever recorded. He was also by all accounts the most stable person in the Beach Boys, the mediating presence that managed to hold the band together for thirty-six years. They split up very shortly after his death at the ridiculously young age of fifty-one.
At times during the last fifteen or so of those years he could get lazy, as he was asked to sing material that was utterly beneath his vast talent, and he couldn’t quite hide his contempt for some of it. But when he had something worth singing, he was as good as ever.
Below is an MP3 from what I think is the last recording of him — a partial audience recording of a concert from August 2, 1997. Three weeks after this show, he had to give up touring, and six months later he was dead. At the time of this show he was so ill from the lung and brain cancer that killed him that he had to remain seated throughout the show, and take oxygen between songs. But when he sang this song, he always managed to stand up, to give the song the respect it deserved. Just listen to this…
Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.
In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.
How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?
Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012
Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC
Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.
It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.
(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)
What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.
Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal
But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.
Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.
But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Diversion – Dave Gibbons
Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.
This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.
Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.
But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.
Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.
What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…
“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)
Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.
But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”
And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.
Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.
DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.
And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.
So it can be done.
So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?
There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.
Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.
Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.
Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.
But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?
The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.
So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.
(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)
Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.
But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.
Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.
The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.
Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.
These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.
Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.
But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”
And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.
Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.
If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.
But as for this?
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.