Cerebus Reviewed Part Zero: The Obligatory Pseudo-Psychoanalysis

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 this discussion manages to be equally offensive to both religious people and autistic people (and yet he says that the autistics are the ones who don’t distinguish between other people and inanimate objects!)

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.

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8 Responses to Cerebus Reviewed Part Zero: The Obligatory Pseudo-Psychoanalysis

  1. Patchworkearth says:

    Well, the idea that we can talk about CRAFT is an interesting proposition. I’m sincerely looking forward to this, and I’m liable to jump in pretty regularly.

    I would challenge the idea that we never wound up seeing the internal processes of anyone other than Cerebus and Pud. You’re absolutely right to not include Jaka in that list – Jaka is unknowable for half of the series, and that’s a major element, and many readers take Oscar’s narration to be fact when it clearly isn’t – however, there is at least one major character whose thoughts we see very clearly: Astoria.

    Astoria – and we’ll get into this in the volumes where it comes up, but – begins her appearances in the story very similarly as other characters – a manipulator, and manipulated, who operates on the periphery of Cerebus’s awareness. However, after the “Echoes” sequence of Church and State, when Cerebus and Astoria make a very brief but powerful connection, each use of her after that (which is to say, the Mothers and Daughters arc) lets us into her head in ways that we were unable before – first through her writing, then through actual internal monologue, leading to the confrontation (part two) at the church, where Suenteus Po confirms what the monologue has already revealed. Once knowable, Astoria bows out, the only character who “escapes unscathed” from the series.

    I would also argue that we get to understand the Roach, a bit, by the time that Mothers and Daughters reaches its climax – but the Roach is a caricature and a plot device, and so there isn’t as much to learn there. But it should still be said – the more his awareness grows, the more human he behaves (until he crosses an awareness boundary and becomes Swoon, which places him outside of the story, and thus removes what little humanity he’d gained as a character).

    That said, I think there’s something particularly interesting about Michelle – one of the only characters seemingly without guile – and how her positioning as a sort of halfway point between Astoria’s awareness and Jaka’s fatuousness, and how that informs how well we understand her – but then, we have to take Michelle herself, and even worse Weisshaupt, at their words in order to frame that image, and so she tends to be forgotten.

    Since we’re on the subject, though – how do you relate F. Stop Kennedy (one of Sim’s best characters, in my opinion) to the knowable vs. unknowable argument? Like Oscar, we rely a great deal on his writing – but his PRIVATE writing, which is based on a real world source.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Sorry for not replying to this til today – I’ve been fighting off a troll infestation in another post.
      This is great, and I agree with much of it, but we’ll get to these things in the individual books, and I don’t want to get too ahead of myself…

      • Patchworkearth says:

        Aw, I can’t help but jump the gun – it’s how I am. Looking forward to subsequent posts in this series.

  2. Jonathan Burns says:

    Something which runs through all comedy is: Everybody’s got a theory. Of how things are or should be. And while you’re acting out your theory you’re completely immersed in it, and you’d need something quite exceptional in your makeup to be able to back out.

    It’s amusing to watch someone enacting their theory while being oblivious to their own personal state, or someone else’s. It’s also amusing to see two theories clash like elk, and the actors having to climb down from their high horses via logic or plain personal sense. In Monty Python, the clash goes on and on, and only the fall of the Great Boot puts a stop to it. In Pogo, we often get to see the climbdown.

    Within Cerebus, absolutely everybody’s got a damn theory, but they’re still people underneath. The charm of it is how people keep getting clobbered in all the clashing, but still get up again, with birdies flying around their heads so to speak. Just in that moment you can’t help wanting to hug the McGraw brothers or Astoria or whoever it is. Don’t ever change, fellas!

  3. ”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.”

    I don’t really think this is quite right. An inability to have a theory of mind doesn’t necessarily mean you fail to ascribe motivations to other people. It’s more like a pre-Copernican conception of the cosmos but applied to society, where you imagine yourself to be at the centre of everything. You ‘know’ what everyone else is thinking through assuming they are thinking about you.

    As a child, if my Mum was in a bad mood I would assume I had done something to cause it. As an adult, if a co-worker is in a bad mood, I am (hopefully) able to work out they may have had an argument with some other half that I have never met, as much as it might be me not taking my turn to make the coffee. The first mind you must reach a theory about is your own, that it has borders and limits.

    When anything happens, from Asian Tsunamis to AIDS epidemics to Paul McCartney changing his name, Sim assumes his God is trying to tell him something through the medium of the world. A theory of mind would tell him that sometimes stuff just happens.

    Of course this does compound with an artist’s drive in an interesting way. An artist does have to create a world which does make coherent sense, that is all based around organising principles. But to have an effective life outside their art, they have to relate to the rest of the world in a different way.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Apologies for the late reply – been dealing with a troll infestation.
      This might be more true, but I’m not sure – Sim isn’t quite a psychopath, which this would imply. He’s apparently very generous and, by his own lights. moral – he will suffer himself if he thinks it’s the right thing to do. I think Sim thinks God’s messages aren’t for him – they’re just messages in general, or messages to YHWH, and he’s just the only one who can see what they are.
      I suppose I’m trying to give him more benefit of the doubt than you are, but you still definitely have a point…

      • Mmm… I can see what you mean. I did see Sim in action a few times when he attended Comic Cons in the Eighties and remember thinking that, while he was a showman, he also appeared something of a people person. (Fairly rare in the comic world!) And there’s also the slightly ironic point back then that we considered him to be one of the best writers of female characters!!! (Okay, the competition was partly Frank Miller…)

        I wonder if the difference you point to is that Sim has A System (similar to Jonathan Burns’ “everybody has a theory”), whereas as a small child I was just a bundle of egocentric needs. He thinks we all should live according to His System, starting with him, which is something different to just wanting us to satisfy his wants.

        One thing though – God’s messages aren’t just for him, but he is God’s messenger for the rest of us.

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