Cerebus

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.

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13 Responses to Cerebus

  1. lucidfrenzy says:

    ”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.”
    It may be nothing but baseless optimism that is leading me to question this, but I wonder how a reader would actually get on if they skipped this section and started straight at ‘High Society.’ And I reckon the proverbial glass of water is at least half-full here…

    As you suggest, the early issues don’t particularly link up into a ‘graphic novel’ any more than, say, the early issues of ‘Spider-Man’. Of course it’s true that themes and characters emerge there which get taken up later. But it’s more like a separate work which refers to an earlier, quite different one, like ‘Ulysses’ referring to ‘The Oddysey.’ (True, in this case both works are by the same author, but that doesn’t mean they have much in common.)

    I reckon a smart reader could get quite a way just by referencing. If you’ve no idea who this Sir Gerrick is, but it feels like you’re expected to, our old pal the interweb may be of assistance. (Others have suggested you only need to read key issues. I can see what they mean, but still wouldn’t suggest them as a jumping-on point.)

    At most, I’d suggest a reader start with ‘High Society’ then jump back to ‘Barbarian’ if they felt like the need. (Much like I wouldn’t suggest a would-be Beatles fan start with the first album.)

    However bridgeburning may make me a biased source here. I had all the early issues from the time they were reprinting them ‘biweekly.’ (Which is how someone does something fortnightly over in North America.) But during a household purge I figured there wasn’t the slightest chance of me re-reading them. (Sim’s own annotation to one issue was “This issue contains one joke. Cerebus’ fur smells bad when it gets wet.”) So I simply chucked them.

    ‘Jaka’s Story’, now that I kept…

    • Don Alsafi says:

      Back when Cerebus was somewhat more well-known (and therefore stocked at more shops), the general consensus was indeed to recommend hesitant readers to start with Book 2, and only go back to Book 1 if they really liked it.

  2. Michael Mooney says:

    Hugely encouraging post – you’ve got at least one reader on board for the journey. I wonder how much you subscribe to Sim’s view(or one of Sim’s views) that the story finishes in #186? As for the difficulty of getting into the storyline, hell, I bought my first issue because of the cool picture of Wolverine on the cover, and only ever managed to find two volumes of “Swords of Cerebus” to fill in the back story. I had no problem catching up. You’ve made sure that I’ll be doing a re-read soon, though, next time I have access to all of the phone books.

    • Don Alsafi says:

      Notwithstanding the notoriety of issue #186, I’m pretty sure Sim’s statement was that the “plot” of the story reaches its conclusion with issue #200, ie the end of “Mothers and Daughters”.

      • andrewducker says:

        Absoutely. I’m sure that you could remove the text sections from Reads, stop the collections at issue 200, and pretend nothing happened after that, in order to have a fantastic arc of comics.

        I think you’d be missing some good stuff that comes after that point, but it would certainly feel a lot more like a single, coherent, piece of work that I could recommend to people.

        • Michael Mooney says:

          You’re right, of course – it was 200, not 186 – as you say, it’s a notorious issue. I liked a lot of Rick’s Story, and Later Days, and wouldn’t have missed them for the world, but the story Sim wanted to tell ends in issue 200, with “The Last Day” standing as an epilogue.

  3. plok says:

    You can totally start with High Society, if you’re a) already a comics reader and b) okay with learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool…which now that I think of it is pretty much the same thing as a). Reading Barbarian after that gives you a sudden gasp at the depth of the thing, but…

  4. andrewducker says:

    I got a few people into Cerebus by starting them at Jaka’s Story, and telling them “Don’t worry about the backstory.”

    • Michael Mooney says:

      Yes, it’s a brilliant thing on its own, though coming after Church and State it just blew me away. Strangely, I think Melmoth is the closest thing to a stand-alone volume though.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Jaka’s Story and Melmoth do work as standalone works to a greater extent than the rest of Cerebus, yes. But I still think anyone who’s reading them without the earlier work is missing out on a *huge* amount…

  5. Doggerty says:

    I tink this is biased and unfair to other artists, sorry. Sim worked on other projects as well, so that really can’t be the issue. Why is it that popbands that develop their artistic expression over several albums haven’t done the same thing as Sim when he develops his expression (you pretty much state that the early work is amateurish and matured later)? Why isn’t say each phonebook comparable to a record, or an author exploring the same theme in different books? What about other authors, say Stephen King with his Dark Tower, with connections to several of his other works? Lovecrafts mythos which occupied most of his mature life, or those endless boring fantasy series?
    I think these things need to be thought over and explained to make your claims even plausible.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      “I tink this is biased and unfair to other artists, sorry.”
      It’s not ‘unfair to other artists’ at all — Sim was merely doing something different from them. Creating a huge long-form serialised work is not, in itself, an admirable thing to do — only doing it well is. Also, don’t say ‘sorry’ unless you are sorry about something. If you were sorry about your opinion, you wouldn’t have written the comment.

      “Sim worked on other projects as well, so that really can’t be the issue.”
      From 1977 to 2004, every single piece of work in the comics field Sim did was for Cerebus. Even when he worked on other titles, it was always a crossover with Cerebus, as with his Spawn, Spirit and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles work.

      “Why is it that popbands that develop their artistic expression over several albums haven’t done the same thing as Sim when he develops his expression (you pretty much state that the early work is amateurish and matured later)? ”
      I explained this quite clearly — you can listen to Sgt Pepper, for example, without ever hearing or even knowing the existence of Please Please Me, and it works just as well.

      “Why isn’t say each phonebook comparable to a record, or an author exploring the same theme in different books? ”
      Because they’re part of a single continuing narrative.

      “What about other authors, say Stephen King with his Dark Tower, with connections to several of his other works?”
      You can read the vast majority of King’s work without ever reading one of the Dark Tower books. I’ve read everything he wrote up until about 1999 or so, *except* the Dark Tower books, and I never once had a problem understanding any of them. Hand someone Reads or Rick’s Story without all the other volumes as context and they’ll be lost.

      “Lovecrafts mythos which occupied most of his mature life”
      And which was told of in many *independent, self-contained stories*!

      “or those endless boring fantasy series?”
      I don’t read boring fantasy series, so have no idea if they apply or not.

      “I think these things need to be thought over and explained to make your claims even plausible.”
      Which is why I quite clearly answered all those objections in the second through sixth paragraphs of the post.

      • Doggerty says:

        But I am sorry. I don’t even know you, and you write so well, and yet I come with critisism. But I would never censor my opinion for something like that.

        It is just not true that it was all Cerebus for Sim, he did a lot, mostly lettering, pin-ups and covers. Not all Cerebus. http://www.cerebusfangirl.com/checklist/otherds/index.php

        That every song “works just as well” on it’s own seems unclear. Maybe a Sim-panel of a cute girl or a whole issue “works just as well” too. I know many music lovers who just don’t see it that way. They not only need the artists whole catalog but a lot of the genre and music history leading up to it.

        Books and records can’t be viewed as a single narrative? I think what you say abut Mr. King is correct. A lot of his work is of course stand alone. Dark tower however draws from earlier works. This is comparable with say Cerebus to High Society or other later books. And you can’t fully apreciate Dark Tower without the background eventhough the series is written so that you can read Dark Tower and understand it. Of course that is what Sim does as well. If you pick upp book four your bound to be lost regardles if it’s book four of Sim or King.
        As I recall I read either Rick’s Story or Reads first.

        I think we are all glad that Lovecraft wrote self-contained stories. The genre pretty much demands it. But his greater work, the mythos with plenty of crossreference, which he planned and elaborated and urged his friends to elaborate on their own, seem to be his overarching concern. Does really his chosen style suitable for the genre discualify him? And is it really so different from say Melmoth?

        But I’m glad that you don’t read boring endless fantasy.

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