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.