Repost: Cerebus Introduction

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.

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2 Responses to Repost: Cerebus Introduction

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I’ve read Tim’s posts — he was really on a roll at the end of last year, wasn’t he? Some wonderful stuff there, and not just in the Cerebus posts…

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