When Words Collide: Of Art & Aardvarks

Mon, August 8th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

"Master of Kung Fu" #22 - Discount Bin Goodness

Last week, I made the one hour drive to the venerable Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts, mostly because they were having another of their semi-annual discount bin sales where they rotate thousands of comics through the dollar bins, on a two-week cycle. They do a nice $10 for 12 issues deal and unlike most discount bins that I've tended to run across, they don't have an overwhelming amount of 1990s Image and Valiant clogging up the system. No, what I like about their selection is that they will have a few slightly-hard-to-find older independent titles (like Peter Gross's "Empire Lanes") mixed in with maybe an issue of Dark Horse Presents (with a "Monkeyman and O'Brien" story) and 21st century Marvel comics that featured underrated art (like Salgood Sam's work on "Muties").

I rarely bring any kind of list with me when I dive through these kinds of bargain bins. I used to do that -- the standard practice of trying to complete a "Power Man and Iron Fist" or "Suicide Squad" run without ever having to pay more than a buck per issue -- but I just don't have that many runs I care about completing, besides "Master of Kung-Fu" and Joe Casey's "Adventures of Superman." And in those two cases, I don't often run across those comics in bargain bins, even though I know they're out there.

Instead, I just try to find single issues that are interesting on their own, or pieces of runs that I've never even sampled before. So I'll pick up any issue of "Cheval Noir," the Dark Horse anthology series full of international reprints, for example, because you can't go wrong with the likes of Moebius, Torres, Tardi and Tanaka. I buy almost anything drawn by Jack Kirby -- his Bronze Age work hits the bargain bins quite often -- including his scant contributions to the Topps "Kirbyverse" line. I'll come across complete, or semi-complete, runs of long-ignored Helix titles by Matt Howarth, Tim Truman and Al Davison and those are always worth picking up if I don't have them already. This time, I hit a pile of Tekno comics, and while those are mostly horrible and/or just plain bland, I scored almost a complete run of "Teknophage," a series spun off from a Neil Gaiman concept, written mostly by Rick Veitch and drawn mostly by Bryan Talbot. Fodder for an upcoming column, I'm sure.

There's something about artifacts from the even-relatively-recent past that makes these kinds of bargain bin comics exist in a different headspace when I read them. I'm sure it's true for other readers as well and I've often seen complaints about how many current mainstream comics will get dismissed or downright blasted apart by criticism, while those same critics will turn around and praise the work of journeymen writers and artists of the past. Someone may tear into Geoff Johns's current output, but write favorably about John Ostrander's work from 20 years ago. And it's not always nostalgia corrupting the evaluation. Sometimes it's just that sense of perspective and context that's much easier to provide when you're looking at a comic from the past, while so many direct market comics of today seem churned out from a sickening candy mill.

"Comics Journal" #301 - Thick Brick of Criticism

So that's why we get books like "The Art of George Tuska" in 2005, which would have been unimaginable in 1985, when the idea of a Tuska completist would have been laughable. The equivalent would be announcing that someday, Mike Deodato would be seen as one of the major comic book artists of the modern era. Deodato has produced some fine work, but let's be realistic about his comparative talents, some might think. But the voices of two decades from now may very well have a different perspective, from their future-context.

Is this all a long build-up for me to talk about Dave Sim and "Cerebus?" I suppose it is.

Because last week was some kind of perfect storm of "Cerebus" convergence for me. It began with me finally getting around to reading the massive "Comics Journal" #301, which was delayed in getting to my house, even though I did the three-year subscription back in the spring. Hey, Fantagraphics, if you're reading this, check your records, because you don't have my correct address on file for some reason, even though I typed it in the little boxes when I re-subscribed online in April. I'm sure you'll fix it before the next issue comes out. You have time.

"The Comics Journal" #301 is a powerhouse, though, and worth the wait. The front half is taken up by a too-long roundtable discussion about Robert Crumb's adaptation of the "Book of Genesis," and it's not that his work isn't deserving of scrutiny and debate, it's that half the participants seem to be talking about things other than the text he's actually drawn and the version of the Bible he has actually adapted. But the Crumb interview is great and the second half of the book is filled with gilded pages like the dialogue between Al Jaffee and Michael Kupperman, Marc Sobel on the past decade of comic book trends, a full reprinting of "Gerald McBoing Boing" comics, sketchbooks and conversations with Stephen Dixon and Tim Hensley and, most importantly for me, Tim Kreider's vigorous and engaging re-examination of "Cerebus."

My own personal history with "Cerebus" is this: I started reading it, monthly, when I was 16 years old, when the double-numbered issue of #112/113 hit the stands at my local shop. I had seen "Cerebus" around before then and probably read about it a bit in "The Comics Journal" or "Amazing Heroes" or whatever I was reading for comics journalism at the time, though I had only started reading comics regularly about a year and a half before that. But "Cerebus" #112/113 seemed like a good place to start. It even said "Square One" on the cover. And "Jaka's Story" turned out to be the next arc, followed by "Melmoth," so for the next three years of my life, "Cerebus" became one of my very favorite comics.

I didn't realize at the time that those two arcs were the high points of the entire series, but I knew something was happening after issue #150 and I stopped reading it abruptly right around then. I may have bought a few more after that, but they were filled with long text pieces and almost nothing happening in the main "story" pages. By then, I knew about the "phonebook" reprints (I'd even picked up the first volume to find out about Cerebus's beginnings), so I figured that I'd wait and eventually read the "Mother's and Daughters" arc in the collected edition. Along with the rest of the 300 issues. I was a going to read them all, I knew at the time, just…later. When it was finished. I imagined I'd stock up on all the phonebooks and have the time of my life, reading about the exploits of the earth-pig and whatever Dave Sim was into at the time.

Rough-looking work by Sim

But, as we know now, as the series unfolded, the narrative of Dave Sim and "Cerebus" went from: "Can you believe he said he'd do 300 issues of this?" to, "Wow, this is one of the greatest comics ever created and we're going to get 300 issues of this?" to, "Oh, this is becoming increasingly unpleasant. How many issues are left?" to, finally, "Dave Sim is a misogynist and a religious freak and he wrote and drew that into his comic book series and I'm not going to pay attention any more, no matter how few issues he has left."

"Cerebus" didn't end until 2004, but doesn't it seem like Dave Sim has been condemned and forgotten for much longer than that?

And sometimes that makes it difficult to remember how close "Cerebus" was, for an extended period, to the level of "Greatest Comic Book Series of All Time."

Now, I'm not going to worry about the charges of misogyny leveled at Sim, nor am I going to spend time outlining the flaws in his religious belief system. The former relates to the artist, not the art and so it doesn't interest me. The latter, I know relatively little about. But as Kreider points out in his re-examination, reading "Cerebus" doesn't allow you to ignore the misogyny or the religion, because both become integral to the text, particularly in the final 100 issues. It's probably worth noting that Gerhard, who drew more actual lines on the "Cerebus" pages than Sim (even if Gerhard was never a full collaborator in the overall scope of the story) considers that the story of "Cerebus" reached it's conclusion with issue #200 and everything after that is something else entirely.

So what did I decide to do after reading Kreider's piece in "The Comics Journal" #301? Fulfill my teenage promise to myself and buy every single one of the "Cerebus" phonebooks and read the whole series.

I had the first volume already, and some version of every issue up until #150, because I did buy the single-issue reprints of "High Society" and "Church & State" when Sim rebranded them as bi-weekly limited series in the early 1990s, though I don't think I read more than a few. But I ordered all of the phonebook volumes on Amazon, anyway. Just to complete the bookshelf. (In retrospect, "High Society" reads much better in floppy singles, because when it turns to landscape format, the big phonebook is a pain to hold sideways.)

My plan was to read all 300 issues in 30 days this month. Ten issues per day. I even hashtagged #300issues30days on Twitter, to which former CBR editor Andy Khouri basically said, "You will not do it," citing his own frustrations with the insanity and unreadability of the final few volumes. I don't know anyone who has actually read "Cerebus" all the way through, other than a few colleagues who have read it as a sort of endurance test. A mad challenge, Edmund-Hillary-style.

"High Society" Begins

So that was the beginning of my week of "Cerebus" convergence, because as I started to reread volume one, after the Kreider piece, I started to see the comic everywhere. In my bargain bin digging, I came across hundreds of issues of the series (since I had already ordered the collections by then, I didn't pick up any copies of the single issues, though I was tempted, mainly because the covers alone are often so stunning and those are missing from the phonebooks). I also found some discount issues of "Following Cerebus," a comic that proves that someone must have been reading the series out of more than just a sense of physical endurance challenge.

And then I saw the links to this. Dave Sim's long-running "Cerebus TV," now available in new installments on YouTube, under the "Sim TV" banner.

All of a sudden, it was Cerebus Week 2011, and I knew I was on the right track with my reread. (Or nu-read, or whatever you want to call it. Let's go with "mega-read.")

"Cerebus TV" on YouTube is kind of a big deal, because though Sim has been streaming episodes via a dedicated website for years, it was impossible to watch. For me, at least. On a purely technical level. I have a decent Macbook with a good broadband internet connection, and I could never get "Cerebus TV" to work from that website. I would get jumpy bits of image and sound at best.

Based on the newest YouTube episode, I haven't been missing much. It's basically a cable-access show with Dave Sim talking about the stuff he's receiving from fans and what he is thinking about these days, at extreme length. And though Sim is no intellectual slouch, he sabotages his own words with goofy facial expressions to hammer home whatever punchline he's thrown in to end the segments. His hamminess doesn't stay within the caricatures in his comics, apparently.

Still, that didn't stop me from enjoying my "Cerebus" mega-read so far. I'm not quite on my 300-issues-in-30-days pace, but I have read all the pre-Gerhard issues already, which puts me only a few issues behind my 10-per-day goal. So, I've reread the entire first volume, plus all of "High Society" and the first quarter of the enormous "Church & State" two-volume set. The first volume is difficult to read in its own right, much clunkier than I remembered, on a story level (I knew the early art was rough) and there were moments when I was already thinking that the mega-read would be no fun at all. It's all Conan pastiche and not-very-funny gags and sophomoric superhero comedy and unformed pseudo-political commentary.

But "High Society" is really strong. Even without Gerhard's meticulous backgrounds, Sim creates a sense of a substantial world around his aardvark protagonist. "High Society" brings back characters from the first 25 issues, but you could easily skip those issues and just read this single volume and it would be one of the best graphic novels you've read. It's not perfect. But it has plenty of nice character moments and a vicious satire about the politics of the state. Cerebus becomes Prime Minister and he must face the consequences of that. Though it's well over 20 years old, it doesn't feel dissimilar from the kind of ridiculous circus behavior we're seeing in American politics these days. There are even plenty of debt-related jokes, for the kids.

Final pre-Gehard Issue

I'm not far enough into "Church & State" to make any kind of proclamations about its respective quality, but it certainly maintains Sim's strong level of cartooning, a level that's only enhanced when Gerhard joins the Aarvark-Vanaheim shop. It really is genuinely shocking to see how quickly Sim improved as an artist in the first "Cerebus" volume. By the end of those first two years on the series, he's basically fully-formed as an artist, after a messy start. He continues to improve as the series goes on, but his style is instantly recognizable by the time "High Society" begins and though most of his pages feature a reader's-eye-view about three to five feet off the ground in every panel, he doesn't skimp on the visual flair. He mashes text with art in innovative ways, early on and he masterfully controls the narrative pace by adjusting panel size and placement. It's skillful work, underappreciated because of Sim's personal reputation and the disappointment as the series raced to its conclusion.

But if you do spot some of the issues in the bargain bin, maybe it's enough just to pick them up and enjoy them for what they do for the medium, artistically. Put a sense of aesthetic perspective on single slices of "Cerebus," and appreciate what they have to offer. Or, you could join me in the mega-read and try to hold onto the aesthetic quality while navigating the much-maligned later parts of the narrative and troubling moral dimension of Sim's complete work.

I know how I'll be spending my August, anyway. Just me and Dave Sim and Gerhard and the Earth-Pig Born. And everything that comes with it.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, dave sim, cerebus, gerhard

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