When Words Collide: Absolute "Cerebus" Part One In the Beginning...

Mon, August 15th, 2011 at 2:58pm PDT | Updated: August 15th, 2011 at 10:10pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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Last week I talked about everything converged this month to turn my August into a "Cerebus" mega-read, where I would plow through all 300 issues of Dave Sim's controversial epic in the span of 30 days.

Some doubted that I would finish, with the notorious final third of the series standing as a nigh-impenetrable wall of crazy religious text. An obstacle for any reasonable reader, particularly one who could very easily just say, "Yeah, I don't really need to finish this series. No big deal either way. Very few people have actually read the whole thing." Plus, going into last week's column, I was already averaging less than 10 issues per day, so I was behind after less than a week.

Seven days later, I've not only read all 300 issues, but I finished reading the final page of the final Cerebus "phonebook" on August 12 and then proceeded to devour Sim's annotations and look for more supplementary reading (interviews and articles and whatever) on the series. I should have changed my Twitter hashtag to #300issues12days. Not only did I not have to "plow" through the series and not only did I not find the final third to be a wall of crazy religious text, I found that reading the series, at least for about 5,600 of its approximately 6,000 pages, was terrifically enjoyable. Sometimes it was painful, but never in an artless way. It was painful in the sense that here was a comic that was filled with statements and ideas that were just plain wrong, absurdly disagreeable, but I didn't find that off-putting. I found it engaging. Vibrant.

It's true that there is a point where the series becomes practically unreadable, but it's not a third of the way through, as you may have heard. It's not after issue #186, when Dave Sim gets explicit with his "anti-feminist" views. It's not after issue #200 where the basic story that began in issue #1 seems to come to an end. It's not in "Guys" or "Form & Void." It's not with page after page of pseudo-F. Scott Fitzgerald prose. It's not until the last few hundred pages of the entire series, when Cerebus begins his exegesis of the Torah, presented as comedy but actually a reflection of Sim's own dialogue with the holy text. And even that is readable, if slow going. But it was at that point, about two-thirds of the way through the fifteenth volume, that I started looking at page numbers and thinking, "okay, ten more pages and then a break."

Until then, I flew through the series, even the text pieces and Sim's commentary in the back of the later volumes, with fervor. (As an aside, that makes approximately 93% of the series a masterful performance, and 7% almost completely unbearable except for the most devoted of Sim acolytes. Not a bad percentage, really, when you think about how many quality comic book pages you get in that 93%. It's far greater than the 50% to 70% readable number that's thrown around in vague discussions about the quality of "Cerebus.") As I read the majority of the series, I was fully engrossed in the world he was creating, in the aesthetic pleasure of the visuals. In the finely-tuned character work. Even when I radically, violently disagreed with the things he was writing (which was often). But it wasn't a case where I thought for even a minute that "Cerebus" was the story of an artist who had gone crazy over the course of the series. No, it was a case of an artist who bound the story of his series increasingly more closely with the story of his own life, an artist who's weirdly archaic and hermetic beliefs were implicit in the characters and situations from early on, but didn't become an explicit part of the text until over halfway through the run. It was the case of an artist who sought answers -- a compulsive reader, researcher, thinker -- and didn't find what wanted to understand about the inner workings of the universe until he found God. That doesn't make Dave Sim crazy, it just makes him someone trying to work his way through this mystery that we call life, and he was documenting his progress in the form of a 6,000 page graphic novel starring a talking aardvark. Unusual, sure, but not crazy.

That doesn't mean that he isn't completely, frustratingly wrong about plenty of things. But when you read "Cerebus," or at least when I read "Cerebus," what was so striking was that Sim at least had something to say. He doesn't get a free pass for his potentially harmful attitude and behavior, but that side of him is the public Sim rather than the artist Sim. They may indeed be the same guy, but it's one thing to create a chapter of a comic book in which a group of guys sit around and continually fall victim to the entrancing powers of the women that walk through the doors of the bar, and it's another thing to petulantly lash out at the AV Club's Tasha Robinson for daring to be a woman and daring to write for a website that may have less-than-regressive-right-wing readers and for daring to ask questions of the great and powerful Dave Sim.

I guess I'd better address that last point before moving on, because it is at the core of the "Dave Sim Problem" that arises whenever anyone talks about "Cerebus" and it sucks up much of the thought-space that could be better devoted to a discussion of the text of the series itself. But I can't avoid it either, so here goes…

The Dave Sim AV Club interview, conducted in 2004, is an example of what might be called "classic Sim," in the sense that while he complained, after the end of "Cerebus," that the world was ignoring his masterwork, he sabotaged his own interview with a media outlet that has far more readers than his comics ever had. When Robinson led off the interview by daring to ask why Sim would center his life's work around an aardvark, Sim snidely replied: "You know, it's really quite unbelievable to me that you have 4,000 words in which to cover the longest sustained narrative in human history, and your first question is 'Why an aardvark?'"

Later, the interview grows even more antagonistic after Robinson asks a seemingly innocuous question about reader response to the comic: "Which segment of the series came closest to garnering your ideal critical or fan response?"

Sim jumps clear over defensiveness, and goes on the attack: "See, there's a perfect example right there. Leftists always want to...circle around subjects...rather than addressing any subject directly. What you're obviously driving at is to try to get me to say that I wrote issue 186 and "Tangent" -- my seminal anti-feminist writings -- in order to provoke the level of outrage which resulted, or to say that I long, bitterly, for the days when I was a fan favorite and was getting tons and tons of favorable press before I went public with not being a feminist, which resulted in my becoming a pariah in the comic-book community."

No, that's not what Robinson was asking at all, as she clarifies soon after, but his response displays the rush-to-judgment and paranoia that adds up to the "crazy" label so often applied to him. That and his rabid, self-proclaimed anti-feminism, which he discusses a bit in the interview after Robinson asks if there are perspectives that he might "feel" didn't come across in the series itself.

"Ever the oblique leftist," says Sim. "I don't 'feel.' If I 'felt,' I would never have gotten the book done. I'd be off 'feeling' somewhere. My best intellectual assessment of the completed work is that I said exactly what I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say it. What you want to know is if I'm going to continue to attack feminism, and what sort of artillery I have left. I have a lot of artillery left. My best guess would be that I emptied one metaphorical clip from one metaphorical AK-47, mostly firing over your heads and at the ground, although most of you are feeling as if I dropped an atomic bomb on your house on Christmas morning."

Yikes. Dave Sim, ladies and gentlemen.

And by "ladies and gentlemen," I mean soul-sucking voids and creative lights. But I'll get to that part of Sim's hysterical cosmology a bit later. Maybe next week. We should probably move on to some kind of actual discussion about the "Cerebus" books before this week's column is over. And save some of the nuts and bolts of Sims perceived (with reason) misogyny for next week. (And you'll see how Sim changes his mind about the void thing, contrary to popular belief, but maybe not in the way you might hope.)

So let's move back to my original point: as infuriating as Sim can be, in his public persona, in his back-of-the-book "anti-feminist" screeds, "Cerebus" itself is not as simplistic and single-minded as Sim the man would lead you to believe.

It is a complex, layered, flawed but astonishingly ambitious work. It's no surprise Tim Kreider's excellent look at "Cerebus" in "Comics Journal" #301 throws around book titles like "Moby-Dick" as part of the discussion. Kreider is hesitant to put Sim's work quite in that league, but he does offer a comparison with other notable graphic novels. "Even though Cerebus isn't as good a book as 'Maus' or 'Fun Home' or 'Persepolis,' it's much more interesting than any of them."

Though worded differently, that's not too far from the conclusion reached by Douglas Wolk in "Aardvark Politick," an essay in the September 2005 issue of "The Believer." Near the end of his piece, Wolk gives a one-sentence overview about the essence of Sim's series: "'Cerebus' is a novel of (very big) ideas, and one of the biggest is the nature of reality and its relationship both to subjectivity and to the stories that communicate versions of reality." Then as he reaches the final paragraph of his response to the series, he writes that "Cerebus" is… "A serious, ambitious, completed large-scale work, no matter how deeply flawed it is," and that kind of project "beats a perfectly envisoned but unrealized work every time."

I'd go farther than both Kreider and Wolk. For all of the flaws of "Cerebus," particularly in that final 7% of the series, I would say it's as good as the likes of "Maus," "Fun Home," or "Persepolis" largely because what it lacks in consistency it makes up for in artistry. There's no page in any of those three works that match any average page from "Cerebus," in terms of composition, storytelling or visual energy. And while those three books -- deservedly acclaimed -- tell autobiographical stories that resonate, "Cerebus" is a maximalist, culture-wide autobiography of an artist trying to tell the story of reality. And even as he gets it completely wrong, he pushes the boundaries of comic book art and storytelling farther than almost anyone before or since. I might have left out the "almost," if it weren't for Will Eisner. I think it is fair to call it the "Moby-Dick" of graphic narrative.

Two things, there, worth clarifying: (1) The character of Cerebus may not be a stand-in for Dave Sim the man or Dave Sim the artist, but "Cerebus" is as autobiographical as any comic book ever written, and (2) It is the only post-Eisner comic to use everything Eisner pioneered and then build on it.

That first point has led to much confusion and disappointment on the part of readers. I suspect that the reason the series has a reputation for falling apart in the final third is because readers were thinking that they were reading a comic about the exploits of Cerebus the aardvark and the world around him. It's easy to think that, after all -- the earth-pig's name is the title of the comic, and the character appears on more pages than anyone else. But, no, this is the autobiography of Dave Sim, or at least the internal autobiography of the artist known as Dave Sim. Gerhard plays a role too, but it's only a supporting one, like Cerebus. It's not Gerhard's story. It's not Cerebus' story. It's Dave Sim's story, and they are just part of the mechanism for getting it across.

If you read the series knowing it's Sim's autobiography, sometimes symbolically, sometimes literally, then the structure of the series makes a lot more sense. You might wonder why you'd want to read the autobiography of such a person. But he's far more fascinating than any aardvark, that's for sure, and he's done something no one has ever done in history: write and draw a 6000 page story about what's going on in his mind.

The second point may seem trivial, or irrelevant, at first glance. Surely everyone who draws comics has been influenced by Eisner, right? Okay, I wouldn't argue with that -- whether influence is direct or acknowledged or not -- but with Sim, it goes far beyond mere influence. "Cerebus," once it gets rolling, and once Sim abandons the Barry Smith mimicry and moves toward more character-based storytelling after year two, becomes a comic that embraces Will Eisner more than anyone else in history. Plenty of artists have built on Eisner's storytelling techniques, but most have only taken a piece here or a piece there. They haven't taken the full array of approaches that Eisner pioneered first in his post-war "Spirit" work and later in his original graphic novels. The use of white space, the borderless images, the movement around the page, using expressive lettering and figure drawings. Everything from the expressions of characters to the crosshatching of folds to the use of staggered word balloons against a black field to demonstrate aural depth. These are all Eisnerian touches, and Sim packs them all into the story. They are the internal mechanism which makes the art work, and then Sim takes it his own direction.

Someone smart once asked me (it was probably Matt Seneca) who I would name as an artist not influenced by Jack Kirby. Every name I came up with was a failure. Everyone, at least in North American comics, ends up under the Kirby banner. And certainly Sim is no exception, since Barry Smith (pre-Windsor) started out as a Kirby clone, and the initial "Conan" comics that inspired "Cerebus" were Smith-doing-Kirby-doing-barbarian-comics. And that's what Sim started with. But by the time he got to "High Society" the Eisner influence was far stronger. And if you ignore the early issues, you can almost imagine a widespread comic book landscape that sprung almost completely out of Eisner, rather than Kirby. This is what a world without Kirby might look like, I said to myself, reading the bulk of the "Cerebus" run after issue #25 or so. Not that I'd want a world without Kirby. Not for anything. But there's more Eisner in Sim's work than in all of his contemporaries, combined. To speak metaphorically about the effect on Sim's art: while the rest of the comic book artists of his era play with one hand tied behind their backs, Sims plays as if he's got five hands, and they're all trained by Eisner.

Looks like we're running a bit long already, and I'm just getting warmed up. 6000 pages is a lot to respond to.

I have plenty more to say about "Cerebus," and we haven't even gotten to my thoughts on individual volumes of the series yet, but I'll promise you this: I won't overstay my welcome by talking about this stuff for too long. One more week, that's all I need.

NEXT WEEK: I will wrap up my reflections on "Cerebus" and provide a handy-dandy overview of each volume in the series. And offer my final thoughts on the legacy of Sim's work.

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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