Sunday, 25 December 2011

Kim Thompson: "Good Aardvark Art"

Cerebus #1-12 (December 1977 to October 1979)
Art by Dave Sim, except #7 by Frank Thorne

The following review of Cerebus #1-12 by Fantagraphics Books publisher Kim Thompson appeared in The Comics Journal #52 in December 1979. It was the first major review the Cerebus series received and The Comics Journal was not known for handing out praise lightly.


High points in comics art frequently have odd geneses. Carl Bark's magnum opus sprang from the use of established characters from the Disney canon, one of the most limiting and repressive environments imaginable. George Herriman's masterpiece began as a postscript to an otherwise not terribly distinguished strip called The Family Upstairs. And Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's finest creation originated as a near throwaway in a moribund comic, Amazing Adult Fantasy.

From such unpromising beginnings sprang Uncle Scrooge, Krazy Kat, and Spider-Man, three high-water marks in comics history. It should therefore come as no great surprise that a strip mingling a funny-animal protagonist and a backdrop begun as a line-for-line pastiche of Roy Thomas and Barry Smith's Conan should have developed into one of the best comics of the late 70s. Cerebus The Aardvark has surmounted its origins, both stylistic and thematic, to stand on its own two (rather tubular) feet as a delightful and admirable work of art, and is busily propelling its creator, Dave Sim, to the very forefront of artists currently working in comics. If he is not already recognised as one of tomorrow's masters, it is, I think, because he is not busy writing trendy, opportunistically "relevant" stories or filling his pages with semi-legible, self-conscious stylistic posturing. Instead, he has chosen to put his ever-increasing craftsmanship in the service of telling a straightforward and articulate manner, highly entertaining and witty stories featuring well-developed and affecting characters. Cerebus is (and I do not say this lightly) a true heir to Carl Barks's duck stories. What Barks and Sim have in common, and what so few other creators, particularly nowadays, seem to have, is honesty vis-a-vis their creations. Barks wrote straight from the heart; Sim, once he'd shucked off the initial parodic shallowness in Cerebus, seems similarly sincere. It is tempting to say that at some point characters "take on a life of their own," but that would be doing their creators an injustice. What people like Barks and Sim have is the sensitivity to develop an almost organic feel for their characters that is far removed from (although not totally incompatible with) coldly intellectual manipulation. Gerber never succeeded with Howard The Duck, for instance, because he was insistent on using him to make points in his stories, and worse, making certain that the readers  were fully aware of that he was using them to make those points. Claremont hasn't succeeded in doing it in the X-Men because the devices are too obvious and too calculated. Like good dancing, good characterisation has to be virtually sublimated into the subconscious - if you're still counting "one, two, three" and concentrating on your feet, you've got a was to go.

Despite lapses early on in the canon (such as the second issue, where Cerebus stabs a defeated opponent for a gag - a deliciously blackhearted gag I would have relished in any other context, but here a jolting bit of nastiness), Cerebus and his various supporting characters have acquired dimension. This is doubly remarkable given the fact that most of them (Elrod, Red Sophia, the Cockroach) began as parodies: once Sim had turned the originals inside out, he found that the resultant contortion had its own charm and took off from there. Sophia is still a trifle uncomfortable (probably not least because of the moderately unhealthy nature of her Marvel counterpart and inspiration), but Elrod's portentously amiable goofball persona has divorced itself from its parodic aspects and is no longer a spoof of Elric (except visually), but an original and appealing character.

And, of course, Cerebus himself is a delight. Tempering his initial sullenness with a wicked sense of wit, Sim has evolved Cerebus into a sterling protagonist, with a sharply defined personality, bringing to light traits both positive (keen intelligence, humor, persistence, inventiveness, and an underlying - sometimes far under indeed - ethic) and negative (greed, sarcasm, drunkenness, rudeness, and a coldness toward everyone he meets, usually laced with a deep contempt) and usually staying within his own boundaries. Sim has been coy about how and why an aardvark is doing a Howard the Duck number on Conan's world (his attempts at providing a theological background for aardvarks in #5 and #7are not, I think, to be taken quite seriously), and it doesn't really matter any more than what a dog, mouse and genderless cat are doing beaning each other with bricks in a surrealistic landscape. Sim has wisely kept the "Why... y-y-you're and aardvark!" stuff to a minimum, forsaking it altogether where it would impede the story flow.

Quite apart from the great charm of Sim's characters, the efficient command of of the comics language evident throughout the series is one of its major assets. Sim displays that rarest and most precious of talents: a clean, uncluttered, pleasant story-telling style that is neither overly flashy (the more excessive Byrne jobs), stilted (Gulacy), stolid (Starlin), or hackneyed (the Buscema Brothers [John and Sal]). The layouts of Cerebus provide an object lesson in fluid narrative: viewing the page is like being navigated through busy streets by a skilled driver.

Sim uses the vocabulary of comics with such lucidity and craft that the techniques, most of which are frequently paraded about with no good reason (when not directly misused) by lesser talents, are perfectly integrated. Sim knows exactly when to use split panels, tilted and odd-shaped panels, silhouettes, triptychs, zooms, and does so so expertly that these techniques blend into the fabric of the narrative to create a seamless tapestry of images.

Well, almost seamless. Sim is capable of flubs  as well as anyone else. For instance, the rooftop sequence in #11, it is never quite clear when and how the Cockroach gets down to the street; the rest of the sequence however, flows so smoothly that I didn't notice the lapse until the fourth reading. When the merchant wakes up on page 11 of that same story, Sim reverses viewpoints at an inopportune moment: the penultimate panel on the preceding page establishes Cerebus stage right, Merchant stage left; in the first panel on page 11, Cerebus is startled by a voice coming from stage right; and in panel three, the Merchant and Cerebus are again in their original positions vis-a-vis one another.. Where Sim blows it is panel one, where the reversed angle gives the impression that Cerebus is being startled by a voice from behind, ie in a room different from the Merchant's.

But these and other weaknesses are, given Sim's youth, quite pardonable. Better to commend him for his adeptness at sustaining mood with abstract and semi-abstract renderings in the background, for example. Smith kept the reader informed as to Conan's whereabouts by ceaselessly littering the decor with elaborate architechure, sculptures, and decorative wallpaper. Sim, aware that this more often than not diverts the eye from the basic flow of the action, frequently draws page after page set against a background composed of vey simple designs - mostly  simple pen strokes - after establishing the decor in the opening shot. Despite some goofs that crop up here, too (the 'marble patterns' during the fight with the Panrovian in #9 are coarse and distracting, for instance), this technique serves Sim, who can indicate a persistent rain storm merely by filling the page with vertical lines, very well indeed.

Sim's rendering, originally a curious scuffle between Smith-pastiche and his own nascent style, is becoming more efficient and less derivative. There is still a curious stylistic clash between Cerebus, who is deliniated with the clean-cut clarity of an animation cell, and the rest of the book, but it works remarkably well, and in fact facilitates continuity by making the protagonist stand out graphically (although an argument could be made that when the protagonist is only three-foot, furry, long-snouted character in the series, one does not really have to go out of one's way to make him stand out graphically). In the latest issue, Sim has adopted the use of zipatone and seems to have gone a little nuts with it. Aside from a personal prejudice in favour of artists who can do their rendering without cutting and pasting dot designs on their pages, I think it has lost him a bit of his individuality, although I suspect that practise will allow Sim to master the technique and add it to his repertoire of comics tools. Issue 12 is a bit dark and muddy here and there, thus graphically inferior to its immediate predecessors, but it shows a considerable amount of promise.

One very unfortunate aspect of the book is the covers. Sim's gift for comics art does not extend to cover art; they are neither effective action scenes nor effective parodies of such, and are mostly awkward and ill-conceived. (There are also commercially not very sound: why does #12, which features Elrod, have a cover illustration of Cerebus fighting two anonymous goons?). In addition to this, the colour separations are simply awful; sloppily cut and with no attention paid to angling the screens so as to avoid moires. If Cerebus is not selling as well as it might be, much of the credit must go to its unappealing exteriors.

But I recommend Cerebus heartily, warts and all. And those who scrutinise the alternative press in search of future masters, and then delight in charting their progress, would do well to follow Cerebus as well. Because Sim is here to stay - if we are fortunate.

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