Saturday, 30 November 2013

Teaching Cerebus

Commission: The Newlyweds (2006)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard 
(Click image to enlarge)
(responding to Tim O'Neil's Cerebus presentation, 28 October 2013)
...Hearing about your Cerebus talk and going over your powerpoint got me thinking about how strong your argument for Cerebus as an addition to the canon is. Given how strong your argument is, it seems likely that someone will eventually make the argument for teaching Cerebus, and it might as well be you.

It seems like you're running up against two issues that need definite answers if Cerebus is going to be taught as a canonical work, so I thought I would throw out some provisional answers to see if they were any use to you. The two issues I'm referring to are the theme of the work, and the historical signficance of the work's reception. Definite statements on these issues will provide the "hooks" necessary to teach the work to coming generations. So here are my thoughts on these issues.

In terms of a theme, I'd argue that Sim offers a profound depiction of turn of the century masculinity. He lays out the world of failed celebrity, womanizing, drinking and futile quests that have replaced warfare and establishing a household for so many of us. His treatment is all the more significant for being laid out in a language of superheroes and sword & sorcery that has become a dominant rhetoric for turn of the century masculinity.

With respect to this theme, some of the most powerful stories come in the second half of the work, after Sim's turn to the dark side. His treatments of the Rolling Stones, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway engage with some of the most important images of 20th century masculinity, in an intelligent and ironic fashion, and his depiction of the collapse of Cerebus' and Jaka's relationship as they starve in the wilderness vividly depicts feelings shared by all of us who've tried to manage household finances without sufficient income. He only deals with sports as a theme quite late in the work, but in a way that is indispensible to the work as a whole. I lost him during his biblical criticism stories, but there may well be material there that would reward a second reading of the whole work. In any case, it would reward scholarly attention, even just to resolve the issue of why he was doing it.

I feel less clear about the controversies involved in how Cerebus was received, as the question seems to me not so much why Sim was such a misogynist (why not?) as to why his work would be so intensely scrutinized by an audience with feminist sympathies. It was, after all, a parody of Conan the Barbarian using aesthetic tools adapted from Howard the Duck. While such an approach would signal to pop-culture obsessed young men that here was someone who was taking an intelligent approach to their deepest concerns, it would also seemed perfectly designed to keep any female reader at a distance. The misogyny seems obvious enough right from the beginning. The biggest change is that Sim develops his misogyny into a more explicit philosophy, just as he does with so many other aspects of masculinity that he depicts.

One way to understand what happened when Sim's misogyny went from being implicit to being explicit is to consider the figure of Jaka, since she is a character who acquires a detailed and sympathetic back story, without leaving her roots in male fantasy behind. As the princess who discovers her deepest self in exotic dancing, she is, to a large degree, that wonderful fantasy of the pulps, the stripper with the heart of gold.

Jaka's role in Sim's analysis of masculinity seems clear enough. As an impossible woman whose love for Cerebus bore no relationship to her social status or attractiveness, she served as the perfect foil for Cerebus' inability to love anyone. Her beauty and inexplicable devotion to Cerebus located the failure of the relationship completely within the hero's character.

At the same time, Jaka was open to an alternate reading, as an ideal for a post-feminist fan-girl audience. To emphasize her attractiveness, Sim gave Jaka a back story that made her both socially ideal (as strippers are not) and sexually available (as noblewomen are not). Unfortunately, in post-feminist popular culture, this combination, despite its origin in male adolescent fantasy, has become an ideal for teenage girls to achieve. Girls who read X-Men and Spider-Man, found in Jean Grey and Mary Jane Watson a combination of attractiveness, social acceptability, and self-determination that seemed to overcome the contradictions between traditional sexual roles and feminist aspirations.

The mainstream publishers have welcomed this feminine audience, leading us to the seeming promised land of a femininity rooted in male pulp adolescent fantasies. We end up debating how to make women more welcome in a fantasy world that they ought to deconstruct. Ultimately, this is only possible because of the decades of experience the mainstream companies developed in distracting their audiences from the conflicts of their fantasies with real life.

As an independent creator, Sim lacked the commercial scruples necessary to maintain the pretense that Jaka's unusual social situation was anything other than a fantasy rooted in the adolescent male gaze. When he began articulating an explicit philosophy of art to enshrine this adolescent male gaze, his female fans were forced into the same experience that his male fans had been in from the beginning. As we wannabe Conans were forced to view ourselves as a pig, his female fans realized that they were identifying with a fantasy of a profoundly sexually alienated artist. Had they not become accustomed to such identifications over years of reading pulp-derived fantasy and superheroics, the shock would probably not have been as profound.


Anonymous said...

I can’t see how Cerebus shows “obvious signs of misogyny” right from the beginning. That is simply reading Reads and Tangent retroactively back throughout the whole book. Or it is adopting a hopelessly broad definition of misogyny.

To my memory, Dave was never accused of misogyny until after issue 186. Even then, many who knew him thought 186 might be a joke or simply part of the storyline because it was out of character. Did the people who reacted so vehemently to 186 and Tangents overlook this “obvious misogyny” for over 15 years? Not likely.

The real explanation I think is that Dave radically changed over the course of the book. The perspective of the book towards its subject matter and characters changed with him.

I also think that the intelligent, fiercely independent, and empowered characterizations of both Astoria and the first-half Jaka, especially in comparison with Cerebus and Rick, are at odds with the suggestion that these characters were somehow obvious expressions of misogyny. I can’t see the misogyny or even sexism in depictions of women that defy gendered stereotypes and instead portray complexity and strength. But perhaps in the academy?

I think acknowledging that Dave’s retrograde attitudes towards women were a much later development might help explain for Dodd why the book appealed to readers with feminist leanings. In the early goings, the editorializing was upbeat and humorous and a lot of the politics related to creative freedom. Dave even expressed feminist views and left-leaning politics. Cerebus’ early appeal was that it truly stood out artistically from other comics and Dave shared the values of his readership.

-Reginald P.

Anonymous said...

for further proof of Reginald's assertions here's an essay Dave did way back where he attacks his hero Jules Feiffer for not being feminist enough

see jpeg at the end

as one commentator noted: ".. about his writing about gender relationships.. Was Dave Sim kidnaped and replaced by an evil twin at a later point of his life? O.o Does this evil twin still have the real sim chained in a basement making him draw for him as he mocks him that not only he is ruining his reputation as a sane being, he is making money at his expenses?
Honestly, the way he is talking here about treating women like human, thinking beings compared to his later life vs "the female void" is a world of difference O.o" while i wouldn't fully agree with the commentators description of later Dave lol the truth is, more than likely, that Dave's world view changed in course of writing and drawing Cerebus and this included politics, religion and everything under else the sun.

Geoffrey D. Wessel said...

Well, all I can say is, prior to #186, I honestly thought Sim WAS on the pro-women side of things (indeed, the biggest thing that struck me at the time of #186 was how it was a *direct contradiction* of what The Judge had said at the end of "Church & State" - MEN were the Void, WOMEN were the Light)

However, last year I read JAKA'S STORY for the first time in phonebook form (I always had the single issues, which are somewhere in storage now), and right from jump, Sim's intro, written in 1989/90, says that Jaka was created for the sole purpose of having a great identifiable female character, in order to knock her down.

Makes you wonder just how far the seeds were sown, prior to #186, and what other hints might have been missed...

--- Geoffrey D. Wessel

Dominick Grace said...

I think the seeds are there, but that earlier on, the narrative is sufficiently complex and ambiguous to leave the work more open to intepretation. Further, I also think that Sim is a sufficiently great artist that the work often transcends whatever his intentions might have been.

In fact, I just taught Jaka's Story in a grapgic novels course, and misogyny was hardly even an aspect of the discussion.

Anonymous said...

@ Geoffrey:

I can't find that quote from Jaka's Story as I no longer have my copy. However, I found part of the intro, which can be found at the Jaka Tavers Cerebus Wiki:

"Jaka was, and is, to me an Artist first, last and always. That she was a wife, an aristocrat, an object of adoration and lust, an employee and a scoff-law intruded nowhere near the center of her being wherein the Dancer resides. If I identify with her moreso than with Oscar, it must be attributed to our both toiling in fields of endeavour damned by faint and patronizing praise, over-looked and almost universally dismissed by the doctrinaire in favour of the third-rate and the merely lucrative.

Our reactions are the same.

The play is the thing."

Again, the obvious seeds of misogyny here elude me.

Reading Dave's opinion's on Jaka from that Wiki, it is patently obvious that his opinion of her radically changed over time.

But I'd be curious to hear some examples of these early seeds of misogyny.

So far, what Dodd presents is, in my opinion, a nonsensical criticism of comic book depictions of women. If I understand him correctly -- and with postmodern types there is no guarantee -- depictions of women as attractive and independent are primarily male fantasy, and thus a new iteration of misogyny. I think by that logic, almost any depiction of women in the media that you have ever seen is misogyny. I'm sorry, but this is so broad as to render the word misogyny meaningless.

After the rape of Astoria -- which has good potential on its face to be called misogyny -- Dave received a number of very thoughtfully written responses from women, which he invited. Not a single accusation of misogyny: in fact quite the opposite. Trina Robbins wrote in praise of his depiction.

There is simply a mountain of evidence that the early book is not misogynistic in any way.

-Reginald P.

Anonymous said...

One problem is the fact that misogyny is so broadly defined that someone who's looking for it will find it. This isn't to say that it doesn't exist in our culture and that it isn't a problem, but if you spend any time reading or listening to the depraved rantings of Capital-'F'-Feminitsts... it's very interesting to see what can be and is considered anti-women nowadays. Red Sofia would be the sort of joke character that a feminist would have written back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s to mock Red Sonja, but nowadays? Why, you've just taken a strong woman from fiction and given her dingy-broad traits, so you're misogynist.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't read Tim O'Neil's presentation or his articles on "The Hooded Utilitarian", but I didn't get from them what David Dodd did; I don't know where he came up with that. But I don't think that Reginald P. is correct that Dodd is saying, "depictions of women as attractive and independent are primarily male fantasy, and thus a new iteration of misogyny." And Anon @ 23:53: I assume you're attempting some kind of joke, but I don't think it worked.

Dave is a master at inventing after-the-fact rationalizations for his emotional reactions, while simultaneously claiming that he doesn't have emotions and is a creature of pure reason. But it seems clear that his misogyny was spurred by his wife's decision to end their marriage, and by the heartache this caused him. I agree with Reg P. that "the early book is not misogynistic".

One reason that it's not misogynistic is that there simply aren't many female characters in the book. Of the half-dozen women in the first half, only Jaka and Astoria have any long-term effect on Cerebus or Cerebus. Marrying Sophia was Weisshaupt's plot); the Cirinists were nothing more than military invaders; make Mrs. Thatcher male and the repressive-authoritarian bit would still work.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, xyz

David Birdsong said...

Damian would you care to explain how Deni and Dave's divorce caused him such terrible pain? How does this seem clear to you? At the time when their divorce settlement became final Dave, Gerhard and Karen McNeil celebrated with champagne. It was also the beginning of the "It's mine, all mine" period. It seems clear to me that he was very happy it was over. During their marriage both Dave and Deni saw other people. Open marriages tend to always end because if you are going outside of your marriage for sex and companionship with other people you aren't doing it right. One or both are going to find someone they would rather be with. As Dave himself said he spent the next several years being led around by his penis, smoking pot and sleeping around a lot. Having done that myself I can tell you that it is fun for a season, but a crash usually follows. In Dave's case he got control of himself and realized that his bad habits were not healthy for him mentally or physically. He embraced God. He changed his life. He gave the world (or at least the Cerebus readership) a big dose of reality that it for the most part did not care to hear and apparently it struck a deep nerve because it is being discussed to this day.

Anonymous said...

I read Tim O’Neil’s Cerebus Powerpoint presentation. An interesting read; but I think it overemphasizes the impact of 186 on readership, at least as indicated by the slides.

He suggests that, after a peak in popularity at the end of Melmoth, issue 186 led to declining readership and a muted response to issue 200. That is wrong. The peak was around issue 100, followed by an extremely muted response to the end of Church & State at 111, and then a steady and significant decline in sales evident throughout the end of the first half. Cerebus was probably the victim of industry-wide declines and frankly, seeming digressions in the storyline and slow pacing for almost 50 issues spanning the end of Church & State through Melmoth.

This four-year period hardly features Cerebus, but instead features lengthy exposition, long text pieces, and a story – Melmoth – whose relevance to the overall narrative is unclear. Church & State ends with the first of three pseudo-cosmological expositions, which was unrelated to the previous story. I think this seriously tried the patience of many readers, who simply lost interest and quietly left. I also recall that people abandoned the book because they perceived Dave’s “mine all mine” stance as arrogant. Dave actually stopped responding to letters for a while during that time in response, which I think added to the tedium of the series. So this period is not the heyday that O’Neil suggests, but a serious decline.

I'm sure people will swear by that part of the series, but I think Dave lost about 1/3 of his readership during Jaka’s Story. Apparently it doesn’t sell even close to as well as Cerebus or High Society, despite the critical acclaim. People mostly didn’t care for Melmoth: according to Dave himself, it’s a very poor seller.

I’m sure Dave lost readers with 186, but I wonder if there’s any evidence that it was significant compared to the general decline in readership, or if this is simply a tendency to overemphasize 186. In any case, it's certainly not the onset of the books decline.

Also, small quibble: Dave originally planned to do 150 issues, not 300.

-Reginald P.

Geoffrey D. Wessel said...

@Reginald: I agree, the earlier period of CEREBUS does not appear misogynistic, which is probably part of the reason #186 was such a smack in the face to many, including myself. As to the actual quote, I'm afraid I don't have the phonebook myself, either, so we'll have to come back to this one at a later time. However, I will say reading that intro was a case of "If I Knew Then What I Know Now," and it did pretty well color my re-reading of JAKA'S STORY after a decade and a half. The end sequences between Jaka and Thatcher suddenly took on the aura of Dueling Strawwomen more than anything...

However, there's also varying "peaks of popularity" - saying CHURCH & STATE was the height of it, downplays the almost out of nowhere "hotness" that CEREBUS had in the early-90s, during the first year of Image, when somehow Sim became what Neil Young was considered to be to all the grunge artists coming up at the time. Indeed, Sim had one of the most densely packed rooms at the 1993 Chicago Comicon, in a space where the GOH was Neil Gaiman, and Todd McFarlane and several other Image founders were there too (This was also the time that SPAWN #10 came out). CEREBUS was certainly on a lot more radars than it was before during that period...

--- Geoffrey D. Wessel

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of something I find unique about Cerebus. I think a good way to approach the book is to remember that sometimes years of Dave's life pass between depictions of characters, where only a short time, perhaps weeks, has passed in the book. So in Cerebus, characters can shift more rapidly than they might in real life, or in a book where the author can edit for consistency. One can read the depiction as being a window into Dave's state of mind at the time and see how his attitudes had changed.

I find the Countess seems very different between her appearances in Church & State, which are separated by around three years. At the very least the tenor of her interaction with Cerebus is very different. Jaka from the very beginning, the early half and the last third seem like three different people. Astoria I find remarkably consistent, although maybe there are shifts I haven't noticed. The same might be true of Cerebus himself.

Anyways, that's a bit of a fun way to look at the characters. I'm not aware of any other works of fiction where you can map changes in the characters to changes in the life and attitudes of the author, especially where the author is avowedly not trying to change the characters (except Rick I think). I'd guess it's a pretty rare thing.

-Reginald P.

Dominick Grace said...

I don't think the seeds are obvious in Jaka's Story, and I don't buy that Dave is in fact a misogynist, though I do think that "anti-feminist" captures it well. But looking back at JS with a knowledge of where Dave ended up going does, I think, reasonably invite us to see seeds of the antifeminist present in the work. Even the dedication, "To Venus, damn Her," picks up more of an anti-female resonance in the context of Yoowhoo especially.

More indicative, though, I think, is the introduction, which is not too hard to see as a sort of version of the "pass the blame" device of pinning male sexual aggression on women's (supposed) oblivion to the sexual effect they have on men. This passage in the introduction especially strikes me as ... I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to say 'disturbing,' but as an example of suggesting that male woes are women's fault: "Their [below-average men's] desires, natural and organic, fester within them, their shyness and their unappealing physiques the frail but insurmountable barricade which makes what is difficult for the rest of our gender, unattainable for them. That the merest handful of them surrender, finally, to internalized rage and sick need is testimony (to me) to the monumental restraint which characterizes the existences of nearly all men" (page 7). He expresses sympathy for such men on the top of page 8.

The claim that Rick is "the nearest I will ever come to the portrayal of a good and thoroughly decent human being; completely without guile or malice" (page 9) has also always struck me as odd, but it begins to make a bit more sense in the later context of the more overtly anti-feminist material.

Obvious seeds? No. Things that in retrospect acquire a different weighting in my response to the book? Yes.

As for the book itself, the depiction of female authority in absolutely consistent repressive terms, from the overtness of the Cirinists to the maliciouness of nurse (as imaged in Oscar's narrative, anyway; I think she's a more complex character than that), the satirized feminism of Astoria, and even Jaka's domination of Rick read, at the time of original publication (and for me, anyway) primarily as satire, but in retrospect seem not to leave a lot of room for a positive conception of the strong woman.

Again, I don't think JS is misogynist or even sexist, really; I think it's a dense (in the good sense) and sophisticated exploration of gender politics. But ... the seeds are there.

Anonymous said...

Several good posts.

> 186 was such a smack in the face

All these years later, I remain surprised at the widespread surprise. By the time _Reads_ opens the gloves have been off for some time. "Women rape men's minds," anyone? Po's broad condemnation of womankind? Magus Doran's exhortation that the grey, furry one should reclaim masculine magic from females? The chuckling condescension a la the foreword of _Women_ that would become so very, very tiresome? There are many examples.

I don't fault anyone for not picking up on the... gender essentialism twice baked in bitterness and disappointment. Coming from a talent of Dave's undeniable creative and artistic firepower it is grim and tragic fare.

-- JM, AMOC fan

Anonymous said...

@Dominick Grace:

I think the depictions of male and female authority are given roughly equal treatment. Cerebus rules as a cold-blooded, baby-murdering, would-be conqueror. He promised rule by the sword and the constant testing of the weak. He believed the weak should die. His desire for power was depicted as consistently mindless. Evil wouldn't be an unfair description of Cerebus as ruler.

There was great room to view Astoria positively. I go back to the contemporaneous letters pages. Women readers loved Astoria. Trina Robbins, important feminist illustrator, loved Astoria. It's in retrospect that Astoria might be considered a nascent anti-female portrayal.

As for Dave's comments on Pud, I don't see that as nascent woman-blaming. Dave acknowledges the sexual frustration of undesirable, lonely men. I think it is a truism that society demands that we suppress our baser instincts. For those that are lonely, who are not seeing the benefit that the partnered get, this involves much more self-denial and some misery. I think where you go from this truism determines whether one's views lean hostile to women or not.

For Dave, Pud's plight deserves to be acknowledged. Pud deserves our sympathy because he has these feelings, probably to an excessive degree, but he never acts on them. He struggles and represses them. He doesn't deserve a medal; but he deserves to be recognized.

In Dave's depiction, he places the onus on the male to exercise self-control, rather than on the female to suppress her identity. I don't see anything wrong in acknowledging that this act of repression can cause internal conflict.

Dave seems to think that the Cirinists are wrong to want to suppress dancing, which Dave called an art, and which in the book I think is portrayed positively, and which to me suggests that he would have opposed the idea that dancing and its accoutrements were somehow blameworthy.

In my opinion, it's only at the point where society decides that women bear the responsibility for men's sexual urges that societal thinking has taken a serious wrong turn. But there is nothing wrong, in fact it only makes sense, to acknowledge that men have these feelings and must repress them. That is not nascent sexism, it's reality.

Main point: I think Dave made some good observations in the early book that might unfortunately be overlooked or misinterpreted by analyzing his work through the constant prism of how far along he was in developing his later retrograde views. I think he had other things on his mind in the early goings.

-Reginald P.