Tuesday, 1 April 2014

BBQ Nation: Re-Reading High Society

(from the BBQ Nation Blog, 12 January 2010)
I first started reading the comic book Cerebus back in 1982 with the issue 44 story "The Deciding Vote."  I was thirteen years old, well-versed in the Marvel-DC comics universe and was ready to venture into other areas of my comic book store, Kovacs Comics on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. "The Deciding Vote" is a remarkable place to begin reading a comic that was in the middle of a storyline later known as High Society. You open the issue and on the very first page you find it was drawn was in landscape format, turned 90 degrees clockwise. The main character is an aardvark-human who exists in a world where others apparently are unvexed by his appearance let alone existence, being carried in a sleigh across a winter landscape by a character referring to himself as Sergent Preston in the third person, AKA "Moon Roach", wearing a winter-fur costume parodying of the Marvel comic Moon Knight.
Cerebus #44 (November 1982)
Art by Dave Sim
(Click image to enlarge)
I am now 40 years old and have read the High Society issues 26 through 50 portion of the Cerebus’ 300 issue run probably hundreds of times. Over this past weekend, I had the first two two compiled volumes of Cerebus delivered via my library. These compiled volumes (affectionately known as "phone books" by its fans due to their size and paper stock) are reproductions of the average 20 page story, arranged chronologically, without the original covers or any of the ancillary portions of the series issue, such as the publisher notes, the letters page, advertising, etc.  The first book compiled is titled Cerebus and the second book is High Society.  I wanted to read the story in this format as it was how I would read the remaining Cerebus issues 100 though 300 later.

Why do I keep re-reading Cerebus: High Society?  There is no easy answer for this question, other than simply it is brilliant.  Cerebus' creator Dave Sim is a complex, infuriating, iconoclast who at his peak of working on his sole creation Cerebus had no other equal, and over time to my horror and disappointment, slips into paranoid, pedantic, religious delusions, effectively ruining his creation.  I believe High Society is Sim at the beginning of his best years of Cerebus.

My re-reading Cerebus issues 1-50 is an experience that would be quite different from someone approaching it for the first time.  As I noted, I began reading it age 13 and in the serial format, which is a much different experience than reading one of the compiled phone-books.  Reading a comic book in serial format naturally lends to repeated re-reading of the previous issue, which leads to re-reading of stacks of previous issues when the newest issue arrives, allowing one to go back deep into the comic series past to look up past characters, explore scenes and moments with a depth and intensity if the comic allows it.  That is an important part of Cerebus for me.  It holds up to repeated readings, which is why I can say that I've read High Society hundreds of times, having lived with it for 27 years. On some level it is the equivalent of comfort food for me, a story by Sim that I have lived with and contemplated through the lens of my own experience. I go to it at different stages of my life, letting years pass between readings, and come away from it awestruck by its absurdity. There is really no reason why this story should work at all. The world of Cerebus is a mash-up of different eras that reference European barbarians, Baroque politics and intrigue, lampoons comic book fads and popular characters, mimics Marx Brothers routines, parodies Conan the Barbarian, all of centered around a cartoon aardvark-human anti-hero named Cerebus. There is no reason it should work.  It sounds awful, doesn't it?

(Spoiler alert, please stop reading if you want to avoid revealing plot lines) What happens over the arc of the Cerebus story, ending at issue 50 at the completion of the High Society storyline is the development of a its title character Cerebus from a heroic, fierce, pragmatic sword-for-hire warrior, into someone that is sympathetic to us as he is manipulated by others within the political intrigue of the High Society story, and yet repellent in his hilarious, fascistic role as dictator/prime minister.  Cerebus the aardvark consistently through his early story development prior to the High Society story line at issue 26 is motivated by greed, occasionally tasting power (as when he became ruler of the Conniptins) but rejecting it (as when he destroys the idol of the Pigts). The end of the High Society story has Cerebus the character lost in a situation beyond his control, thwarted by the limits of his political and authoritarian power as prime minister of Iest, losing everything except the clothes he arrived in and the sack of junk he shouldered into the Regency Hotel.
Cerebus #32 (November 1981)
Art by Dave Sim
When reading Cerebus, one benefits from starting from the beginning of the run, allowing the crudeness of Dave Sim's drawings and stories to develop into the unique style that blossom within High Society. Many characters that are incidental will reappear without introduction and interact with other characters with little explanation. This is partially the beauty of High Society: it's story moves ahead with swiftness and overwhelming detail and back story that the reader has no hope of ever comprehending yet allows the main plot line to move unhindered by the "unseen" portions of the story. Sim uses excerpts of a historical account written by a participant within the events (whose identity is not revealed until the very end of High Society) and its pages excerpted within High Society begin mid-sentence and reference political parties and factions unknown and end abruptly.  The overall effect of High Society is a story moving far too swiftly for even the creator to catch all of the minutia, but it trusts the reader to bring a comic book serial mentality to the story.  Don't get it?  Go back and read it again because there will be one lone pane, one bit of dialog that will reveal itself in depth again.
Cerebus #50 (May 1983)
Art by Dave Sim
(Click image to enlarge)
The ending of High Society in the Crisis No. 6 "Denouement" has Cerebus the aardvark literally waking up overnight to find his palace empty and his role as prime minister of the city-state of Iest to be effectively over. His use to Astoria is one where she would continue to benefit from his ability to have events coalesce around his presence, building on the gains made from the republican experiment within the religious patriarchy of Estarcion. She doesn't love him, nor does he love her (although he might be motivated by lust). She will bring him power and money, which is why their relationship is pragmatic. What is tragic at the end of High Society is that Cerebus the aardvark never once cared nor bothered to ask Astoria what her reasons for advancing a republic. The cause of individual human rights is of little concern to him, he is only interested in money and power. Astoria views Cerebus as someone dimwitted and easily manipulated to advance her ideals, not recognizing that his true nature would never allow her ideals to ever occur. Their relationship ends where she reveals that republicanism in time can "lead to women getting the right to vote" to which Cerebus replies "Women cook, clean, have babies."

Cerebus the aardvark later says in a goodbye to the Regency Elf "for a while there Cerebus thought he could… make a difference…" (he speaks in the third person) where his sad realization is that his quest for power and money was not what what truly mattered in terms of history, but that he was advancing something beyond his comprehension.  This is in revealed to the reader at the end of High Society by the historian writing from his prison cell, unwilling to cooperate with the Clerical Tribunal and not compromise his ideals, thus suffering the price to "assure the survival and the success of liberty."


Tony Palermo said...

#44 was my first issue as well and, yep, I was 13 at the time...just like the reviewer! dun dun DUN!!!

Anonymous said...

The comment about repeated readings really touches on something special about Cerebus, and comics in general, in that the periodic nature of comics really affects how comics are processed as an art form.

I bought the issues of Cerebus all out of order, as I’m sure most readers did. I became familiar with the characters and the storyline completely out of sequence. When I bought my first issue – 82 – I had no idea who any of the characters were, and I can still feel that sense of unfamiliarity when I reread that particular issue. It always stands out as somehow out of place with the rest of the story for me. But I actually bought issue 81 quite a bit later, and that issue feels like just another part of the story to me and blends right in. Just kind of a neat effect.

- Reginald P

Tony Dunlop said...

I definitely agree about High Society being like comfort food. It's also like a favorite, comfy sweater. And an old friend who, even if you haven't seen each other for years, you can immediately start chatting and laughing like you'd just been together yesterday.

Keith said...

The first issue I read was #100, which is kind of a big deal issue, plot-wise. It was instantly captivating; I immediately got the sense that so much had already happened leading up to this point. A woman in chains, crying. A tiny pope, lying next to a throne, visibly shaken. The entire conversation was completely lost on me, but I'll always remember that sense of having walked in right in the middle of something momentous.

Anonymous said...


Issue 100 was the second issue that I ever read, and I had the same reaction.

The first issue I picked up was 82 and it went right over my head. It just seemed somehow wrong. Groucho Marx? A character that was sort of a parody of the Thing, but actually nothing like the Thing? Made no sense to me. And the same with the Man-Thing parody. It just seemed to me like it didn't work.

But I occasionally I would reread it because the art was so good. And then I was in the comic shop and saw issue 100 and thought I'd give it another chance.

And that was a huge "a-ha" moment. Because 100 made no sense either, but in a completely different way. I can remember thinking at that point, "What the fuck is this?" And I was hooked from there.

People debate about which book to read first, but I think the best entry point would be one of the individual issues at random in Church & State.

- Reginald P

Jeff Seiler said...

Actually, Reggie, I bought each issue in order, starting with the WolveRoach parody, except for a short stretch of Jaka's Story, when I stupidly was turned off by the format of all text with one illo on roughly half the pages. I went back and bought all of the monthlies of Jaka's Story after reading Melmoth because it (Melmoth), to me, was so fucking brilliant. From that point on, I bought each issue right up to 301 (heh) in order. Most months of those 20 years or so, it was the ONLY book I bought.

Tony, it's funny you said that about an old friend, because I once wrote to Dave that rereading Cerebus was like picking up with an old friend RIGHT AT the point we left off and his response was, "Ech, better you than me. Once I go through the letters and pick out the ones for that months issue, the last thing I want to do is go back and reread them." I have no idea why he thought I was referring to Aardvark Comment, except that I had also discussed that in the same letter. I didn't bother to correct him.

Keith, to expand on what you wrote, I often had the experience, while reading them in order monthly, that I was "walking in right in the middle of something momentous". Even though I had read all of the preceding issues. Odd, odd feeling. I remember many, many months having the hairs on the back of my neck stand up at the end of an issue.