Monday, 14 April 2014

Michael Cohen: Twenty Down, Seven To Go!

(from Comics Buyers Guide #1267, 27 February 1998)
Remember all those wonderful comics that were coming out in December 1977? Who could forget such classics as Nova #18 or Freedom Fighters #13? Two decades later, people are still talking about Spidey Super Stories #32 and The Human Fly #7. Well, those comics may actually have their fans, but the most significant comic hook that came out that year was pretty much ignored. Now, 20 years later, however, it is considered a classic.

Despite creator Dave Sim's achievements with Cerebus -- and there are many -- I would wager that the majority of comics readers have never read a single issue of the (so far) more than 225-issue run. Perhaps they have heard about that "weird aardvark comic book" but have gone no further because they were told it was too complex or they thought it was just another funny-animal comic book or because it was black-and-white or because their retailer never ordered copies in the first place.

Indeed, Sim has created a bit of a dilemma for himself by attempting a comics project of this magnitude. How do you get new readers to come on board in the middle of a 300-issue (6000-page) graphic novel! Convincing a non-Cerebus reader that an epic story about a talking aardvark is not only entertaining but is great art (which it is) is a pretty hard sell. Even if someone were willing to take a stab at the series, where should he start?

With the first issue, one would think. Although a first-edition copy of that rare issue would set you back a couple hundred bucks, there are other alternatives. In 1988 Sim started publishing Cerebus Biweekly, reprinting the early issues in sequence, complete with letter columns and all; these might be found in back-issue bins for a reasonable price. A more daring move would be to go all out and plop down $25 for a copy of the first "phone book", as these colossal compendiums are called. Titled simply Cerebus, it reprints the first 25 issues of the run. Another option would be to track down a copy of an early reprint volume, Swords of Cerebus, from 1981, which reprints issues #1-4. Does that solve the "where do I start" dilemma for the inquisitive comics reader? Actually, no, because there is a debate on whether Cerebus #1 is the best place to begin.

You wouldn't ask someone to start watching a movie in the middle or jump into Lord of the Rings with Chapter 12, so why does this question present itself here? Because the early issues of Cerebus, though clever, funny parodies of the time worn formulas of sword-and-sorcery (in particular, Roy Thomas and Barry Smith's Conan the Barbarian comic hook adapting Robert E Howard's pulp hero) really give little hint of the depth and artistry that the mature, later works would have. It would be a shame if a potential reader for the entire series was turned off by issue #2, but it's certainly possible, especially if Sim's brand of humor is not your cup of tea.

But there's lots of wonderful stuff in those early issues. Sim's drawing and writing abilities grew in leaps and bounds, as he had his wandering barbarian aardvark encounter a wide range of hysterically funny characters, broad parodies of classic fantasy archetypes: the wizard, the tavern girl, the thief, the lady warrior -- and several of these early characters became part of the regular cast of the strip.

There is a certain sentiment prevailing among the Cerebus cognoscenti that issues #14-16, known as the Palnu trilogy, are the place to start. Sim at this point had sloughed off broad parody and had established an art style and stroytelling mode of his own. In these issues, he began laying the groundwork for what would become the major focus of Cerebus for many issues: political machinations in the city-state of Palnu and, in particular its ruler, Lord Julius (Sims dead-on tribute to Groucho Marx). From here, the story start growing in complexity, planting plot seeds that had an impact on later storylines. It was around this time that Sim first mentioned his plan of having Cerebus run 300 issues, though few took him seriously on that point.
Another reasonable jumping-on spot would be the second phone book, High Society, collecting issues #26-50. While the first 25 issues were still fairly episodic, Sim here started dealing with his story, not as a series of funny episodes, but as a truly major work, grouped as a series of self-contained storylines. There was no coming in on the middle of this one; it was a wild ride, as Cerebus became involved in corrupt Iestian politics, and it followed him through a nail-biting election for Prime Minister. Along the way, Sim introduced amazing characters: the mysterious Regency Elf; The Roach, in the first of his many incarnations; and Lord Julius' niece Astoria, the brilliant behind-the-scenes manipulator of everyone and everything.

The Roach became Sim's vehicle for parodying whatever was the current trend in super-hero comics, since this schizophrenic was always assuming new identities, such as The Cockroach (a Batman parody), Captain Cockroach (Captain America), The Moonroach (Moon Knight), Wolveroach, Secret Sacred Wars Roach (Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars), normalroach (Jim Valentino's first hero, normalman, published by Aardvark-Vanaheim), Punisher Roach, and finally Swoon (Dream from The Sandman).

In High Society, Sim tackled a topic rarely touched before in comics: finance. Much of the plot. hinged on the manipulation of money: taxes, tariffs, hiring troops, buying elections, the economic juggling act that either keeps a society flourishing or plummets it into war and decay -- heady stuff for a comic book about an aardvark. Sim also embarked on innovative graphic storytelling, most notably a run of issues printed sideways and a sequence in issue #49, wherein Cerebus' drunken state was reflected in the fact that the issue must constantly be rotated to be properly read.

High Society has all the elements in place that make Cerebus a great work and is certainly a suitable introduction to it, one which will probably have the reader panting for more, including earlier issues.
Church & State dwarfed its predecessor. This story arc was so massive that it took two phone-book collections to contain it. Book 1 reprints issues #52-80, in which Cerebus is elevated from Prime Minister to Pope, due to the manipulations of the power brokers of this complex society. Sim's comics world is layered and convoluted, mirroring the real world in its subtleties, contradictions, and ambiguities. A lively debate on the intricacies of Sim's devious tangle of theologies is ongoing in the letter columns, and one of the beauties of the book is that it can be thoroughly enjoyed on the surface level, as well as afford a wealth of buried treasure for those curious and patient enough to do the excavating.

Occasionally Sim's graphic and storytelling experiments are truly revolutionary, in particular, the "Mind Game" issues (#20, #28, #63, #156, and #157), wherein Cerebus is thrust into a mysterious phantom world of disembodied objects and voices. Issue #63 is a tour-de-force; Cerebus sits almost motionless in a self-pitying, drunken stupor, while his thoughts float around him like ghosts, a technique Sim brings to outrageous full flower in the current Rick's Story storyline, wherein the "good" and "bad" Cerebus personalities engage in an endless debate inside his head.

The look of Cerebus took another interesting turn in issue #65, when Sim took on Gerhard as an assistant to do backgrounds. Gerhard soon grew to be a master of pen-and-ink technique. Breath- takingly detailed backgrounds grace every page, complementing Sim's well-drawn, expressive figures. Gerhard's work is so meticulous that he is known to have built scale models of some of the story settings, so as to guarantee absolute consistency when viewed at different angles in differing lighting conditions. Sim has since acknowledged Gerhard as a full partner in every aspect of the project.

As in High Society, Church & State casts a cynical eye of the use and abuse of power. Lord Julius and Astoria surface again, and the reader is never quite sure who is pulling who's strings or to what purpose. Cerebus seems to be at the height of power but may be nothing more than a pawn. As usual, he abuses whatever authority is given to him.

Church & State Vol. 2 (reprinting #81-111) picks up with a usurper dethroning Cerebus and follows his efforts to undergo the "final ascension". Much of the religious conflict that had been simmering in the back of the series comes to the fore here, and, as the series approaches #100, Sim drops humorous subplots and parodies and builds up an enormous bubble of tension which explodes in issues #99-102. In #102, Sim freezes time at the instant of the previous issue's climax, taking us on a tour of what is transpiring at that exact moment elsewhere to some of his cast of characters.

No one will ever accuse Dave Sim of being predictable. At the height of the tension in Church & State, Sim deflated it utterly. After a bit of slapstick, the volume ends with Cerebus on the moon, listening silently for several issues, as a character called The Judge expounds on cosmology. Though many in the puzzled readership wondered if Dave had flipped, he was introducing material which would be important thematically in the next phase. We have since learned that Sim has planned an intricate architecture for the entire series, that parts will presage, mirror, or paraphrase the themes of other parts.
Following the puzzling end of Church & State, Sim began Jaka's Story (#114-136). For someone of a literary bent, Jaka's Story could serve as an interesting jumping-on point for the series; not only is the artwork exquisite, but interspersed throughout is a beautifully composed text story concerning Jaka's childhood, written in the style of Oscar Wilde and illustrated with lush, evocative. large drawings.

Oscar himself is one of the small cast of characters in this story, as Cerebus takes refuge in the home of his old flame, Jaka, who is now married to the unmotivated Rick. Jaka dances nightly in the tavern belonging to Pud, a lonely widower, and it is the interaction between these five characters that provides the meat of the story. The counterpoint between the cinematic telling of the ongoing story and the poetic flash-backs to Jaka's past is very effective.
Sim followed up the critically acclaimed Jaka's Story with what is perhaps his least popular work, Melmoth (#139- 150). Whereas Jaka's Story focused on Cerebus and Jaka, who stand at the heart of the story; Melmoth threw readers for a loop by being, in essence, a retelling of the dismal last days of a dying Oscar Wilde. Readers were puzzled by the fact that the dying Melmoth of this story seems to be an older version of the Oscar of Jaka's Story but is actually another character completely (or is he?). Compounding this confusion was the fact that the star of the series, Cerebus, spends the length of this novel in a daze, sitting passively, clutching a rag doll, while the world swirls around him. Sim maintains that Melmoth is an integral part of the overall structure of the work.
With Mothers & Daughters (#151-200) Sim put Cerebus back in the whirl of politics and religion. The new power to be reckoned with is Cirin, the second aardvark character to be introduced (we knew from very early on that there were three), and Cerebus is an outcast in this world ruled by a religious matriarchal tyranny. The first part is entitled Flight (#151-162) and concerns itself with an uprising against the oppressive Cirinists.

Cerebus is again being manipulated by higher powers, but this time they seem to be godlike. A host of baffling manifestations appear and, as is Sim's wont, are left unexplained. But readers were overjoyed, seeing in Mothers & Daughters a return to the sword- wielding, angry Cerebus they hadn't seen in quite a while. The second volume, Women (#163- 174), gives us a closer view of life under the Matriarchy.

Volume 3, Reads (#175-186), finds Sim at his most experimental, pushing the limit of what can be considered a comic book and also the boundary between story content and editorial content. Much of Reads is pure text: at first the story of Victor Reid, an author whose troubles seem to mirror the plight of the creator in today's comics industry. Halfway through Reads, the text becomes the voice of Victor Davis, a thinly (if at all) disguised Dave Sim. It was confusing for the reader, since the kind of commentary Sim often made in his editorial pages was now appearing as part of the story. Was this fact or fiction?

The amount of actual comic-book art in each issue had ebbed and flowed but reached its nadir in issue #186, with only five pages of art. This issue might go down in history as one of the most controversial comics ever, because the text section is Sim espousing a worldview that is, to put it mildly, inflammatory.

A firestorm of discussion (if you can call it that) erupted throughout the comics media, from The Comics Journal (which reviled him on the cover) to the internet, where the issue still hasn't sub- sided.

The thread of the comics story that ran through Reads was also controversial, much of it consisting of a carefully choreographed battle between two of the main characters, very bloody, extremely long, and in more detail than many wanted to see. Sim even threw in a disturbing revelation about his protagonist.

Minds (#187-200) is the last volume of Mothers & Daughters and contains some of Sim's (and Gerhard's) strongest work to date. Minds has the appearance of pulling the curtain on many of the themes that have run through the series, and, even with 100 issues left to go, it seems in some ways to be an ending. Through most of Minds, the focus is on Cerebus alone, though Sim brings in another character whose impact is unsettling. At the end, one is really left wondering: Where can he go from here? As should be expected with Sim, the answer is totally unexpected. Minds is expansive; its territory is the whole Solar System and time itself.
The next volume, Guys (#201-219), brings the focus in tight, down to a tavern where Cerebus and a host of fellas (and a few gals) are engaged in the sport of -- well, whatever it is that goes on in taverns. Sim uses this very limited setting to introduce a whole new vocabulary of cartooning techniques, making what could have been a monotonous sequence a veritable orgy of creativity.

The biggest creative break-through here is Sim's use of word balloons and lettering, pushing their use in many new direction. Sim also pushes the use of heavily accented dialogue to the limit; essentially much of this dialogue must be read out loud to get to the bottom of what the characters are saying. Much of the humor in Guys consists of in jokes, since most of the patrons of this tavern are thinly disguised parodies of other self-published comics characters.

As of this writing, Sim is up to part five of Rick's Story (#220- 231). Readers who want to sample Cerebus but don't feel ambitious enough to hunt down any phone books or back issues may find that picking up the new issue of Rick's Story is all they need to get hooked.


eric fennessey said...

I jumped on with Jaka's story which was an excellent place to start at the time because the biweekly reprints came along very soon afterwards, so I could keep up and catch up at the same time. A very fortuitous time. Why did I buy Jaka's Story? The lovely cover art AND the fact that it had a no. 1 on the cover!
Eric Fennessey
Somewhere in England

Sandeep Atwal said...

I almost started with Jaka's Story. I remember seeing the cover to...I think it was number five. I figured, well, I've already missed the first four issues, I'll just wait until this storyline is over and then read the next one. I mean, it's already at number five, he's probably almost done, how long could it be...