Monday, 26 May 2014

Cerebus: In My Life - Kevin Harrison

Cerebus (Convention Sketch, 2006)
Art by Dave Sim
KEVIN HARRISON:
I accidentally haggled my way into an amazing deal on a full set of Cerebus issues today, so I thought I would take a moment, not only to answer this, but to confront my own feelings regarding Dave Sim, Cerebus, and in general my feelings about following the work of someone who would publicly state things I might find privately detestable. 

It was 1987, and I had a summer job delivering pizza flyers.  I was only 12, so money meant one thing:  more comic books.  X-Men, GI Joe, and Spider-Man, mostly.  There were a couple older guys who had the same job -- and a car! -- and once, while driving us to another neighborhood, I found a copy of Cerebus underneath the backseat.

I thought he looked like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. (TMNT was a name I couldn't help but notice at the comic shop, but it was placed in the out-of-reach, mature section due to its hyper-violence -- that's right, the Turtles definitely weren't for kids back then.)

"Yeah, they did a crossover, but Cerebus is better.  He's got this badass sword, and he can kick anyone's ass.  It's way better than that X-Shit you're into," one of told me.

Of course, years later I realized that that this would've been right around issue 100 so towards the end of Church & State, and Cerebus -- with a few notable exceptions -- was more involved in the drudgery of running a religion than in ass kicking.

Since I wasn't even a teenager yet, I didn't pay him any mind, and even then I didn't give much credence to the words of elitists.

But I started noticing Cerebus on the shelves of comic book stores. Sometimes I'd flip through an issue or two, lost in 20 page increments that were clearly (and confusingly) part of a larger narrative, and wrapped inside a cover that seemed more eloquent than anything that had ever previously graced a comic book rack.

When I was 16, I bought the first Cerebus collection on a whim...then the second, then the third. Pretty soon, I was caught up with the regular series and collecting issues of Women, but leaving them unread in a stack to be read in the latest 'phone book' collections.

All of this waiting wore me down after a dozen issues or so, and instead of buying monthly issues, I would catch up with the volumes I was missing every few years, rereading the entire story from the beginning.

I think I petered out around Rick's Story (though, I have Going Home).

And now, as of today today, I have all of the issues.

I can't pretend to imagine how Cerebus has influenced me creatively, but it's been immense.  The idea of story arcs within story arcs within story arcs.  Of fitting non-sequeters, asides, fictionalized real people (and fictionalized fictional people), and sliding wildly between comedy, drama, analysis, intensity, and just taking your fucking time with something instead of forcing it.

Most of all, no one paces like Sim, and few people ever approach that level of sheer craftsmanship.  I've brought artists to tears showing them the sketch of the Regency from the cover of High Society and explaining this was cranked out in a week or less by a guy while he wrote and drew 20 pages of (sometimes equally detailed) comics every month (plus a cover), and all while reading and replying to virtually all of his fan (and not so fan) mail.

Sim taught me that focus, attention to detail, and consistency meant that you could create a world that could contain everything.  Every genre, every concept, every character, every reflection, belief, strife, and joy...sort of just like our own world, except Cerebus has more Lord Julius in it.

And because of Sim, many of the creators I discovered during, after, and even before Cerebus were people who may never have taken their first steps (and sometimes final missteps) into publishing:  Martin Wagner, Shannon Wheeler, Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli, Colleen Doran, Eddie Campbell, and Jeff Smith to name a frightfully tiny number of them.

I think of Dave Sim's fine, detailed lines, and sweeping story, and I wonder how I ever concerned myself with debates on whether The New Mutant's Cannonball would ever be ready to lead The X-Men...

When I was 19, I met Dave Sim at a con.  We showed up late, and he told us he was supposed to be at a panel, but that he would sign one book for each of us, and that if we came back tomorrow he'd give us free sketches.  (The very concept of free sketches by a major, working professional seems almost laughable, but Sim did them for every fan who asked.)

He was nice and personable to a fault.  This was NOT the Sim I'd been used to reading in his letter columns:  A clever, funny guy who loved being a jerk when he could get away with it.  Nor was he the Sim we've all read about with numerous, long-standing feuds with several people who were once close to him.  This was just a nice guy who loved his work, and loved making time for the people who enjoyed what he did.

Since we could only get one autograph, I picked my favorite of Sim's work:  Jaka's Story.

Here, in Jaka's Story, were the best elements of all Sim's work:  Social commentary, religion, autobiography, politics, art, parody (including regular appearances by Oscar Wilde, Groucho Marx, and Margaret Thatcher), repression, the nature of art (or, I think more exactly, the nature of being), and love (in all its most difficult forms.)  The story lacks some of the intensity characterized in earlier Cerebus works, but what Jaka's Story lacks in action, it more than makes up for in life, humor, horror, and magic...mostly magic.

Sim also doesn't shy away from the gender politics that take front seat in (and alienate many from) some of his later work, but rather incorporates those elements directly into a tiny story about five characters living on an isolated path along a mountain side, in the days following a (temporary) apocalypse.

And let's be clear:  Sim has issues with women, which he makes very clear in the next story arcs.

So, what does that make me, as a purchaser (and likely enjoyer) of 300 issues of Cerebus, the vast body of text written by Sim, and one of the longest running narratives in human history?

I don't think it makes me anything.

Honestly, I don't think I have to justify myself for enjoying someone else's expression that doesn't gibe with my own feelings on an issue.  Sim is not without misstep by any means, but few books have the beauty, elegance, imagination, or sheer craft of any single issue of Cerebus.

I will be the first to admit Sim's faults, and the last to defend them.  As I will with Lovecraft, Chaplin, or pretty much anyone who played rock'n'roll between the 1950s and 1970s.

Most of us who have something to say, and tremendous arguments to make (whether veiled in fiction or more straightforwardly via essay) do that because WE ARE FLAWED, and we are lucky to find that wormhole of accessibility that allows others into our reality (and vice versa.)

More than that, I'm not interested in the sum total contents and values that are already contained within my head.  If you have something to say, and you can say it cleanly and concisely and brilliantly, I may still disagree with you, but I'd like to hear it.  I will enjoy hearing it, and hopefully I will learn something hearing it...even if that "something" only reinforces that I disagree with you.

I think that's something that we really lose in the modern world.  It's easy to live in a vacuum without real provocation or acceptance or synthesis by/of those we might find repugnant on paper.  Worse, I think we're turned off by the idea that in the right hands those ideas that we find repugnant might actually look beautiful on paper.

And that is power of magic.  Of comics.  And of Cerebus.

This article first appeared on Kevin's Tumblr: Tales Of Drunkenness & Cruelty.

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