Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Annotating the Aardvark-- an Academic Aexercise

Mara Sedlins:

In the lead-up to High Society’s print date, a task that’s captured a good deal of my time and attention has been finalizing the thank you list that will appear in the end pages. This includes people who submitted original art scans, as well as contributors to the CANO Kickstarter, and all of the other people that made the book possible, including our $10,000 contributor, Tim F.

In order to respect people’s privacy, we decided it was important to let contributors opt in if they wanted to be included with their full name (or however they want to be represented). As a result, I had the opportunity to interact directly (if briefly) with over half of the CANO participants. My task itself was simple: 1) record whether people opted in, 2) confirm the way each person wanted their name to look, and 3) send a thank you email. But multiply this 2-minute task by 150 people, and that’s five hours of work!

Just as the time it took to complete restoration work impressed upon me the sheer number of pages in High Society, taking the time and attention to interact with even half of the financial backers really made me think about the number of people who have taken the time to help make this project possible. I wonder how common it is to thank each Kickstarter contributor by name, the way Dave has chosen to do.

A sneak peek at the High Society back matter, via our InDesign layout file

As I was mulling over what I wanted to write about this week, I discovered an abundance of existing thought about the promises and pitfalls of crowdfunding – as well a wealth of interconnected ideas that took me down a rabbit hole of internet research (what counts as paid work, who gets to decide and what that says about a society’s values and power structures; the “do what you love” ethos; intellectual property rights and internet piracy; the free culture and related movements; crowdsourcing and participatory art – let me know if any of these sound like interesting fodder for a future blog post, by the way).

But what the thank you list really drove home for me is the fact that no creative work is completed in a vacuum. Art has always been influenced by the means of production and economic support available in a given time period and location. And even the most original ideas arise within a particular cultural context, whether they’re building on or reacting to already-existing work. This led me to spend some time thinking about the already-in-the-air idea to create an annotated version of Cerebus.

Unveiling all a writer’s allusions and references might seem unimportant or even counterproductive for a work like High Society. Explaining the punch line takes the funny out of it, right? And there’s the satisfaction that comes with “getting it” on your own, the feeling of being in on a private joke. But the convention of annotating a work, or including a list of references (aka “works cited” or a bibliography) serves so many crucial functions in the academic domain that they’re not only commonplace but mandatory. Setting aside for the moment the feasibility of creating an annotated version of Cerebus, how might some of these same functions apply?
Reasons to include references in academic writing:

  • it gives credit where credit is due (the number of times a work is referenced is often used as a proxy for its level of influence)
  • it puts the work in historical context
  • it clarifies how the current work moves beyond what’s been done before
  • it acts as a reading list for readers who are new to the topic being discussed
  • it illustrates the quality and breadth of the author’s knowledge about the topic
  • it provides alternative perspectives and conflicting evidence

On the surface, academic research is very different than creative writing or visual art – but fundamentally I think the goal is the same: to uncover and communicate some truth about human experience or the world we live in. 

Satire and parody in particular have been lauded as a uniquely powerful way to illuminate the realities and foibles of a society:

"For comedy is, after all, a look at ourselves, not as we pretend to be when we look in the mirror of our imagination, but as we really are. Look at the comedy of any age and you will know volumes about that period and its people which neither historia nor anthropologist can tell you." 
– Jo Coppola (1958), The Realist (as quoted in the Wikipedia article on Satire)

… but it doesn’t work if people don’t get the joke, right?

For a book like High Society, it’s the multilayered experience of the story – the decoding of parodies, metaphors, and subtexts – that leads to a full appreciation of its value. I mean, who cares about an imaginary aardvark for its own sake, right? (Just kidding!) But a novice to the world of Cerebus (like a junior academic new to a research area) requires some context to see beyond the surface story and appreciate the subtleties of what the work is telling us.

Ideally, I see some theoretical future annotation as an integral part of the restoration process – ensuring that all the intended nuances are available to a broad spectrum of readers, both present and future.


George Peter Gatsis said...


Design 101... Use a condensed font and then you will be able to properly credit the people with a first and last name.


Sean R said...

Hey George,

The people credited with no last name didn't respond to our request for using their full names. It's not a space issue, it's a privacy issue :)

Sean R said...

Thank you for the excellent suggestion tho!

George Peter Gatsis said...

Hey... Just making sure George Peter Gatsis is there in full... :)


JLH said...

A lot of Cerebus is already "annotated" on Margaret's excellent Cerebus Wiki, which sadly is not available at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I don't think using a last name should be a problem with no other information about the person (state,country, phone number etc.) Bill Smith could be any Bill Smith with out any other info.
Paul Mckenzie

Tony Dunlop said...

If Cerebus is still read a century, or two, or five, from now - and I certainly hope at least parts of it are - annotation will be indispensable. Can you imagine reading, say, Shakespeare or Dante without extensive footnotes about local language use, contemporary figures being referenced/parodied, etc? (Please note that I'm not comparing Sim with either of those dead white guys. At least not yet.)

James L said...

I'd love to see a post about piracy and intellectual property rights. Shameful though it is to admit, I never would have been able to read Cerebus had I not pirated the series initially. Not to mention that its pretty much the only way to find the interstitial issues like Like-A-Looks.

There's something to be said for the merits of piracy, taking away the barrier of price can expose many people to a work that never would have found it otherwise. And of course there are plenty of examples of piracy actually helping sales (though there are also examples of it killing them).

This is an interesting example as well as Copra by Michael Fiffe, it was another comic that benefited greatly from the exposure granted by piracy.

Anonymous said...

One of the most frequently voiced criticisms of Cerebus is that it was very much "of its time", and that if you don't know (for example) what was happening in comics at the time of publication -- not just in the comics themselves, but in the comics industry as well -- then you can't fully appreciate it.

I'd bet most people today know who Batman is, so they'd get The Cockroach (although they might think he's a parody of Spider-Man -- both bugs, right?). But I'd bet that most people who do don't know the "criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot" line (after all, it wasn't in the movies; is it even still part of the comics?), so the 'Roach's line "so my disguise must make them toss their cookies" would just seem weird and stilted. Who outside comics knows who Moon Knight is? Who, even among today's comics fans, would get the Kevitch reference? Everyone at the time would have known.

So annotating the story might make it comprehensible to a new audience.

The question is, is there a new audience? Most Cerebus readers are getting up there in years -- Dave's age to perhaps 15 years younger. We'll know more when we see how the new edition of High Society sells.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, ood

Jeff Seiler said...

Mara, you seem to be a very bright young woman (although a wee bit too in love with academic-speak), so it is especially enlightening to get these semi-regular takes on Cerebus from you.

I fully agree with the idea of annotating all of the books. If you put the annotations in the back of the book, as Dave did with the later volumes, then that shouldn't lead to a case of spoiling the punchline/s.

Please keep these valuable insights coming our way, Mara.

Anonymous said...

I believe that Cerebus is actually best appreciated without explanation.

When originally published, the slow pace of the story, the long narrative, and the fact that new readers were unlikely to start from the beginning meant that most new readers were necessarily going to be confused, but also intrigued. I recall Dave actually commenting that he understood that that was part of the appeal of Cerebus.

I also think that Cerebus was designed so that it would work even if the reader didn't get the references. I didn't get that Kevitch was a play on Bill Sienkiewicz's name until about a year ago. Even in the 1980s, most comic book readers would not have known how to pronounce Bill Sienkiwicz's name. So it was, even at the time, a joyfully obscure joke. But even without "getting it", I still enjoyed how ridiculously schizophrenic the Roach was.

Also, there are certain elements of the book that simply do not make sense, like the presence of Groucho Marx as the President. In fact, the Roach also doesn't really make sense, even if you understand that he is a running parody of superhero comics.

To present the book with too much explanation would I think ironically miss that an important part of its charm was in being oblique. I think it might also be a misplaced effort to preserve an experience that did not exist in the first place.

- Reginald P.

Michael Grabowski said...

Dave Sim is the king of ruining his gags by annotating them. The best (worst) example being his introduction to... #267? The Five Bar Gate issue. (Said notes later appearing in the phone book.) I didn't get the hockey references in the comic but still enjoyed it. Reading Dave's explication removed much of that pleasure, deadening it for me.

I think a comic that includes extensive annotations between its own covers stops being an effective comic. As if the form fails at what it's trying to communicate, so we need to rescue it with a lot of text. I think this is a weakness of the last four volumes. The comics are great, but the notes read like an extended defense and self-righteous justification for the narrative. The comics are good enough to be their own defense, and I didn't want the author to impose his view of things on my reading of them. I wish I hadn't read those notes.

As for High Society, I think the book rewards re-reading precisely because every few years I realize something else that I didn't know before that enhances a joke. I suppose a brief afterward or bibliography that points the new reader to Duck Soup, Looney Tunes, and Nixon's Six Crises isn't a bad idea but I think an expanded and densely annotated edition, by Dave or anyone else, wouldn't be appropriate testimony to the quality of the work.

Instead, I think a book of collected articles that expounds on the motifs and characters in the books, but not a direct explication, could be a nice companion, but I wouldn't want to see it married to the original text. Not stuff that says "This is what the joke means" but rather essays that comment on the objects of the satire and the article's author's view of what the book means by such satirization.

Travis Pelkie said...

Well, in this day and age, a wiki of references is probably the way to go versus a fully annotated printed version in the back of a volume. If someone is aware that there IS a wiki, at least, they can then look up anything referenced that's a "stumbling block" and figure it out.

Although I agree with a lot of the people here, it's quite fun to discover some of the stuff on your own, or figure it out, or just get one of those "ohhhh" moments many years later. Same with MST3K, there are a lot of references I don't necessarily understand ("Lu-cilllllle") but I'm still amused by.

And as to the beginning part of this post, pretty much every comics Kickstarter I've been a part of or seen thanks the contributors by name. And unless it got eliminated when Kickstarter revamped the look of their pages recently, there was a page with all the contributors there on each project page, so while I appreciate being asked to include my name (I can see it right on the screen here! yay!), it's one of those things that we figure is going to happen with Kickstarter.

Sean R said...

Hey Travis,

Someone's kickstarter public ID is not necessarily the same as their full name, which only the Kickstarter owners/organizers have access to. Since the KS rules specifically forbid using names for any purposes not explicitly stated in the goals of the project, John and Mara thought it would be safer to ask. In the future we'll include permission as part of the survey, to streamline the whole process.

Anonymous said...

Reg, I disagree that annotations "might also be a misplaced effort to preserve an experience that did not exist in the first place." The bit about "Kevitch" is a good example. At the time, everyone reading Cerebus knew that the name was the last two syllables of the name of the guy who drew Moon Knight, who was known primarily as a Neal Adams clone at the time (hence the Adams-esque Roach). All those facts (including the pronunciation of "Sienkiewicz") was common knowledge. Noting those facts recreates the original experience.

Michael, if "Reading Dave's explication removed much of that pleasure" -- well, you didn't have to. Other people might enjoy them, and disagree that such notes deaden the stories. Although Travis, I agree that "a wiki of references is probably the way to go versus a fully annotated printed version".

-- Damian T. Lloyd, edd

Anonymous said...

Hi Damian:

Here is a link to a comic book resources interview with Bill Sienkiewicz where he goes on at length about how most people do not know how to pronounce his name. To quote Mr. S: "there have been a couple of times when someone will pronounce it dead on."

Bill Sienkiewicz thinks the vast majority of people have trouble pronouncing his name. Damian T. Lloyd disagrees. Seems about right.

- Reginald P.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Reg. However, back when Kevitch was appearing in Cerebus, the correct pronunciation of Sienkiewicz was published in Moon Knight's letters pages and TCJ interviews. Back then, it was possible to follow the entire comics field, and everyone read the Journal. I repeat: it was common knowledge.

"Seems about right," I'm not sure what to make of. You've seemed prejudiced against me personally since I made some critical comments about your hero that he later admitted about himself. That's just weird, man.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, dbt

Tony Dunlop said...

As for annotation, I think those of us who are contemporary with the publication of Cerebus can't know wat kind of annotations are appropriate - let alone necessary. Of course I'm really tinking in terms of "posterity," not for someone reading it for the first time now, when it's still new (ten years old, literarily, is new). The whole "wiki" idea is amusing; anything which is only available on the Internet is necessarily ephemeral, and anyway before long you'll need an annotation to tell readers what "wiki" meant!

I'm thinking of things like, notes on the Marx Brothers, and the Illuminatus trilogy, and not so much the comics in-jokes. I agree that it's quite possible to rerad and enjoy Cerebus without knowing about that crap. For example I had no idea what "Rabbi" was alluding to at the time and I still found it hilarious.

Anyway, my point is we Cerebus fans are particularly unsuited to think about what kinds of annotations would make sense - we don't think like normal people.

Jeff Seiler said...

Tony, I totally agree with your comment about not getting the reference but still getting the joke. I was probably about halfway through the Rabbi issues before I got the ah-ha! moment as to the allusion.

Also, for most of the time I read Cerebus, I wasn't buying any other comics, mainstream or indie, but I almost never failed to appreciate the humor. You could totally boycott Woody Allen's films (as I do) but still appreciate the Konigsberg issues.

As Dave said to me once, "I like to think I'm a fairly clever guy." I do believe that he was clever enough to make cultural references of the time/s, yet still have them be good stand-alone humor.

Sean R said...

I've personally had the "annotation" argument with various people a good half-dozen times. I don't think it's a big deal, myself. Why? Plenty of classic parodic or partly-parodic works whose references are either obscure or completely unknown now. Anyone need an index and references to enjoy Lewis Carroll or Jonathan Swift? (which isn't to say that I wouldn't read an annotated Alice In Wonderland-- just that it wouldn't necessarily make the story any funnier or more magical.)

Anonymous said...

How about a directors cut of each chapter of cerebus with Dave answering the top 50 or so asked questions and embed them as an audio file in the digital books, I'm not exactly the sharpest crayon in the box and sometimes having the teachers addition help me in the end.
Paul Mckenzie

Anonymous said...

Edition (see all the help I can get)
Paul Mckenzie

Tony Dunlop said...

You know, Sean, that's an excellent point about Swift and Carroll. They are MUCH better analogues to Sim than Shakespeare or Dante. And learning all the background on Swift's satire is, actually, quite boring, and doesn't make it any funnier.

Anonymous said...

Tony, you might be correct that "learning all the background on Swift's satire is, actually, quite boring, and doesn't make it any funnier," (that's an issue for each reader to decide). But it definitely does make the point of the satire more understandable. As Dave intended Cerebus to Make A Point as well as to be amusing, annotations might enrich the experience of the reader looking for more than entertainment. "YMMV", as they say.

I think one of the best points so far is Tony's "I think those of us who are contemporary with the publication of Cerebus can't know wat kind of annotations are appropriate -- let alone necessary."

-- Damian T. Lloyd, psi

Tony again said...

You're right, Damian; I was referring to my own experience in a college "Satire" class. i.e. "take funny, clever writing and make it boring."