Hello everyone! With only three days left to pledge on the best Cerebus Archive project yet, I thought I'd present a few excerpts from my essay in the back of the new, fully restored Church & State I volume currently making its way to this continent by ship.
Although I'd hoped that volume would be available by the time this campaign hit, scheduling with the printer didn't permit it. But until you can pick up your own copy (most likely the first week of January!), here's a little teaser of the back matter. It's a poor substitute for the book itself, I know, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.
The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
There was a time when it seemed possible that comics, little packets of ink on paper, could be the true inheritors of ambitious serial storytelling—could carry the mantle of the sprawling, messy, glorious serial novels of the past, could inspire the devotion that those works did, the kind of devotion that, in 1841, on the eve of the publication of the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, caused more than 6,000 New Yorkers desperate to find the fate of Little Nell to crowd the wharf where the shipment from London was due to arrive.
Now, it seems clear, that mantle has been passed on— to television, of all media. Something that would have been unthinkable just two decades ago now seems like an historical inevitability. Comics, meanwhile, declined the opportunity. Maybe it was the structural problems with the industry, the lack of distribution channels. Maybe it was the shortsightedness, the contempt with which the creators of the material were treated by the monied interests. Maybe it was just a lack of ambition.
But we consider an exception.
There’s never been a work of art quite like Cerebus the Aardvark.
More relevant to the task at hand, there’s never been anything quite like Church & State, the under-two-covers epic that represents 1/5th of the entire 26-year, 6000+ page saga.
Like many an enthusiast before me, I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to describe Church & State and its qualities to the deprived, the abstinent, the uninitiated. “It’s like, you know, a really dense serial novel,” I might start. “The kind that rambles from incident to incident, before somehow cohering into something new. Made on a tight-rope, while the public watches below. Politics and power. Religion and revolution. Pain and pleasure and persuasion. A deep and abiding enthusiasm for Looney Tunes and Duck Soup and...”
So, like, David Copperfield meets A Tale of Two Cities, then? Or Vanity Fair? Les Misérables?
“Sure, sure, exactly like Les Misérables... if you replace France with a sword-and-sorcery parody world that slowly morphs into an early-industrial environment with fantastical elements remaining as mystical and/or spiritual projections. And, you know, if Jean Valjean was a pathologically self-interested, genocidal three-foot tall talking aardvark. So yes, exactly like Les Misérables.”
The synthesized visual look of the latter third of Church & State I, and indeed the majority of the next two books, Church & State II and Jaka’s Story, is of a quality unknown to virtually any other comic. Unlike the majority of black and white North American comics, presented with little more than a contour line and large swaths of Caniff-like black intended to anchor a color layer that will never come, these are fully rendered illustrations with widely varying values and detailed textures, on par with the work of the great pen and ink artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Of course, you wouldn’t always know it from looking at the printed books.
The monthly installments of Cerebus, and every collection of the material up to this point, were printed on low-grade newsprint, a highly absorbent substrate that caused enormous amounts of dot gain (the tendency for inks to expand as they hit a surface). The desire for a rich black from these materials exacerbated the problem, oftentimes leaving the final product a muddier, mid-tone-heavy gray very different from the crisply-defined values of the original artwork.
For this edition of Church & State I, we’ve gone back to the source – creating fresh high-resolution scans of the photo negatives that have been used to generate printing plates since the original production of the monthly comic book – and, when possible, replacing those scans with as much original artwork as is available to us. All of these materials were then sorted through and selected on a page-by-page basis, to create a new digital “master” that can be used to produce the book going forward.
It sounds a bit simpler than it actually is.
Although the original artwork contains more detail than ever made it to the page initially, it has aged poorly. Specifically, the mechanical tones used to produce the gray of Cerebus’s fur, as well as a multitude of background textures and effects, have shrunk and migrated over time. Every bit of tone on a page sourced from original artwork was in need of some type of adjustment specific to the type of tone and its relationship to the surrounding line art. In the case of iterative patterns (like Cerebus’s dot tone), it’s a matter of digitally copying and cloning a segment of the exposed pattern, moving it to fill in the gap, and then “erasing” any excess and overlap with the existing areas. With the more random patterns, more varied methods of correction are available...
...I’ve written a lot here about the aesthetics of the work at hand, and very little, one might argue, about the “content.”
That’s primarily because a work of graphic art isn’t just a summary of its text -- it exists as a complex synthesis of its formal and narrative elements. Describing the “plot” of a work of true graphic literature is akin to summarizing the “narrative” of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, or criticizing Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the combination of dramatic and parodic/comedic elements.
Simply put, the work IS the visual. The content IS the aesthetics. And in the realm of aesthetics, the quality of the reproduction matters. It is, in the literal sense, essential.
The “preservation window” available to great works of visual art intended for reproduction is perilously narrow, requiring the right combination of readily available source materials before they can erode, capital via commercial interests and/or a participatory audience, facilitating technology, and a copyright to the work free of legal entanglements. Just as it was Dave Sim’s ownership of his work and the patronage of his audience that gave him the creative freedom to follow his wildest ambitions to their conclusions, it is his continued ownership and his audience’s patronage that enables this restoration within that window.
Your purchase of Church & State I is one more link in that chain.