Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Charles Brownstein: Reading Cerebus

(from a Facebook Comment, 17 May 2016)

I think Cerebus has three distinct story cycles that can each be taken on their own:
  • the high adventure & intrigue period of Swords thru Church & State;
  • the Mailer-infused philosophical inquiry on gender & creativity spanning Jaka's Story through Guys; and 
  • the religious conversion novel spanning Rick's Story through Latter Days
Each have their merits.

The adventure pacing, wit, and acting in the first period is in parts some of the best the medium has ever seen, and the ending of Church & State is a great payoff to what was then the longest extended graphic novel narrative attempted in North American comics. Cerebus set the stage for the now-established format of the long-form graphic novel serial, and will always matter for that alone.

The quiet melodrama and violence of political repression depicted in the second period is often devastating. Guys, as epilogue or standalone, is also as good a memoir on the history of black and white comics in the direct market as we're ever gonna get, and it's legitimately charming. The inquiry into the nature of creativity in Minds was for me the apex of the book, and has a lot to offer. But this period also has the rough-going essays defining Sim's self-described "masculinism" which is where many readers part company with the book.

The last period gets really rough going, especially near the end, but even there the art and pacing in many places are still 20 years ahead of what anyone else is doing even now. The Hemingway lion hunting issue does things with 80 and 100 panel grids that transcend Eisner and Tezuka's cribbing of cinematic technique, and enter a realm all their own. The 19th century illustration inspired religious/demonic visions in Rick's Story are a terrifying depiction of schizophrenia that are playing to a certain extent in William Blake's sandbox.

As a casual reader, starting from the beginning and getting out when the returns start to dip for you is a good strategy. As a practitioner, go to a library and look at the craft in each stage, because it's masterful all the way to the end, even when the story doesn't always land.

Charles Brownstein is the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

1 comment:

iestyn said...

I think this is an interesting and valid reading of Cerebus.

It certainly jibes with my opinion I loved the Guys section and Jaka's story/ Melmoth era.

There's also a really interesting quote there from Josh Bayer, an influential alt/ arts cartoonist who shares the modern interest with skilled 'old skool' creators.