Sunday, 20 August 2017

Pressed Aardvark #1: 1980 to 1983

1980-83 | 1984-90 | 1991-95 | 1996-97 | 2005-09

PAUL SLADE:
I love researching bizarre stores from America's past, so a few years ago I treated myself to a subscription to newspapers.com. This gives me access to a huge searchable database of old American newspapers – the oldest dating back to the 1700s. On a whim the other night, I plugged the word "Cerebus" into the site’s excellent search engine, selected the years 1978-2017, and started rootling through everything that came up.

Many of the stories I found simply reported that Dave was about to attend a convention in that particular paper's home city, and then ran through all the basic facts about Cerebus for its baffled readers. Others turned out to have nothing to do with our Cerebus at all, but instead referred to some company or other which, in all probability, had simply mis-spelt the word "Cerberus" on its original charter and never got round to correcting it.

Among all this detritus, though, I did find some real gems. Some contributed just a single tiny extra detail to my Cerebus knowledge, while others opened up a whole new world. You'll find examples of both extremes here, in what I hope will be the first of a new AMOC series.

*****

Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester NY), November 5, 1980
The earliest genuine Cerebus reference produced by my search was this announcement of the Rochester convention Dave went on to recall so vividly in his Swords of Cerebus introductions for issues 23-25 and The Morning After. He’s one of three convention guests who get a mention in the story, the other two being Mark Gruenwald and Keith Pollard. Dave’s book, we’re told, is called Fantastic Cerebus the Aardvark, which reminds me of Scorz repeatedly calling him “Famous the aardvark” in May 1981’s Cerebus 26. It was also Scorz, you’ll recall, who encouraged Cerebus to “talk at Lord Julius sewage, sewage, sewage” and to “drive it right through his brain”.

*****

The Cincinnati Enquirer, March 9, 1981
Steven Rosen, one of this paper’s reporters, met an exhibitor called Ro-z (Jeff) Mendelson selling underground comics at a convention in Cincinnati Towers, and decided to interview him. Mendelson’s pictured in his shop, Columbus Monkey’s Retreat Space Age Variety Store, where he’s shown with a copy of Cerebus 23 on a display rack behind him. You’ll see it there sandwiched between Captain Canuck and The Cartoon History of the Universe.

Rosen canters through a few of the titles Mendelson had on display at the convention – Commie From Mars, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Mr Natural, that sort of thing – and then adds: “Mendelson can give an eloquent defence of such comics’ reason for existence. ‘They gave a freedom to express without being censored,’ he says. ‘You could be as weird as you want, as political. They represented every aspect that people didn’t want controlled.’

“Sex was certainly one of those aspects, especially in the works of the underground’s most famous cartoonist, R. Crumb. His titles are reliable sellers. But, Mendelson explained, some of the other stuff is just ‘off the wall’ humor.

“For instance, there’s Cerebus, about an aardvark who participates in sword-wielding and sorcery. And there is a series Honkytonk Sue the Queen of Country Swing. In her latest adventure, Sue gets The Beatles to reunite and convert to country and western. ‘It’s for people who want to read something totally off-the-wall,’ Mendelson said. ‘They don’t have to judge or think about it’.”

*****

Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls SD), May 2, 1982
The paper gives no indication what the local angle is here, but takes its copy from a wire service called Gannett. We get a brief run-down of what Cerebus is, and then a quote each from Dave himself and Diana Schutz. Both of them say the kind of thing we’ve all read about the book a million times before, but that’s not to say their comments wouldn’t have been useful to newcomers, of course.

For me, the story’s most interesting nugget comes in its penultimate paragraph, which tells us “the New York State Jaycees [have] adopted Cerebus as a mascot”. This organisation turns out to be the state’s Junior Chamber of Commerce, whose motto reads: “Service to humanity is the best work of life”. Hard to imagine anyone more opposed to that philosophy than our little grey friend, isn’t it?

*****

Quad-City Times (Davenport IA), July 12, 1982
Notable mainly for its photographs, this is another human interest piece. The subjects are Steven Lackey and his two sons Christopher and Patrick, who were on their way to a Chicago convention’s costume competition. “Patrick in a hot and hairy get-up, complete with long snout and tail, is Cerebus the Aardvark, a figure gaining quite a cult following,” the story explains.

“[Steven’s] wife Diana, made the boys’ costumes, with Lackey’s technical help. For the aardvark ensemble, they followed a basic Halloween costume pattern and added the tail, head and snout. ‘We got the material from a fabric shop. It’s the kind of stuff they use for carpeting in vans’, Lackey says. Dave Sim, the creator of ‘Cerebus the Aardvark’, will attend the convention and the Lackeys are anxiously awaiting his reaction to Patrick’s costume.”

Dave ran the Q-CT’s photograph of Patrick in costume on the letters page of Cerebus 41, together with one of Rose Hille at the same convention.

*****

The Orlando Sentinel, November 12, 1982
It’s not the paper’s editorial content that interests us here, but an advertisement for a store called Apogee Books. Among its promise to supply “Dungeons & Dragons, Star Fleet Battles, SF and Fantasy Books”, it adds a box saying “We have Elfquest and Cerebus”. These are the only comics mentioned in the ad, and Apogee clearly thought that drawing attention to them would help to bring in extra customers. 

*****

The Courier-Journal (Lexington KY), January 21, 1983
This rather enigmatic small ad also caught my eye. I thought I’d better redact the full phone number but, if you ask me, Patrick would have been a fool to risk calling it anyway.

*****

Lansing State Journal, August 9, 1983 & Muncie Evening Press, August 19, 1983
Smaller newspapers have never been able to resist the temptation to profile a young comics geek in their town. Here the subject is Douglas Wolk, who went on to become one of today’s most respected comics critics.

“Comic books are a medium that has been ignored too long by people,” young Douglas tells the LSJ’s Yolanda Alvarado. “They are just grand entertainment. The story-telling techniques can frequently not be used anywhere else.” Later in the piece, he names Elfquest, Cerebus and 2000 AD as his favourite books, and says his ambition is to become a comedic actor as skilled as the sitcom star Bea Arthur.

In more recent years, Wolk has published a couple of books (including 2007’s Reading Comics) and written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Believer and many other titles. It was his 2005 Believer piece on Cerebus which coined the best advice on navigating the book’s peaks and troughs I’ve ever seen: “At the very least, Cerebus is worth reading for the same reason a grand, half-ruined cathedral of a religion not your own is worth spending time in: it's a cathedral,” he wrote. “Take what you can from it.”

*****

Muncie Evening Press of August 19, 1983
I thought I’d found another youthful adventure by one of today’s top comics journalists in the Muncie Evening Press of August 19, 1983, but no such luck. The comics article there is by-lined to 18-year-old Whitney Spurgeon. Describing a trip to the Indianpolis store Comic Emporium, he singles out Elfquest and Cerebus as the two most interesting books there. “Businessmen would particularly enjoy this book, since Cerebus is the ultimate capitalist,” Whitney writes. “Although he shows compassion, greed is the overwhelming force of his life.”

Whitney’s surname immediately made me think of The Comic Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon, so I contacted him asking if he could shed any light. “Did you go by Whitney in those days?” I asked. “Or maybe this is a relative who shared your interest in comics?” Tom replied: “It's my older brother Whit, who still accompanies me to conventions and takes photos for the site. He also attended the London signing and afterparty for which Dave did the UK tour t-shirts.” That’ll be the 1993 Aardvarks Over UK tour pictured on the Page 45 website.

Unlike Wolk, Whitney did actually go on to become an actor, with credits including a role on ABC’s sitcom Cougar Town. What we have here, then, are two August 1983 articles featuring families from the pantheon of modern comics journalism, covering one teenage critic who hoped to become a sitcom actor and another who would actually achieve that ambition. If that’s not an example of Dave’s comic book metaphysics in action, I don’t know what is!

*****


The Guardian (London, UK), December 14, 1983
Britain held a general election in June 1983, and this story comes from The Guardian’s coverage of its aftermath. Its final paragraph reads: “A further 21 candidates have been reported for failing to return their expenses within the statutory 35 days. They include two of the Prime Minister’s opponents at Finchley, three candidates of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, and a Cerebus the Aardvark candidate from Oxford West.”

I should explain at this point that there’s a long tradition in British elections of fringe candidates standing in one seat or another simply to raise publicity for their single-issue cause or have a bit of a laugh. This often results in the enjoyable spectacle of a solemn Cabinet minister trying to behave with due gravitas on the stage at their local count while a rival candidate gurns away behind them in fancy dress. Have a look at the photographs here and you’ll see what I mean.

Sadly, I’ve been unable to find any pictures of Oxford West’s 1983 count, but I can tell you that the Cerebus candidate there was a final-year student called Peter Doubleday, and that he scored 86 votes against 23,778 for Chris Patten, the winning Conservative candidate. He was saved from finishing dead last only by Ms R. Pinder of the Peace, Health, Freedom of Information Telecommunications Party, who attracted just 26 supporters.

You can read Mr Doubleday’s own account of his boozy, cantankerous campaign here – and jolly entertaining it is too. Much of what he says has a distinctly Cerebite ring about it, not least his occasional habit of referring to himself in the third person.

“Finally, I [find] myself at the count, having not been able to vote for myself because I wasn’t even registered, where I learn that I am left with four hours of mind-boggling tedium because no alcohol is allowed within fifty yards of the building,” he writes.

After the result was announced, each candidate gave a short speech from the stage, with Doubleday’s turn coming just after the Rights of the Unemployed candidate. “Cerebus thanked all who had aided his pathetic, feeble campaign and acknowledged the last speaker, since (as a Finalist) he was due to join the unemployed in four weeks,” Doubleday says. “Finally, he noted that, if the two main opposition parties had sacrificed their candidates, he would have cleaned up the anti- Thatcher vote as the only credible alternative.”

That last bit strikes me as a very Cerebus thing to say: “You may have vastly more supporters than me, but you’re still the one who should quit”.

I’ve also managed to unearth a sample of Doubleday’s campaign literature, which you’ll find below, plus a Google Groups message board where someone called Iain Bowen outs himself as the party’s treasurer and electoral strategy manager. Scroll a bit further down that same thread, and we come to Aston University’s Jon Ward declaring: “Vote for Cerebus or Cerebus will carve you into Albino nuggets!”. Cutlets, Jon: it’s “Albino cutlets”.

Last word goes to Doubleday himself, and is again taken from his own account of the campaign. “What did I get out of it?” he asks. “Well, it kept me sane during Finals and things in general. I got to be hailed as ‘Cerebus’ by people I’d never even seen before. I don’t know. Just count it as the nearest to the pointlessly aesthetic that I’ll ever manage.”


For more of Paul Slade’s writing – including a history of Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp strip and a look back at some notable comic book lawsuits – visit PlanetSlade.com.

4 comments:

Paul Slade said...

One small correction: When I was writing this, I jumped to the conclusion that Tom Spurgeon must have been referring to Dave's 1993 UK tour. I've since been reminded that he also toured the UK in 1986, and it could just as easily have been that occasion Tom had in mind.

Margaret said...

Good stuff Paul! I'm looking forward to future columns.

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

"Fantastic Cerebus the Aardvark"? I thought it was "Famous the Aardvark".

-- Damian

Sean R said...

So great! More more more please...