Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Cerebus Anniversary-- Forty Years of a Cantankerous Aardvark

Sean Michael Robinson:


I wanted to use this week's post to bring some attention to a so-far-unheralded milestone in the world of comics. This month is the fortieth anniversary of Cerebus #1, first published (according to the cover date, anyway!) in December of 1977.

So as of yet, no one's thrown Cerebus a party. No one's baked him a cake. But to celebrate in a smaller, less icing-involved way, over the next few weeks we'll take a look at a few excepts from the essay I wrote for the newly-restored 17th printing of Cerebus Volume One, released January 2017. If you enjoy the excerpt, or really, even if you don't, I'd recommend picking up a copy of the printing, which is remarkably better than any of the preceding printings. (Easily identified by the increased cover price, and the giant REMASTERED EDITION banner on the top!)

Taken as a whole, the 6,000 page Cerebus the Aardvark is one of the richest, most confounding, most complex, most multi-layered, most singular works of visual narrative art of the last century. 

This from a comic that began as both tribute to and parody of  Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan; a comic born of the twin forces of fanzine culture and the economic opportunities of the comic industry as it transitioned from newsstand distribution to the direct market. It is simultaneously a tribute to artistic development and craft borne of dedication and focus, to complexity, to serialization and public development, to the limitless possibilities of genre-free work; a work of great narrative accomplishment hand-in-hand with asesthetic achievement.      

It’s also funny as hell.

The current linguistic climate of accumulating hyperbole has made it difficult to describe the scope of achievement of Cerebus the Aardvark in terms that haven’t long since worn out their welcome. Incredible, as in, difficult to credit, unbelievable. Awesome, as in, inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear. In an earlier time, words that might be equally appropriate to the description of a birth, a cathedral, or a sink hole.

Cerebus, in toto, is truly an awesome work, unlike any other in the history of fiction. This is in part because of, not despite of, the work’s more modest beginnings, including the volume you now hold in your hand.

Entirely original, entirely self-published, Cerebus ran for twenty-six years, over 300 mostly monthly issues comprised of more than 6,000 pages of comics, the original artwork of which, if stacked perfectly flat, would reach a height of more than 31 feet. The physical scale of the accomplishment aside, the series is a treasure-trove of visual technique, of narrative diversity, and is unprecedented for the frequency of genre-flipping and continually violated expectations. What starts as a sword and sorcery pastiche quickly evolves into adventure, social criticism, and wicked, cutting parody. And that’s just the first slice.

When people ask me, “Do you ever hit a writer’s block?” it seems like a very odd question, because the history of comics is an immense line that snakes around in very bizarre directions, with the word “super-heroes” written on it, and aside from that snake there’s nothing but empty territory... If I were writing a novel it would be difficult, trying to think of a theme that hasn’t been done before, an attitude that hasn’t been done before. But if you take everything that’s been covered in novels and movies and television and lay it over the top of the themes that have been dealt with in comics, there’s nothing but open space. 
 — Dave Sim, in interview with Kim Thompson (1982)

It’s difficult to divorce the genesis of the book from the culture that spawned it. 

Since the creation of the format in the late 1930s, comics had been a vehicle for the supernatural, for violence, and for pulpy adventure stories. They were distributed almost entirely through newsstands, drug stores, and candy stores, and sold by distributors on a returnable basis. When the new monthly issues arrived, the left-over copies were pulped to make way for the new, their covers ripped off and returned as proof of their destruction. The economic pressures of such a system, and the explosion of material crowding the stands, meant that only the most sensational prevailed, and any success was soon imitated by rival houses. But 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent, psychologist Frederick Wertham’s largely fictional expose into the supposed effects of comic book exposure on delinquent youth, changed all of that. Mounting public pressure on the industry led in short order to the formation of the “Comics Code Authority,” a self-regulating organization similar to the Hayes Code of the film industry, that laid out specific rules that must be followed in order for a comic book to be distributed on newsstands. The result was immediate—the elimination of virtually all of the horror, science fiction and crime comic books that had up until that time proliferated and flourished. The superhero was ascendant, laying claim to almost every slice of the ever-shrinking pie. 

In the 1960’s counter-culture comic books made some inroads against that bulwark with an alternative distribution system that targeted mainly head shops. But the erratic publication schedule of these titles, combined with the erratic nature of the shops themselves, weren’t supportive enough for long-term success. 

That would have to wait for the so-called “direct” market.

The late 1960s and early 70s saw the emergence of fan culture in North America. Science fiction conventions, in one form or another, had existed since the late 1930s, but comic conventions didn’t begin appearing until the mid 1960s. But these gatherings were self-generating, and brought with them social connections that persisted in the form of fanzines (a portmanteau of fan and magazine). Popular comic books spawned their own fanzines, which could feature reviews, interviews, pin-ups by fans or aspiring artists, pin-ups by pros or semi-pros, in-depth critical disquisitions, public arguments with the editors of other fanzines... 

The direct market emerged from these two opposing forces—the burgeoning culture of fandom and the continuing malaise of the newsprint-distribution model. Phil Seuling, comic book enthusiast, comic convention organizer, and would-be distributor, worked out deals with the major publishers to purchase their books, which his Sea Gate Distribution would then re-sell to the new comic enthusiast stores. These purchases were made with up-front money and were sold on a non-refundable basis, but these downsides were offset by steeper discounts and more reliable delivery and tailored smaller orders. It wouldn’t be long before other benefits would become clear, changes that would affect the way that the comics themselves were read and produced.

Enter Young Dave Sim. 

In a larger sense this is the reason that I stopped answering the ‘Why an Aardvark’ question some time ago. Each thread of the actual, fully interwoven answer is deserving of lengthy explication. Taking it down to “sound byte” level makes me uncomfortable and reduces many large contributions and contributors to bit players — Gene Day and T. Casey Brennan foremost on that list.   
I have no memory of drawing the first picture of the aardvark mascot. I was doing so much freelance work (both commissioned and on spec) that the work I did for my girlfriend’s magazine was more of a hobby, an afterthought to the day’s work. I only did the one version (“A Boy and His Aardvark” was still fresh in my mind, so I don’t think I even referred to the little picture in the dictionary): a cartoon barbarian aardvark (in keeping with the fantasy theme intended for the magazine). I probably knocked it out in about twenty minutes with an extra thirty seconds for the tone.
As the first issue started to come together, it was Deni who realized that the fanzine’s title, Cerebus, was misspelled. The three-headed dog who guarded Hades in Greek mythology was Cerberus. ‘Not to worry,’ I said, somewhat less than eager to reletter the logo and figure out how to squeeze in an extra letter and transpose two others, We’ll just say that Cerebus is the name of the cartoon aardvark mascot.’
The fanzine was never published. The originals and a cheque for (I believe) $175 were sent to an address in California of a Deep Discount quick printer. The magazine and the money vanished without a trace.
— Dave Sim, “Why an Aardvark?” (1996)

Born May 17th 1956, Sim was an early comics enthusiast. A self-taught writer/artist, and almost-native of Kitchener, Ontario, he dropped out of high school at seventeen to pursue his interests, and spent the next few years contributing interviews, editorials, pin-ups, stories, and artwork to a bewildering variety of fanzines both local and remote, using each acceptance as a foothold to the next. He found a second home and an outlet for some of his creativity at Kitchener’s Now & Then Books, which started as a second-hand book store in 1971 and, under the sole ownership of co-founder Harry Kremer, soon became one of the first direct market comic stores in North America. Kremer was willing to finance small-press fanzine publications, such as Now & Then Times (1972, 1973), by Dave Sim and John Balge, and later, Oktoberfest (1976), a vehicle for Sim and his near-peer mentor Gene Day, whose own career continued to develop ahead of Sim’s. It was also Now & Then’s Kremer who eventually gave Sim the final push into what turned into his life work, by financing the first issue of Cerebus by purchasing five hundred copies of the initial print-run, sight unseen. 

The origins of Red Sophia, who first appeared in issue #3 (April 1978), give some insight into the difficulty involved in sorting out the origins of any one element of a work so filled with pastiche and appropriation. Red Sophia, a buxom chain-mail-bikini-clad warrior princess, is a broad (ahem) parody of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Red Sonja, adapted from Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino (an otherwise unrelated red-haired Polish/Ukranian gunslinger) and placed into Marvel Comics’ ongoing Conan the Barbarian with issue #23 (1973). Red Sonja, whose troubling origins involve her own brutal rape, and a plea for revenge, granted by a goddess who insists she have sex only with men who can defeat her in combat, became the leading edge of a wave of “fierce and beautiful” female warriors, and was a popular fixture in the glut of sword and sorcery comics, fanzines, and conventions. Frank Thorne’s depiction of the character in Marvel Feature became the definitive version, and it’s this version that Sim appears to be parodying. A good indication?  Thorne’s likeness, and his comic convention persona as “The Wizard,” appear to be one and the same with Sonja’s father Henrot. (Coincidentally, July of 1978 would be the last appearance of future Elfquest artist/”direct” market star Wendy Pini as Red Sonja in Thorne’s “Sonja Show” convention piece, only months after the Cerebus parody appeared.)

The kind of clubhouse mentality infuses the early issues of the book. Deni Loubert, soon to be Deni Sim, acted as publisher and wrote a brief editorial at the lead of every issue. Brother-in-law Michael Loubert assisted Sim in the early world-building, designing the “Aardvarkian Age” map that appeared in the book from issues 3 to 10, and also penning a column by the same name that appeared on and off in the back of the first few issues. Certain characters bear names that are anagrams or anagramed amalgams of the names of Sim’s acquaintances. On a few occasions, names were inked into the curly-cue lines of a vest or a segment of background hatching. 


more next week...


Jimmy Gownley said...

This is a great essay and much appreciated. I can't wait to read more.

Sean R said...

Thanks Jimmy! Really glad you enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun to write. Working on a start to a Jaka's Story essay right now...