Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Cerebus Anniversary-- Forty Years of a Cantankerous Aardvark Part the Third

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!)


It was basically the repercussions of being the first person to stand back and say, “Why not stop doing this on a temporary basis? Why pretend next month I’m going to go and do something else?” I started thinking what a horribly futile thing that Superman was up around issue #250, or whatever it was at the time, and it wasn’t 240 issues of one story. It’s an immense, complicated, self-contradictory mythos, blended by five or six individuals primarily, with a lot of other individuals who had no real interest in [...] adding to it. The nature of the production presents its most ardent fans with the immensely complicated  tasks of trying to weave a coherent background for it. It occurred to me, since I’m only at #11, and it’s reasonably coherent so far, why not have a consistent viewpoint, a consistent story? And be the first one to do it?.... All around me I could see people trying to fit it together and refusing to acknowledge it’s a hopeless task, because it wasn’t put together that way.— Dave Sim, in interview with Kim Thompson (1982)

Some things work better in lists. 

Brothers, both Warner and Marx. Groucho  in his Duck Soup persona. Bugs Bunny in his Groucho Marx persona. Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, as filtered through Barry Windsor-Smith and Roy Thomas. Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad. The aforementioned Frank Thorne and Red Sonja. Michael Moorcock. Christopher Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. The Batman, Captain America, Bucky. Prince Valiant. Deadman. Swamp Thing. Man-Thing. The 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle The Beguiled. M*A*S*H*. Hogan’s Heroes. Comic artists Neal Adams, Gene Day, Jeffrey Jones, Marshall Rogers, Jim Steranko, Bernie Wrightson. 

Mechanical tone, in 10, 20, 30, 35, 40 percent, at various LPI ratings. Fleck tone and other patterned tones as well, creating a variety of background textures. At first, dead line weights from a random assortment of squared lettering nibs—later, under the tutelege of Marshall Rogers, Hunts 102 crow-quill nibs and series 4 Windsor-Newton brushes, the deadweight animation line giving way to a line with bounce and snap, taking more advantage of the inherent properties of the medium. Layouts borrowing from the innovations of Steranko and Adams and Krigstein gradually giving way to a panoply of storytelling techniques almost wholly Sim’s own. 

And this is the other critical reason to place these comics in historical context. Because the innovation and development of the first 1,000 pages of Cerebus would have been perfectly impossible outside of the new direct-market stores. Had Sim been dependent on newsstand distribution, it’s most likely this project would never have existed.  The second page of the entire series features a fleeting act—Cerebus cutting off the hand of a man who accosts him—that would have been impossible to depict under the Comics Code Authority, the supposedly self-regulating censorship board that imposed absolute governerance over newsstand-distributed comics. Additionally, although charming and effective within his story, Sim’s early artwork was too inconsistent from panel to panel to have been picked up by any of the publishers at the time. He might have ended up as a writer for one of the major publishers, but his path towards visual expertise—essentially practicing and honing his abilities in public, funded directly by those most enthusiastic for his work—was only possible through self-publishing.

Self-publishing, which ensured that every dollar earned would belong to himself and Deni, his wife and publisher. It was this security, this ownership, that allowed Sim the writer/artist to flourish, to innovate, and enabled him the thousands of hours of public practice that would eventually turn him into one of the greatest cartoonists of the twentieth century.

I don’t have any doubts that, were it not for Sim’s rapid development as an artist, and the sheer magnitude and brilliance of the later work, the twenty-five issues under this cover would be mostly forgotten today, an oddity of the time relegated to the dollar-bins of the future, pulpy entertainments of another time found and enjoyed and discarded like most other newsprint products, the acid content of the very paper they’re printed on betraying their disposable nature and likelihood of long-term retention. But Cerebus lived on, continued to be produced and published for twenty-six years by Sim, who was later joined by draughtsman extraordinairre Gerhard: and the quality of the book only increased with the complexity, until—a decade or so in—it was both formally and narratively one of the most unique visual stories ever created. Periodic injections of new fans by successful commercial comics crossovers (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #8, 1986; Spawn #10, 1993) served to rerejuvenate the pool of readers who had trickled off over time. The book’s momentum was changed forever by Sim’s great retail innovation—comprehensive chronological collected volumes that ensured that new readers could catch up with the series at any point. This is de rigueur these days, but prior to Sim, no one had made compulsory reprinting a cornerstone of their business. In fact, during several stretches of the series, the monthly issues functioned more as a loss-leader, the actual income coming from the collected editions only.

Of course, the superhero storytelling mode of monthly contained stories that continually reset to the status quo looks fairly ridiculous when bound together, rather like binge-watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show and pretending that it resembles the life of an actual person. Man, why are Mary and Rhoda complaining about not having any dates when they each have a new boyfriend literally every episode? Jeez, why hasn’t Spiderman collapsed from exhaustion yet? Didn’t he break all of his ribs last week? Why do all of these dudes in pajamas hate him so? Likewise, as the scope and ambition of Sim’s project changed, so did the pacing and the very nature of the stories themselves. 

But as the reputation and readership of Cerebus grew, so did the reputation of the early issues—specifically, their reputations for visual crudity.

Partial blame for this can be attributed to Sim, who spared no detail in publicly dissecting his own flaws and documenting his improvements, most notably in the introductions to the early stories that he wrote for the Swords of Cerebus reprint collections. But I believe a large part of this reputation is squarely due to the reproduction. Namely, since the original monthly printings, almost none of these issues were reprinted from the original negatives.

There’s something Faustian about the parameters of being an artist working for reproduction. On one hand, pen and ink is particuarly economical medium, where thirty dollars worth of art supplies is still more than enough to put together an entire comic. And because line art has historically been easier and more accurately reproduced than color work, one line art original can spawn a hundred thousand, a million, reasonable faxcimiles, each copy identical to the next, that can be distributed all around the world to every conceivable potential audience. But that artist is at the mercy of those same reproduction technologies in a way that, say, an oil painter almost never is. And as technologies change, others are abandoned.

The first twenty-two issues of Cerebus had their guts printed by Fairway Press, the Kitchener printer that was responsible for the daily newspaper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. Each month the original artwork was delivered to the printer, where it was shot and reduced to 6” x 9” by a massive stat camera loaded with high-contrast orthochromatic film only sensitive to portions of the light spectrum. The resulting at-sized negative film was then developed and ganged up on film assemblies, or flats, where they would be used to expose the printing plates that would then be used to print the book on Fairway’s web offset presses.

Although there are still web presses today—still used for any large run where economy is the chief consideration—all the other stages of printing mentioned have now vanished, leaving a very different print experience in its place. Plates are now created solely from digital files, in almost all cases delivered ready to go by the client, with only the pagination and last-minute prepress suggestions left up to the printer. 

Which puts older books printed by traditional means in a print purgatory. Computer-to-plate (CTP) print technology had tremendous practical advantages over negative-to-plate (NTP) technologies, namely, its speed, economy, and ability to forego the generational loss inherent in photographing and creating negatives. Because of these advantages, it was rapidly adopted, and printers that stuck with NTP soon found themselves unable to compete. 

These shifts both coincided with and were related to the closing of long-time Cerebus printer Preney Print and Litho in 2006. Cerebus printings after that date were completed by Lebonfon, a Qu├ębecois printer capable of doing both CTP and NTP work—they oversaw the digitization of the Cerebus Volume One negatives that same year, after which the negatives were discarded.

next week... one last excerpt!


Tony Dunlop said...

Very concise and informative essay! Not only is Sean a wizard with imaging technology, he can write! The direct market "revolution" that started in the 70s, and really took off in the 80s, made Cerebus possible, but it also gave us the entire "second Golden Age of comics," as I call it - giving a grateful world Los Bros. Hernandez, Joe Sacco, Seth, Dan Clowes, Donna Barr...I could go on, and no doubt others would have their own list, which is kind of the point.

I have one quibble with the Sim quote, though: "’s reasonably coherent so far, why not have a consistent viewpoint, a consistent story? And be the first one to do it?" The "first one" isn't quite right. I'm currently reading the Prince Valiant epic, in the magnificent Fantagraphics hardcover editions; I'm up to Volume 4 so far, 1943-44. It's one, consistent, continuous life story, done by Hal Foster until (I'm pretty sure) the early 70s. In fact I think Dave himself referred to Foster as a pioneer in what he (Dave) was attempting, perhaps in one of the "Swords" essays. Of course Foster was doing 4 pages a month to Sim's 20, but still...

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Dave was never an inventor -- more a synthesist. He didn't come up with the idea of one consistent narrative, or lettering as a graphic and narrative element, or omnibus reprint editions, or length text sections in a comic book, or self-publishing, or any of the other artistic and business techniques he used. But he was masterful in selecting and deploying just the right tool to further his story and his comic.

I am not damning with faint praise here. Dave was for a time the English-language cartoonist most in command of his medium.

-- Damian

Jeff said...

Okay, Tony, you're right, to an extent.

Dickens serialized (first) several, if not most of his novels, though he didn't draw them.

I haven't read a lot of Prince Valiant, but I get the impression that there were a lot of tropes that were periodically rehashed over the years or decades.

Sure, Dave repeated some stuff and "cheated" from time to time: four pages of Cerebus pissing in the dark (in the wind?), but he moved the story along. Sometimes, it moved incrementally; sometimes it moved at a head-spinning pace, but it moved.

And, it moved ahead, Cerebus' life did, it moved ahead within the stated parameters: 300 issues, 26 years, dead at the end.

I'm curious: When do you think, Tony, that our Prince will meet his great reward and float down the river in his funeral pyre? Give me a heads-up--I'll buy several copies of that Sunday newspaper.

Sean R said...

Hey Tony,

Thanks for the kind words. My writing has predated my drawing, and my writing about comics specifically definitely predates my real technical knowledge about reproduction. Google "sean Michael Robinson" and you can find essays from me at the Hooded Utilitarian, TCJ, scattered other places. My site has a section of links if you're interested.

Hey Damian,

Re: this -- "Dave was never an inventor "

There's an argument to be made that radically reforming, exaggerating, or taking something out of its original context IS a form of invention. That being said, I'm mostly in agreement with you, as you'll see if/when you read my MINDS essay, to appear in the restored MINDS, solicited for in the February 2018 Previews. MINDS as a synthesis of influence. A lot of ground covered, including Dickens, Gerber, and Liz Phair.

>>I'm curious: When do you think, Tony, that our Prince will meet his great reward and float down the river in his funeral pyre? Give me a heads-up--I'll buy several copies of that Sunday newspaper.>>


Tony, I'm not sure if young Dave really considered Prince Valiant comics per se. Interesting essay on the Valiant influence/non-influence in the Cerebus Archive Number Three notes.

Tony again said...

True enough, the Prince Valiant saga did not have/has not had an end (currently in the very capable hands of Mark Schultz and, if I'm not mistaken, Tom Yates). But that wasn't what the 1982 edition of Dave Sim was claiming to be doing for the first time.

Sean R said...

I believe 1982 Dave Sim was referring to no one having done it in comics.

Tony one more time said...

Yes, well, to paraphrase one of the more popular recent U.S. presidents, "that all depends on what your definition of "comics" is."