Saturday, 27 July 2013

Cerebus: In My Life - T.M. Camp

T.M. Camp is the author of Assam & Darjeeling, The Cradle, Matters of Mortology, and the forthcoming The Red Boy. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Dave Sim ruined comics.

Back in 1983, I was perfectly happy to visit my local comic shop every week (Freedonia in Orange County, California), picking up the latest issue of X-Men and whatever Batman-related titles caught my eye.

I was fourteen. I'd been reading comics since before I could read, poring over the dog eared issues I'd swiped from my older brother. All those comics fell into my hands after he got to high school and discovered girls.

Captain America. The Invaders. Legion of Super Heroes. Thor. Spider-Man. The O'Neil/Adams era Batman.

I read those comics over and over again, until they were practically furry around the edges.

Fast forward a few years. I'm wandering past the new arrivals rack in Freedonia.

Looking back, it's clear to me that I was starting to feel the twinges of dissatisfaction with mainstream comics. My routine each week was to go in to the store, pick up my usual books, and then go home.

But I was starting to have that vague awareness that I wasn't the only one with a routine. The books themselves, the storylines, were starting to show their routines as well. You could almost see the fatigue weighing them down issue after issue, being forced to act out the same recycled dramas over and again, choke back the gag reflex  as they hit their mark and declared their möbius-stip derivative catchphrase each month...

"Robin dies at dawn... again? Can't the little shit let me sleep in this week?"

"I'm the best there is at what I do® but what I do isn't very nice™ . . . I guess?"

So I wandered the racks looking for something new . . . something different.

I failed. I ended up picking up something with Wolverine on the cover. Again.

But . . . this one was different. The art was black and white, with a fluid style that struck a familiar chord. And yet . . . so different.

And the main character was an aardvark.

Fair enough. I had read my brother's old copies of Howard the Duck. I wasn't prejudiced against funny animal comics.

Flipping through the book, I realized immediately that it was something different than anything I'd ever read in a comic before.

I also realized that I was coming into the middle of a storyline with no idea what the hell was going on. And, for some reason, I really really wanted to know.

I grabbed a few of the back issues that were hiding behind the latest one. I paid for my books -- got a approving nod from the owner, welcoming me to the next level of our secret little society -- and went home to read them.

And read them again. And then again.
Cerebus #50 (May 1983)
Art by Dave Sim
(Click image to enlarge)
It was issue 50 that did it for me. So little happened in those twenty or so pages . . . and yet so much was going on.

Cerebus bellowing "Where is everybody?" -- who was he? who was he looking for? -- his words echoing down the hallway (and echoing in my head).

Astoria, grim and amused and beaten -- but beaten by who? -- sipping her wine. "You're looking at your administration."

And who was Jaka?

I was back the next day, digging through the longboxes to pick up as many back issues as I could afford.

Compulsion had set in. I had to know more about these characters and what had brought them to this moment in time, when it all fell apart.

If I recall correctly, Freedonia had a copy of Cerebus #1 behind the counter. But the $300 price tag was way above my pay grade. Fortunately they also had a few battered Swords of Cerebus, so now I could read the beginning of the story.

My routine changed after that. I still bought my usual books each month. But among them now was Cerebus -- that was the one I always saved for last, after I'd read the others.

Eventually, I realized that most of the other books were just an annoying delay. So I read Cerebus first.

Sometimes, Cerebus was all I read. Apart from a few notable exceptions, most comics just couldn't hold a candle to the depth and artistry of what Dave (and, soon enough, Gerhard) were doing.

Words fail me when I try to express what the book means to me, personally and creatively. It's in my DNA. It taught me so much (possibly everything) about story, pacing, and character.

And it ruined comics -- for me, at least -- for a long, long time.

I just didn't care anymore about the constantly recycled storylines and crises and deaths.

Cerebus was real in a way that most other comics only pretended to be.

One example: In comics, someone dies -- Jean Gray for instance (or Superman or Flash or Jason Todd or Batman or Peter Parker or…)

Anyway, they're dead. Cue the dramatic music, the obligatory splash page funeral.

But as we know all too well now, no one stays dead in comics. The suits in Marketing have their very own Lazarus Pit and they're not afraid to use it.

But when Bran Mak Muffin pushed that dagger into his own heart in issue 80 . . . all the horror and shock and despair on Cerebus' face was reflected on my own.

Because Bran was dead. He wasn't coming back. We knew it.
Cerebus #80 (November 1985)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
That's one example. There are hundreds of others throughout the 300 issue run of Cerebus.

I think that's part of the secret of why Cerebus works so well as a story. The finality of that 300 issue cap.

A boundary that, like death, could not be crossed. Whatever happened, happened. And it couldn't be undone. It couldn't be rebooted or retconned.

Cerebus only had one life. One story.

Just like the rest of us.

I have this fantasy sometimes of a world where, for instance, Batman didn't get rebooted every few years. A fantasy world where the story of Bruce Wayne is told in a single, unbroken storyline. All the way up to his deathbed where, I fantasize, Dick Grayson (or one of the other children in the Batman family)  takes up the mantle. And then that story would be told over decades.

We get glimpses of this, like distorted signals from another dimension, in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight, in Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come, in Batman Beyond.

But just imagine what the story of Batman would have been like if it had been told with unbroken continuity over these past decades . . . the way the story of Cerebus was told.

I know. It's impossible. These aren't just stories. They're institutions. They're industries. They're properties.

I know.

In Cerebus, Dave -- and he will always be Dave, somehow, a familiarity earned over the years of deeply personal Notes from the President and letter columns -- Dave did something different, something so different. He did it with a purpose and artistry that few others can claim.

I believe that stories -- and their characters -- are alive. I believe this not only on figurative level. I believe this literally.

And I believe that stories, as living things, have a shape. A lifespan.

They should end eventually, because that's the natural order of things. And, of course, sometimes they come back.

I think that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and (most importantly) an end.

Most comic publishers -- at least, their marketing departments -- seem to disagree with me. They're making soylent green, in faster and faster cycles. And what's produced with each subsequent iteration is less satisfying. Something is lost in all that churn.

(I'm well aware that there are some people out there doing great comics. There are some wonderful stories being told. Some are even coming from -- gasp -- mainstream publishers. Yes. I know. But these are the exception that prove the rule. And I think many, if not most, of them have some small debt to Dave and what he did with Cerebus.)

I could digress -- yes, even further -- but let's just say that I'm grateful that Dave didn't go down that road with Cerebus. God knows, he had the chance.

I'm resisting the temptation to digress yet again. I could tell how Dave set the bar so high with his courage and commitment to self-publishing, how his relentless dedication to creator's rights challenged and inspired me . . . how following his example saved me from making potentially the single worst mistake of my creative life.

But that's a story for another time. And I don't want to abuse your patience any more than I already have.

Suffice it to say that Dave ruined comics. And he saved comics.

He saved me.

And I'm so grateful.


Unknown said...

Nicely said, sir. Nicely said. Ad thanks for the tours around the comic shops...

Dave Ricketts

Jeff Seiler said...

You and I started up with Cerebus at just about the same time, Mr. Camp. And, as it did for you, Cerebus ruined comics for me, too. I had already winnowed down my list of must buys to Master of Kung Fu and the occasional other Marvel title that I used to subscribe to, in high school. Once my college friend, Paul Shaffer, turned me on to Cerebus (with the Wolveroach issues) I gave up other comics and, for a good 20 years or so, it became the ONLY comic I bought every month. Thank God some other comics creators and companies eventually took note of it and started making some quality work again.