Saturday 10 August 2013

Cerebus: In My Life - John Roberson

John Linton Roberson is an illustrator, cartoonist and writer, living in Berkeley, California. His new graphic novel is the first volume of his version of Frank Wedekind's Lulu.
A Moment Of Cerebus:
How did you discover Cerebus and how long did you read it for?

John Roberson:
The first time I encountered CEREBUS was a huge wall rack in a comics/fantasy store in a mall in North Charleston, SC, a place that mainly catered to a D&D crowd and, irresponsibly, sold nunchakus and shurikens right next to a small rack they always had on the counter of Miller's DAREDEVIL and later RONIN, stuff like that. It was one of two stores I went to regularly. It seemed to have every issue to that time, which was just around when the book was hitting the 40s. I remember being impressed by the covers -- so different than almost any comics cover of the time. 

I had already been reading ELFQUEST and stuff from Pacific at that time, and stuff like the John Byrne "I am a company man" thing--answered, I thought, brilliantly with Marty Pasko's "Companyman" in E-MAN--and coming across the Comics Journal, and Steve Gerber's fight with Marvel over Howard, stuff like that,  was making me want to seek out stuff with the creator's copyright on it. I was 13 or so. That's weird. And Cerebus was the king of this along with the Pinis. It was from something Richard & Wendy wrote in an issue of ELFQUEST that taught me about how to take care of copyrights. But Dave showed me more. 

I got #43 -- the "Election Night" issue -- as part of a stack of comics for Christmas. That stark, almost 30s deco cover, especially -- my god. I would often sneak into my mom's closet around Christmas to have a look at the presents, and I remember sneaking looks at that many times before she gave it to me. I hadn't seen a comic laid out like that before, and the great graphicness of Lord Julius back and forth on the page. Dave did very well by himself around that time to do a lot more with blacks.

Anyway, I picked up the book loyally from that day forward (although the shops didn't always get them consecutively--an annoying thing when you missed an issue was that if nothing had been happening for a while in the book, THAT ISSUE YOU MISSED would be the one where something series-changing did), at least up to just around "Form and Void." I did however have a gap around READS, so I came only much later to the...unpleasantness, which I will not speak of here.
Cerebus #43 (October 1982)
Art by Dave Sim
How has your own creativity/comics been influenced by Cerebus?

Dave is probably -- maybe Kurtzman/Elder, Gerber/Colan (and I grew up on HOWARD THE DUCK and commonalities between it and CEREBUS was another reason I took to it), and Bissette/Toleben are as primary, but not as driving -- my single biggest influence, on many levels. Firstly in that his way with pacing and layout heavily influenced my own. The way he depicts dialogue on a page is unparalleled except MAYBE by Eisner and... I do not know his letterer's name but he deserves a lot of credit. And also the interplay of Chaykin and Bruzenak. But only Dave makes lettering you can hear, which is the standard by which all comics lettering should be measured. I recall especially having many laughs with a musician friend with Princes Mick & Keef, reading their dialogue aloud. The way I use lettering owes a huge debt to him and to Eddie Campbell.

His wit and way with one-liners in HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE. I feel CHURCH & STATE was the most influential, the one from which I learned the most, but it was HIGH SOCIETY that first cracked my head open.

And I'm particularly fond of how he taught me in HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE how ink and space can competely save you the trouble of drawing a background. 

My friend, the great artist Emily Kaplan, and I in 1991 did a 'Single Page' with our character Pumpkin Boy and sent it to him. He was willing to do ten pages of it. That's when we chickened out and never answered him back, so it wasn't. 

Has Cerebus influenced your approach to working in the comics industry?

I owe that all to Dave's example, instruction, and briefly, direct guidance. I believe you make your own place in it. I love the medium, but dislike the industry. I don't begrudge anyone working for the big two if they realize they are just doing a job and will later do greater things. God knows I've done plenty of commissions, and always will. What I don't get is people whose big dream IS to work on characters they'll never own, rather than as a means to later success to allow them the freedom to make their own thing. Or worse, happily give to the companies a creation of their own. I don't get why you would.

I also learned from Sim: What's yours, should remain yours. Not even for reasons of honor, though there is that: reasons of business defensible to anyone in the Real World. He gave me pride in what I do and a no-nonsense attitude to making it and publishing it. 

Dave's GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING made me move in 1997 from writing plays -- where I had no control over the final product and a small potential audience, if any -- to doing my first graphic novel VITRIOL, adapted from one of those plays (as I realized both started with scripts, so...)  and publishing it in installments in my fancily-xeroxed comic PLASTIC. And I had full control over everything in it, for NO audience at all! Awesome!

But there was more. I've written about this elsewhere but briefly, I sent a letter (and I mean a letter), with a copy of PLASTIC, to Dave shortly after I started Bottomless Studio, to thank him. He wrote back, saying how strange a transition from playwright to cartoonist was. And he had also done a layout lesson on tracing paper with one of the pages of "Vitriol," showing alternatives I might have considered. Along with Michael Bair once showing me proportions at a convention, this was the most important art lesson I ever had. That he actually took the time to do this... I couldn't believe it.

There's far more; you can look up my blog post about Dave if you're interested. But I owe everything to Dave's example, his showing us you can do it yourself, on your own terms, as long as you're willing to DO THE WORK and have dignity about it. 

To this day I still put red Xs on a wall calendar with every completed page, as he advised in the GUIDE. It does make a difference in how you pace yourself. 
Cerebus #30 (September 1981)
Art by Dave Sim

Do you have a favourite scene/sequence from Cerebus?

Oh yes. The Throwing Baby scene, which besides being excellent and almost Pythonesque dark comedy, also manages to establish the entire theme of the series. "Sometimes you can get what you want and still not be very happy."

Also the scene with Mr. Haddon, the solid gold streetlamps guy, where Cerebus gets him drunk and swindles him -- right before the Moon Roach commits "Unorthodox Economic Revenge."

Third would be the entire negotiation scene between Julius, Chicolini & Cerebus (actually, any scene involving those three at length). Just pitch-perfect and an example of that aforementioned snap of wit that made this such an amazing book.

And Sforz is the origin -- along with a Serbian poet/stage director I knew in Chicago -- of the way Vladrushka talks. That's why she calls herself "Famous the Star of Many Movings."
Cerebus #30 (September 1981)
Art by Dave Sim
Would you recommend others read Cerebus, and if so why?

I would, but different sections for different reasons. The problem, for instance, with "Fall and the River" is I know many who would read it -- if not for the aardvark. That's what makes the book sometimes a hard sell. And Cerebus isn't even a big part of that or of JAKA'S STORY, another I would recommend to someone who was a reader -- but not of comics.

For someone who likes satire, HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE are a huge hit. Those, along with JAKA'S STORY -- and MOTHERS & DAUGHTERS (esp. MINDS), actually, which to me was more or less where Cerebus's story ended; he seems more a passenger on the book after that -- are the zenith of the series. 

The thing about the book is that, in general, even though I do comics myself, I don't think enough comics readers now can truly appreciate the brilliance and subtlety of the book. I feel it's best recommended to them fancy book-readers who like them some Waugh. But then, how do you explain the Roach? After JAKA'S STORY & MELMOTH, the problem is that stuff gets too self-referential, and weighs the book down. 

I think everyone should read all of the books. I believe it's among the very greatest achievements in comics, however I feel it falls short in its last third. What's good in the book outweighs all that. But the books above are the ones that stay with me.

And I treasure the phone books and will hold onto them till they or I are brittle brown dust.


A Moment Of Cerebus said...

"however I feel it falls short in its last third."

I hear that a lot and it always mystifies me. Personally I thought GUYS, RICK'S STORY, GOING HOME and FORM & VOID were the strongest books of the series. They were a bit of a struggle to read as 20-page monthly installments, but in book form they really shine.

Or is that just me?

Anonymous said...

I also think the last third is the best third. I gather most folks disagree. Darrell epp

Jason Winter said...

GOING HOME is one of my favourites in the Cerebus story. The Fitzgerrald parody is spot on, and Gerhards backgrounds (his use of tone in particular) is masterful.

Anonymous said...

Parts of the last third are really good, but parts ... are not.

"Guys" has a lot of ha-ha, but not as much if you don't know who those guys are (from Cerebus and the other comics Dave borrows from). "Rick's Story' is pretty tough going, and again depends on having read Cerebus, especially "Jaka's Story". The Hemingway and Fitzgerald parodies were well done, but most of what Dave says about those writers and their wives is ... debatable. And the story parts of "Going Home" through "The Last Day" often don't make a lot of sense on their own, and require Dave's annotations to figure out what he intended.

R. Fiore once said that Dave was lucky his artistic instincts ran counter to his "philosophy", but for the last third of Cerebus the balance shifted the other way; the cast ceased being characters and became puppets to the Theme, as did the plot. Most of the truly brilliant pieces of cartooning (including Ger's backgrounds) are primarily of interest to cartoonists (ooo! A whole issue that's one long tracking shot!) rather than directly relevant to furthering the story.

And of course, there's the simple fact that by the last third there are 200 issues of back-story necessary to understand who these people are and what's going on. But more: you have to understand the meta-world of the comics field, as well as Dave's life and his critics, at that period. Cerebus the work is very much of its time.

Don't get me wrong, though! I'm a big fan of Cerebus. But I can certainly understand why people think the last third is the weakest.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, Esq.

Jeff Seiler said...

Damian, no offense, but you seem to be saying that the last third of the book is somehow lesser because the reader has to. . ."work". . .at understanding it. Same could be said of: Moby Dick, War and Peace, anything by Dostoevsky. In fact, it was the latter who Dave said on many occasions that he was trying to emulate, at least in the structure of doing a long, LONG, work.
And, what's up with the repeated slam on books like Guys, just because some of the characters require some understanding of older, independent comics. Even without that, the book is hilarious. Hell, I had no idea who Gently Bent was based on, but perked up every time I saw him in an issue of Cerebus because he WAS so. . .bent. Besides, that book best underscores James A. Owens' comment (I know I keep returning to it, but it bears repeating here) that whenever Dave spoofed some other creator's character, he not only did it well, he did it better. I could go on and on about some of the inside info on those last third books, such as the model Ger built of the boat for Fall and the River, but I won't.

Tony Dunlop said...

Parts of the last 100 issues were brilliant, and meet or exceed the standards Dave set in the "main storyline," but then there's..."Cerebexegesis."
Reading that's like wading through a thick, mucky long pants and a sweater.
As for the "unpleasantness" in "Reads," I have to say that I keep having experiences that make me say, "Damn, Dave is still right." (For the record, I'm very happily married. Paradox is as paradox does.)

Anonymous said...

Jeff: No offense taken, of course; we're all here because we find Cerebus worthy of discussion.

Sometimes indeed, to make a complex or subtle point, an author might have to make the reader work. I might say that the last third of Cerebus requires more work for less reward, and that ratio increases the closer we come to the end. As Dave had Oscar say, "Less a grand finale than a grand finally."

-- Damian T. Lloyd, MT, MT & MT