Saturday, 11 January 2014

Cerebus: In My Life - Barry Deutsch

Barry Deutsch is the writer/artist of Hereville, a comic book about an 11-year-old troll-fighting Orthodox Jewish girl.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (2010)
Hereville: How Mirka Met A Meteorite (2012)
by Barry Deutsch
How did you discover Cerebus and how long did you read it for?

When I was eleven or twelve, I would guess, my best friend Brian Davis showed me a couple of Swords of Cerebus collections. I found them funny but they didn't "stick" with me at the time. I wasn't into Conan, so why collect a Conan parody? was my thought process. I forgot about Cerebus until years later.

Flash forward to 1984. By this time I was sixteen and wanted to be a cartoonist. But although I aspired to be a super-knowledgeable comic book snob - someone who the comic book store clerk would greet by name and chat with as an equal! What an honor! - the truth was, I knew practically nothing about any comics aside from Marvel superhero comics published in the 1980s. So to expand my horizons, I had decided that every time I went to the comic book store I'd buy a comic I'd never read and give it a chance. I picked up a lot of crap this way, but I also discovered some wonderful comics, including Elfquest, Love & Rockets, and (of course) Cerebus.

On this particular trip to the comic book store (I can no longer remember the store's name), I picked Cerebus #65 off the rack and randomly flipped to page five (also known as page 277 of Church & State). I was immediately stunned by the artwork. The moment was burned into my memory; when I look at that page, I can remember the dirty tile floor, the wire comics rack, the yellowish florescent lights.

The largest panel on the page showed three figures of what appeared to be The Hulk in a dress, pacing the room and waving a chair around for emphasis. The figures were amazing - cartoony, expressive, as animated as a still image could be - while the background and chair looked like something from another world entirely. It looked like a Chuck Jones character had wandered into a stately Victorian pen and ink illustration and started tossing around the furniture.
Cerebus #65 (August 1984)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
My mind was blown.

At the time, I had no idea this was Gerhard's first issue of the regular monthly comic. (Prior to issue 65, Gerhard had collaborated with Sim on some short stories for Epic Illustrated, Marvel's attempt at stealing Heavy Metal's thunder.) In an interview on the Hooded Utilitarian blog, Gerhard talked about this panel ruefully:
So when she picks up that chair all the sudden it still looks like it’s too much of a background chair, it’s not enough of a foreground chair. So I did my best at the time. But even looking at it then I'm going, "That’s not right. I have to do it differently than that. Not sure how yet, but differently."
So the specific element that initially attracted me to Cerebus - the way the character was holding a chair that looked like it came from an entirely different illustrative universe - is an element that Gerhard was already trying to correct. But that didn't matter, because I had bought issue 65 and brought it home, where I read it two or three times a day for a week.

The art was gorgeous on the surface, and that was the initial appeal.

But the more I reread it, the more I began to appreciate how wonderful the cartooning was - not in the flashy show-every-muscle manner of superhero comics, but in the manner of the Pogo books I read as a kid, a symphony of expressive body language making every character's personality pop off the page.

And it was so freaking funny! The letter "from" Archbishop Posey that Cerebus dictates in a single enormous word balloon, spelling out the punctuation for Boobah ("...I must respectfully inform you that I would rather eat a half hyphen pound of diced earthworms raw then ever again have to stand within ten feet of your lice hyphen ridden comma foul hyphen smelling person comma and that further comma it is my considered opinion...") brought my sixteen-year-old self to tears and can still crack me up. The idea of being in the middle of attempting to seduce your best friend's underage daughter when, incomprehensibly, the Pope himself wanders in and condemns you. Every single panel of Archbishop Posey's body language, less a person than a continuous cringe. The shocking, sadistic, read-out-loud-funny sermon Cerebus the Pope screams out the hotel window ("Most of all Tarim hates the sick and crippled... If you are sick or crippled and you are not DEAD, you are defying Tarim's will and should definitely consider suicide to make up for it").

I was an addict. I started buying every issue, and kept buying them until somewhere in Rick's Story, when I switched to buying the paperback collections. I kept reading Cerebus through the final collection.

How has your own creativity / comics reading been influenced by Cerebus?

I'm now a cartoonist for a living, best known for my two Hereville graphic novels, about an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who wants to fight monsters. Like most cartoonists, I have a lot of influences - I was lucky enough to take a class from Eisner, and Scott McCloud has been incredibly generous with advice over the years.

But no cartoonist has had a larger influence on my work than Dave Sim (as some reviewers have noticed). To my eyes, Sim's influence is everywhere in Hereville - in my word balloon placement, in how I draw expressions, in my dialog, in the way I think about layouts - just everything. Sim's work, more than that of any living cartoonist, embodies the idea that every element of a comic page can be used in service of improved storytelling. Body language, dialog, panel shape, line weight, lighting, word balloons, the impossibly great lettering - everything on a Sim page is perfectly tuned to not just tell the reader the events depicted, but to make the reader feel Sim's intended emotional effect. Sim is one of a handful of cartoonists whose work I look up to again and again for inspiration and for storytelling lessons.

Cerebus #64 (July 1984) by Dave Sim
Hereville (2010) by Barry Deutsch
I sent Dave the first Hereville book, and was surprised, months later, when Dave was asked in an interview if he read any current comics and cited Hereville along with Craig Thompson's Habibi. Specifically, however, Dave described Habibi as "basically Islamaphobic pedophile rape porn," and then said Hereville was " kind of a Jewish equivalent" of Habibi. Uh-oh, I thought, Dave hates my work. In that interview Dave said he was intending to write me about it, and so I metaphorically waited anxiously by the mailbox. A while later - in an interview posted on the Millarworld Forums which now seems to be offline, and I am furious with myself for not saving it when I could - Dave again brought up Hereville, discussing it for a few paragraphs and this time clearly liking it. I was relieved and pleased.

Later, I received a letter from Dave going page-by-page through Hereville, a list of what worked for Sim, and where I missed a step (for instance, telling me that if I had emphasized a different word in dialog it would have landed the joke better), and making some extremely on-target speculations about where the story is going. He sent me a similar letter after the second Hereville came out. I feel extraordinarily privileged to be getting Dave's reactions to my work.

Do you have a favourite scene / sequence from Cerebus?

No, I don't. It would be impossible, because there are too many extraordinary Cerebus sequences.

Issue 65 will always be a favorite of mine, because it was (more or less) the Cerebus I read first. Page 49-68 of Guys, an chapter shown entirely in a very, very drunk Cerebus' perspective. And it's not a fun drunk - after reading it, you feel like you know how it feels to almost die of alcohol poisoning. Everything with the three stooges in Latter Days. Astoria's exit speech in Reads. The depiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Going Home, which I think is one of the most underrated Cerebus novels. The way so many once-important characters who won't be important to the narrative again happen to walk by a near-comotose Cerebus in Melmoth, symbolically (at least to me) saying farewell to the reader. The sixty-or-so pages of conversation between Astoria and Cerebus in Church & State, taking place in a dungeon with Astoria chained to a wall; I don't think any other cartoonist could have made that much talking not only work but be fascinating (and horrifying). The heartbreaking return of the Nurse character near the end of Jaka's Story.

Sketch: Cerebus The Yeshiva Girl (2014)
by Barry Deutsch

Would you recommend others read Cerebus, and if so why?

I frequently recommend Cerebus. I recommend it most to other cartoonists, for obvious reasons - there's so much to be learned from studying Sim's techniques.

I also recommend it to other comic book readers, but it's always a complex book to recommend, because I know very few people will like all of Cerebus. Sim covers such a range of stylistic approaches, inevitably most readers won't be on board for all of it. How many people who like the broad slapstick humor in High Society will also enjoy the dry comedy of manners of Jaka's Story or the even drier humor in Going Home? How many people who cheered for the feminist Astoria character in High Society through Reads are going to want to throw Form & Void against a wall?

And of course, Sim's narrative becomes both anti-feminist and increasingly religious as the books go on, and both of those are quite reasonably barriers to many readers.

And because there is such great variety within Cerebus - six thousand pages! - it's a good series to dip into again and again over the years. At one time my favorite Cerebus novel was Church & State; today my favorites are Jaka's Story, Guys, and Going Home.

So I tell people to start reading, but to expect that sooner or later they will probably hit their Cerebus wall, the point where - unless they're exceptionally dedicated readers - they can say "well, this has been fun and fascinating for a bunch of books, but now it's stopped being something I want to read." And maybe they'll stop there; or maybe they'll return years later, and discover things that once seemed dull are now interesting. Given the huge breadth and variety of the Cerebus series, for most readers, I think that's a very reasonable approach to the books.

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