Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Harpo Question

Cerebus vs The Marx Brothers (2009)
Art by Dave Sim
(from a letter to James Stewart Smith, July 2010)
In answer to the Harpo question: because Harpo worked exclusively in pantomime, there was no way of doing him accurately without eating up too many pages. He can act out a whole sentence on the screen with the whistling and the facial expressions and the gestures and it eats up roughly the same amount of footage as actually talking would. On the comics page, each whistle, facial expression and gesture would need its own panel. If you tried to overlap them it would look frenetic and Harpo wasn't frenetic, he was completely serene and angelic. If I did use up, say four pages on a pantomime, getting him right, then the Groucho and Chico pacing would look wrong.

Up until the last two months, I intended to have a pan up from the last shot of Cerebus disappearing into the light and a series of shots of Harpo plucking the last two strings on his harp and then looking angelically upward. Had it in mind for a good fifteen years. And then I went, "No, they'll just say -- 'What? Harpo Marx is God?'" When you're dealing with a literal-minded, hate-filled audience you just can't be that artistic at the end, that playful, that interesting.

(via Cerebus Fan Girl on Twitter. Thanks!)


Dave Philpott said...

Wish that one was on my wall. Was this one done as a commission ?

Anonymous said...

Three small points: 1) I think the Harpo business would have been confusing; 2) The Cerebus audience wasn't hate-filled, as the haters largely abandoned the book; and 3) I love that drawing.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, sro

BPC said...

The drawing was one of the pieces that Dave did during the Cerebus TV run that would then appear on eBay after the episode aired. It's safely tucked away in the Aartvark vault.

capt.naps said...

That would have been a cool ending for cerebus but I have noticed secularist are incapable of understanding any kind of poetic language.

By the way…that Groucho/Cerebus drawing is beautiful

David Birdsong said...

Yeah, the Harpo part would have been confusing. Someone would have thought Harpo was God. As it was most folks thought Ham was Rick.

Love that artwork.

Anonymous said...

That statement of Dave's crystallizes in my mind what I had long suspected - that he really never had the entire series plotted out as he so often stated. The early promise of Suenteus Po, Mind games and Cirin, were replaced by philosophical meanderings and misogynistic - note I did not say he was a misogynist, ramblings.
I loved and still do love the series. By the time he wrapped it up, I was one of the few diehards who still followed it, so I seriously doubt any 'haters' had stuck around. Dave should have stuck to his professed vision. I started reading Cerebus in 1980 and stuck with it even in the truly depressing years of the late 80's early 90's, when it was more work than joy to read.

Anonymous said...

Cap, that seems a weird slam at secularists for no apparent reason, that perhaps says more about you than them.

David, I think the Ham/Rick confusion in Issue 300 was mostly because they looked quite similar. Also, perhaps, Rick seemed to loom a bit larger in Cerebus's legend than did Ham -- a weighting that I'm not sure Dave appreciated (a hazard of being the author and knowing how it was supposed to be read). Rick appeared in two stories, and was more directly involved with Cerebus himself (keeping in mind that much of Ham's appearance in the story was in the Africa bit).

Anon, the question of how much planning Dave did is interesting. He certainly improvised the early stories, issue to issue and even page to page. I recall that after "High Society", he said that he intended to do a few single-issue stories, before realizing that he and Cerebus were being drawn back to Iest. And he also said that the first few issues of "Latter Days" were left blank for improvising before the story proper got started.

More interesting is the conversation between Cerebus and "Dave" on "Juno". Dave said that he always intended to portray this conversation, but that he deliberately didn't imagine it ahead of time.

So we might conclude that Dave, looking ahead, had subjects, themes, characters, or bits that he wanted to do, and vamped around those on the journey to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how concrete any piece of pre-planning was. Certainly the continuity is not completely consistent.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, sql

Tony Dunlop said...

"Truly depressing years?" Late 80s/early 90s? I may be mistaken, but wasn't that the Jaka's Story/Melmoth era? If so, for me that was the most enjoyable, moving, and riveting part of the entire run.
I think it's sad that Dave thinks of the few of us who stuck with him to the end as "literal-minded" and "hate-filled." I like to think I would have laughed out loud at Harpo as an angel. No way I would have mistaken him for God - as (some sort of) an Abrahamic monotheist, I certainly would not have thought Dave would attempt to depict the undepictable.

David Birdsong said...

Damian I agree with your Ham/Rick reasoning (Hamrick Reasoning? Sounds like a progressive rock band). I thought it was Rick until Cerebus actually wondered where Rick was.

Cerebus was a comic I could never predict and I am not sure even Dave knew all the details until he wrote the stories. At times he was simply transcribing what he had been eager to get to, but I understood him to mean that the storyline was "penciled in" and open to change at any time. The parodies could not have been planned for other that to say "At this point I will bring in the Roach to cause hysteria." I remember him mentioning a story that took place "on the ocean" or "overseas" back in the 80s. My guess is that is what became Fall And The River or other parts of Going Home.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I used to play bass for Hamrick Reasoning...

It's weird reading about Dave's thought process, and what he choses to leave out versus what's already there. One thing I appreciate about Cerebus is, come hell or derision or anything else, Dave put down on paper what he wanted, and made it clear that this was the point of being a self publisher in the first place- not having anyone tell you what to do. He took years telling stories about literary figures who had very little (if anything) to do with a sword-swingin' aardvark bastard, relegating the title character to background cameos or comedy skits. He also dedicated a significant chunk of his monthly yarn to story notes to make sure everyone's on the same page... then he doesn't throw in Harpo's cameo because people might misinterpret it? Well, OK, not the strangest thing Dave's ever done...

Harpo IS God, by the way.

-Wesley Smith

Anonymous said...

Forgive the late reply, Wesley; I share your appreciation.

I know that Dave wants the content of Cerebus to be his legacy, but I don't think that's going to happen -- the work is too too uneven and the ideas too ludicrous. i think it will be remembered by a smaller group of students of cartooning, as there is much to study in Dave's use of comics form.

But I hope that part of Dave's legacy is the lesson of independence. Dave claimed -- and proved! -- that as a self-publisher, you can create any comic you want and offer it to an audience. There are so few such opportunities for a creator to communicate with an audience without interference or intermediaries.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, ind

Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry! Didn't intend that double "too" in my second paragraph.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, dum