Friday, 7 February 2014

Cerebus: In My Life - Chris Woerner

Christopher Woerner is from Lincoln, Nebraska and has served in the United States Army for seven years. He is also the author of Life & Polonia and Double
The Ages Of Cerebus Portfolio (Epic Illustrated #32, October 1985)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard

How did you discover Cerebus and how long did you read it for?

I discovered Cerebus in the pages of Epic Illustrated. My interest in the medium had rekindled my father's interest in the medium. He'd noticed I was gravitating towards Spider-Man comics, pulled Marvel Tales #137 off the grocery store rack and told me it was the first Spidey comic ever. [You can imagine how this messed with me. "Who's that guy with the glasses?" But Marvel Tales became a regular purchase, the only comic I've ever had a subscription to, and I may have been twenty years late, but *MY* Spider-Man is by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.] Dad looked for comics that weren't about kids for his own interests. In addition to Epic, he picked up Denny O'Neill's Daredevil which led him to Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again which led him to Dark Knight which led him to Watchmen, Elektra and everything DC put out which was "for mature readers." He bought Sandman #1 off the rack, enjoyed the hell out of it, instructed me not to file the "Doll's House" storyline during my 'organizing comics' days until the story was finished so he could read it properly, and gave up on the title shortly thereafter because it was "too good" for him to follow. Less than a year later, I was organizing comics, bored for something new to read, ran into the issues of Sandman and thought 'hey, didn't Dad like these?

Long story short, within a few months I was a devoted Sandman fan, picking up the series on my own, and I have since made sure he has a complete set of the TPBs. Where was I going with this? Oh, right. Epic Illustrated. I read the parts of Epic that were interesting to me. John Byrne's Last Galactus Story was kinda weird, but I knew who Galactus and Nova were. Rick Veitch's stories were always interesting. The stories with naked ladies were stupid because who cares about naked ladies? But the Cerebus stories were interesting and memorable.

A few years later, my father was dating a woman whose son was my age, and a major fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. On a trip to the comic book store (a weekly father-son experience I'll always treasure) Dad bought him the Turtles collections, and somehow I recognized the little grey bastard on one of the covers. I was never a TMNT fan, but the comics were a lot better than I was expecting, and of course, there was Cerebus.
The Ages Of Cerebus Portfolio (Epic Illustrated #32, October 1985)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
In my teenage years, I had little connection with any goings-on in the comic-book field. But somehow Dave Sim and Cerebus were appearing higher and higher on my radar. Then Marvel exploded with their new #1s by McFarlane, Liefeld and Lee. I was given a free copy of Spider-Man #1, ruined its value by tearing the plastic bag so I could read it and, although I've never liked McFarlane's art, I thought the story was surprisingly serviceable. Todd was the first to admit he's not a writer, but as far as making interesting characters doing interesting things, it worked. Years later, I read the Torment collection and had the same basic reaction. It's an interesting take on Spider-Man. Sure, it ruins "Kraven's Last Hunt" (which was an awesome story - also purchased by my Dad without any effort from me) but it's a Spider-Man comic. Be serious.

So then Image formed. I liked Mark Silvestri's art, I liked the way Jim Lee drew girls, and even though I loved [and still love] superheroes, the only appeal Image had for me was it's basic commitments to creators rights, which I had just been learning about. It was in the air. Around the same time, David Letterman left his show on NBC and suddenly pop culture was bantering around words like "intellectual property". At a Chicaco Comicon [back when it was still called the Chicago Comicon] I saw the first couple issues of Spawn for sale and decided, 'why not? I liked that first issue of Spider-Man, right?' So I read the first issues of Spawn, liked them, and started reorienting my thinking about the concept of creator's rights. Todd isn't doing Spider-Man, he's doing his own character, that he created, that he can decide everything he wants, and can lay out the story in ways that work for his style of drawing [and coloring; Steve Oliff is the one who made computer coloring work, and although it meant suffering through long periods where colored comics looked like a plate of hurl, we've finally made it past the dark ages and the coloring on books like Fables or ABC is absolutely gorgeous, worthy of the art it adorns.]

So there I am, a happy Spawn reader, and Todd announces the series of guest-written issues. I know who Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller are, but Dave Sim? Todd helpfully provides an ad for Cerebus just to give us a chance, so we won't drop the series when the little grey bastard shows up.

At this point in my life, I didn't have a weekly comic book store to attend, but when I did get to the store, I noticed these thick books which showed Cerebus, some matching the cover of High Society in the ad. A 500-page comic book? Is that legal? As a kid, there was a point where I wanted to deface my copies of Marvel Tales and staple them together so they would make one big Spider-Man book, but really? Can you actually make a comic book like that?

Have I mentioned that, again, thanks to my father's influence, I had recently become a fan of the Marx Brothers? I had decided that a 500 page comic *MUST* be its own reason for existing, I'd taken the plunge, I'd kinda enjoyed the story, and once I finally realized who Lord Julius really was, I was in fanboy heaven. I started picking up the regular series, roughly at the beginning of "Women", which included the Sandman Roach parody. I gradually filled in the books I was missing and continued following the on-going series. The letters page was particularly helpful, because I'd never read a page like "Aardvark Comment", especially when Dave started dishing about goings-on in the comic book field. My first experience at my first Chicagocon was Chris Clarement saying he was leaving X-Men, and Dave is talking about Claremont [Hssssssss!] being forced out, and confirming my impressions of what crap the X-titles turned into after he left? This creators' rights stuff must be really meaningful.

So, to put it bluntly, I became a fan. Next question.
The Ages Of Cerebus Portfolio (Epic Illustrated #32, October 1985)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
How has your own creativity / comics reading been influenced by Cerebus?

My creativity has been influenced in the sense that I have similar interests to Dave. I love looking at the long-term nature of things and telling stories that fit. I realized early on that my novel Life in Polonia was basically trying to write Cerebus in prose, in a month's time - it was part of the NANOWRIMO challenge - and without editorializing or dwelling on particular periods. The main character transforms the (fictional) society he lives in, and he's closer to death every day.

Dave has also influenced my creativity with his 'just do it' arguments. I can't draw worth a damn. My handwriting is so bad that I have trouble reading it. But I became a writer because I want to write comics, and it finally hit me that I should just draw/letter what I write, and if I ever collaborate with an artist in the future, I can give him finished pages and say 'do a better job with these than I did.' As a result, I have a couple thousand finished pages, and several completed books featuring my superheroes the way I think superheroes should be handled. Most likely they'll be seen by very few people until my corpse is found and the causes of my death are investigated, but dammit, I have finished comics I'm proud of. They're just not drawn or lettered very well is all.

And self-publishing. I can't count the number of people who ask who published me and when I answer "I did," flinch and react "No, I mean who's your publisher?" Me. I made these books, I contacted and paid the printer, and now I have finished books for sale. What part of this don't you get? My storage unit has more examples of failed attempts at self-publishing from my life. Dave opened the curtains wide as far as I'm concerned. I still have people complimenting me on my comic book depiction of how to run an Arms Room.

Otherwise, as a creator, I'd say it's mostly been in lettering. I am pretty good at laying out a page and trying some formalist experiments, but it doesn't work if the 'artist' knows where the word balloons are going to be placed and how big they're going to be. That's how I got started drawing. I came up with an idea for a superhero story, and halfway through, I decided to lay it out. The story will never be finished (it was kinda stupid anyway) but focused my attention on 'writing the story' and once I'd done that, 'screw it, just draw it as best you can.' The stories started coming easier and working better because I had finished comics to rely on. There isn't an unbroken record of creation, but you can see some of my efforts here and here on the internet.

Do you have a favourite scene or sequence from Cerebus?

Don't have a favorite scene. "Junior here can have everything on this side of the viaduct" is as good as Cerebus pulling out a knife to kill Shep-shep. The Real Cirin telling us "Women read minds" is as good as Dave's forceful telling Cerebus to shut for once in his life. We can have a fun argument about which scene is better, but I have no favorite Cerebus scene.

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

Yes, but I won't say why. In my opinion, the reasons to read Cerebus contradict each other, unless you're the sort of person who is blown away by a 500-page comic book, which, in the 21st century, you probably aren't. The reason I'd recommend Cerebus will differ from person-to-person. I gave my Dad copies of "The First Half" and I think he picked the reading order because of which was easier. He later emailed me that Melmoth, Jaka's Story and Church & State were masterpieces that would last as long as comics. He's never said much about High Society and his comments about the first book are limited to 'wow, Dave Sim really improved' and a few jokes about Bran Mac Muffin, who also cleaned himself up in later appearances. If you want 'guy' jokes, you have Guys. If you want Biblical commentary, there's Latter Days. If you want the Marx Brothers, there's High Society. Basically, the series is "too good" for me to recommend it.

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