Saturday 4 February 2017

Carson Grubaugh's Cerebus Re-Read: "Latter Days"

Cerebus Vol 15: Latter Days
by Dave Sim & Gerhard

(from Carson's Re-Read Blog, August 2016)
The first time I read Cerebus, Latter Days was actually one of my favorite volumes. Crazy, I know.

I was meeting Sim on the way out while he was on the way in with the whole monotheism thing. His commentaries on the Book of Genesis acknowledged a lot of the same oddities that had come to bother me over the years. (I was raised in a Non-Denominational, Evangelical, cookie-cutter, Born-Again, mega-church household.) Even more impressive/compelling, was how internally consistent his explanation for, and interpretation of, the apparent inconsistencies was. Sure, the thread is strained here and there, but overall Sim does a fantastic job at crafting a believable story out of the two different creation myths, the varied usage of 'God' and 'Lord', the ever renewing covenants, all of the twins stealing each other's birthrights, everyone fucking their relatives, the odd sacrificial demands, etc. He almost had me sold!

At some point in his essays Sim also criticizes the modern church's over-appraisal of the Apostle Paul, a topic I had harangued my family about for years.

There was a decidedly Gnostic flavor (something I was partial to at the time) to Sim's explication but it was interpretatively deeper than any Gnosticism I have ever seen. This was a huge plus for me, at the time.

I have since altered my views dramatically. I was never able to shake the philosophical belief that whatever religion calls 'God' is too big to be viewed as an active agent with a personality. If I ascribe even the most non-anthropomorphic idea of agency or person-hood to the thing then the whole concept becomes reprehensible. If there is such an entity, a Creator, conscious of its actions and aware of its creation then it is a despicable, selfish, pathetic, piece of shit... [Read the full review here...]

Cerebus Vol 16: The Last Day


Paul Slade said...

The Konigsberg page Carson asks about looks like a Jules Feiffer parody to me.

Travis Pelkie said...

Yeah, that's a Feiffer riff.

I would imagine, after last time's comments, that this book would scald your eyeballs, Carson! Alla them woids!

Did anyone else have a "Usual Suspects" flashback when the reveal at the end of Latter Days happened? (I've mentioned that before here, but no one ever answers....)

Kit said...

It's specifically a riff on Feiffer's quarterly-ish "Dancer" character.

Booo at not acknowledging that dog after last week's dismissal.

Travis Pelkie said...

Here's the bleeding cool link to the new comics:

Jeff Seiler said...

Since it's been years since I watched "The Usual Suspects", Travis, I don't really see the connection to the Jaka like-a-look. Can you enlighten us?

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Jeff S.: I would assume that Travis is drawing a parallel between the revelation of the identity of a major character at the end of the story, which revelation causes us to re-evaluate the preceeding story.

-- Damian

Travis Pelkie said...

Sorta kinda spoilery stuff for the Usual Suspects, and Latter Days:

That too, Damian, but more specifically, at the end of The Usual Suspects (iirc, it's been awhile), we get a lot of shots of the room where Kevin Spacey's character (Verbal, that's right) has been spinning this story, and there are items that have names that have appeared in his story (as if he's seen the objects and incorporated them into his narrative where necessary). At the end of Cerebus's story to the journalist, we see a lot of shots (the zooming in-on-details trick that Carson talks about) where we see a lot of objects related to the story that Cerebus has been spinning.

I wondered if there was a parallel, and if so, if we were to take the story Cerebus has been telling with a grain of salt as well. Did any of the stuff between when he told Jaka off and the interview with the journalist/Jaka like-a-look happen (or at least, did it all happen the way Cerebus said it happened? I mean, the way I figured it, he was around 300 years old when the end of Latter Days occurred, if I remember my math when I first read it.)?

Travis Pelkie said...

two quick clarifications on the above:

Not that Verbal incorporated the items themselves into his narrative, but used the names on those items for names of people and places in his narrative.

Also, my point with Cerebus's age was that maybe he was starting to get senile, like what we see with him in The Last Day.

Travis Pelkie said...

And one more thing while I'm thinking of it:

I wondered if the bit with the calendar (where in the first part of the narrative, the number of days don't add up right) was something Dave planned from the start, or if someone wrote to him about it and he incorporated that into the story. Thanks to Dave in advance for any comment on that. Or the above comments.

Carson Grubaugh said...

I will have to go take a second look at that correlation. Good call. I was more tied up in the emotional weight of how sleazy the whole situation is.

Travis Pelkie said...

I will not be surprised, though, if Dave not only didn't see The Usual Suspects, but is not even aware of the movie (or at the very least, not the ending).

Spoilers: Tyler Durden sees dead people!

(um, that one's a joke, actually....)

Carson Grubaugh said...

I did a parody comic that has a page that hits every reference you just made. Too funny!

Unknown said...

Travis - Guilty as charged. Did not see THE USUAL SUSPECTS, not aware of the movie, not aware of the ending.

If I traced the concept back, it would be "Wouldn't it have been cool if, in the concluding scene in the warehouse, they panned across a BUNCH of Charles Foster Kane totemic items?" instead of just (as I recall) the loving cup and the sled. And THEN pull back for the big landscape shot.

Travis II - That's always going to be a question in any of the CEREBUS narratives. Did this actually happen this way? Almost everything gets interpreted differently at some point (having to do with Cerebus basically being a failed Pope, failed political leader and then...accidental...meschiach) (at least according to Rick and the Three Wise Fellows and how accurate are their inferences?)

Unknown said...

Damian - I get the impression that THE USUAL SUSPECTS is one of those movies it's difficult to discuss intelligently without giving away the ending.

Unknown said...

Travis III - No, I intentionally made the mistake and then "caught" myself on it. I thought that would lend a note of authenticity to the proceedings because, you know, it happens a lot in real life. "Just when Cerebus is starting to think he's darned close to omniscient...!"

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Dave: You said, "I get the impression that The Usual Suspects is one of those movies it's difficult to discuss intelligently without giving away the ending." Yeah, I agree. My comment attempted to avoid spoilers, but just reads as obtuse; I should have just waited for Travis P. to reply himself.

I saw The Usual Suspects way back when, having somehow never heard anything about it. Because I didn't know that the whole schtick of the movie was the twist ending, I didn't make much of that, and enjoyed the journey of watching the unlikely band assemble for the impossible task. I found it strange to hear people focus almost exclusively on the twist ending, when I thought that was just a clever capper. There can be an advantage to approaching a work "cold" like that.

Once Dave is dead (I'm not being snide, as he himself has pinned his hopes on Cerebus being rediscovered after he's dead) and the issue of his personal misogyny has abated (and whether you agree or not that he is a misogynist (he is), you must agree that it is an issue that accompanies him), perhaps new Cerebus readers can have the experience of approaching the work "cold" like that.

On another topic, I disagree with, "Wouldn't it have been cool if, in the concluding scene in the warehouse, they panned across a bunch of Charles Foster Kane totemic items?" Not only do I think that would be uncool, I think it misses the whole point of the movie: all the other totemic items never brought him the satisfaction of that simple childhood sled.

-- Damian

Carson Grubaugh said...


Totally off topic, but I figured you would like to know:

Two students in my Figure Drawing 2 class are really interested in comics. I gave them both one of the series 7 #2 brushes you sent me and have them drawing directly in ink from the models. They love it! I will try to steal some drawings once we get to some longer poses and send them to you as a thank you. They are very grateful.

Tony Dunlop said...

Well, this one's by far the most maddening of the volumes, containing some of the absolute highlights - the Stooges slapstick is Dave at his gut-busting funniest, and the tributes to the declining Curly and Moe is Dave at his gut-wrenching, tear-jerking movingest (I've wept every time I've read that issue) - and the only part of the entire run that I've solemnly promised myself never to read again: the Torah commentaries.

"Sprawling Mess" about sums it up. Oh, and I've never heard of this flick y'all are referring to. Apparently it has a Jaka like-a-look at the end.

Unknown said...

Tony - Well, it's not really Time for the Torah Commentaries, I don't think...and won't be (unless I miss my guess) for a long, long, long time after we're all dead. I appreciate Carson acknowledging -- however grudgingly -- that my version of the Torah makes more sense than the conventional interpretations.

There's just WAY too much at stake for those who have a stake in those conventional interpretations (i.e. devout monotheists) to allow them to mentally even visit what I'm suggesting or to open up "the can of worms" as far as I did. And for atheists/pagans/secularists it's just "writing fairy tales about fairy tales."

I have no idea how much of it (if any) I got right (and won't know until Judgement Day) but I do think it makes more sense that the Torah is a sequential narrative rather than a series of disconnected anecdotes. In which case it seems to me, self-evidently necessary, to find an interpretation that reads as a sequential narrative (as mine does).

If I do turn out to have been right, I think it's going to be very funny 100 or 200 years from now when people look back at the time when the most widely-accepted reading of the Torah was just seen as "WORST. CEREBUS comic books EVER!!!"

It definitely makes ME laugh to think of that day.

Tony again said...

No, no, I must meant that it bores me silly, that's all.

Tony one more time said...

JUST meant.

Unknown said...

Tony - Which isn't altogether different from Scripture itself. I think more potential monotheists have been lost to the "begats" in The First Book of Moshe and the Sanctuary "specs" in the Third (?) Book of Moshe than to any other cause.

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

As Dave himself said, the most likely outcome is that he dies in obscurity, the work itself totally forgotten. I don't think that will happen quite like that, myself. I think Dave's death will merit some mention in the comics press (but nothing outside it), and that Cerebus will remain a minor part of comics as a medium and field (but nothing outside it).

I don't think that this is a snide thing to say, despite the fact that I think Jeff S. and Michael B. would disagree. I think that the people who will remember, discover, or discuss Cerebus will be those to whom comics and cartooning mean the most: comics historians and cartoonists.

I think that for the former group, Cerebus will be interesting for its straddling of a significant divide in comics history: one the far side, the assumption that comics were disposable-entertainment, corporate-owned superheroes intended for kids and adolescents, and on the near side the idea that comics are an artform as suitable for creative expression as literature or painting. I think that's in addition to the other events that happened during Cerebus's run.

I think that for the latter group, Cerebus will reward study as a master-class in cartooning techniques. I think that Dave, while never original (in that he invented nothing new, ever), was a master of deploying precisely the right tool to convey the effect he wanted (except near the end, when the strain was showing and he descended a bit into unintentional self-parody).

I think that the intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, or even logical content of Cerebus generally, and of the Torah "commentaries" is nearly if not entirely nil. I think that Dave is wrong if he thinks posterity will acclaim Cerebus as the first-ever correct reading of the Torah, or the first-ever correct critique of (his straw-woman) feminism, or the first-ever correct postulation of a unified field theory. I think that Dave is not that smart.

I think that the last part of Dave's legacy will be the proof that creators can create and put before an audience as pure an expression of their themes as their skills are capable of, uninhibited by gatekeepers such as editors, publishers, accountants, or market-researchers. I think that absolute creative freedom is an intrinsic good -- although it is no guarantee of a work's quality.

I think that Dave views such a legacy as insufficient for his work and its "self-evident" worth. I think that, while he may not like it, such a legacy is what (and all) that Cerebus deserves -- and, furthermore, that such a legacy is no small thing.

And I think that Cerebus is worth studying.

-- Damian

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Finally, I think I can muster evidence for all my claims, which is something that I think Dave cannot do.

-- Damian

Jack said...

I don't agree with "he invented nothing new, ever." Long text pieces in a comic, lettering as storytelling, the Rick's Story use of art to show a character's deranged perspective, the all-word-balloons issue, thought balloons to show warring factions of a character's mind, the comics-in-the-front, personal/social-commentary-essays-in-the-back format, and even the 26-year, 6,000-page scope of the project were all innovative. Maybe you can find some distant precedents for those aspects of Cerebus, like Gasoline Alley as a really long comics story, but I think you'd need to stretch.

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Jack: I'm still working out this thesis and its supporting evidence, so I'll leave my defence of it to a future post or essay or something.

But I would like to be clear that I am not saying that Dave was uncreative or unoriginal or merely copying others, or anything like that. I mean to say that his rightful place is not as an inventor of the medium, but as a master of the medium. I've said before that, though sheer work, he built himself into the English-language cartoonist most in command of his medium.

-- Damian

Jack said...

Well, I'll be interested to read your defense if you get around to it.

About your view that "the intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, or even logical content of Cerebus nearly if not entirely nil"--I don't know, the rather nihilistic ending resonated with me. The finales of long-running sitcoms usually focus on the importance of the characters' relationships, with Meathead telling Archie he loves him, Sam Malone realizing that the Cheers gang is his one true love, Michael Scott saying that his office coworkers are his closest friends, etc. But Cerebus ended its 26-year run by implying that the title character's relationships with its large supporting cast were utterly worthless; the other characters amounted to quasi-demonic distractions from worshipping God, the one true purpose of life. I have to give Dave props for taking his belief that God will condemn the vast majority of humanity (a rare tenant of his one-man religion that's shared by all kinds of religious fundamentalists) to its logical conclusion and vehemently rejecting any kind of sentimentality. And even from a secular perspective, I think there's some truth in the view that vast swaths of life, including many or most interpersonal relationships, is just meaningless bullshit. Dave returned to this line of thought in his comments about how his mother's coworkers made a huge deal of celebrating her when she retired but had absolutely nothing to do with her afterwards; in the long run, they were neither her friends nor her family. It's a harsh truth that packs a punch for me, at least.

Overall, I think the book's main problem is with its title character, who to me barely registers as a character. I'm supposed to like this funny animal because he looks cute and acts macho, and I'm supposed to care about his love life and spiritual salvation after he sends thousands of men to their deaths and murders a baby just for the hell of it? Dave seems to find his creation hilarious and lovable, but I always hated that thing.

Carson Grubaugh said...

It is weird that by largely being a stylistic chameleon Dave wound up being one of the most singular comics creators out there. This is one of the things I really value and identify with in his work.

The greatest influence on me as an artist is actually the singer Mike Patton. He revealed to me that employing a wide range of styles is like having an expanded vocabulary. Most artists seem to want an easily identifiable personal style. I love those who constantly shift style and are identified by the conceptual underpinnings of the body of work. Dave is exactly one of those.

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Jack: In response to your "if you get around to it," I wish to be clear that I'm not backing off my claim that I can support my thesis with evidence. I started to comment here, and quickly ran into Brandolini's Law; I would require a series of lengthy comments that I think are beyond the scope of the comment thread of an old blog-post. But I thought it was more important to stress that I'm not just slagging Dave by saying he's not an originator.

For a quick example, people often bring up Steve Gerber's 1970s writing at Marvel as a precursor to the use of text in comics that Dave later employed. (What is HTD no. 16 but a "read" (lower case)? At times, Prince Valiant would also qualify as a "read". We know that Dave saw those examples, and we haven't got to examples from non-English comics, European comics, Asian comics, and other examples of the medium with which Dave is less familiar.) Other people then object that Dave used longer text pieces, or used them in more issues (as if quantity was a determinant of quality). But that's my thesis: Dave didn't invent the use of text in comics, but he employed it in a masterly fashion -- and it wasn't even the only technique he adopted and employed in a masterly fashion.

Or take the "intellectual" content of Cerebus: When I say that Dave doesn't know how to think, that's precisely and all that I'm saying; I'm not saying he's stupid or anything like that (he's nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, but he's a pretty clever guy). I can read his writing and find on the same page a piece of stone-cold logic right beside some misconstrued anecdote right next to a blatant factual error -- and Dave can't tell the difference between them. He doesn't have the intellectual tools to construct or analyze an argument. That doesn't mean he's dumb, but it does say certain things about his thinking (or "thinking").

(See how long this comment is dragging on already?)

Carson G.: That's one of the things I value most in Dave's work, too.

I wonder how much of the pressure for an artist to have an easily-identifiable personal style comes from within, and how much from without, eg. editorial, audience, and market pressures? When en editor hires Frank Cho, they want lush cheesecake art; if they got Calvin and Hobbes they'd be angry ("I've got a dozen writers who can give me that Barton Fink feeling!"). As a self-publisher and self-editor, Dave escaped most of that.

-- Damian

Jack said...

Yeah, I wasn't trying to taunt you by saying, "if you get around to it."

Maybe you win the comics-interrupted-by-text point, but the extent to which an artist is innovative will usually be somewhat subjective, won't it? R. Crumb's drawing style is reminiscent of Segar and other old-timey strip artists, the first underground comic was by Jack Jackson, and Justin Green kicked off the autobio/confessional thing, but it's hard to deny that early Crumb was the start of something new. I think you can say the same about The Beatles and Bob Dylan... I'd probably have more examples if I was better educated.

Carson Grubaugh said...


I think it is a half and half situation.

My own experience has been that as a youth I really admired people for their style and the creation of my own style seemed very important to me for my own satisfaction. "If only I could develop a style as unique as Mignola's" A lot of my students ask about how to develop stlye too. I think it is a youthful thing that goes along with the development of a sense of self in all areas of life. I always tell them to quit worrying about it, rip off everyone they love, and eventually that will all mush together into their own thing. Or, as with Dave, and to a much lesser extent, myself, your thing becomes using stlye for the symbolic value it holds in the vocabulary of the visual tradition.

As you move forward the pressure does come from external forces. I had a nightmare time getting into graduate school because my portfolio was visually all over the place and they look at the work too fast to see the conceptual connections driving the diverse visuals. Can't blame them. A top-tier school is going to get between 100-300 applications a year.

Same thing makes it harder on me now when applying for jobs and trying to get work into galleries. The galleries want one thing they can market and sell over and over. The schools want you represented by galleries and easily identifiable to prospective students. Again, for a drawing or painting position 200 applicants is not atypical. You have to cut through all of that with a tight package AND seem consistent enough that your success will continue for years to come.

I am sure all of the same pressures are at play in the industries as well. People gotta know how to package you.

When your package is "art about issues that arise from the Philosphy of Information," and the visuals are anything from realist paintings, videos of you beat-boxing, to Facebook profiles, it isn't surprising people don't see the links.

I think that is why Cerebus is so great, and am so amazed it actually got finished. Using art as a tool to search for Truth is bound to lead to a hard to market product. Add in pissing off your entire industry at the 2/3's mark. Holy Cow!

Jeff Seiler said...

Jack wrote: "Dave seems to find his creation hilarious and lovable, but I always hated that thing."

Jack, assuming that by "that thing" you mean the character of Cerebus, I have it on very good faith that Dave, from nearly or even the very first issue, envisioned Cerebus not as "hilarious" or "lovable", but as a miserable misanthrope, a really nasty character. Dave, as I have been told, wanted Cerebus to come off as nearly completely unlovable as could be.

When I was developing the relationship with the person I refer to as The Crazy Canadian Lady (who Dave sicced on me--long story, ask Matt Dow if he'll tell you), she told me that after reading the first several volumes of Cerebus, she was planning on asking Dave if she could marry Cerebus. Yeah. No, she meant it. Because he (Cerebus, although she certainly made a play at Dave) was so cute. When I told her that Dave had meant, from the start, for Cerebus to be a miserable little bastard, a true misanthrope, who was only and always out for himself, she said, "Oh." And, dropped it.

I really should have noticed *that* red flag.

To paraphrase The Judge, if you doubt what I'm saying, consider Cerebus' first and second marriages, as well as his split from Jaka, as well as his contretemps with Bear, as well as his last words to Weisshaupt; etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Jack said...

Jeff, I don't buy that. You can say the character is an anti-hero, but that's still a type of hero. Cerebus is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in that he's supposed to be incredibly strong, tough, and attractive to women. The book's jokes are more frequently at the expense of Cerebus's victims, like the effete snobs who suck up to him in High Society and the dimwits who give him all their gold in Church and State, rather than at the character's own expense. (This continues in Cerebus in Hell, from what I've read of it.) The book portrays Cerebus's spiritual crisis in The Last Day as extremely important, whereas it portrayed the deaths of many characters (like the baby he killed) as goofy jokes. Dave clearly likes his creation on at least some level.

Jack said...

Ugh, I wish there was an edit function.