Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Cerebus Anniversary-- Forty Years of a Cantankerous Aardvark Part the Second

Sean Michael Robinson:


I wanted to use this week's post to bring some attention to a so-far-unheralded milestone in the world of comics. This month is the fortieth anniversary of Cerebus #1, first published (according to the cover date, anyway!) in December of 1977.

So as of yet, no one's thrown Cerebus a party. No one's baked him a cake. But to celebrate in a smaller, less icing-involved way, over the next few weeks we'll take a look at a few excepts from the essay I wrote for the newly-restored 17th printing of Cerebus Volume One, released January 2017. If you enjoy the excerpt, or really, even if you don't, I'd recommend picking up a copy of the printing, which is remarkably better than any of the preceding printings. (Easily identified by the increased cover price, and the giant REMASTERED EDITION banner on the top!)


An early (and possibly only) Cerebus "style sheet", most likely drawn around the time of the second issue, at least, based on the style of the figures and the shield.

It’s this kind of tangle and community of contribution and borrowing that make writing about, and really, comprehensively thinking about and analyzing the early issues of Cerebus such a difficult task. Do you want a comprehensive list of references, of parodies, of appropriations both large and small? Even forty years removed, such a task would be almost impossible, at least partially because the targets were often local or personal, as well as broad cultural appropriations. Take Elrod the Albino, who first appeared in “Death’s Dark Tread” (June 1978) and who drove an early sales spike in the book. He’s equal parts Michael Moorecock’s fantasy character Elric of Melnibon√©, and Foghorn Leghorn of Warner Brothers’ cartoon fame, who himself was based on Senator Beauregard Claghorn, a character from The Fred Allen Show, a popular radio show in the 1940s. Further muddying the waters, a former girlfriend of Sim’s claimed that “Elrod’s delusional narcissism [was] partially inspired by a mutual acquaintance who is/was the bane of my existence, Dave’s too. It is Dave’s most brilliant inside joke, so effective and so well done the inspiration probably still is blissfully unaware of the association, even though he’s aware he inspired a character.”

I’m not sure if any of that information makes Elrod any funnier. But it does go a long way to explaining the particular effect that’s at work here. Every detail that appears in these issues, no matter how superficial, is continually mined and re-worked, polished and scrubbed, sometimes melted and reformed, and is made to serve the broader project as the book continues. These first twenty-five comics, crude as they can be and indebted as they are to fanzine culture of the 70s and the youthful urge to poke every bear in the eye, are referenced and reworked for at least the next 175 issues, almost twenty more years of fiction built upon the initial framework of monthly fantasy adventure stories.

Structurally, formally, there’s never been anything like it.

But if I can be permitted some medium-hopping, there’s at least one comparison that seems apt, that gives some insight into the formal issues at work. Frank Zappa, one of the most prolific musician/composers of the latter half of the twentieth century, bears comparison with Sim. Both were autodidacts, self-taught in a host of skills, and eventual virtuosos in their chosen specialties of technique. Both had an irreverent and even post-modern penchant for both social parody and borrowing, making art out of not only their observations of the world and those closest to them, but many times, of those people’s actual words. Both rose to prominence in their fields with laugh-out-loud work that seemed crude by their later technical standards. And crucially, both grew to envision each creation on its own and as a segment of a larger framework. Sim’s vision of Cerebus as his life’s work, both a continuing story of the life of a single character, and a series of novels documenting his own evolving thoughts on the nature of reality, was made after his LSD-inspired breakdown and subsequent hospitalization at Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital.

Here’s the story, very effectively dramatized by Christopher Shulgan for Toronto’s Saturday Night magazine:

One day, shortly after Sim had been invited to appear at a comics convention in the eastern United States, an acquaintance gave him four or five hits of LSD. [actually the aforementioned Michael Loubert] As a heavy marijuana smoker, Sim was not uncomfortable with drug use. “I had always done Cerebus stoned,” he recalled, years later. “I did everything stoned.” Curious about how the acid would affect his work and anxious for a release from the anxiety brought on by the impending public appearance, Sim took the drug. He liked the perspective it gave him. His work seemed effortless. When the acid’s effect faded, he swallowed another tab.
That first day on LSD turned into two, then three. His behaviour began to alarm his wife. With the comics convention only weeks away, Loubert heard Sim speaking to people who didn’t exist. After days cycling through moods of apoplectic rage and of passivity, Sim found himself in the psychiatric ward of Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital. (It was Loubert [in tandem with Sim’s mother] who had him hospitalised).
Sim came to realise he had experienced a breakdown brought on by a combination of stress and LSD. When he realised the hospital couldn’t hold him against his will, he left. Soon after, the ideas and inspiration generated during the acid trip coalesced into a creative epiphany that spawned his life’s work: he would use Cerebus to tell the story of a life.... The story of Cerebus would last 300 issues, he said. And it would finish in March 2004.

Sim’s grand vision of Cerebus as a vehicle for all of his creativity and a soapbox for all of his thoughts on the world is both the single biggest barrier to access for the series and simultaneously its biggest aesthetic strength. The chronological and literal length of the endeavor forced different kinds of narrative conception, different types of stories, and a constantly-shifting set of narrative tacks that give each segment its own thrust and structure, while the entirety of the work remains, in a way, unknowable. Zappa had a name for his own conception of this effect—“Project/Object,” a way to take the innumberable projects that he executed in his life—over fifty albums, hundreds of live performances, films, scripts, even interviews—and place them together, referencing each other and thus existing in simultaneity, so as to change and enrich the individual projects in context of the larger theoretical “object.”

And that is in essence the mystery at the heart of Cerebus as art object, versus Cerebus as narrative or Cerebus as long-running periodical. Over the entirety of Cerebus there exists a 500-page novel focused almost exclusively on art, ambition, and quiet obsession, people as objects in orbit around each other, intricately rendered in a pen and ink style reminiscent of Franklin Booth, populated by figures acting with exquisite subtlety but capable of sudden rubberiness a-la Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair. Another novelette consisting of an author’s slow-moving death while the titular character is virtually catatonic, which ends in a burst of physical violence unprecedented in the series. There are no less than three cosmic revelations, with two literal theophanies, and an attempt to unify a reading of modern astrophysics with the first book of the Torah. Many, though not all, of these could be read independently from each other, without reference to the rest, much as you could read any of the individual early issues and have a complete experience. But placed together, they are changed.What do these novels say about each other? Do to each other? How do they interact, speak, conflict, continue or contradict the goals and values of the preceeding, and those to-come? And how, exacly, do all of these segments have their genesis here, in a comic best described as Conan meets Howard the Duck?

Another "first Cerebus"-- Cerebus the potted plant/table lamp. From "Crimson Alpha", a story from the never-published all-Dave Sim anthology REVOLT 3000, drawn between the long-lost CEREBUS the fanzine and the first actual issue of Cerebus.

1 comment:

Tony Dunlop said...

I knew a guy freshman year of college who dropped acid every day for a while - not sure how long. He...didn't graduate.