Archive for January, 2009

Shut your wordhole: Laura on Cerebus #4

issue-04-02There are a couple of formally interesting things I’d like to mention before I delve into the plot and its exercises in irritation (COUGHelrodCOUGH), like Sim’s continued experimentation with paneling.  More specifically, dividing full-page images into separate panels where  the gutters signify the passage of time: A ring falls down one thin vertical panel, and bounces up — larger and closer to the reader — in the next. The motion lines don’t draw the eye through the arc of the ring in quite the way I think they intend to, but splitting the larger image into temporal slices is a fun innovation.

issue-04-03-tentacles

Later, when the tentacle monster begins creeping up on Cerebus from behind, Sim uses a series of gutters to stagger the distance into four vertical images, creating a sense of suspense as eye shifts across, first to the tip of the tendrils and then the looming monster itself.

So the ring — which everyone calls a gem — is apparently yet another artifact of enormous power, sought by no less than death himself. Yup, straight up capital d Death makes an appearance, and despite being Death incarnate he apparently needs 1) a thirteenth magical ring to spread misery and… death? 2) a seething Lovecraftian tentacle beast to chase down the ring and 3) a supremely irritating pseudo-wizard he believes will  succeed where the medieval squid could not.  I don’t really know why Death can’t just put down his magical floating hourglass, get out of his gigantic wicker recliner and go get the ring — that he shouldn’t actually need, because he’s DEATH – without the intercession of cephalopods and village idiots?  Truly, the ways of Death are inscrutable.

issue-04-12-death-chairUnlike the other characters thus far in the series, Death speaks on panel through quoted narration, as opposed to captions or speech bubbles. His dialogue feels stripped directly from a book, and gives Death a sense of removal, a crystal ball/birds-eye-view perspective towards the rest of the plot while he orates nefarious Mumm-Ra style soliloquies in a dark, ill-defined antechamber of evil.

Later, when Elrod, Death’s cabin boy (and Sim’s Elric analogue), first elbows his way onto panel calling Cerebus “boy,” I wondered for a moment if we were dipping back into the racism analogies of earlier issues, particularly since he insists on speaking like Foghorn Leghorn, but no.  It’s more than Elrod actually thinks Cerebus is some small, furry boy, and can’t be bothered to shut his wordhole for the 2-3 seconds it would take to analyze the situation in greater detail.

issue-04-08-stand-asideIt is probably to Sim’s credit that I hate Elrod as much as do, but I suspect that it’s not so much his three-dimensional characterization as it is my awareness that there really are people this fantastically excruciating to be around; and I can’t help but feel a shiver of sympathy for Cerebus when he find himself chained up next to a fleshy representation of fingernails on a blackboard, his ears flattening back like an angry cat’s, his pupils spinning into frantic spirals.

It’s kind of like those scenes in the Terminator movies when the machine picks up a would-be human attacker, scans him with infared eyes, deems him “NO THREAT” and drops him like sack of wet spaghetti.  Although Elrod somehow manages to maintain the delusion that he’s the real hero of the story (the running joke of the issue, and his entire character, sadly), in the world where you and I and Cerebus and anyone else with a functioning cerebral cortex lives, he isn’t even important enough to die.

As Leigh has mentioned before, it is Cerebus’ constant plight to be surrounded by morons (when he’s not surrounded by Danger!), and Elrod is just the latest chapter in Cerebus’ Big Book of Stupid People, a man who manages to combine Red Sophia’s self-important rage with her admirer’s impotent foppishness, and wrap it all up in a big pointy hat and a lack of self-awareness that borders on mental illness.

He’s one of the many dimmer lights who appear in the series to emphasize just how exceptional and especially special Cerebus is.  He’s smarter and more calculating than the barbarians, as Sim repeatedly points out, and more ruthless and savvy than soft, self-aggrandizing bourgeiosie.  And sure, a lot of how we define things is by their opposite, and this is all part of establishing the Cerebus mythology early in the series, but I can’t help but hope that more interesting enemies (and irritants) will shortly be on their way.

The attention span of an overripe grapefruit: Leigh on #4

My, how time flies! Well, I guess that’s why we only promised you one issue per week. The blogging time, it ebbs and flows like the ocean. Or something. Sorry.

Onward to:

Cerebus #4
June-July 1978

This is a cute little issue, introducing us to Elrod the Albino, lord of Melvinbone. As Dave would later write, “nothing happens” in this issue — it’s all about this wacky character and how wacky he is, with a half-assed framing sequence involving Death himself (!). As with the sorceror from issue #1, Death’s grand evil theatricality is punctuated when his defeat at the hands of Cerebus causes him to break character (”‘Some days..’ Death thought to himself… ‘it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed’”).

issue-04-05

But first, a fight scene with a squid demon! In which, once again, there’s something unique about Cerebus that makes him invincible — this time not necessarily an inherent alienness (which protected him from the succubus in #2) but just his unusual skill in battle. Apparently that’s how you roll when you’re “an earth pig born” — as Cerebus is only too happy to inform us. Luckily the “earth pig born” stuff will die down by the end of this volume. It’s pretty irritating, especially since we never meet any other freakin’ earth pigs. He might as well say “you cannot defeat me… for I am no mere city merchant! I am the main character of this comic!”

Once Elrod shows up, Cerebus stops talking — he almost manages to avoid saying a word to Elrod in the whole issue. Sim sets this up with a pretty weak explanation where Cerebus is posing as a “trader of textiles” here in Serrea (capital of the Sepran Empire, and thanks to CerebusWiki for pointing out yet another confusing proper name that was created by accident), and therefore he has to act like a merchant and can’t fight Elrod. So I guess since Cerebus can’t hit him, and doesn’t see any point in talking to him, he tries to just ignore him? But then they fight anyway.

Elrod himself, of course, is Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné with the voice and personality of Foghorn Leghorn. News to me is Foghorn Leghorn’s own secret origin, as a parody of Kenny Delmar’s 1940s radio character Senator Claghorn (soon eclipsed by his own parody).

Anyway, Elrod is genuinely funny — Sim’s lettering is essential to the humor, since the Elrod/Leghorn/Claghorn style is dependent on the rhythm and music of his dialogue, and Sim’s hand-lettering allows him to be incredibly expressive, with multiple, subtle, degrees of italics and bolding.

issue-04-10-pointy-hat

(is it just me, or is his face the spitting image of a John Buscema Silver Surfer?)

Like most of Sim’s humor, Elrod’s comes from the vast gulf between his own abilities and his estimation of them — a gulf obvious to everyone but himself. He’s also easily offended (easy opportunities for hijinx) and boldly misinterprets everything in sight with total certainty. He assumes Cerebus is a “kid” in a “bunny suit,” which is funny, but he proceeds as though this is not unusual, which is funnier.

Notice how quickly he adjusts his internal reality to account for the real world:

issue-04-16-oh-hell

Luckily there are only a few Elric-specific jokes, like the fact that his sword is black (from rust, we are told, and indeed it shatters with the first blow). Sim apparently never read a single Elric story, working only off of his guest appearances in two issues of Conan. I can testify to the utility of this practice — as someone who spent seven years performing as one-half of Hans & Franz at summer camp despite never having seen the SNL sketches, it’s definitely possible to capture the essence of something through osmosis, and then you’re free to run with it and make it your own.

issue-04-09-i-get-it

Cerebus’s near-total silence in this issue fascinates me. He’s continuing to develop as a man of action and logic in a world of sophistry and madness. Still ten issues to go until we meet Lord Julius, the ultimate manifestation of empty rhetoric — but Julius will be something deliciously more complex, since he’ll actually have a brain at work underneath the ocean of words. But we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Bitch, please: Laura on Cerebus #3

According to Deni Loubert’s introductory publisher’s note, “Dave wanted to do an issue where Cerebus was with a female since the inception of the comic.” Although there’s been some discussion about whether the succubus in the previous issue already dabbled obliquely in gender politics, any potential subtlety gets traded for a sledgehammer with the introduction of the first major female character, Red Sophia.

Basically, it’s Dave Sim taking on the ladies for the first time, so you know it’s going to be good.

A stand-in for Red Sonja, the flame-haired, chainmail-bikinied female counterpart to Conan the Barbarian, Sim’s Red Sophia is essentially a millstone placed around Cerebus’ neck while he does yet another terrible mercenary deed for a bag of gold.  This time, he contracts with Sophia’s father — a powerful wizard — to find the man who besmirched her honor, and torture him to death for his crime.

Pay attention, because the words “besmirch,” “honor,” and “torture” all take on markedly different meanings by the end of the issue, mostly because Red Sophia is not so much as a fierce female warrior as she is a sexually-obsessed, histrionic woman-child secretly longing for a man to dominate her– and ready to give her a good smack when she needs it.

In the original series, the character Red Sonja was brutally raped as a teenager by the mercenaries who killed her family, and her wish for vengeance granted by a goddess who gave her extraordinary fighting skills — on the condition that she never give herself to a man again sexually unless he bested her in combat.  There are some weird implications — especially in the context of a rape victim — of a woman needing men to prove their ability to dominate her to win sexual favors, but it’s still not as unsettling as Dave Sim’s take.

As he said in his 2004 Onion AV Club interview, “When I did my parody, Red Sophia, I extrapolated that this poor, magnificent warrior woman was probably getting unbelievably horny waiting for someone to come along who could beat her. It does seem more resonant today now that the ‘ballsier’ feminists, much to their consternation, seem to be having difficulty finding men who are interested in—or capable of—going mano a mano with them.”

issue-03-01-belovedWhile Sophia still possesses Red Sonja’s equivalent fighting skills, there is far more emphasis on her sexual aggressiveness – at least, once she realizes that Cerebus is capable of going “mano a mano” with her — and how irritating it is to Cerebus. Again, while the concept of a heroine as rape victim seeking men to dominate her is disconcerting to begin with, it’s kind of more disturbing to twist that character into a desperate, oversexed idiot who begs to get beaten, and is spurned by her love object at every turn.

The underlying idea, as Sim says above, is that if women are going to take on traditional male characteristics in a relationship – e.g. being aggressive and initiating sex – they shouldn’t be surprised when men find them unappealing.

When Sophia finally challenges Cerebus in battle he bests her handily, and decides to teach her lesson; when “a tempting and rotund target presents itself… the flat of Cerebus’ broadsword painfully introduces Red Sophia to professional swordplay.”  Yeah, that’s right.  He spanks her with his sword.

issue-03-05-ass-shot

And while the obvious phallic analogies of sword spanking are giggle-worthy, it might be more important to note that Dave Sim has publicly advocated the spanking and physical punishment of adult women by their husbands:

issue-03-08-muzzleTo me, taking it as a given that reason cannot prevail in any argument with emotion, there must come a point – with women and children – where verbal discipline has to be asserted, and if verbal discipline proves insufficient, that physical discipline be introduced. Women and children have soft, cushy buttocks which are, nonetheless, shot through with reasonably sensitive nerve endings.

I believe that those buttocks are there for a very specific purpose intended by their Creator… When the point does arrive when the amusement value has exhausted itself or good manners and chivalry have been stretched to their limit, “That’s enough,” spoken firmly, distinctly and above a conversational tone – with women and children – should be sufficient. If it proves insufficient, measured blows to the buttocks – “measured,” to me, meaning blows which, cumulatively, leave no mark which endures longer than, say, an hour or two but which will make sitting down an uncomfortable proposition for a comparable length of time, blows which are an inescapable consequence of failing to heed the verbal “that’s enough” seem the only sensible way to evenly balance the unfair advantage emotion has over reason.

Now suitably chastised in the method Sim recommends for irrational, emotional women, Sophia instantly does a complete 180, submits to Cerebus completely, and attempts domesticity inside a tent that resembles a giant vagina, prattling endlessly at her new “master.”  And oh shit, she makes him granola, the food of choice for vapid oversexed hippie girls everywhere.  For maybe the hundredth time this issue, Cerebus basically looks at her and says, “Bitch, please.” 

Back to the plot! issue-03-16-cover-face When Cerebus and Sophia finally find the handlebar-mustachioed man who “besmirched” Sophia’s honor (by stealing a glimpse of her bathing, apparently), we discover a simpering lovestruck weakling who only has eyes for Sophia. She reacts violently and absurdly to the situation until Cerebus finally just pushes her out of the way so the menfolk can talk — during which his dialogue bubble seriously covers up her face.  I mean, wow. This issue is like every feminist media studies professor’s worst fucking nightmare. 

Ultimately, Cerebus realizes that the only way to shut up a woman is to clock her, which he does, and when the limp-wristed lady-boy who loves Sophia gets upset about it, Cerebus pretty much laughs in his effeminate face and starts getting ready to torture him, per the terms of his employment.  While considering the most terrible and horrific cruelties to inflict on his victim, Cerebus suddenly realizes what would be the worst punishment of all: marrying Sophia, and being forced to spend the rest of his life with her. 

Wah wah wah.

Next issue: Death’s Dark Trend

A tempting and rotund target presents itself: Leigh on #3

Cerebus #3
April-May 1978

issue-03-cover

I gotta say, the legendary vixen Red Sophia looks pretty… mannish on the cover. Something’s off with the anatomy there.

Unusually, #3 opens with a Silver-Age-style in medias res splash page (”Superman! Help!” “Gosh, I’d love to help Jimmy — but how I can I rescue him from that gorilla when I’ve been transformed… into an enormous super-banana!?“), which teases the reader with a glimpse of the story to come. Unlike many of those Silver Age stories, though, I think this scene actually does happen over the course of the story.

And, of course, the first line is Sophia begging for a shag, and Cerebus irritatedly swearing “Tarim’s Blood! Does this wench think of naught else?” Because sex is beneath him. Or something.

While I’m at it, the Terim/Tarim thing bothers me: “Tarim!” has been a swear-word in every issue so far, but issue #2 also featured the “Eye of Terim, the most precious of the five spheres of the gods.” It also mentioned “priests of Terim.” And yet Cerebus swore upon seeing it, “Tarim! What a prize!” So are they two different gods? Cerebus Wiki says: “As I recall, the two different spellings of Terim and Tarim were accidental at first, in the same way that I had trouble bearing in mind that Cerebus was supposed to refer to himself in the third person and would later cover for it by saying that he referred to himself as ‘I’ when he had been around the civilized areas too long. I was covering for not remembering how to spell Tarim by making it the masculine version of the deity’s name.”

That sounds about right. And I haven’t read far enough to know the details, but I know this gender and deity thing is going to be a huge focus of the series later on.

I’m not sure I’m ready to say much about the Cerebus-Sophia relationship. On a certain level, I feel like Dave’s whole approach here is so tired and cliché that I’m not sure what more can be said (an aggressive woman who scorns men but secretly wishes for a Real Man to come along and show her who’s daddy? I’ve gotten enough of those from Frank Miller comics alone to last a lifetime). For the moment, anyway, Dave seems to be thinking of her as just another idiot that Cerebus has to deal with — yet, since she’s the only female character so far, we as readers are almost obligated to extrapolate her to Womankind in general. Especially considering how fervently Dave would later work to emphasize gender as a central concern of his work.

I emphatically don’t want to create the impression that only female critics should be concerned with gender issues, but as I say, I’m not quite ready to wade in yet, and I know Laura has some good insights prepared on Sophia, so I’ll skip ahead to this winner:
issue-03-07-thuggYes, it’s Thugg the Unseemly. I love it. This is what high-fantasy tavern scenes are all about.

Also, he challenges Cerebus in the most perfect way: “I challenge thee, short grey pervert… …SO!” [TWAK as Cerebus is knocked out of his chair] Man, that “so!” is so Stan Lee.

Visually, Dave has his bad days just like anybody. The horribly off-model Sophia of these panels is probably the worst offender:
issue-03-12-offmodel

Drawn at the last minute, I’m guessing.

Obviously, the relationship between Cerebus and Sophia is problematic. Just reading the script aloud is a pretty cringe-inducing exercise. But I have to point this moment out in particular. There’s a point where they pitch a tent and eat dinner, and for the life of me I can’t decide whether this is intentional anatomical humor (it certainly looks like it, out of context):

issue-03-12-very-gross

Cheap shot, maybe, but I couldn’t help but see the uncanny similarity to this controversial 2003 B.C. strip:

bc-slam

Coincidences all around, then.

Elsewhere, Sim is already finding his footing. The comedic timing, physical comedy, and stock characters are crystallizing. As usual for the next 50 issues, Cerebus is a rock of sanity, intelligence, and competence in a world of people who lack these attributes. Cerebus is the Abbott and everyone else in the book plays Costello.

issue-03-16-wap-wap-wap

Ineffectual hitting (”wap! wap! wap! wap!”): Always funny. See?

issue-03-17-wappity

All he has to do is stand there and let the guy’s own inferiority do him in. As David Fiore wrote about the succubus fight in #2, “he merely exists through it, overpowering the monster by virtue of his ontological necessity to the storyline!” Sometimes it’s powerful foes finding their powers mysteriously ineffective against Cerebus, and sometimes it’s lame foes finding their lameness actually becoming self-destructive when turned against Cerebus.

Later Sim will play with this formula and let Cerebus play Costello for a change, but not yet.

Postscript: looking back, I can’t get over how, well, Jewy Dave has made this guy. Cerebus is (like Sophia) disgusted by him ’cause he’s weak and effeminate and asthmatic — both Sophia and Cerebus call him a “fop”– and then he looks like Billy Crystal, or Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ:

harvey-keitel

A little unconscious Judenhass, Dave?

Of course, Jewish or not, he’s part of a long tradition of receding-hairline, probably-gay, old-fashioned-ideas-about-romance nerd laughingstocks that includes Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development. Just because it’s an easy target doesn’t mean it’s not funny.

The bleached skeleton of a less lucky man: Laura on Cerebus #2

The funny thing about reading a work of such epic scope from the beginning, especially if you haven’t read it to completion, is that you can invoke a pretense of newness – you can imagine what it was like, reading it for the first time in 1977, not knowing what the years ahead would hold for either Cerebus or its creator.

For many, perhaps most readers, the revelation of Cerebus‘ brilliance came first, and Sim’s crazypants gender revelations second. Those of us for whom it went the other way round had a very different experience. I’ve had disagreements with both Heidi MacDonald and Gail Simone over the utility of engaging Dave Sim about gender issues – I think there is none — but then, I belong that second group; I’ve always lived in a world where David Sim was a Genius, BUT.

For me, that means there is a different sort of magic in reading these early issues, particularly the introductory letters from his publisher and then-girlfriend (and later ex-wife), Deni Loubert. With a little bit of myopia and squinting, I’m able to imagine what it was like to simply see him as a tremendous and beloved creator, with no sad exceptions appended. It’s almost like a window into an alternate universe – a wonderful Elseworlds story, an issue of What If… Dave Sim Was Not Looneytunes When It Comes to Ladies?

But ultimately, that’s too limited a view; the decision to include extra materials in our analysis meant that the world outside the text of Cerebus would inevitably play a role, just as it no doubt played a role in Sim’s creative process.

Sim’s own introductory preface in this issue (from the 1981 reprint collection Swords of Cerebus vol. 1) delves into the complications of playing so many different roles on the book as Writer, Penciller, Inker, and Letterer, and describes their interplay as a conversation between split personalities, as though each were a separate being. He describes a compromise they came to here, agreeing to limit the “ha-ha” humor to the last half of the issue, and draw “twelve pages of Cerebus and rocks” rather than the complex cityscapes of the previous issue.

Spare and windblown, with page length vertical panels slicing the desert into strips, the first page lives up to that promise of simplicity. Maybe it’s the negative space – the sudden absence of background detail – but the contrast between Cerebus, The Funny Animal and the brutish Barry Windsor-Smith-style barbarians is suddenly apparent to me in a way it wasn’t before. Which is to say, I’m finally starting to get the joke!

The blow-by-blow action scenes return, notably one where Cerebus must face an enormous brute named Klog while they each grip opposite ends of a short cloth between their teeth. The battle takes a turn for both Tekken and Naruto as Cerebus unleashes the Dreaded Earth-Pig Snout Punch! Is that like his Hadouken? I can only hope against hope that special attacks become a recurring theme.

Cerebus then falls through one of the mysterious holes in the ground that so frequently pepper the landscape of sword and sorcery tales, which inevitably leads to a treasure cavern. Greed, we learn once again, is a powerful if not primary motivator for Cerebus, and one that can blind him in ways that even magic cannot. When he finds what he believes is the Eye of Terim, a mystical object of incredible value, he grabs it without a moment’s thought about the potential for curses, ensorcellment, and dreaded monkey’s paw prices that frequently accompany mystical objects of incredible value.

I don’t know if it’s fair to begin the gender analysis quite yet – if I were feigning ignorance of what lies beyond this issue, I probably wouldn’t – but it’s interesting to note that the villain Cerebus faces here is a succubus, a demon who takes the form of a beautiful woman and seduces men in order to steal their energy and souls.

This succubus is quickly revealed thanks to Cerebus’ magical resistance, and it is worth noting that the appearance of the succubus’s true form extinguishes the beautiful light of the Eye: “gone, too, is the illusion of purity and beauty! In it’s [sic] place all that remains is mind-numbing, spine-chilling… REALITY.” Interesting words from a man who would later posit that men are creative lights, and the women the soul-sucking voids that drain them.

According to the narrator, Cerebus is the first person in centuries to see through the spell and perceive the true nature of the succubus, allowing him to break free, “else he might be languishing now, in that gloomy cavern with the other trapped souls.”

There are some fairly transparent metaphors to be made about Cerebus and his long sword escaping the deep, dark cavern of the soul-devouring female demon, Sim’s renunciation of relationships with women in favor of abstinence, and Cerebus’ closing declaration that he intends to spend the rest of the night drinking and fighting and engaging in similarly manly bachelor pursuits as the bleached skeleton of a less lucky man looms in the foreground, but they are low-hanging — if delicious — fruit, and so I won’t dwell on it further.

Again, it is entirely possible that Sim picked a random mythological creature out of his monster-of-the-issue sorting hat without intending any deeper meaning (or fully understanding the nature of the succubus), but it’s also a little too coincidental to pass without, you know, just sayin’. 

Next issue: Red Sonja stand-in RED SOPHIA!

There is no clue as to escape routes: Leigh on Cerebus #2

Cerebus #2
February-March 1978

Was Sim influenced by Barry Smith’s art on Conan during this period?

Savage Tales #1 (1971), pp. 2-3

Cerebus #2 (1978), pp. 2-3

Yeah, maybe.

(Even the layout of the top left page!)

Note also the dialogue of the poor guy fighting Conan: “my brothers in Vanaheim,” his homeland — which Sim would borrow for the name of his publishing company, Aardvark-Vanaheim Press. Apparently in genuine Norse mythology, Vanaheim (or Vanaheimr) is the home of the Vanir, and similarly Howard wrote of a people called Vanir who dwelt in Vanaheim in his Conan stories.

Honestly, I don’t know how fantasy fans got by in the days before wikis. I’m planning to consult the Cerebus Wiki freely over the course of this project, as the proper nouns start coming fast and furious and we start discussing war with Eshnosopur and the united tribes of Lower Felda and the bloody Hsiffies. There’s a certain personality that goes nuts for this stuff (and I can’t be too condescending about this because I used to memorize Magic cards), but I find it harder and harder to pour my time and mental energy into fictional worldbuilding. I’m getting older, there are more demands on my time, and there’s a diminishing-returns effect that accumulates as I build up experience with countless fictional worlds, each one seems more and more like the others, and the novelty starts to wear off. My immersion becomes more and more shallow each time.

It’s especially problematic with Cerebus because it launches with a fundamentally tongue-in-cheek tone which never fully disappears, so it’s not clear how much Dave has invested in these names and places — whether he has diagrammed and fleshed them out and we need to keep them straight, or whether he needed a generic barbarian tribe to fight on a generic snowy plain and pulled some arbitrary syllables together. My assumption is that he started with “arbitrary” and then decided to get serious with the toys he’d already put in the sandbox — otherwise, why an aardvark, y’know?

Back to the contents!

The transition from page 1 to 2 (see above) is surprisingly clumsy, reminiscent of the abrupt transitions you get sometimes from people working Marvel-style — the artist has drawn two scenes that don’t relate very well, so the scripter does his best to bridge them with narration, describing things we can’t see. In this case: “They [who?] are on the expedition in a moment! Four are dead before any, save Cerebus, is even aware of the presence of danger! They are Borealan marauders [oh.], most feared and hated of the thieving and nomadic northern tribes…” Visually, we don’t even get to the action for another two paragraphs after that! I guess you could argue that he’s trying to replicate the effect of being caught by surprise, but it’s breaking one of the basic rules of comic storytelling, in this case to detrimental effect.

The rest of the issue continues to play on the conceit we discussed in issue 1: the equivalent of a comic where Barry Smith has drawn everything but the main character, and then passed it on to a completely different artist who draws a cartoon aardvark as a practical joke. The high-fantasy tone is mostly consistent but occasionally punctuated by the characters acknowledging the situation, as when Cerebus and a massive barbarian guy duel while clenching two ends of a short length of cloth in their teeth (which results in Cerebus dangling three feet off the ground, until the Assistant Chief Barbarian makes a polite suggestion: “My chieftain — perhaps a six-foot length of cloth would be more — uh sacred?”). Incidentally, this hints at a key Cerebus theme, where authority figures privately acknowledge the arbitrariness and/or idiocy of the grand traditions that they publicly praise.

Notice the difference between these two fight scenes below. The first is set up as semi-comedic, and I think dropping the panel borders contributes to that tone — effectively withdrawing it from the action of the main narrative. It’s harmless fun. The second, meanwhile, is in-panel, and thus in-universe. Its outcome is, at least theoretically, in doubt.

I found this next scene unintentionally hilarious, given how things turned out in the later years:

issue-02-writingsSomehow I think 1990s Dave (and Cerebus) would be considerably more interested in “writings… something about time and the immortality of all beings.” When he got to that point, readers eventually reacted like Cerebus does here, and walked away.

The rest of the issue is full of more multiple-panels-across-one-background. This is my favorite example, because the background is especially compelling:

issue-02-16But there’s quite a few. Even the last page is a reflection of the first, with our hero diminishing into the distance in tall vertical panels just as he initially grew into the foreground — across a static landscape.

Also noteworthy: in the underground carry-the-ball-of-Wite-Out scene, Sim is already having Cerebus dash along an unsteady Ditkoesque ribbon of path through an endless expanse of black. We’ll see this again in issue 20, the famous “Mind Game.”

Another note on the narrative structure: it’s funny how this issue promises to change up the status quo from the self-contained episodic style, with Cerebus’s attempt to find work as a mercenary, joining the Borealan marauders. But then he gets separated from them, they all die, and he wanders off again. Whew! That was a close one. For a minute there we almost had a plot.

[I kid, mostly. As I say, I'm not much for world-building, and I enjoy these quite a lot in terms of formal play and snappy performance. I look forward to seeing how Sim continues to refine those pleasures as he grafts on a rich narrative.]

meta-post from Leigh: principles!

Hey everybody, welcome to the blog, and thanks for coming! We really appreciate all the visits and links and comments, and we hope you’ll stick around.

As you can see from the posts below, Laura and I are very excited about this project. While we’re basically on the same page (appreciative of Dave Sim’s talent, open-minded about his eccentricities, fully aware that some parts will take considerable courage to get through, willing to “call a spade a spade,” secretly kind of excited about seeing how crazy it gets, cheerfully uninvested in the consequences one way or the other), we will each have our own critical agendas, habits, and interests. Probably best not to spell them out, lest we pigeonhole ourselves… Part of the project will be learning from each other, after all.

A couple procedural points:

  • The plan is basically to move through an issue per week, with commentary from both of us. Considering how busy we both are, that’s all we feel comfortable guaranteeing. On the other hand, that’s only 4x the speed at which Dave himself produced the damn thing, and it would take us six months to get to High Society (widely considered the beginning of the good part). So we’ll go faster when we can.
  • As Tom Spurgeon observed, we are indeed moving by issues rather than phonebooks, for practical reasons as much as anything else. The early Cerebus is episodic anyway; as we move into the mature material we may focus more on the books as books.
  • As for source material, we’re working from a combination of phonebooks and single issues and reprints of various kinds. We’re interested in the supplementary material insofar as it is a part of Cerebus-the-project and helps us understand Dave and Cerebus-the-book, but neither of us is interested in tracking down every single TMNT crossover and con-program one-pager. We reserve the right to skim/ignore the boring or irrelevant.
  • We welcome your comments! It is a “diablog,” after all.

The Cereblade went snicker-snack: Laura on Cerebus #1

Ah, winter 1977. Sadly, neither of us Cerebloggers had yet been born, and so we cannot nostalgically recall what it was like when Cerebus first came out, only that it was a long, long time ago. I say this not to make anybody feel old, but to emphasize the scope of Sim’s accomplishment: Cerebus would subsequently go on to run for 26 years, a marathon that Sim refers to as “the longest sustained narrative in human history.”

I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to concede that, but neither can I refute it, so let’s just agree that the accomplishment was tremendous. In 1977, of course, Dave Sim didn’t know this. He was just a creator ekeing out his first issue, with no sense of how anyone would respond — if at all. As he says in his afterword:

“Primarily, you are producing your product in the dark. You have no idea whether it is going to succeed or fail. You look around at all the publications similar to yours and mark the differences as pluses and minuses in the hopes that the equation will work out, that you have figured correctly, and that the market is just right for the type of comic book you are about to introduce.”

Fortunately, he says that at the time, there was “a big demand for sword and sorcery and for funny animal books.” What a lucky confluence! No, really. That’s pretty convenient if you just happen to be planning a comic about an aardvark warrior.

Our first ever glimpse of Cerebus in the pages of the comic offers an image quite unlike the aardvark we will later come to know: His snout seems freakishly elongated, his overall appearance cartoony, and he looks a little like he got his head stuck inside a set of six-pack rings while doing a side split off his horse.

It’s kind of like going back and watching the pilot of any long-running tv show, where all the characters are acting weird and telegraphing their personalities in broad, two-dimensional strokes because they haven’t found their footing yet; they don’t really know themselves. Nor does Cerebus, yet, and so we all go about the process of learning it.

To ward off what I will call the inherent “cuddle factor” of being a funny animal, Cerebus is quick to establish his ruthlessness by stealing a page from the cantina scene in Star Wars (released two months previous), and slicing off the hand of a tavern ruffian. While the hand is still pumping blood on the floor, the barkeep gets all speciesist and tries to deny Cerebus service, an act that seems very foolish in context, but momentarily establishes Cerebus as an Aardvark in a world that hates and fears him.

As Leigh says, the freak/persecution angle is handled somewhat unevenly, and is best chalked up to Sim finding his footing in a comic with some pretty weird juxtapositions, and not knowing yet exactly how or whether they would to be acknowledged inside the comic.

Sim’s narrative is most compelling during the more elaborate battle scenes, which adhere to fantasy tropes but have an animated, almost poetic cadence: “The heavy blade sliced the gloomy air and crashed against the aardvark’s blade as Cerebus backed up the shadowed stairs… like a blinding flame, the steel flickered and slashed in front of him…”

As with many of the early issues, Sim is in full-on Conan/Red Sonja satire mode, and all your favorite fantasy and D&D conventions are here: shadow monsters that melt into darkness when defeated, wizards projecting hallucinatory dragons, and my personal favorite, skeletons with swords.

In that context, Cerebus is best described an aardvark with exceptional spell resistance, a propensity for rolling natural 20s, and multi-classed to boot: “Though I was born to be a warrior, the ways of sorcery are not unknown to me.”

In the introduction to Cerebus #1, Sim says, “If I had known what I was letting myself in for, I never would have started.” And we all would have been the poorer for it, which is why we’re usually better off focusing on the next step we have to take, and not the next 299. The best part of beginning anything is not knowing exactly what’s going to happen, but being willing to find out.

Next week: Issue #2, Captive in Boreala!

At the time, he was but a curiosity: Leigh on Cerebus #1

Cerebus #1
December 1977-January 1978

Right from the cover we get the basic premise of the book, delivered visually. Look at Cerebus and then look at the other dudes. Cerebus is cartoony, colored in greytone, all motion and personality and exaggeration. He is a Funny Animal, inherently absurd because aardvarks don’t really walk around like people and have cartoony humanoid faces. Moreover he is a Funny Animal carrying a sword and shield, which is a surprising juxtaposition. Which gets at the most important juxtaposition: he is a Funny Animal in the middle of a Very Serious comic. Everything else on the cover — the blood-red background, the flame shapes, the late-seventies-Tolkien-faux-Celtic lettering of the title, the laboriously “realistic” anatomy and rendering of the other characters — is straight out of a Conan fanzine or a homemade D&D module. Like Howard the Duck (who in 1977 was at the height of his popularity), Cerebus is “trapped in a world he never made,” but Howard was in (almost) the Real World, based on the irony that a visitor from a cartoon universe could observe and analyze our world more insightfully than any of its inhabitants ever could. But Cerebus operates at a further remove — he certainly does comment on the Real World, but only indirectly. He’s just a guy from one fictional world (Funny Animals) trapped in another (Conan). He’s primarily a commentary on THAT world — in short, “a Conan parody” — at least at first.

What’s interesting about the “Cerebus is an aardvark” juxtaposition — seemingly the point of the comic — is that the comic largely doesn’t notice. The opening few pages of this issue, when the human characters are shocked to see a warrior aardvark riding a horse and entering a bar, comprise pretty much the only time in the series (I think) when the comic draws attention to the conceit. “Though later he would be called the finest warrior to enter our gates, at the time, he was but a curiosity…” “I can’t serve YOU here… YOU’RE A…” etc. But then he’s hired by two thieves to join their heist, with a minimum of hesitation, and that establishes the treatment for the rest of the book: Cerebus is funny-looking, and he’s recognized as an unnaturally skilled warrior, but he’s not a dog walking on its hind legs or anything.

[On a related note, it's worth observing that Sim is already establishing one of the visual ground rules of the series: Cerebus is shaded with a zip-a-tone dot pattern that is unique to him (the image above comes from later in the series but illustrates the canonical pattern). Everybody else is shaded with hatching and other techniques. It's another feature that sets Cerebus apart as unique. I'll keep an eye out for exceptions to this rule.]

What follows, then, is a high-fantasy pastiche fairly typical of competent pastiches — or maybe treading the line between pastiche and parody. Sim plays by the rules of the genre, matching its tone with occasional puncturings, and includes a few formally ambitious passages that attempt to demonstrate A) his talent as a creator and B) the unexplored possibilities in visual storytelling. To me, these efforts at formal innovation are the central appeal of Cerebus.

Each of the challenges that our hero faces in the evil wizard’s dungeon appears to have each been deliberately selected as a showcase for one of young Mr. Sim’s various artistic techniques:

The shadow beast, who is sliced by the absence of ink

The skeleton, showing off Sim’s grasp of anatomy, gesture, and lighting

Probably the least professional-looking page in the book, in terms of the actual renderings, but the page layout is creative and solidly executed.


One of the “puncturings” I mentioned earlier — quite literal in this case. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy would play on this joke a lot, twenty years later: build up the spooky atmospherics, the centuries-old evil spirits, the terrifying agent of darkness… and then Hellboy comes in and punches it. Mignola, like Sim, gets to have his cake (i.e. layer on the high-fantasy theatrics and formality) and eat it too (i.e. point out how silly it all is).


One element of this kind of story is that it positions the deflator, the hero-protagonist, as a kind of reader-avatar, who says and does the things that we want to, who sees the obvious solutions that readers always notice but heroes usually don’t (cf. the famous shooting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, above). Cerebus, like Hellboy after him, spends his first several adventures as an über-competent know-it-all, waltzing into preposterous fantasy settings, telling everyone how preposterous they all are, beating someone up, and walking out. Eventually both Sim and Mignola would grow tired of that storyline and start throwing their characters into the deep end, turning them into pawns of forces beyond their control.

These pages demonstrate Sim’s attention to page composition — the second page includes two examples of the ever-popular “single scene extends across multiple panels” trick, but moreover both pages include lines and shapes that guide the eye through their contents.

He’s not always successful, but he sure is trying.