Archive for January 7th, 2009

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.