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 ├╝ber-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.

8 Responses to “At the time, he was but a curiosity: Leigh on Cerebus #1”

  1. 1 Eric Rosenfield January 7, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    This is awesome! Thanks for starting this.

  2. 2 Oliver January 7, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    I liked that you pointed out how at first everyone is shocked at the sight of a walking talking aardvark, while later noone notices… it’s pretty seamless and I didn’t spot it myself till I started on the script for a 3D adaptation of the early Cerebus.

  3. 3 Kenny January 8, 2009 at 7:47 am

    I just wanted to add my voice and say this is awesome! I hope I can keep up with you guys!

  4. 4 xian January 8, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Awesome – a top-notch review! I’m really looking forward to more of these.

  5. 5 Paul DeBenedetto January 8, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    I can not wait to read through these every week. I bookmarked and linked you guys, so I’ll be sure to come back here. It should be interesting to read the story again through your commentary. But can you possibly sustain it!

    I think it’s interesting that you pointed out how visually different Cerebus is from everyone else in the book, even going forward, because it’s something I’d never really thought about and now that you mention it, it’s completely in my face. Pretty brilliant stuff by Sim.

  6. 6 Ray Cornwall January 8, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    What’s your source material? Are you reading the phonebooks, scans, or the later bi-weekly reprints? Any study of Cerebus should include the relevant backmatter. The letter column at the time was amazing, as were the Single Pages, giving promotion to all sorts of artists (Jeff Smith is the biggest name I can think of).

  7. 7 Linda S January 8, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    It’s January 78, I am all of 17 years old. I remember going into Harry Kremer’s comic book store, named Books Now and Then -and Harry saying “Dave’s got a real comic book out, you should buy it.” So I did. I had already collected all of Dave’s Beaver’s strips from the local newspaper for a scrapbook, lost many years ago, sadly-so I was quite familiar with him through the store and his work in the paper. I was quite thrilled to see he now had a real comic book. Dave kept the receipt from the publishers for that first issue and showed it off on occasion. The bill was either 200$ or 300$ it seemed like so much money way back then. For us regulars at the store it was a big day when Dave made it to the “big time” and I remember those days quite fondly.

  1. 1 “If Cerebus isn’t careful, he’s going to start a whole new religion”: Leigh on #11 « Cerebus: A Diablog Trackback on June 25, 2009 at 1:19 am

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