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!

24 Responses to “The Cereblade went snicker-snack: Laura on Cerebus #1”


  1. 1 Jon Mosley January 7, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I decided to read this series in it’s entirety a year or two ago…needless to say I haven’t made it yet,(I’m in the middle of the infamous Reads volume) but I’ll get there sooner or later. Any-who, just wanted to say good job on this first one, and that I look forward to the next one.

  2. 2 L nny January 7, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Great blog! Looking forward to more.

    As an aside, how could Sim have commented in the introduction to issue #1: “If I had known what I was letting myself in for, I never would have started.” He wouldn’t have known as of that issue. I suspect he made that comment in one of the compilations of the series, no? Which one?

  3. 3 Leigh Walton January 7, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks for asking — the “introduction” Laura mentions is from the early reprint volume Swords of Cerebus vol. 1, which was published in 1981.

  4. 4 Oliver January 7, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Off to great start!
    Now, not sure with Star Wars coming out 2 months earlier if that allowed enough time to inspire Sim to draw the hand-cutting tavern scene -anybody know? Though Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards came out a little bit prior to that and there is a scene of him riding into town that is kinda similar in that movie -in any case I wouldn’t put it past Sim to “borrow”:) from other popular media. In fact I thought the Howard the Duck/Conan mix was on his part a rather deliberate attempt to cash in on what was popular in the day.

  5. 5 Craig January 7, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    No, not a Star Wars rip-off at all, as given the printing and publication deadlines Cerebus #1 would’ve been finished before Star Wars even opened.

  6. 6 BradyDale January 7, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    I think I’ve read the whole thing… or close, and what’s missing is somewhere in the middle. I read the single issues from somewhere in the early 90s through the end and I have almost all the phonebooks leading up to where I started reading the Single Issues.

    It’s such a great series. Totally messed up in some ways, but also just breathtaking. I need to read the first two volumes again, though, as that’s the material he never really quits mining.

    Anyway, I’m really just writing to say that I loved this part.

    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.”

  7. 7 Sean R January 8, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Loved reading this- please keep up the fresh take and interesting formal analysis. Funny to see how the seeds of the later storytelling innovations are already present, even though the rendering and execution and pacing is not.

  8. 8 syl January 7, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Cerebus would subsequently go on to run for 26 years, a marathon that Sim refers to as “the longest sustained narrative in human history.”

    If “narrative” only means “graphic novel with a single author”, maybe? Just off the top of my head, the radio soap The Archers has been on the BBC since 1951 (and Guiding Light, now a TV show, started on the radio in 1937).

  9. 9 clay January 7, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Great idea for a blog!

    *Bookmark*

    Me, I love most of this series. But I’m currently bogged down in the Woody Allen/Genesis section of Latter Days, and I’ve been stuck there for months. It honestly could be the most tedious thing I’ve read.

  10. 10 Dirk Deppey January 7, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Here’s an obvious refutation of Sim’s “longest sustained narrative in human history” — Suzue Miuchi’s GLASS MASK, which ran from 1976-2006 and recently resumed production.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_Mask

  11. 11 Dirk Deppey January 7, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Addendum: I should also point out how funny it is that Sim’s big record was beaten by a woman.

  12. 12 Ralph Mathieu January 7, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    This is a great idea for a blog. Have both of you read all of Cerebus already? I’ll be especially looking forward to Laura’s comments on Cerebus #186 with its infamous misogynist rant and all the issues thereafter, as well as both of your views on what Cerebus the comic became after Sim read the Bible really thoroughly.

    For me the best ending for Cerebus was issue 200 (or whatever issue it was in which Cerebus met Tarim – his God). As I could never get into the Bible the last 100 issues of Cerebus were unreadable for me other than checking out what Dave would go on about in the text sections.

  13. 13 Talon T M January 8, 2009 at 7:49 am

    I think the greater accomplishment to “longest sustained narrative in human history” is “longest sustained SELF-PUBLISHED narrative in human history”.

    In that, Sim has no equal.

  14. 14 eric p January 8, 2009 at 8:01 am

    i absolutely love cerebus, even the crazy bits, so i look forward to this a combination of curiosity to see what others think of it, and a fear for the same old arguments to come forth.

  15. 15 xian January 8, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Excellent, excellent. I’m really excited about reading commentary from both of you.

    About Sim’s “longest-running” comment, I think he also tends to include “self-published” at times, which helps to narrow down the fields. Also, “Lone Wolf and Cub” was over 8000 pages and created by the same writer/artist team. And is very good.

  16. 16 Andrew Hickey January 8, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Looking forward to reading more of these… Cerebus is easily the greatest work in comics history. Shame its creator is who he is…

  17. 17 David Fiore January 8, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Hello!

    You seem like excellent folks and I really look forward to joining you on the journey to #300!

    having once tried and failed (around one twelfth of the way through!) to accomplish this feat, I know you’ve got your work cut out for ya, but you can count on my undying support in the comment-threads!)

    I’m also pleased that it seems you’ll be relying upon individual issues, rather than the “phone books”–will you be commenting on the lettercols as well? (having presented a conference paper on the subject, I had to ask!)

    onward!

    Dave

  18. 18 bobmitchellinthe21stcentury January 8, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    “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.”

    Very insightful. Spot-on idea for a blog. Kudos to you both for even attempting it. I am instantly hooked. Good luck!

  19. 19 Scratchie January 8, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Once again, great idea for a blog and I’m looking forward to coming back repeatedly, even though I’ve only read a handful of Cerebus comics. Maybe this will inspire me to read more of them.

    On the issue of sustained narratives,

    Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) tells us that (my emphasis):

    “The American soap opera Guiding Light started as a radio drama in January 1937 and subsequently transferred to television. With the exception of several years in the late 1940s when Irna Phillips was in dispute with Procter & Gamble, The Guiding Light has been heard or seen nearly every weekday since it started, making it THE LONGEST STORY EVER TOLD. Other American soap operas that have been telecast for more than thirty years (and are still in rotation) include As the World Turns, General Hospital, Days of our Lives, One Life to Live, All My Children, and The Young and the Restless.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soap_opera#Daytime_serials

    Not that that diminishes Sim’s achievement in any way, it just puts his claim in perspective.

  20. 20 Laura Hudson January 8, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks for all the comments! Neither Leigh nor I have read much of Cerebus, Ralph, which we think makes this a much more interesting project — the ability to look at Sim’s work with fresh eyes.

    A number of people have also mentioned their interest (and/or concern) re:seeing me discuss issue #186 and Sim’s more overtly misogynistic writing. First of all, these tendencies surface in more subtle ways far earlier than Reads, so you won’t have to wait two years to see us address it. Second, I am all for calling a spade a spade (N.B. Dave Sim is a spade), but anyone expecting me to turn this into an opposite and equally histrionic screed against his more bigoted notions will be sorely disappointed.

  21. 21 gene phillips January 9, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Laura,

    Can’t but agree with the majority (agh, the pain) that this is a worthy undertaking and that you and Leigh are approaching the project with a balanced attitude toward criticism. Which doesn’t mean I won’t disagree with you here and there.

  22. 22 Jeff Tundis January 13, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Definitely a worthy undertaking. Dave has backed off on the “longest narrative” yadda yadda.

    You’re right, Laura, there is plenty of evidence of “Dave being Dave” long before 186, but the sexism (not misogyny, IMO) was not so glaringly evident.

    (And there are funny asides, like the succubus Cerebus runs into in issue 2 – Dave didn’t even *know* at the time that a succubus is a specifically female demonic entity. Succubus just sounded cool, and it was a “known” word from other half-paid-attention-to fantasy works)

    Still, 186 exists in the middle of the Reads storyline which is one of my favorites!

    I envy you your fresh eyes! Enjoy!

  23. 23 Laura Hudson January 13, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Hey Jeff. I agree completely that the sexism is in no way glaringly evident from the beginning, but I’m also very curious to see where it does begin to surface. A screed like the one that he produced in Reads doesn’t spring fully formed from the head like Athena; I have no doubt it’s a way of seeing the world he pondered and absorbed for some time before he published his ideas, and I’m curious to see where and when the foreshadowing begins. I just posted about the succubus issue 2, where it was hard to say whether gender issues were consciously or unconsciously invoked — or whether it was just coincidence. Still, I’m interested to see how Sim’s perspective on gender evolves in the comic as he was changing that perspective in his own life.

  24. 24 Jeff Tundis January 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    The succubus is one of those things that Dave, in retrospect, attributes to either God or YHWH guiding his hand in ways he (Dave) was not aware of:

    “I’m not sure that I even knew what a succubus was at the time. My recollection of writing that segment was having the mental image of Cerebus’ head surrounded by a lattice-work of energy-draining tentacles and then having to come up with the name of whatever it was that was doing that. It’s actually interesting to me that I would have chosen “succubus” as a term, rather than coining a fantasy term like G’rikkha or something. “Oh No! A G’rikkha!”

    “I went back and reread the section and it seems clear to me in retrospect that this was me unconsciously documenting what would have been, at the time, my overwhelming and all-encompassing connection to the female half of reality which resulted from my first non-familial exposure to it as a result of being in my first boyfriend/girlfriend relationship for about a year by this time.”

    “Certainly all of the central YHWHist female realities are there: the living thing in the middle of the earth that’s a bright light, the rarest jewel, blah, blah, blah. And it certainly anticipates the ultimate conclusions I came to about the devouring, ensnaring nature of the light as presented in i’s289/290.”

    Yeah, I’m rolling my eyes, too:)

    The sexism is tricky to nail down (and vehemently denied by Dave and a few others), as it is more evident in his essays and such than the main story. But he was an anti-feminist in the early 90s and was “pretending” to be otherwise for years until he really dropped the bomb in Reads. You see glimpses of it in old interviews when he’s talking about how he had been sitting on that stuff for years and years.

    You are 100% right that it didn’t just spring forth fully formed. It goes all the way back to his relationship with his mother (for which his accounts have changed drastically over the years), his ill fated marriage to Deni Loubert, etc, etc. Everything that has ever happened to Dave, every conversation — it’s all in Cerebus in some way.

    So while you’re reading the evolution of his gender issues in the book, realize that he’s “faking it” for a while – probably all the way back to Jaka’s Story (which is, in a way, testament to his brilliance).

    So, aside from Reads, you won’t really see much of what could be referred to as sexism in Cerebus until Latter Days (and, to some, in Going Home – but much of that is attributed to perceived changes in the character of Jaka).


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