Archive for January 8th, 2009

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.