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.]

13 Responses to “There is no clue as to escape routes: Leigh on Cerebus #2”

  1. 1 Ray Cornwall January 9, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I can’t remember if this happened before or after this issue- my Cerebus issues are somewhere in a pile of boxes. But there was a map made by Deni’s brother of the world of Cerebus very early on, so it could be that Dave actually did think about this sort of thing very early on. If I can find out when the map was made, that would answer the question as to whether Dave had figured out ahead of time the places and names, and how much of it was just on-the-fly world-building.

  2. 2 Margaret January 9, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Dave used a map of Estarcion created by Deni’s brother Michael which had many of the names of locations on it Dave used in the series.

    The map was originally entitled The Aardvarkian Age
    and first appeared in issue 3. Dave one time stated that he misread one of the names on the map and thus Serrea was born.

  3. 3 RJ January 10, 2009 at 2:17 am

    I would have like to have seen a bit more of the worldbuilding, myself. Eshnosopur, Panrovy, Dehrsion, Serrea… these all sounded like interesting, mysterious places, and even though we got to learn a bit more about them (and the inhabitants) later on in the first phonebook and into High Society, they ultimately didn’t have much to do with the situation in Iest.

    (Eshnosopur, Panrovy, Dehrsion, Serrea, Iest – the spellchecker doesn’t like any of them.)

  4. 4 Kim Scarborough January 10, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Michael Loubert also wrote a few essays on the various locations in Estarcion; their history and culture, and so forth. I know he did one on Palnu, for example.

  5. 5 Linda S January 10, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Yes, Dave was very much influenced by Barry Smith (Among others) way back then and made no secret of the fact. He admitted that it was around issue number 6 that he began to find his own artistic “voice” and began exploring his own style, separate from his influences. He realized his work didn’t need to look like someone else’s and he found it quite liberating and freeing. At this point, he’s still trying to look like his influences. I remember him talking about this back at the “Swords Of Cerebus” release party. In this issue I enjoyed the contrast between the muscle guy with sword drawn realistically and the very cartoonish Cerebus. Even at that early stage in the series Dave could blend the realistic with the absurd and make it somehow work.

  6. 6 Jeff Tundis January 13, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    There was no need of a plot in those early days, really. It was half homage to BWS’ Conan, and half Gerber’s Howard the Duck; the book that provided Dave with the basic “one animal in a world of humans” paradigm.

    Also, Dave never knew if the book would survive from one issue to the next, so inserting long storylines was foolish at that point.

    Not just BWS was an inspiration, but Neal Adams – the artist he “rips off” for the spiral descent page you like so much. Adams did tons of stuff like that in Deadman.

    The Michael Loubert essays are called The Aardvarkian Age. All fairly short. Excerpts from larger, imaginary works – like the Book Of Stoth. Another nod to Conan-esque word structure.

    I made a larger map incorporating all of Loubert’s maps, combined with text references from the series. You can see it at in the MAPS section.

    Michael is also an author who wrote under the name An Clovis (Clovis’ Beard!) and he came up with many of the map names. It was just a fun thing for him to do, so you’ll see echoes of R.E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, etc, throughout the world of Estarcion.

  7. 7 Kenny January 14, 2009 at 10:00 am

    “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.”

    I don’t agree with this comment at all. In comics, the picture speaks first, then the words. So, if a story opens with a fight and we don’t know one or more of the parties, we can safely assume the text will tell us who they are. (Or, maybe we’re not supposed to know who they are and the creator is trying to say something else all together.) Maybe addressing the action immediately is a rule of storytelling in superhero comics, but it’s certainly not a rule in comic storytelling.

    Also, I think if you limit your analysis to the sort of analysis that pertains specifically to superheroes, you’ll be doing a serious disservice to your project. The approach won’t work as you get farther and farther into the stories. Sim was never very interested in using Cerebus as a stepping stone to the Big 2, so he often went off and experimented with his own ideas. The two page spread you referenced is just such an example. Sim was trying to write Tolkein-like text to accompany the comic art. Did it work? No, not very well. He wasn’t trying to emulate any established superhero creator, though.

    I feel analyzing the work solely in the context of Marvel and DC artists is also a mistake. Sim was never just pulling from those sources.

    I think what you guys are trying to do here is wonderful in its ambitiousness and I hope you succeed.

  8. 8 Leigh Walton January 14, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Different strokes for different folks, RJ, but Eshnosopur, Panrovy, Dehrsion, Serrea… these all sound like typos to me.

  9. 9 Leigh Walton January 14, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Kenny. I agree that there’s generally a “peripheral effect” whereby the images on a page register with the reader before you officially arrive at a given panel — from the moment you turn the page, really. In this sequence, it’s true that the reader is anticipating combat from the moment of the page turn (splash pages have the effect of signaling their contents even further in advance). Of course, the reader should be anticipating combat anyway, given the tropes of the genre and the suspicious foreshadowing of page 1.

    But I don’t agree that this transition is effective. By placing a (very thickly bordered) inset panel near the top of page 2, Sim visually isolates the top paragraph of narration — practically making it a panel unto itself. It would actually be a textbook example of how to ensure that readers read the caption before reading the image. If that inset panel were removed, I might buy your point — that the whole panorama is a single unit, meant to be absorbed simultaneously.

    Also, who said anything about superheroes? The “Marvel-style” reference came up because I was reminded of a specific storytelling mannerism that arose from the specific production process that Marvel creators used in the 60s. It wouldn’t happen in EC comics, for instance, because (in my understanding) EC artists received their assignments with the panels and lettering already completed.

    If you’re worried about me trying to read the entire series through the lens of a superhero comics fan… I think you can relax.

  10. 10 mateo February 7, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    I also found the reference about the ‘rules of storytelling’ problematic. I don’t know the rules, so if you had told us which rule it was breaking in your original post maybe I would have better understood. Having read comics since before I could even read text, I tend to have a pretty clear idea of what is happening on the page before I ever get to the text, especially on the splash pages.
    I don’t think Sim really hit his stride until the fifteenth issue or so, and have no problem with critiquing style or storytelling here or later, I just found that part confusing.
    Overall though, I really appreciate the work you’ve done so far, and while skeptical about the completion of such an ambitious project, I would love to see you two follow through.
    Any chance seeing a third reviewer? Laura’s mom’s reviews are what got me here in the first place.

  11. 11 Leigh Walton February 11, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Hi Mateo,

    Thanks for the kind words. The “rule” in question isn’t from any particular list, I just think it’s common sense to have your captions occur simultaneously with your images, rather than narrate an exciting event, continue with two more paragraphs of narration, and THEN finally show the exciting event.

  12. 12 Leigh Walton February 11, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    As for the “third reviewer”: I hadn’t considered it until now, but I wouldn’t be opposed to calling in a guest blogger every now and then. I can think of a few folks who would be fun guests. Laura, what do you think?

  13. 13 Laura Hudson February 11, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    I’m intrigued… Let’s discuss.

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