Archive for January 13th, 2009

The bleached skeleton of a less lucky man: Laura on Cerebus #2

The funny thing about reading a work of such epic scope from the beginning, especially if you haven’t read it to completion, is that you can invoke a pretense of newness – you can imagine what it was like, reading it for the first time in 1977, not knowing what the years ahead would hold for either Cerebus or its creator.

For many, perhaps most readers, the revelation of Cerebus‘ brilliance came first, and Sim’s crazypants gender revelations second. Those of us for whom it went the other way round had a very different experience. I’ve had disagreements with both Heidi MacDonald and Gail Simone over the utility of engaging Dave Sim about gender issues – I think there is none — but then, I belong that second group; I’ve always lived in a world where David Sim was a Genius, BUT.

For me, that means there is a different sort of magic in reading these early issues, particularly the introductory letters from his publisher and then-girlfriend (and later ex-wife), Deni Loubert. With a little bit of myopia and squinting, I’m able to imagine what it was like to simply see him as a tremendous and beloved creator, with no sad exceptions appended. It’s almost like a window into an alternate universe – a wonderful Elseworlds story, an issue of What If… Dave Sim Was Not Looneytunes When It Comes to Ladies?

But ultimately, that’s too limited a view; the decision to include extra materials in our analysis meant that the world outside the text of Cerebus would inevitably play a role, just as it no doubt played a role in Sim’s creative process.

Sim’s own introductory preface in this issue (from the 1981 reprint collection Swords of Cerebus vol. 1) delves into the complications of playing so many different roles on the book as Writer, Penciller, Inker, and Letterer, and describes their interplay as a conversation between split personalities, as though each were a separate being. He describes a compromise they came to here, agreeing to limit the “ha-ha” humor to the last half of the issue, and draw “twelve pages of Cerebus and rocks” rather than the complex cityscapes of the previous issue.

Spare and windblown, with page length vertical panels slicing the desert into strips, the first page lives up to that promise of simplicity. Maybe it’s the negative space – the sudden absence of background detail – but the contrast between Cerebus, The Funny Animal and the brutish Barry Windsor-Smith-style barbarians is suddenly apparent to me in a way it wasn’t before. Which is to say, I’m finally starting to get the joke!

The blow-by-blow action scenes return, notably one where Cerebus must face an enormous brute named Klog while they each grip opposite ends of a short cloth between their teeth. The battle takes a turn for both Tekken and Naruto as Cerebus unleashes the Dreaded Earth-Pig Snout Punch! Is that like his Hadouken? I can only hope against hope that special attacks become a recurring theme.

Cerebus then falls through one of the mysterious holes in the ground that so frequently pepper the landscape of sword and sorcery tales, which inevitably leads to a treasure cavern. Greed, we learn once again, is a powerful if not primary motivator for Cerebus, and one that can blind him in ways that even magic cannot. When he finds what he believes is the Eye of Terim, a mystical object of incredible value, he grabs it without a moment’s thought about the potential for curses, ensorcellment, and dreaded monkey’s paw prices that frequently accompany mystical objects of incredible value.

I don’t know if it’s fair to begin the gender analysis quite yet – if I were feigning ignorance of what lies beyond this issue, I probably wouldn’t – but it’s interesting to note that the villain Cerebus faces here is a succubus, a demon who takes the form of a beautiful woman and seduces men in order to steal their energy and souls.

This succubus is quickly revealed thanks to Cerebus’ magical resistance, and it is worth noting that the appearance of the succubus’s true form extinguishes the beautiful light of the Eye: “gone, too, is the illusion of purity and beauty! In it’s [sic] place all that remains is mind-numbing, spine-chilling… REALITY.” Interesting words from a man who would later posit that men are creative lights, and the women the soul-sucking voids that drain them.

According to the narrator, Cerebus is the first person in centuries to see through the spell and perceive the true nature of the succubus, allowing him to break free, “else he might be languishing now, in that gloomy cavern with the other trapped souls.”

There are some fairly transparent metaphors to be made about Cerebus and his long sword escaping the deep, dark cavern of the soul-devouring female demon, Sim’s renunciation of relationships with women in favor of abstinence, and Cerebus’ closing declaration that he intends to spend the rest of the night drinking and fighting and engaging in similarly manly bachelor pursuits as the bleached skeleton of a less lucky man looms in the foreground, but they are low-hanging — if delicious — fruit, and so I won’t dwell on it further.

Again, it is entirely possible that Sim picked a random mythological creature out of his monster-of-the-issue sorting hat without intending any deeper meaning (or fully understanding the nature of the succubus), but it’s also a little too coincidental to pass without, you know, just sayin’. 

Next issue: Red Sonja stand-in RED SOPHIA!