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!

37 Responses to “The bleached skeleton of a less lucky man: Laura on Cerebus #2”


  1. 1 Kenny January 14, 2009 at 7:02 am

    I dunno. I’m no Sim apologist, but I think in these early issues, trying to find the anti-women opinions he developed is reaching a bit. There’s lots of mythological monsters who took the guise of women.

    People grow and change. A lot of times, experiences that happen to them change their opinions over time. Once again, I’m not trying to apologize, but I’ve often wondered if Sim’s divorce caused him so much pain, he lashed out by forming very questionable opinions. I’m not saying Sim was any peach to be married to, but even *if* he was a monster for a husband, he can still feel pain from breaking up.

    Early on in the Cerebus comics, I always got the feeling he had about the same opinion of women most young guys have – we love ‘em, but they infuriate us sometimes. It never felt like me that he went off the deep end until his divorce.

  2. 2 David Fiore January 14, 2009 at 7:07 am

    great stuff!

    I agree that it’s impossible not to think about the implications of the succubus

    and I completely understand those What If? feelings generated by these early issues (and the sense of a close partnership conveyed by Loubert’s intros)… I actually started reading Cerebus just after the big divorce (when the lettercols were already beginning to send up gender-troubled smoke signals–many of them feature letter after letter from disgruntled guys complaining about the women in their lives–coupled with Sim’s less-than-sensitive amens)… and I genuinely believe that the Cerebus Bi-Weekly reprints helped to keep me from losing faith in the main storyline (until the insane stuff in the mid-90s drove me away for good… after issue #300 came out, I downloaded the whole thing and read it…)

    anyway–as to whether the succubus was random or not–like almost everything else in Cerebus, I think it was both random and, eventually, absolutely necessary… More than almost any other work I know–this book contains multitudes–and anything (including, as it turns out, this succubus) could prove to be the primary interpretive key…

    I like to think of the entire series as one of the most interesting postmodern autobiographies ever written–and one of the most fascinating things about the narrative’s progress is the way that it never deviates or recants anything, resolutely sticking to a plan devised in the late 1970s while working to undermine everything the young Dave Sim appears to have held dear… It’s fascinating (I would have written a dissertation on it if the stuff in “Going Home” didn’t cause me to break down every time I think of it!)

  3. 3 BradyDale January 14, 2009 at 8:10 am

    I don’t think Sim really started hating women until the divorce. That’s what a lot of his writings seem to suggest. who knows, though? And it was probably all stewing all along.

    Special attacks: Not to spoil anything for you, but it’s not going to be long before you wonder if Cerebus will ever get into a throwdown ever again. Fighting just isn’t a very big part of the story. I totally missed it, but Sim lost interest.

  4. 4 Paul DeBenedetto January 14, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Interesting; looking back I’d always thought it was more of a gradual change, as if the sheer task of telling this story drove him nutty and so he just started hating his wife and having these whacked out views on women. Looking here though you may have a point; this may have been something that was there all along which didn’t manifest until later.

    Though perhaps, as Kenny stated above, it is just a matter of there being a lot of mythical monsters based off of women. Maybe working in the sword and sorcery realm for so long caused Sim to be influenced by it’s history in such a way that the creators of said fem-monsters must have felt; a sort of contempt for the “lesser” sex.

    OR maybe Sim chose a genre where writing women as evil monsters was more acceptable! Now THERE’S a reach.

  5. 5 David Fiore January 14, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I think that’s a good point Paul!

    But it’s not just the genre–it’s the medium… As we all know, at least until very very recently, pretty much the entire comics/x subculture (with the wondrous exception of things like riot grrrl zine culture) is a miasma of essentialist gender thought… not that gender essentialism leads necessarily to misogyny–but you can’t have the latter without the former, obviously

    and those mid-to-late 80s lettercols demonstrate that once Sim’s bitterness took an ontological turn, the support group was in place to fan the flames of his delusion

    Dave

  6. 6 Jeremy January 14, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Laura,

    I think it’s great to see so much commentary on Cerebus/Dave Sim’s work recently and I admire what you two are doing, especially you Laura as an apparently intelligent woman who has some inkling of certain ideas that will come up. Not just sticking your head in the sand and pretending this work does not exist. I do wonder though as you link to excerpts if you’ve read those and if you have then I assume they would be out of context as you are reading Cerebus for the first time, correct?
    I’m asking because I want to understand better where you’re coming from.

    Jeremy

  7. 7 Greg S. January 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Laura,

    I forget where it is documented, but Sim has stated within the last few years that at the time he had no idea about the female aspect of a succubus. At the time, apparently, he just thought of it as a synonym for “demon”.

    -Greg

  8. 8 BradyDale January 15, 2009 at 9:13 am

    He might have also brought in the succubus because he wanted Cerebus to face a creature that you didn’t “fight” in the traditional sense, and that’s a good creature if that’s what you’re going for.

  9. 9 Oliver January 15, 2009 at 9:20 am

    That is a great point about the succubus vs Cerebus… I hadn’t thought of that -and yet it’s so obviously right there. Just coincedence? Heck of a coincedence in any case.
    On a related note I’m always surprised that from a relationship point of view not more females can totally relate having been in a relationship that they felt was a void (you know only this time the male being a void) -you figure it would be more universal. I guess not.

  10. 10 Paul DeBenedetto January 15, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Oliver, I don’t think anyone would argue that both males and females can both feel unfulfilled or unchallenged in a relationship; indeed, an incubus is the male counterpart to the succubus. However I think the specific use of the succubus in literature is generally meant to invoke certain feelings toward all women in general, not one’s male or female partner.

  11. 11 Oliver January 15, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Well, given how Dave didn’t invent the succubus -why do you suppose succubus is meant to invoke certain feelings of women in general, and the same doesn’t go for incubus? Asking out of genuine curisoty.

  12. 12 Paul DeBenedetto January 15, 2009 at 11:40 am

    I would think the origin of the succubus story had something to do with predominant chauvinist male feelings at the time of it’s creation, but that’s just speculation; a compulsory Google search of “succubus origin” brings up a lot of goth message boards and RPG sites. If anything it seems like the incubus was either an attempt to just create a new story based on the succubus, or to make the women victims look naive or “impure”. Perhaps a parable: “Don’t be a ’slut’, it will get you into trouble.” Again, who knows, but whatever the reason and whatever the origins the succubus seems to be the one that sticks. Because of this it has a certain connotation behind it. Not only that but there seems to be a predominate social acceptance of this point of view on some level: don’t get married, because women will spend all your money, they won’t let you hang out with your friends, they’ll even make you sell your old sports memorabilia! Clearly Sim didn’t invent or even popularize the succubus, but he certainly used it knowing the possible connotations people could infer from it.

    That being said it’s an interesting connection. I wonder if, while revisiting these issues, we see other early (possible) signs like this one?

  13. 13 Oliver January 15, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    I think it’s great that Laura pointed it out, but then again if you imagine that Dave wrote “Sex & the City” or “Mama Mia” or “Twilight” you’d find plenty that would offend (personally, I think women should be offended by those movies anyway:) Not saying there isn’t WWF and stuff that makes me gringe on behalf of my brothers… however “3 stooges” is genius), but it is a slipery slope… it’s like saying every female fatale and female man eater in fiction is part of a bigger conspiracy to hold the woman down, which is what you are doing.
    Issue #2 would probably not held any conatation for Laura or me if it wasn’t for what we knew what was to come -so your idea that we read that in itself and immediately thought this was a slam against all women I don’t think holds up. And have you watched the Lifetime channel???
    Anyway, seeing how you are speaking in terms of bigger issues of global history: it is kinda interesting that what we are actually talking about is not weak submissive women, but actually very powerful women -and it is interesting why as you say succubus sticks. Why doesn’t incubus stick if women feel oppressed by powerful men? Why Calvin and Hobbes have a club with a sign “no girls allowed”? Why there are no (?) men’s wedding magazines? Why standup comidians can still make jokes that equate marriage with death for men, or where women control the household, while we laugh knowingly. Not saying it’s not possible that you and I and Laura aren’t progressive and maybe we are the future of our genders, but we are certainly in the minority, maybe idealistic hypocrites even -which begs the question: maybe we’re wrong and things are the way they are supposed to be. All I know is when I look at marriages I see for the most part women controlling them -and what is even funnier (bear with me) Dave NOW advocates this traditional marriage! There are actually 3 (maybe more)Dave phases: “liberal Dave”, “f- everyone man is an island onto himself Dave” and then the current “traditional Dave”. It’ll be intersting how much sense we can make of all this as we follow this blog.

  14. 14 David Fiore January 15, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I’m sorry Oliver, but I don’t see anything progressive (in terms of gender), in what you are saying.

    and yes, there are very good reasons to interpret EVERY use of the succubus/femme fatale trope as part of a discourse (rather than a “conspiracy”) of patriarchal control. These may be “strong” women, but they are also always depicted as ROGUES–traitors to their gender–and, consequently, as “examples” of what happens to women when they attempt to act, rather than leaving the prerogative of agency to males…

    now–there are many instances in literature where artists (including male artists) have turned these tropes on their heads in the service of a progressive agenda (one of my favourites is Lewis Milestone/Barbara Stanwyck’s “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” made less than two years after Billy Wilder’s ultra-misogynist “Double Indemnity,” in which the femme fatale of the Wilder film is transplanted to a narrative context that aims to explain exactly how, in mid-20th century America, patriarchal systems worked to restrict the choices of even the most rebellious women…

    Dave Sim, to my knowledge, really never showed much of an inclination to do this, although he also didn’t seem particularly invested in pushing an “anti-feminist” agenda either, during his early years… Of course, issue #3’s Red Sophia, coming so quickly on the heels of the succubus, is actually quite damning!

    And as for retroactively imposing meaning upon texts, we have no choice but to do so–and Dave Sim himself turned this imperative into the primary engine of his opus!

  15. 15 Oliver January 15, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    David,
    I’ll have to rewatch “Double Indemnity”:)
    All strong women are intrepeted as rogues and traitors to their gender??? WTF.
    And what: I didn’t say anything progressive, I didn’t say I did, if you want me to I will (hey, I’ve never met a woman as feminist, equalist, as me -lipservice doesn’t count).
    A lot of overstatment on your part -screw caution, right:) You go, man.
    It’s ok… not like I don’t do it myself (though I’m not sure what I wrote that got you so riled up -read it again)-and good point about Red Sophia coming up, hey, I’m not against viewing it through the sphere of what is coming up, never said that… should make for an interesting blog!

  16. 16 Jeff R January 15, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Actually, Red Sophia pulls in the opposite direction…heavily so when you take into account the Swords introduction that it carries…it can even be read as ‘a male feminist’s take on Red Sonja’, from those stages of Dave’s live.

  17. 17 David Fiore January 16, 2009 at 8:54 am

    overstatement is my favourite thing!

    but I didn’t say that all strong female characters (in all narratives) are depicted as rogues–only the “femme fatale” variant (which is why I don’t think the trope can be claimed as politically progressive–unless the film is clearly attempting on the warpath against the way femmes fatales are normally employed–i.e. as in Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which I can’t recommend highly enough!)

  18. 18 David Fiore January 16, 2009 at 8:56 am

    ooh– I typed that one too quickly… “unless the film is clearly on the warpath” is what I meant… the “attempting” has no place in that sentence!

  19. 19 Oliver January 16, 2009 at 11:17 am

    … i give: you win.
    femme fatales are terrible:)

  20. 20 Laura Hudson January 16, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond — crazy week of deadlines trying to close the last issue of Comic Foundry.

    Jeremy: I have not read any of Cerebus beyond part of the first phonebook and some brief excerpts from later in the series. As part of my participation in the comics blogosphere, I inevitably became aware of the controversy surrounding some of Sim’s perspective on gender, and subsequently read much of the text from Reads and Tangent that is available online, as well as many of the discussions that took place amongst fans and professional. Having only seen the very beginning and then the apex of his more extreme ideas, I’m a bit fascinated with seeing how the two bridge together.

  21. 21 Laura Hudson January 16, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Also, while you two seemed to have hashed the succubus issue out, my thoughts: There are certainly negative archetypal notions of both genders that persist, e.g. woman as femme fatale, woman as virgin or whore, woman as financial/emotional leech, etc. Men, of course, have their own, and any time you employ those archetypes, as David mentions, you’re drawing from those particular wells of discourse. I don’t think an incubus is going to have the same gendered impact or symbolic value compared to a succubus simply because it’s not a dominant archetypal way that men are perceived.

  22. 22 Leigh Walton January 16, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I’m willing to take Dave at his word that the word “succubus” was used here without conscious connection to its traditional meaning. For an English-speaker, on a basic acoustic level, it sounds like a “thing that sucks” — i.e. attempts to pull out one’s essence or soul or whatever. So we can psychoanalyze this in terms of castration anxiety and the like, but I think any explicit gender connections fall into the “funny coincidence” zone rather than serious analysis. There’ll be plenty of that (possibly more than we can bear) later, surely?

    Also, I’m tempted to wonder how many of the commenters (myself included) are basing our knowledge of folk monsters off of role-playing game manuals?

  23. 23 Oliver January 17, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Laura, Paul, David,
    in regards to archtypes and succubus and how it relates to relationship voids… I think what is often overlooked is the term “pussy-whipped”… which is basically the atorcoius act of a woman crushing a man’s spirit, but no blame is put on her -rather the man to top it all off is rediculed for being weak… if anything a proper term should be found that desribes this and lays the blame at her feet. Some would say almost all men in marriages are pussy-whipped -it’s a rather popular saying:)Women often speak of domesticating their husbands.
    Many women pride themselves on subtlety -often it’s laughed how men aren’t… the ladies know how vicous you can be against each other in a quiet way, we’ve seen “Mean Girls”… techniques that are often hard to pinpoint, to put your finger on… archetypes are bad, but it can also be seen as merely an attempt to address something that is hard to explain in a accesible cartoonish comicbookey way -isn’t that what comics so often do with their superheroes: it’s merely a way to deal with issues in a artistic playful poetic abtract way… it’s not really about men in tights. Mr Sim has himself addressed the article in question that he was overreaching/overstating to make a point.
    But we are getting ahead of ourselves, but then Laura is insisting on this for better or worse -if anything Sim is probably pleased that the consistency and not always the contradictions are pointed out as his work is viewed as a whole:) But the danger is that Laura might be over-reaching to make a point: time will tell.

  24. 24 Laura Hudson January 17, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I don’t have a particular point to make about gender in Cerebus at this point in time except that, you know, it’s there.

  25. 25 Paul debenedetto January 17, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Agreed! There are both men and women in Cerebus!

  26. 26 Jeremy January 17, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Laura,

    I know you have your preconceptions, which is fine as you fully admit to them, but I’ve seen so many comments online over the years in regards to Dave Sim that are so flippant by people who have never even read his work that I just want to see an assessment of the work that isn’t overpowered by popular perception.
    I do understand that separating the man from the work in this case can be difficult and it should certainly all be a part of the discussion.
    Like you’ve stated your viewpoint differs from many women in the field and I’m just here to keep you on your toes.

  27. 27 Leigh Walton January 18, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Jeremy, I agree with your first paragraph — it’s one of the reasons we started this blog in the first place — but think again about the tone and implications of your last two sentences. Try to separate the man from his work… I know it’s difficult… a lot of women are unable to do it, but I think you have a good chance… with a little help from me!

    In order for this blog to have a chance of surviving, Laura and I are going to have a pretty low tolerance for sexist bullshit in the comment threads. Let’s all stay on our toes, okay?

  28. 28 Jeremy January 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Leigh,
    Would that include putting words in my mouth as well? You seem fully capable of sexist bullshit. It works both ways and making assumptions doesn’t help which is why I asked Laura about what she had read in the first place.

  29. 29 CCBC January 18, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Maybe this succubus/incubus thing is played out, but: Part of the problem with a succubus is that it is a desirable monster. The current mythic analogue would be a vampire, I think. The concept of a Demon Lover is well-known in folklore. In other words, both men and women fear they may fall prey to their own desires. The manner in which this fear is packaged may tell you something about the society that holds a specific myth (and I doubt the succubus of today’s Dungeon ‘n’ Dragons mythology has much to do with that of its ancient predecessors) but the force of the concept has to do with archetypal notions that are part of our (m&f) common humanity.

  30. 30 Laura Hudson January 19, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    I think a number of people are putting a lot more energy in responding to the things they anticipate I’m going to say, rather than to the things I’ve actually said. I have no problem with getting called on things — or kept on my toes, if you will — but doing so preemptively or based on assumptions about me being female rather than the ideas I’m expressing is just going to make this weird for everyone. I’m trying to approach Dave Sim’s work with as few preconceived notions as possible, and I think we can have much more productive and interesting discussions if more people try to do the same with me.

    Also, I have no idea why Leigh just got called sexist.

  31. 31 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 9:44 am

    “Also, I have no idea why Leigh just got called sexist.”
    Leigh’s outburst puzzled me and I have no idea why he called Jeremy sexist -Leigh made a lot of assumptions.

  32. 32 Jeremy January 20, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Okay, I appreciate that Oliver and Laura I was trying to point out that he made those assumptions based on the fact that I am a male and if I were female they would have been perceived differently.
    Let’s just leave it there for now as I don’t believe any of us have a desire to turn this into something silly.

    Jeremy

  33. 33 Laura Hudson January 20, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Wooooord.

  34. 35 Eric May 14, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I find it somewhat amusing and confusing that talk of Sim’s misogyny always motivates discussion, far more than discussion of plot line, artwork, the comics biz, satire, religion, and all the other myriad strands Cerebus dealt with throughout its run.

    That being said, I commend the writers of this blog for (so far, I have only read up to this entry) focusing on these other aspects of the comic, in addition to the historical circumstances of its creation. One critic noted that reading Cerebus in the phonebooks perhaps misses the spirit of Cerebus, and perhaps the point: that is, that reading Cerebus on a monthly basis was taking part in a cultural experience that, in the pre-twitter, pre-blog, pre-internet halcyon days of fandom (where discussion took place at comic book shops, through letters, or via fanzines, etc.), reading a comic book was a far more immediate social act that, for all its immediacy and accessibility, the world of internet blogs can never entirely replace.

    The phone books certainly give a reader no sense of that social aspect as it (mostly) omits the “surrounding” material of letters column, letters from the editor, news, the back-up comics that Sim so generously promoted, the convention news, the tours, and so on, and so on . . .


  1. 1 Bitch, please: Laura on Cerebus #3 « Cerebus: A Diablog Trackback on January 20, 2009 at 8:03 am
  2. 2 “Put a few kinks in their pseudopods”: Leigh on Cerebus #9 « Cerebus: A Diablog Trackback on April 3, 2009 at 12:14 pm

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