A tempting and rotund target presents itself: Leigh on #3

Cerebus #3
April-May 1978


I gotta say, the legendary vixen Red Sophia looks pretty… mannish on the cover. Something’s off with the anatomy there.

Unusually, #3 opens with a Silver-Age-style in medias res splash page (”Superman! Help!” “Gosh, I’d love to help Jimmy — but how I can I rescue him from that gorilla when I’ve been transformed… into an enormous super-banana!?“), which teases the reader with a glimpse of the story to come. Unlike many of those Silver Age stories, though, I think this scene actually does happen over the course of the story.

And, of course, the first line is Sophia begging for a shag, and Cerebus irritatedly swearing “Tarim’s Blood! Does this wench think of naught else?” Because sex is beneath him. Or something.

While I’m at it, the Terim/Tarim thing bothers me: “Tarim!” has been a swear-word in every issue so far, but issue #2 also featured the “Eye of Terim, the most precious of the five spheres of the gods.” It also mentioned “priests of Terim.” And yet Cerebus swore upon seeing it, “Tarim! What a prize!” So are they two different gods? Cerebus Wiki says: “As I recall, the two different spellings of Terim and Tarim were accidental at first, in the same way that I had trouble bearing in mind that Cerebus was supposed to refer to himself in the third person and would later cover for it by saying that he referred to himself as ‘I’ when he had been around the civilized areas too long. I was covering for not remembering how to spell Tarim by making it the masculine version of the deity’s name.”

That sounds about right. And I haven’t read far enough to know the details, but I know this gender and deity thing is going to be a huge focus of the series later on.

I’m not sure I’m ready to say much about the Cerebus-Sophia relationship. On a certain level, I feel like Dave’s whole approach here is so tired and cliché that I’m not sure what more can be said (an aggressive woman who scorns men but secretly wishes for a Real Man to come along and show her who’s daddy? I’ve gotten enough of those from Frank Miller comics alone to last a lifetime). For the moment, anyway, Dave seems to be thinking of her as just another idiot that Cerebus has to deal with — yet, since she’s the only female character so far, we as readers are almost obligated to extrapolate her to Womankind in general. Especially considering how fervently Dave would later work to emphasize gender as a central concern of his work.

I emphatically don’t want to create the impression that only female critics should be concerned with gender issues, but as I say, I’m not quite ready to wade in yet, and I know Laura has some good insights prepared on Sophia, so I’ll skip ahead to this winner:
issue-03-07-thuggYes, it’s Thugg the Unseemly. I love it. This is what high-fantasy tavern scenes are all about.

Also, he challenges Cerebus in the most perfect way: “I challenge thee, short grey pervert… …SO!” [TWAK as Cerebus is knocked out of his chair] Man, that “so!” is so Stan Lee.

Visually, Dave has his bad days just like anybody. The horribly off-model Sophia of these panels is probably the worst offender:

Drawn at the last minute, I’m guessing.

Obviously, the relationship between Cerebus and Sophia is problematic. Just reading the script aloud is a pretty cringe-inducing exercise. But I have to point this moment out in particular. There’s a point where they pitch a tent and eat dinner, and for the life of me I can’t decide whether this is intentional anatomical humor (it certainly looks like it, out of context):


Cheap shot, maybe, but I couldn’t help but see the uncanny similarity to this controversial 2003 B.C. strip:


Coincidences all around, then.

Elsewhere, Sim is already finding his footing. The comedic timing, physical comedy, and stock characters are crystallizing. As usual for the next 50 issues, Cerebus is a rock of sanity, intelligence, and competence in a world of people who lack these attributes. Cerebus is the Abbott and everyone else in the book plays Costello.


Ineffectual hitting (”wap! wap! wap! wap!”): Always funny. See?


All he has to do is stand there and let the guy’s own inferiority do him in. As David Fiore wrote about the succubus fight in #2, “he merely exists through it, overpowering the monster by virtue of his ontological necessity to the storyline!” Sometimes it’s powerful foes finding their powers mysteriously ineffective against Cerebus, and sometimes it’s lame foes finding their lameness actually becoming self-destructive when turned against Cerebus.

Later Sim will play with this formula and let Cerebus play Costello for a change, but not yet.

Postscript: looking back, I can’t get over how, well, Jewy Dave has made this guy. Cerebus is (like Sophia) disgusted by him ’cause he’s weak and effeminate and asthmatic — both Sophia and Cerebus call him a “fop”– and then he looks like Billy Crystal, or Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ:


A little unconscious Judenhass, Dave?

Of course, Jewish or not, he’s part of a long tradition of receding-hairline, probably-gay, old-fashioned-ideas-about-romance nerd laughingstocks that includes Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development. Just because it’s an easy target doesn’t mean it’s not funny.

14 Responses to “A tempting and rotund target presents itself: Leigh on #3”

  1. 1 Ampersand January 17, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    an aggressive woman who scorns men but secretly wishes for a Real Man to come along and show her who’s daddy?

    I think that Dave was attempting to satirize exactly this aspect of the Red Sonja character — if I recall correctly (and I might not, it’s been decades), he said as much in the text introduction of the first Swords of Cerebus collection.

  2. 2 CCBC January 18, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    This is a great project! I didn’t discover Cerebus until #16 or so, but by High Society, my wife and I were eagerly awaiting every issue. So now I get to re-discover the series. Great!

    But, Leigh, I think you are wrong about the “Jewy” business. And I’m not certain what it is about that particular bit of drawing that makes you see it that way. I suppose people internalize stereotypes differently…

  3. 3 Leigh Walton January 18, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Fair enough, CCBC. Thanks for the feedback — it’s not really a topic that gets discussed publicly a lot, is it? “So, what’s your personal stereotype of Jewish men?”

  4. 4 Alex Robinson January 19, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    CEREBUS was a huge influence on me and my work so I’ll be eagerly following your progress!

  5. 5 CCBC January 20, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Give me a little time — I think I can come up with a Dave Sim stereotype from Cerebus. (I just don’t remember exactly where. So I may have to skim 200 issues or so.) But otherwise: big nose, hunched posture, sidelocks, maybe accoutrements — skullcap, prayer shawl, mezuzah, phylacteries… But just being a balding punk? No. (Harvey Keitel does not look like a Jewish stereotype — how many Italians has the guy played for crying out loud — but Mel Brooks or Woody Allen? Maybe.) Robert Crumb did a bit long ago about the Marx Brothers representing different ethnic stereotypes — Groucho was the Jew, Chico the Mediterranean, Harpo the White Guy, “crazy, but with some kind of magic or other”. Of course Crumb, the Polish Catholic, was often taken for a Jew.

  6. 6 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 9:42 am

    As a jew I wonder about your outburst elsewhere in this blog about being supersensitive and the reading your blog here -just pointing out your hypocrisy: it doesn’t actually bother me in the slightest.
    So if I now finished off by saying I just wrote the above to “keep you on your toes” -would that mean I hate all none-jews? We are afterall the “chosen people”:)

  7. 7 Paul DeBenedetto January 21, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Actually, Keitel hardly ever plays an Italian.

    It’s funny with all that’s been made out of Sim’s viewpoints how I’ve never seen this as anything other than a Red Sonja homage/parody. You’d think this would be a big “A-HA!” moment when re-reading but it’s really sort of innocuous to me.

  8. 8 CCBC January 21, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Maybe I’m just over-impressed by Mean Streets, but I think of Keitel’s characters as Italian — except in The Piano. I seldom think of his characters as Jewish.

  9. 9 Leigh Walton January 21, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    I specifically said “he looks like Billy Crystal, or Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ,” so Keitel’s other roles aren’t really relevant. Here, use this picture if you prefer.

  10. 10 Linda S January 23, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Two points about the wimpy nancy-boy at the end of the comic. Dave told me he was attempting irony: This dude is built up as some big tough guy who was mean to the warrior woman, if she was tough, he had to be ten times tougher. He was trying to make the reader visualize a conan the barbarian type on steroids. The irony was that he was as far from what Dave intended the reader to perceive as possible. We were thinking tough, instead we got a wimpy jeff lynne clone. Irony: the opposite of what is suggested or implied. At that point in Cerebus Dave was trying for broad parody and he wasn’t entirely successful, which he admitted. He admitted that there was also a real T&A aspect to the issue also.

    Point two, Dave liked to slip little “inside jokes” into Cerebus; little jabs and digs at people he knew back in the day. A character might suddenly say something that our friend Harry said. Or a background character might look like one of his family members. or, or or, I can count several dozen of these in the early issues. It’s possible that the nancy-boy at the end was one of these little inside jokes. When the issue came out I thought he looked like that guy at the shoe store, or the guy behind the counter at the coffee shop. I know of several inside jokes directed at myself.

    And yes, ampersand’s memory is quite correct. That passage is in Swords of Cerebus.

  11. 11 Leigh Walton January 23, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Aaaand Oliver’s time with us comes to an end.

    Linda: yes, the nebbish at the this issue is clearly ironic (after all the buildup we hear about him from others). I just thought it was interesting, on top of that, that Dave’s visual shorthand for “weak puny little guy” included characteristics that I think of as Jewish. (of course, so will Julius, whom Dave obviously adores. I’m not seriously suggesting that he’s antisemitic.)

    Your point about “inside jokes” and references is helpful – though the nature of our project encourages us to think of Cerebus as a grandiose monolithic work of art (and Dave as a hermit inking away in an ivory tower), it’s important to remember that the early issues are essentially an amateur Ontario cartoonist drawing some funny books to entertain friends.

  12. 12 Jeff Tundis January 27, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    I don’t really get the “Jewy” thing either, but enough of that.

    I wanted to post this quote from Dave on the Sophia character in general as you try to put his perspective on women in context (don’t extrapolate on her womanhood too much – your assumptions don’t apply yet). This is rather old — from Swords Of Cerebus #3.

    “This was Red Sophia’s last appearance in Cerebus to date. There are a number of reasons for this. Kim Thompson’s comment on the “unhealthy origin” of the Marvel character sums up my feelings pretty well. I was initially attracted to the book by Frank Thorne’s work, having like Frank’s stuff from the time he was doing Korak and Son Of Tomahawk for DC. I heard a great deal about the Sonja Show that he did at conventions and was intrigued by the occasional photograph or write-up one would see in fanzines or on the letters pages. When I first read one of the books, I have to admit to an almost total sense of disgust at the concept behind it. The qualities of sado-masochism, rapist as hero and woman as willing rape victim screamed at me from every panel. I didn’t for a moment figure that some fourteen year-old boy was going to go out and defeat his girl-friend in battle for the privileges implied, but it seemed like something less than the ideal structure for an entertainment form.

    “Sophia was also intended as something of a tribute to Wendy Pini’s
    interpretation of the character in the aforementioned Sonja Show, and
    finding out that she didn’t like the character didn’t help matters.

    “If she does return again, I will have to re-think the concept
    completely to try and make her at least a little more sympathetic. A
    gargantuan task that makes me feel I would be better served coming up
    with a new character altogether” – Dave Sim (Swords Of Cerebus Volume 3: introduction to Merchant Of Unshib)

  1. 1 Laura on Cerebus #4: Shut your wordhole « Cerebus: A Diablog Trackback on January 31, 2009 at 9:02 am
  2. 2 Leigh’s follow-up on #8 « Cerebus: A Diablog Trackback on March 20, 2009 at 4:48 pm

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