Archive for February 13th, 2009

He has seen enough of religious fanaticism: Leigh on #5

Cerebus #5
August 1978
issue-05-cover
For a cover with about three colors on it, this is pretty impressive.

And “Bran Mak Mufin”! The referential humor rolls on! Pity us poor youthful Cerebloggers, who must check Wikipedia to confirm that yes, the Egg McMuffin was invented in 1972, so that is indeed what Dave is referring to. I wouldn’t have gotten the other half — Robert E. Howard’s character Bran Mak Morn — without electronic help at all.

Deni’s intro note is cute: “…there are times, for Cerebus, that being an aardvark can mean more than just looking funny. If that sounds like a lead into the story, you bet your booties it is. So read on…” As Top Shelf 2.0 editor, I sympathize with the challenge of writing something brief and attention-getting without giving the story away — and there are plenty of times when I can’t manage much better than Deni does here.

issue-05-02-helmet

Cerebus begins the issue wearing a helmet that makes him look like an extra from Beetle Bailey. It fortunately disappears after page two.

And we’re still firmly in “barbarian region of the month” territory, here as Cerebus leaves Serrea and “drifts west into the Red Marches where he enters the employ of Turan Genn, a mercenary captain!” …If you say so, man. It’s like the technobabble on Star Trek. Thank God he was including Michael Loubert’s map in the back of each issue.

Also, he’s apparently on a “border patrol”… a border patrol of one. Not exactly airtight security, but I guess if your mercenary captain is desperate enough to hire an aardvark, you’ve probably got a staffing shortage already.

The central joke of the first half is that aardvark fur smells bad when it gets wet (”the plains dwellers must be burning their ceremonial skunks again…” “the smell of a thousand dung worms mating in the noon sun…”). As a running joke, it’s actually pretty funny, especially from what I remember of the High Society issues where it comes up in more highbrow circumstances, but it’s not funny enough to sustain the six or eight pages that focus on it here. And the visual gag of Cerebus swatting a fly and thereby — what, exposing his armpit? waving air at the guy? — is clumsy and doesn’t work:

issue-05-06-gesture

Fortunately, these guys have funny names.

  • “Partha Qua Non” is I guess Dave’s hybrid of two arbitrary Greco-Roman terms, Parthenon and sine qua non.
  • “Cromag Macs Milc” would appear to be a hybrid of Cro-Magnon and 1970s Canadian convenience store chain Mac’s Milk.
  • “Fret Mac Mury” would be actor Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity and My Three Sons.

Yes, I had to look up a couple of those. At least I was a Classics major.

A new installment of “jokes that probably aren’t as funny as I think” arrives with this sequence, which looks a little like a butt-groping joke but is probably just Cerebus freaking out that there’s a guy behind him. (But then why the startled eyes in panel 2?):

issue-05-04-grope

I found this page pretty out-of-character… and surprisingly touching, actually (click to embiggen):

issue-05-07-sad

If this were any other book, how sad would this be? Cerebus smells so bad that he can’t even walk beside the others — and he knows it, and he can’t help it, and he volunteers to get far enough away that they can stand it (although he can never escape it himself). And look at his pathetic little Charlie Brown eyes!

issue-05-07-sad-closeupcharlie-brown

charlie-brown-rain

You’re a good man, Charliebus. Maybe next time she’ll let you kick the football.

issue-05-15

After years of disappointment reading comics whose covers promise wacky scenes that never actually occur within, I’m positively delighted to see the scene from the cover reproduced on the page above, from slightly different angles. In fact, the cover ends up being a hybrid of visual elements from several panels on this page.

‘Am I the redeemer?’ He decides he is not.” Well, that was easy. Existential crisis averted!

But seriously, I agree with Laura that second half of this issue is absolutely fascinating. Cerebus considers, then rejects, the idea of

  1. becoming a religious leader and
  2. manipulating a nation of gullible humans to do his bidding while
  3. acquiring huge amounts of military/political power and wealth.

Isn’t that, like, precisely the plot of the next 100 issues of Cerebus?

What makes this choice unacceptable? Sim frames it as a Faustian bargain that would require Cerebus to surrender some fundamental truth about himself. He would have to “acknowledge a kinship to the Pigt god … Mayhap there is a kinship! Mayhap Cerebus is just one of the Pigt race…” And that’s what seems to decide it. “Cerebus will not be a Pigt. He will acknowledge no kinship with the soft grey travesty before him… Cerebus is unique! He is the earth-pig born!”

This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It seems to me that the position offered — an aardvark god — is a pretty unique thing to be. They’re not expecting him to join their cult, they expect him to rule it — and doesn’t Cerebus like ruling? I would understand if he were reluctant to ally himself with these idiots just because then he’d have to be around them all day and they’re annoying, but I don’t really buy this notion that the choice is between being “unique” and being “just one of the Pigt race.” Maybe I’m operating with a different understanding of “race” than Dave is, but I don’t see any possibility of him becoming one of them.

What really seems to be at work, underneath Cerebus’ stated reasoning, is his desire to define his own identity, rather than stepping into a predefined identity created by others. The old “no, Dad, I won’t take over the family business, I’m going to art school” thing.

There’s also a hint of fear of blasphemy: Cerebus acknowledges Tarim and Ashtoth as genuine gods who “[kill] without reason or apology,” suggesting that godhood is serious business and not something to be mocked.

The idol-destroying scene is nicely imagined — the relic appears invulnerable from a distance but is actually “composed of the flimsiest material,” preserved for a thousand years only because the church forbade “even the most casual touch.” As Laura suggested, it’s a nice concrete (or, uh, clay) metaphor for a more abstract process that often happens with religion. Craig Thompson’s Blankets visualizes it thus:

blankets_550-crumbling

Lastly, I’m glad Laura caught the note of defensiveness from Dave’s Swords retrospective: “So you didn’t get it? So who said you were supposed to?” I suspect that’s an aspect of Cerebus that is totally invisible to us latter-day readers: the particulars may be a bit problematic for me, but the theme comes across clearly. Was it really still bizarre to encounter any level of sophistication in a 1978 comic book?

But then, to be fair, the ending comes after four-and-a-half issues of barbarian silliness. Even if readers were comfortable with the idea of serious comic books, Cerebus hadn’t yet established itself as one of them. Again, easy for us to take for granted.

Further reading: similar “character discovers ancient religious sculpture of himself which long predates his own existence” stories occur in Orson Scott Card’s 1995 novel Earthfall and Joss Whedon’s recent Astonishing X-Men: Unstoppable. I’m sure there are dozens of others.