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.

6 Responses to “He has seen enough of religious fanaticism: Leigh on #5”


  1. 1 CCBC February 13, 2009 at 5:37 pm

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

    I dunno. Seems to me like Cerebus spends most of High Society not really certain why he’s running for office,and I think he shows ambivalence about the Pope thing as well. Maybe the basic plot is more like: Cerebus tries to figure out what his uniqueness is for.
    But it’s been a while since I read those 100 issues (I’m reading along with you guys because it’s more fun that way)so I could be wrong.

  2. 2 DerikB February 14, 2009 at 7:38 am

    I think it’s interesting that Cerebus here rejects what he basically ends up doing later (the Pigts even return). Yet much later Sim discusses Cerebus as a series of accepting then rejecting options about the world and how it works. Here Cerebus is rejecting before later accepting and then rejecting again…

    One thing I love about the series is how these single issues in the beginning later blossom into larger plotlines, recurring characters, and thematic relevance. That is obviously retrospective reworking, but Sim does it really well, a good hallmark of long term serialization, making new hay out of old stories.

  3. 3 Laura Hudson February 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    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.

    I think that’s a really good point, and something I didn’t entirely put my finger on during my post. Cerebus rejects the role the Pigts offer him not out of a desire to be unique, but out of a desire to be unique on his own terms. Clearly the perceptions of others matter here, but being perceived as special isn’t enough for him unless it reflects someting authentic. Not that Cerebus has necessarily sussed out a rock-solid sense of who he is, but he seems pretty certain about who he isn’t.

    Also, love the cross-referencing with Blankets, Earthfall, and Astonishing, btw.

  4. 4 Nicolas Papaconstantinou February 17, 2009 at 4:23 am

    These posts are fascinating reading thus far – great choice for a subject, and though I lost track of Cerebus later on, and need to go back and re-read them, it’s certainly a series that deserves scrutiny.

    My memory of the oncoming books is shaky, but I always thought that the reason Cerebus eventually allowed himself to become a religious figure and a leader was almost done out of resignation – I don’t recall him making a BID for power, so much as circumstances building up around him making it too easy a path to ignore – and a realisation that he couldn’t do a worse job than the people already in charge.

    I may be conflating and projecting here, mind.

    Certainly, I don’t remember the power ever sitting all that well with him, once he had it.

  5. 5 mantichore February 21, 2009 at 12:43 am

    “Cromag Macs Milc” would appear to be a hybrid of Cro-Magnon and 1970s Canadian convenience store chain Mac’s Milk.

    …and of course, there’s another R.E. Howard character called Cormac Mac Art.

    As for power, Cerebus *loves* it: he’s a nasty, brutish and short little egotist who, for a long time, sees power as the best route to gold gold gold. I’d say he ends up a prisoner of his own power.

  6. 6 Eric May 20, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Having just again re-read High Society and Church and State, I’d have to say that Cerebus never fully becomes accustomed to being either a religious leader or to having incredible amounts of wealth. If anything, he is made all the more aware of the hollowness of religious power and of wealth and spends the rest of the series having been humbled by this realization. I think perhaps the “Barbarian” Cerebus of the early issues was more one-dimensional characterization and much more “sure” of himself than the later Cerebus. But yes, you are correct that, given later events, Cerebus rejection of this temptation is certainly contradicted by later events.


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