Archive for February 27th, 2009

“He neither knows nor cares”: Leigh on #7

Cerebus #7: “Black Sun Rising”
Dec 1978 / Jan 1979

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That’s the goofiest cover so far, in a series that’s included several goofy covers. No mistaking the tone of this issue, that’s for sure. The yellow color scheme is especially striking.

One gets the sense that this issue is overly goofy to compensate for the sappy plot of issue 6. In fact there’s a teaser page for it on the inside back cover of issue 6, “NEXT: The RETURN I say the RETURN of ELROD.” It reminds me of the Achewood strip where (spoiler warning) Roast Beef and Molly get engaged after weeks of anticipation, and when it finally happens, the alt text says “TOMORROW – Lyle pukes so hard it makes a football go three feet.” And then, sure enough, he does.

Maybe the newly-married Dave feels like he has to prove he’s still got it. What is it about marriage that makes hip young comic writers so anxious about their masculinity/irony/fanbase?

While we’re on the cover, take a second look and notice it’s not by Dave Sim — it’s by Frank Thorne, artist of Red Sonja, and both verbal and visual basis for Red Sophia’s wizard father Henrot. I wonder how many other guest cover artists we’ll see. Not many, I suspect.

Sim (in 1981’s Swords) has described this issue as a watershed moment for his artistic development, “my first radical departure from my intention to be a major Barry Smith sequel.” He used a shading technique on the first page that Smith wouldn’t have used, and “suddenly I was free. Why — I bet I could do anything I wanted!”

And thank God. Dave’s visual experimentation is one of the great joys of Cerebus, and it’s about time that kicked into high gear. It’s also quite touching to read Dave’s first-person account of what that moment of liberation felt like. So let’s look at that first page:

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Visually striking, to be sure, but not really for the reasons Dave suggests. In fact, the shaded area under the spider’s right mandible looks oddly unfinished. What impresses me most, aside from the overall composition (gotta love how the white lines direct our eyes toward the hero, while his gaze confronts the monster), is the title lettering. “BLACK SUN RISING!” contains an actual black sun rising within it, a fact I missed the first couple times. Something about the arc of the sun complements the shape of the spider’s head, as well as the arc of the web that lies behind the spider. That same arc kind of bends around and joins the spider’s leg, effectively visually trapping Cerebus.

It’s another Silver Age Splash Page, previewing a visually exciting scene to come with zero context. On to page 2, and a completely different scene!

Wait a minute… “Temple of the Black Sun … and the Black Sun Treasure contained therein!” This is a sequel to last issue! I’m actually somewhat surprised. It doesn’t just refer to something mentioned last issue, it’s actually picking up a significant plot thread that was left open and continuing it. I think that’s a first.

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I do love the running joke that Cerebus rides a horse by bouncing up and down on its back, so every time we see him on horseback, he’s floating in midair — just as on the first page of issue 1. He’s even doing it in silhouette, in this lovely minimalist panel:

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Meanwhile, this one doesn’t work as well for me:

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It’s supposed to be Cerebus dismounting from the horse, but took a while to decode.

“The air is rich with the smell of sorcery” — this is an interesting idea, that magic has a smell. Dave used this idea in the short story “Passage,” drawn in 1978 to go between issues #3-4, and published in Cerebus the Newsletter #2.

Aaand here comes Elrod, continuing to pay tribute to old WB cartoons with his opening song (”I’m here! I’m here! Let the bells ring out and the banners fly– feast your eyes on me! It’s too good to be true, but – I’mHereI-I’M HERE!“), which apparently dates back to 1948’s A-Lad-In His Lamp, featuring Jim Backus as the Genie. The song does seem to be a minor meme among folks of a certain generation, though after watching the scene I can’t tell you why. It doesn’t strike me as catchy or funny.

Apricot brandy makes its second appearance, just one issue after the memorable scene with Jaka’s navel. Apparently it’s one of the ingredients of a Black Sun Cocktail.

Yikes, Dave wasn’t kidding when he said he was experiementing with the art here. In tonight’s panel, the part of Cerebus will be played by Ziggy.

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On to the action! For this is at heart an action story, a full-on Scooby Doo / Benny Hill chase scene full of mistaken identities, disguises, cultists, and maze-like temples.

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We’re introduced to the saggy-sacked Mit the Feeble (click above to embiggen), who makes me uncomfortable just looking at him. I’m not quite sure what my objection is. I get that Mit’s costume here is supposed to be a poor imitation of Cerebus, cobbled together from vague descriptions in centuries-old religious texts. But are there… 3 pairs of eye-holes (left side, front, and right side)? And what’s up with that smiley-face thing? Is that a corruption of Cerebus’ snout-end? Or his eyes? Sim didn’t wait long (after introducing his talking aardvark character) before introducing takeoffs on that concept, ideas that require his audience to think of “Cerebus the warrior aardvark” as the normal one, the template.

Elrod, of course, has thought Cerebus to be a kid in a bunny suit since day one, so he naturally confuses Mit for Cerebus. Yet I actually think I would have preferred if it were a bunny suit, or something along those lines, rather than a creepy mutated Cerebus costume. That would make Elrod’s conflation of the two more absurd and funnier, rather than eerily appropriate.

Hang on… okay, it’s much less creepy if I think of that circle thing as the costume’s eyes. So I’ll calm down about that aspect. This is like the fifth time I’ve read the issue, though. (I guess the unnerving part is the way Sim keeps drawing Mit’s eyes through the eye-holes in the costume. Does anyone else find that creepy? Or do I just have issues with fursuits stemming from my childhood trauma at Disney World?)

There are a couple instances of creative panelling. Sim eliminates some of the gutters, for no clear reason that I can see — why does this first transition need only a black line, while the next two get full gutters?

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This is a cute trick — Mit’s hand grabs the side of the panel as he passes through a doorway:

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He’s also gazing down from a rocky outcropping in a way that reminds me of Two-Edge in Wendy Pini’s ElfQuest… although the issue in question wouldn’t come out until 1984.

This is also well done:

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Elrod says “y’all” at least twice when he’s addressing a single person, which is intensely irritating to me and anyone else who grew up where they actually say “y’all.” Writers tend to think “y’all” is just the dumb Southern way of saying “you,” I guess, but I promise you, it’s plural. Using it as a singular pronoun is just inaccurate.

On a less regional but still pedantic note, Cerebus uses some uncharacteristic pronouns at several points in this issue, calling himself “I” and so forth instead of “Cerebus.” As I think we mentioned earlier, Dave has admitted that this was a mistake “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.”

One more panelling note: this segment works, with Cerebus swallowed in the blackness of the pit, and therefore Dave depriving the page even the slight lightening that gutters would provide:

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But I wish he’d been able to do that for the whole page — the super-bright chiaroscuro panels of the bottom half end up blunting the effect. I know a more confident attempt at this is coming in issue #20’s “Mind Game.”

There’s some kind of plot stuff going on here at the end, with the pit and the spider and the dark ritual, which somehow goes wrong because Cerebus lacks a soul? Again? But Cerebus emerges pretty much unharmed and walks off, so I’m disinclined to worry too much about it. I’m more interested in the suggestion that Cerebus is about to turn over a new leaf:

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“Mayhap it is time to settle in one place,” indeed.*

*Incidentally, I like the idea that Dave could hint at future plot directions like this, floating them as trial balloons, and then see how the fans responded. He hasn’t necessarily committed to settling Cerebus down, but he’s raised the possibility, and if letters pour in saying “yes! keep him in one place!” he may pursue the idea.