Archive for March, 2009

Leigh’s follow-up on #8

Welcome back, Laura! It’s great to hear that you’re feeling at least semi-functional.

I just have a couple addenda I want to mention about #8 before moving on to issue #9. As Laura said earlier, we’ll occasionally both post on the same issue, if we find ourselves with enough to say.

I found the facial hair in this issue entertaining:

  • the coked-up prince and the idiot soldier at the end are clean-shaven.
  • the two Conniptin officers who actually know what’s going on are well-decked out, one with a hefty beard and the other sporting some truly impressive, near-VanBurenian sideburns.
  • Cerebus, of course, is furry all over. If facial hair is proportional to competence, this makes perfect sense.

I’ll thank you not to bring up the counterexample of old Harvey Keitel from issue 3. I have my theories, and I’ll not let facts get in the way!

I love this spread below — Sim is starting to think about the pacing and structure of his stories, and how he can use the strengths of the comics medium to support more adventurous forms. Immediately before this spread, Sim has been alternating between Cerebus’ feverish hallucinations (drawn with loopy, organic panelling and dark tones) and the Conniptins in the outside world discussing his fate (drawn with clean rectangular panels, full of white space). Now, he inserts a moment from the hallucination in between two external scenes, sprawling across two pages:

issue-08-04-spread

We’re never confused about which is which because each setting has its own distinctive visual flavor.

It’s similar to what Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins do throughout Watchmen, a visual crutch that enables Moore’s hypercompressed storytelling to succeed. Without the color cues of Gibbons and Higgins, the relentless nine-panel grid would dissolve into a blur, and the rush of rapid changes would simply overwhelm.

watchmen-313Watchmen #3, p. 13, by Moore, Gibbons and Higgins (DC, Nov 1986)

I found this next sequence even more interesting:

issue-08-08-spread

Again, I love the thought of Sim taping up two art boards side-by-side, then grasping his pencil and slinging a bold curve across the entire spread. “This shall be my panel border!” It creates the effect of a strip peeled off of one layer of comics, revealing another layer beneath. For story purposes, it also clearly implies that Cerebus is in a different world than the other characters right now.

Let’s take a closer look at that right-hand page:

issue-08-09-killings

Even here, where the rectilinear panelling comes back, alternating panels are inked black to represent Cerebus’ feverish perception. Notice that his enemies are drawn as hallucinations in black panels, and as themselves in white panels. Incidentally, there’s also a pleasing symmetry created by the alternation of light and dark (again, found also in Watchmen), and the darkness creates a loose inverted triangle on the page.

Lastly, I wanted to continue my occasional practice of pointing out thematic echoes in other works. In this case, the “character, driven by illness/madness, hallucinates that everyone in sight is a version of some other character he hates” scenario is used memorably in Frank Miller’s Daredevil #169:

daredevil-169-optimizedDaredevil #169 p. 2-3 by Miller, Janson, et al (Marvel, Mar 1981)

Again, Dave Sim didn’t invent this idea, but it’s a fun similarity — and makes me wonder how influential Sim was on other comic creators, and how soon that influence began to exert itself.

Also, isn’t it interesting how willing Cerebus is to kill “Elrod” and “Red Sophia”?

Cerebus #8: A liberating effect

Cerebus #8: “Day of the Earth-Pig!”

February 1979 – March 1979

First, a mea culpa for my extended absence, and an explanation: Despite no longer being in high school, I managed to get mono. It put me on the floor for the last month with a 104 degree fever and at one point I threw up all over Walgreens, and it was bad. I’m still pretty sick, but I can at least connect words in meaningful and grammatical ways again, so I’m back.

issue-08-00_coverThis issue begins with Cerebus reliving his escape from the spider-pit of the last issue, except that the situation is somehow “familiar, thought subtlely different.” That screams dream sequence, and it is! It’s also the second issue in a row that connects directly to the one before it, which is a big step towards a narrative that actually builds on itself instead of hitting the reset button at the end of every story!

In his introduction, Sim says that the difference is much more significant than that — that between #7 and #8 he experienced an artistic shift so profound that when he looks at this issue he can “almost see the pages sighing with relief as I thumb through it.” I’m not sure I see such a dramatic change between #7 and #8, but that doesn’t mean Sim didn’t experience an internal revelation, something that is only starting to make its way onto the page.

Cerebus started as a Barry Windsor-Smith parody with a funny animal interposed in the middle of it, which is a fun idea with a very limited range, especially if you happen to be enormously talented and destined for much greater things than imitating somebody else:

“No longer restricted to seeing the world through Barry Smith-coloured glasses, I started seeing each panel as a link in a chain. My priority was no longer to copy Smith’s pen-lines, but to use each drawing as a connecting fragment. It was like a dormant time-sense had leaped into my head from nowhere. It had been there all along, of course, but it had been overruled most times by the part of me that was determined to be Barry Smith.”

issue-08-02-layoutIt is a scary leap to take at first, from mimicking someone else’s work to making something personal and original, particularly when you are still just Some Guy and no one is attaching “critically-acclaimed” to the front of your name, and Sim feels the fear. He talks about the curved, distended panels in this issue as  Cerebus hallucinates his way through fever dreams, and the more even ambitious paneling ideas that Sim had but “chickened out” on executing – at least till issue #20, when he finally found the confidence to let loose.

Watching Sim struggle with his insecurities is kind of fascinating, and also heartening – the idea that even great artists begin in uncertainty, that you have to earn your way to greatness not just with talent and hard work but also the personal bravery required to lay it all on the table without holding anything back, with no guarantee that people won’t see everything you have to offer and still laugh you off the stage.  It is a terrifying, but critically important leap.  “Doing something you don’t have the guts to do really has a liberating effect,” according to Sim.

Meanwhile, back in the story: Cerebus has been picked up in his fever-addled state by the Conniptins, a conquering army ruled by an effete cocaine-addicted princeling who is roughly as in touch with reality as, say, the late 18th century French monarchy. Which is to say that he has delusions of godhood and infallibility and control over vast armies of men despite barely being able to dress himself, and so it is only a matter of time before the lives of everyone he commands are forfeit.

One of the prince’s military advisers, Captain Turl, is all too aware of this, and actively looking for a way to overthrow him.  So when they find Cerebus frothing on the road, Turl immediately recognizes the innate valor of the earth-pig, rather than just viewing him as a rabid beast. Frankly, I don’t know why. If you came across a gorilla in a berserker rage swinging a sword around very capably and foaming at the mouth, I’m pretty sure priority one would be shooting it dead, not waxing poetic about proper respect for its noble warrior spirit.

So here’s the brilliant plan that Turl concocts to overthrow the prince: Although he has never seen Cerebus speak, or any other indication of human-level intelligence, he thinks the best course of action is to wait until the extraordinarily strong, violent, visibly crazy animal regains consciousness, give it a sword and tell it (in words!) that its illness is all fault of those dudes over there, send it to kill them, then tell everyone exaggerated stories of its murderous aptitude and prop it up AS THEIR NEW LEADER.

And the plan succeeds! Mostly because Cerebus is in fact a high-functioning warrior with exceptional fighting skills. We, the audience, are not surprised, because we have been beaten over and over and OVER with the information that Cerebus is special, but I don’t know how the characters just now joining our story deduce this at a glance. Maybe when he’s off-panel he belches rainbows and poops butterflies and his every glance is like getting punched by pure sunshine, but I don’t get why people act like they’ve seen Jesus in a tortilla every time he enters a room.

issue-08-21-ponderSo the Conniptins offer him the role of military leader, and after some hijinks and initial misgivings, Cerebus is persuaded by promise of wealth and power to accept, despite violently rejecting a very similar proposal from the Pigts just a few issues earlier. Although the Conniptins don’t specifically want to worship Cerebus – and they do make some death threats – I would argue that what’s really different here isn’t the people who are looking for a leader, but Cerebus himself.

In the closing lines of the last issue, Cerebus seemed as ready for a fundamental change as Sim probably was: “[Cerebus] is tired and sore and broke! Mayhap it is time to settle in one place… Anything is better than his present hand-to-mouth existence. There just isn’t any reward in it.”

True to form, Cerebus does try to slip away the night before the first Conniptin battle under his command, as his “instinct demands that he escape from any prison.” But after living for so long like a lone wolf with no idea where his next meal or job or place to sleep would come from, what makes stability so much more of a prison than poverty? And so Cerebus thinks of warm food and warm beds and the regular comforts of a life with a little more continuity, and he returns to the camp to see if he can find a new way of living.

Meta-post: she’s still sick

issue-02-03-dead-warrior

Everybody send get-well wishes to Laura! Just yesterday I saw her huddled in a blanket with soup and vitamins and pizza, still plague-ridden, but nevertheless poring over the Cerebus phonebook! So there’ll be more as soon as we can manage, rest assured.

Meta-post: I’m so sick

I’m trying hard to get up the next post before Saturday, but I’ve been sick non-stop for the last three weeks, and am currently rocking a fever of 104.

I’ll do my best.