Archive for March 19th, 2009

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.