It’s true! In the words of the Protoss Dragoon, “I have returned.” Humblest apologies for the long radio silence. Since you last saw us humble Cerebloggers, Laura got a new job, I moved to a new apartment, Laura moved to a new house, and Dave Sim launched a new series. And the second issue of that series (Cerebus Archive), comes out today, it’s as good a time as any to leap back into the fray. So here we go!
“The Merchant & the Cockroach”
Interesting Publisher’s Note from Deni here, which I’ll excerpt for those of you following along in the phonebooks:
Issue number eleven has been a landmark issue for us. Reaction to Cerebus is really starting to flow in, as you can see by the expanded letters page. People at conventions are also starting to react to Cerebus with more familiarity… The art in this issue is a bit of a change for Dave. He spent more time and effort on pencils, layouts and inks than he has before, and in different directions. I feel that it shows, and that you’ll be seeing more of this kind of effort in future issues of Cerebus.
This feels funny in retrospect — surely Dave was already spending tons of time on the book? But as always, we have to keep fighting off the hindsight that makes Dave Sim synonymous with Cerebus. Maybe during the production of the previous issues, he didn’t dedicate every waking second to making comics. Who knows, maybe he actually had hobbies. On the other hand, apparently this is the issue after which he had a nervous breakdown and four-day psychiatric hospital stay (damn the timing! If I’d been one issue later that would almost be a decent excuse for our impromptu three-week ten-week hiatus from this blog). I’m pretty sure there was some LSD involved, and possibly some religious experiences as well, but apparently armchair psychology is tiring, so let’s quickly plow onward before we lose our nerve.
Issue #11 features the debut of The Cockroach, who (according to Dave’s 1981 intro from Swords) was inspired by conversations with Batman artist Marshall Rogers. Rogers’ conception of Batman — that “the Batman” is a personality distinct from Bruce Wayne, a voice that tells him to go fight crime, and indeed possibly a real dissociative identity — has proven deeply influential, anticipating the Batman stories of Frank Miller from the 80s and Darwyn Cooke’s underrated Batman: Ego from 2000, among many others. It’s crept into the Batman films too. I suppose Rogers and his collaborator Steve Englehart worked these ideas out during their Detective Comics run in 1977-1978, which would have ended not long before the production of this issue. Dave also identifies Jules Feiffer’s “Hostileman” strips from Playboy as the source of the Cockroach’s “hsss.”
Continuing through the Swords intro, more helpful self-analysis follows: in this issue Cerebus “runs his first scam of any great proportion, realizing that you can get anyone to do anything if you just push the right buttons. … It takes a very strong and secure personality to say no to Cerebus when he’s in top form.” I like this idea of Cerebus growing into himself, stumbling into talents he didn’t know he had. Of course, he was presented as a trickster in the very first issue, but here the spoils are on a different order of magnitude. We’ve gone from a pouch of gold to enough gold to buy a small country. Pretty soon the scams will involve actual ownership of countries.
I’m also curious to see how Cerebus evolves as both a trickster (supernatural, animal-like, itinerant, small, triumphant) and a pícaro (revealing the flaws of his society, disrupting the social order). Though his direct antecedents are apparently 20th-century figures like Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers, Cerebus seems to be part of a long tradition including Sun Wukong, Coyote, Anansi, Loki, Hermes, etc. These early issues are full of tonal shifts as Cerebus vacillates between trickster, straightforward hero, and hapless pawn, but only time will tell whether he’ll settle down into a single role.
In the visual category, issue 11 features the debut of a new type of screen-tone, which Dave experiments with and will shortly abandon. But for a brief moment we have a speckled gray pattern pop up here and there, during the night-time scenes with the Cockroach (notably, forming the shadow that falls on him during his first appearance in character):
It’s also great fun to see Sim play with the diagonal compositions and extreme layouts that come with rooftop skulking and nocturnal thuggery.
On narrative terms, I think this one works well. It’s nicely paced and structured, revolving entirely around Cerebus and the Roach, and that tight focus makes it feel clean and coherent. The Roach is a pretty over-the-top character, about on the scale of Elrod, so it makes sense to spend the whole issue on him rather than making him compete with another idea. I like how competent and witty he is in his merchant persona — he actually stands out as unusually sophisticated in his first scene — although Sim gradually drops hints that he is a little nuts (throwing out the lotus, explaining his quest, asking for wrinkle cream).
It even carries over from the previous issue, although all that buildup of the Black Lotus is rather amusingly deflated when the Bug literally chucks it out a window. The Black Lotus, by the way, is apparently another Conan reference; nerds of my generation may remember it as the most rare and valuable card from Magic: The Gathering.
The “condominiums” / “aluminum siding” bit is interesting — the humor in Cerebus has relied on modern references since the beginning, but this is a rare case where the anachronism is explicit and unjustifiable. Apparently once Cerebus is on a roll, this stuff just comes to him.
Two character bits to notice:
- “Cerebus is just going to walk away. What is going on is of no concern to Cerebus. Cerebus has his gold and Cerebus is not going to fall for any stupid tricks…” But then of course he has to investigate. Is it pure curiosity, or has he picked up on the possibility of getting more cash out of this guy? The latter would be believeable, but it seems that Sim is going for the former.
- After discovering the obscenely large gold stash, we get this delightful panel:
He has spent an entire hour just wallowing in this ocean of gold coins, Uncle Scrooge style. And there are no half-measures. He can’t bear the thought of even a single coin escaping him.
Yet by the story’s end, he’s at least two bags up on where he started. Not bad for a day’s work, if you ask me…