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March 31, 2004

Comments

Jacob T. Levy

He really, really is.

Thd surprisingly odd thing (as opposed to all of the odd things I've come to expect) was this:

He simultaneously wants to insist on the unparalleled artistic achievement he has just completed, the direct comparability of Cerebus to Metamorphasis or War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, and to keep talking about Cerebus as if it were merely an argument. Great literature usually has moral or ethical lessons to draw from it, and sometimes social and political analysis too. But it's never merely an argument. It seems to be Sim, not his critics, who can't separate the evaluation of his creative accomplishment from the agreement or disagreement with his ideas.

Timothy Burke

Shameful confessions time, kids. I have not read Cereberus, despite being a long-time comics fan. Been a lot of blogging about it lately, though, so I'm thinking of trying to scare up the "good ones" that everyone is so breathless about. But that interview sure doesn't make one want to go out and take a look at it. What is especially stupid about Sim in that interview is that he's not even making an *argument* about things. It's pure paranoid Bobby-Fisher level "If you're not with me 100% you're a marxist-leftist totalitarian stupidhead who acts like a woman". I begin to wonder if having missed this bus, I'm really all that eager to try and hop on board.

Doug Muir

I won't repeat what I've said already about it being Very Sad.

But: apparently the actual comic part of Cerebus #300 is quite good. Cerebus dies -- um, that's not really a spoiler, but you might want to stop reading now -- he dies, in what apparently is an amazing sequence that goes on for seven pages, very slowly . If Andrew Rilstone's description is accurate, it's an astounding piece of visual storytelling: impressive in its own right, but also with several sly visual references to stuff that only long-term readers are likely to recognize.

And then Cerebus' life flashes before his eyes. I won't describe how Sim does this, but Rilstone points out that when he read it, his life passed before his eyes -- many of the tiny panels (painstakingly chosen and carefully clipped from the high points of the last 300 issues) brought back memories of what he, Rilstone the reader, had been doing when he read that particular issue. I can just imagine; I suspect it would work the same way for me.

That is really something. Think about it. Not only powerful visual storytelling, but it's also doing something that nobody else will ever be able to do without, well, writing a monthly comic book for 20+ years. And that readers won't be able to fully appreciate without having been along for the ride, keeping up with said comic book month after month. A completely unique moment.

And /then/ Sim gives us a two-page spread with, like, every single fun and interesting character who's ever appeared in Cerebus. Astoria. Lord Julius. Elrod (I guess he was real after all). The Roach. All of them, too, painstakingly rendered as we remember and love them.

And /then/...

...well, um, then he damns Cerebus to hell forever.

And then there are twenty pages of letters and Dave's responses to the letters.

And then there's a fold-out back cover, with a prayer that Dave Sim wrote himself. Which includes a renewal of his vow never to marry or "cohabitate with womankind".

Well. I'm gonna read it. Won't say I'm gonna buy it. But the comics shop guy has been very forgiving so far.

Oh, hell, I'll say it again: it is goddamn sad.


Doug M.

Carlos

I've said it before: Dave Sim, thesis fodder.

Just for the time series.

Bruce Baugh

Timothy, the thing about the early issues of Cerebus a bunch of us are talking about is this: it's work from 1978 through to the late '80s or early '90s (depending on where one draws the cut-off line). Sim's first big manifesto, in issue #168, was published in 1993. By anybody's reckoning, there's 5-10 years of work basically not marred by Sim's later collapse. There are some intimations of it from time to time, and it builds until one gets to the point of finding it enough, but honestly, he changed so much that it's very nearly like reading work by someone else.

I'm having a tough time thinking of suitable comparisons. David Horowitz, for degree of transformation in views, except that he's never been a brilliant artist (to put it mildly). T.S. Eliot, maybe.

Carlos

I'd think Pound would be a better comparison than Eliot. The lyricism, the crackpottery, the different narrative textures and voices... in comparison, Eliot was just a larval High Anglican with a thing for Laforgue. Does anyone know whether Sim is into Social Credit?

Of course, Pound had much better luck with women than Sim. (If 'luck' is the right word. Not thinking that women are the fount and origin of all human misery in addition to being the Void incarnate is a very low bar.)

C.

jholbo

Tim, one thing that makes Cerebus hard to pick up - I mean besides the 'it's really long' part, and the 'he's crazy' part - is the 'but the first few issues are just Red Sonja jokes and the art isn't great' part. I think things only really get good enough to draw you in - story-wise and art-wise - about half way through the first phonebook (issue 21 - "Captain Cockroach" - if I had to pick). Not that the first 20 issues aren't fun, but old issues of "Mad" are also fun. The distinctive greatness is not shining through yet. So, if you knew about all the fuss, you would be thinking: what's the big fuss about THIS? It is in fact one of the fascinating features of the whole thing that such an amazing work of literature grew out of Red Sonja sight-gags and some really good puns. And then it decayed into madness before it was through. But in between - and we're talking issues 21 through 175, I should say - it's mostly wonderful. The best stuff is in the phonebooks known as "High Society", "Church & State I and II" and - I dunno, a couple others: "Melmoth" is good. And "Jaka's Story" is good. You might consider starting with "Church & State I" and seeing whether, after that, you care enough to go back and fill in the earlier stuff. Starting by plunking down your hard-earned cash for ... a bunch of indifferently-rendered Robert E. Howard parody... might sour you prematurely. Of course you are bound to go sour eventually. Guy's nuts.

jholbo

Let me amend that. Start at the beginning, with the Robert E. Howard parody - which is perfectly fine and amusing but, in the grand cosmic scheme of world-literature, undistinguished - but be aware that the man isn't famous (and justly so) for what you see in the first 19 or so issues.

Bruce Baugh

Pound is a good comparison to where Sim ended up, but I was thinking of Eliot's conversion to Catholic Christianity as an example of drastic change in outlook on the artist's part.

Kip Manley

I got started with High Society--well, actually, I think the first issue I bought was "Everything Done for the First Time Unleashes a Demon," from Church and State (ii), on the basis of that Atlantic Monthly article from the late '80s on Miller, Chaykin and Sim (oh, my!). But I had no idea what the fuck was going on, so I set the idea of Cerebus aside until Barry "Ampersand" Deutsch shoved High Society into my hands. Sure, you miss a lot of the inside jokes at first, but the dialect humor and the coalescing political plot and the sudden wicked jabs of satire make you forget what it is you haven't figured out, and by the time you're done, you're ready to dive into the first volume, and instead of merely sight gags and puns, it's also the footnotes for what you just read, and so it's that much more enjoyable. And then you can get into Church and State, which is sort of the graduate-level seminar.

Jaka's Story also works quite well as a starting point, but you end up in a very different place.

Raj

Cerebus used to be the one comic I faithfully bought every month.

I have a great signed poster of Cerebus as an American Football player which I adore

However, like a lot of people I lost interest somewhere between issues 150 & 200. Now I would like to pick up issue 300 as a memento but otherwise I have no real interest.

Sad, really. If he had managed to keep his obsessions at arms length it could have been an unparralleled acheivement.
As it is It has a great middle but folds on itself towards the end.

Carlos

Bruce Baugh wrote:

Pound is a good comparison to where Sim ended up, but I was thinking of Eliot's conversion to Catholic Christianity as an example of drastic change in outlook on the artist's part.

Um. Not to Catholicism; and IMO not a particularly drastic change. A snob in the world of the damned, and a slow process.

Not like Pound or Sim, who lurched from one hobbyhorse to the next. Paideia! Fitzgerald! Help me!

C.

Bruce Baugh

Darn it, I always do that with Eliot, and I have no idea why. What about "Choruses from 'The Rock'" suggests the Pope to me, I couldn't begin to say.

Backing up a level: the point is that Sim changed so much in the late '80s and early '90s that I regard his later work as irrelevant to what he was doing beforehand. There's artistic but not conceptual continuity.

Doug Muir

There's artistic but not conceptual continuity.

Half agree. The seeds were there from early on -- you can see them pretty clearly, once you know to look.

Also, in a book that became so much about the presentation of story rather than the story itself, the distinction between technique and concept is... well, still valid, but less so.

Frex: I was raving about the beauty of the final issue. And it is beautiful, and contains at least one powerful moment that is absolutely unique in this medium, and maybe in any medium.

What I didn't mention, though, was that as a story it really sucks.

See, at the end of issue #299, Cerebus is getting ready to rush off to his final battle. But he's really old; so at the beginning of #300, he falls over a chair, farts, and dies.

By itself that would be acceptable, even interesting, as ironic anticlimax. (Which has always been a Sim specialty, though perhaps not entirely deliberately.) But Cerebus' death leaves... oh, man, I can't begin to count how many dangling plot threads left... just dangling. Whole arcs of story simply diffused into air. Characters who disappeared for no good reason and never came back. Themes that were examined obsessively for dozens of issues and then abandoned. Unanswered questions from 10 or 50 or 200 issues back, just left lying on the floor with dead Cerebus. For something that went on for 25+ years, it was in many ways weirdly incomplete and unsatisfying.

And this happened often enough to make me think it was part of the Simian condition pretty much from day one. So... IMO there was some conceptual continuity.

Which is not to say that he didn't more or less go nuts, at least from the reader's POV, somewhere after issue 150.

But, yeah -- starting around issue 20 or so, it got really good, and it stayed really good for a long time.


Doug M.

Larry Hardesty

I agree with all the assessments above: first 20 issues = funny; High Society and Church and State = brilliant (but also funny); everything since = slow decline into madness (but still occasionally funny).

Some analogies that spring to mind are Philip K. Dick, Nikolai Tesla, and Wilhelm Reich, but the one that seems most intuitively accurate is Robert Crumb's older brother Charles, as depicted in the Terry Zwigoff movie. What's so fascinating is watching the slow psychological deliquescence as it occurs -- in the art.

Stephen

But Cerebus' death leaves... oh, man, I can't begin to count how many dangling plot threads left... just dangling. Whole arcs of story simply diffused into air. Characters who disappeared for no good reason and never came back. Themes that were examined obsessively for dozens of issues and then abandoned. Unanswered questions from 10 or 50 or 200 issues back, just left lying on the floor with dead Cerebus. For something that went on for 25+ years, it was in many ways weirdly incomplete and unsatisfying.

Just like real life, eh. All of the above can be said about us when we die. Cerebus was the story of a life, and life doesn't get wrapped up in a neat package for us when we die.


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