30.47b: November 8, 2001:
"People Who Matter, part two: Dave Sim
Outside, the sky began to cloud.
"So," Bob said, "What's next?
"No more Momus?" Heather said.
"I just couldn't do Momus justice," I said.
"Sorry. There was a lot more I wanted to talk about, but, really, there's just so much going on in Nick Currie's world just didn't know where to start. So, it's time to move on."
"Well, since I couldn't do Momus justice, let's see how badly I
handle Dave Sim."
"I was wondering when he'd show up," Bob said.
"Who's Dave Sim?"
"He's that aardvark guy I was telling you about," Bob said.
"Oh," Heather said, suddenly wary. "I remember him...."
"Dave Sim," I said, "is the creator of the comicbook Cerebus. Once it was known as Cerebus The Aardvark, but the title's been shortened to just Cerebus for quite some time. Sim's a Canadian, and for the past 20-odd years he's been quietly working on one of the most important pieces of writing this country has ever produced. If not it's greatest novel."
"That's lofty," Heather said.
"And he honestly believes it, too," Bob said.
"Cerebus is 300 issues long, it's fantasy-based, and is about a talking cartoon aardvark. The aardvark's name is, well, Cerebus and he started out his life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian. Since then he's become the president of a city state, and the Pope of a country, a house guest, a staring catatonic, a drunk bartender, and he also had a brief stint losing his mind on the planet Pluto. These days, he's spending a lot of time tied to a big machine and he seems to be either going insane, or becoming a visionary. The series wraps up with Cerebus' death in issue 300, and that'll be happening about 2 1/2 years from now."
"Brian's been reading it for years," Bob said. "He really really really likes it.""I've been reading it since I was, about 11-12, or so. And 'likes it' is putting it mildly."
"Actually, some of it is pretty good.""Yeah. It's hard to describe, though, so I'm going to be a bit more
structured, maybe, or at least I'm gonna try to be a bit more structured, than the one on Momus."
"Okay," from Heather.
"It's kind of a shame that Cerebus will never be respected as art, let alone revolutionary art, though. I mean, people are starting to warm up to the idea of comic books as having depth and complexity, but it's only very begrudging kind of acknowledgment, and even then it's reserved for only a few, relatively small works like Watchmen, Maus, and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan hardcover. Cerebus, however, outstrips all these works in scope, ambition, and overall complexity. Watchmen is brilliant, it really is, but it can still be read in one sitting. Cerebus takes days, if not months to pour through. At times you can go through a hundred pages in a few minutes, other times a single page can take you half an hour. People can studyWatchmen because it's only a couple hundred pages long. Cerebus is, literally, thousands. It really is a 'graphic novel.' Most things people call 'graphic novels' are really no more than short stories, sorry. And even if they are a hundred pages long, that's still pretty pathetic when you've got something like Cerebus to weigh in beside."
"Well," Bob said, "you know the saying: 'A picture is worth a thousand words.'"
"That's just dunderheaded crap. That saying assumes of course that pictures and words are different things. I think, that ultimately they're the same. They're both a type of language and so, in many ways, but not all, can be judged on similar grounds. People who say a picture's worth a thousand words assume a kind of objective 'truth' to images that just isn't there. But this isn't really the time to discuss that.
"Cerebus started in 1977 and except for a brief time in the 1980s when Sim decided he was depressed because he was turning 30, it's been going strong ever since. The idea of it as a 300-issue series came to Sim early on, back when it was still, more-or-less a parody of the whole sword-and-sorcery genre."
"But was it funny?" Heather.
"Yeah, it was funny. Back when it was a parody it was hilarious,
and even later, too. I mean, it's still a hoot. The thing is, Cerebus has always been satire. It's traced the evolution of this character-- from common barbarian to prime minister--"
I ate a coffee bean.
"How does that happen?" Heather reached for a coffee bean, popped it in her mouth, ate it.
"--it's a long story, but let's just say that when you spend a largepart of your time wandering around, doing anything for money, you start meeting interesting people, and when that happens you collect some pretty important friends-- or, if not friends then how about acquaintances who want to manipulate you for their own purposes. So, yeah, he became prime minister, and when that fell apart he got made Pope."
"And all that happened when?"
"Pretty early on. About 60-some issues in. But first he was re-instated as prime minister again, and forced to write crappy romance novels for the masses."
"Yeah, it's a long story, really, it all has to do Weishaupt's bid
for the Final Ascension and mastery over all things, which was actually doomed from the start, really."
"Weishaupt?" Bob. "I don't remember him from the comic. Isn't he, like that guy who looked exactly like George Washington?"
"Who?" Heather had another bean.
"Adam Weishaupt was a real guy," I said, "and he happened to look a lot like the real George Washington and they were both members of the same Masonic lodge, I think, in the 1700s. Anyway, it might have been Weishaupt who suggested to Washington there should be a Masonic symbol on the American $1 bill. That and the fact that he looked like Washington, and also that he either formed or revived an organization known as the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria, also known as simply The Illuminati, has endlessly fueled the imaginations of satirists, schizophrenics, and conspiracy buffs eversince-- there's even a theory that Washington was killed and Weishaupt took his place. But, really, that's a bit much. But, anyway, Sim has a character based on Weishaupt in Cerebus, yeah. There've also been a few other notables who've shown up for time to time: Oscar Wilde, Groucho and Chico Marx, Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemmingway, half of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a few others. Cerebus also has had a pretty good track record with parodying other comic characters. Like all good metafiction it plays with its medium. Aside from the Conan parody aspect of the Cerebus the Aardvark character, there's been an albino named Elrod who's essentially a riff on Michael Moorcock's Elric-- and he also happens to talk like Foghorn Leghorn. And Sim's used Elrod to reference and play homage to other comic characters. He becomes Deadalbino, a parody of Deadman, he also becomes Death from Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and does other things as well. There's also Artemis Strong, or The Roach, who Sim's metamorphosed into Captain Marvel (Captain Cockroach), PunisherRoach, Ten-Thousand-Eyes Roach, the excessively pious Priest Roach, as well as Swoon (compare him to Gaiman's Dream), normalroach (a tribute to Jim Valentino's long-forgotten but totally cool normalman), and maybe most famously of all WolverRoach which landed Sim in a bit of hot water with Marvel Comics, as well as resulted in Marvel's creating a strange mutant aardvark/warthog character named Sym. And for a while there was even talk of an X-Men / Cerebus crossover. During the 1980s, Dave Sim was quite a big name in the Comicbook industry. But, anyway, as far as The Roach goes, if you want to get a good picture of what he's like check out either the Tick tv series, the Tick cartoon, or any of the Tick comics. Ben Edlund's Tick behaves almost identically to Sim's Roach."
"Interesting," Bob said. "I never really thought about that. But you're right."
"Yeah, I'm sure The Tick never would've existed if Edlund hadn't
read Cerebus. But, anyway, yeah, Cerebus becomes Prime Minister and then Pope, amasses a considerable amount of self-knowledge, ignores and/or forgets it all, and then pretty much ends up in hiding, and then just sitting around, staring at things in a quasi-catatonic state. And that only takes you to about issue 150."
"150," Heather said. "But then what happens? What do you do after you've been the Pope?"
"You pretty much drink a lot and wish you were dead and remember the good old days when you were younger. Then you try to overthrow the government, have a nervous breakdown, and then you get to sit in a bar for issue after issue after issue while the world goes on behind your back, and you secretly wish the totalitarian matriarchy you were unintentionally instrumental in helping seize control of the country would just storm in and put you to death. When Cerebus is funny, it's one of the funniest things out there-- you'll just lose yourself laughing. But when it's depressing, it's black as pitch-- almost nothing can be darker, angrier, and more despairing. Sim is very good at creating moods."
"Actually," Bob said, "it's not all Sim. Early on, Dave was joined by a guy named Gerhard who did, and still does do, all the backgrounds. Sim, from what I understand writes all the dialogue, and draws all the characters, and then Gerhard fills everything else in. The end result gives Cerebus a gorgeous, lush look that, I think, almost no other comic in the world manages to capture. When you look at the art, it can really make you feel like you're there."
"Yeah, it's amazing. Everything's so fully realized."
"Totally," Bob said. "From what I've seen anyway.""It's actually pretty amazing, because the early ones were very workmanlike, and now it's so totally professional and fully composed. And it's been that way for over a decade and a half, at least."
Another bean for me.
"But, anyway," I said. "When it's funny it's hilarious, but when it's unhappy, it's one of the saddest, bleakest things out there."
"Yeah, Dave Sim's never struck me as being a very happy person,." Bob said, "from what I've read anyway. Some of the early ones you showed me were really entertaining, but after Church And State--"
"--that's the one where he gets to be Pope--"
"--it really just spirals into the abyss. It's like watching a close friend slowly die. And even after that, even when the humour comes back, it's really bitter, angry, bleak humour. Where the early jokes had a sense of good-natured fun, the later funny stuff is just enraged. And it stays like that for a long time."
"Almost 100 issues," I said. "And then it starts to lighten up again, and now, now that we're in the 270s, the humour is light and whimsical, and even though Cerebus is really starting to lose his mind, hey, the Three Stooges are there and the whole thing is roll-on-the-floor funny again. But I have a feeling it's going to get kind of sad, soon. I mean, it is ending its run. And Cerebus does die in issue 300."
"Sounds kind of cool," Heather said.
"Made even cooler," I said, "by the fact that this is a comic book about a talking aardvark, essentially a funny-animal comic book, and it's Literature. Real, capital L Literature. Stuff you could write a Ph.D. thesis on."
Bob shifted in his chair.
"And it's experimental, too, works with its own medium. Frequently the panel borders change to reflect the narrative mood-- for a so many years they were jagged people actually forgot they were like that because of the tension in the story-- and now they're different again. There are sequences where you had to rotate the issues to read parts of them. There's text, which, arguably is handled either clumsily or with a great deal of finesse, depending on the viewpoints you want to use while judging it. Also cinematic techniques like credit sequences, and still shots. Very savvy, complex stuff."
"But..." Bob said.
"There's still something I want to deal with, and I really wish I
didn't have to deal with it because for someone I, when I was younger anyway, used to idolize so much, it's kind of hard for me to deal with."
"I really wish I didn't have to talk about this, but I guess I do. Every discussion of Cerebus needs to have it mentioned, I think. At least something that's just a general overview, anyway."
"Dave's misogyny," I said.
"Dave really hates women," Bob.
I scratched the side of my nose. All the beans I'd been eating were
starting to make my head spin.
"Thing is," I said. "I don't know if that's a really accurate assessment, exactly. Because he's always tried to be such a provocative asshole, and really, sometimes to get people thinking about things you have to be provocative, but... well...."
I rubbed my eyes.
"Is Dave Sim a misogynist?" I said. "The problem with a term like
'misogyny' is that people who define it are the ones who want to find it everywhere, and therefore anything that doesn't conform to their own viewpoint is ultimately labeled as misogynist. But Dave does have a whole lot of anger towards women-- despite what he says about his being 'rational' I do detect lots of anger-- and these days he seems to be going more than a little bit crazy-- or maybe he was always like the person he's portraying himself as being now, it's just that he's just more open about everything, now. But it is possible that he's using the tools of the intellectual Left against itself when he's presenting his arguments, specifically to piss people off."
"Okay," Heather said. "I know the intellectual Left can be very reactionary and irrational, but so can the Right."
"Yeah," I said. "That's the problem. I mean, I'm not justifying
his viewpoint, and I definitely don't agree with it, but at the same time I can understand that a lot of the time he's trying to provoke a specific emotional response when he rails about women."
"What exactly is his viewpoint?" She rubbed her elbow.
"Well, at the end of Church & State, Sim gave us a creation myth that showed the world being made, essentially, through loneliness and rape. The Void, the male aspect, was alone and infinite. And then the Light, the female part showed up in the form of a glowing singularity. And so the Void wanted to get inside the light so he thrust into her, shattering her into a billion billion suns and dead, cold planets."
"That's not exactly misogynistic, but it is interesting."
"Thing is, though, during Mothers & Daughters, later on in theseries, Sim reverses it, says the character who gave the earlier story was 'wrong,' and then he makes the Light male and the Void female, aligns the Light with rationality and the void with emotion and says that the Void is snuffing out the Light."
"He does this in a large text section where a character named Viktor Davis directly addresses the reader and essentially says 'this is the way it is.' Viktor Davis is based on Sim, and spouts Sim's views. He also says women lick men's brains out their ears and that women shouldn't be allowed to vote, among other things. However, it's still important to note that Viktor Davis is still a character in Cerebus, and that every character in Sim's narrative is presented in such as way as to not be authoritative in any respect, at all. Everybody who says anything in Cerebus is ultimately, always wrong-- or at least mostly wrong. But this still came as quite a shock to the people-- a large part of them women-- who'd been reading Cerebus for quite a few years. And sales dropped off by about 2/3."
"And then, a long time later, very recently in fact, Sim published an essay called 'Tangents' which made Viktor Davis's opinions seem tame, the implications of which place women more or less in the category of animals to be dominated by men-- which any sane person should think is utter bullshit. But I know that partly what Sim is doing is trying to upset people, to rile their 'emotions,' which he does value less than rational thought, in order to teach them something about irrationality-- but let's be honest here, Cerebus deals with people and so it is bound to deal with emotions. And anything that is supposed to make you laugh manipulates your emotions because laughter is an emotional response, ditto with anything that makes you sad, or angry for that matter. So, who really knows what Dave's up to, exactly...."
Outside, a cold wind began to blow.
"I am pretty sure that Dave Sim does place women beneath men in his own hierarchical world view. But I don't think that he 'hates' them, as such, in his eyes at least."
"Most misogynists don't realize they hate women," Heather said.
"How many women read Cerebus before this rant?"
"I don't know, exactly, but it was a lot. Because of its incredible intelligence, Cerebus was one of the few comics that, during the 80s and mid-90s actually appealed to a female readership."
"There still are female Cerebus fans, though, and die-hard ones. They seem to be able to overlook Sim's anger. And that's a good thing. And, apparently, there are women who stopped reading Cerebus who later came back to it. And that's also a good thing. But, the fact seems to be that Dave Sim is, ultimately and unfortunately, one of those guys who think women have a 'place,' but it's not the same 'place' as men. And when he talks about things like affirmative action programs he occasionally he makes a good point. For example, if a woman wants to be a cop she should still have to conform to the height and weight requirements set by the police system, and she should be able to take the same kind of physical abuse that the male cops can. If she can't do this, she shouldn't be a cop. The rules shouldn't be bent to allow her to be a police officer if she doesn't meet those requirements. But the same goes for men-- those rules are there so the police can apprehend criminals, and any person, male or female, who does not fit the requirements should not be allowed to be a police officer. However, this kind of simplistic argument of physicality does not extend into the realm of reason. To say that a woman can't think as well as a man is, again simply bullshit. Sorry, Dave."
"Yeah," Heather said. "Sorry Dave."
"Also, in the reality of relationships there do tend to be what Dave
would call 'Light / Void' where one partner does tend to suck the brains out of the other, and keep him, or her, from fulfilling his, or her fullest potential-- but this is not gender specific. There are just as many relationships where the men drag the women down as there are where the women drag down the men."
"I can bring a few of those to mind," said Heather.
"In many ways, Dave Sim is just a big comicbook geek. Even though he travels (or did travel), he still lives a very sheltered life. He has a problem dealing with modern reality, and so filters all his experiences through an adolescent's comicbook world. And of course the majority of the comic book world is very, what, masculo-centric, or something like that? If that's a word."
"It's a word now," from Bob.
"Most comics are still, even now, even after they supposedly 'grew up' just male power and violence fantasies. Even a lot of the critically acclaimed stuff. The majority is still very male-oriented and, yeah, more than a little 'misogynistic.' And Sim, having grown up in this environment, and being fundamentally unable to really relate to a world outside of comic books, developed a kind of skewed view of women. Combine that with a very messy, very failed marriage, and a horrible divorce, and then a string of girlfriend after girlfriend, and you start getting a very very bitter man, with a very negative view of women. Which still doesn't justify it. I just want to try and get inside his head a little bit, but that's hard."
"Hmm," Heather hmmed.
"Fortunately, in the confines of the Cerebus narrative, whenever Sim portrays women, they usually don't fare much better or worse than the men-- meaning that most of them, like most of the male figures, are conniving, manipulating fools. But again, so are the guys. Also, because Sim has set up a system where every form of authority portrayed in the narrative is systematically undermined and shown to be ultimately self-defeating, when Sim's own viewpoints on women appear in the text, it's easy to put them in the same context with everyone else's opinions. Therefore when Sim intrudes into the narrative-- as he does from time to time-- everything he says is just as suspicious as everything everybody else says. I don't think he intended this effect, but that's what he's done. Not to say that Sim preaches in the pages of Cerebus. He saves that for the letters pages, usually, and also his little essays (like 'Tangents') which very neatly straddle the line between sensibility and insanity. But these, if they sicken or baffle you, are pretty easy to ignore.
"It's kind of hard to evaluate Sim's views on certain things right now, however because Cerebus is still coming out. And while I'm pretty sure that everything he says about woman, he believes, I'm still not 100% sure, because he can be a confrontational bastard at times, and also he alluded to the possibility of a switch in position, or something, very cryptically, a little while ago. And also there are huge instances where the text of Cerebus itself contradicts Sim's beliefs. And I'm not just saying that at the beginning of the series, like, 20 years ago he loved women and so that contradicts what he's saying now-- I am aware that with something like this
that's been coming out on a regular schedule for two decades, the focus of the creator's vision can, and almost inevitably will, shift. What I'm saying is there are things in the text contemporary with Sim's cynical rants that undermine his general anger towards women. For example when the Cirinist matriarchy takes over the country, all the men, who Sim says are the driving force behind society, all they do is sit around and drink because suddenly the Cirinists have made booze free. So, instead of being such a positive force for civilization, all they do is act like lethargic, ever-fattening lumps. And while this is happening all the women of the matriarchy, the ones who are supposed to be so irrational and emotional and unfit to govern or even vote, make a very functional, organized society that, in many ways, from what glimpses we get to see, seems better than the masculine society they've overthrown. Even if it is a brutal dictatorship, it's not much worse than what went before."
"Yeah," Bob said." I noticed that."
"Yeah," I said. "And then there's the character of Jaka-- Cerebus' One True Love (if there can really ever be anything like 'love' in Dave Sim's universe)-- she is easily the most intelligent, proactive, competent and admirable person in the whole damn comic."
"What about Cerebus?" Heather.
"Cerebus can hardly be considered competent, or intelligent, or proactive, and definitely not admirable. He's an angry, greedy drunk and, when the going gets tough, he either beats the crap out of everybody and runs away (something he really can't do any more) or, as of late, just plain gives up. But, anyway back to Jaka: Sure sometimes she's been portrayed as being a little vain-- but she's a princess, after all, and she is pretty nice to look at-- but, aside from some vanity, she's easily the strongest, most intelligent person in the story, and no amount of woman-bashing from Sim has been able to change that. And then there's another woman, Astoria who, while more manipulative, is, again, far from being a 'void.'
"So, ultimately, based on Jaka alone, the decent women in Cerebus far outweigh the decent men. And then there's Astoria."
"Sim seems really angry," Heather.
"Yeah, he is. Cerebus is a really unhappy comic. Even now, now that it's ending and it's-- honestly-- funny again, not that clenched black humour of the issues from 200 on, it's still about unpleasantness, and unhappiness and, weirdly enough it's actually about God now. And in a way that no other comic has ever dealt with the topic."
"Yeah, comics are notoriously either anti- or non-religious as a whole. And that makes sense in a way because, frankly the majority of the comic writing and reading public is really much too stupid to deal with the concept of God in more than a basic, primitive, little-kid sort of way. Either they believe, and they accept everything as utterly and totally true, or they just deny it all as bullshit-- and both responses are moronic gut reactions that require absolutely no thought whatsoever. However, Cerebus
is very different.
"In the last 'Book' of Cerebus, entitled Latter Days, Cerebus is captured by three Jewish 'wise fellows'-- they're based on the 3 Stooges and Sim gets their speech patterns, and their overall look, perfectly. They capture Cerebus and tie him to a huge machine, gag him, and read 'The Booke Of Ricke' to him over and over and over and over. Rick's a character from earlier on in the series who's become a sort of Old Testament prophet and seemingly amassed a huge number of followers, even though he is (or maybe because of this fact) a mentally unstable drunk. The idea is the stooges have to read the whole 'Booke Of Ricke' to Cerebus except for the last chapter. Once they reach the penultimate chapter, they take the gag out of his mouth and wait for him to speak. If Cerebus says the right thing, they can untie him and he will lead them to victory... or something. The kick is Cerebus doesn't have any goddamn idea what this right thing is he's supposed to say, and so whenever he says something it's always the wrong thing, and so the stooges put the gag back in his mouth and start reading the book to him, again, from the beginning.
"Cerebus has been tied to this machine for months. He's been there so long his mind is starting to go and he's started hallucinating he's a Rabbi. (Again-- long story.)
"Doesn't he atrophy?"
"The stooges use the machine to exercise him regularly. It runs
with ropes, pulleys, and levers. It's actually, in fact, a big exercise machine with a potty underneath Cerebus, and a bidet, too. It's a pretty impressive device. Anyway, the thing is, though, that Sim has done his reading. He knows his stuff. He does seem to be a believer, but I think, on the whole he's a pretty informed believer. He does have some problems, though-- his thought is a little too luddite and simplistic, and like his views of women he seems to be stuck in a kind of 'religious adolescence,' but one thing you can't accuse him of is not reading up on, and internalizing, huge parts of the subject matter. Sim's belief system seems to be a combination of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, in, I think, that order of importance. (Sometimes I wonder if he's includes Islam maybe because he can use it to justify his attitudes towards women, but surely he's smart enough to know that all that Muslim-misogyny stuff is simply a corruption of some very old-school crap that even most Muslims don't believe in any more-- but who knows, like I said, sometimes the guy is overlysimplistic.)"
I burped. My burp tasted like coffee beans.
"However, whatever Dave Sim believes, I think that if it enters directly into the Cerebus text, because he's created a huge structure of shifting subjective opinions, just like in a real novel, or in a real world, it's still going to be satirized. But who really knows, because after all there's still a couple of years to go...."
Outside, it began to rain.
"But I better wrap this one up.
"Cerebus is a 300-issue Canadian comic book that has been coming out for a very long time, it traces the trajectory of one single life, and no other comic creator in the English speaking world-- in fact no other person outside of Asia-- has ever done any work with this scope. And it's totally self-published, so if you consider that fact, no other comic creator in the world, I think, has ever done something this, because even the Japanese creators have large corporations backing them.
"Cerebus is brilliant and challenging, even if I don't agree with Dave on some very basic issues.
"Reading it is a very emotional, and intellectual, and satisfying
"It is a novel, a real novel, no matter what people say.
"It's still all in print. Dave publishes large Cerebus 'phonebooks,' huge collections containing all the Cerebus comics text-- with a few omissions (the very brief Elfquest / Cerebus crossover vignette is omitted, primarily I think for licensing or copyright reasons, and there are a few other little bits and pieces that Dave hasn't collected, but 99.9% of the thing is all there, and these very few missing bits don't really detract all that much from the whole story) and these are available from him, or from Amazon, or just about any comicbook store on the continent.
"He doesn't really like women, and even if that pisses you off (and it should), if you're a smart reader you should still be able to look beyond that aspect of his work and see it for what it really is: amazingly well written, and beautifully drawn and on the whole very, very well done.
"It has a very intelligent and deep intertextual / symbolic structure, which I haven't gone into at all because of time, involving biblical and cosmological, literary and comicbook references, as well as a deep sense of personal mythology and, well, you'll just have to take my word for it, but it's there.
"Sometimes, however, I think that Dave may be going crazy. And therefore it may be a good thing that Cerebus is wrapping up its run before Dave totally slips away.
"But, then again, how many geniuses can you point to who are
ultimately, and truly, sane...?"