One of our era's most enduring and complex epics of fantasy storytelling came to an end this month. It was 6,000 pages long, and chronicled one man's rise through a fascinatingly imagined world, on the cusp between medieval and early industrial ages. We witness the introduction of the printing press, cannons, and primitive airships as the tale progresses. The hero moves, often haplessly and buffeted by outside forces he barely understands, from a barbarian thief and adventurer to a prime minister to Pope of its Catholic-reminiscent church to renegade fighter against a matriarchal dictatorship to bartender to tyrannical head of his own brand new religion.
As with any 6,000-page epic, a one-paragraph précis cannot do it justice. It can, I hope, hint at the riches to be found therein. A couple of complications are also worth noting. First, the protagonist is not strictly a man -- in two respects. "He" is a hermaphrodite, though he thinks of himself as male, and he's also an aardvark. A talking, hind-foot walking, sword-wielding, hard-drinking, scripture-parsing aardvark, mind you.
This 6,000-page epic, it should also be noted, is 6,000 pages of comic book, told and sold in 20 page chunks (mostly) monthly since 1977, published under the title Cerebus (the aardvark's name). It is a sad reflection of the regard with which the art of storytelling through the artful combination of words and pictures is held in our culture that knowing that Cerebus is a comic book is enough to make most intelligent readers not give it a second thought. The general level of regard for comics is low at best, usually plunging to "beneath notice" for the vast majority of literate Americans beyond an ever-shrinking cult of funny book devotees.
Most unusually for a comic book, which are generally produced in an assembly-line manner as work-for-hire for a corporate entity, this epic was mostly a one-man job, written and drawn by a Canadian named Dave Sim. Sim published it himself and retained full ownership of his characters and work. (With issue 65 of his 300 issue series, Sim hired another artist, the singly named Gerhard, to pen the backgrounds while Sim continued to draw the characters.)
The story started off as a broad parody of Conan the Barbarian comics. But it quickly latched on to greater ambitions. Throughout the series Sim continued his early practice of introducing parody characters based on figures from the world of comic books (both characters and creators), movie comedies (ditto), and authors (these latter less parody than attempts to grapple with the figure's meaning). These takeoffs are almost always hilarious, biting, and brilliantly observed.
Within the pages of Cerebus you'll find takes on Groucho and Chico Marx, Batman and the Sandman, the Three Stooges, and Norman Mailer, among many others, that in many cases capture and extend the essential aspects of those characters (it seems apt to refer to Norman Mailer as a "character") as well or greater than their original creators -- all the while fitting them in to Cerebus' fantasy world with perfect sense.
SIM STARTED OFF AS an energetic cartoonist, but 6,000 pages of practice turned him (and Gerhard) into, if not geniuses, highly skilled journeymen who through hard and continuous work discovered techniques and reached destinations not often matched in their discipline.
Cartoonists can achieve stylistic distinctions far more, well, distinct than a prose writer. A prose writer, after all -- unless he strives for Joycean unintelligibility -- uses the same words as everyone else. But within very wide limits, every ink line, and method of drawing a human figure, hand, furniture, a building, is unique. Sim and Gerhard, to abuse the language a bit myself, were even uniquer than most in the world of comics.
It might seem belittling to call Cerebus great "for a comic." But there is no other way for it to be great -- it is a comic book. This is not an insult to comic art, but the ultimate praise: it can strive for and reach storytelling effects that would be simply impossible for other storytelling forms. Sim's lettering is the most obvious example of this.
No one has yet discovered a way for a prose writer to make dialogue say as much about a speaker's intentions, inflections, thought processes and meanings (both hidden and surface) than Sim's brilliantly varied hand-lettering of it -- the most wild and innovative the form has ever known. Sim once made a bravura eight-page sequence of a broken-legged Cerebus trying to climb a huge staircase in complete darkness say surprisingly much, with nothing but panel after panel of differently-divided solid black ink with his lettering of Cerebus' thoughts and words, incredibly revealing of mania, panic, relief, comedy, and self-doubt.
The mastery of pacing through his choices in how to present images across panels and pages is another area where Sim approaches nonpareil, and similarly irreproducible by prose writers.
WITHIN THE WORLD OF comic books, Sim has achieved something unprecedented in length and focus: 6,000 pages all telling a single life story, all written and drawn by the same man. But he's not much loved for it. Somewhere along the line, Sim decided he had a mission with his story. Its theme became the evils and perfidy of feminism, in all its varieties, especially the notion that a man ought to cleave unto a woman and become one flesh.
Sim's methods of expressing this theme shifted as his own ideology did. The real tectonic shift came when he discovered religion and created his own portmanteau syncretist monotheism from aspects he admired from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Bloody fight scenes, long debates, quotes from fictional treatises, detailed representations of the depths men would sink to in a world dedicated tyrannically to motherhood at all costs, were all in the delightful mix as the story progressed. By the tale's end, Sim was theologizing feminist evils in the YHWH character in the Torah, who Sim insists is not the God who created the world.
I should give a spoiler warning here: One detail of the practice of the theocratic dictatorship that Cerebus sets up toward the work's end will give you a hint as to why, within the narrow community of comics fans, its creator is embattled and widely despised. Cerebus the religious leader arranged the public executions of women who didn't meet the approval of a gathered crowd of men.
Because of his very public animus toward feminism, which shades toward pure misogyny in the eyes of many readers, the comics community at best damn Sim with faint praise, raising the glass to his maniacal productivity and dedication -- a fully written and drawn page pretty much every weekday for 26 years without fail or falter. But they mostly just damn him, and Cerebus, for ideological reasons.
Sim's representation of himself as the embattled last defender of reason and masculinity against the Marxist-feminist axis that he thinks rules the world has marginalized him, to the point that he seriously seems to expect an angry mob of feminazis to lock him up for thoughtcrime. (Well, he is Canadian, so perhaps that's not so unrealistic a notion.)
SIM REPUBLISHES THE BACK issues of Cerebus in separate bound volumes with defined story arcs--novels-within-the-novel, as it were. The second, High Society, would be the best place for the curious to start. It is among the funniest sequences, with Groucho-as-world-leader at his wittiest and most anarchic, the fantasy world coalescing in thick and fascinating ways.
High Society presents the aardvark civilized, enmeshing him in the machinations of politics, uneasily matching manipulative big city sharpies with headstrong barbarian values, and boasts a heart-wrenching standalone climax. At that point Sim had not yet fully enmeshed Cerebus in the dueling feminisms that came to dominate the story's world and themes later -- a more matriarchal tyranny, called Cirinism, and a more individualist version, Kevillism, both of which Sim disapproves of.
While I remain an admirer of his work, Sim made some choices that bothered me -- most significantly, when he introduced himself about two thirds of the way through into the story as a character, as the "god" to his creations, both explaining things to them and openly manipulating them.
This intrusion disrupted the suspended-disbelief needed to enjoy the elegant creation of his neat fantasy world, killing that unique fanboy frisson of trying to figure out all the mysteries and pull together all the pieces of the world. That pleasure is muted when you are slapped in the face with: this all happened because I, the author, made it up.
Sim, in his later monotheist phase, responded that only liberal-feminists, afraid to realize that they are characters in God's story, are bothered by this. Well… could be.
THE "NOVEL" CEREBUS IS RIPE for the literary deepthink in many ways. Even Dickens never serialized a novel that took him 26 years to execute. While Sim has maintained the basic shape of his story was in place since 1979, one must wonder how a man who has gone through as many changes as he, all revealed to us through his letters columns and increasingly detailed back-of-the-comic essays, could have stayed the course.
With comic book stories, by nature you can't draw more than a page or two a day; and when you publish it as a serial, you can't go back and revise if your conception changes or talent increases. The questions arising from a novel whose creator switched from a gooey modern liberal atheist to a ferocious anti-feminist so dedicated to his vision of God that he has cut almost everything but prayer out of his life would make a great English lit grad thesis, methinks.
To wit: How much unity of theme, intent, and execution can really be found, given those unique circumstances of its creation? What is the significance of the fact that the protagonist of a novel is a hermaphrodite, given that its central theme is the duel between male and female nature and the perfidy of feminist thinking that elevates women to supposed complete equivalence with, or even dominance over, men?
At the end of the tale, Sim is certain that history will little note nor long remember what he accomplished. He includes in the letters section of his final issue a plea to his readers to write to the Canadian university that he hopes will archive his professional papers, explaining that they will be of enduring scholarly interest.
Sim is self-aware enough about how his art form is perceived to write that most people will doubtless judge Cerebus as having "about as much artistic value as, say, a scale-model of Buckingham Palace built, over the course of 26 years and three months, out of toothpicks."
That quote is funny, which is apt, because in parts Cerebus can be about as funny as it gets. Like Woody Allen, who Sim dissects mercilessly through the character of Konigsberg, the hapless witness to Cerebus' approximately 100-page exegesis of the first few books of the Torah late in the story, many old fans miss Sim's "earlier, funnier work."
And the dismissal is also sadly accurate, as far as most people's perceptions of comic books go. But it is as wrong as can be. Cerebus is in fact as grand as any real palace -- massive, daunting, and dazzling, big enough to live in, the stronghold of someone who is truly master of his domain, the domain of comic book storytelling.
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