Recent Dorkiness

Rereading Cerebus, Part One: The Early, Funny Ones

Sorry for the lack of updates lately. First I took a vacation, then I was a bit under the weather, and between the two... I just didn't feel like writing. But we're back on track now. And while I was laid up, I took the opportunity to do something I've been meaning to do for ages: I started rereading Cerebus.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

What's Cerebus, you ask? Fair question. Cerebus is the 300-issue magnum opus of Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim. The series started in 1977, and ended a full decade ago. And while it was once something all comics-literate readers knew, it receded into obscurity in its final years, as Sim fell out of favor with pretty much everybody. But more on that in a minute. Following humble beginnings as a Conan parody starring a cartoon aardvark, the series went on to become a genuine funnybook classic, a heady mix of comedy and deadly serious drama that grew to explore politics, religion, literature, the comics industry, and the battle of the sexes. It's that last bit that got Sim in hot water. In an issue a little over halfway into the run, he expressed a particularly dim view of women, which garnered general outrage, accusations of misogyny, and a rather reactionary piece in the Comics Journal that painted Sim as a Nazi. It's the “misogynist” label that stuck, though, overshadowing the rest of the series, even when it wasn't dealing with gender issues at all. You can't discuss Cerebus at this point without discussing the issue. So let me get that out of the way right now. For the record, I disagree with Dave Sim's opinion of women pretty much categorically. I won't try to summarize that opinion here, however, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it's a long and complex argument that has to be taken in the context of the series as a whole, and summarization tends to make it sound worse than it is. And for another... That argument comes deep into the series, and has little or nothing to do with the early issues I'll be looking at here today. When and if I get to the issue that contains the offending essay, I'll give it the in-depth discussion it deserves. But for now, in the interest of examining the series as it happened... and not coloring your opinion of the work with opinions its author developed later in life... I'm going to set the misogyny issue (mostly) aside in favor of looking at the incredible talent that went into making Cerebus one of the best funnybooks ever written. If you really want to know more, you could do worse than the Wikipedia entry on Cerebus, which is surprisingly even-handed and well-researched. In the meantime, though, let's get on with that reread, shall we...? Cerebus 1-13, by Dave Sim Ah, the formative years! The accepted wisdom about these earliest issues is that they're not the best place to start reading the series, being as they are the work of an enthusiastic amateur rather than the professional Sim would become. And that's true, mostly. The stories are pretty simple, and the art... Sim Cerebus 1 ...well, the art's a bit crude. Not awful. I've seen far worse, in more supposedly professional publications. Sim was drawing backgrounds from day one, for instance, and seems to have understood perspective, which is more than I can say for (to make the easy joke) Rob Liefeld. And there are flashes of brilliance, even in the earliest issues. But those issues are still very much the work of a young artist learning his craft and making his mistakes. Most artists are lucky enough that early work like this is obscure and seldom-seen. But the success of Cerebus was a double-edged sword for Sim: it enabled him to keep cranking out pages, but it also meant that his youthful weaknesses have survived for all to see. Of course, that's part of the fascination of reading these comics now: watching this young punk with a Barry Windsor Smith fixation grow and develop, page by page, into one of the finest cartoonists of his generation. I mention Barry Smith specifically because it's Smith's Conan work with Roy Thomas that's being sent up the most in these early stories (right down to the helmet Cerebus wears in the first issue). But Sim keeps getting better, incorporating lessons from artists like Bernie Wrightson and Will Eisner (especially Eisner), who he seems to swallow whole on the way to forging his own artistic identity. And by issue ten, his stuff looks like this:
click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Not as good as he will get, of course. Sim keeps getting better, to this day. But an awfully long way to come in the space of ten comics. As for the stories in these early issues, they are, as I said, relatively simple affairs. Conan played for laughs, with parodies of several other major fantasy fiction characters along for the ride. Robert E Howard's Bran Mak Morn, for instance, becomes Bran Mac Mufin, a barbarian leader who worships an ancient stone idol that seems to have been carved in Cerebus' image. Then there's Elrod the Albino (my personal favorite), a melding of Michael Moorcock's Elric and... Foghorn Leghorn. Sim Elrod And then, of course, there's the Cockroach. That's him leaping across the rooftops in that shot from issue 10 up above. In his first appearance, he's a Batman parody: a rich merchant who at night seeks revenge on criminals for the death of his parents. Of course (this being Cerebus), he's completely insane. Sim Roach 2 The Merchant and the Roach are two completely different personalities, neither entirely aware that the other exists. And it swiftly becomes apparent that this murder he's so obsessed with... probably didn't actually happen. So he beats up random people who have no idea what he's raving about, takes their money (REVENGE!), and dumps it in a chimney. It's funny stuff, and the character would go on to appear over and over again in later years, his ever-shifting personalities allowing Sim to use him as a send-up of whatever was happening in the comics industry at any given moment. Some of my favorite Cerebus moments involve the Roach, in fact, so it's nice to be reminded of this comparatively humble beginning. In light of Sim's later philosophies, though, I suppose the most interesting of these early parody characters is Red Sophia, his send-up of Red Sonja.

If you’re not familiar with her, Red Sonja is a fierce warrior woman, sworn not to submit to any man unless he first defeats her in single combat. Sonja was created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith for their Conan run, but it was Frank Thorne who really popularized her. Her, and her now-stereotypical chain-mail bikini:

Thorne Red Sonja

Sim’s Red Sophia reveals a problem with that particular fashion choice, of course…

Sim Red Sophia

…but otherwise, she’s pretty much the same character. Except… maybe not as good with a sword. I mean, she’s good, don’t get me wrong. Many men couldn’t beat her. But Cerebus takes her out pretty easily, leading to a comedic romantic entanglement that, as you can see above, Our Hero’s not the least bit interested in. It’s also implied that the vow itself is some kind of masochistic wish-fulfillment:

Sim Red Sophia 2

Which… heh. That’s good parody. There was always something problematic about Red Sonja, after all, with her mix of feminist fury and bald-faced titillation, and Sophia cuts right to the heart of it. I suppose someone more determined than myself to see misogyny in the series might point to it as an early indication of Sim’s real opinion of women, but that’s not how it plays at all in the comic itself. Everyone in Cerebus is open for this sort of gag, regardless of gender. Honestly, if you’re in this book and you’re not Cerebus himself, you’re probably weak, stupid, insane, or some combination thereof.

Or at least, that’s how it plays out at first. But Sim obviously starts getting bored with the Conan thing pretty quickly, and as the series wears on, we start to see a change. A continuity develops between the done-in-one tales, one adventure leading Cerebus right on into the next. And the series’ moral compass, always quick to punish those whose reach exceeds their grasp, starts to punish Cerebus, too. As long as he’s content with jobs that take him no further than the next tankard of ale, he’s fine. More than fine, even: he’s unstoppable.

But when he plays for bigger stakes, it almost inevitably brings him to ruin. He can lead an army, for instance, but he can’t take the power it offers him. And when he goes to the city to steal a horde of gold, it slips between his fingers. This would become one of the series’ recurring themes: no matter how capable he seems, or how much potential he might have, Cerebus is ultimately just a barbarian, ill-suited for anything more than a simple, violent existence. This idea will repeat itself over and over again in later years, and I was surprised to see it playing out so early in the run.

That’s kind of how these early issues go in general, I suppose. Though they’re really just a young artist feeling his way through a bunch of funny stories, they also lay the groundwork for everything that comes later. Crude as they may be, Sim never forgets them, or fails to weave them into the grander and more complex story he winds up telling.

That makes them a difficult thing for new readers. They’re clever in their way, but not something I’d ever recommend to anyone who’s not a sword & sorcery fan. But if you haven’t read them, you miss a lot of the subtext of the better stuff that comes later. In particular, you miss the introduction of the single most important supporting character in the series: Jaka. Introduced here as an exotic dancer who Cerebus becomes infatuated with under the influence of a love potion…

Sim Jaka

…Jaka looms large over the rest of the series. And the beginning of their relationship, if you know it, adds an extra undercurrent of tragedy to everything that happens between them later.

So where do I recommend you start, after rereading these earliest issues? Hmmm. Standard wisdom is to start with High Society, the second book in the series. It’s a definite high point, and will show you immediately why Cerebus is considered a classic by so many people. It’s really not a bad starting point at all. But that’s not what I’m going to suggest.

Instead, I’m gonna say that you should go with the first volume, but (unless you have a solid grounding in pulp fantasy and a bit of patience with developing artists) skip these early parody stories and start reading about halfway through. Specifically with issue 15, “The Walls of Palnu.” That’s Cerebus’ introduction to civilization and politics, and the point at which the series really turns into the book it will later become.

It’s also what I’ll be discussing next time, so… I hope to see you then.

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About Mark Brett (395 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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