Friday, April 18, 2014

The Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus 8: Mothers & Daughters 2: Women

               Dante I Didn't Tell You...

Cerebus: Women
Issues 163-174
October 1992-September 1993
247 pages

Mothers & Daughters: Flight is a book working its way through a thought to some conclusion. Mothers & Daughters: Women possesses the same feeling. While in his introduction Dave Sim states “Structurally, each of the four books in the series say the same thing, but they say it in very different ways,” a different emphasis (even though maybe part of the same larger argument exerted in Mothers & Daughters) on creator’s rights emerged with this volume.

A sequence of four images of parody in Women formed the axis around which the Book 8 coalesced. Parody lurked consistently in Cerebus from the beginning, but in Women it becomes a force exerting influence for the existence of the world.

In these four scenes beginning on page 224, a particularly tense situation involving Cerebus, Astoria, Cirin, and the ascension (a chance for mortals to talk to the god/goddess or even to achieve a sort of apotheosis).

The Roach, under the guise of Swoon, lord of the dreams and imagination and a caricature of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman begins shaking and shifting. On the following page chains, claws, ammunition belts, spikes, and giant shoulder pads emerge amidst very unpoetic onomatopoeia. The following two pages are each entirely filled character names, all followed with the trademark TM and beginning with “Total Sellthough RoachTM.”

 The commentary on Image, Valiant, Vertigo, Marvel, DC, and other highly promoted and ExtremeTM characters and comics companies has the subtlety and humor of watching someone else get hit in the crotch. The TM symbol tags these characters. The unleashing of these large muscled power-chord characters hold the threat of collapsing the world on which Vanaheim and Iest rest.  Some creations from the imagination could destroy a whole world unless the Swoon Roach is able to contain them in his robes.

What the hell is going on here?
Something with creator rights, and maybe even creator responsibility.


When working on his Divine Comedy (three poems describing a Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), the 14th century Florentine poet Dante Alighieri worried on the role of the artist with regards to a reader’s understanding.  Dante in particular was worried about someone reading his poem and misunderstanding the ideas and could wander astray. In Canto V of the Inferno Dante-pilgrim learns how a book of Arthurian romances pushed Paolo and Francesca into Hell:
character’s travels to salvation through hell, purgatory, and heaven in the works

Trembling kissed my lips.
                                 That author and his book played the part
                                 of Gallehault. We read no more that day.
                                                                 -Mary Jo Bang’s translation

So, is the reader responsible for not having honed the necessary reading skills to understand the author’s intent?

Or, is the poet responsible for not making the ideas clear enough for the readers to understand?

While Cerebus: Book 8 doesn’t address these same questions, it does work with a question closely related to the ones puzzled over by Dante. Should creators maintain the rights and control over their creations? The answer provided for a creator’s responsibility to a reader’s understanding influences the answer to the rights of control.

Letting control of a creation escape the artist’s mastery carries a dark destructive stigma on these pages of Women. Management of a creative property by an organization that focuses on profit and mass appeal damns one as surely as reading Arthurian romances lead the Italian lovers to their hellish situation. This loss of control carries with it the concerns that originality and creativity and potential of the character will erode the original idea into a shallow parody of its original potential. Greater ethical concerns arise as well if creators hold a responsibility for the effect of their creations. Setting the work loose to wander like Frankenstein’s monster carries with it deadly consequences.

How much control should a creator retain over her or his character creations?

Are corporations better stewards of creative properties and better able to expand and explore the full range and potential of the character, or is the single creator better able to realize their story lines with their greater resources and financial advantages than a single creator ever could?

Is a creator still responsible for what becomes of a character after others hold the legal rights?

What is the relation between a creation and the creator’s need for money?

Who knows?
Swoon Roach knows.

With the meditation of the Swoon Roach and the slowly stated “must   contain   them all.    c   a   l   m,”  Cerebus: Women, posits that creations fare better with creators than corporations.  Swoon Roach subsumes the creations bursting forth into his chest, literally keeping them close to his heart, and maintains peace.  

While not directly answering the question with which Dante struggled, Cerebus: Women hints that, for better and worse, the actions and ideas occurring in the pages of Cerebus emerged from Dave Sim, not editors, distributors, or secret cabals of all-powerful fanboys.

The creator cares for and stays with his creation. And, love or hate what the creator does, there is some nobility and admiration, calmness, truth and love that occurs in such a choice.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus 7: Mothers & Daughters 1: Flight

Absurd Ascents

Cerebus: Flight
Issues 151-162
October 1991-September 1992
 246 pages 

Flight begins by continuing the ending of Melmoth. This seventh book in the aardvark’s chronicle tells of the failed revolt in the town of Iest, follows Cerebus into different dimensions where some workings of the universe are explained to him, and a parody of the Punisher and vigilante sexual frustration. The volume shifts from action to the philosophical to funny for a captivating balance.

Within the issue, a three page sequence captured the themes and tone of the entire book. This sequence begins on page 62. Seven men armed with swords, shields, and murderous looks, with and yelling “EYAAAAAA.” These attackers charge across the cobble-stoned streets toward four sword-wielding Cirinists (think of them as extremely conservative republican radical militant feminists). The Cirinists exude an aura of calm. They hold their swords at relaxed angels and slightly inclined their heads in their space at the bottom of the page. Disdain is conveyed with no depicted facial features with such skill that viewers begin to question their self worth.

Page 63 hides the carnage behind block letter words. A whole page filled with only words. Nothing like this ever appeared in a comic previously read and few pages since have utilized a similar technique.
Page 64 brings the twist cinched this three page full-page sequence. Three of the Cirinists gaze directly at the reader (in the context of the story they’re looking at Cerebus standing on a balcony) and all the attackers lie dead and bleeding on the street, chopped from life by the Cirinists.

Of everything from this first book in the Mothers & Daughters storyline, these three pages hold the themes of the story. The themes multiply from the conflict suggested in the title and goes on to include the opposition of female and male, calm set against excitement, individuality set against anonymity (in that readers can see the faces of the attackers but the faces of the Cirinists are concealed  both by not facing the reader and by wearing hoods), attack versus defense, motion/change set against immobility and stasis/stability. Given that the Cirinists easily cut down the male attackers, without any of the four suffering death or even injury, at this point in the story the Cirinists/mothers and the list of ideas they represent from the above paragraph have a pretty secure grip on power and control in the society.

Cerebus, as he does in so much of the book, escapes this dichotomy and acts as a wild card. He was the one that incited the attack on the Cirinists, and he’s the one the Cirinists look up to in the lower panel of page 64. But the look up contains no admiration, but based on the angle of Cirinist eyebrows, contains rather annoyance and disdain that such a trickster would dare exist and upset the order of Cirinist rule. Cerebus, in the first compact panel of page 65 appears too surprised by the easily defeated rebellion. Juxtaposing this small panel after the three large expansive pages of the Cirinists in action, aids in the emphasis of Cerebus limited power (in comparison with the Cirinists) and also conveys the unbalanced ratio set with another dichotomy of order (Cirinists) and chaos (Cerebus). The above ideas ooze throughout the storyline, an impressive bit of work for four panels at the beginning of a 49 issue story arc.

When rereading this volume another welcome aspect is the greater clarification of the larger idea and universal workings taking place in the story and that have been limited and alluded to in previous pages:
            glowing coins
            the hooded aardvark
            the scrawny wrinkly aardvark with bad hair
            Suenteus Po
            various tribes, groups, idols, etc.

While the explanation is greatly welcome, it creates the concern of how to
1. Speak/write about the profound without sounding trite
2. What images to use in tandem with this weighty and lengthy exposition
3, How to make this massive (but welcome) info dump from being too boring

Sim and Gerhard masterfully apply the absurd (and not for the first time) and the surreal to match and accompany the written explanations to provide apt and attention holding visuals, but also visuals that connect to the conveyed ideas that provide a bit of grandeur that enhances the written word.  A giant celestial chess game hints at some rules to the universe and some control over one’s destiny without any need for melodramatic belittling explanations. During Cerebus’s ascent through the Nth Spheres thin columns of images offset the text which is displayed like a long dense Robert Creely poem. Lots of white space stretches across the page and this emptiness works a double duty. Not only does it mirror the otherworldly journey of Cerebus, it also doesn’t overwhelm the reader with a page packed tight with complex text and images. Here distinct equal spaces reside on the page and Cerebus: Flight comes as close as possible to squaring the circle in comic books by composing an equal area for the image and the word.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus 6: Melmoth

Roving Wilde

Cerebus: Melmoth
Issues 139-150
October 1990 - September 1991
248 pages

The main surprise in Cerebus: Book 6 is that Cerebus does surprisingly little.

Such inaction, although violently ended at the end of the book, however fits with another odd twist of the book, it conveys the final days of Oscar Wilde.

Melmoth, the pseudonym Wilde adopted, Sebastian Melmoth, after his release from prison, works a strange magic. It mixes fact and fiction (perhaps continuing the dichotomies in Jaka’s Story) resulting in the literary urge to  read not more Cerebus books, but works of Oscar Wilde.

This sending of readers to anther’s works is a powerful effect. An impetus of writing (or reading) reviews hopes to influence potential readers to works the reader/writer found valuable with a hope that new readers will discover the reads as captivating as the one who suggested the text. Reminding a potential audience of the greatness of a work that otherwise might remain hidden makes reviewers slightly less obnoxious. Revitalizing interest and highlighting a work’s relation to the present gains reviewers, if not dinner invitations, at least a grudging appreciation.  The critical writings of Randall Jarrell taught appreciation of Robert Frost, the writings of Anne Carson made enlivened Sappho, Helen Vendler continues trying to show me the marvels of  Wallace Stevens, and Keith Silva always alerts readers to the intricacies lurking in the panels of comics that enhance the reading experience of any (well, most) comic book.

So, this extended introduction thanks Dave Sim and Gerhard for telling the days leading up to the death of Oscar Wilde, and reawakening a desire to re-read some reads of Oscar Wilde.
(The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and Wilde’s “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” serve as fine beginning marks for delving into Oscar Wilde’s writings). A work that leads readers to other works, provide, if not the best, at least an honorable homage for the original work.

I continually wracked my brains trying to find connection between the Cerebus storyline and the death of Oscar Wilde. And while part of me (a very large portion) suspects no link need exist   (and that Melmoth stands superior for the Wilde storyline plopped in the midst  of a sword and sorcery comic book about an aardvark), something seems to be transpiring with this juxtaposition of fiction and fact. The slow decay of Wilde hearkens to Cerebus-the-immobile in this collection of a dozen issues. Having learned his death culminates in the earth-pig being alone, unmourned, and unloved, and losing Jaka, it’s not really surprising to see the titular character paralyzed by nihilism (or so it seems). Yet, the same element that keeps Oscar’s final days from an utter bleakness worthy of Dickens is the same factor that finally jars Cerebus from inaction—concern and love for another (Oscar’s friends for him, and Cerebus’s love for Jaka). No matter what, if anything, may be in store after death, love at least casts some comfort (albeit cold, but better cold comfort than none at all) and arousal to action and protection for others and conveys some faith in life rather than in death.

Sim’s and Gerhard’s  artwork continues in its quality execution.  More aspects of the tale (the poor services of the wait staff at the restaurant where Cerebus perches statuesque, the inflated assessment  of gold, the waitress resembling Jaka, the bloody mess Cerebus makes of the Cirinsts with his sword after he overhears that one of them tore out a chunk of Jaka’s hair, etc.) remain potential threads for a more thorough and extended study of the work…but not for this review. 

Dear readers, forget about further analytic speculations regarding Melmoth, and instead borrow, beg or steal a copy of Oscar Wilde’s work and begin reading to bring forth the laughs and revisit or discover the remains of his witty and tragic comedic toils.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus 5: Jaka's Story

The Daughter of Palnu

Cerebus: Jaka’s Story
 Issues 114-136
August1988-July 1990
486 pages

 While rereading Jaka’s Story, I reconnected with a friend with whom an almost twenty-year abyss of silence stretched. No sinister betrayals, thwarted bank robberies, or demon control extended the silence to so many years, but rather each of us moved in different directions at 18 to live our own lives.

So, while very pleased to gulf the abyss and be in touch, the plaguing question arose of how do you convey a life of almost two decades to someone?

Jaka’s Story treats this same challenge and Sim and Gerhard apply graphics and paragraphs alongside bent facts and time spans to deliver a semblance of the life, and at the same time character and identity, of Jaka. Conventional biographies corset lives in time; Sim and Gerhard cut the laces with words and pictures and loosen temporal constraint.

Jaka’s Story[1] picks up after the final desolation at the end of Church and State and averts its focus from the minutia of political action and intrigue. With a setting limited to a single-room tavern, the street in front of the tavern, a small apartment shared by Jaka, her husband Rick, and house-guest Cerebus, an apartment of Oscar [Wilde], a prison cellblock, and the quasi-fictional memories of a young Jaka’s rooms and playground in Lord Julius’s palace, the geography varies little.

While narrating the biography of Jaka, it simultaneously suggests that versions of an individual’s past remains in the present moment and shapes how individuals perceive themselves and how others perceive the individuals with as much force as actions in the present. Art shapes these perceptions into some sensible form that allows for some greater understanding and/or investigation. 

As Wilde assembled in his Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, “One should always be a little improbable.”

How to Tell a Life: While the main concern of Jaka’s Story is Jaka, like any good biography, its revelations extend like tendrils of gravity to influence readers, illuminating shadowy realms of their own lives along with the life of Jaka. For this shedding of light, the medium shines the message…or at least part of the message…of this work.

Sim applies a split narrative, where a section of Jaka’s present life (living on the side of a mountain with her husband) and her childhood (raised in Lord Julius’s palace) unfold simultaneously (or at least as close as printed works can achieve) to the reader. Past and present occur alongside each other.

Memory works in a similar way, it has the focus of just one event tale, or scenario to be carried out, yet the conjuration or consideration of an idea spawns an associative complex web of remembrances of things past. When transporting the reader to Jaka’s past, the sequences of sequential art become steeped to a single image parallel to a thin column of dense text that opens swaths of white space to sprawl leisurely upon the page. These moments of white space function as a focus for the actions in the pillar of text, but also figuratively represent memory. The one image symbolically becomes a scrying surface for an entire experience and works as powerfully as lime tea and a madeleine to recall previous events. All else fades into the white space haze—unimportant.

That white space lets the reader focus on the narrated event just as the speaker focuses on the single tale being relayed, while at the same time suggesting more occurs than any page can hold…to attempt to portray all the details in a life, even in a moment, is impossible, and would weaken the moment. The use of white space encompasses the infinite, letting the reader’s mind construct the details without restriction. Portraying Jaka’s past with this method ensures that less specific information results in more information.

Accompanying the swaths of white space, Sim works reflections and repetition to a similar end. Two scenes best capture this technique. Pages 193-195 depict the tavern/grocer owner Pud mopping the
floor.  The tavern owner (hiding a secret lust for Jaka) rehearses an imagined dialogue with Jaka in his head. This exact same script reoccurs throughout the volume and as if Pud gains comfort with the lines, builds up his confidence. The three pages show the reflection of the tavern owner clarifying in the puddle, symbolic of his strengthening resolve to initiate his often imagined conversation. He starts the conversation with Jaka during her next shift at the tavern. This clarity of resolution for both the image and the character’s resolve continues the dualistic theme (past and present, black-and-white/pen-and-ink, words and pictures, work and home, husband and wife, spouse and friend, art and force) with the image and the imagination.

Jaka is drawn in a similar reflection on pages 62-65, 321-323, 413 and the final age 486 of Cerebus Book 5.

On pages 62, 64, and 65 Jaka dresses for dancing. She tries on different outfits and applies makeup, each time checking the mirror for the result, to make sure her reflection portrays the desired image. Biographies work in  similar way, the actual person can’t be captured in a written record, but some reflection, a chimera of the person, a hint at what the individual arises from reading the pages of another’s life. Oscar writes to the critic Mr. Hendricks on page 287:

 “…As to whether my story is “true,” it really depends on what you mean by that term. Any well-written article of prose is “true” because it touches one’s emotions and illuminates one’s thinking. To whatever extent the facts related within the story are not at variance with that intention, they remain unmodified.”

The chosen image finally selected by Jaka and Oscar as they dress and prepare for the public (on pages 321-313) contains the truth they want to convey about themselves and hope the public will perceive, but as any struggling biographer knows, truth of a person extends far beyond any image that can be reflected or depicted.

Which brings consideration to the image of Jaka looking out a window on page 413 and 486. This reflection depicts the inner reflection on Jaka, after her imprisonment, after being told she is hated by her husband, after the end of her dancing, after a return to the very palace she escaped at 16 years old. The reflection, in window glass instead of a mirror, is ephemeral and allows the outside world to show through and obscure her face. This reflection doesn’t allow choice for a self to portray, but rather has the world fade distinctions of self, the world exerting its truth on the individual. Somewhere between the lines of these reflections, the truth that Mr. Hendericks seeks about Jaka exists, but such a truth, without a “touch on one’s emotions and illumination of one’s thinking” is nothing more than an ink stain festering on the page.

[1] The events in Jaka’s Story seem restrained when compared to the far-reaching sprawl of Church & State. The summary for each section of Jaka’s Story consists of:

Prologue: A morning routine of Jaka and her husband Rick is shown, where they rise from bed, dress, and Rick, after a rough reminder, goes to look for work. A split to the past narrates the childhood of Jaka and her doll Missy while growing up in Palnu.

Book One: Pogrom’s Progress: narrates the arrival of Cerebus in the house of Jaka and Rick. The daily routine of Jaka buying groceries from her landlord (Pud Withers), then going to his tavern to sit and wait to dance for customers (none arrive), before she returns home. Rick hunts for work with a lackadaisical zeal and attempts to initiate marital congress with Jaka with a more dedicated zeal.  Cerebus sits around and daydreams of running off with Jaka.

Book 2: The Poet: has Oscar a poet/writer arrive on the side of the mountain to work on his story and to hang around with Rick. Sim’s Oscar is Oscar Wilde and is accompanied with the wit of our world’s Oscar Wilde. Jaka continues her routine until finally the first customer stops in the tavern. Rick tries to look for work. His time spent with Oscar annoys Jaka. Cerebus sits around a lot throwing a ball in a bucket. Finally he leaves to buy a jar of paint. Jaka’s past continues its integration between episodes of the present story. Readers learn the events of Jaka’s past were crafted by Oscar. The Cirinists show up  and  kill the tavern owner and customer, arrest Jaka and Rick, and sentence Oscar to two years of hard labor because he doesn’t possess…an artistic license.

Book 3: Mystery Achievement: Jaka’s captivity is narrated. She meets her old nurse, who is executed, and undergoes some re-education to sign a confession that dancing is wrong. She reunites with Rick and reveals that she induced a miscarriage, much to Rick’s distress. Rick states he never wants to see Jaka again and is sent by the Cirinists to live with his mother. Jaka is transported back to Lord Julius’s palace in Palnu. Cerebus returns to discover the burned remains of the tavern. He drops and breaks the jar of paint. 

Epilogue: Jaka sits silent in a room of Lord Julius’s palace while servants speculate on her condition during the preparation of her tea. Readers learn Jaka’s escape from the palace to dance 13 years ago, wasn’t as secret as she thought, and the royal search for Jaka was a farce, since her location was known and monitored by the royal family.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus 4: Church and State Vol. II

Pattern Recognition

Cerebus Church& State II
Issues 81-111
December 1985 - June 1988
625 pages

Church and State concludes with a beginning, an ugly understanding that comes to the main character, the foresight to his death. It hits the earth-pig with the force of the moon.

While the first volume of Church and State opened with Cerebus writing, the second volume opens with a black-costumed Spider-Roach babbling of the Secret Sacred Wars and dragging Cerebus around the lower city. After short visit to the spirit world, some spiritual history, and a return to the prime material plane and lighting of some gunpowder, Cerebus regains his power and position as Pope. He works at constructing a perfect orb, and riding a black tower to the moon where he learns of his the creation and destruction of the world as well as the ending of his own life, where the Earth-pig learns “You will live only a few more years, you die alone. Unmourned. And unloved.”

The act of creation that carried some form of salvation mentioned in the response to Church & State I eluded Cerebus, it continues to do so in this volume. Yet, this confrontation with a celestial power (along with the revelation that he lost his gold, army, and position as pope) stuns the title character. The Man-in-the-Moon slides advice to the aardvark via Dostoyevsky: “To accept suffering and be redeemed by it.”

It seems, if Cerebus won’t gain redemption from writing, from creating, he’ll gain it through suffering.

Cerebus gains power and wealth and then loses it. As readers we’ve been put in the same spot with Cerebus at the end of Cerebus, the end of High Society, and now the end of Church & State—Cerebus is broke and left with nothing. Always a dream of wealth and power through conquest fill his mind, but what the consideration beyond such acquisitions (when the question is asked) never has an answer from Cerebus, the achieving of the dream is its own reward. Which sounds fine, but  pity is reserved fro the Man, or aardvark, that achieves a dream and has no other to follow it, or is unable to learn contentment with a static situation. Yet this static situation of the character is masqued by his ever-active deeds, wanderings, and political intricacies of the story. These details of events happening in Church & State II totally elude me. I hoped, in vain, that this reading of the text (with greater reading skills and familiarity with the story and the characters) but no. I’m as clueless as Cerebus about the Kelvinists, Cirinists, Eastern Church, Western Church and the chronicled deeds of Suetonious Po.

And yet, at least with the way the story read, this time, such details seem almost meaningless—broad metaphors for bureaucratic confusion and needless complication that matters little and amounts to nothing in the grand weave of the plot. When the Man in-the-Moon informed Cerebus the gold and empire and position of power he spent the last 1,220 pages assembling vanished in two panels and five word balloons on page 1212. Brushing aside such complexity and political points with such brevity hardly stresses the importance of these details. Here, Sim has this shift of events serve as yet another supporting point to convey to Cerebus the message of the things that matter—if not to him at least to the universe at large in the story.

And the poor earth-pig hasn’t gathered it yet in 4 volumes into his own series.

This repetition too, of an easy truth hard learned (as they so often seem to be…in hindsight if at no other time) need tough obvious lessons again and again until it finally sinks in or until the subject is in the proper frame of mind to notice the lesson and take the learning into consideration and life.

An hypnotic element exists in black and white art—an element that that seems particularly apt for this volume of Cerebus-with the void and the light, the East and the Worst aspect of the Church. The composition assembled by Sim and Gerhard grab attention to focus on matters that are often overlooked—the glass shade of a hurricane lamp (on page 773), or the billows of clouds (page 687) and the way the light plays over shattering glass on page 1024. The lines and crosshatchings   and the white space judiciously used bring out, if not an appreciation at least a fascination with these objects depicted, or to notice the grain of the wood that lines the page.

This detail, the fine lines from thin crow nibs ensnare the focus with Lilliputian lines that hold colors and brushed ink can’t manage (although they have their own machinations to ensnare attention and enflame the imagination). A fine set of works manages by floppy pages of a comic about a violent misanthropic aardvark.

So, what to make of this reading of Church & State? Patterns of oppositions exist. The characters in the story obtained awareness of these patterns and will gain redemption or destruction from their cycles. Readers face a similar choice.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus Book 3: Church & State I

     The Making of Monsters and Writing
          For Eula Biss

Cerebus Church& State I
Issues 52-80
July 1983-November 1985
592 pages

After abdicating a disastrous stint as Prime Minister of Iest, Cerebus begins writing, verbally compiling his political memoirs.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein opens with the written report of Robert Walton to his sister Mrs. Saville. Robert Walton searched for a purpose. a high grand goal to accomplish with his life.

Cerebus too was looking for something to do after serving as Prime Minister.  The aardvark sat content to write in a tavern. Robert Walton found contentment in funding and leading an expedition to be the first man to reach the North Pole.

Mary Shelley wanted to write a novel. Dave Sim wanted to complete a 300 issue run of an independent comic staring an aardvark.

Cerebus meets The Countess, who offers him a place to stand and write—and at the same time encourages his ambition and acceptance of power that makes him Prime Minister (again), and drunk, and married, and pope. These positions have more in common with one another than any of them have in common with writing.

Robert Walton meets Victor Frankenstein who curbs Walton’s ambitions with his personal tale of power pursuit and the deadly results.  Walton became more human. Being human shares many overlaps with writing.

According to her journal entries, Mary Shelley added the epistolary element to her novel in 1817 after having read and been influenced by Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (another great monster novel) is an epistolary work. One could begin to think some link lurks between monsters and writing.

After become prime minister (again) and pope, Cerebus embraces and revels in this new power and abandons his power gathered through writing. As his political and religious power waxes, his writing power wanes along with his humanity (as much humanity as an aardvark can symbolize in an independent black-and-white comic book).

Church and State I opens with spacious images that sprawl across the page. This collection makes the layouts of Cerebus Book I and Cerebus: High Scoiety seem cramped and confining. Many times the restrictions and compression aren’t perceived until openness and freedom and room to stretch are encountered.

Mary Shelley was 16 when she ran off with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy was already married with a child and his wife, Harriet, pregnant with their second child. Percy invited his wife to come and live with him and Mary. Harriet didn’t accept the offer. 

Cerebus complained about being with Red Sophia and at the same time didn’t want her to leave. He wanted her and wanted rid of her. He didn’t know what he wanted. All that power blinded him.

Victor Frankenstein wanted to create life. Robert Walton wanted to accomplish a great feat. The monster wanted a mate. It might be better to not always get what you want. According to her journal, Mary Shelley added the plotline of the monster’s desire for a mate on X 1816, the anniversary of her and Shelley’s traveling-love tryst.

Cerebus doesn’t return to his writing in Church and State I, even though he makes impromptu speeches and demands of fervent religious followers. Cerebus gathers gold and throws women, the elderly, and babies from the roof. During his speeches, many followers can’t even hear what he says. Image supersedes words.

Mary Shelley feared people would hear what she wrote in her journals of 1815-1816. Later in life, after her husband drowned in a boating accident, she destroyed her early journals in a self-directed purge. The monster in her novel, while teaching itself how to read—and schooling itself in Milton’s Paradise Lost and other works never learned to write nor to create. Decreation in the killing of Elizabeth, Wililam, and giving hand to the death of Justine and Victor through his machinations. Robert Walton, through writing down Victor’s tale in letters to his sister avoids a similar fate of doom and desiccation. Even Victor Frankenstein, despite the problems and destruction wrought on the world from his monster, still dies with a sense of contentment. In Church and State I, Jaka dances, an ephemeral fleeting language and through this art she’s able to articulate and achieve contentment better than Cerebus with the full might of his divinely backed power. Writing, art, may bring forth and display the monstrous aspects of a human being. This act of creation, this writing, this dancing, this depicted image of life (whether formed from flesh or ink) carries with it salvation, not only for the artist, but for an audience as well. A creature, whether daemon or aardvark, who chooses only to destroy and manipulate ensures an ultimate fate of being deposed, themselves destroyed, tossed aside in abandonment on the wastes of an icy north or a lower city….

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus Book 2: High Society

Cerebus: High Society

Cerebus High Society
Issues 26-50
May 1981-May 1983
512 Pages

High Society lingered in my memory only as some funny political jibes and a larger theme that lurked in the background that I knew I was completely missing. These indistinct impressions remain from a reading two decades distant of a text over three decades old.  This present reading of Cerebus’s second collected adventures revealed the humor I remembered, it still evoked laughs despite the years passed, and an investigation of power lurched forth as a theme which escaped my earlier perceptions.

High Society doesn’t seem to advance a detailed theory of power in the same sense as Machiavelli’s Prince, or Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. Instead it offers vignettes of power, short studies of the effect and reactions that occur when power’s grasped.

Summary: In brief, High Society chronicles the tale of Cerebus serving as governor of the town of Iest and his political campaign to become Prime Minister. The volume begins with the earth-pig aiding two minor thugs in his kidnapping, and follows this antic with his political campaign against a goat for prime minister of Iest. He achieves his position, but through some labyrinthine economical links he abdicates his position and vacates the Regency Hotel, his seat of power during his brief political career.

Setting: The Regency Hotel establishes a magical setting, complete with its  Place doesn’t secure power.
own mystical creature (a flying cheery mildly vindictive elf), an open bar, and insulation from the rabble beyond the doors. This environment illustrates the division between those holding political
power and the populace that must suffer their decisions. The physical remove from the everyday-real-world functioning has Cerebus isolated from the general populace. He has more interactions and conversations with the Elf than any of those who must live with the consequences of his policies. The possession of power creates a chasm between the rulers and the ruled. The outcome of dwelling in this fantasy realm results in abandonment by all his followers and a Regency Hotel surrounded by armed troops.

Voters:  During election campaign for prime minister of Iest, the newspapers print simple sensational headlines in connection to the campaigns. The depth of inquiry remains so shallow in the media that it would be difficult to dampen a bare sock.  If a citizen voter of Iest wanted political understanding, the newspapers offer nothing.

In-depth political insight might be lost however on the population of Iest.  The citizens accept a wild  The intelligence of the voting populace plummets further when the majority can’t distinguish between the goat and the aardvark when casting their ballots. So, while desiring Cerebus for prime minister and verbally denouncing and railing against Lord Julius’s goat, they’re at the same time (unawares) voting for the goat.
and barnyard animal as quality candidates for political office.

When touring and giving publish speeches, Cerebus drew crowds and roused the listeners into some kind of fervor.  The audience remained clueless about the speech’s message (and even who was speaking, many thought Cerebus was the goat) but responded with ignorant mob enthusiasm.  Audiences gained no understanding or conviction.  Power through speech aims to convince an audience but rather to exert a fleeting sphere of influence to manipulate voters to act in the desired manner.  Power here isn’t transformative or empowering but rather manipulative and abusive and deceptive.  Power, political power in Iest, destroys the many for the exaggerated perceived benefits of the few.

Political Deeds:  Governance supposedly provides some efficient orderly method to accomplish tasks on a large scale.  This efficiency doesn’t exist in Iest or the surrounding areas.  Alliances between cities involve a complex manipulation of an economy that has the opacity and logic of a magical illusions performed by crazed followers of Da-Da.  All cities carry massive debts that gain security by borrowing money from other cities with massive debts.  To further complicate matters, no one understands the details of the economic relations and functions.  Such a situation results in permanent monetary crisis.
Attempting to deal with this economic matter directly, Cerebus as prime minister of Iest invades neighboring cities with the intention of using their money to pay off Iest’s debts.  His military attacks are managed by two competent mercenaries whom Cerebus praises for the swiftness and effectiveness of their work.

Yet even these concrete actions and acquisitions of tangible goods (cash and land) the bureaucratic cabal renders worse than useless; instead of alleviating Iest’s debt, the grabs of power only increased the debt as Cerebus becomes responsible for the lands he acquired.  Power hides consequences that manifest only when used.

Motivation: High Society’s exploration of power considers the ambition of the powerless (Astoria) and a figure head (Cerebus). Astoria reveals she wants to use her position to create women’s suffrage; Cerebus wants “more money than anyone else has.”  From these two desires, much creative budget buttressing, manipulation, and compromise leave both main characters of this story arc dissatisfied and disgusted at the conclusion of issue 50.

Astoria: The cold façade Astoria maintains throughout the book unsettled me during the initial  She’s never without a plan, or a back-up plan for her back-up plan.  All of Astoria’s power comes from influencing others, all men (and an aardvark).  Her progressions from Lord Julius to Artemis to Cerebus place her in the proximity of power, but she only ever holds and wields it second hand.  Such a combination warps her humanity into something close to nonhuman.
reading and the second reading as well. Astoria is scary. Reasons for my initial discomfort are unremembered, but in this reading the dedication Astoria has to her task as well as he efficiency she wields in accomplishing it makes one shiver at viewing someone fully dedicated to a single cause utterly believed in. As one without power, she’s willing to lie, manipulate, compromise, and self denigrate so long as her goals become achieved.

Astoria’s lager desire for using her position of influence to expand gain women a political vote receives derision and flip dismissal by the individuals she helped elevate to power.  Her goal is never achieved.  From the sequence of events Astoria’s goal, while noble in one regard, appears foolish when the greedy corrupt workings and universal ignorance of the entire political body or Iest enters into consideration.  Whether foolish or not, Astoria ends the book with nothing (with the possible exception of hidden embezzled cash), not even an avaricious aardvark to manipulate.  

Cerebus: Cerebus’s goal of having more money than anyone else also fails—he leaves the Regency with just a sword and even tosses the duck—the object that could gain and grant him the wealth sought—to shatter on the rocks.

Direct or indirect exercise of power in politics both bring about a bad end. As does dialogue and war.  A noble or ignoble motivation for seizing power also ends with destruction.  Radical fringe political elements like the Anarcho-Romantics offer no hope for a better system of governing.  No rational possibility for power exists in High Society.

Rational Political Chaos: Rational use of power erupts into farce in High Society.   Cerebus drinks (and tricks others into drinking) copious amounts of whiskey as a method for coping with the illogical world of politics.  The entire system of governance reveals itself as a dark and subversive joke directed towards all involved with political process.  As an escape from this comedy High Society offers two solutions. 

The first is putting as much distance between oneself and politics as possible.  The hermit who lives in the distant hills exemplifies this approach. Yet even he can’t escape the political reach of Iest, and he ends up getting slugged in the gut by Cerebus for his participation in political process.
The other solution involves fighting fire with fire.  Sitting at the Parnassus of political power, the wild random actions of Lord Julius mirror the amusing farce of political operation.  Power is a cruel joke with no consistent logic.  Lord Julius recognizes the situation and adopts the best method to manipulate and maintain power; laugh and act utterly duck-soup crazy.

For orientation in comics during the three-year publication of High Society Wikipedia offers:


Eagle Awards

for comics published in 1981:
  • Best New Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz[12]
  • Roll of Honour: Roy Thomas
  • Favourite Artist (UK): Mick Austin[13]

for comics published in 1982:
Favourite Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz[8]
Favourite Artist (UK): Brian Bolland
Best Comics Writer: Alan Moore, V For Vendetta (Warrior, Quality Communications)
Best New Book: Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez (DC Comics)
Best UK Title: Warrior, edited by Dez Skinn
Best Story: V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (Warrior, Quality Communications)

for comics published in 1983:

American Section

  • Favourite Artist (penciller): Frank Miller
  • Favourite Artist (inker): Terry Austin
  • Favourite Writer: Frank Miller
  • Favourite Comicbook: Daredevil
  • Favourite Character: Wolverine
  • Favourite Group or Team: X-Men
  • Favourite Villain: Darkseid
  • Favourite Supporting Character: Elektra
  • Character Most Worthy of Own Title: The Spectre
  • Favourite Single or Continued Story: Wolverine #1-4 (miniseries)
  • Favourite New Comic Title: Camelot 3000
  • Favourite Comic Cover: Doctor Strange #55
  • Favourite Specialist Comics Publication: PASS

British Section

  • Favourite Artist: Brian Bolland
  • Favourite Writer: Alan Moore
  • Favourite Comic: Warrior
  • Favourite Comic Character: Marvelman
  • Favourite Villain: Kid Marvelman
  • Favourite Supporting Character: Zirk
  • Character Most Worthy of Own Title: Judge Anderson
  • Favourite Single or Continued Story: Marvelman (Warrior #1-3, 5 & 6)
  • Favourite New Comic: Warrior
  • Favourite Comic Cover: Warrior #7
  • Favourite Specialist Comics Publication: PASS

Roll of Honour

  • Will Eisner

Friday, September 13, 2013

Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus: Book 1

Cerebus: Book 1[1]

Interested in Sophisticated Fun started the entire matter with his pull and review from the Dig the Longbox on Cerebus 32. The questions raised, and the citing of Cerebus as a classic in independent publishing, and the seeming slip of the earth pig (and his 300-issue chronicle) into the beginnings of obscurity (or so I imagine it. The Comics Store possessed none of the back issues and only the final two trade collections sat on the shelf) prompted a second glance at the 16 volumes sitting on my shelf. The hazy memory of something great having passed, roused the desire for a reading pilgrimage of the 16 books, all 300 issues, of Cerebus.

My first (scattered and stretched out) reading was discontinuous, scattered and stretched between the years 1994-2006.  I’m curious as to how the series stands up to a more concentrated reading (a volume-a-month pace is the one I hope my pilgrim boots maintain). Also, I hate and mourn the possibility of a classic (like the Iliad, Paradise Lost, Orlando Furioso, and The Anatomy of Melancholy, and too too many others…) receiving a culture’s shrug-off when the works have value to offer  modern audiences.

So, with such intentions, and a pen instead of a pilgrim’s staff, the following discoveries arose from the reading of Cerebus: Book 1.

The episodic nature of the first 25 issues of the aardvark’s travels could load a general summary with cartloads of meaningless details outside of the specific issue. A swift red-wheelbarrow 25-issue plot summary[2] follows. 

The collection begins with a humanoid aardvark barbarian in a Robert E. Howardesque medieval sword and sorcery world. Other characters acknowledges that Cerebus is a talking upright-walking (physically, NOT morally) animal, but no one seems too bothered by this anomaly or makes too much of it. This avoidance aids the sweep and immediacy of the story, and allows the tales to side step lengthy explanations of how a humanoid animal came about and fits into this world. It just is. The characters accept it. Readers, just accept it. The stories are better for it.

So Cerebus begins undertaking sword-for-hire work for bags of gold, which he promptly spends, loses, or has stolen. The cast of characters he meets (Red Sophia, Jaka, Lord Julius, Elrod the Albino, the Roach, and Weisshaupt) are colorful parodies. Cerebus several times commands armies and stands set to seize great power, but he always loses. Always though, it’s the acquisition of gold and securing of alcohol (whiskey or apricot brandy preferred) that motivates the aardvark. The first collection ends with Cerebus taking lots of gold from an artist/art dealer who feels horrible at the death of Cerebus’s “dear friend” to ease his emotional suffering.

Watching the plans of Cerebus grow in scope seized and maintained attention and curiosity. The picaresque element to the issues roused speculation (and I could be totally off on this) on Sim’s approach to writing. Was he working on establishing a narrative footing?  Was he trying to construct ideas for a large story arc?  Was he maintaining the picaresque tradition of Conan tales and Arthurian romances? I don’t know. But, the story arcs have an organic feel, like they’re unfolding right on the page as it is being written and as it is being read. This gives each tale a freshness, no sense of being overworked, and an easy free flowing of one event to the next.

Cerebus’s character exudes great strength from the first issue. Sim either did a lot of prethinking and prewriting because Cerebus hits the page as a character with a strong and developed personality.  It didn’t feel in this reading that Sim was trying to get a sense of the character, but rather trying to get a sense of ways to tell stories about the character; each issue feels like an experiment, a try out, a tossing of a strong character into a fracas just to see what happens.

Cerebus’s humor remains one of the most memorable traits from the first reading. Not funny in the simplistic attempts of Spider-Man humor, or the laughs found in sit-coms, but a slightly darker more jaded lived-in humor. A humor that thou could chuck up the laughs and spin parodies, but at the same time still maintain a sense of seriousness and not fall fully into the realm of farce, a delicate balance to maintain. Cerebus is serious, but not too serious all the time, and it’s funny, but not to the point of inanity…rather like a literary genetic splicing between Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck.

Surprisingly, despite the years that passed since the initial publication of the Cerebus 1, none of the books felt dated (as, say, an issue of the Avengers from 1977 might feel dated when read now). The parodies and farce certainly had links to events in their time, but they hold up on their own. Lord Julius is funny even without any exposure to Groucho Marx. Elrod and Red Sophia hold their own as characters in personalities and deeds. Familiarity with Red Sonja and Elric of Melinboné add an extra layer of chuckles to their presence, but familiarity, even awareness that such characters exist, are not needed to enjoy Sim’s spin on these characters within the pages of Cerebus. This accomplishment of Sim maintained the enjoyment and humor of rereading the stories.

While rereading the first 25 issues the amount of failure that befell Cerebus shiver any sense of hope readers may possess.  Cerebus loses bags of gold, positions of power, more bags of gold, health, mobility, political positions, and somewhere along the way his double-horned helmet. Not wanting to make too much of this, but, next to the humor which I rememered and enjoyed as much with the reread. There seems some metaphor or theme lurking amongst the panels. I don’t know if, at the beginning of his run on Cerebus is Dave Sim encountered a host of problems and set backs and failures in the early early days of Ardvark-Vanaheim press and these instances worked their way into the story.

Within the actual context of the story Cerebus does get angry, smashes tables, faces, utters words so vile they can’t be contained within the letters of the English language and at times rages and rages and rages and mumbles angrily a lot under his breath. And yet, thearth pig (in the next issue) is ready to undergo another trial of hardship. He concocts another scheme,and willingly sets himself towards taking another chance. This tenacity and determination works well at giving Cerebus some redeeming character tratis that offset his greed and mercenary tendencies.

While still not too sure what to make of this plot theme, Cerebus as the underdog, err, under aardvark, works well to give Cerebus a difficult to resist charm and makes it easy for a reader to cheer for the earth pig and slant gazes aside when the earth pig is delves into some of his more unsavorary practices.

A heavy influence of Barry Windsor Smith lurks in the early panels and pages of Dave Sim’s Cerebus. The thick heavy lines slim down soon enough and Cerebus’s portrayal swiftly assumes familiar proportions. Black and white comics (like black and white movies) possess a unique ability to craft and maintain an hypnotic aura. While the beginning few issues maintained a pretty standard but soon Sim begins playing with layouts and perspective that couldn’t be found in any of the big two at this time.  Within the opening book Sim varies the backgrounds from solid black, to solid white, to minimal detail then to intricate detail, the variation enlivens the pages and at times pushes the other objects in the panel forward, while at other times the background pulls the foreground objects away from the reader. This shift, much like Sim’s writing, keeps the pages of the comic lively and fresh.  

The comics of the 1970’s contain the aura and lure of the land of the fae. These yellowing pages obtained the sacredness and illusiveness of the sangrail when referenced in letter pages or an editor’s note. Storylines partially referenced and alluded to in these (what I thought of as ancient) comics excited the imagination and ignited a greedy desire for possession that could rival Cerebus’s desire for gold. With no money, no internet, and no nearby comic shops I was relegated to the comics sold at the local Hallmark and Waldenbooks and those that could be found when the family ventured to flea markets. At times, older brothers of friends (only two collected comics, so it was a limited selection) and I unabashedly completed homework in math, Latin, language arts, chemistry, and civics in return for issues of comics…usually ragged and creased issues from the late 70s and early 80s. So, many of the time-placed references in these early issues of Cerebus surpass my perception. I was one year old when the first issue of Cerebus hit the stands, and not being able to speak, let alone read, I had no chance of persuading my parents to start buying and bagging issues of an obscure comic and explaining the allusions to my infantile mind.

Thankfully though, those writers who stride in the steps of Pliny the Elder and Diderot at Wikipedia compiled basic information on comic books in 1977-79.  1977 is the year Wendy and Richard Pini launched War Graphics. John Byrne and Terry Austin began their acclaimed collaboration on X-Men with issue #108 of the title. The Eagle Awards started and were presented to:

1977 Eagle Awards

1978 Eagle Awards

American section

U.K. section


1979 Eagle Awards

While not necessary to understand Book 1, reading a swift overview of the works that comic readers honored over 30 years ago. Cerebus would certainly disapprove, but, well, so what? The first section of the pilgrimage has started well. Replete with enjoyment, satisfaction, and pleasant surprising discoveries Book1 leaves me eagerly anticipating Book 2: High Society. So let the next step of the pilgrimage begin the trek to and through the Regency Hotel…

[1] For some reason which still escapes me, six months ago I became wide-awake at 2am with the sudden realization that I was done reading monthly comics. There was no debate, no slow snapping of threads or complied frustrations that contributed to this event. I didn’t hate comics, I just realized (it wasn’t even a choice, but rather an acknowledgement of a fact, the way one acknowledges a fact like “it is raining outside”) that the thrill and enjoyment I gleaned from reading and writing about comics vanished is an instant. Literally. I was blind-sided by a black swan. I canceled all of my subscriptions at The Comic Store (and watched as the owner tore up my subscription card right in front of my eyes and said with assurance of a dealer to the most addicted of junkies, “Ahhrrhh, you’ll be back.” … I haven’t yet returned…) and haven’t read a comic book (floppy or graphic novel) since.

I still don’t know why or what caused this divorce. The suddenness and completeness with which it occurred though as certainly caused me to ponder the functioning of the brain and the some fundamental aspects of knowledge and knowing, and the construction of identity. It’s also a bit frightening.

Such is the context for the absence of posts on The Low-frequency Listener.
The reason for THIS post, and the aforementioned pilgrimage is all the fault of my interest in sophisticated fun….

[2] For those of you interested in a more detailed summary of every issue, some (un)lucky folks have already written them (and done a fine job of it from the limited selection I read) at The CerebusWiki <> Go knock yourself out.