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.

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