Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Aardvark-Vanaheim Pilgrimage: Cerebus 9: Mothers & Daughters 3: Reads

Form & Content: What Are You Thinking? What Are You Feeling?

Cerebus: Reads
Issues 175-186
October 1993-September 1994
247 pages
“Everything is a tale…What we believe, what we know, what we remember, even what we dream. Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated. Don’t tell me you’re not tempted by the idea. (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, 145, The Angel’s Game).

Summary: Reads contains two stories. The Cerebus story (told in the standard comic-book style with pages divided into panels filled with pictures and words) concerns itself with the  three potential rulers: Cirin, Cerebus, and Astoria. Each one hears the prophecy and history spoken by the warlord-turned-philosopher  Suenteus Po who emphasizes contentment with one’s own desires and the worries and strains that accompany power. With these four empirical contenders, Suenteus Po and Astoria step away for less grand, but more self-rewarding choices. From hard-learned experience, Po discovers life is more fulfilling when he plays chess. Astoria (whose motivations are always complex and secretive) renounces her empirical ambitions due to Po’s speech. Astoria trades politics for gardening. Cerebus and Cirin remain unconvinced and continue their fight for the throne. Reads’s conclusion keeps the victor veiled.

The secondary story, told in double columns of text opposite a single square image. This tale tells of the publishing perils, triumphs, sell outs, compromises and philosophizing of author Viktor Davis. Fiction’s power is explored along with the demands and decisions of creators and their creations. Reads (and Cerebus as a whole) remains notorious for the discussions of misogyny the 186th issue (the final comic in this collection) of Cerebus generates. 

Form: Dichotomies weave throughout the 186-issue narrative of Cerebus, and Reads continues to work with this duality. A partial list includes:

Words  & Pictures

Black & White

Aardvark & Human

Have not & Have

Poor & Rich

Weak & Strong

Male & Female

Order & Chaos

Thought & Feeling

Seriousness & Humor

Heavenly & Earthly

This binary aspect of Cerebus imparts a mythic flavor present in Gilgamesh and the creation myths of Hesiod and Ovid, and ancient Babylon and universal scale to the book.

Sim’s choice to publish a comic bereft of panels and pictures and filled mostly with words, creates a refreshing variation from the norm and enlarges how  the medium can function. In Women, Sim utilized single anorexic columns of text. In Reads, Sim filled pages with chubby double columns of text. This form of full-page text fits the philosophical dialogue on the power and impact of writing and stories and autobiography and narrative in Viktor Davis’s career.  While this structure can grate (if one wanted to read straight prose, ten thousand novels await selection), it expands the range of comics. This opportunity allows new regions for comics to work as a crucible of thought.

This shift in form cues the reader of the change in the story. The entertainment aspect of this comic is diminishing, or rather the passive entertainment, as Sim challenges to reader to think, to engage and consider new ideas. The shift shows there’s no deception of tricking readers into falling for ideas, but rather to consider the ideas and then leap knowingly into acceptance or run away shrieking.

One story intertwines and grows beyond another story as it mimics the organic and generative nature of stories. Once one tale is told, serpentine sequels follow the first, old stories are shed, and new tales emerge entwined from the original narrative. 

Story: And what of these stories? “All stories are true,” according to the maxim Viktor Davis swiped from Alan Moore the way Prometheus stole fire from the gods.  Fire burdens as well as bolsters. 

Stories cradle both literal and metaphorical meaning within their narrative threads. Sometimes though, writers don’t know the events and meanings that will emerge within a story and these details work themselves out with the writing of the story. At times, leaving the writer’s thought process on the page helps a reader understand the writer’s logic. Issue 186 of Cerebus attracts criticism for misogyny. Crafting tales leads to unanticipated connections and conclusions. Like fire, words leap to surprising places.

The section of Reads that contains the story of Viktor Davis captures the rhythm of an idea getting worked out upon the page. The story arrives at a conclusion regarding thought and feeling, yet it does so by keeping the paragraphs, like step markers, of how such a conclusion was arrived at. Whether true or false, a task that can capture that immediacy of thought should be hailed has a well-written tale. Preserving the rationale for such a conclusion invites readers to examine the logic, ask questions, and arrive at their own answers. The tale isn’t telling readers what to think, rather the tale shows readers how a fictional character in a fictional setting arrived at a conclusion.

It is a precarious business associating the ideas of characters with the ideas of authors especially in fiction. Some disconnect does exist between the creator and the characters and ideas in a fictional setting. Yet still, even if Viktor Davis truly possesses (or possessed) the misogyny often heaped upon the author is only part of the Cerebus tales. The story contains other avenues of thought (and feeling) that stretch through the previous 186 issues.

So what is a reader to do with the paradox of an innovative quality story that harbors ideas fundamentally opposed to the reader’s beliefs? To reject a full 300 issues because the creator holds different beliefs also eliminates a lot of good story telling and beneficial self-reflection. As humans, creators have some dark actions: Martin Heidegger wrote engaging philosophy and also was a member of the Nazi SS; John Milton crafted Paradise Lost and worked as a secretary to the harsh rule of Oliver Cromwell; Virginia Woolf advocated empowerment for women and abused and denigrated her servants; The Birth of a Nation contained innovative camera work, coloring, plotting, soundtrack  and racist characterizations. The author and the work, though intertwined, are separate and distinct. Reading and enjoying a story (despite unsavory aspects that may arise or repellent traits the creator may possess) are not always an endorsement of the author’s thinking.

So what? How should a reader respond to this tale and the ides contained within? Well, if  all stories are true, then, for what it’s worth, here is a truth found in Reads.

Each author, maybe even each work, teaches each reader how to
read the work.. The binary aspect of Reads serves as a clue for reading the text. The shift from pages of images and words to pages of only words informs readers that there is a shift in medium that requires a shift in approach to the story. Pages full of text discussing ideas is the standard form of philosophy texts, so this shift to words suggests that Reads should be read, at least in part, as philosophy. Philosophy in the sense that ideas are considered and how and why one responds to these ideas are also considered. Reads encourages readers to think.

The theme of dichotomy present in Cerebus gives the story a basic (in the sense of primal, fundamental) strength, but dichotomies can be very limiting in the sense that everything gets grouped into one or two categories. This either/or approach, while simple, also can grow complex. This complexity works against simple limited understanding of terms. The dichotomies contain quite a range and complex composition.

If Light is akin to yin and Void is akin to yang, then Reads exhibits complexity by having Suenteus Po (yin with regards to sex) opt for a passive (yang) approach to life and empire. Astoria (yang with regards to sex, yin with past regards to politics) also adopts a passive (yang) political position in life. Cirin (yang) chooses the yin approach to life and rule while Cerebus (a hermaphrodite, hence a yin-yang) also chooses the yin approach. The story doesn’t present a simple light/dark situation. Instead the story narrates a power struggle scenario and in a way that forces careful readers to work through and think about the situation to arrive at their own conclusions.

But what about those things said by Viktor Davis? Again, while a dichotomy is presented (Light and Void) it is a complex shifting dichotomy of Reason and Emotion. 

On page 245, Viktor Davis states, “It wouldn’t be that big a stretch to categorize Reads as Hate-Literature against women.” This statement sounds damning and misogynistic, there is still a stretch occurring, implying that Reads, at least according to Viktor Davis, is not hate literature. Also, in the previous paragraphs, Davis talks of “Female and Emotion and Void,” not “woman.” The capital letters indicate that large impersonal complex categories and aspects of thought are being discussed.  The understanding that some readers reach isn’t the understanding Viktor Davis reached, nor is it the main point of Reads.

Reads ends with talk against fear, “Not doing a large ambitious work
because you’re convinced that Danger Lurks Around Every Corner…is a waste of the Inner Radiance that found you.” This focus on creating a large work encourages artists (writers, painters, creators in general) to accept and adhere to their own voice. Reads emphasizes on developing a voice more than how others will react to that voice, or even what that voice may say. Viktor Davis speaks his voice in issue 186 of Cerebus, and Reads encourages readers to do likewise.

Viktor Davis goes on to say:

“Remember that you’re just a custodian for It. You can be a good custodian, a so-so custodian or a bad custodian. You can make It a pile of smoldering twigs or you can make It a bonfire. The Male Light or the Female Void. I’m telling you that you have to choose. I’m telling you that if you think you can have both, you are mistaken, that you have already made your choice in that case.”

This final choice Viktor Davis presents readers is preceded by 245 pages of lead-up to this conclusion (and it could be argued 8 previous volumes of Cerebus to bring readers to this point). These former pages amount to Viktor Davis the thinker showing his work. Taking such a lengthy approach to this posed choice is an invitation to readers to go through and check the steps of Davis’s reasoning. Just because Viktor Davis states this either or choice exists, doesn’t mean that is the only truth within this story. One of the first things good readers learn is that not all narrators are reliable.

The complexity of dichotomies inherent in the larger Cerebus story allow for other understandings than the one presented by Viktor Davis. The text encourages readers to reach these understandings.

The second to last paragraph of Reads is:

“Consensus and Exception merged once more. Rather, Consensus and some Exceptions merged. Other Exceptions, feeling the first icy brush of the Merged Void against them, edged slightly apart from it. As they felt the weak gravitational tug, they moved even further from it, compressing their own awareness within themselves. Several hard, gem-like flames flared into new existence.”

What in the hell is going on here? This paragraph supports the previous claim, that Reads, even while putting forth its own ideas about a single choice of The Male Light or the Female Void, simultaneously encourages readers to consider the story with their own minds and arrive at their own conclusions so that their own light of understanding can flare into existence.

While it may be true that all stories are true, that truth carries power only in the way that it shapes and forms actions as readers of these stories dance throughout the world. And even if some readers, or even authors, believe a story to be true, that doesn’t mean all readers have to dance to the same tune.  Not every text needs complete unconditional acceptance. Valuable elements shouldn’t be lost because of odious ideas and simultaneously vile ideas shouldn’t seep into the mind from rhetorical flourishes.

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