Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Rich Puchalasky wrote:

"Some day someone will be able to explain to me how a long-running parody strip, full of tired misogynist cliches from day one, drawn in cramped little panels, makes someone an enfant terrible whose crazy missives have to be head-banged over."

Dear Rich:

I take it that, in your universe, "long-running-parody-strip-drawn-in-cramped-panels" translates as "not especially good comic-book", so your question comes out "Since Cerebus was not an especially good comic book; your should not pay attention to Dave Sim's letters."

Presumably, in your universe, the converse holds true: "If Cerebus were an especially good comic book, then perhaps you should pay attention to Dave Sim's letters." Since I do regard Cerebus as an especially good comic, it should be clear why I pay attention to Sim's letters, at any rate when someone takes the trouble to point one out to me.

You state that "Cerebus is a long running parody strip." I take it that you do not mean "If Cerebus had only run for a short time, Sim's letters would be worth paying attention to." You must be saying "Cerebus is a parody strip whose only virtue is that it ran for a long time."

This contains two assumptions:

1: Cerebus is a parody strip.

2: A parody can't have a great deal of virtue.

Point 2 can be easily disposed of. Wasn't Hamlet a parody of the Revenger's Tragedy? Isn't Northanger Abbey a parody of a the Mystery of Odolpho? Weren't Tom Jones, Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso originally parodies of works which only scholars could now tell you names of? But we don't really need to bother with this, because Point 1 is manifestly absurd.

The first issues of Cerebus the Aadvark is modelled very closely on Barry Smith's art style. If this amounts to parody, then we would have to say that the whole of the American comic book industry since 1960 has been a parody of Jack Kirby (and therefore that there are no significant comics at all.) Of course, Cerebus contains elements of parody: very funny and clever parody, the kind of parody that other people steal and turn into reasonably successful comic books and cartoon series of their own. The Cockroach is a very funny and clever parody of the 1980s incarnation of Therbatman. The Tick, not so much.

I have in front of me a copy of Swords of Cerebus vol 6, which includes the last 3 issues of the "early, funny" issues of Cerebus the Aardvark. In issue 22, Cerebus, injured in the foot ("The Earth Pig mutters grimly about civilians who wear chain mail under their clothes") takes refuge in a deserted house. It turns out that this is a girls' boarding school, run by the mysterious Madame Dupont who agrees to take care of him until he has recovered. Cerebus expects to protect the girls against militia who are active in the area, but in fact, the girls are more than able to defend themselves. The title of the piece is "The Beguiling", acknowledging the debt to Clint Eastwood 's move The Beguiled, in which a Civil War soldier similarly takes refuge in a girls' school.

Certain scenes in the comic gain an added significance if you are familiar with the filum: on page 3 Dupont makes a veiled threat, saying that she will not charge Cerebus extra rent if she has to amputate his limb. In the movie, one of Clint Eastwood's legs is indeed removed. However, it is hard to see that this story is a "parody" of the movie. Only the basic situations are similar.

On page 15 of issue # 23, it transpires that Madame Dupont is, in fact, the alias for a male alchemist named "Professor Charles X Claremont". Claremont requires the schoolgirls as a focus for a magic spell to resurrect "the apocalypse beast." Anyone who has ever read a comic book will instantly know that Charles Xavier is the leader of the X-Men and that Chris Claremont was the long running writer of that comic. Prof. X's team of teenage superheroes is also based in a private school. But anyone who has NOT read a comic book would miss very little of what's going on in the rest of the story. Some of Claremont's speech mannerisms, and some of the poses he is drawn in, are a little like those of Prof. X; and, his physical appearance (bald, aquiline features) are indeed a caricature of the Marvel hero.

At the end of the episode it turns out that the Apocalypse Beast is a female, because Claremont has used girls, rather than boys, as a focus for his spell. He calls the beast "Woman-Thing." This is indeed only funny if you've heard of the Marvel character "Man Thing", and if you know that Chris Claremont had a policy of writing against gender stereotypes. In the the following issue, it transpires that a wizard named Sump has also created a monster, named "Sump Thing". Again, comic book readers will instantly spot that this is a reference to DC's "Swamp Thing." Again, I am not sure how relevant this is to the rest of the comic, which is mainly concerned with a ludicrous artist who paints topless women but claims that their breasts represent "the conflict between short term profit gouging and nest-egg mercantile capitalism."

These issues certainly have a lot of intertextual references: to Clint Eastwood, The X-Men, Swamp Thing, Man Thing, possibly to Frank Frazetta. But the humour comes mainly from the social comedy of Cerebus' interaction with the schoolgirls, and the very broad farce of the two monsters having noisy, messy sex. Is this parody? Among other things. Is this only parody? Certainly not. And in the next episode, we embark on "High Society" which is a compelling political novel set in a believable (if absurd) imaginary world. The best issue ("The Night Before",) is a character piece with no external reference at all.

I suspect that the only people who write Cerebus off as a parody comic are the ones who didn't get past issue 6.

The "little-cramped-panels" bit bemuses me. Presumably, crazy letters from George Perez (who thinks nothing of putting 100 panels on one page) are more reprehensible than ones from John Byrne (who loves big panels and double page spreads) -- with Sim somewhere in between?

Since "misogynist" is precisely the contested word, I think we should be careful of how we use it Early Cerebus sometimes used stock situations -- the nymphomaniac woman with the husband who really isn't interested; the fierce mother in law; the prissy school girls -- to comedy effect. Some of those situations could be said to be "sexist". To infer "misogynist" from that seems to take us back to the world of the 1980's when the Greater London Council were banning pantomimes because Widow Twanky said "Silly old cow!" to her, er, cow. You can think that the interplay between Cerebus and Red Sophia is very funny without Hating Women.

(To digress. Dave Sim seems to have lucid periods and less lucid periods. Most of Following Cerebus is perfectly coherent. I agree that, even in his lucid state Dave has a set of socially conservative beliefs -- extreme, but rational. For example, Lucid-Dave says that it doesn't make sense for a woman to go to work, on very low wages, while another woman is paid very low wages to take care of her child, and for a third woman to pay tax to pay the second woman. Unfortunately, when he's Off On One, Mad-Dave is just as likely to add that wife beating is not merely permissible, but actually a duty, and that women are certainly not rational and may not even be sentient, and 1960s pop music was a gnostic allegory. I suspect that Lucid-Dave does not clearly remember some of the things which Mad-Dave has written, which is why you get remarks like ""I simply say that state funded day-care is a lousy way to bring up kids and everyone calls me a misogynist." )

It seems to me that the question that Rich actually meant to ask me was: "Can someone explain why being either the greatest cartoonist whoever lived or else merely the greatest since Wil Eisner means that even Dave Sim's crazy faxes have to be agonized over."

This is a very good question.

The answer is, of course, biographical. I am the kind of person who thinks that the the mere existence of John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band is sufficient reason to listen to Two Virgins, although not often. I think that Parsifal is the single greatest work of art ever produced by a human being: to me, that confers some interest on Rienzi. I don't say that this is the best way to be; I don't say that this is the only way to be; but it happens to be the way I am. If I had to explain it, I would say that I have a scholarly interest in certain subjects: it isn't enough for me to say that I like a particular writer or composer; I want to understand them, which may involve finding out where they came from and where they went to. But it also comes from a collectors mentality; a desire to "complete the set" – something which is, I admit, almost unprecedented among comic-book enthusiasts.

So, yes: it is of interest to me that the-creator-of-one-of-only-two-funny-books-that-deserve-the-name-graphic-novel has done something crazy. Again.

And it is of very great interest to me that the greatest-cartoonist-of-all-time-or-possibly-merely-the-greatest-since-Wil-Eisner has produced not one, but two, new comic books.


Rich Puchalsky said...

It's difficult to know where to start in replying to this one, since I don't agree with, well, just about all of it.

I'll shelve the parody-strip and cramped-little-panels bits, though. You write that Sim is the best cartoonist ever, or since Eisner, I think that he's tremendously overvalued as an artistic talent. I don't think that's a dispute that can really be contributed to much in a comment box.

Likewise, the misogyny. I think that the people who don't see misogyny in the early, late, or for that matter the middle Sim mostly don't because they've internalized the standards of the comic book industry. That leads to some variant of the following: "Look, it's all in fun... you must be a humorless person who hates pantomimes" etc. I'm not really interested in getting through all that.

But one thing that you don't seem to contest is that Sim is crazy. You refer to Lucid Dave and Mad Dave. So, again, why pay any attention to his crazy missives? His letter isn't an artwork. You are free to admire Glamourpuss (or otherwise) without concerning yourself with SIm's latest letter. Collector's mentality doesn't really explain it.

You write "The answer is, of course, biographical." I think... not. Biographically, this letter is more of the same.

The fact is that people, specifically Sim's fans, are validating his delusions -- and agreeing with his mysogyny -- by signing on to his pledge. That's the reason for the head-banging, right? And for the disquisition, in this context, about how being a great artist doesn't mean you're a great person, and vice versa.

Well, I agree that with that last, sort of. The problem is that living artists have often used the fame and admiration generated by their talent for political / cultural influence. If he was writing crazy letters about UFOs, that would be cause for pity, but not head-banging. This sounds like a case where you're embarrassed by what a good chuck of Sim's fan base is doing, and an interest in "biography" doesn't seem to really cover that. I think that it's far more straightforward just to stop caring what Sim does with his non-art, even if you are interested in his art for some (not understandable to me) reason.

John Meredith said...

Ummm...Xavier didn't exactly lead the X-Men...rather created them. If you want a leader...I'd go for Cyclops.

Apart from that...I don't know what this post it about.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It's about sixteen hundred words.