In 1982, Andrew bought three copies of Cerebus the Aardvark from Forbidden Planet. Andrew couldn’t understand them. Andrew liked the idea of a comic with such a ridiculous title, possibly because Andrew had seen the John Cleese /Marty Feldman bookshop sketch. Andrew had bought Howard the Duck from the import spinner at the Sugar and Spice sweetshop on East Barnet Road, along with the Human Fly and the Eternals: but Andrew didn’t really understand that either.
A bit later, Andrew tracked down copies of Swords of Cerebus (reprinting the earlier, funnier issues) and the High Society graphic novel. Andrew understood those and found them very funny indeed.
Andrew bought every monthly issue from #80 onwards.
At college, everyone Andrew knew read Cerebus. They wore t-shirts and had photocopies of their favourite pages on their walls; they referred to each other as Most Holy. Andrew’s flatmate Eddie made Andrew a life sized Cerebus stuffed toy for his birthday.
Andrew even took to referring to himself in the third person.
Some people feel that Cerebus the Aardvark was never as funny after it stopped being a parody of Conan the Barbarian and became a political satire.
Some people stopped reading during the two hundred page digression about the death of Oscar Wilde.
Very many people stopped reading after #186, when writer/artist Dave Sim explained his interesting theories about feminism. (SPOILER: He’s against it.)
Andrew’s own attention wavered during Cerebus’s extended journey back to his home town, during which he is distracted by thinly veiled caricatures of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway.
The final volumes of the three hundred issue graphic novel involve ex-barbarian-turned-messiah Cerebus explaining the true meaning of the Torah to Woody Allen, in very small print. Dave Sim once claimed that only seventeen people had read that volume right the way through. Andrew knows at least three of them personally.
When Cerebus came to an end in 2003, Andrew wrote a very detailed appreciation of the final issue. It really did seem, at that point, that Andrew was the only person who had stayed faithful to the Short Grey Fellow; and that Andrew was reading it in the same spirit that Andrew might visit a once-beloved uncle who had been jailed for sex-offences.
Andrew always intended to re-read the entire three hundred issue, six thousand page novel to see how it stood up, but Andrew never quite got around to it.
During lockdown, Andrew re-read the entire three hundred issue, six thousand page novel.
This is Andrew telling you how well Andrew thinks it stands up.
It is not a commentary or an exegesis. It is just Andrew’s thoughts. It is long, rambling, unstructured, and frequently wanders from the point. And so does Andrew’s essay.
Cerebus is not a comic book.
Cerebus is not a graphic novel.
I am not even sure if Cerebus is a novel.
Cerebus is a montage.
Cerebus is a mixed media work of art.
Cerebus is a multi-media narrative
Cerebus is a vast, audacious, formal experiment.
Reading Cerebus is like being assaulted from different directions by different kinds of text.
Found objects. Literary pastiche. Diagetic text. Film and play scripts. Essays. Prose novellas. Biblical exposition. Comic strips. Traditional American comic books. Manga style cinematic decompression.
There are pages of text with illustrations on the facing page. There are surreal wordless dream sequences. Decades may shoot past in a single page; or it may take Cerebus several issues to get out of bed. One issue demands to be cut up and pasted together so it forms a single huge figure. There are realistic characters who talk like cartoons and cartoon characters who talk like real people. The central figure is a funny animal who is treated as a fully rounded character with a complicated interior life. Movie actors and pop stars and political figures and famous writers and friends of the author keep appearing in pastiche. The fourth wall is frequently smashed into tiny little pieces. But there are maps and floor-plans and a very detailed pseudo-history.
The comic never settles down into a single style. In the final volume, Woody Allen appears (presumably because he is a well known Jewish celebrity) to discuss the Old Testament with the central figure. Of course he does. When he first appears, he is a photo-realistic representation of the film actor: but as the story (or, as we are compelled to say, the “story”) proceeds, he morphs into a Hunt Emerson style caricature of himself. He ends up wearing a mask; transforming himself into one of the Jews from Maus.
If you are incredibly irritated by this kind of thing, you will find that this is the kind of thing which irritates you incredibly.
You meet people who think that John Steinbeck intended to write a melodrama about the Joad family’s ill-fated journey to California; and due to a catastrophic editorial blunder, accidentally put a series of essays about the dust-bowl migrants in alternate chapters. You meet people who think that Moby-Dick is a collection of witty and informative essays about the whaling trade which got hijacked by an irrelevant melodrama about a crazy sea captain and a verbose harpooner.
On a first reading of Les Miserables it is easy to be shocked at how little of the novel is about Jean Valjean and how much of it is about the Battle of Waterloo, or the slang used by Paris thieves, or the philosophical idea of a nunnery. It is tempting to imagine that Victor really wanted to get to the last reprise of Do You Hear The People Sing and due to a terrible fault as a writer kept wandering off the point to talk about Fontain’s daughter’s foster brother. But the text of Les Miserables exists and the digressions are part of it. A Les Miserables which stuck to the point would be a different book.
For all I know, a better book. But it is always better to read a flawed book which exists than a flawless one that doesn’t.
You are entitled to be puzzled when a romantic comedy about a barbarian mercenary and a princess-turned-dancer is interrupted by a memoir of a hunting expedition in Africa. Particularly if the story is taking place in a fantasy world where Africa doesn’t exist. But you are not entitled to say that if you ignore or skip the embedded narratives you will arrive at some truer or better or preferred version of the text.
We have to read the book Dave wrote: not the one we wish he had written.
Books are not “what happened”. They are a set of choices the author has made about how he wants to tell us what happened. What matters, in the end, if the cumulative emotional effect those choices have on the reader.
Books sometimes have irrelevant passages. My copy of Don Quixote has an introduction which very sensibly advises me to skip all the sentimental shepherds in the first half.
Cerebus is very long. It ran to three hundred issues all but three of which are gathered together in a series of seventeen graphic novels. Back in the eighties we used to call them Phone Books. The idea of publishing a collection of back-issues in a single volume was rather a whacky innovation. It may not literally be the longest sustained narrative in human history (as Dave Sim likes to claim) but it does have an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the most consecutive issues of a comic book created by the same writer/artist. (Dave Sim wrote and pencilled all three hundred issues: Gerhard supplied phenomenally detailed backgrounds for every issue after #65.) The record was previously held by two little known superhero creators named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It is believed that Eric Larsen may usurp the crown some time in 2023.
Sometimes, a long book is the same as a short book, only with more chapters added on. If fifty pages of D’Artagnan getting into sword fights and preserving the Queen’s honour is fun, then five hundred pages are ten times as fun. If you like that kind of thing, you would be happy for the story to carry on more or less indefinitely. But if you found the first fifty pages a drag, then there is very little point in persevering.
But some very long books have to be very long because they have a complex structure that can’t be done in less than a trillion words. You can’t possibly know what kind of a book you are reading until you get to the end of it, any more than you can possibly know what kind of a painting you are looking at if only the bottom left hand corner is poking out of the brown paper wrapper.
And thus everything gets terribly polarised.
Those of us who got to the end of Knausgaard’s My Struggle or Don Quixote or The Silmarillion are by definition, the kinds of people who can be bothered to get to the end of those kinds of books. If you aren’t disposed to like them you won’t read them and therefore won’t be able to find out if they are the kinds of books you would have liked if you had finished them.
The world is not divided into people who have read the Lord of the Rings and people who are going to read it some day. The world is divided into people who have read it and think it is the bee’s knees, and people who are offended by its very existence without having got past Tom Bombadil.
Not reading things you don’t think you’d like is a perfectly valid choice.
The Guardian does a little feature called “Books that made me” in which people who deal in words respond to a questionnaire about their reading. What’s the first book you remember reading? What was the last book which made you laugh? What book couldn’t you finish?
You could probably form a support group for the famous writers who say they have never got to the end of Moby Dick. On the whole, they are defiant, even proud of not having done so. “Life is too short! Four hundred pages in and we are still nowhere near the bloody whale!” People who haven’t read Middlemarch are much more apologetic and really want to get around to it one of these days. Ulysses is more like a mountain to be conquered. Knausgaard seems to elicit anger and resentment from people outside the cult. They are especially angry about his ethnicity. (“Why should I want to hear about the life of a straight white guy?”)
I have read Moby Dick: several times: I understand it more each time. I have read Middlemarch—only once, but it blew my mind, in an appropriately provincial way. I raced through Knausgaard in one go, knowing within ten pages that I had discovered my new favourite book. I even got right to the end of Proust. I didn’t love it but I didn’t feel I had wasted my time.
But I don’t love Jane Austen quite enough to have quite got around to the three I haven’t read. (Persuasion and Sensibility, I think? I started Emma once. But the Mr Darcy one made me laugh out loud in a cafe.) I will probably go to my grave without having done the full Dickens canon. I got right through Malory (while I was still at school) and Spencer (on my own time, in the days when Borders bookshops still had Starbucks in them) so I really ought to give Walter Scott another go. I don’t feel guilty that I have never got passed page 50 of Tristan Shandy, but it does make me feel a bit sad, because everything I know about the book makes me think it is the kind of thing I ought to like. I am within fifty pages of having read Ulysses. Indeed, this afternoon, it is a toss-up between Molly’s soliloquy and the last couple of volumes of 1980s Teen Titans.
When I said during lockdown that I was going to try and tackle James Joyce at the rate of, say, five pages a day, one of my Fanbase asked if I was actually enjoying it. “It’s a great work of literature”, I said: “You aren’t supposed to enjoy it.” I was only half joking. When it comes to Herman and Karl Ove and Marcel you just have to throw yourself at them and let them take you wherever they are going: today it might be fifty pages of bloody French landscape, Catholics talking about being Catholics in a brothel, or another trip to the supermarket to buy prawns: but tomorrow it might be an aphorism or a piece of description or a conversation that you will carry around with you for the rest of your life.
Perhaps it comes down to whether you are a book-addict or a story-addict. If what you want is story, narrative, fiction, stuff happening, then you obviously aren’t going to survive Proust. Or Moby Dick. If you read Cerebus to find out what happens next, you would go insane with frustration. These massive huge books have a gradual, cumulative, impact: they need five hundred or a thousand pages to do what they are trying to do you.
The designs of My Struggle on us—with Boyhood Island as its most vivid example so far—are much less rhetorical than they are cognitive. The question that ensues, and that readers of Knausgaard in English will have to wait for subsequent volumes to fully answer for themselves, is whether hypnotic immersion on such undiluted terms is as genuinely nourishing as it sometimes can feel.
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Dave Sim once claimed that only seventeen people had read that volume right the way through. Andrew knows at least three of them personally.
I'd be interested in knowing which 3.
About 10 years ago I bought the final 3 or 4 phone books and read them - thus fulfilling some cosmic debt that must have accrued. And by read I mean, photons reflected from most of the panels probably registered on my retina. So, not really.
When i came to Poland (for a two year stay, five years back), I seriously considered bringing them all with me and settling down with a nice cup of barszcz each night and reading them.
Not sure 2 years would have been enough, Not sure 5 years either...
I want to have read them, but without the reading part i guess.
A first part which talks about Sim' storytelling and design elements, a second which compares him to Melville, Hugo and other devisers of mighty tomes...
Seems to me, to get Sim we need to put the two together. His few predecessors in attempting to tell such a long story tried to cut out anything which looked 'comickey'. Sim played them up, combining a novelist's over-arching view with a comic artist's skill in the immediate moment. That seems to me what's significant about him.
(Hope I'm not getting ahead of any future instalments there.)
Gavin, I think you're very wrong about ANY of the authors mentioned trying to "cut out anything which looked 'comickey'" (well, any of the ones I've read, anyway - don't know about Knausgaard for instance). There are DEFINITELY many funny parts of "Moby Dick," for instance, and for goodness sakes Quixote is at its heart a satire. "Middlemarch" sets up a Jane Austen domestic comedy and then marries off its Darcy character to the heroine's sister and has her stupidly choose a much older stick-in-the-mud minister and I'm not giving much away because that's only like 1/5 of the way in, and although its wording and tone are quite dry I am quite sure the author intended to humorously skewer our romantic expectations in EXACTLY the way she did. Maybe there's not as much slapstick as early and late Cerebus, but there's little slapstick in most of the middle of Cerebus, hundreds and hundreds of pages of "no funny" in some people's minds.
Unless by "comickey" you somehow meant having to do with the medium of comics, in which case I have no idea what you might have been referring to ... the other works are all prose without illustrations (at least without illustrations provided by their creators and in most editions - I'm sure there are editions out there with a few pretty pictures scattered through them).
In my opinion, of the works cited - again, at least among the ones I'm familiar with, Don Quixote is probably the text closest to Cerebus, simply because it was also published in segments (albeit much fewer than 300) and written over a long period of time, and the creator changed a good deal during its creation, so that where he was apparently going when he started was not quite where he ended up. I'm sure he stayed "true" to the ending he had in mind, but as Andrew points out the "what comes next" is not all that a book is about.
Sim is demonstrably wrong about one thing, at least (he's wrong about many things, but let's leave that discussion to another time, shall we?) - there are more than 17 people just among those who are members of the Cerebus Facebook Group who have read the entire Cerebexegesis (as we members of the old Cerebus Yahoo Group used to call it), and I'm quite sure that there are people outside that group who have. Indeed I don't believe Andrew is a member there, although someone there linked to this, and the three people he knows probably aren't either. Out of a circulation that had dwindled from a high of 30,000 down to about 2,000 (which was where he had started) I would guess probably 200 or so actually read the whole thing. That's my guess. Not many, but certainly more than 17. It's a number Sim pulled out of the air because it's a funny number, not one I think he seriously intended as an accurate assessment.
I literally can't tell if Steve B has "missed the point" or has "pretended to miss the point" for comic (i.e humorous) affect.
I will therefore remain silent.
e.g Dave Sim says only 17 people have read Cerebus right through. He doesn't mean it literally, but he does mean "I think most people skipped it."
Andrews says "I probably know three of them personally". He means "I know that Dave Sim didn't mean it literally, and I think that quite a lot people did, in fact, read it."
ALSO: At the time Cerebus came out, I thought that the Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying gag came from Monty Python. He only discovered it was from an earlier skit show called At Last The 1948 show a few weeks ago.
ALSO: There certainly was a newsagent called Sugar and Spice on the East Barnet Road, and it certainly sold American Comics, but Andrew couldn't say with certainty that that is where he bought Howard the Duck. It might have come from Mr McKinnons in the Village, or from one of those market stalls that sold out of date comics for 10p and bought them back for 5p.
The rest, of course, is true.
Yeah, I thought by the end, when I straight up STATED that Dave pulled the number 17 out of the air because it's a "funny number" that I was only pretending to think he was actually asserting it, nor was I under any illusion that you had misunderstood him and believed that he had done so. It was just an easy way to get into the subject that I think in fact quite a few people have read it - I really do think most people who have read the series all the way through, and almost certainly the majority of those who have done so more than once, have read if not every single word at least a large part of the Cerebexegesis (or "the commentary on the Torah" which is what I believe Dave calls it, although it is in fact pretty much restricted to the book of Genesis). I don't think most people actually "skip it," though I can sympathize (even though I ultimately disagree) with those who read the first couple of installments of it and then decided to just skim through the rest.
I talk about the specific questions of readability and skipping later in the essays.
I assume that when Gavin talked about Sim's predecessors, he was talking about people who had tried to write long serious comic books. (I have just read The First Kingdom, gods help me.) He thinks that they presented their work as "graphic novels" and tried to distances themselves from "funny books". I don't know if he's right but I am pretty sure that is what he meant.
Yep, that's what I meant. Though perhaps I didn't make it terribly clear, and should have said "tell a long story in graphic form'" or similar. Seems like I can't even manage a short mailing comment!
If you have actually read First Kingdom I part-envy your devotion and part-pity you. I know nothing of Jack Katz beyond First Kingdom. But even artists I can certainly vouch for in terms of skill and talent, such as Gil Kane, seem to have made the same cardinal "mustn't look like a funny book" error. I don't think I know of anyone in the West before Sim who didn't.
Ah. Got you. I misunderstood Gavin's comment entirely, because I thought he was referring to the works in the essay, which were all prose - really, really LONG works.
In terms of that - books that take a significant commitment of TIME just to plow through them, there really aren't many other comics to compare Cerebus to. "Lone Wolf & Cub" and some other manga, to be sure. A bunch of newspaper strips collected into books, or long runs of superhero comics, most of which aren't anything like a "sustained narrative," as Sim likes to always point out. Maybe "Prince Valiant."
Most other "graphic novels" are hardly even novels at all. The vast majority of them can be read in a couple of hours.
I use the term "long-form graphic novel" to speak of sustained novels in comics form published in multiple volumes, usually serially published over a long period of time. I tend to think of a minimum of 1,000 pages and a minimum artistic commitment of five years as the minimum standards for joining that club. "Sandman" is one, as is "Preacher."
"Maus" and "Watchmen" and "Blackmark" and "A Contract With God" are very much not, although Eisner's trilogy that "Contract" begins *almost* fits the bill.
"Sandman" started out pretty grim, got really, REALLY grim before its first storyline was over, and is on the whole quite serious and probably the best example of the long-form graphic novel yet to be produced, but it has quite a bit of humor sprinkled through, and even features cameos by superheroes. "Preacher" is largely a black comedy, and can arguably be seen as a superhero story (the title character has a costume of sorts, in that he always wears the same identifiable outfit, has a superpower, has a mission - he's missing only a secret identity, and others have eschewed that. "The Invisibles" is similar - deep in sardonic humor, and arguably superheroes in another guise. "Strangers in Paradise" has lots of humor.
"Berlin" doesn't have much humor, and is certainly "anti-comics" in its presentational style and contents in the say you seem to be talking about.
But I think in general the long-term projects, the ones that Cerebus can properly be compared to, partake more of "comics" in both sense of the term - the superheroes (or pastiches of them) and presentational tropes we generally associate with comics and also the humor so foundational that it has become the name primarily used for even the most serious examples of the medium. It's true that some people at various points in the history of the medium have tried to disassociate themselves from either or both, but I would submit that we may have in the last few decades reached a point where serious works can be undertaken without having to repudiate all the people who used the medium before you.
At least, I hope so.
I will add that, as far as I know, pretty much all of the other long-form graphic novels in existence outside of Asia have been produced with Dave Sim's Cerebus already existing, at least in part, and Sim's influence on some of them is inescapable.
He certainly wasn't the first person to do serious comics that were also funny. Eisner, certainly, even before "A Contract with God," had mixed the two. I'd argue that Jack Kirby, whatever you may think of the result, was at least TRYING to do something like Wagner's operas in comic book form with the Fourth World series, and the Jimmy Olsen issues were in particular generally humorous takes on the rest of it. Someone compared them to Athenian Drama, where a trilogy of tragedies would be accompanied by a fourth "satyr play" that was the source of our word satirical. If New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle can be thought of as Tragedies (certainly in concept Orion was meant to be a tragic figure), then Jimmy Olsen was Kirby's satirical take on his own seriousness, even bringing in Don Rickles to insult everyone!
But Dave Sim may have been the first person to *successfully* meld the idea of "seriousness" with undeniable "comic-bookiness" in the sense that Gavin is talking about. Kirby certainly wasn't successful at his attempt, though there are sparks of greatness and you can see that he was thinking decades ahead of the medium. Katz wasn't. Eisner probably came closer, but he too was "trying to hard" to be taken seriously IMO - there is a bit of humor in "Contract," but it's mostly VERY dark. He lightened up some in later books. Plus the presentational style of "Contract" was - deliberately, I think - very much at odds with comic books or comic strips with their panels and word balloons.
Dave experimented with all kinds of presentational styles along the way, but he started out and even when he was being "out there" was clearly riffing off of the standard comic book page you'd see in any superhero or funny animal or teen humor comic.
And PART of that is probably that he didn't have any grand design when he started. He was just doing a parody of Marvel's "Conan" because it was popular and he figured it would sell and he wanted to show that he could write, pencil, ink, and letter (normally the work of FOUR different people in the comics industry) a complete comic book all by himself. Certainly if he could do all four of those jobs every other month, he could get someone to hire him to do ONE of them on a monthly basis.
At least that's what he's said - three issues as essentially a super-portfolio, to get his foot in the door. But by issue #2 there are already hints that there is more to this book than would at first seem, and I wonder if he didn't have the idea that he *might* need a long-term plan very early on. Certainly by issue #5 he was laying the groundwork for such (although, if it's not a complete retcon I have to say I'm VERY disappointed in the revelations in "Minds" of what all that was actually about).
Anyway, my point is that when he started Dave Sim WASN'T trying to upend the medium or produce an earth-shattering work of such serious import that people who disdained comics would have to pay attention to it anyway. That came later, and although for a while he did mostly eschew humor - or at least the slapstick humor and more importantly the urgency to be funny all the time - and resented deeply and publicly the people who preferred the "earlier, funnier" Cerebus - he eventually came to terms with it, and managed to mix humor and tragedy as deftly as Shakespeare, when he was really on his game. And while I don't think Gavin's right that he's the ONLY one to do so, at his best he certainly did it better than almost anyone in the field.
Just to be clear, my point was that I thought Sim was the first in the West to do all this, not the only.
I don't think his use of graphic devices often thought of a 'comic-booky' such as sound effects or onomatopoeic lettering, or even having a cartoon icon central character, should be seen as interchangeable with a humourous approach. Sim's attitude to humour seems the sort of thing which is likely to come up in a future instalment.
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