Thursday, December 24, 2020


I thought I knew how this essay was going to start.

I thought I was going to say “The problem with Cerebus does not come where I expected it to come. The problem with Cerebus is not Dave Sim’s sexual politics: the problem with Cerebus is Dave Sim’s chronic inability to stick to the point.”

And indeed: the problem with Cerebus—what makes it a difficult, and for many people, an unreadable book—is Dave Sim’s chronic inability to stick to the point.

Put another way: it’s the form, not the content, that defeats people.

But every time I typed my opening sentence, I found myself needing to qualify it. I could hear the voice of the Reader.

“Oh—so you think Dave Sim’s sexual politics are PERFECTLY OKAY? You don’t have a problem with him saying that women shouldn’t have the vote, or that men need to be taught how to spank their wives and children without injuring them; or that the female demiurge gave men cocks so that women could control them?”

He really says all of this, and that’s only the very beginning of it.

So let me qualify my opening sentence.

The biggest problem with reading Cerebus is not Dave Sim’s sexual politics—even though they are obviously toxic.

The biggest problem with reading Cerebus is Sim’s chronic inability to stick to the point. When he gets the narrative bit between his teeth, he cannot let it go. Or perhaps what The Author thinks the story is about and what The Reader thinks the story is about are at odds. Perhaps what we see as digressions are really the core of the narrative, and the core of the narrative is really a digression. There is no clear path through the text. You get long, static passages followed by exhilarating bursts of action. You struggle your way through twenty pages of dense text and then find that you have consumed fifty pages of wordless visual narrative without noticing.

It is hard to know if this is intentional. Did Sim consciously decide to have passages where Cerebus’s life-story moved forwards; interrupted by passages of farce and passages of exposition? Or did he sketch in a basic structure—fifty issues of Cerebus as Pope, twenty issues of Cerebus running a bar, forty issues of Cerebus and Jaka on a journey—and embark on a twenty-six year NaNoWriMo exercise in filling space?

I don’t accuse him of padding. But I kept thinking of the moment in Waiting for Godot when Pozzo and Lucky interrupt the tramps’ ruminations. “Reinforcements!” cries Vladimir “Now we’ll be able to see the evening through”.

If the Grand Plot calls for three Rabbis to argue about theology, and it occurs to Dave that the three Wise Fellows might look like the Three Stooges, then Dave will riff on Three Stooges routines for pages and months and years. How funny you find it depends on how well you remember the Three Stooges. My heart sinks whenever the Fleagle Brothers or Princes Mik and Keef come into the story.

After becoming Pope and meeting God (kind of) Cerebus becomes a bartender, and after several years, meets up with Rick, who was formerly married to Cerebus’s one true love, Jaka. Unexpectedly, they get on really well. Due to a plot device I may not entirely have understood, Rick still believes that Cerebus is the True Pope and therefore a kind of Avatar or Incarnation of Tarim (which is to say God, kind of). As a result, Cerebus’s most trivial remarks are interpreted by Rick as having divine significance. This is represented by a series of full page, double column, black letter pastiches of the King James Bible (with seventeenth century spelling) and stained glass window style tableaux.

This is not unfunny. Sim can do funny. Sim can do pastiche. Sim has studied the Bible closely, and the clash between form and content works pretty well:

“And Cerebvs grew wroth and spake angrily, inquiring of mee, Art thou a foole who following Cerebvs, knowest not where Cerebva doth go?

If Cerebvs shouldst peraduenture walke off a talle cliffe, wouldst though follow Cerebvs in walking off that same talle cliffe?

And I answered unto Cerebus saying Yea; even of a truth; it is the desire of Rickes heart to follow Cerebvs euen off the tallest of tall cliffes…”

But Sim keeps this joke going: not for one page, not for three pages, but for twenty pages. Twenty pages of Biblical pastiche.

Are we even intended to read it? He would hardly be the first person to incorporate a page of text into a piece of visual art. On pages 9 and 10 of issue #225, Rick starts to describe Cerebus’s very ordinary bar as if it were a temple or sanctuary

“and there were two chairs over against the windows of the west wall. To the north side going northward of the table of the west wall was one chair…”

This is obviously a joke at the expense of the notoriously unreadable book of Leviticus. (Is there something faintly anti-Semitic about poking fun at Jewish scripture without showing much sign of having asked an actual Jew what the temple passages are all about? * ) On pages 11 and 12 of the same issue, the Biblical text is substantially obscured by comic book art; which means (obviously) that you couldn’t read it even if you wanted to.

An unreadable text followed by an unreadable text? Dave Sim likes to mess with our heads.

Three volumes further down the line, Rick’s account of his time spent shooting the breeze with Cerebus in a bar has literally become the sacred scripture of a new Cerebite church. Indeed, it is one of the texts which the Three Wise Fellows endlessly argue about. The joke isn’t that far from Monty Python’s Life of Brian—very ordinary words appear to have massive significance if listened to with the ear of faith.

Rick’s Story represents a formal high point in Sim’s development as an artist. It contains some of the very best individual pages in the history of American comic book. The Bible passages are part of the collage. But they make the volume very hard to get through. 

It is not possible to talk about Cerebus without talking about Dave Sim’s sexual politics. Of course it isn’t. And he wouldn’t want us to. By the end, he talked about Cerebus as if it were an argument, or a thesis, rather than a work of art. He said that he said what he wanted to say in the way that he wanted to say it.

And this is an irreducible problem. As a work of art, Cerebus is worthy of our very close attention. It’s as serious and complex as Ulysses or Les Miserables. But as an argument, it is not even worth considering. Women like lovely little houses with pretty curtains; men like to get drunk in the pub with their male friends. Men like building houses; women like living in houses. Men talk about facts; women talk about feelings. Men like sex more than they like babies; women like babies more than they like sex. Men are inclined to think with their cocks and women know how to exploit this. A happy marriage—“merged permanence” between two different beings—is an impossibility.

As the basis for a slightly reactionary romantic comedy—as something for a slightly bitter divorced man to ramble about in his cups—it’s relatively harmless. But as the book goes on, it becomes a theory. Women are purely emotional beings. Women are “female voids” who suck energy from “male lights”. This is all revealed to be the literal truth in the book of Genesis (which Sim is the first person ever to have understood) and by physics and the big bang (the theoretical problems of which Sim has definitively resolved).

As the novel proceeds, the narrative gets nastier and narrower. Jaka goes from being the one truly good person in the story to being a spoiled harlot princess. Cerebus’s city is invaded by fanatical matriarchal fascists. By the final volume, the Cirinists have been eclipsed by a new even more extreme cult which permits abortion. Legalised paedophilia and bestiality follow as a matter of course.

Some Jews won’t listen to Wagner: I get that. Wagner was strongly anti-Semitic, and he was idolised by the most anti-Semitic person in history. (**) The question is not “Is the Ring Cycle anti-Semitic?” Of course the Ring Cycle is anti-Semitic. The question is: is the Ring Cycle reducible to anti-Semitism; is anti-Semitism the only thing we can talk about when we talk about the Ring?

Do we have to say Dave Sim’s bizarre—let’s be honest here, Dave Sim’s completely fucking deranged—theories exhaust what it is possible to say about Cerebus the Aardvark? Or can form be separated from content?

I remember a long time ago the late, great Jeremy Hardy saying  “People tell me that the Daily Telegraph is a pretty good newspaper provided you ignore its politics. I don’t agree: I think it is an excellent newspaper, provided you keep its politics in mind at all times.”

James Franco’s very good film about Alan Ginsberg showed an essentially circular argument being hammered out in an American court room. Howl! can’t be obscene, because it has redeeming artistic value. Howl! cannot have redeeming artistic value, because it is obscene. A great poem is permitted to contain the word “fuck”. A poem which contains the word “fuck” can’t be a great.

How many times have we been round this circle? Talons of Weng Chiang can’t be a great Doctor Who story. It’s racist. Talons of Weng Chiang can’t be racist; it’s a great Doctor Who story. Othello can’t be racist, it’s part of English literature. Othello shouldn’t be part of English literature, it’s racist.

Or, worst of all: since Othello is part of English literature, it doesn’t matter whether it is racist or not

I think Dave Sim is wrong. I do not think that being wrong is the worst sin an artist can commit. I think that we can forgive a writer for being insane or absurd or even evil. The only unforgivable crime a writer can commit is to be boring.

A Merchant of Venice is a blatantly, shamelessly, intentionally, offensively anti-Semitic story. It is also a bloody good play. (***) Both these things are true. Move along.

It is possible to exaggerate the extent to which Sim’s theories impinge on the novel (as opposed to the critical apparatus which is mercifully omitted from the compiled volumes). Certainly, from Church & State onwards, Cerebus’s major antagonists are an extreme matriarchal cult. But during Jaka’s Story and Mothers & Daughters, it is pretty hard to read the Cirinists as a parody or critique of real-world feminism. They are pretty much generic religious fanatics: indeed, it wouldn’t be too hard to read them as an all-girl Al Qaeda tribute act. (This was before September 11th.) In the final volumes Cerebus becomes the inspiration for an equal and opposite masculinist cult, which is presented as equally dystopian and ludicrous.

There is, from the beginning, a strong streak of boy versus girl comedy. But the men are just as silly as the women. Often more so. That’s the joke. One of my favourite one-liners comes while Cerebus is hiding out in a girls’ school—in a story which starts out as a parody of the Beguiled (sort of) and ends up as a parody of the X-Men (kind of). It also incorporates a parody of Man-Thing, called, inevitably, Woman-Thing. Cerebus, in the Clint Eastwood/Colin Farrell role, is making small talk with the schoolgirls.

“He’s probably rescued simply thousands of women from death—haven’t you?”

“Actually, no. Cerebus did use one as a shield once.”

“Surely you jest?”

“She was the only item at hand.”

“Have you never heard of the code of honour? It plainly states that women are not to be harmed in any way!”

“That is why they make the best shields.”

And later:

“You didn’t really use a woman as a shield, did you?”

“No. Cerebus was just making a point about the code of honour.” [And Cerebus didn’t have the nerve to tell you about the one he used as a battering ram].

This is definitely a joke about male violence towards women; and it is definitely “sexist”, in the sense that it contrasts the cynical, battle hardened male barbarian with the naive school girl. The central joke is Cerebus’s frank admission that he is a dishonourable fighter. Humour frequently comes from the processing of contradictory signals: I think that our reaction to Cerebus’s flawlessly logical “that is why they make the best shields” is to think “What a dude!” and “That’s a terrible thing to say!” at the same moment.

And then there is Red Sophia.

Red Sonja was a female counterpart to Conan the Barbarian: if you can visualise Conan, you probably picture him with a red-haired warrior woman at his side. She wasn’t part of Bob Howard’s mythos, but was incorporated into the saga by Roy Thomas. It’s Thomas’s comic-book Conan that provided Dave Sim with his template in the early days. So Sim’s Conan analogue met a Red Sonja analogue in issue three.

Pretty much the entire joke is that Red Sophia looks like the Roy Thomas swords woman, but talks like a stereotypical all-American bimbo. To a tiny degree, Sim may actually be pushing back against the dubious notion that the original Sonja would only have sex with a man who has bested her in battle. Cerebus is quite capable of besting anyone in battle, but he is relatively uninterested in sex. Sophia is on the other hand, a nymphomaniac. So when Sophia tells Cerebus that she is his to command, Cerebus orders her to carry his baggage. Eventually, she simply exposes herself to him:

"Enough talk, you short, grey celibate—what do you think of THESE?”

“They’d probably heal if you’d stop wearing that chainmail bikini.”

“Chainmail bikini” was already in use as a fan-expression to make fun of the implausible and impractical armour that Barry Smith and Frank Frazetta were inclined to dress female heroes in: Cerebus is very aware of the genre he is inhabiting.

It is subsequently ret-conned that Cerebus does, in fact, like sex very much indeed, but as an orthodox Tarimite doesn’t believe in doing it with anyone he isn’t married to. This makes a lot of sense but spoils the joke.

Some issues later, Cerebus wakes up after a particularly drunken night and finds that he has married Sophia. This occurs in the same issue that Sim announces that he and his wife Deni are getting divorced. While there is some low comedy involving Cerebus discovering a copper breast plate in his bed, any idea that Sophia is Sonja rapidly falls away. Her father may be a wizard, but her mother is the scary Granny out of the Giles cartoons. Cerebus has long-since ceased to be Conan. The joke is simply one of character: a cynical, taciturn, soldier unwisely married to a trivially minded chatterbox.

It’s a bit sexist, and quite funny.

This is, in fact, how most of Sim’s early comedy works. Elrod the Albino comes on the scene in the issue after Sophia’s first appearance, and for the same reason: Michael Moorcock’s hero implausibly guest-starred in an early episode of Marvel’s Conan. Where Sophia looks like Sonja and talks like a schoolgirl, Elrod looks like Elric but talks with a Texas accent. You don’t need to have read Elric to understand the character: Dave Sim hadn’t. You don’t—I say, you don’t—need to have seen a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon to understand his dialogue. I never have. The joke is that Elrod turns up at inopportune moments and irritates the hell out of Cerebus.

Cerebus and Sophia; Cerebus and the schoolgirls; Cerebus and Jaka: there is a hell of a lot of comedically exaggerated gender essentialism. You might well call it “not very PC” or “a bit sexist” or “unreconstructed” or “problematic”. But there is not much sense of all-out anti-feminist misogyny in the text itself.

There are some overtly toxic passages, which we will come to eventually.

One of the running gags is that bars are all-male environments. The Cirinists allow men to continue to go to bars; and oblige landlords to provide free food; with the proviso that men are not allowed to go home drunk: they have to sober up before they leave. If a man remains in a bar for three consecutive nights, he is automatically divorced from his wife. Men get to drink and women get protected from drunkards.

Two entire volumes of the comic—Guys and Rick’s Story—are set in a bar room. Quite a lot of men are fairly happy with the Cirinist arrangement, and Sim seems to think that this is how you would expect “real men" to feel: sport and alcohol and the company of other men is much better than domesticity.

Guys drink too much. Cerebus consumes whiskey by the bucket. They make jokes about pissing. They get into fights. The flick nuts into buckets and obsess about a violent squash/baseball hybrid called Five Bar Gate. (Sim describes the rules in rather more detail than the reader can probably take in.) Certainly, some of the female characters are clever to the point of being cunning and manipulative; and certainly, some of the female characters are chatty, flighty and over-concerned with nice clothes. But the male characters—including the ones we are meant to like and approve of—are characterised by straightforward macho vacuity. Cerebus himself is strong and brave, but also rude, vulgar, ignorant and dishonourable.

“Women are sneaky but men are idiots” may be sexist, but it doesn’t quite amount to full on men’s rights misogyny. I don’t even think that “…and that’s why all married men are miserable” is quite extreme enough to deserve the opprobrium which has been heaped on Dave Sim. But in the latter volumes—in two or three specific passages—Sim raises “Jaka and Cerebus can never be happy together” to a universal cosmic principal from which can be deduced the true meaning of the universe.

1 comment:

Gavin Burrows said...

Two things that we know about Sim's original conception of a whole 300 issue series.... It came to him while he was on acid. And he never wrote any of it down. So it was always less a plan and more a vision. I wonder how much that's behind the scattergun structure, where he could go off in any direction which occurred to him, still convinced he was following the great path he'd laid out for himself?