The sixth Cerebus sub-novel, Mothers & Daughters, ran from issues #151-#200. It was collected in four relatively portable volumes: Flight, Women, Reads and Minds. The fact that the spines say Women/Read/Minds is presumably sheer coincidence.
Very many readers who survived Melmoth quit during Mothers & Daughters. Specifically, they quit during Reads. Even more specifically, they quit after the final chapter of Reads, Cerebus #186: perhaps the most infamous comic ever published.
Before issue #186 Cerebus was a funny and sometimes challenging comic about an Aardvark barbarian in over his head in real world politics. Everyone read it. After issue #186 it was a weird ass philosophical screed: those of us who continued to read it became very defensive and apologetic. Before #186 Dave Sim had been an opinionated son-of-a-bitch who believed in self-publishing and hated the mainstream comic book trade; after #186 he was evil, mad, misogynist Dave Sim and even buying his comic book was seen as condoning or enabling him.
I don’t think he was ever evil; but then I don’t think anyone is ever evil. Mad is a nasty word, but I don’t think there is any question that Sim has suffered from mental illnesses. We can quibble about the word misogynist, in the same way we can quibble about words like racism and Islamaphobia. (“Well ACTUALLY I don’t have an irrational fear of Muslims, I merely said they shouldn’t be allowed to vote in elections, so who’s the bigot now?”) You can say “sexist” or “hostile to women” or “anti-feminist” if you prefer.
Cerebus #186 is toxic. Mothers & Daughters taken as a whole is an astonishing work of literature. Toxicity can be a component of an astonishing work of literature: in the same way that noise and dissonance can be a component of a piece of music and ugliness can be a component of a painting.
I am not saying that Mothers & Daughters is a great graphic novel if you ignore the sexism, any more than I am saying that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a great novel if you ignore the sex or that Tony Harrison’s V is a great poem if you ignore the swearing. Sex, swearing and misogyny are part of what make up the work of art.
It used to be said, quite seriously, that Shakespeare was the greatest English poet because he was the greatest English man— his words were the outpourings of his great soul. The dirty bits and the silly bits were forced on him by commercial concerns and should be ignored. The plays were too vulgar to perform: it was better to just read the great speeches. If you really had to put these great speeches on the stage, then the person playing the clown should speak the dirty jokes very quietly and not try to get laughs out of them.
I recall a columnist in the Daily Mail, many years ago, saying that you could tell that civilisation was about to end and that political correctness had gone mad because the poetry of Sylvia Plath was on the A Level literature syllabus. But Sylvia Plath’s poetry is about madness and decadence and depression and suicide: why on earth would you study that when there is so much poetry about skylarks and Grecian urns and the west wind available? Shouldn’t English literature mean putting the Best and the Greatest before students—Great Men like Shakespeare and Wordsworth; not crazy mixed up kids like Sylvia Plath?
The Right say that Steinbeck cannot be great literature because he has liberal (and therefore Wrong) beliefs about the Depression. The Left have at times come very close to saying that Rudyard Kipling cannot be great literature because he has conservative (and therefore Wrong) views about colonialism.
William Blake. I love William Blake. I love The Little Black Boy. The last lines honestly make me weep. But the racism of the opening stanza honestly bring me out in a cold sweat. (1)
In Cerebus #174, the four main political players in the story—Cerebus, Cirin, Suenteus Po and Astoria — are finally in the same place at the same time. Cerebus was Pope; Suenteus Po is an Illusionist; Cirin represents the Cirinists and Astoria the Kevilists. So we have gathered together the representatives of the four main philosophical positions in the story: patriarchy, anarchy, extreme feminism and, er, even more extreme feminism. If we are reading Cerebus for the plot, this is the climax of the entire saga. We desperately want to know what happens next.
Quite a lot happens. Suenteus Po embarks on a long expository narrative during which we learn a great deal of history and back story. Po finishes talking in issue #178 and Cerebus says he is going to kill everyone. In fact #179 consists mainly of Astoria talking. She too leaves and in issue #180 Cerebus and Cirin finally start trying to kill each other. Their fight goes on right through to issues #186 and ends with them being lifted up into space where they eventually meet God (again) (kind of).
This comic book narrative takes up a hundred and twenty pages, or a bit over half the graphic novel. Anyone who tells you that Cerebus ceased to be a comic book, or that Reads consists entirely of prose essays is not telling the truth.
However, it is definitely true that the comic book narrative is repeatedly interrupted by a novelistic text about an entirely new character, Viktor Reid. The first issue (#175) consists of fourteen pages of Viktor Reid, and only six of Cerebus. (Seven spreads: seven pages of double column text and seven full page illustrations.) We then go back to Cerebus and Cirin and Po; and return to Viktor for the first twelve pages of #176. We continue switching between the two modes of discourse, as we did in Melmoth, until the Big Reveal at the end of issue #181.
Viktor Reid writes novels. (They are referred to as Reads and act as comic-book analogues in Cerebus’s world.) Viktor’s story is told in the third person, in a voice rather like that of Oscar narrating Jaka’s Story. A sub-novel about a novelist writing a novel: you would think that things couldn’t get much more meta than that. You would be wrong.
Viktor has a plan for what he believes will be a genuinely great and significant work. He breaks with one publisher; takes a big advance from a new one; and is briefly popular and rich. However, because of the advance, he never quite gets around to writing the great book, and ends up having to write hack-work that he doesn’t believe in to pay the bills. In the final excerpt from his story, we see Reid, married to a wife who does not appreciate his art, demanding that he make more money to take care of the baby and buy new curtains. He reads a review of one of his books, lamenting how his early, excellent writing has given way to pot-boilers.
It isn’t an original insight, but it remains true, from a certain point of view. There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.
“Once I am financially secure” says Viktor “I can write exactly what I want to write about without having to worry if it sells or not.”
It pretty much goes without saying that this is the antithesis of everything Sim believes; and Viktor Reid is pretty much the writer Sim is terrified of becoming.
There is nothing in the world worse than a sell-out. Sim’s weird contribution to Todd McFarlane’s silly Spawn comic depicted the first generation of comic superhero creators as having sold themselves and their characters into life-long slavery to the demonic publishing houses. Marvel and DC offered Dave Sim huge amounts of money for Cerebus: this was the era of the Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum, when Alan Moore and Grant Morrison carried all before them. Sim refused to sign the devil’s bargain. While Eastman and Laird became multi-trillionaires on the back of the Turtles, Sim continued to labour, issue by issue, producing the comic which he wanted to produce in the way he wanted to produce it. And fewer and fewer people wanted to read it.
The Viktor Reid material is unquestionably heartfelt, and it is rather well-written. Yes, it is undoubtedly the work of a bitter divorcee; but unhappy marriages and bitter divorces are part of life and I can think of no particular reason why they shouldn’t be depicted in art. The final image is of Viktor reading the terrible review of his latest book and finding that the second page has baby-food smeared over it. The revulsion is palpable. His wife asks him to help with the baby:
The sentence was a song, each word a note enhancing, emphasising its predecessor. It was a concise melody, edged with imminent consequence. Confrontational, accusatory...motherly, in a word.
Dave Sim is NOT a misogynist.
A great deal of the novel-within-a-novel is rather dated comic-book industry gossip and satire. It is hardly possible at this stage to remember who Vertigo Horse and Mike Posserman represent, and why Dave Sim was so annoyed with them.
But the message is clear: publishers are the enemies of creative artists; marriage — and therefore women— are the allies of publishers. Rejecting feminism and rejecting Disney are part of the same political move.
Viktor Reid’s story is interleaved with the big political confrontation between the three aardvarks and Astoria. Po talks, and talks, and talks. The final section of his narrative is carried out in extreme close up, so we are only seeing his eyes. And then slowly, over twelve panels, he walks away. And Cerebus—the same Cerebus who chopped off the man’s hand in the bar, a hundred and eighty issues ago, turns to Astoria and Cirin and says “Right: who wants to die first”.
And we are back with Viktor Reid; going to his publisher and hearing that he can’t write his great work and is going to have to be a hack to earn money instead.
And back to Cerebus and Astoria: Astoria now talks to Cerebus. She leaves too. And then it is just Cerebus and Cirin, and he pulls out his sword — and for nearly two solid issues, they fight. We are back in the visual language of the end of Melmoth, perhaps Dave’s most characteristic construction — long panels, spread across double pages. It would be inaccurate to call these pages “manga style” — but there is definitely a line to be drawn from Lone Wolf and Cub, through Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns and into Cerebus action scenes.
And then it happens: one of the genuine “what the fuck?” moments in the history of comics. Issue #181; Mothers and Daughters chapter 31. The first panel of page 16 is the same as the top panel of page 15, unshaded. The point of view pulls back. We are looking at a panel within a panel. We see a lamp and a writing table and finally the back of the artist’s head. There are five panels: but the sixth panel is blank. The whole of the following page is blank, but for a single, displaced panel. It has been flipped over.
Dave Sim is looking out of the page at us.
The Viktor Reid story was a novel within a novel about a novelist writing a novel: suddenly, Cerebus has become a comic within a comic. A comic about a comic. A comic about a comic book writer writing a comic.
Comic book writers have deconstructed their own work before. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were occasionally members of the supporting cast of the Fantastic Four; although it is generally agreed that this was a fictional Stan and Jack who existed inside the fictional Marvel Universe and chronicled the adventures of the fictional Fantastic Four there. Mark Waid wrote a story in which Reed Richards travelled into the afterlife to ask God for the return of his son Franklin. (God is, of course, a grey-streaked cigar-chomping New Yorker named Jack.) A demiurge with a distinct resemblance to Alan Moore appears in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Grant Morrison performed a rather laboured tortured artist routine in Animal Man. And in grown up fiction the authors of Lanark and the Canterbury Tales both appear as characters in their own works.
The most obvious precursor, however, is Steve Gerber’s meeting with his most famous creation. The legendary sixteenth issue of Howard the Duck consisted of an all-text dialogue between Steve the author and Howard the character. (It came about because the artwork for the issue had literally got lost in the post.) Howard was portrayed partly as the nagging voice of Steve’s neurosis; and partly as his sensible, better self. (2)
But still: it is audacious. We are not expecting it. We are used to different scenes interrupting each other; but the last thing we were expecting was for Dave to pop the stack at this moment.
The next chunk of text is in a voice rather similar to Viktor Reid’s: but we are now talking about a character called Viktor Davis, who is pretty much unapologetically Dave Sim.
What follows is some very dense, very interesting writing in which “Viktor Davis” and “the reader” are treated as characters; the reader having somehow passed through a veil into the author’s world.
“Yes. It’s leading up to something” he was saying as he stepped further out of the reader’s field of vision. “Everything is getting much closer together now. You, me, the story.”
The reader could feel the light caress of Viktor Davis’ breath tickling the inside of the reader’s right ear. The stench of cigarette smoke at such close proximity was nearly overpowering. Viktor Davis was quiet for several seconds and when he spoke it was in a voice which was barely a whisper...
And then he hits us with another “What the hell?” moment.
It could only be done once. I slightly fear that I am spoiling the book by revealing it; but on the other hand, the existence of the subsequent volumes has already spoiled it.
It will be remembered that, almost from the beginning, Dave Sim had conceived Cerebus as a 300 issue novel — an idea that seemed overwhelmingly hubristic in 1977. But Viktor Davis now talks directly to the reader about a decision he made on December 8, 1980 — the night John Lennon died:
He decided that Cerebus would not run for 300 issues. He decided that Cerebus would run for 200 issues. He would not announce it until issue #183, a year and five months before the end: November 1995.
This is a genuine shock. I can only think of one other occasion when a comic book pulled the rug from under me so successfully. (3) And Sim is aware what he has done: that is the game. He is messing with the reader’s head; demonstrating that he can play them like a fiddle, control their emotions....
The reader felt the ground become unstable, felt it wobble uncertainly like a table with four legs of different lengths...
...and so on, for a paragraph. The reader falling down. The reader lying prone:
It seemed like an eternity until the reader’s breathing subsided
The figure of Viktor Davis emerged from the darkness.... “I was just kidding” he said “Cerebus goes to issue 300. Just like I’ve always said.. "
Sim is still playing with the comic book form. There is no cinematic or televisual equivalent to the word “STAB” in a blank panel; there is no theatrical equivalent of interrupting a comic book with some prose. And there is no novelistic equivalent of making the readers believe that the book is going to end ten years sooner than they were expecting.
Five issues later, Viktor Davis tells The Reader his opinions about men and women.
And what he says is pretty rancid. The male principle represents light and creativity; the female principle is a void which sucks creativity from males. The male principle represents intellect (“I think”); the female principle represents emotion (“I feel”). Life is female and death is male; but because the void and the emotional now rules the world, life is hopelessly and unsustainably outperforming death.
Here is a sample.
In contemplating the full weight of popular culture, television, movies, magazines and newspapers, I see the completely unopposed advocacy of Merged Permanence and I think that a definite brutality is called for. The Male Light is jeopardized on all fronts, in my view. The Devouring Rapacious Female Void is not a thing to be taken lightly, to be explained away, to be rationalised into neutrality. I’m not here to make you feel good. I am here to make you think. And to make you think, I have to make you see.
Emotion, whatever the Female Void would have you believe, is not a more Exalted State than is Thought. In point of fact, I think Emotion is animalistic, serpent-brain stuff. Animals do not Think, but I am reasonably certain that they have Emotions. “Eating this makes me Happy.” “When my fur is all wet and I am cold, it makes me Sad.” “Ooo! Puppies!” “It makes me Excited to Chase the Ball!” Reason, as any husband can tell you, doesn’t stand a chance in an argument with Emotion. There are no rules to Emotional Argument. You simply wander around in rhetorical circles until you feel Happy again, and then the argument is over. This was the fundamental reason, I believe, that women were (rightly) denied the vote for so long. In order to move a civilisation forward, an overview is required. You have to be able to step back and examine the structure of a problem. This is what Thinking, Reasoning, is. Every political campaign waged in the G-7 countries has as its centrepiece Job Creation. Polls give the politicians a list of voter concerns. Job Creation is at the top of the list. Ergo, the politicians promise Jobs. Because the Female Void dominates proceedings (simply because the Female Void dominates everything), a candidate is elected based on how he or she makes the electorate Feel. We Feel we can Trust this candidate. No effort is made to step back and ask, “Isn’t the whole point of technology to eliminate work?” Reason would tell you that you can either eliminate (or limit) technology or you can eliminate (or limit) jobs. It is not possible to have it both ways. The Female Void Emotional response is that we have to have it both ways. And so we do. And so the problem gets worse instead of better.
Dave Sim is NOT a misogynist. The UK Comic Laureate says so.
The interleaving of Viktor Reid and Viktor Davis with the ongoing Cerebus narrative has a complex architectonic effect which Sim clearly plans and intends. Anyone who tells you that Sim just said “sod it can’t be bothered to write a comic book this month I’ll just editorialise instead” has not read or engaged with the text. But since the text goes out of its way to make itself hard to read and engage with, this is entirely understandable. You could say very much the same thing about James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon. (4)
Yes, there is a problem with population; no, I don’t think we can usefully say that this is because Death is Male and Birth is Female. Yes, there is a problem with emotionalism in the media and politics; no I don’t think that’s because women have too much power and men have been feminized. Yes, I think that there are people like Dave Sim and Viktor Reid and myself who are too selfish to ever be happily married. No, I don’t think that females are Voids who suck the Light out of men.
But this all comes in the context of a fantastically interesting two hundred and fifty page structural experiment and virtuoso textual mind-fuck. While a male and a female aardvark, embodying the male and the female divinity, are beating hell out of each other. Viktor Davis is pouring out page after page of theories about masculinity and femininity. I am prepared to look at that as a piece of artifice. A piece of construction. A component of a novel. Reading a book is an emotional roller coaster in which the writer does something to us; and my God did Dave Sim do something to me over those pages.
“So: you are saying that the cleverness of the construction and the total work of art justifies the toxicity of one of the text sections?”
No. I am saying that the toxicity of one of the text sections does not overwrite the cleverness of the construction and the value of the total work of art.
And the one might just be a component of the other.
In addition, as he’s going to be teaching politics, I’ve told him he’s welcome to teach any of the great socialist thinkers, provided he makes it clear that they were wrong.
1: My mother bore me in the southern wilds; and I am black, but oh my soul is white. White as an angel is the English child; but I am black, as if bereaved of light.
2: Steve Gerber did everything Dave Sim did, earlier but not so well. Discuss.
3: The Dead Man was Judge Dredd all the time.
4: I have never read Thomas Pynchon.
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