Thursday, November 10, 2022

Episode III

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is completely unhinged. But it is interestingly unhinged. At the very least, it is a structural wonder, and of course the artwork is beautiful.

It's one of those texts which is a monument to its own composition; and to the impossibility of its completion. The introduction, by Eddie Campbell, compares it with Tristram Shandy, the book which is so full of digressions that the main character has not been born by the final chapter. The back cover places it somewhere between Alan Moore's From Hell and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Bryan Talbot's Alice In Sunderland is another obvious comparison. Eddie Campbell collaborated with Alan Moore on From Hell. He also said that Who Sent The Sentinels was the best thing that has ever been written about Watchmen. 

It starts with an account of its own genesis, as one strand in a comic called Glamourpuss. It ends with a collaborator,  Carson Grubaugh, writing "This is as far as Dave got" and trying to add some sort of closure based on Dave's sketches and notes. Cerebus, by the end, was a comic about a comic; with the Earth-Pig consciously aware that he was being drawn by someone called Dave. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is about how Alex Raymond, and others, made comics; but it is also about how Dave Sim made, or failed to make, the Strange Death of Alex Raymond.

I don't think I understand it. I certainly wouldn't presume to review it. I will, at least, attempt to describe it.

On September 6th 1956, Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9 and latterly Rip Kirby, was killed in a car crash. He was driving his friend Stan Drake's car over the speed limit and crashed into a tree. Stan Drake survived.

Sim makes out a decent case that accounts of the accident are inconsistent. It is said that Raymond accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the break in an unfamiliar vehicle: but how -- asks Dave -- can you mistake the accelerator when the car is already moving at speed? Sim thinks that the accounts of the death are so strange that the truth has become occluded. Not, you understand, through a conspiracy or a cover up. More a kind of mass delusion.

"Everyone -- everyone -- in a mass schizophrenic episode had ...fled... mentally from the accident and has stayed "fled" from it throughout the ensuing decades."

He thinks that Alex Raymond was such an important person and his death was of such significance that the universe -- what he calls "comic book metaphysics" have conspired to avoid confronting the truth.

“To understand why it is necessary to examine Alex Raymond’s metaphysical significance in our world’s history."

So that is what the books is about. Not about how Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant influenced Thor and the Green Lantern. Not about Dave Sim rediscovering lost and neglected newspaper strips. Not about which kinds of brushes and pens different artists used. About the metaphysical significance the creator of Flash Gordon had in human history.

The book is notably free from Sim's directly religious speculations. In Cerebus, he developed a complicated Marcionite theory that the Bible, and indeed all of history, is a sort of allegorical debate between the primary God and a secondary demiurge called YOOHOO (i.e the YHWH of the Old Testament). But if God and Yoohoo were trading allegories over Alex Raymond's car crash, he doesn't say so in this volume.

Most Christians regard occult and magick as decidedly Bad Things, but Sim doesn't seem to see any particular conflict between his metaphysical ideas and his religious beliefs. A long, long time ago, Alan Moore told Dave Sim that converting to Christianity was like becoming fluent in Russian, where being initiated into ritual magick was more like taking a PhD in structural linguistics. There is a lot more of Alan Moore in Dave Sim and a lot more of Dave Sim in Alan Moore than either side would probably admit.

There's not that much of Sim's gender-theory in this book, either, for which we should thank our deity of choice. He talks about a 1952 science fiction comic strip called Twin Earths, in which our planet is visited by the inhabitants of a more technologically advanced twin. He notes that (astonishingly) some of the technological predictions in the strip have come true (moving side walks, movable domed covers on stadiums, GPS navigation, the internet) but that some of them have not (miniature pets, extracting minerals from sea water, teleportation). But he then suggests that, the things which have not happened have simply not happened yet: some of the strips predictions may come through in the future. 

He notices that one of the male characters in Twin Earths wears a skirt. And he notices that one of the pieces of technology is a device which can read people's thoughts, determine if a person is thinking in the wrong way, and subsequently brainwash them. 

"For all of you who believe I shouldn't be allowed to think that there's something wrong with a man wearing a skirt, definitely something to look forward to."

Remarks like this simply shift the burden of proof: a standard technique for any dull right-wing pundit. It's not that different from saying that a bakeries selling veggie sausage roles is infringing our right to eat meat. It's a smallish step from there to saying that the real evil is not racism, but people who think that racism is evil. 

Dave: no-one is saying that you shouldn't be allowed to think that only people with penises ought to wear pants: they are saying that they believe that your thoughts in that regard are wrong and mistaken.

But on the other hand, it's a good example of what Dave does so well as a writer and a rhetorician. Speaking directly to the audience: responding to a probable objection to something which he has just said before the objection has been raised. (Ironically this creates the illusion that he can read our thoughts...) It takes you aback, a little bit. And there is a deprecating wit to the self-characterisation, a little like the "evil, mad" Dave Sim riff in Glamourpuss.

Usual disclaimers about whether praise for the form of an argument implies endorsement of its content -- about whether it is inconsistent to blame a writer for saying a bad thing and simultaneously praise him for saying it very cleverly -- can be taken for granted. Please do not feed the troll.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

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