Friday, January 29, 2021

When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus?

 


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7



(7)





Eventually, the person Rick mentioned in the dream comes to Cerebus: it is Woody Allen. Of course it is. And the book is the Bible. Of course it is. Cerebus starts to read the Bible. And everybody else stops reading Cerebus.

Cerebus sits down with Konisberg and goes through the book of Genesis, line by line, explaining what he thinks each line means. This is exactly as interesting as you would expect. It is presented as a transcript. Something of Cerebus’s voice survives in the voice of Cerebus the Expositor, and occasionally it is almost quite funny:

“Better put a little star next to that, and a little star at the bottom”

“A footnote?”

“Okay. Sure. As long as it’s got a little star next to it, and a little star at the bottom.”


This joke format goes right back to High Society:

“Shall I put it on your nightstand, Sir.”

“No, just put it on that little table by the bed.”


And some of the ideas are not one hundred per cent devoid of interest. But it goes on for (if I have counted correctly) sixty pages. 

The Viktor Reid material in Reads was, in my view, quite interesting in its own right, and was interleaved with the climax of the graphic novel: so there was a certain tension in two different narratives interrupting each other. The Bible commentaries are interleaved with scenes from the life of Allen/Konisberg. These scenes also consist of large blocks of text; mostly consisting of side-swipes at psychoanalysis and other intellectual pretensions. (Konisberg’s analyst is called “Sigmund Fraud” which is about as sophisticated as it gets.) 

So. The Bible. 

All scholars agree that the book of Genesis is a composite document made up of several even more ancient texts. [1] They distinguish between the “J” document, the “E” document and the “P” document, as well as the voice of “R”. In “J”, God is a relatively anthropomorphic figure, referred to as YHWH. In “E” he is more like the ineffable God of monotheism, and is known as Elohim. “P” stands for Priest, and the “P” passages are concerned with Temple ritual and ceremonial purity. And “R” is the redactor who brought the whole thing together. 

This is why there are two radically different creation myths in Genesis; the “E” version where Elohim speaks the universe into being, and the “J” version where YHWH takes a walk in the garden and Adam hides in the bushes. 

As early as the second century CE, ultra-literalist Christians decided that YHWH couldn’t be the true God. Jesus must have been the son of a different, superior deity: the Jews had been worshipping a false God all along. [2] This theory, known as Marcionism, may even pre-date what became Christian orthodoxy. It isn’t clear whether Sim was aware of Marcionism or the documentary hypothesis when he wrote his commentaries. It would be interesting to know if he had read the Book of J — Harold Bloom’s brilliantly dotty attempt to extract the lost book of J from the YHWH passages in the extant Biblical texts. Bloom claims that the recovered Book of J is the first great work of literature. He thinks it must have been written by a woman, and she must have been a contemporary of King David. So J was Bathsheba; almost definitely. 

Cerebus refers to YHWH, not as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”, but as “the Yoohwhoo” which is possibly the only good joke in the entire volume. He decides that God and the Yoohwhoo are two separate beings, but that the Yoohwhoo is a part of God’s spirit which split away from him. Yoohwhoo and God have been in conflict ever since. God, being invisible and ineffable, has to communicate with Yoohwhoo by making things happen in the world — anything in history can therefore be seen as allegory. Yoohwhoo can talk to God in words. 

The idea that the contradictory passages in the Old Testament represent a debate or argument between God and Yoohwhoo is quite productive and not unclever. The first creation story in Genesis is about Big Male God saying “I created the universe like this” (“Let there be light!”), the second is Small Female God saying “No, I created the universe like this”. (“When the Lord God made the universe, there were no plants on the earth and no seeds had sprouted, because he had not sent any rain, and there was no one to cultivate the land; but water would come up from beneath the surface and water the ground…”)


A very nasty smell hangs over the whole endeavour. It isn’t simply that Sim is trying to make gender-essentialism a cosmic principle. It’s that his conception of “man” and “woman” is so narrow — so small — so petty. We aren’t in the realms of “men are mighty thrusting trees but women are shrubs with deep roots” — the kind of slightly old-fashioned separatism you sometimes get in Ursula Le Guin and which Terry Pratchett pokes gentle fun at. 

If I had to defend Dave Sim against the charge of misogyny, which thank goodness I don’t, I might say that it is all too silly and trivial to be worth dignifying with the name of hatred. Is there a word meaning “a little boy who thinks little girls are silly”? 

Here is Cerebus commenting on the Yahwist creation story:


“And the Yoohwhoo God said: It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make him a helpe meet as before him” As before him? There was a “help-meet” before the man? And what the heck is a “help-meet” anyway? It’s okay, Cerebus reminds himself. It’s okay — just keep nodding and smiling. Which is getting difficult at this point because there are — obviously — you know, major parts of the story MISSING here. But...as Cerebus came to learn when he was married: if you just keep nodding and smiling most of the time — gradually, but eventually— you will be given the missing piece as you...you know...go along. Whereas if instead you yell really loud. “YOOHWHOO GOD WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” all you are going to accomplish is to hurt her feelings and get her so upset she can’t remember what she was talking about and she’ll get all huffy and she wont talk to you for a few days.


It may be that — on the whole — other things being equal — with exceptions — some men — not all men by any means — are more linear than some women, and that some women, not all women by any means, are more digressive than some men. That most men focus on facts and figures and most women focus on networks and relationships. Many men prefer thrusting stories about ships harpooning whales; while many women prefer undulating narratives about prejudiced ladies ironically realising that they have misjudged proud men. I don’t think that some men would accuse some women of gossiping and some women would accuse some men of mansplaining if those words didn’t represent something that is more often true of men (or women) than it is of women (or men). 

But honestly. 

Going back to the Bible, going back to the Creation, to find out that, baked into one of the foundational texts of western civilisation is the fact that Big Male God finds it irritating that Little Female God goes on again, on again, on again, on again... 

Cerebus’s irritation with Jaka — Dave’s irritation with Deni — as a clue to the meaning of the universe. 

The Hebrew Bible says that YHWH made Adam a kenegdow, "suitable", ezer, "helper". The Latin similarly has adiutorium similem, "a suitable helper". The Greek has βοηθόν κατ, "a helper according to him". Older forms of English use the word “meet” to mean seemly or appropriate or even decorous. (Desdemona says “it is meet that I be used so”—it is appropriate to treat me like this; Octavius tells Pompey that it is “meet”—fitting—that they should talk before they fight.) We still occasionally use “the help” as a noun to refer to an employee or servant. So God makes Adam “a help, meet for him”. Modern translations render the expression “a helper suitable for him”, “a helper fit for him”, “a helper comparable to him”, “a helper corresponding to him”, “a helper who is just right for him”, “a helper as his complement”, “a helper compatible with him”. Sim pretends that he doesn’t know what “help meet” means because the actual translation — that men and women compliment and are compatible with each other — would undermine his whole case. He must be aware of different translations because he pedantically calls Eve “Hawwa” even though he is working from the English text. 

Once you have thought up the God / Yoohwhoo theory, almost any text can be twisted — sorry, interpreted — to fit in with it. You will recall that after the great flood, Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk; and that the descendants of Ham were cursed because he caught a glimpse of his father’s prick. (Shem and Japheth avert their eyes.) Not one of the better known or more edifying stories in the Good Book. Here is Cerebus’s exegesis:


Basically, God is making fun of Yoohwhoo's version of the story of creation that she told in chapters two and three. 

“And Noah became a husbandman and planted a vineyard” 

See, Noah represents Yoohwhoo, who said in chapter two that she planted the garden eastward in Eden. 

“And hee dranke of the wine, and was drunken and hee was uncouered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two bretheren without." 

Yoohwhoo ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge-of-good-and-evil and declared “the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed,” “the man and his wife”. Adam and Hawa, representing God and Yoowhoo. Only this time, God leaves Himself out of it — so instead of God you have Yoohwhoo, God and “his” three sons...Shem, or She-Yoohwhoo, Ham or He-Yoohwhoo and Japhet or It-Yoohwhoo. 

“And Shem and Iaphet took a garment and laid it vpon both their shoulders, and went backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father and their faces backwards and they saw not their father’s nakedness.” 

God is making fun of She-Yoohwhoo — Hawwa — and It-Yoohwhoo — the “talking snake” — going backwards in chapter three from the “who told the thou wast naked?” question and coming up with their “dialogue” as a cover story or a “garment”— consisting of a conversation between them that never actually took place to cover Yoohwhoo’s nakedness.


Truly, you have a dizzying intellect. 

When everything is allowed to be a symbol of everything else, then anything can mean anything. Much of Alan Moore’s later work is based on highly esoteric magical theories: but Moore always seems to be working according to a tight, rigorous, symbolic structure which could be understood by other occultists. The tarot, the kabala and the zodiac all have meanings that existed and were agreed before Alan Moore started interpreting them. But there is no way anyone but Dave Sim could possibly get from “two of Noah’s sons put a blanket over him to spare their embarrassment” and “YHWH lied about the conversation between Eve and the Serpent.” We are randomly drawing connections between things. 

I am told some kinds of drugs can have that kind of effect on you.



The “Chasing YHWH” episodes represent perhaps ten percent of the Latter Days novella, which runs to seven hundred pages — thirty five issues — overall. Again, the claim that Sim stopped drawing a comic and started publishing theological essays instead is not entirely true. 

The idea that at the end of his life, Cerebus is given a book that contains all knowledge and spends some years interpreting it, is a not uninteresting culmination of the life of the Aardvark Mercenary Prime Minister Pope. And making the reader spend a long, long time reading Cerebus’s commentaries is certainly one way of conveying the idea that Cerebus spent a long, long time commentating. Sim is not the first writer to make artistic use of repetition and silence and monotony. One thinks of post-modernist art like John Cage’s Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds, or John and Yoko’s four hour Smile.

And, once again: there is the smallest suspicion that Dave is deliberately messing with our heads. 

Cerebus is given a book containing the meaning of life. He sets about telling us. There is a page of text: we read it; we are possibly quite impressed by its cleverness, but equally possibly quite bemused by its craziness. We read another page. More of the same. And another. And another. It goes on and on. The deeper it goes, the denser and the stranger and the more obscure:


Yoohwhoo’s Angel was the only one who had a relationship with Hagar to that point, a relationship which started when Hagar fled from Sarai. Hagar represented Yoohwhoo’s Egyptian plan....


So, naturally, even the keenest reader — even Dave Sim’s most generous and incisive commentator — finds his eyes skimming over the paragraphs, His finger trying to find the next bit of plot, his brain thinking he has probably got the gist. Tarim forgive us, he skips. And as we come to the end of the extended text section, and the comic strip picks up, Cerebus starts to speak directly to an unseen interviewer. 

And this is what he says to her:


People are always asking: What is the meaning of life? What does it all mean? Why are we here? Hey, right. Okay. So Cerebus gives it to them, see. Here. This is the meaning of life. This is what it all means. This is why we’re here. And what’s their reaction? “You mean I have to read all THIS?”


Cerebus says this. 

Right after I started to skip. 

Prophets tell us what is going on in the world. People don’t listen to them. Dave Sim has tricked me into exemplifying a universal truth. I am become the representative of the masses who will not listen to what the wise man says.

It makes one think of psychological transference, where the relationship between therapist and patient becomes an emotional replay of the patient’s relationship with his father.

Maybe Sigmund Freud wasn’t so much of a fraud after all?


Dave Sim is messing with our heads. Even when Cerebus becomes literally unreadable, the unreadability may be part of the point.




Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we kill those people. 

Bill Hicks





So. I re-read Cerebus right through to see how it stands up.

Some of it I liked: some of it was heavy going: some of it was horrible.

The bits I remember being good were still good. A lot of the bits I remembered being bad were much less bad than I remembered them being.

It is difficult to read. It needs to be compared with difficult novels Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow [3], not with classic comic books like Watchmen or the Fourth World.

The tone, the rhythm, the voice, the texture became part of my life.

I felt bereft when I had come to the end.

I will read it again.

Not immediately, but soon.

I re-read Cerebus to see how it stands up.

It stands up very well indeed.



"Er, well, Swann, Swann, there’s this house, there’s this house, and er, it’s in the morning, it’s in the morning - no, it’s the evening, in the evening and er, there’s a garden and er, this bloke comes in - bloke comes in - what’s his name - what’s his name, er just said it - big bloke - Swann, Swann...." 

Monty Python’s Flying Circus 



"Just what the predicament is can be seen from a standard work of reference, the Oxford Companion to English Literature. It sets out to summarise Tristram Shandy for us: [...] Sterne would have relished the fact that this summary suggests a man throwing up his hands or throwing in the sponge." 

Introduction to Penguin Classics edition









[1] Sentences beginning "all scholars agree" are nearly always false.

[2] I am no longer a member of the Labour Party

[3] I have never read Gravity's Rainbow














Monday, January 25, 2021

Album Review: Of The Time

I realize most people who read this blog aren't folkies, particularly. When I did a straw poll about what subject I was going to write about next, Show of Hands notably scored nul points. But I do want to give a very big shout out to Luke Jackson's new EP, available from BandCamp from Friday. 

If you do read my music reviews you already know how much I admire this artist. A protege of Steve Knightley and Martyn Joseph, he started out singing achingly confessional songs not unadjacent to the folk tradition; but as his voice deepened and matured, he has branched out into blues and Americana. He casts his net of influences fairly widely. Richard Thompson's name often comes up (he does a killer Vincent Black Lightning) and the ghost of Bob Dylan is never far away. But he is now citing names like Parker Milsap and John Prine as influences. He has an awesome and varied guitar style, and his voice is still the best instrument on the folk-circuit. Oh god, those sustained long notes... 

Of The Time is his most personal collection of songs since his debut More Than Boys. The closing of theatres during the pandemic has been tough on everyone in the arts, and folkies are more reliant than most on playing numerous gigs at small venues. It must be particularly hard for a young artist towards the beginning of his journey -- one who has moved fairly rapidly from open mic nights in his home town to supporting Fairport and touring America -- to see his career suddenly put on hold. Luke has a natural and intimate stage presence -- you never feel that there is any distance between the voice in the songs, the person talking between the songs, and the chap who chats with you on the CD stand afterwards. This means he has been able to make the transition to lives streaming better than most. You always felt that stage-Luke was talking to each member of the audience as if they were friends of his, so listening to video-Luke singing to you from his living room seems quite natural. But it isn't the same without all the "try that..." and "help me out...." moments. So here comes his contribution to that most unwelcome of genres: the Lockdown Album. He started out singing songs about growing up and leaving home, moved on to songs about seeing the world and experiencing life on the road, and now here are seven new songs about not going out, not touring, not seeing people, and even wondering if the time is coming when he will not be a singer any more.  

Three themes run through the album. First, the sheer inadequacy of what people are saying about the pandemic -- the paucity of the discourse. Politicians resort to cliches ("the man in charge looks troubled on the TV / he doesn't have a single word to say") while social media is full of merchants of doom ("there's nothing scarier / than a keyboard warrior / who in real life won't say a damn thing"). Second,  the sheer boredom and waste of the enforced lockdown ("maybe I'll paint the shed again, maybe I'll mow the lawn") and the depression it brings on ("I've lost sleep, ain't been sleeping / I've lost weight, ain't been eating.") And finally, unbearably, the very real possibility that there won't be a place for singers like himself in the new normal ("if they won't let me do what it is I live to do then I'll spend my days inside"). 

The stand out song on the album -- maybe the finest new song to come out of this pandemic -- brings both themes together. It takes aim at Rishi Sunak's cloth-eared suggestion that musicians should go away and learn some more "viable" job. It approaches the subject indirectly -- not talking about the lockdown, but just talking about songs. He hears about someone who's late father always liked to dance to a particular song. "Well, it came on the radio just the other day and when he heard the words it made him cry". This makes him think about all the ways in which music has helped him ("I found memories in melodies and it helped fix all my broken parts"). How are moments like that going to happen if all the singers have been forced to quit? The song goes from the general ("those who wrote the songs are retraining") to the unbearably specific: 

but oh what could I sing 
if the pain came creeping in 
and no song could keep my heart from breaking 
if the answer my friend wasn't blowing in the wind 
because I packed this in and started retraining 

How have we reached the point where someone this good can even think about packing it in? 

But although this is a sad album, it is not depressing. The folkiest thing on it, "Tiny Windows", has a strong note of tentative hope; the lost lover of the first verse turning into Lady Luck by the last, and the singer promising to seize the day from now on "If you don't buy a ticket or even turn up to the race, how the hell you gonna win the prize?" I suppose the tiny windows are what we are looking at the world through during this present darkness, and the song is looking forward to the day when we can all go outside again. The melody is delicately allusive: I spent several minutes trying to work out which Dylan number it reminded me of, but after repeated listenings it has more than a whiff of Johnny Cash about it.

The last two songs on the album punch out the same feelings in different tones. "Nothing But Time" merges  the bitterness of "Retraining" with the hope of "Tiny Windows" and turns them into a toe-tapping country rocker, with even a bit of Elvis-a-like belting at the end. "Used to wish for more of it, now I'm wishing it away, I got time, time, time, time, time". But the final song is more wistful: he starts out being "jealous of the sun because that big old sun just keeps on shining" but ends up accepting that darkness is part of life too and that it's "okay not to be all right all the time".

In a funny way, Luke Jackson doesn't write lyrics. He just sings what he needs to sing in ordinary language. This is what makes the connection between the singer and the audience so palpable. The pandemic feels like judgement day: but Luke sums up his feelings in the simplest way possible: "I am not okay with this". 

There are moments of wisdom and poetry and haunting insight. 

once the dust has settled down 
hope that we remember how 
the world was held to ransom 
as nature changed her script 
maybe we can learn from this 

And not a sea shanty in sight. 


Available as a digital download from 29 Jan from

www.lukepauljackson.com/shop

https://lukepauljackson.bandcamp.com

Friday, January 22, 2021

(6)





The 20th century fizzled out and reading Cerebus ceased to be a pleasure and became a chore. I have said in the past that Going Home was the point at which Cerebus became entirely unreadable. Having just re-read the 700 page phonebook collection I am sorry to say that I was utterly and completely wrong. 

The penultimate novel is, in fact, a massive return to form. Sim is firing on all cylinders: character study, farce, and virtuoso composition that pushes the comic book form to its very limit. And also a lot of extremely dodgy sexual politics. If you want to see just how good Dave Sim was at the tail end of his great project, you need to have a look at Cerebus #260 and #261: Going Home chapters 29 and 30. 


A man an a woman are trapped in a tent in a terrible snowstorm. The man has a dream-vision; that there is a settlement over the next ridge and they will find it if they leave everything behind in the tent and strike out right now. The woman thinks this is crazy. The man persuades her. They stumble through the storm—and sure enough, they do find a settlement. The woman was right (it was a crazy thing to do) but the man was also right (the vision was authentic). 

This is only a small part of Going Home. It is recognisably a story; a story which has been told before but a story which is worth telling again. And it is a story which forces the two main characters to lock horns in a very dramatic way. I am sure that Sim intends it to embody a universal truth about the Rightness of men and the Wrongness of women. Yet I found it very easy to read it as being about Cerebus and Jaka. 


Cerebus has taken Jaka on a protracted journey to meet his parents. On the way they argue, and fight, and make up, and argue, and fight, and make up again. It has been obvious to the reader for a long while that Cerebus is in love with his idea of Jaka and Jaka is in love with her idea of Cerebus but that they don’t really know each other very well, and are obviously temperamentally unsuitable for each other. Mothers & Daughters ended with “Dave” the writer demonstrating to Cerebus the character that there was no way of writing the story such that Cerebus and Jaka would live happily ever after. 

During the journey, the two of them encounter a writer named F. Stop Kennedy (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and another writer named Ham Ernestway (work it out for yourself). As issue #260 opens they have left their hunting lodge, because Cerebus believes that Mary Ernestway has abetted Ham’s suicide. (Don’t ask.) It is snowing; the food is running out. Cerebus is engaged in an internal dialogue with himself; trying to avoid losing consciousness; trying to calculate how long the supplies will last; wondering if the tent can withstand the storm, and trying to convince himself that he was in tighter spots during his barbarian days. 

Simply as an exercise in form—a piece of abstract art, a visual tone poem—the episode takes one’s breath away. A large amount of the story is told in solid white panels and solid black panels. It starts out on a five by five grid—which you would think is about as small as comic panels can go. By page 8, it has shrunk further to forty panels a page; by the end of the issue we are down to a ten by ten grid: a hundred postage stamp size panels. But the issue ends on a single, big, full page illustration—an abstract sound effect of a loud noise which awakens Cerebus from his dream. In the following issue, time starts to flow more normally, with a much more sensible three by two panel layout. 

What is a comic book? If it is any combination of words and picture on a page, then Cerebus #260 is a comic book; and so is Viktor Reid’s autobiography; and so are the political debate transcripts in High Society; and so is Mog the Forgetful Cat. Stan Lee said that if Michelangelo and Shakespeare had collaborated, they would have produced a very good comic book. But if a comic book is an animated cartoon frozen in space; a series of still images from which we infer motion and narrative and the passage of time; then Cerebus #260 barely counts as a comic book at all. It is almost entirely about subjectivity and internal states: how the experience of freezing or starving presents itself to Cerebus’s consciousness. It’s the consummation of the Mind Games issues, which took place entirely inside the main character’s head. There are blank panels; panels full of text; extreme close ups of Cerebus’s face; fragmented images of Cerebus. When the lantern goes out and Cerebus realises they have no matches, we have seventeen black panels followed by two tiny images of Cerebus and a distraught looking Jaka. We have two entire pages of Cerebus looking at his hands. And finally a dream sequence, in the tiniest panels yet; black space; text; tiny faces. The sense of panic, of fear and desperation in the teeny-tiny panels is incredibly powerful. The sense of release when the strip turns into something more like a comic book is visceral. 

However avant garde the illustration, and whatever religious and political rabbit holes Sim may have descended into, I was never in any doubt that the guy freezing to death with his lover was the same card player and treasure hunter we first encountered two thousand pages and twenty years ago. 

“The storm isn’t going to lift because it’s called winter and it isn’t going to stop for six months.” 

Cerebus’s instincts as an outdoorsman tell him to preserve the last match to light a fire when they go outside; but he uses it to briefly light a lantern because he thinks that if they are going to die anyway Jaka might as well have a few seconds of comfort. On the other hand has threatens to hit her if she becomes hysterical. He says that he is going to shoot himself rather than die of starvation, and wants Jaka to promise to eat his body when that happens. She won’t talk about it. 

In the dream, Rick—who still believes, at some level, that Cerebus is Most Holy and the embodiment of the living Tarim—tells Cerebus that the storm is going to stop, and that Cerebus is to leave everything in the tent and follow the line of trees. He also tells him—and this is almost the most important plot point in the whole sub-novel—that at some time in the future, someone will give Cerebus a book and this book will tell him “everything”. 



Issue # 261 is a pure character piece: Cerebus persuades Jaka to leave the tent, as Rick told him in the dream; Cerebus and Jaka battle their way through the snow; Cerebus starts to doubt his own vision; but at the final moment, they do indeed find shelter over the ridge. 

In the tent, there is real vitriol and anger between the two characters; and it is quite shocking to see Jaka the beautiful dancer transformed into a frightened, starving, middle-aged woman. There are fewer structural fireworks than in the previous issue; but Sim is still restlessly pushing the form in unexpected directions. We are in a life and death situation in which the main characters are talking openly of cannibalism; Sim is setting up the theological crux of his epic: but Cerebus himself was never more a cartoon aardvark than he is on pages 3 and 4. He jumps up and down: he waves his arms in the air. His pinprick eyes expand; they become spirals and asymmetrical shapes. Cerebus speaks in huge, black letters; Jaka in small text in dripping speech bubbles. 

“You’re not coming?” 

“Oddly enough. No.” 

In the end, it is Cerebus who is the manipulative one: he says that if Jaka comes with him, she can eat the remaining rations. 

“Of course Cerebus trusts you because Cerebus loves you, mwah, but just to humour silly, ha-ha-ha silly, silly Cerebus we’ll bring the biscuits with us...” 

There really is a shelter; and the issue ends with Jaka yelling “I want my biscuits” and Cerebus wryly handing them over. 

Jaka can be childish but Cerebus can be a bastard. Was that the message I was supposed to take from these episodes? 


It is true that Going Home also contains a multi-issue digression about Ernest Hemingway. 

It is true that the ending of the novel (when Jaka and Cerebus finally reach Cerebus’s old home) depends on some assumptions about fathers, sons and wives that most readers will find it difficult to accept. 

It is true that at seven hundred pages, it is a challenging read. 

But its high points are as good as anything Dave Sim, or anyone else, ever did. And the Hemingway digression is a damn impressive piece of graphic story-telling on it’s own terms. 

I am very glad I overcame my prejudices and re-read it and I hope you will too.















Wednesday, January 20, 2021

(5)


 





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 

...and then: 

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. 

Monty Python 





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.






Tuesday, January 05, 2021

(4)



Everyone agreed that the first twenty-five issues of Cerebus were clever and funny: a skit on Conan the Barbarian, incorporating pastiches of Batman, Elric, Prince Valiant and Swamp Thing, full of one-liners and farcical situations; but with a core of lightly worn but convincing world-building. 

A small number of readers drifted away during the second and third storylines, High Society (#26-#50) and Church & State (#52-#111). “We like Cerebus, especially the earlier, funny episodes”, they said. “Cerebus should go back to being a barbarian”, they opined. 

It would be very hard to find someone taking that line today. The received wisdom is now that issues #1-#25 were essentially disposable—the work of a talented amateur, teaching himself to draw in full view of the audience. On this view, the comic only came into its own during the two long political sagas, and the exquisitely personal Jaka’s Story (#114-#138) which followed them. A few people pretend not to be able to see what all the fuss is about: but there is pretty widespread agreement that Cerebus #26-#138 represent one of the all-time pinnacles of the comic book medium. 

In between Jaka’s Story and the monumentally epic Mothers & Daughters came a strange, twelve issue interlude called Melmoth. Very many people who had followed the Short Grey Guy’s adventures for more than a decade abandoned the comic at this point and never went back to it. They are apt to tell you that, for the better part of a year (issues #139-#150), Cerebus was unceremoniously kicked out of his own comic and replaced with a meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated, but entirely irrelevant graphic novel about—of all things—the death of Oscar Wilde. 

Like everything else about Cerebus the Aardvark, the truth is rather more complicated. 

It was never true that Oscar replaced Cerebus in his own comic. The Melmoth “phone book” runs to two hundred and fifty pages, of which only about a hundred deal with Sebastian Melmoth’s last days. The Oscar Wilde material is interleaved with the ongoing story of Cerebus. 

In which, admittedly, absolutely nothing happens. 

This doesn’t make the comic less odd. If anything, it makes it odder. Sim doesn’t just make us jump between two different stories: he makes us move between two different forms of storytelling. The Cerebus material is presented as tight, decompressed sequences of panels, often wordless. The Oscar material consists mainly of prose narration, illustrated with single, full page drawings. 

Cerebus sits, stunned almost to the point of being catatonic, in a bar, grasping the rag doll which is his only link with Jaka, his one true love, who he believes to be dead. Oscar lies in an hotel bedroom, watched by his friend Reginald Turner, and gradually slips away. From graphic novel to illustrated prose work; from storyboard to picture book. From wordless sequences of images (from which we have to infer movement and action) to long prose descriptions (from which we have to infer images). I wonder if the two modes of reading utilise different portions of our brains? 

If you read Cerebus because you liked the Short Grey Fellow—and if you regard the Short Grey Fellow primarily as a wise-crack delivery system—then I can see why Melmoth pissed you off. But we are not looking at two different books which happen to have been bound together in one volume. Melmoth is a carefully constructed literary work.

Have a look at Cerebus issue #144: Melmoth chapter 5. 

It starts with Cerebus sitting outside the tavern. He has changed in the fourteen years since we first met him. His snout is shorter and his colouring no longer makes him stand out from the rest of the world. He doesn’t look like a cartoon character dropped into a live action movie: but he still looks incongruous—like a stuffed toy. His eyes still meet in the middle: a visor with two black dots. 

The pages stick closely to a 3 x 2 grid. Even when a single image is spread over two panels, Sim leaves the heavy black panel border in place. The first five pages have no dialogue at all. A pigeon flies past Cerebus: Cerebus watches it eat some crumbs. There are two panels of the bird looking at Cerebus, and one panel in which we are looking at Cerebus looking at the bird. Weirdly, we see a woman in the road: and then we see, in consecutive panels, a woman in a nun’s habit—a Cirinist—and another Aardvark; whose identity neither we nor Cerebus yet understand. We infer that Cerebus is thinking back to the events of the previous book. A waitress brings him back to reality: she asks him if he wants anything. He says no. And weirdly, the panel goes blank; as if a mist is covering the page.

Seven pages. Forty two panels. It represents a second or two of time, and it takes us barely a minute to read. Nothing has happened. Yet we feel that we are in the presence of a character: a person. Cerebus’s consciousness dominates the text even when he is completely passive. Sim’s use of pantomime and body language is astonishing: look at the way Cerebus hugs the doll and cringes as he remembers Astoria. His single line “.…Nay.…” is very expressive and very, very Cerebus. Note, once again, how the lettering conveys the character’s voice. A big, irregular, wobbly speech-bubble with a tiny single word in it, surrounded by white space. A weak voice: a whisper…

And then, we flip the page, and are looking at two big line drawings; a man writing on an old fashioned desk; a man lying in an old fashioned bed; a large amount of text. Reggie Turner is writing a letter to Robbie Ross about Oscar’s condition. He hopes that he may recover; but is resigned to his probable death. He is writing with a quill pen, but the text is printed as typescript, making us process it as a page of a novel rather than sub-vocalising it as dialogue. It is not written in a conventional caption box or speech bubble but in a large cloudy white space at the top of the page. It is almost as if the mist which blanked out Cerebus has become Reg’s speech bubble. The text is drawn from Turner’s real letters, but with the names changed to locate them in Cerebus’s world: Oscar is in Iest rather than Paris, and (later on) receives the last rites from the Tarimites, rather than Catholic Priests. 

And then we are back with Cerebus: first in another dream sequence, and then outside the bar, where, over five pages, the barmaid asks him what he wants for breakfast. Cerebus asks for a potato. It’s a running gag that this is the main thing he eats. 

“That’s ONE raw potato, NO butter, NO salt and pepper, NOT cut into sections, NOT on a plate. Do you want anything to drink with that?”

Cerebus does not want juice, tonic water, or mineral water. Finally the barmaid offers ale. For two panels he says nothing; and he seems to brighten up. He doesn’t do anything as obvious as smile: I think the dots of eyes move closer together. Or is it just that the girl smiles slightly because she has brought him ever-so-slightly out of himself? 

And then we are back in Oscar’s room, Oscar in bed, heavily shaded in black, his hair merging with the pillow. Reg finishes his letter. 

Two blocks of narrative about Oscar have interrupted a tiny moment in Cerebus’s life. Everything depends on the formal structure: the slow, almost musical rhythm as we cast our eyes across the quickening panel grid. Cerebus’s life broken up into tiny fractions of a second; Oscar’s last days sweeping past in big summaries. Sim could have given us a five page, forty five panel break down of Reggie giving Oscar a mouthful of water; and then a block of text saying “Cerebus sat in the pub, in shock, for some days, but gradually the barmaid drew him out of himself.” He decided not to. And while the two stories are unrelated, their moods bleed into each other. Cerebus smiles and agrees to drink some ale just as we cut back to Reggie saying that Oscar is too far gone to really want anything. 

A large chunk of the next novel, Mothers & Daughters, is going to be about writers and story tellers and publishers and “reads”. We need Oscar to lay the ground work for Viktor Reid; we need Viktor Reid to lay the ground work for Viktor Davies. The structure is labyrinthine and discursive, but it is not arbitrary.

Issue #144 contains seventeen pages of Cerebus; and only three of Oscar: by issue #148 the poet outnumbers the Aardvark by a ratio of nineteen to one. The final issue doesn’t have any Cerebus material at all. #149 would not have been (in the modern jargon) a good jumping on point. Sim increasingly thought beyond the single issue format: issues #147 - #150 demand to be looked at as a single eighty page construction. 

Issue #147 concludes with a six page sequence in which the chatty barmaid tells Cerebus how she split up with her boyfriend. This, of course, reminds Cerebus of Jaka. The text doesn’t tell us this in so many words: we just see a full page image of Jaka, and infer that Cerebus is thinking of her. (If you haven’t been following the comic, you would have no way of knowing who the woman in the illustration is or why she is significant to Cerebus. The comic no longer makes any concession to the casual reader.) The next issue depicts Oscar’s death in remorseless detail. The comic book form is almost abandoned: instead we have a checkerboard of black panels containing white text, alternating with exquisite, shocking line drawings of the dying man. All the text is taken from contemporary letters: Sim’s own voice has almost vanished. There is only one conventional comic book section: when the Catholic—Tarimite—clergyman comes to administer the last rites, we are allowed to be present in the moment, as opposed to hearing Reggie describe it after the event. Oscar’s death is reported on the penultimate page: and suddenly, for one page of a twenty page comic, we are back in the bar. Cerebus and the barmaid are holding hands, for mutual comfort, looking slightly stunned. 

It is a strange piece of art, certainly. Cerebus remembers his true love; a famous artist dies; Cerebus is sad because he thinks his true love is dead. The artist’s friend’s are sad. It makes one think of the Waste Land: fragments which the reader has to piece together. But it is a formal masterpiece.

Cerebus is almost completely absent from the final issue, which depicts Oscar’s funeral. And Cerebus’s almost complete absence is almost the point of the graphic novel. Is it a moment of great significance? Or just the final line of a shaggy dog story? Robbie Ross describes Oscar’s funeral cortège. In a series of pictures we follow the hearse through the city. And, in a double page spread, the coffin goes past Cerebus’s bar. We see the Short Grey Bastard through the glass in the hearse. Cerebus has appeared in Oscar’s story. The two stories were connected, after all. 




Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

“The King died and then the Queen died” is a sequence of events. 

“The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a story. 

“No-one knew why the Queen was sick, until the doctor realised it was due to her grief at the death of the King” is a plot. 

There is a kind of fan who demands story: who reads texts and watches movies only to know what happens next; for whom suspense and tension and artistry and form are irritants. If you are such a reader then reading a summary of a movie on Wikipedia is as good as seeing it in a cinema. In some respects, better. 

Much of the Harry Potter series; and quite a lot of modern Doctor Who, is directed at this kind of reader. It is great fun to try and work out the solution to the narrative puzzles, but once you know what is in the Pandorica and whose side Snape is on, there isn’t much point in going back and experiencing the story a second time. The Crimes of Grindelwald is largely an exercise in withholding important information from the viewer. We stay in the cinema because we want to know what J.K. Rowling isn’t telling us. To give her her due, the withheld fact, revealed literally in the final second, is worth waiting for. 

There is another kind of reader who doesn’t care very much about stories; who reads books for the subjective experience of reading them and will read the same book over and over again to recreate the experience on a deeper and deeper level. One kind is breathlessly waiting for the final Game of Thrones doorstop; the other re-reads To The Lighthouse every few years. 

Most people are somewhere in between. 

I suspect that your position on the continuum determines your orientation to the most recent Star Wars movie. Those of us who were looking to recreate or relive the experience of watching a rip-roaring Flash Gordon adventure fantasy for the first time at the age of twelve were rather pleased with Rise of Skywalker. Those who cared about the story itself were understandably annoyed by perfunctory references to Sith magic and Palpatine’s grandchildren.

Jaka’s Story ended with Jaka being taken prisoner by the Cirinists; and Cerebus has now spent ten issues sitting in a bar, more or less catatonic. We have been through two hundred pages and nearly a year of nothing happening. But in the final issue of Melmoth—marked as “epilogue” Cerebus overhears two Cirinist guards talking about beating up a woman called Jaka in prison. And suddenly the comic explodes. Arguably—again—compared with a Stan Lee Spider-Man story, or an episode of Saga—nothing much happens. The whole issue represents maybe five seconds of time. 

Sitting in the bar, Cerebus looked like a cuddly toy. Scaled up to the size of a page, swinging a sword, he looks like a terrifying muscle bound barbarian. Who happens to be an aardvark. 

Nine issues of nothing happening: one issue of everything happening. 

We wait; we wait; we wait—and Cerebus explodes. The Oscar material is exquisite: it stands in its own right. But it has to be considered as part of the whole. Like a comedian digressing before a punch line. The energy of Cerebus lies in the experience of reading it.

*

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm 
They crossed each other’s way.  
They made no sign, they said no word
They had no word to say. 

The Ballad of Reading Gaol