Why A Re-Read?
Somewhere around the beginning of April 2016 I set out to re-read Dave Sim’s comic-book masterpiece, Cerebus. In the months prior I had been getting a hankering to take a second look at the work. I suspect this was due to the fact that I was in the middle of reading the other insanely lengthy Canadian comics masterwork, Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, which is in many ways the antithesis of Cerebus (and quite possibly a longer work).
A post from a friend on Facebook sealed the deal. She shared a photograph of a stack of comics she had just purchased. Poking out from the bottom of the stack was an issue of Cerebus. I took this as a sign that I was supposed to finally start re-reading Cerebus. I committed to restraining myself to one issue a day.
Why write about a re-read?
Beginning the re-read got me curious about what ever happened to Sim’s Strange Death of Alex Raymond, the comics-photorealism history work begun in Glamourpuss. The artwork he produced in Glamourpuss had helped me refine my own approach to drawing. He had silently taught me many lessons about how to utilize line to represent contour and form, lessons I now frequently verbalize in my profession as a professor of drawing and painting.
Searching around for news on the project lead me to A Moment Of Cerebus a fan-run blog devoted to Sim’s work. Sim himself is a frequent contributor to the site and participant in discussions, making him one of the most accessible creators, probably ever. I have always had a fascination with Sim’s singular viewpoint. The site is a treasure trove of that. In browsing through the archive of posts I saw a challenge had been issued to re-read Cerebus and post about your experience as you went (so far only one contributor, Cory Foster has taken up the challenge). It sounded fun, but I was resigned to an issue a day, and figured any commentary would be best left until I had the scope of the whole story back in my mind.
I have been working hard on some sample pages, actively and shamelessly trying to convince Sim to let me take over the art duties on SDOAR, since his drawing hand is injured. I really want to be able to buy the damned book and think I have the chops to produce the bookend sequences he needs to complete the work. Point being, I have been spending more and more time at the site getting sucked back into the SiMindset.
Then, all of the sudden, Sim announces that he is going to do what no one ever expected, start producing NEW CEREBUS COMICS! Well, that sped my schedule of re-reading right the hell up. Now my goal is to complete my re-read and all of my commentaries before Cerebus in Hell? #0 hits the shelves in October 2016. Thankfully being an educator means I have some summer months free to spend on shit like this gives a good answer for the other obvious question: Why would I not only re-read the book, but also chose to spend time commenting on it as if I actually thought anyone cares what I have to say about it? Because I can, I have an Internet connection. I feel like it for some odd reason.
The Relationship So Far
Any re-exploration of a work is bound to start with an acknowledgment of what the reviewer’s relationship with the work has been up to the point that the re-read commences. A work like Cerebus demands to be treated as something you have an ongoing relationship with. Mine goes back twenty years.
I am absolutely a product of the Image Comics boom, the 90’s being my junior high and high school years. It is no surprise that I remember first hearing about Cerebus in Wizard Magazine. A quick search online leads me to believe it must have been Wizard #58 from June of 1996. I suspect at the time I was just pretty excited that there were going to be photographs of Pamela Anderson as Barb-Wire somewhere in the issue! Cerebus 207 was also released in June 1996, so I assume the article must have been in celebration of Sim having passed the two-hundred issues mark in his plan to produce thee-hundred issues of Cerebus. "Sneaky Wizard! Woo me in with the promise of a leather clad Pam Anderson and sell me on a cranky, naked, gray, aardvark. Typical shell-game, sleight-of-hand magic. You sir are no wizard."
At fourteen years old the idea of someone doing three hundred issues of a comic was beyond the scope of anything I could imagine. I liked the art shown in the article but more importantly will never forget Sim talking about the possibility that he might die before the series concluded. He said something along the lines of, “I have left instructions for the book to be printed up to the very last thing I put down on paper because I figure that is the point where God finally decided that I had crossed the line. People should study what those last panels were as a warning sign of the kinds of things you should not say in public.” That statement of absolute commitment and resolution to forge one’s own path with their art blew my mind.
At 14, with illegal downloading about ten years in the future, it did not seem practical to me to start reading a series that was two-thirds of the way done and which I could not afford to catch up with. I filed the title of the book into my one-day-when-it-is-all-done-and-I-actually-have-the-money-to-buy-the-whole-damn-thing mental folder.
A couple of years later, now proudly employed at Cinnabon, I purchased one issue just to see what it was. I have vague memories of being totally lost but still intrigued. I have very vivid memories of a panel of a man dressed in drag, thigh high stockings and a garter belt, running along the top of a brick wall, and being slightly disturbed by it. I look forward to finding this panel in the re-read and seeing how well my memory serves me.
I was raised in a conservative, Evangelical Christian household, and remember thinking I was exposing myself to something Jesus wouldn’t approve of. I stuffed Cerebus back into the mental file, now tagged with, “When the book is all done, you have even more money, and The Parents can’t find a copy lying around.”
In 2003, with the series closing in on its conclusion, I began picking up the graphic novels (fuck all-ya’ll who still call them “phonebooks”), starting with the very first collection and moving forward sequentially through the story (I can’t imagine doing it any other way). Eight years of having nebulous, but high, expectations for a comic book sets a hell of a standard to live up to but I absolutely LOVED the book. By that point I had developed a taste for anything that pushed the boundaries of the form and was a singular-minded enough person of my own to know that my true heroes had to have just as much, or more, integrity with their visions as I do with mine. Sim obviously had this quality locked down. (The only two “artists” I hold next to him in terms of integrity-to-vision, in my pantheon of influences, are Alan Moore and musician Mike Patton. All three are innovators, ruthless experimenters, and singularly committed to doing things their way. Out of the three of these Sim is by far the most stalwart. I respect that more than can be stated.)
I was able to purchase a few more of the collections before I got married, in late 2004. Being both newlywed and in college shut down my comic purchasing habits right-quick. In 2005 or 2006 I was exposed to the practice of illegally downloading comics through torrent sites. I resorted to stealing the entirety of the work at that point. (Thankfully, Sim has since state that he has no problem with people doing this. I still feel a little bit bad about it.) One benefit of this, however, is that the scans I downloaded were of single issues rather than of the trades and included all of the front and back matter. I quickly realized that having access to this material made reading Cerebus and even richer experience. It illuminated how personal the book was, how it wasn’t just a story, but a record of a man evolving his thoughts, month by month, across the span of twenty-seven years. There are very few works of art, if any, that can lay claim to making their creator as vulnerable to the public as Cerebus made Sim.
The aforementioned For Better or For Worse is a fantastic measure for Cerebus in this regards. Both works were completed over roughly the same amount of time, and during roughly the same years: Cerebus from December 1977 to March 2004, FBOFW from September 1979 – August 2008). Both were produced with astonishing consistency. I am not sure that Canadianness has anything to do with anything, but it is also a factor that both works share in common.
Lynn Johnston often used her strip to present political viewpoints and frequently turned to her real life for inspiration but the work remains committed to the sentiment proclaimed in its title, families sticking together and people treating one another with love and respect; values that are difficult to take issue with. Johnston’s political stances remain consistent throughout the run. The fact that she had been divorced prior to starting the strip and had suffered abusive relationships with her mother and first husband never have any real effect on the strip. Instead of causing a change of perspective in the work, her second divorce, in 2007, quite clearly leads to Johnston bring everything to a close. In all fairness, it would have been pretty difficult to undermine the very title of the strip with a change in outlook.
Sim on the other hand uses his book to undertake such a ruthless search for truth that by the end of Cerebus he has gone from being a staunch atheist to a devout monotheist. He never bats an eye as the evolution of his personal philosophy causes his readership to dwindle and leads the general comics-public to develop a grotesque caricature of him as a bug-fuck- crazy misogynist. It is exactly that principles-over-protocol attitude that causes me to hold Sim in high esteem, no matter which of his opinions I agree or disagree with.
It is rare, amongst even the greatest philosophers, to find someone so devoted to finding Truth that they are willing to completely switch their positions over the course of their life. Plato evolved a bit, maybe. Foucault did a couple pretty good about-faces. Wittgenstein and Heidegger are both commonly broken into early and late periods of conflicting work. I can’t think of any others. That puts Sim in pretty rarefied air in terms of willingness-to-change (I am not claiming he is a philosopher anywhere near their import or ability). I am baffled by how many people take the man to be irrationally entrenched in his points of view. He seems firmly entrenched, only because he has spent so much of his life earnestly digging for the truth, but still willing to dig deeper if you give him good reasons to. If the history of philosophy teaches us anything it is that people can hold all kinds of absolutely oppositional ideas for all kinds carefully considered reasons.
My interest in Sim as a thinker has caused me to deviate from the driving narrative of my relationship to the work, though. Back to it!
In early 2007 my wife chose to end our marriage. I spent the rest of the year focusing on finishing my schooling, earning Bachelor’s Degrees in both Fine Art and Philosophy from U.C. Berkeley ( I know how far from an expert this makes me, but I am not a total shmoe when it comes to this stuff either). Following graduation I returned to my parent’s home to substitute-teach and prepare applications to attend graduate school for painting.
This finally left me time to dig in and finish reading Cerebus. I started over from the beginning, with my stolen digital scans, taking in all of the front and back-matter this time. My fresh emotional wounds from the divorce made the story hit much closer on a personal level. Watching Sim deal with his troubled relationships in full view of the reading public was extremely cathartic.
The other big take away looking back on that first full-length read-through was how much I enjoyed what is probably the worst received chunk of Cerebus, the biblical commentary. As I mentioned above I was raised in a conservative Evangelical environment. Being of a curious philosophical mind had made the Evangelical world view untenable for me by 2007. Alan Moore’s Promethea had already had a massive influence on me, exposing me to the Quaballah which meshed well with the likes of Baruch Spinoza and a lot of things I was reading about the Philosophy of Information.
I, like Sim, had developed an entirely personal take of Christianity, but still considered it valid. It was a pleasure to read another person’s closely considered, if a bit peculiar, take on the whole thing. I have to admit that I was sold on the interpretation for a good way in, given its gnostic flavor. I don’t remember where exactly I thought, “Well, your reading doesn’t work as smoothly here as it has up until now,” but I did eventually have that moment. It is one of the things I look forward to trying to spot during my re-read.
I suspect that this time I will just think, “Well, if you would give up on theism altogether this would all be a lot easier,” because as the years continue to pass, and I am as relentless in my own pursuit of truth, I have gone in the opposite direction of Sim. I now see no reason to assume any need for a Deity. I am pretty well entrenched myself, but in the Philosophy of Information, believing that existence is explained away pretty easily with quantum computation. Not a Matrix like simulation, just a self-computing body of quantum information. However, like Sim appears to still be, I am always excited to hear new viewpoints, and stand staunchly behind my own until a really good argument breaks through.
One Last Story
In 2009 I was finally accepted into graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where I went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Painting (Yay, Me! Back-pat. Back-pat.) If Sim has found it hard to deal with far-left feminism remotely through the mail and Internet I would love to see what would happen were he forced to share studio space with the extreme of the movement for two years. The only place you can find more extreme feminism than graduate-level art programs would be graduate-level gender studies programs, and at least in the gender studies programs the people would actually be experts in the field.
Anyway, even though I had great relationships with almost all of the women in my program the content of some of my paintings, familiarity with, and distaste for, the philosophical positions that gave rise to contemporary feminist rhetoric, and my inability to not argue for what I see as reasonable, lead to a number of dust-ups. At some point I was accused of being a chauvinist and a misogynist. At that point, knowing full well that it would only piss everybody off even more, I gleefully printed out a copy of Sim’s infamous Tangent and left it lying around on the table in the common-area kitchen.
Surprisingly I never really took much guff after that. The few people who never bothered to get to know me in the first place continued to be silently hacked-off but realized that I wasn’t intimidated or budging. Everyone else continued to get to know each other better and formed bonds of long-lasting friendship and respect that have plenty of room for variety of opinion.
I have just started Jaka’s Story. I plan to blow through the rest of the work pretty fast. Once it is all read I will go back and comment on each book separately, but using the scans I downloaded of single issues since I often find the relationship between the back-matter and the story to be compelling.
I also want to spend time looking at how Sim develops as an artist, since Cory Foster focuses primarily on issues relating to the story.
Hopefully I can get this all done before Cerebus in Hell? #0 drops. Depends on how free my summer actually is.
I can’t imagine why anyone would read this, much less why I am actually doing it, but if you have read, thank you for your time. Your turn now!