Sean Michael Robinson:
As per the above graphic, the restored Reads is now available from your favorite comics vendor. As the book has now been spotted "in the wild," I thought it might be a good time to present a few excerpts from my essay for the book.
This was the longest essay I've written yet for the restoration project, and, not surprisingly, one of the most difficult. I think it's safe to say this is the most controversial book of Cerebus. It's certainly the least understood and the most shallowly read. Present in the full-length essay—Todd McFarlane, Sue Anne Nivens, Hesiod, Orson Welles, and Gertie the Dinosaur. (Purged from the essay due to length? Philip K Dick at Disneyland and the sexual politics of Ikea. Perhaps excerpts of excerpts to be presented in the future?)
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the excerpts. The full essay is in the restored Reads, now available from any Diamond retailer.
An Excerpt from "4,500 Words on the Restored Reads"
Publishing had been considered, like the wine trade, an occupation permissible for gentlemen, perhaps from the fallacy that the most necessary qualification was an appreciation of literature. In fact, then as now, a publisher, to achieve success, needed charm, financial acumen, fore-knowledge of the future, a stony heart, and a very rich wife.
—Ruari McLean, Victorian Book Design & Colour Printing
In his introduction to Reads, Dave Sim refers to this, the ninth book of the Cerebus series, as “a point of convergence and a breaking apart of the Cerebus readership.” With the distance of two decades as of this writing, I’d say this is both prescient and something of an understatement. In the text pages that populate the second half of the book, Reads fractures the fictional narrative of the story and, for many readers, represent the termination of their association with the greater work, Cerebus as a whole.
The critical reaction was as aggressive as it was shallow.
Do you really need me to summarize Reads? I’m betting you’ve read it—or skimmed it, let’s say—at least once. And Sim does an excellent job summarizing it in his introduction to the book, and hinting at the ways in which it functions in the broader story.
Above, I invoked the word “critical,” maybe a little carelessly. I think there’s a distinction to be made between criticism, and critical words; of the latter, there’s been plenty addressing Reads. The former, I don’t think I’ve seen. What, exactly, do the different sections of Reads have to do with each other? How does a story about a writer navigating the corrupt and corrupting world of publishing fit in with the rising climax of an almost 3,000 page visual sword and sorcery epic? And how to explain the almost-but-not-quite-autobiographical broadside that makes up the text portions of the back of the book? How do the formal aspects of the work function (or not) in conjunction with (or not) the narrative aspects of the text?
What, you’re not expecting an explanation from me, are you?
[Barry Windsor-Smith] had prints of all his Gorblimey work there, and, for whatever reasons, began to describe the allegory behind the Ram & Peacock prints [...] we all stood, mouths agape, while Barry unraveled, in meticulous detail, the interlocking representations and juxtapositions, the story he intended to tell with the picture and the grand joke that it would sell on the basis of the barbarian in the picture when the barbarian was incidental to the intent of it.
His explanation triggered off a way of looking at creativity, for me, that continues to this day. I began striving to understand the myriad levels of meaning in all great and intended-to-be-great works of art. When I failed at that — became discouraged because I couldn’t read each artist’s mind, I began to see that what was intended was not nearly as important as what I perceived — I now looked at works for their impact on me, no longer for whatever “right interpretation” might theoretically exist.
—Dave Sim, Swords of Cerebus, 1983
Throughout the Cerebus series, the literal narrative, i.e. the who-did-what, is inseparable from the form and formal experimentation of the work itself. This is nowhere more true than Reads. In the 174 monthly issues leading up to Reads, Sim had perused, poked, pushed, and prodded the formal boundaries that have served to separate the graphic narrative (parentage uncertain, most probably born to one Rodolphe Töpffer in 1831) from the novel (born a century or three earlier, but come of age around the same time). High Society, the second volume of Cerebus, uses diagetic “found texts” (transcripts, diaries, letters, a written history) to move the story forward and compress the action while enriching and enlarging the unvisited portions of the fictional world. Church & State introduces the “read”, Estarcion’s equivalent to the pamphlet-novel, and early chapters follow Cerebus’s own attempts at composition (mostly used to humorous effect), and further use of transcripts, letters and notes, as well as a mercifully brief excerpt from The Prime Minister and the Hussy— A Tale of the Tainted Love That Destroyed a City-State. Later on, in a chapter consisting solely of full-page double spreads, a seemingly non-diagetic text appears...
...the full essay is in the restored Reads, now available from any Diamond retailer.
You want me to say “four,” I’ll say “four”—you want me to say “seven”, I’ll say “seven”—only please don’t take my townhouse.
— Victor Reid, Reads
The first portion of the text follows the success and subsequent downfall of Victor Reid, author. He has been “labouring in virtual obscurity on a series of historical fictions centered on the interwoven relationship of Cirinism and Kevillism,” for a period of “some years (sixteen, to be precise)”, before unexpected and unwanted fortune—success—strikes him. In these first few paragraphs we are presented with what are, depending on your viewpoint, either direct references or allegorical resonances between Victor Reid and one Dave Sim, author; the most relevant to the current discussion, the sixteen year span between the publication of Cerebus # 1 (December 1977) and the Image Comics publication of Spawn #10 (May 1993).
Written by Dave Sim and drawn by Spawn’s creator, Todd McFarlane, this one-off issue was published by Image Comics, at the time a new upstart publisher in the world of capes and tights. Image Comics promised full creative ownership to its creators...
When they first made love, it transcended any feeling, any emotion that she had ever felt before. They had both waited so long, holding back from this eventuality for the past few weeks they’d been fighting against it—trying to keep each to themselves—the fears of past rejections still clouding their memories, and it was only now that those fears slowly melted into a soft hesitancy…
—Nephelia, Aardvark Comment letter column, October 1993
The happy ending in my other letter was a bit premature. Not longer than 2 days after I wrote that letter did I see the error of my optimistic ways. She really started to annoy me.
—“ZOBNEK”, Aardvark Comment letter column, May 1994
I’ve been staring at this damn logic proof for hours now, with no progress, and a new friend just rang, which completely blew my concentration, so I’m hoping to clear my head a bit by responding to Dean Esmay’s letter in 177, which I passed from doing in that postcard ...
—Mikel Norwitz, Aardvark Comment letter column, May 1994
What else are you missing?
Viktor Davis’s direct address of the reader...
Lou, there are two kinds of people in this world. There are men, and there are women. You with me so far, big fella?
—Ted Baxter, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Lou’s First Date,” written by Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, 1973
Conventional definitions aside (“I know it when I see it”), what makes a comic a comic? What makes a novel a novel? Is a work disqualified for having too many words? Too few? Too few drawings? Too many? Is Little Dorrit a work of graphic literature, produced in collaboration by Charles Dickens and Hablot K. Browne? Or is it a prose novel, entangled with some inconvenient cultural leavings? When a modern editor puts out an edition of Vanity Fair sans author W.M. Thackeray’s own illustrations, several of which completely shift the meaning of the text, what exactly is being said by that decision? Who is the author of the resulting book? Was Richard Scarry a writer? How about Edward Gorey?
More next week!