Friday, 11 July 2014

200: Cerebus - An Overview

200th post

   Before we get on with today's post, a quick announcement. Today marks the 200th post on this blog so I'd just like to extend a quick thank you to everyone who takes the time out of their day to read whatever's posted here. Your support means a lot to me, thank you all so much.

   I'd debated a lot about what to write about for this post, it had to be something special, something epic. Luckily, as the deadline approached, I finished a series I had been reading for the last three years. Dave Sim's mammoth comic book Cerebus.
   It's a series I adore, but one I have a lot of problems with. The joy I take from it often diminished by the outlandish politics of it's creator.
    I fully intend to reread the series fairly soon (probably next year) and review each individual volume, but for now, here's an overview of the whole saga. I hope you enjoy.

Cerebus: An Overview
Dave Sim & Gerhard

   When it comes to talking about Cerebus, where do you start? Three hundred issues in comic form, sixteen phonebook sized volumes when collected in trade paperbacks, over six thousand pages released over twenty seven years, every one written and illustrated by Dave Sim himself with backgrounds drawn by his collaborator Gerhard.
   The longest running narrative by one single team in comics history, it’s a remarkable achievement, but looking back at its humble origins, I doubt many would have ever imagined the series would gain such lofty ambitions.

   When Cerebus debuted in1977 it was a fairly dull parody of sword and sorcery comics. A cliché ridden Conan-a-like story with the six foot tall, muscle bound barbarian replaced with Cerebus, a three foot tall, anthropomorphic Aardvark.
   The premise was amusing and the character was interesting enough that the series was able to continue on for several issues before the tone started to change dramatically.
   Over time, Cerebus became a much more serious comic. The humour was still there, in fact it grew and grew, with multiple pop culture parodies and references being woven into the narrative, but the plot became much deeper. The story began to veer from simple Sword and Sorcery parody to a dense, well plotted political and religious satire.

   The series began to be divided into separate “novels”, individual long running stories which all tied together within the narrative. The first major novel was High Society, in which Cerebus found himself being manipulated into becoming president, this was followed by Church & State which saw him reach to the level of Pope.
   From these two satirical novels the series began to change again, becoming more experimental, allowing Dave Sim to tackle really any topic he saw fit to cover. The style of the books themselves began to change too. Some story arcs maintained a traditional comic book setup with the story told over multiple panels while other arcs almost dropped the comic format entirely, being presented as nothing but huge walls of text with the occasional illustration to break them up.

   It was around this point that many fans became weary of the series. Many felt that Dave Sim’s experiments with the format often went too far, to the point where they were unpleasant to read. Sim began to conceive the story arcs, not as the individual issues in which they were released, but as the final finished phonebooks they would eventually be collected as. This led to some problems as the original prints in the twenty page comic books often ended mid scene, with no real start or end points within the issues.
   When I read Cerebus I did so with the phonebooks, so this wasn’t a problem for me, but I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating it must have been to those people reading the story in the original format, having to wait until next months issue, not to see where the story goes next, but just to see how a sentence ends.

Reads: Probably the most controversial entry in the series 

   During the sixth novel in the series, Mothers & Daughters, the series became even more controversial amongst the fans. The arc, which saw Cerebus go up against a Matriarchal dictatorship, ran by Cirin, another Aardvark, began to be overran by Dave Sim’s personal philosophies and political opinions.

   The novel introduced the character Viktor Davis, a fictional author, obviously intended to be an analogue for Sim himself. In a lengthy text piece, Davis denounces Feminism and makes some very misogynistic claims that many found offensive. The piece turned many away from Cerebus for good and led several of Sim’s friends and colleagues to distance themselves from the author, some even suggesting that Sim’s drug use may have led to some form of mental illness.

   Controversy would continue to plague Cerebus from then until the end of the series in 2004. While the story returned to a more traditional comic format for the most part, there were still occasional returns to the ideology that Sim described in Mothers & Daughters. Most notable in Latter Days, where Sim spent over a year of the comic’s run with a lengthy text piece in which Cerebus attempts to come up with an interpretation of the Torah that falls in line with Sim’s views.

   For many, the act of reading Cerebus is the act of separating the art from the artist, attempting to look beyond Sim’s personal views and the moments when they invade the text, and follow the adventures of Cerebus himself, to take enjoyment from the actual story and not the baggage that Sim weighs it down with.
   Sim’s artwork is stunning, arguably some of the best sequential artwork the industry has ever seen. While the early issues are fairly crude, as the series runs on the reader is given the rare chance to see an artists work evolving on the page. Comparing the art from the first and last issues you’d struggle to believe they were even drawn by the same person. It’s a genuine treat to be able to see Sim’s style evolve, to see him become more comfortable with posing characters and designing unique facial expressions.
   One thing Sim does brilliantly, is to make use of the comic book itself in his artwork. I remember a scene in which Cerebus fell down a flight of stairs. As he tumbled, the text boxes began to spin around too, forcing the reader to “tumble” the comic along with Cerebus. He also drew some incredibly dream sequences which see Cerebus’ location, dress and appearance change from panel to panel without warning, very similar to the way things change randomly in dreams in real life.
   This sophisticated style, accompanied by Gerhard’s highly detailed background art, make for one of the most visually stunning comic books ever made.

Dave Sim surrounded by his work
   Cerebus is a mammoth undertaking, readers taking their first steps into the series have a huge journey ahead of them. A journey which will take them through amazing landscapes populated by wonderful, imaginative characters. The humour will keep them laughing throughout and the storylines will keep them engaged. It is not always an easy journey to take. I myself had several moments where the ability to separate art and artist proved a little too difficult, several moments where I didn’t know whether to continue on through the mire of Sim’s appalling views in the hope there would be light at the end of the tunnel or abandon the series for good. Every time though, I was glad I continued on, even when hitting another roadblock, there was always something good just around the corner, as if Sim had returned to lucidity and went back to writing the proper series.
   In the end, when Sim’s personal opinions bogged down the narrative, I stayed on for Cerebus himself. I couldn’t care less what Sim thought, or what bile he would spew next. I loved Cerebus and wanted to know what happened to him next.

   Cerebus isn’t an easy story to read, but for those willing to make that distinction between the art and the artist it’s a magnificent accomplishment, the kind of which we’re unlikely to ever see again.
   The journey the reader takes with Cerebus may not always be easy, and it may not end on sunny shores, but, for my money, it was most certainly worth it. 

Cerebus has had it up to here with talk...

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