Friday, August 26, 2011

Why We Will Read Cerebus

Before you read any further, I recommend you first read Tim Kreider's article "Irredeemable: Dave Sim's Cerebus," from the massive 301st issue of The Comics Journal - excerpted here - as well as Tim Callahan's two-part Cerebus retrospective at Comic Book Resources, here and here. Both pieces are excellent.

Despite the fact that Cerebus has suddenly reentered the critical conversation, these pieces nevertheless point to a larger fact: it seems as though the time is ripe to discuss the work precisely because it has fallen off the radar for so long. Not even ten years have passed since the publication of Cerebus #300, yet the series already appears to be the product of another time, a strange artifact of an era in comics whose time has passed. It was an anachronism even in 2004, a time-traveler from the dawn of the direct market.

The time has come to once again discuss Cerebus because the wounds left by the series' long and painful denouement have perhaps begun to heal. This does not and should not be taken to mean that Sim's words from the series' final years have been forgotten (rather, they do and will remain of vital importance to understanding Sim and his sad magnum opus), but the particularly sensationalistic circumstances have already begun to fade. Who now remembers the time when every increasingly strange and inflammatory statement from the back pages of Cerebus was (seemingly instantly) transcribed and uploaded to the Journal's message board for the outraged dissection of the internet at large? Those who never knew Cerebus could be forgiven for rubbernecking at the carnage, but those of us who loved the book could only watch in mute horror as Sim repeatedly set himself on fire in public, for seemingly no reason other than to see how how fast he could burn.

Those few brave souls like myself who actually stayed with the book through the bitter end could be forgiven, at the time, for staggering away from the wreckage in half-delerious exhaustion. I can forgive those fans who stick with crappy superhero comics through the lowest lows just for the sake of completion, because I stuck with Sim through a lot worse than just bad comics. As "bad" as Cerebus got it never actually had the common decency to be bad: issue #300 was no less beautiful a production than issues #200 or #100 had been. Cerebus towards the end wasn't so much a poor reading experience as the final violent convulsions of a bad marriage. I couldn't turn away even though each successive issue angered me more than the one before, even though the reading experience left me consistently enervated and perpetually downcast. Reading Cerebus always put me in a bad mood, a real bad mood, but I never gave up. Because even when the book pissed me off - which towards the end was was damn near always - it was still something I cherished despite myself. And when it was over I missed it, even though my reaction was as irrational as that of a battered spouse longing for their abuser.

I set out to write this because I want to state unequivocally, and in friendly rebuttal to the explicit concerns of both Kreider and Callahan, that Cerebus doesn't need defending. But it's telling for me that even the most cursory approach brings me circling back around to my own feelings regarding the book and the very complicated set of associations I hold towards Dave Sim himself. I use the word "feelings" with the full awareness that some intangible representation of Sim is standing over my shoulder, chiding me for expressing my "feelings" instead of communicating the results of my rational deliberation. Sim is a pedant of the first order, someone who has historically made great hay out of overanalyzing the fact that the word "feel" when used in colloquial speech means about as much as "think" or "believe." Most people in casual speech use these terms interchangeably even though they are perfectly aware that the words have distinct and different meanings. The overuse of the word "feel" is not a sign that society has become rigorously feminized, it is an indicator that everyday speech is informal and imprecise, and of no greater significance than the overuse of the word "like" as a grammatically null placeholder syllable or the perpetual (and usually harmless) misuses of "literally" and "nonplussed."

But that's the kind of trap into which thinking about Sim leads the reader to inevitably fall. He's a very smart man, and even at his worst he expresses his (often completely illogical) ideas with such forceful conviction that you cannot help imagine yourself in some kind of personal dialogue with him. After reading 300 issues of Cerebus, the reader feels / believes / thinks that he or she knows Sim. Tim Callahan is right to stress the fact that Cerebus is "as autobiographical as any comic book ever written." That is precisely why it is so hard to separate the man from the work. It's not just that Sim's ideas permeate the book, it's that Sim permeates the book, to the point where any discussion of the book inevitably devolves into a discussion of Sim himself. I confess that I was vaguely surprised Sim survived the end of Cerebus, not because I expected him to commit some sort of gruesome hari kari as the final issue rolled off the printer, but because, like Charles Schulz and Peanuts, he had become so inextricable from the epic undertaking of his life's work that it was impossible to imagine the two ever parting. Without a new issue of Cerebus to produce every month (it occurred to me), perhaps the man would simply evaporate.

All of which is to bring us back to my main point: it is necessary to restate that Cerebus does not need to be defended. It's as problematic a work as has ever been produced in comics, and those problems will not diminish with time. But the way readers react to these problems will change over time. To put it another way: it's hard to talk about Cerebus - even today - because even though it might sometimes feel like ancient history, it's still recent enough that most people who know comics can feel those old passions rumbling just beneath the surface. It's been long enough since 2004 - and Sim has remained sufficiently, blessedly quiet in the intervening years - that Kreider's reappraisal seems timely and overdue. A write-up in McSweeney's Believer magazine from a year or two ago struck the same chord. It's been long enough that people are starting to look back with the desire to answer the question of where this strange artifact fits into our burgeoning critical canon. But it's still too soon to be able to fully appreciate the work separate from the (largely negative) passion it inspires.

People don't really read Cerebus anymore, and it's apparent from the hook of these articles that people aren't likely to overcome this resistance anytime soon. The moment has passed: the barriers to entry in terms of time, money and willingness to tolerate offensive reactionary horseshit, are simply too high. Fantagraphics has done a good job of keeping the otherwise intimidating bulk of Love & Rockets (thirty years of continuous publication!) accessible to the casual reader by offering the whole of the series in a variety of attractive and affordable formats. Conversely, I cannot imagine Cerebus being published in digest form for casual browsing (imagine Gerhard's crosshatching in a tiny tankobon), or being cherry-picked for "Best-Of" anthologies (at least in Sim's lifetime). Even someone with the willingness to drop a few hundred dollars on a foot-and-a-half of black and white phonebooks has to confront the fact that the final third - something like 2,000 pages - is considered to be either (at best) wildly inconsistent or (at worst) pure hate speech. Then there's the insularity of the constant and unending series of industry-specific parodies. Etc etc etc.

My point is not that these imposing facts need to be mitigated or underplayed or ignored. People aren't reading Cerebus now because the current comics "scene" (make of that what you will) has moved long past Dave Sim. This isn't likely to change anytime soon. But people will read Cerebus again. It will never have a wide audience. It will never find readers who regard Sim's sincere religious and political beliefs with anything more than sad curiosity. But I believe Cerebus will nevertheless achieve a kind of immortality despite its creator's best efforts at marginalizing himself, and among the kinds of readers who Sim himself would probably rather eschew. In the future, the only people with the specialized vocabulary and resources necessary to understand, discuss and appreciate Cerebus will be academics and scholars. The series will be a gold mine for critics and historians looking to reconstruct the trajectory of the comics industry in the late twentieth century. Cerebus tells the story of the evolution of the medium in the English-speaking world throughout this crucial period in a way that no other single text can. It will survive because it is simply indispensable, and without it our understanding of comics history would be immeasurably poorer.

1 comment :

Jason Winter said...

Thank you for writing this. The last paragraph in particular struck home with me.