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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This Thing I Did

I participated in the Hooded Utilitarian's recent International Best Comics Poll. At the risk of seeming flip, I didn't put an inordinate amount of time into my ballot: I submitted it late, and was furthermore wary of the very real dangers of overthinking the matter. My list, in no particular order, was:

• Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, Justin Green
• Cerebus, Dave Sim & Gerhard
• The Donald Duck Stories, Carl Barks
• The Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
• Louis Riel, Chester Brown
• Love and Rockets, Gilbert Hernandez & Jaime Hernandez
• Maggots, Brian Chippendale
• Terry and the Pirates, Milton Caniff
• Thimble Theatre, starring Popeye, E. C. Segar
• The Weirdo Stories, R. Crumb

I didn't overthink it, and this meant in practice that I looked at my own bookshelves and listed the works with which I was most familiar that I felt most deserved to be represented on a list like this. If I had thought about it longer I may have tried to parse whether or not Gary Panter deserved a spot on the list over Chippendale, for instance (Cola Madness might have made the list if it had been eleven). Perhaps I should have argued with myself more forcefully for John Porcellino - but at the expense of what, Justin Green? No, that might have been an injustice in whatever personal Nerd Court I've convened in my head.

I'm disappointed, based on the Top 115, that no one else apparently thought so well of Maggots or Louis Riel, which is disconcerting if not surprising. In my own personal pantheon I think those represent the most significant achievements of our current "Golden Age" of "mature" (cough cough) cartooning.

I could not in good conscience vote for anything created outside of my primary language (English). My familiarity with European comics (despite a fairly decent grasp of written French) is catch-and-catch-can, and my knowledge of manga is woeful. (The only two manga series I've ever finished are Lone Wolf & Cub and Akira, which says as much about my age as anything else - those were the two first "serious" manga offerings to make any kind of popular impact in America back in the 80s, so they've stuck in my head as touchstones ever since.) I can't speak for whether or not anyone else on the panel made the decision to vote for works produced in languages they could not themselves read. Is it churlish of me to wonder how many of the seventeen votes for Tintin were placed by readers who have only experienced the stories in translation? It's academic, I believe, since the top ten (top fourteen!) was exclusively English language works anyway. The international context could never have been representative in any way whatsoever unless a truly international panel of critics and scholars was convened, staffed by figures with demonstrable experience in the cartooning traditions of multiple cultures and equipped to compare the relative merits of artists as diverse as Crumb, Kirby, Hergé and Tezuka.

Such a poll is, of course, impossible. When the Journal attempted their own English language list back at the turn of the century they went out of their way to admit just just how impossible it would be to produce any such list, before presenting their own. Their list was probably the best such attempt that ever could be made, from a period when the critical space in comics was a lot more homogenous. This was basically a duffer's list, compiled from working pros, amateur scholars, fans and a few dedicated intellectuals. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and I'm happy to have been allowed to participate, but if anything the list only underscores the urgency of Domingos Isabelinho's counter-programming. I may not agree entirely with his conclusions, but it's a necessary curative to the poll's circumscribed limitations. I'm very conscious of the fact that my own list is restricted to a (roughly) eighty-year field, as well as a very set understanding of what comics look and feel like, as well as the kinds of people who make the comics. And yet this is what I know and, because of a combined lack of resources (in both time and money) and lack of curiosity (and I'm still more curious than most people about most things), my experience of comics is limited. Perhaps not relative to 99.99% of the population, but I know enough to defer to my betters in the fields of their expertise.

I respect Tucker for many reasons but I'll never understand his enthusiasm for Calvin & Hobbes, nor will I ever be able to understand the sway it holds over so many people. But then, I've always thought Pogo was slightly overrated as well, and don't get me started on Maus. (No, seriously, I don't want to talk about Maus: it's a Sacred Cow for a very good reason and I don't feel like putting the effort necessary into tipping that cow and not looking like an asshole.) But Maus is still "better" than Watchmen, which itself should never, ever be ahead of Jack Kirby on any list, let alone Los Bros Hernandez, Robert Crumb and Carl Barks. And don't get me wrong: I like Watchmen, but there's a big difference between "I like" and "I think this deserves to stand head and shoulders with the best of one hundred years' worth of comics literature." It doesn't have so much to do with the same po-faced appeal to some totemic ideal of artistic "maturity" and virtuosity that makes armchair Clement Greenberg's out of every wannabe Comics Journal columnist. It has to do with history, I think, and an understanding of which virtues endure and which prove themselves to be ultimately transient. History is the final judge and arbiter, of course.

I don't think Calvin & Hobbes will be remembered in the same breath as Krazy Kat and Peanuts. I don't think it is any kind of insult to Bill Watterson to say that his work was never built to last in quite the same way. This is my gut feeling, yes, but it's a gut feeling informed by quite a bit of knowledge and experience. That's all these lists are, though, is the compiled gut feelings a large group of 211 respondents. Some of whom know and care about Guido Buzzelli's Zil Zelub, some of whom probably weren't even joking when they nominated Elektra: Assassin. With such a wide group of disparate yahoos involved, is it any wonder the list itself is kind of schizoid and probably useless to anyone who might be looking at a list like this as any kind of meaningful aesthetic yardstick?

But then, looking over the list of lists, I say that Abhay put Calvin & Hobbes on his list, too. Which just goes to show, the only real aesthetic yardstick that matters is the one you use to beat yourself soundly across the head and shoulders.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


The Punisher #1

I must be missing the gene that makes crime / police procedural stuff appeal to a person. I read a comic like this and it's hard for me to even keep my eyes on the page, they just slide off like I'm looking at a blank wall. Is this a well-made comic book? I can't even answer that question because the very premise is so far and away from anything I'm interested in reading that I can't possibly judge.

For me, at least, the Punisher's appeal comes from the juxtaposition between his black & white, pulpy roots and the technicolor fantasy context of the Marvel Universe. He's a noirish figure who could have stepped out of any men's adventure magazine published between 1930 and 1970, a bloodthirsty urban vigilante stuck in a world of superheroes. The Punisher on his own outside the Marvel Universe is just another guy with a gun - which is something that the makers of the Punisher films, to their detriment, haven't quite realized how to make interesting. The right tone to strike with the Punisher is just slightly absurd, leaving the protagonist as a kind of straight man placed in an incrementally exaggerated version of the "real" world, be it the world of superheroes or something else. No flies on Garth Ennis's Punisher: even in his MAX stories Ennis understood the fact that the Punisher has to have something slightly larger-than-life to work against to keep him from becoming a garden-variety thug. Accordingly, is run was partly defined by the horror-tinged macabre tone of bookends The Tyger, Born and The End.

These things can go badly wrong, of course - go too far to one extreme of tonal juxtaposition and you risk doing something stupid like making him temporarily black or turning him into a renegade angel warrior. The Punisher is less about character and plot than tone and execution, and these are hard attributes to fudge. Mike Baron understood this perfectly. His run was never particularly original but he knew how to write the best kind of action stories - overheated like an 80s action movie, filled with mustache-twirling villains who deserved their inevitable comeuppance, which they received in superbly improbable action sequences. If you've seen Stallone's Cobra or Schwarzenegger's Raw Deal, then you should be able to understand the appeal of the Punisher in the late 80s and early 90s. These weren't really "serious" stories because they were obviously hyperventilated boy's fantasies, and could only be taken seriously with at least part of the tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The best Punisher story since Ennis left the franchise was undoubtedly Rick Remender's "Frankencastle" sequence - a story that worked where "Angel Punisher" failed through consistently strong execution and a precise understanding of exactly how to play the character. The Punisher is the man who keeps his head and stays 100% consistent in any and every situation: even when he's been turned into a giant Frankenstein's monster, he remains focused on nothing more and nothing less than killing bad guys in the most efficient way possible. In theory you could write a decent Punisher story in any genre if you just stayed true to the character's core tone - and certainly, there have been good funny Punisher stories, good fantasy-tinged Punisher stories, good sci-fi Punisher stories, even a handful of Punisher romance stories. As long as the Punisher remains the Punisher, the concept is pliable, all the more so for its stark simplicity.

But this? The first issue of Greg Rucka's anticipated run? I just don't understand how this is anyone's idea of a good comic book. There's no high concept here, barely any concept at all besides the most bafflingly, numbingly literal take on the character: criminals kill people, the Punisher kills them, rinse and repeat. It's strictly a police procedural with organized crime or terrorists or something like that. The Punisher, for one, is barely in it - he shows up at the end to shoot some people after almost a whole issue of nothing much happening. I thought the days of the heroes barely appearing in the comics were gone with Bill Jemas? There's cops at crime scenes and crooks gathering in underworld bars and oh god I'm getting bored just typing it. I don't like crime stories, that's an admitted weakness on my part, but come on: how is this anyone's idea of an interesting comic book? You're telling me you've been given the opportunity to write superhero comic books, a medium and a genre where literally almost anything is possible in the hands of an experienced practitioner, and this po-faced Law & Order-meets-Bernhard Goetz slash fiction is what you want? Really? For a comic book in the year 2011 to be so derivative and so uninteresting, and yet to take itself so damn seriously, is nothing less than a complete abdication of creative responsibility on the part of the creators involved. You really have to get up pretty early in the morning to craft something as willfully mediocre as this.

Is this what "real" Punisher fans want? Hardcore crime fiction with nary a trace of the fantastic, either in tone or content? Well, damn, I guess you get your wish then. I'll just wait a few years until sales drop back to cancellation levels and they turn Frank into a space alien for six issues.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Doctor Doom's Mailbag

I noticed recently that you sided with that dastardly fiend the Red Skull in one of his many attempts to destroy the United States and crush Captain America. I was wondering, since you have a long history of enmity with the Red Skull, just why you decided to help the ex-Nazi.

S. Rogers, Washington, D.C.

This is a very good question, and one which Doom sees no harm in answering in as frank a manner as possible. It is well-documented, after all, that Doom and the Skull were hated enemies for a very long time. Considering the many times that the Skull has tried - obviously unsuccessfully and futilely - to kill me and conquer Latveria, it might seem incongruous that I would stoop to aid my most bitter enemy in his latest futile scheme to conquer the United States. Yet I trust that my reasoning is not overly opaque to anyone with so much as a modicum of sense.

To put it as succinctly as possible: the Red Skull is an idiot. It is true that he can be dangerous under certain circumstances. There are few creatures so wretched on this world as the Red Skull, and the depths of his hatred towards every living being are truly astounding. But this monomaniacal focus on spite and loathing leaves him fatally blinkered, unable to see beyond the limited realm of his obsessions and fixations. He was once a Nazi, and remains very much the product of the Third Reich's institutionalized state torture regime. He is a ruthless, capable killer who no doubt rejoiced at every tear shed by my gypsy ancestors as he oversaw the mass exterminations at Buchenwald and Chelmno. But he has long since abandoned any pretense of remaining faithful to the discredited racial paranoia of Nazi Germany. He is no longer a German Nationalist, as he has been anathematized and disowned by a country that now rightly sees him as a deeply humiliating reminder of their most shameful history. He is a man without a country and without ideals, a creature born only to foment distress and promulgate his vision of the world as a barbarian arena of endless cruelty perpetrated against the weak.

But the important question remains: given all of this information, has the Skull ever actually achieved anything of importance? Hasn't he been defeated time and time again, either by the superior cunning of his foes or the misery of his own hubris? Is there any doubt whatsoever that he is one of the the most hated men on the planet, aided only by a small coterie of like-minded thugs who are relentlessly undone by their own sniveling devotion to such a pitiful figure? He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a joke. It does not help matters that his sworn arch-foe is one of the few so-called "super-heroes" whose competence and courage earn the admiration even of Doom. Captain America is a man with whom to be reckoned, and so long as the Skull remains fixated on the Captain he will remain a hollow, impotent figure, easily checked by his betters.

So why give aid to such a loathsome figure? As a self-identified villain, the Red Skull is quite simply a tool par excellence. He can dependably be counted on to sow chaos and destruction in his wake, while just as dependably self-destructing before ever truly causing irreparable damage. Why not give him passive aid and encouragement, supporting his plans inasmuch as they are certain to inconvenience my own enemies and potentially achieve some degree of salutary success? The Skull could never represent any real threat to Doom. There is no profit to be gained in actively working towards his destruction while he can still be useful. Given enough time the Skull will always destroy himself. And for so long as he remains active, it costs Doom nothing to humor him, to allow him to cherish the misconceptions that we are in any way equals and that I have forgotten his past transgressions, all the while gleefully toasting his inevitable humiliation and well-deserved defeat.

Dr. Doom,
Something I've been wondering for quite some time - please forgive me if you've heard this one before - but who is more dangerous, you or Lex Luthor?

C. Kent, Metropolis

If there is one subject - besides the accursed Richards! - which Doom detests above all others, it is surely the incessant comparisons to the Lex Luthor that have plagued me for decades. The very idea is simply too absurd to seriously contemplate. Yet, since the subject recurs with an annoying regularity, I will address it once again in the hopes of finally putting a rest to this most insipid of subjects.

Lex Luthor is a fool. His supposed brilliance is the product of a lifetime's theft and cunning. His skill, if it can be called such, is simple ruthlessness: he is nothing more than a petty criminal with delusions of grandeur. Whatever rudimentary intelligence he might possess is perpetually wasted in his rivalry with the alien Superman. If he were sincere in his desire to devote his life to the supposed "benefit" of humanity, it would be a simple manner to surpass his petty resentments in order to truly devote himself to these lofty, if foolhardy, ideals. But he remains fatally fixated on his inability to overcome one single vexing opponent, and this unconscionable fixation is the unambiguous source of his repeated defeats.

Setting aside these embarrassing neuroses, his personal abilities are barely adequate. As a scientist he is an excellent businessman, by which I mean that without a great deal of money with which to buy the finest scientific minds, he would have no means with which to replenish the stock of superior weaponry with which he vexes the Kryptonian. It is no great matter to be a plutocrat in the industrialized west. Money can buy many things but it cannot purchase strength. Where in Lex Luthor is any strength to match the will of Doom, the same will that cowed the mighty Beyonder? The same might that humbled great Galactus? The same courage that awed malefic Mephisto? Shorn of his stolen wealth and bought weaponry, bereft of the underlings whose uncertain allegiances he has purchased and the "allies" who seek only to betray him at any sign of weakness, Lex Luthor is merely a weak, bald man.

Stripped of armor and naked, Doom could still crush Luthor to death with his bare hands, raze his ostensible "empire" to the ground and pour a glass of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945 over the smoldering ashes.

Dear Doctor,

I was wondering who would win in a fight between you and Lord Voldemort. I bet you could take him.

H. Granger, London

Although I cannot but admire Voldemort's ambition and foresight, he nevertheless poses little in the way of a threat to Doom. As with most of his wizard brethren, his dependency on physical wands in order to channel his power renders him highly vulnerable without this tool. Additionally, his almost total disdain for "Muggle" science makes him easy prey for any number of strategies outside the realm of magic. While it is true that with his wand he is a formidable foe, a disarmed Voldemort would die like any other human if you shot them in the head. The ability to speak to snakes will avail you little when you have been bound and gagged by the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, helpless at the tender mercies of Doom.

Enough! Doom grows weary of this unending avalanche of idiocy.