Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fun and Games with Dave

A little over a week ago I gave a presentation on Cerebus. It wasn't a major event - an intradepartmental colloquium, quite informal - themed around the department's yearly keynote address (given by a senior faculty member, followed by a reception and potluck, and the unofficial start of the department's social calendar). The themes of this year's keynote were serialization and gender, and a friend within the department suggested, since it is a poorly-kept secret within the department that I am expert in comics (even if I don't officially study them), that I present something on those topics relating to comics.

The first thing that leapt to mind was, of course, Cerebus. It didn't take much effort to work up an outline for a presentation. At this point, even if it's been a while since I've read the individual stories, I've spent enough time thinking about the topic that the format of the talk came without any trouble. In case you're interested (or are new to the blog), the bulk of my thinking about Cerebus can be traced to a series of articles I wrote two years ago, inspired by my contribution to the Hooded Utilitarian's Best International Comics poll from a couple years back:

1. Why We Will Read Cerebus
2. How We Will Read Cerebus I
3. A Word About Hate
4. How We Will Read Cerebus II

My presentation had to do a lot of things within a short amount of time, such that even though the talks were supposedly planned for 5-10 minutes in length I specifically asked to go last because I knew I was going to blow right over that limitation. I had to do the following:
1) Introduce Cerebus and Dave Sim to a group of people who had never heard of the series,

2) Summarize the history of the comics industry from roughly 1970-2003, including the fall of newsstand distribution, the rise of the Direct Market, and the beginnings of the creators rights movement,

3) At least mention Sim's debt both artistic and moral to Steve Gerber, Howard the Duck, and Gerber's conflict with Marvel,

4) Explain why Cerebus was once considered one of the most important comics of all time,

5) Explain the very sad circumstances behind why and how this belief is no longer widespread and,

5) How we go forward in an attempt to reconcile 4 and 5, putting Sim's ideas into their historical context while providing an outline for methods future scholars might use to approach the series without being overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of Sim's later career.
Doing this in the span of even 20-25 minutes might seem impossible, but I actually had a lot of fun boiling the basics of such a complicated subject down to its most basic components.

I had originally considered recording the talk on my phone, but on the day of the presentation I got cold feet. Now, I don't usually experience a lot of nerves when I have to talk in front of people in a professional setting, but I did feel a little twinge of foreboding once I realized (which I had known but hadn't really considered), that even in the context of a value-neutral scholarly conversation among friends, simply speaking out loud Sim's views (essential to explaining the series' history) can be, well, unpleasant. I actually had a brief conversation with the organizer's event (the same friend who had asked me to contribute), and laid my reticence at her feet - the whole thing was, after all, co-sponsored by the department's Women's Research Caucus. So I said, "well, I have a great topic, but it gets a bit dark in terms of the fact that this Dave Sim dude is the most rabid anti-feminist in the world." My friend reassured me that she was looking forward to my talk, and that even if the subject matter was unpleasant she had confidence that it would still be interesting.

So I was wary, in the moments leading up to the talk, and because of that I decided against recording. But I was wrong to be concerned. The talk was very well received. The audience - around twenty people, give or take - seemed fascinated by the subject, and curious at how something as sui generis as Cerebus could even have been conceived, let alone completed. The sections dealing with Sim's political and social views went over well. There's a slide where I list the gist of Sim's assertions from Cerebus #186 - all the "male light, female void," stuff, and the consequences of these beliefs - and when I brought up that slide there was a moment of stunned silence as I read out the summary. But then there were chuckles, and genuine laughs, and I realized that my misgivings had been misplaced: in the cold light of day, and among reasonably intelligent people (all academics, keep in mind), it's really hard to take Sim's views seriously, and even harder when you are trying to get your mind around the fact that these ideas have been presented in the context of a talking aardvark comic. By the time I got around to Dave's late-career religious conversion most people seemed fascinated not so much by the hatefulness of his ideas but by the sheer oddness of them.

More than anything else, this reaction gives me hope for the long-term viability of Cerebus as an object of continued scrutiny and study. We here in the comics industry have such a long and tumultuous history with Sim the creator that it's impossible - and probably inadvisable - not to take his views personally, not to see his downfall as a tragic reflection of some of the worst aspects of our community's longstanding issues regarding gender parity and conservatism. But to a receptive audience of feminist and feminist-sympathetic academics with no real experience with Sim and his toxic persona, the subject was simply fascinating. Outside of a very small circle, Sim's ideas are laughable. Even if the hate is real, the context and presentation render them hard to take seriously in mixed company. I think that this reflexive distancing from Sim's ideology can only mean good things for Cerebus the work. In a room full of people trained to balance and appraise aesthetic objects from across history that are inextricably bound to various kinds of oppressive and harmful ideological apparatuses (big ups, Ezra Pound!), Cerebus found a sympathetic audience.

I've never given a presentation that received such a positive reception from a crowd. People came up to me for a week to complement me on the talk, a few even saying they were inspired to go researching Sim online (and were subsequently amazed by just how deep that particular rabbit hole goes).

Anyway: as I said, the talk wasn't recorded. But I did make a PowerPoint that served as my only notes, and if you care to look through it you can download it here. I will say, for anyone who may have read the stretch from around 270-300 more recently than I, I have a little trouble keeping straight whether or not any of Sim's theological ideas are ideas he actually entertains and which are presented within the context of satire - I think I recall, for instance, that he genuinely believes that microscopic demons live in the sun and are responsible for perturbations in the quantum foam, or whatever the hell. He takes shit like demons seriously, after all, and was genuinely disappointed when, followning the release of Cerebus #289-290, he wasn't immediately acclaimed as a visionary for having permanently reconciled the differences between science and religion.

1 comment :

adampasz said...

I really enjoyed your writings about Cerebus. Thanks for sharing this perspective!