#300

Punch isn't as funny as it used to be.
—It never was.

This wasn't how I imagined it.

The comic took me, what, five minutes?

It left me with a sense of 'So what?'—a massive anti-climactic nothing.

The commentary took several hours, and produced the usual exhilarating mix of nausea, exasperation and bewilderment.

'What a sad and bitter man,' I said.

 

In 1989 a drooling student fanboy named Andrew Rilstone wrote a review of Cerebus in a fanzine called Aslan. It concluded.

Can anyone doubt that Dave will finish his epic? What really worries me is that by then he will still be under 50. How on earth is he going to follow it?

Fifteen years later, and we know he intends to follow it. By trying to provoke the liberal conspiracy into prosecuting him for hate crimes, and by asserting his right to read out the Koran on public access TV.

You cannot possibly understand how disappointed I feel right now.

 

'But Andrew, why do you continue to read Cerebus? This is someone who has asserted that it is the duty of husbands to beat their wives and drawn an analogy between his feelings towards homosexuals and his feelings towards 'a pool of vomit' Why pay attention to anything this man has said since 1994?'

I know the answer to that one.

I read what Dave Sim writes because I believe him to be a TOTAL AND UTTER GENIUS. The biggest talent working in comics today [1], one of the best creators in any medium, full stop. His worst enemies agree that he has extended the visual vocabulary of comic books—that he did so pretty much on a monthly basis for 26 years. You pick up an issue of Cerebus, even at its maddest, and say 'I didn't know words and pictures could be combined in that way; I've never seen it done like this before.' I think his experimentation actually pushed the boundaries of what we mean by 'narrative' and how it can be represented. As result, he changed the way we think, just as surely as David Copperfield or The Waves or In Search of Lost Time did, and for the same reason.

Great books change us. (So, arguably do bad ones, which might be a good reason not to read them.) When you read Proust, you get acclimatized to Proust's way of looking at the world; to the rhythm and flavour of his consciousness, to his minds-eye view of the mind. When you come to the end of the book, you start feeling home-sick and want to re-read it—to get back inside Proust's mind and remind yourself what it was like to be him. It is quite irrelevant to say that Marcel was small-minded little homophobe, and that you hardly know who Dreyfuss was and care less, or that you want to scream 'For God sake, man, if you think your girlfriend is gay then just ask her', and 'Enough scenery! Enough dinner parties! Enough sodding Mr Swann! Give us another aphorism, or another riff about memory.'

It is probably significant that most editions of Lost Time are too heavy to throw across the room in disgust. I'm not comparing Dave Sim with Proust, although he is almost as long and even more irritating. But his endlessly experimental ways of solidifying time and consciousness have something of the same effect on me.

 

'But he's a sexist pig.'

Actually, your information is way, way out of date. Dave may have been 'sexist' around Cerebus # 186, when he started down his 'men are intellectual, women are emotional, and no artist should marry a woman' path. But his brief has expanded beyond this. 'Feminism' is now one aspect of 'Marxism', and 'Marxism' is one aspect of 'Atheism' and history can be understood only in terms of a dialectic between the Creator God and the demiurgic, breakaway Spirit-of-God, YHWH, who the Jews mistook for the Deity. [2]. He certainly believes that feminism is Wrong and Real Men are Right; but there are almost no Real Men in the West. If Sim hates modern women, he also hates 'hollowed out ventriloquist puppet husbands and boyfriends' which includes almost everybody. 'Misogyny', if that is what it was, long ago gave way to a general misanthropy. His unifying world view now seems to be a sort of Gnostic Islam in which the demiurge happens to be a girly.

Question: Why is it un-forgivable for Dave to say 'Women are predisposed to be homemakers because that is how God made them', but forgivable for Ursula Le Guin to say 'Women's magic be different from men's magic, dearie, and we rule the hearth and the orchard and the goat herd, and leave silly men to their castles and wars'? Why is 'masculinist separatism' so much further beyond the pale than 'feminist separatism'? (Speaking personally, both seem pretty barking.)

 

'But he's mad.'

Yes. Of course he is.

The increasing disgust that Dave expresses towards his own body, (describing it as a 'rotting carcass' and imagining his penis as something Other that controls him and leads him astray); his disgust with the notion of sex (ejaculation is like soiling your nappy); his overwhelming disgust at female bodies; his finding messages from God in world events; his belief that he alone understands the truth and that almost everyone is against him: I'm no psychiatrist, but this sounds a lot like mental illness to me.

But.

I am not certain that it is any 'madder' to think that an evil female god made your willy than to think that your personality is determined by star-signs or that aliens landed in Roswell at 1950. We all have more or less non-rational beliefs that help us exist in the world. Many of Alan Moore's recent pronouncements seem to be just as unhinged as Dave's, and almost equally un-interesting to read in the context of a comic book. (Moore spent a whole issue of Promethea expounding the history of the 20th century by means of the Tarot and the Qabala—not notably saner or more readable than Dave's attempt to syncretise John's Gospel and the Big Bang theory in defense of his 'YHWH' theology. ) But Sim's beliefs appear to have caused him to break links with his friends, his family, and to perceive enemies where there are none. Call it 'mad' or call it 'maladaptive'—belonging to a cult of which you are the only member doesn't strike me as very healthy.

Question: Moore has not been vilified for Promethea to anything like the extent that Sim has been vilified for 'Chasing YHWH'. Is there a prejudice which says that Tarot cards and worshipping snakes is 'New Age' and therefore good; but studying the Torah and fasting is 'religious' and therefore bad? Both (in the forms that they take for Sim and Moore) seem pretty barking to be.

 

'You sound very defensive, Andrew.'

Of course I do. Here is a comic which went from being a universally read, universally admired textual sound-track to my teenage and student years, and which gradually turned into a willfully obscure vehicle for an ideology which, most of the time, I regard as ga-ga. I somehow can't get as angry with it as the more politically correct might want me to. My reaction is more: 'So, the Mother has no genetic input into the make-up of her child and therefore no rights over its destiny. Gee. That's interesting. I once met a man who believed that he had met and talked to the fairy folk.' I am disappointed that that this happened; disappointed that we now get one memorable line in three issues, where we used to get a good joke on pretty much every panel. I wish, I wish, I wish in vain that Sim had told the story of the Short Grey Fellow and not subordinated it to theories based on paranoia and madness and hate.

But.

None of that is going to make me say that the recent issues don't have merit.

Because they do.

 

'Be honest: you enjoy being shocked by him.'

I guess. I'm the sort of person who turns up newspaper columnists who I know are going to enrage me and skip the ones I think are sensible; who regards Daily Mail headlines with a sort of brutal admiration; who pretty much stopped buying the Guardian because I agreed with too much of it. People went to see punk bands because (I imagine) it was liberating to see taboos broken and exciting to think 'what are these people going to do next'.[3]  But when Johnny Rotten can say 'fucking cunts' on prime time and create barely a ripple, there are very few taboos left. Maybe listening to Dave Sim saying 'Women are best suited to being mothers and home makers' is the closet to that transgressive thrill that we now get. Certainly, there is an artistry to Sim in full flight: there is a clever perversity to, say, his argument that women's empowerment has come about as a result of father-daughter incest that I find it hard not to admire. (But not agree with. But not agree with. But not agree with.)

 

'Let me explain, Andrew. You see, wife beating is a really bad idea; firstly, because it offends women's dignity; secondly, because it gives a degree of power to a man that no adult human being should have over another ; thirdly, because—even if women really were only like naughty kids, which, of course, they aren't—it has been shown over and over again that negative re-enforcement doesn't work; fourthly because the idea that in Olden Times men were allowed to beat their wives is largely and urban myth; fifthly because all violence is assault; sixthly because it pre-supposes which, if any, partner will be dominant in any given relationship; seventhly…'

I agree.

I am not reading and recommending Cerebus because I agree with Sim's views. I am reading it and recommending it despite the fact that I don't.

Some days of the week I would be prepared to place Preacher several rungs above Sandman in the canon of 'very, very long comics'[4] despite the fact that it is largely a sustained sneer against my religion—and has some pretty dodgy gender politics of its own. 'Leda and the Swan' appears to say that rape, at any rate rape by wildfowl, can be beautiful, but remains one of the most powerful poems I know. And don't even mention Wagner. If we went down the path of judging the artistic merit of a work on the basis of whether or not we agreed with it, we would end up saying that the southern Baptists are right (on their own terms) to set their faces against Harry Potter and anything containing the word 'evolution'

 

'But the comic is now unreadable.'

I've read it.

I agree, of course, that most people at most times read for entertainment, and that for a decade Cerebus has made no concessions at all to the casual reader. No-one could possibly blame you if you skipped over the 'Chasing YHWH' segment.

On the other hand we all agree—I assume—that literature can deliver things apart from fun and entertainment; and that some 'difficult' literature is worth the effort. We all agree, I assume, that while there is a place for Ultimate Spider Man some comics can and should be 'literary' in this sense.

In 1983, a drooling sixth-form fanboy named Andrew Rilstone contributed a letter to the lettercol of Warrior (the magazine that 'discovered' Alan Moore) He praised Marvelman because it was a 'true comic', but expressed ambivalence toward V for Vendetta because it wasn't. He denounced Cerebus the Aardvark—during its 'High Society' arc—as being incomprehensible, inaccessible, and not at all what comic-books are meant to be about i.e. superheroes. He compares Cerebus unfavorably with—if you can believe this—Rom Spaceknight. He was wrong, then, and he would be wrong now. 'High Society', as it proved, was worth his attention, [5] because there is more to life than the quick fix of a men-in-tights space opera. I still have those issues of 'High Society' and have read them dozens of times. I can't remember a thing about Rom.[6]

At roughly the time I was writing the Aslan review, the spiritual leader of Iran, (then a baddie) was sentencing Salman Rushdie to death. He had said things which were, from the point of view of Islam, utterly beyond the pale. My view then, as now, was that Rushdie didn't say half the things he was accused of, but that even if he did, that wouldn't be an excuse for book burning or murder. Saying 'If you look carefully, you will find the book is less offensive than you'd think' appeared to concede the point that if it had been that offensive, assassinating Salman Rushdie, banning the book, or at the very least abstaining from reading it would have been the right thing to do. I don't agree; I never have. No idea can possibly be so bad that it shouldn't be expressed.[7] Many people asserted that they didn't know whether the Ayatollah's claims were fair or not, because the book was unreadable. 'I wouldn't condemn a book without reading it' said one wag 'So I've burned the first fifty pages.' I wondered then and wonder now if that wasn't a bit of an excuse. It wasn't unreadable, although I prefer The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

For Islam, the suggestion (even in the context of a novel) that verses in the Koran are not the word of God made Rushdie worthy of death. For many comic book readers, who would otherwise laud the world's first graphic novel to the skies, the suggestion that women are biologically pre-disposed to be child-rearers and home-makers is the satanic verse.

Salman Rushdie wrote in his own defense:

I am not saying that the Satanic Verses is 'only a novel' and should not be taken seriously, even debated with the utmost passion. I do not believe that novels are trivial matters.

Well, I don't believe that graphic novels are trivial matters; and this goes double for the only graphic novel so far written. I think that Dave Sim's artistic vision should be debated with the utmost passion. And before we condemn his work for thought-crime, I think that we should read it.

Hence:

A close reading of Cerebus #300

 

 

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[1] Or, indeed, ever. He isn't up their with the great foundational talents like Jack Kirby  rather in the same way that no rock and roll singer can ever dent the reputation of Elvis, because, well, he's Elvis and they're not. The closest contemporary talent is Alan Moore, whose From Hell is the only other work that might possibly be called a 'graphic novel'. (Sandman is a 'really, really, long comic book'.) It might be that Alan Moore is as a good a writer as Dave Sim, but he isn't an artist. There may be comic book artists who are Sim's equal. (Frank Miller, if you insist, although he rather squandered is talent on macho cops and robbers crap.). But Sim combines One of the Greatest Writers Ever and One of the Greatest Artists Ever in a single body, which he shares with One of the Greatest Letterers Ever. That puts him on a whole nother level. Even Jack, when all is said and done, couldn't really and truly write.

[2] And who is female, and created men's penises , and who, if I have understood this right, is the Logos of John's prologue and therefore identical with Jesus, even though Dave mostly reveres Jesus…

[3] People think Bernard Manning is funny, not because they think it is perfectly all right to call Asians Pakis, but because they don't.

[4] Wittier, more unified, more audacious, more genuinely original, less fanwank, more genuine characters who talk like real people rather than collections of aphorisms and attitude.

[5] Although probably issue #35 wasn't the best jumping on point. I picked up two issues of the comic, probably in the old 'Dark They Were and Golden Eyed' in Soho., mostly because the title Cerebus the Aardvark reminded me of Monty Python's 'Ethel the Aardvark goes quantity surveying'

[6] Micronauts was a blast, though.

[7] (Yawn) Yes, including the idea that the holocaust didn't happen, yes, including the idea that God created the world in six days, yes, including the idea that that He didn't, yes, including the idea that sex with children should be legalized, the idea that black men are only fit to be slaves, the idea that all Irish people are child molesters, and the idea that there were some Jewish people in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion. No idea is so bad that we should protect ourselves from hearing it. Ever. Full stop.