Cerebus the Aardvark: An Obituary

 

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling for his views
And will pardon Paul Claudel
Pardons him for writing well – W.H Auden

At college, everyone I knew read Cerebus. Literally.

A lot of us were comic-book junkies: I knew Nick's views on the relative merits of Eternals, New Gods and the then-current Kirby lawsuit before I'd got around to asking him his name. But there were also people, some of them girlies, who thought comics were kid's stuff but who we still got hooked on the Short Grey Guy. Expressions like 'He doesn't love you, he just wants all your gold', 'Your other left, Most Holy' and 'The speaker implies, the listener infers' were part of the lingo which defined our group. (Watchmen and V for Vendetta came into it as well. Heady days.)

None of the group read it any more. Well, I do, and I imagine Nick does, but then, Nick's a sadder comic book junkie than me. I mean that in a caring way.

Partly, we got older; partly, the comic changed. But mostly, they lost patience with Dave Sim.

I've spent a reasonable number of evenings over the last 45 months defending Sim's views to lapsed Cerebus readers. Odious opinions, I have said, do not invalidate artistic brilliance: no-one ever denounced Doctor Strange because of Steve Ditko's politics. Just because Sim is wrong doesn't mean you should stop reading his comic book.

In any case, I've said, much of Sim's political theory is limited to essays and editorials and digressions: not too much of it seeps through into the comic. You only have to look at the characters of Jaka and Astoria to see that Sim the creator is a very different animal to Sim the essayist. And even if he weren't, isn't the point of literature to show us the world from a different point of view? We come out of a good novel saying 'I see why you feel that way; I see what it would feel like to feel like that. I now live in a larger world because it contains your world view as well as my own.'

And anyway, I said, just how 'wrong' is he? People call him a misogynist, but even during his most extreme 'male-light; female-void' phase, I couldn't help feeling that he had a point. It is partially true that marriage is at odds with the whole-hearted pursuit of genius, and therefore that a society which values motherhood and children above all else will produce few geniuses. (Only partially true, mind you. Every time I read a tribute to Roz Kirby, I think 'put that in your pipe and smoke it, Victor Reid.') It is partially true that journalists say 'How do you feel?' rather than 'What do you think?' and I am prepared to entertain the notion that this is due to a feminisation of society and a bad thing. When I read these passages in Cerebus, I thought: Dave, you go too far, Dave, you over-state the case, you exaggerate, you over-simplify but you make an intriguing point and I am glad you made it; and of course you made it in your astringent, amusing, interesting way and frankly what more can anyone want from a writer?

I wanted to make this very clear at the outset. I kept faith with Dave Sim for a very long time after everyone else I knew had given up on him.

But.

The text piece in Cerebus # 226 made me feel physically unwell; made me feel as if I'd been kicked in the stomach; actually spoiled my whole afternoon. When the drunken John Lennon beat up a waitress, she is reported as having said 'What really hurts is finding out that your idol is a complete asshole.'

I didn't actually tear the comic to shreds, and the fanboy side of me will probably ensure that I carry on buying it. I will take a deep breath, hold my nose and recite, very slowly: 'You can be a nasty little man and still do better panel composition than Will Eisner and Frank Miller put together.'

But. But. But.

'Mama's Boy' is a 3,000 word essay, with more to follow next month. It argues that the feminisation of our culture since the 70s has obliterated the types of relationships which previously existed between male peer groups, causing men to be infantilised. Sim takes this to be a bad thing and is (presumably) telling his male readers that they should either grow up (if they haven't) or accept that being men is a good thing (if they have.) Being what-he-calls-a-man, as opposed to a what-he-calls-a-boy or what-he-call-a-baby is uncritically assumed to be a good thing in itself: there is no attempt to argue that men are happier than boys, or more productive, creative, useful, that they make better fathers, better scientists, better comic book artists or anything like that. Manhood good. Boyhood bad.

As usual, Sim has started with a perfectly valid grievance, about which he makes a perfectly valid point. From the beginning of time up until 1970, it was not permissible for men to cry. In 1970, the feminists started to say that it was okay for men to cry.

In pretty short order....that became It's Good For Men To Cry. At full 180 degree out of whack, but perpendicular, that became It's Mandatory For Men To Cry with the undertone of Good Men Cry, Bad Men Don't Cry.

Dave tells us that he tried very hard to cry, but couldn't, and even when he did, it didn't help very much. Long-time readers will note, with a groan, that all this happened at the same time as 'I had my first girlfriend, Deni.' Just how many of the sins of feminism, big-business and the comic-book industry has Sim blamed on his ex-wife over the last ten years or so?

Well, then. If there ever actually were any feminists, or anyone else, saying that all men ought to cry then they were very silly feminists and Dave ought not to have paid any attention to them. If you want to cry, cry. If you don't want to cry, don't cry. Is there really anything else to say on the subject?

What Dave doesn't appear to recognise is that the silliness resides in the 'You ought...' clause, not in the crying. The imaginary feminists who said 'You ought to cry' and the imaginary Victorians who said 'You ought not to cry' were both attempting to force people into a single mould–one which a given individual might not fit. Some people happen to be more emotionally demonstrative than others. The feminists said that only the emotionally demonstrative people were valid, and the Victorians said that only the emotionally controlled one's were. Both were wrong. End of argument.

I cry in sad movies; I very rarely cry from frustration; I can't remember the last time I was badly hurt so I don't know if I cry from pain. I broke down at my Granddad's funeral and when I thought one of my friends was going to die. But that's none of your business. That's me. That's how my emotions happen to work. If someone tried to make Dave cry when he didn't want to, then he was being oppressed. If someone tried to stop me from crying when I wanted to, then I was being oppressed. A few months ago we had the ridiculous spectacle of the entire population of England blubbering over someone they had never met, and her two very young sons keeping a stiff upper lip at her funeral. If the people crying were under pressure to do so (and some of them were) then they were being oppressed; if the princes weren't crying because they were under pressure not to (and they may have been) then they were being oppressed. It's like the extreme nudists one sometimes meets. Of course it's quite wrong to say 'If you go naked, then you are a slut, or a pervert, or a flasher.' But it's equally wrong to say 'If you always stay clothed you are repressed, or ashamed of your body, or a latent homosexual, or at any rate, no fun.' The only common sense position is 'If you feel like skinny-dipping or leaving your clothes off on a hot day then that's your business. If you don't like other people seeing your prick, then keep your knickers on. That's also your business. And you harm none, do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.'

But Sim can't let it go. He's latched onto a new way of dividing the world, another way of explaining what's wrong with society, and another way of making everything Deni's–no, sorry, feminists–fault. He's already divided the world along gender lines, into 'Male Lights' and 'Female Voids'. In his fictional universe he has partially subdivided females into Cirinits (mothers) and Kevillists (daughters.) He is now going to use the mundane insight 'Crying is not necessarily good' as an axis along which to sub-divide the male half of the equation.

It seems that there are two types of men.

The first type, Guys (what we in England would called 'the lads') are A Good Thing. Guyhood involves primarily Not Crying, but also Knowing Your Place in the Pecking Order, and accepting physical and mental cruelty from your peers. It's vitally important to keep progressing from baby to boy to man and 'Pain [or at any rate, learning to tolerate pain] is a big part of it.'

Self-importance is a no-no in the male world. That's where the 'ribbing' comes in, the 'taking the piss' out of someone. Just like physical pain, you've got to be able to take it. Not take it and sulk, or take it an lash back but take it good naturedly...

He isn't describing a situation which exists among some men at some times. He is talking about the intrinsic 'Male Dynamic,' a good thing in itself which wicked feminists have tried to destroy.

It is worth pausing for a moment to note other assumed characteristics of 'guys':

1: They play rough team sports like 'street hockey'.

2: They gain kudos by having 'a sports car and a different girl every night of the week', although this does not necessarily make them cool (for example, if they boast about it in the wrong way, self importance being a no-no.)

3: They 'hang out', 'shoot the breeze' and 'go for a beer.'

4: They are heterosexual and are pained by any suggestion to the contrary. When the wicked feminists said that 'male bonding' (which is really just 'shooting the breeze') was actually 'homoerotic', they did not reply 'Don't be silly' or 'So what?' but 'Bullseye, girls. That really hurt.'

Against this stands the other type of man, the Mama's Boys. In England, we would call them 'whimps' or 'softies'. They are a Bad Thing. Being a Mama's Boy involves primarily Crying Too Much and Having an Inflated Opinion of Yourself–that is Not Knowing Your Place in the Pecking Order. These two are closely related, because the reason that Mama's Boys cry when they are hurt is that they think that their pain matters more than anyone else's. If they could only recognise their place in the pecking order (at the bottom) then they would not moan so much about cruelty and unfairness.

The reason that sports injuries, pain and insults are a good thing is that they show you that you 'suck', that you 'are about half a foot shorter than everybody else; not athletic; not popular'. Once you know this, you have learned you place in the pecking order and thus make the transition from boy to man. When a guy hurts another guy he is not, in fact, being cruel, because 'guys' don't mind this sort of thing. Mama's boys do mind, but that is their problem. Ergo, it is not the cruel person who is at fault for bullying, but the victim who is at fault for minding being bullied. The analogy between this viewpoint and that which child abusers encourage in thier victims seems not to have occurred to Dave Sim. Neither has the fact that 'joshing' and 'ribbing' and play-fighting (even quite rough play-fighting) are indeed wholly normal and acceptable when done in a friendly manner between peers, and wholly unacceptable when done with intent to wound. It may very well be that the Mama's Boy sometimes mis-interprets what is intended as friendly joshing as a wounding attack. It is equally possible that the most appalling acts of sadism will be tolerated in a culture where the bully can claim that he was only fooling and the victim should have taken it like a man. Sim is right to say that not all guys are bullies; but the glorification of guyhood creates a culture in which bullying can flourish.

When English boys are naughty, they are traditionally sent off to boarding schools where they are caned by harsh headmasters. When American boys are naughty, they are traditionally sent to military academies where they are made to do push-ups by harsh sports coaches. Both are archetypal guy institutions. Both aim to 'make a man of you'. Both do this by making you accept your place in the 'pecking order' by hurting you–you horrible little man, you nasty boy, you worm. Both tolerate and even encourage bullying, under the name of 'hazing' or 'fagging'. Some people seem to cope fairly well with these institutions, even to quite like them. But once you have accepted that the infliction of pain can have the effect of making a man of you and therefore be a good thing, you have created an environment where abuse can, and does, flourish. It need hardly be pointed out that both types of institution feature strongly in sadomasochistic literature.

In a telling passage, Sim uses the example of team-games as a way of separating the Guys from the Mama's Boys. Mama's Boys have a bad time in these games, and it is, of course, their fault:

The mama's boy misses the sorting-out period when the babies who are turning into boys figure out who is who in the pecking order. Choosing up sides for a team sport, he obsesses about the fact that he was picked last when everyone else just wants even teams and a good game. Once the game is on (say, road hockey) he obsesses about the fact that on one will pass him the ball, that he hasn't scored, that someone else scored. At no point does it occur to him whether his team is winning or losing; he is just obsessed with how he is doing. If he messes scoring a goal or lets in a goal, the only thing he thinks about is his personal humiliation, the unacceptable disparity between his performance and his self-image as Mother's Little Prince.

You know, when I read that, I blinked and rubbed my eyes and felt a little queasy.

Maybe, I thought with a grim pit of my stomach spinning sensation, he's right.

All that bullying that I was subjected to when I was a 'baby': it was my own fault. I was doing it to myself.

For a second it sounds so very, very plausible.

The problem was not that the other boys were treating me badly. It might have just been a coincidence that no-one would give me the ball–never once in five years of sports lessons. It might have been coincidence that 'We've lost we've got Rilstone' was actually used as a football chant by the members of my own team. It happened to lots of people. It was my fault for caring.

I can assure you, Dave, that as I read that paragraph, my self esteem went through the floor and I realised that the gym teacher and the other kids had been right. I really am a piece of shit. I can't kick a ball straight, I wear glasses, I weigh 19 stone. I'd be dead meat on a football field or on a hunting expedition or in a warzone. So what use can I possible be as a human being? I suck big time. Man.

For just a second I was on the point of knowing my place in the pecking order. Maybe if someone had walked in at that moment and towel-flicked me, right now I'd be in the pub throwing up on my shoes and yelling abuse at the girl behind the bar. Unfortunately something occurred to me, and I'm afraid I have relapsed into babyhood.

I never asked to be playing football in the first place.

I hate football, and sports, and shower-room banter, and 'shooting the wind' and 'having a few beers'.

And once you've realised that, the whole thing breaks down. The guy-thing makes a deal of sense on a football field or down a coal-mine or living in a frontier town in Colorado but it doesn't make a lot of sense when you are hanging out in the library talking about Plato with a mixed group. A mixed group, Dave. Guys and, you know....dolls.

I didn't want to be picking sides or have an even team or knowing my place in the pecking order or having the ball passed to me or scoring goals or driving a sports car. Left to myself I'd have been reading. You know, books? Poems and girlie stuff? And also comics. The sort that Mamas Boys read. There was one just getting started I particularly liked. It involved a grey barbarian teddy bear. Can't remember the title.

Is that okay? I mean, can I be that sort of person if I want to? Can I be clever instead of tough? Nice instead of macho? Or do you side with those clever English educators who dragged us out of the library and onto the playing field and forced us to play games we weren't interested in and threatened to thrash us with a rubber-soled running shoe ('pain is a big part of it') if we didn't do well enough?

Is playing hockey, drinking beer, driving sports cars, being cruel and tolerating pain really that important? I mean, for everybody? Most guys aren't going have to go out and slay the great white mammoth for their supper; most of them are going to sit in offices and work with their brains. So whence all this Home Improvement bollocks?

I know that you, Mr Sim, (Mr Dave Sim who writes comic books for mamas boys to read when they should be off getting beaten up in the playground like normal lads) say you consider yourself to have been a 'mama's boy'. So I suppose the whole article is one long excercise in self-loathing. And self-loathing is probably a step up the evolutionary ladder from woman-hating. But there's another section to go. Probably next month you'll say that it is the fault of over-indulgent mothers (especially Deni) in the thrall of wicked feminists who create these bastard cry-babies in the first place.

What really hurts is finding out (45 issues after everyone else) that my idol is a complete asshole. But pain is big part of it, right?

Good comic book artist, though.

 

 

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