Friday, July 3, 2020

Cerebus #1

This is the Biweekly version of Cerebus because I do not have access to what you humans call "money."

When I first encountered Cerebus, I must have been twelve or thirteen years old. It was probably 1984, possibly 1985. I had just purchased the Elfquest Role Playing Game and my mom was driving us home as I eagerly dove into it. I had only been reading Elfquest via the collected color editions even though a kid in my 6th grade class had mentioned to me that the series came out in black and white issues every few months. I probably didn't really believe him at the time because I rarely believed anything anybody told me if I didn't already know it. How I learned anything at all, I'll never know. Unless maybe I haven't learned anything? Anyway, as I perused the gaming book, I noticed a picture of Rayek speaking with Ekuar. What the hell? Rayek was dead, wasn't he?! What is this? Suddenly there were pictures of other elves I didn't recognize, elves in furs riding elk. "Oh my God! Those are the elves at the end of Elfquest Book Three!" I somehow didn't say out loud, completely boring my mother with my passion for all things elves. I was seeing spoilers! I shut the book, turned to my mother, and said, "We have to go to a comic book shop!" I don't remember if I already knew about Brian's Books on Calabazas Boulevard or if we looked it up in a phone book. I feel like we immediately went there because we were on El Camino already. Just trust me about the geography; it all works out! I could go into deeper details but I'm no Alan Moore or James Joyce. I'm not going to write a book that describes my hometown so well that any casual reader could suddenly find their way around the place.

Brian's Books was my first real comic book shop. I had been reading other comic books picked up, half bent over, from the racks at the local 7-Eleven. But learning about Brian's Books changed that. Never again would I own a creased comic book! I went there to pick up the single issues of Elfquest that Dan assured me existed. One full shelf at Brian's Books was dedicated to Elfquest. He had copies (mostly reprints, probably) of many of the nearly twenty issues (I don't think the entire story had been completed at the time. But it was close!). Directly across the aisle from the Elfquest books was a number of shelves full of a comic book with a funny looking aardvark wearing a helmet and wielding a sword. I was instantly intrigued.

But I never picked it up. At the time, I had a weird thing about adults knowing I was reading things that were kind of adult. I guess I was embarrassed for some reason. Maybe I thought I'd get teased. It was like that with Piers Anthony's Incarnation of Immortality series. I felt odd picking that up, as if I were trying to get away with being cheeky or naughty. Cerebus looked adult in that way that would embarrass me if my mom saw me buying it. So I didn't pick it up. Also, it was well into its 60th, 70th, or 80th issue (I don't remember exactly but it was pretty high up there already. I suppose it was being published for about 8 years by then with a year or two of those being bimonthly? So maybe around 80 or 90?). To me, all comic books were one continuous story. It was inconceivable to begin reading that far into the story. Not that I would have tried anyway; did you see that cover with that buxom woman in the chain mail bikini?! My mom would definitely ask me embarrassing questions!

Several years later, at a different comic book shop in Saratoga (possibly one of the ones I was picking up Magic the Gathering cards at), I saw Swords of Cerebus. It was Cerebus but collected in one book and starting at the beginning! And I had stopped caring what mother thought about what I was reading! I believe I purchased the first three Swords of Cerebus collections and fell in love with it. It was hilarious and fun and it was spoofing Conan, books which I had been reading without fear of embarrassment for years. Probably because the covers had skeletons and fighting on the cover and not Conan ravishing topless women.

Begin Digression: I got into He-Man and the Masters of the Universe because I saw a Skeletor figure in the toy department at Mervyn's with my grandmother. It reminded me of the cover of one of the Conan books I'd been reading at the time.

I wanted to say it was Conan of Cimmeria but then I looked it up online and discovered this was the cover of the version I read. Not the one that reminded me of Skeletor!

It's possible Skeletor just reminded me of a scene in Conan of Cimmeria with a skeleton on a throne that maybe he had to battle. Or it was just another of the books. Anyway, I begged her to buy Skeletor for me and she did and I played with just Skeletor for I don't know how long. This was before the cartoon even existed. Believe it or not, the figures did come first!

End Digression.

Not long after I purchased those Cerebus books, I discovered the huge Cerebus phone books. I don't know exactly when Dave Sim began publishing those but I believe a few were already available when I discovered them. I just happened to stumble upon his initial try at compiling his stories (Swords of Cerebus) first. At that point, it was over. I bought all that I could find and finally began reading the Cerebus monthly issues. It was some point during the "Mothers & Daughters" saga. If I had begun at "Melmoth," I'm not sure I would have continued with it! But will get to that eventually!

For now, let's remember how the whole thing began.

One dollar. Can you believe it?!

This is Cerebus before he loses his helmet, his necklace, and 2/3 of his nose. You know how people sometimes have some major body changes or their heads kind of reshape as they age? I figure this is late teenage Cerebus who matures across the next twenty or so issues until he finally assumes his adult form. That's the in-continuity reason for his appearance change. I know the real reason is that Dave Sim refined his style while gaining valuable experience and practice over time. I don't remember when it happens but at some point Cerebus goes from looking like a slightly amateurish independent comic book to a gorgeous, expressive, Gerhard-backgrounded beauty of a book. Elfquest didn't go through nearly the same dramatic difference in its twenty issues. I guess when you've got three hundred issues to write, you have to get started before you're really ready. Unlike Wendy Pini who was all, "I only have to do twenty of these?! Let me get in some practice first! I don't want Cutter looking like a completely different character a third of the way through the story!"

I'm not saying there aren't obvious aesthetic differences between the elves in Issue #1 and the elves in Issue #20! I'm just saying those differences are way less dramatic!

The original Issue #1 came out at the end of 1977. I think these first issues were published every other month. According to a note from Sim's wife at the time, Deni Loubert, Cerebus came about as a logo for Aardvark-Vanaheim Press. And it was meant to be Cerberus but she spelled it wrong and also I guess Dave Sim couldn't draw a three-headed dog so he drew an Earth pig. I don't know. I'm doing a synopsis of the "Note from the Publisher" on the inside front cover which is just about as long as my synopsis and totally different. Because I have a habit of explaining things poorly, partially because I'm dumb and even more partially because I think it's funny. If you want the truth, get off the Internet and go fucking meditate.

This biweekly issue also includes the introductory essay to the first Swords of Cerebus compilation written in 1981. Dave Sim also explains the origins of Cerebus, more accurately than I did although nowhere near as succinctly.

You don't have to read all that. I just wanted to show you how much Dave Sim had to write to get across the same idea that his then wife took a few small paragraphs to say. This theme will reappear later (much later, thankfully. I'll have my work cut out for me then).

As you can see by having not read that previous essay, Dave also explains his process. If you're interested, go ahead and maximize your browser so you can read the essay. If you're not interested, I won't bore you with another shitty synopsis.

The issue begins with a narrator explaining Cerebus's arrival on the scene. Not an omniscient narrator. It's the voice of just some jerk in the city who was all, "That weird little guy who arrived at dawn? He'd be remembered as the finest warrior even though he was short and deformed." I like to believe that the person telling the story is Techot Thal, the guy who gets his hand cut off by Cerebus on the next page (the narrator talks about Techot in the third person but Cerebus does that with himself as well, so why can't Techot be telling the tale?). He probably begs for gold crowns outside of the local tavern and when somebody asks him about his hand, he begins the story of Cerebus. He probably tells all three hundred issues of the story. Unless he's telling it to a woman and then she walks off disgusted around Issue #186.

The first page tells the potential buyer everything they need to know about the comic book they're about to read: whimsical with pretty accurate depictions of horses.

Cerebus has come to town to do a Conan parody. Remember the part of the first Conan movie where they raid the tower and kill a giant serpent and steal a jewel or something? That's pretty much the plot of this issue. I'm not saying Oliver Stone and John Milius stole the story from Cerebus! It was just easier to say, "Hey, remember that scene in that movie that came out after this comic book?" I figure more people will identify with that than if I'd said, "Remember that Conan story by Robert E. Howard that you probably read when you were a twelve year old nerd who couldn't find anybody to play Dungeons & Dragons with them? Oh wait. I bet a lot of you would have identified with that too! I shouldn't be so quick to assume shit.

Cerebus teams up with some thieves to raid a wizard's tower to steal the Flame Jewel. They've got it all planned but Cerebus is less a patient strategist and more a Leroy Jenkins kind of aardvark. He rushes into the tower heedlessly. Maybe his plan is to get his comrades killed so there's more Flame Jewel for Cerebus.

Do we ever find out who Clovis is and how many body parts he has?

Cerebus and his comrades are attacked by a shadow monster on their way into the tower. It's the first real example of Cerebus's skill with a sword as he defeats the monster. But it also shows that he's not overly powerful, and that he just barely wins the battle. He is vulnerable but strong willed and skillful! There remains doubt as to whether Cerebus can succeed at this mission! Also, it's just the first issue. It's not like the reader knew the story was going to go for 300 issues yet. It was possible, picking this strange new comic up off the shelf, Dave Sim would have realized how much work it was by the end of it and just let Cerebus die on the last page.

The wizard gets the first mention of Tarim (also his incantation earlier mentions "Terim" (which might be important later?)).

As of now, you'd think Cerebus worshiped somebody named Clovis and the humans worshiped somebody named Tarim. But we'll see later that Cerebus is into Tarim too. And maybe Clovis is just some hero myth of the barbarians?

Next, Cerebus is attacked by an animated skeleton! They fight in a pitch back corridor because Dave Sim had yet to partner with Gerhard and drawing backgrounds is probably boring and/or time consuming.

After defeating the skeleton and a ceiling of hallucinogenic petunias dropped on them, Cerebus's companions suggest they flee the tower. But Cerebus forces them to go on, seeing as they promised him a pouch of gold for helping them get the Flame Jewel. What a shrewd negotiator! Even if the Flame Jewel winds up being a cheap knock-off or legend (which it totally will be!), Cerebus still gets paid!

Eventually, Cerebus encounters the wizard and his pet dragon (which I misremembered as a giant snake. Eh, it's similar enough to the Conan story!). Cerebus realizes the dragon is an illusion and closes his eyes as he approaches the wizard. He's all, "I'm just going to keep walking forward swinging my sword like this and if some dumb wizard just happens to get in my way, it's not my fault if he loses his spleen!" Cerebus, ignoring the beast so that the beast must ignore him, marches up to the wizard and kills him. He sure does understand magic!

The thieves pay Cerebus after which Cerebus is all, "You guys should check out the Flame Jewel now! And also remember this old aardvark saying, 'No takesies backsies.'"

Ho ho! What a twist! What a wise aardvarkian warrior! What a realistic looking horse!

Cerebus rides off into the sunset leaving the thieves to declare their hatred for aardvarks. Because even thieves in fantasy novels only consider white men as individuals. Everybody else simply represents their entire race. Unless they do something kind or good or smart. That's when they declare them an anomaly.

At the end of the issue are the "Aardvark Comments," the letters pages. I will be reading and discussing these to some degree since so much of the controversy that Dave Sim eventually had to deal with began life in this section. But that's a topic for another time, something like 185 issues from now.

Here's another bit at the end of the Biweekly edition of Cerebus: The Single Page.

Another reason to love Dave Sim's independent spirit and artistic ethos.

Dave Sim had no need to put other people's work in the back of the Cerebus Biweekly to fill space or to sell issues. He did it simply to support other independent artists. How many mainstream companies would simply use this as an excuse to get people to send them free art just so they could see it in print? Sim is offering artists $150.00 for their efforts. Seems like a pretty generous offer for what basically amounts to exposure. In his later years, he might let his perception of reality as a conflict between men and women ultimately shape his spirituality and the way he read The Bible and The Quran (I mean, the scripture depicts two voices of God, a bad female one and a good male one? Come on, Dave! Hoo boy!) but he was always true to his independent publishing beliefs.

Cerebus #1 Rating: B. A solid B effort here at the outset. I can't begin by giving this issue an A knowing how fucking terrific this thing gets not too far down the line. Besides, it doesn't deserve more than a solid B. The art tells the story of a better than amateur but not quite yet nailing it artist developing his style. The story isn't much more than a Conan fanfic rip with a talking animal shoved into the lead. It's got a few moments where the wit really shines and you can see shadows of Sim's really clever writing. And I don't mean to suggest the art is in any way bad; he's got some terrific panels and creatures in this thing. It's just it gets so much better! And the lettering! Come on! I never comment on letterers but Sim, having complete control of his story telling, knows exactly how to visualize the dialogue and sound effects. This isn't the kind of comic book where you think, "I have to read #2!" Mostly because it's a complete story in itself. But it is the type that will make you remember it when you see #2 on the shelf causing you to automatically pick it up.

No comments:

Post a Comment