Saturday, July 4, 2020

Cerebus #2

Is this the one where Cerebus becomes so obsessed with feeding coins into this devil thing to receive slips of paper with his future on them that he becomes unable to make any decisions at all?

Deni's essay on the inside cover of Issue #2 mostly just points out that comic books are weird and dumb and the fans are huge nerds. She ends it saying, "Comics is a crazy business, but you know something? I wouldn't want to be anyplace else. That is if I had a choice." Six years later, her choice was to get the fuck out of her marriage with Dave Sim. Although she still published comics at her new company Renegade Press. I'm not sure what she did after she closed up shop on that sometime around 1989, I think. Maybe she realized she did have a choice and somehow got the fuck away from comic books. I am not frantically trying to find her phone number on the Internet right now asking her how she did it. I'm too busy re-reading all of my old comic books, most of which I didn't even like the first time.

Dave Sim's essay about Cerebus #2 printed in the Swords of Cerebus compilation is a bloodcurdling breath of honesty. Unless I meant refreshing? Is refreshing or bloodcurdling the description used to entice people to buy gum?

You should probably figure out how to enlarge this on whatever crutch of a device you're reading this on so that you can read it because it's entertaining.

As a reader, you instinctively realize that most artists hate drawing the boring stuff in the background. Those that fill the scene in with lots of nice little details are probably a joy to work with but they're also probably insane when you realize the deadlines they're under and they can't help drawing a fiddly little tea service on an antique hutch next to a couple of exotic potted plants. You know, things that will probably need to be drawn repeatedly across several panels from different angles! But what I hadn't really thought about was how the writer part of Dave Sim was initially so lazy about writing humorous stories and dialogue. When I think of Cerebus, it's the funny moments and hilarious character interactions which I think of first. Or maybe second. The first thing I think of is Sandman Roach sucking himself off with his weird Sandman mask.

I guess the main thing I learned from Sim's introduction is that I'm not going to be reading a funny issue now. Not that the first issue was terribly funny. It was much like Sim writes in this one, really. The comedy comes across in the first few pages as the readers yuck it up over a tough aardvark chopping off hands and threatening bartenders (the bartender's line where he changes up his "I won't serve you. You're a...guest! And I serve guests at their table" was probably the best line of the first issue). The rest is so solidly Conan invading a wizard's tower that you're not expecting any jokes. Although Sim tries to lighten the mood by making the wizard a bit of a bumbling, aging middle-management type who just seems tired of having his work space invaded by thieves.

The narrator opens this issue describing some of Cerebus's travels since the end of the last issue. In that blurb, we get the first hints of the geography of Estarcion.

At some point, we'll get a map. But it won't matter much since most of issues 26-110 or so take place in the city-state of Iest (hell, maybe 90% of Cerebus takes place in Iest up until Guys).

Do we ever find out any more about the Blood Wars? I don't think so. Remember, a lot of the early issues are setting a sword and sorcery mood. Sim will revisit some of the characters and places in these first 25 issues but only sparingly and usually in new contexts, thus making the overall story seem more layered and fully fleshed out than it initially was.

The first issue set the mood with Cerebus bouncing around on the back of a horse as he pulled into town; this one sets a slightly different tone.

Notice how Cerebus has two swords in this picture? I think Dave remembers that at some point in the future and comments (either through The Judge or through Sim's guest appearance itself) on how Cerebus losing one messes up his future or something. It's also possible I'm remembering that wrong! But I'm pretty sure we get a short history of Cerebus's accessories and their import (his helmet, the necklace, his swords).

Cerebus is captured by the Boreleans who decide to sell him to a freak show in Gurann. I don't know where Gurann is. I also don't know where Borelea is. Or Tansubal. Or Estarcion. In response to the Chieftain's plans, Cerebus curses him in Paranian. I also don't know where Parania is. Cerebus's curse is "Comne ye tama stet fegria!" It translates roughly to "You can shove the freak show up your asshole." What I'm saying is that we all now sort of know the Paranian word for asshole. It's probably "fegria."

Doing a Google search of the word "fegria" and "cerebus" resulted in a blog from 2017 which planned to do a critical review of every issue of Cerebus. It made it three issues. But in glancing over the blog, I noticed a quote that was footnoted as being by Tim Kreider in an essay from The Comic Journal #301. I fucking love Tim Kreider and now I need to get my hands on that issue. Anybody have a copy they want to send me?!

Before Dave Sim gets to the part of the story without any jokes, he makes this classic joke when Cerebus battles to prove himself worthy of joining the Boreleans.

Ha ha! Look at how funny the little aardvark guy looks!

Two issues in and we already see how Dave is using the fantasy setting to satire real life. Previously, he showed how easily the powerful, entrenched wizard was defeated because he was just a blowhard hiding behind illusions which made him seem more powerful than he really was. Here, we see a couple of guys quickly reworking sacred traditions on the fly to cater to their current needs. Maybe they're just jokes but they tell the story of who this young Dave Sim probably was: an atheist with a mistrust of authority, status quo, and almost certainly mainstream comic book publishers. Just wait until that young Dave Sim suddenly isn't atheist any more and has decided he's the authority of everything! Boy do those issues suck dog turds that were turded out of dogs who sucked on dog turds. I'm specifically thinking about the Latter Days explication of Genesis as a story about a lying female god's power struggle with the real, upright male God. At least I think that's what was happening. I might have slept through 85% of time I was reading it.

Cerebus wins the knife fight with an unorthodox yet apparently known well enough to be dreaded Earth Pig move.

So dreaded that I don't think Cerebus ever uses it again. Granted, his snout gets much shorter and less effective as the series goes on.

I'm sorry I scanned that panel because the really good joke comes immediately on the next page where the Chieftain is all, "You're from the South so you probably have a moral code against killing an unarmed combatant which means sacred tradition will..." at which point he's interrupted by Cerebus stabbing Klog in the face. Cerebus's moral and ethical code are pretty animalistic. Probably because he's an animal? Although you can't argue with some of his wisdom when he becomes Pope. I mean, "One less mouth to feed is one less mouth to feed," is some thoughtful shit, especially after you've just thrown a baby fifty yards.

Cerebus spends two days marching with the Boreleans before the army is overrun by an army of ensorcelled men. Cerebus understands magic enough to completely mistrust it so instead of fighting, he slides down a snowy cliff to escape. That was the part of the story where Dave Sim's writing persona was all, "I can't be funny any more. Let's put Cerebus in a hole where he has to deal with something serious." So now it's basically a new story. If I remember the Conan books I read when I was younger, the narrative structure isn't too far off from those. The books just seemed like a bunch of scenes that didn't really have any plot thread connecting them. Probably because they were just a bunch of short stories from pulp magazines shoved together in book form. What? You expect me to actually do research on a memory from my past instead of just speculating?! How not lazy do you think I am?!

As Cerebus wanders the dark caves under the ice, he remembers an old legend about The Eye of Terim guarded by the Demon Khem lying underground in Borelea. Could this be the place?! Could he be walking into deadly danger? Or extravagant riches?! Did Dave Sim forget that Tarim was spelled with an "a" which birthed Terim later because he wouldn't admit to a mistake? Did this duality of Tarim and Terim cause him to believe the religions of The People of the Book were infected with the same duality? And when did he decide the split was down gender lines?!

That last question was a rhetorical question but also one that can be answered: he made that decision when he was interviewing mothers and daughters for his story "Mothers & Daughters." At that time, he realized women he didn't want to fuck were vapid and uninteresting. His conclusion was that this was an issue with women and not an issue of self. I guess his reasoning was "I don't want to fuck men but I find them interesting therefore women must not be interesting!" Don't worry! According to Dave, that's not a sexist conclusion. It's a completely rational one because he's a man and he came to it.

Cerebus climbing down a pillar of faces, descending deep into the Earth. Later, he'll do the exact opposite. I don't mean to suggest it means anything! It's just a nice callforward!

This is only the second issue and Dave is already using the comic medium for all its worth. The pillar remains static so he's able to split the image into panels which then allocate separate time intervals. You can tell he's a long time fan of comics.

We learn that the Eye of Terim is the "most precious of the five spheres of the Gods." So now we know there are five spheres of the Gods. What are they for? Where are they? Will Cerebus pursue more of them? Or will he just be told about them later when he goes into outer space? Probably that last one.

Cerebus does utter an oath to Tarim so Dave probably finally remembered how he originally spelled it but only after inking the previous pages. Remember the essay from last issue that you didn't read? He described his process of fully completing each page before moving on to the next one. So now he's got a problem! The better solution would probably be to fix the previous errors. But that's a solution that takes more work. An easier solution is to suddenly decide that there are two confusing Gods with pretty much the same name only they're pronounced differently. How are they pronounced? I don't fucking know. Comic books aren't audio!

Look, I'm a cynical dick! It's entirely possible that Dave Sim had already decided that Terim was the name of God in the North and Tarim was the name of God in the South and that was what caused so much strife. I could give Dave the benefit of the doubt on this. I suppose I will although it's less fun to believe Dave knew what he was doing than to pretend he's made tons of stupid mistakes.

It turns out the Eye of Terim was actually a succubus trying to trap prey.

Maybe Dave Sim is a genius who, from Issue #2, was already working toward his "Mothers & Daughters" themes and his Tangent essay! Here we see a woman lying in wait to steal Cerebus's soul and tempt him from his righteous path of reason! I'd say this is technically the first female character in Cerebus and it's kind of ideologically on point with the rest of the series!

Also, we learn aardvarks don't have souls. I think that's the really important bit.

I can't leave this bit yet! Look at how the encounter is worded: "For the first time in centuries a prey has broken the succubus' spell -- has seen it in its original form." It's as if Dave is saying, "See? I'm the first guy to have noticed that these hot women aren't just hot women! They're traps! I mean Cerebus was the first to see it!" And as the succubus becomes unable to destroy Cerebus's mind and reason and rationality, it becomes desperate. It becomes emotional! It screams and rants and raves!

Wow. I didn't think I'd have to deal with Dave Sim's philosophy about the Marxist/feminist/homosexual axis for at least another hundred and fifty issues! Maybe I should just pretend I'm reading too deeply into what's basically a Dungeons & Dragons encounter.

Cerebus tumbles in the dark and awakens lying in the snow next to the Eye of Terim, now just a plain iron sphere. He notices he's amid the dead of the battle and realizes the ensorcelled men were victims of the succubus who have now been freed. I guess the succubus died when it tried to suck the soul of a soulless creature*.

*Necromancer's Compendium. Page 63.

Maybe this story was how Dave Sim eventually saw his magnum opus: he was Cerebus trying to free the minds of all the other men who were ensorcelled by women! You might not agree with his message but if he had it since Issue #2 and continued on to Issue #300, you can probably maybe say at least one small, positive word about his sticktoitiveness. That's a hard word to spell. I'm going to write and draw three hundred issues of a comic book about how difficult it was to spell that and then the trauma of knowing it was spelled right but Spellcheck insisting that it's not.

I'm reading the bi-weekly version of Issue #2 so along with the Aardvark Comment letters page is this note from Dave:

So even when he was an atheist, he had the guilt of a religious person.

In one of Dave Sim's fake letters, he brings up how the plot of Issue #1 was quite similar to Robert E. Howard's Conan story, "Tower of the Elephant." So Dave Sim uses a fake name to call himself out on borrowing bits of a previous story? He also answers the accusation by saying, "Yeah, I read it a long time ago so I guess some of that stuff stuck in my head." I guess this is something Dave and I have in common: we often have lengthy conversations with pretend people about our flaws.

Dave also asks himself why Cerebus always swears by Clovis. Apparently that was the pen name of his wife Deni's brother. Mystery solved! Hopefully in a future letter, Dave will explain why he has Terim and Tarim!

Cerebus #2 Rating: B. Another solid B in that the art is still that of a somewhat better than amateur artist and the writing is consistent enough to be memorable in places and not Ann Nocenti confusing in all the others. Grade B praise indeed! My main feeling when rereading the early Cerebus stories from the first 25 issues is that I'm eagerly anticipating "High Society" and the introduction of The Regency Elf. I also look forward to the day Gerhard arrives and the backgrounds become gorgeous works of almost certainly intense labor.

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