Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Smart “Dumb” Comic or Putting Out A Fire … With Gasoline!: Benjamin Marra’s Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror)

Cartoonist: Benjamin Marra
Publisher: Fantagraphics
 
KEITH SILVA: There are comics and there is Benjamin Marra’s Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror).

Think of an off-brand Regan-era actioner too big for Kurt Thomas and too small for Michael Dudikoff. Imagine it’s directed by the non-union Panamanian equivalent of Joseph Zito. Now add to this make-believe midnight movie with its sure-to-be-astronomical body count, novelty deaths, leaden one-liners, and ka-rah-tee with the most hardcore pan-sexual sex like … ever. Whatever such a movie would look like comes close to what’s in the pages of Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror).

The story goes George W. Bush orders the formation of a top secret team of Foreign Service agents as a big ol’ ‘Merican FUCK YOU!!! after 9/11. These ‘Terror Assualtors’ hold licenses to kill and one mission: defeat terror (4EVA). One agent, codename: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) takes this mission to the EXTREME because … why do you hate America so much?

Perhaps, big, dumb, and full of cum acts as a better description of this comic. Such critical shorthand gets at its inherent crudeness, but lacks the satirical charm, artfulness, and subtlety of something so indulgently indulgent and so blatantly blatant. Marra wants to honor the silly extremes of 80s action movies and hardcore porn and dumb it way down so it becomes whatever the reader wants to see: political parody, sexual satire, or so mundane and so geeky as to question the fundamental show-and-tell binary of comics.

So dumb. So smart.          

Marra’s fellow Fantagraphics stablemate and friend Dash Shaw often talks about the “dumbness” of a line. It’s a philosophical approach to cartooning that attempts to inform the reader through a lack of affect. Shaw says, “so much of illustrative drawing is about showing you what something is and simultaneously telling you how to think or feel about that thing. What the dumb line does, I think, is completely remove that from the equation. Everything is drawn with the same even-ness, or thickness, or lack of nuance … and finally you’re allowed to think for yourself! Finally there’s room for conflicting thoughts and feelings.”

The world of Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is nothing but a collection of cubes in the guise of buildings, everything looks like a facade. Dumb. Cars look like tissue boxes with wheels and the difference between a desk, a video camera, a pack of cigarettes, and a bed is slight. The design of the characters maintains Marra’s distinct hip pinball machine art as drawn by underground comix legends like Art Spiegelman or Bryan Talbot. But the character’s movements are stiff and stolid as if Marra has never seen how human bodies move except in the pictograms of Airline safety cards. Dumb. The exception is when his characters take off their clothes: Marra’s men have six pack abs, long veiny hardons, and bulging scrotums that look like they’re smuggling cue balls in there. The women retain a constant 36-25-40 body shape with nipples that look like they could cut clear through adamantium. Even in the throes of the zesty enterprise of sex, the motion remains stiff, but the sex is “hawt” regardless of who’s zooming who. Even at his nadir of his career Steven Seagal was never asked to fuck a dude while jerking him off and crash land a jumbo jet (well, at least half of one) at the same time. Dumb.

It’s hard on the reader to take anything in Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) with any scrap of seriousness. Harder still is to avoid reading into the extreme situations of terrorism: hijacking, an invasion of the US and the war on drugs. It’s satire, sure, but what’s Marra’s point? With his blond hair, aviator sunglasses, John McClane-badassery and John Holmes’s sexual prowess, special agent O.M.W.O.T. is one cool customer. Isn’t he also a walking piss-take of American jingoism, fear-mongering and ignorance, not to mention a big cock in every way. If this comic fell out of the sky into the Afghan badlands or the mountains of Changang like some Coca-Cola bottle would it be taken as truth? Of America’s depravity and lack of morals? Is this the real ‘dumbness’ of this comic? Or should readers sit back in their red ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, tuck into a cheeseburger, chase it with a Budweiser with a tube of lube within arm’s reach and just enjoy the thrill of it all?               

DANIEL ELKIN: You’re asking leading questions again, Silva, pushing prosecutorial procedures out the emergency exit as this Airbus A380 is stuck circling the skies gobbling up fuel in order to make an emergency landing in the parking lot of some abandoned manufacturing plant in Detroit.

These are hard times. Don’t make me go tit-for-tat. I don’t have that kind of stamina and my one-liners are divided into two.

But hard times deserve hard commentary and slick Swiftian satire, right? And it appears O.M.W.O.T. fits the bill of fare here in this pre-apocalyptic hash house serving, as it does, crude crudités, moist meatballs, and a thick apple pie with a slab of cheddar stuck in it like a caseiculture hammer. There’s a jukebox in the back corner stocked with the entire discography of both Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Every waitress is named Blanche and they all have an ax to grind about Syrian refugees.

Sweet gibbering gobstopper, it sure does take a thick stomach full of hot bile to macerate what Marra is cooking, doesn’t it? But we breed them big here in America. I mean, it unquestionably takes a capacious, dumb mouth to ingurgitate and bloviate simultaneously. Thank goodness we have a 24 hour news cycle to provide us with role models in that game.

Now I’m hungry. I think I need a ham sandwich.

Mmmmmmmm…...

Finally full of meat, I’m starting to second guess my chuck wagon metaphor. Maybe, instead, O.M.W.O.T is all about big hands? You know, the ones we use to grab our cocks and our guns and our cash at the same time as we throat punch perceived threats, jam thumbs in the eyes of those less fortunate, cover the mouths of those who disagree, and give the finger to the calm voice of reason? The ones that hold flimsy signs scrawled with misspelled hate in front of federal buildings? The ones that violently pull the lever on the voting machine to cast ballots out of blind frustration and against self-interest?

Benjamin Marra creates a book for the reptilian brain that explodes from within and without, whose shock waves push you back into your couch covered in Funyun(™) crumbs and Coors. It throws you out in the cold without your jacket because you have something to say. It complains about how inconvenient it is desperate, voiceless people have blocked your way to the mall with their protests. It whines about how much your city smells like urine in the summer because all those dirty children are living in tents under the overpass.

Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is crude and over-the-top. It’s rude and uncomfortable.  It’s thoroughly inappropriate and bat-shit bonkers. And it is of and for our times. Or at least until the Iowa Caucus.

SILVA: So, it’s all politics then or at least political satire and that’s it? One big cock-and-bull-story about America’s (current?) obsession with vengeance and eye-for-eye diplomacy in post-9/11 Dick-Cheney- America? Thanks Obama!

Bullshit.

Marra is better, smarter (and dumber) than you are giving him credit for and so are the publishers of  American independent comics! And yes, Elkin, even a West coast lefty like you with your liberal leanin’s and not so nonchalant references to sandwich fixin’s must be able to see through the superficial scrim of political satire here? Call this Elkin-baiting, but your refusal to engage this comic on any other level than as political satire reads like some mealy-mouthed millennial … yes, millennial ... agog at the senseless violence and gratuitous sex, yet mindful (desperately so) of the instant credibility that having Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) on their bookshelves brings them while they’re drinking Headys with their fellow douchebag friends, all of whom lack the intestinal fortitude to make a fucking point or decision and stand by it. You’re a gotdamn American Jew, Elkin. Good Christ, you were raised in Texas! And you’re nearly forty-nine, act like it!

Let  me put it in a way a leather-patches-on-the-elbows-intellectual-counterculturalist like you understands: go further. Get on Furthur, tell Neal the ball the jack and thrill us with your acumen of how Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) functions as, you know, a comic. Critique, my friend, critique.

Sing of Marra’s use of dialogue in this political football you want to punt around. Why does nearly every line describe its corresponding elements in the panel? Example: when O.M.W.O.T shoots the guns out of the hands of an assailant, said assailant says, “What? “You shot the guns out of my hands,” this panel of the disarmed assailant accompanies two “ptang” sound effects, one for each gun, don’t you know. Or when a bedroom door explodes into the room, O.M.W.O.T says, “The door exploded inward,” a big “Boom!” complements the action, natch. Or how about when our hero visits an “internet company” in “the business district, Des Moines,” in the disguise of an investor no less, he ends up having a conference room quickie with the company’s Vice President and says, “I’m just spraying your ass with semen.” The Vice-President responds, “Can you see my body shaking as I orgasm?” There are wavy lines around both the ass shaking and semen spraying to bolster the image in the panel of … well you get the picture. And why is such racy and redundant dialogue sans any exclamation points whatsoever? Why so serious?

So sell your weak tea political insights somewhere else, Elkin, we’re all stocked up here.                       

ELKIN: Everything is about politics, Silva. Even sandwiches.

Satire is as satire does, brother, and if it happens to be your sacred cow that is being skewered, you’re the bigger man by doubling down on your order of keeeeebobs. Marra is comic booking here so hamfistedly because that’s the only way to hold on to something so juicy. We live in knee-bent, post-ironic times that demand this type of ridiculously excessive creating in order for you to “get it,” brother.

Get it?

Perhaps your genteel, old-school, pinky-raised, musty, East coast, well-to-do sensibilities prohibit you from rolling in the mud to better understand the swine, Silva, but there’s a world out there that is grokking everything from a place of fear and unease, ganking up the herpetological synapses, and fight-or-flighting all of its reactionary decisions.

Just look at the latest gun sale statistics. I’ll show you the life of the mind.

But you’re right, let’s not limit ourselves to just politics as it will only leave us insatiate. For you, I’ll put on my brown corduroy smoking jacket, pour myself a thick snifter full of a tawny aperitif, and reflexively stroke my goatee (not a euphemism).  You want critique? I’ll give you critique.

Perhaps, and I think this is where you want to go, O.M.W.O.T. is also a comic book about comic books, reveling as it does in hypersexuality, coursing with a banal attitude towards gratuitous violence, and turning on bonkers plot points all while keeping its character development flat and one-dimensional.

You know, for kids!

I’ll admit to having taste when it comes to my comics. I prefer the books I choose to work in the gray areas between clear cut good and evil morality, featuring characters that embrace and examine the dilemmas they face without punching them in the throat. My snobbery even extends to fashion choices. The moment a character decides that the best way to deal with obstacles or predicaments is to put on a cape, I quickly lose interest.

But I get it. I get the appeal of superhero books in the same way I understand why the fairgrounds are packed when the monster trucks come to town, or why a 10 second video of someone getting hit in the balls with a hammer goes viral. Simple is easy and we like to take it easy. There is a clean pleasure in loosening our load and lightening up while we still can. Given the choice between a Twinkie™  and kale, we’ll err on the side of the sweet. But such a steady diet does destroy, so they say. Or, in the case of someone like Dan White for example, it makes us mean and homicidal.  

I’m going to be the bold one in this conversation and say that corporate comic book publishers are the Hostess Snack Cake factories of the entertainment industrial complex, producing sweet treats that are good to eat but which eventually will make you fat, lazy, and stupid. We all know it, yet we keep on buying them in armloads.

(“Bullshit! We do NOT make B pictures here at Capitol.”)

Marra is deliberately playing to the expectation game with O.M.W.O.T. -- there’s a preconceived notion of what comics “are” --  that’s what this dialogue describing “its corresponding image and sound effect” kerfuffle is fluffing. That’s what every twist and turn of his style, layout, and pacing is pinging off of. There is a deliberateness to the dumbness; it’s in service of excacerbating our mastebatory urge to gorge ourselves on that which will soften us.

Sometimes you gotta shine the light in people’s eyes in order to get them to see.

So call O.M.W.O.T. political satire or social satire or even some kind of Wallace Beery wrestling picture, but it’s critique all the way through in both style and substance and every breakdown I make of this book  is only going to have me dancing to that boogaloo and shing-a-ling, pal.

Show me how I’m wrong and I’ll buy you a truckload of Ding Dongs™ and Ho Hos™.

SILVA: Wrong? No. What we are both circling around here, like two alley cats with too much damn education, is familiar ground: risk. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Risk. Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is not safe for work, it’s not safe for Starbucks™ and it’s certainly not something you want to leave lying around the house for your partner to find unless you consider comics foreplay in which case this fits the bill.

A playful streak runs through Marra’s work like Route 66 cuts across the fable of America. Seriously, this is a cartoonist who did a U.S. Agent story for the teacher-has-left-the-classroom-indie-cartoonists-run -Marvel Comics jam, Strange Tales. Marra’s comics are always a kick. And as is always the case with great art they are as subversive as fuck. The joy -- or dumbness to circle back around to the beginning -- with a comic like this is how the reader chooses to engage with it. Read at one level it’s a bonkers story with gobs and gobs of gratuitous sex and violence. Read another way it turns into a parody of the most vapid 80s action movies and hardcore porn. Or it’s a political/social satire and on and on. And yes, for nerds like me, it’s a statement on how too many comics are grossly overwritten and pay zero respect to the motherfucking point of Comics in the first place.

Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is a John 3:16 kind of comic. Marra loves comics and so he sent O.M.W.O.T. Here’s hoping we don’t fuck it up. Seriously, what could happen?

***

Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T (One Man War On Terror) is available from Fantagraphics. For all other dumb Marra stuff visit www.benjaminmarra.com.

Daniel Elkin is Your Chicken Enemy. And there's always @DanielElkin for more dumb ideas about sandwiches, leftwing political drivel and comics.    

 
 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Cartoonist As Insurgent: Charles Forsman's Revenger ... Is Trapped (1-shot)

Cartoonist: Charles Forsman
Publisher: Oily  

Charles Forsman's Revenger … Is Trapped courts illicitness. Think less criminal and more like an eleven-year-old boy finding a Cheri or Club International, waterlogged and with the covers torn off, in an empty lot or on the side of the road. Looking isn't optional. You want to look. You have to look.

Revenger … Is Trapped is the latest in Forsman’s on-going ultra-ultra-violent action comic about, as Forsman puts it on his Patreon homepage, ''a woman in an alternative 1980s USA that roams the land helping the beaten-down and exploited even the score against their oppressors. Think of it like the Incredible Hulk TV show from the 70s with a lot more blood.'' Any Bixby-esque do-gooder-ism on display in the previous issues is out the window with this 1-shot. Revenger … Is Trapped? More like: Revenger REVENGE thyself!

The story beats will feel familiar for those unfortunate souls nursed on 80s actioners from George Cosmatos and John Carpenter—slick yet raggedy American movies with a piquant finish of European sensitivity. Revenger requires no hand-holding, no whys or what-have-yous. Everything the reader needs to know is in the title. Simple. Shrewd. Forsman balls the jack and goes. Revenger … Is Trapped relies on the muscle memory of action movies and other sources of empty calories like side-scrolling video games, Dungeons & Dragons and (yes) comics—old school Comico titles like Mage, Elementals or Evangeline—verboten stuff. Forsman cops subversion, foments, he is the cartoonist as insurgent. Like Carpenter, Forsman gives readers what they want then EL SMACKO! the sobering morality of the moment sets in. Any play at pastiche is by design, a distraction, because when Forsman's subversion hits it hits … hard.

With apologies to Benjamin Marra, Revenger is a O.W.W.O.T. (One Woman War On Tormenters) and she represents Forsman's foremost subversion. She's not one of those classically beautiful scorned women, no Uma nor Glenn, no Thelma nor Louise. Black, scarred and with the back-half of the left-side of her head burned (?) so it looks like she lost a fight with a white hot harrow. Revenger sports a sleeveless top, gloves, ash grey jeans and boots, a no quarter-giving and no shit-taking badass. She looks like a weight lifter, muscular and meaty with thighs thick as tree trunks and arms like an old-timey bare-knuckle middleweight. Forsman draws Revenger as no bullshit. She looks the way a woman with a particular talent for face-punching and roundhouse kicks would and should look. Revenger is the ideal, not some idealized female form only a dude with an over-developed sense and yet (somehow) little understanding of human anatomical limits, an ink pot and an arrested intellect would call 'strong' and 'sexy' and somehow keep a straight face. Forsman may remember the thrill eleven-year-old boys get from discarded soft core porn mags, but Forsman ain't no eleven-year-old boy, he's a grown-ass man.

Forsman's what-you-see-is-what-you-get cartooning extends to his writing. After an ambush, Revenger gets put in a trunk, à la Oldboy, and thrown in an underground pit which branches off into a warren chockfull of wonders like a feral child, hillbillies, a bat-wielding blob and a tumoral seer, well, at least half of one. These circus freak-types are ugly and pitiful, but they are also obstacles in Revenger's way, so she beats them, brains them and rips off their limbs. The lack of punches pulled or limbs left in sockets thrills and disgusts in equal measure—comic book violence without the comic book.

Once Revenger does get topside her hero's journey is only half complete, she's still gotta' deal with a posse of punks with a penchant for pyramidal skull stacking and eyeball-frying. Thankfully this ugly bunch keeps a shed filled with firearms and a 'sharp' looking jacket best described as snikt-y. Forsman's cartooning in Revenger … Is Trapped has a rude, uncomplicated and unflattering edginess to it, if for no other reason than a story calling for harelips, goiters and bulging veiny arms should lack a sense of … romance. So when Forsman goes for the splashy shot of his buckled, booted and bladed heroine it becomes that much grander due to the starkness (ugliness) that precedes it, a perfect example of a cartoonist who understands comic books as a visual medium. And because this is a hyper-realized, over-the-top comic, Forsman punctuates this image of Revenger in full with words from and off panel assailant: ''There she is!'' Oh, yes. Oh, yes, indeed.

Forsman's escape from hillbilly prison plot is trite as are the bulgy-headed, trucker-cap wearing backwoods baddies who stand in Revenger's way. That's the point. Dumb clichés don't (have to) make action movies or comics dumb. Yes, Forsman succeeds in making a 'dumb' action story. And yeah, the local yokels aren't much more than stereotypical inbred straw men. How Forsman elevates Revenger from this morass of the dumbness is to show (not tell) how far a survivor, a killer, like Revenger will go to keep living and keep killing. The final page makes it clear what kind of code and set of morals define Revenger. There's no ambiguity in Revenger. She is Revenger, duh. There's also no doubt Forsman makes kick-ass action comics. What makes the difference is how Forsman gets in the reader's head and asks: what this kind of bloody good fun and chaotic morality says about the ugliness of the bloodthirsty mob that stares back.


For all things Revenger and Charles Forsman, visit revengerkills.com

Friday, December 18, 2015

Obsessions, Hard Truths and a Stuffed Aardvark

Originally published on Comics Bulletin, Jan. 2013

My wife says ''wrap the box in brown craft paper, there's some downstairs.'' This is not good news. I treat wrapping boxes or gifts like distance running; I can do it, physically, but it exhausts me and I use too much tape. Worse, the post office closes in an hour. I get to work.

In the time it takes me to cover the box with the stiff brown paper and keep the cheap tape from sticking to itself, I reflect on my current situation: I am thirty-nine-years-old and I am sending a forty-seven-year-old man a stuffed toy, a stuffed aardvark. To be exact, I'm shipping out the Earth-pig, Cerebus.
 
***
 
In an interview for Comics Bulletin, writer Joe Keatinge tells Jason Sacks a simple truth: writing takes time. Keatinge qualifies his truism further, saying, ''I just read all of Cerebus, and it's interesting that I found myself thinking, for the stories of that first trade, 'It's not very good.''' Sacks responds that it isn't until “High Society” (issue #26) that the series begins to take off and artist/writer Dave Sim's talent begins to blossom. Keatinge lists off the volumes of Cerebus he believes don't get enough credit like “Melmoth,” “Going Home,” and “Guys” and then there is this exchange:

Sacks: The thing is, he [Sim] never was afraid of taking chances with his own work. He produced books that were radically different than the ones before. I have all the 300 issue run, all the original books. I have a CGC certified Cerebus #1.

Keatinge: Wow, you're hard core.

Sacks: I'm hard core.

In my work as a TV journalist, hard cores like Sacks are my bread-and-butter. TV, like any performing art, requires big emotions, so, the hotter the fire, the more sleeve-worn emotions, the (way) better. Sacks's plain spoken, ”I'm hard core,” got me to think it's time to talk to this anthropomorphic aardvark enthusiast, myself.
 
 

I. ''He's an Asshole'' 

For the less hard core, the more clueless and the damn innocent: Cerebus is a three hundred issue comic book series created by Dave Sim. It ran from December,1977 until March, 2004. At its center is the titular aardvark, Cerebus. What begins as a note-for-note Conan parody evolves and becomes something far different. There is no corner of the human condition (aardvark condition?) Cerebus does not explore — the good, the bad and the ugly. As the issues (figuratively and literally) pile up, Cerebus became divisive, fans fell off and what was once a grand contraption went to seed, turned twisted and weird — the faithful (the hard core) were forced to question the series, Sim, and ultimately, themselves.

Like some stoner shamus trying to track down a nymphomaniac trophy wife, Cerebus is “a very complicated case, you know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous.” No less of a complicated case, Alan Moore (in a conversation that runs in Cerebus #217-220), writes, “Cerebus, as if I need to say so, is still to comic books what Hydrogen is to the Periodic Table, and is one of the only comics that I still read and enjoy regularly every month.” Moore read Cerebus… in singles.

Moore's hyperbole is spot on. Cerebus is that important to cartooning, comic books, and independent publishing. Any attempt to unpack the impact of this comic can devolve (fast) into the pedantic. At this point, yes, it's O.K. (and quite sane, in fact) to ask what in holy hell all this has to do with a talking aardvark.

So there's Cerebus and then there's Cerebus. Yeah? Dave Sim is Cerebus. Cerebus is not (necessarily) Dave Sim. Aardvark-wise, Sacks sums up Cerebus as, "an asshole. He's a jerk. Over and over, again and again, especially in 'High Society' and 'Church and State,' it's realy all about Cerebus's greed and how he wants everythin. Cerebus threatens to throw a baby off a roof if the people don't give him all their gold. He's the epitome of self-centered self-interest. 

To separate the art from the artist often ends in a fool's errand. Sim knows as much. Cerebus is black-and-white, but Cerebus is gray all over. Sim pours everything into this comic book, everything.

Sacks: ''I think it's at the very end of 'Mothers and Daughters' where Dave Sim himself talks to Cerebus, pokes him in the eye and says, basically, 'You're a selfish asshole who keeps bringing pain and sorrow onto himself, continually ruining his own destiny,' Sim essentially gives Cerebus a second chance, a chance to have a happier and calmer life.
So yeah, Cerebus the character is a collection of funny, interesting tics, but he does have some more depth to him too: he's able to love, he's able to have friends, he's able to try and improve his life, and Cerebus gets religious in the end of the series too. So, there is a level of complexity to him. In some ways he's not really your classic sort of lead character.
He's not really someone who you'd find admirable or positive or in any way someone who you'd look up to, I guess, but I think that's also an interesting concept. It feels contemporary in that way, in that we don't have to like the lead character. Part of it is about Cerebus making mistakes in his life and never quite realizing those mistakes until his last few years.''
Cerebus collects hard truths, difficult stories, and does what all art is supposed to do: challenge us to find out where we come from and who we are.

II. Origin Stories


Every hero has an origin story, and Sacks is no different. Before he found Cerebus, Sacks remembers a time when he brought a stack of Howard the Duck comics with him to visit some older cousins. ''The youngest is seven years older than me. They are sophisticated women who lived near Central Park and attended good schools. All three cousins were completely enraptured; they thought Howard the Duck was hysterical, which then gave me feedback: “O.K., this is the cool stuff to be into.'' If a cigar-chomping, jacket-tie-and-spats-wearing Duck was cool, then it's only a hop, skip and a jump to an aardvark who talks in the third person, brandishes a sword and is bent on nothing less than world domination.
 
 
Because it was independently published and distributed, Cerebus was not a comic that could be easily pick up on the spinner rack at the grocery store or pharmacy. Cerebus was no Howard the Duck. ''We lived in Reno, Nevada during my high school years, and occasionally we would go to Sacramento,'' says Sacks, ''In Sacramento there was a big open air mall called the K Street Mall, and in the K Street Mall was a store called Comics and Comix. That store was revolutionary really. We went there in 1979, '80, '81, when it was really hard to find obscure comics and they had all kinds of great material on their racks. So I picked up a couple of early issues of Cerebus, as well as other books like The Spirit by Will Eisner. Everyone who read Cerebus, at least in that era, has their origin story, their first issue; it's like your first girlfriend, almost. My first was #19, Cerebus meets Red Sophia, a parody of Frank Thorne's Red Sonja, and of course being a pre-semi-pubescent boy, a chesty girl in a chain mail bikini was very exciting.''
 
 
One measures fandom in time, space and commitment. Unlike Sacks, my first time with Cerebus does not involve a chain mail bikini. I probably got into Cerebus somewhere around #87 or #90; the details are scant. However, like a summer romance, my time with the Earth-pig was intense, swift, and memorable. My Cerebus collection clocks in around a baker's dozen. I own the 'High Society' phonebook and that's about it. For me, Cerebus is less nostalgia and more of a time capsule, a fingerpost towards adolescence. I am not nostalgic for Cerebus. I wouldn't say I'm a fan, either; call me a “curious observer,” at best. I've read less than 10% of this story and yet it fascinates me… why?

As non-fans are quick to point out, “fan” is short for “fanatic,” by which they mean crazy, so zealous, so caught up in their own mania(s) they are incapable of rational thought. Jason Sacks is not that kind of fan. Fandom comes in degrees, it's true, but even the ardent have thier limits, and the smart ones know where to direct their energies. For Sacks, Cerebus has been a lifetime, one of the highways he has traveled in his life, a thoroughfare that has led him to be the owner and publisher of Comics Bulletin.
 
 
Before he became a publisher (and a fan), Sacks had to earn his stripes and build his collection, ''I had my crappy jobs when I was 14, 15, 16 years old and I spent my money ordering back-issues from the Bud Plant catalogue, so I'd get stacks of issues, you know, at a buck a piece or whatever, and slowly started catching up more with Cerebus. I came in at the right time, because the first stack of issues I got from Bud Plant included the first chapters of 'High Society' which are still some of the funniest, most interesting comics ever, I mean they're just fantastic. And from there I was completely hooked because really all of 'High Society' is just one cliff-hanger after another, one amazing scene, one hilarious moment after another that just grabbed me.''

Over the course of an hour and a half, our conversation goes off on many tangents, everything from household chores to genius-recluses to the time each of us spent as disc jockeys at our college radio stations to oddball pet theories (all mine), but it always returns to The Regency, the fictional hotel that serves as the center point for the “High Society” story cycle. In its simplest form, “High Society” is a political satire told in twenty-five chapters which makes it sound stuffy and dull — it is neither.
 
 
One of the joys of Cerebus comes from Sim's ability to infuse the story with an almost improvisational style, a feel of immediacy that plays well even today. With apologies to Raymond Carver, I suppose that's what we talk about when we talk about storytelling in Cerebus. Each election season sends Sacks back to The Regency, he says, ''The awesome, but hilarious scenes at the convention when they're negotiating and everyone's making their speeches and they're hanging Elrod by his feet and lighting him on fire, to attack the people outside and then my favourite phrase ever in Cerebus: 'lower interest rates or death.' Sim's storytelling chops are breathtaking; I mean Sim really got to be an amazing cartoonist and then he continually improved his storytelling throughout his entire career. I think 'High Society' is probably the most relatable. 'Church and State' starts really nicely too; it's got that great couple of issues with Wolveroach (a Wolverine parody for which Sim was accused of plagiarism by Marvel), but also that really nice storyline with Cerebus and the Countess, which at the time when I read it seemed like the most mature relationship I'd ever read in comics.''

May of 2013 marks thirty years since “High Society” came to a close. The Cerebus “phonebooks” remain in print and Comixology has begun releasing each issue of “High Society” as a ninety-nine cent download. Cerebus possesses such a handmade, analog quality that the fact it is available as binary code feels (almost) like an anathema. Time and technology wait for no man or aardvark, I suppose.
 
 
In the pre-internet days when inelegance trumped convenience, Sacks would exchange correspondence with fellow Cerebus fans whose letters would appear in the Cerebus letter columns. ''That’s one of the other things that is lost in time now, Sim ran these long letters columns, six or eight page letters columns which were as fun and exciting as the comic itself. You really can compare the letters columns to internet forums; they’re just a different type of communication and there were certain people who were on there all the time.''

Sacks struck up friendships with a couple of Cerebus's serial letter writers, Derek and Rob McCulloch. Both McCulloch brothers have long histories as fans as well as creators of comics. Derek McCulloch is the author of several graphic novels including the recent Gone to Amerikay. With his brother Rob, Derek founded an Amateur Press Association (APA) called “Galactus.” APAs were the old school internet, where a loose collective would write essays, articles, or their own zines and then send them to a central mailer who would collate and distribute to the rest of the members of the group. ''There were probably 25 to 30 people who were part of Galactus,'' Sacks says, ''We would write about where the Cerebus storyline was going and we would also give each other feedback on other comics that we loved, which is how I became an early fan, for example, of Alan Moore because my buddies were in on that early talking about Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta. So, it became this really strong feedback loop; if your friends are into this, than you need to be into this. At the same time I was legitimately excited by Cerebus too, so it became this really fun kind of feedback thing for a while and it made me pretty fanatical about the series for a long time.''
 
 
I would argue that it is in that comic book reliquary, the letter column, where many future bloggers, reviewers and creators first make their critical bones. Letter columns offer a proving ground for wild-ass guesses and notions. Sacks notes that Sim was no exception: ''Sim is a massive comics fan. He wrote for the fanzines in the early to mid-'70s and he published in all kinds of different zines. He wrote minor history pieces, so he knew his chops; he really studied these guys. At that time too, the industry was a lot smaller than it is now and you were able to read a lot of old stuff because there wasn't as much contemporary great stuff coming out. Sim took the lessons he learned from Eisner and the other great creators at the time — Mort Meskin and others. Sim was reading comics religiously before and all during the time he was doing Cerebus. He was doing spot on parodies of stuff and he really made it his own. Sim ended up becoming a leader because he'd studied the masters so hard. Maybe it's another element of Dave's maverick nature; he was thinking about this stuff on a different level than other people.''

Maverick. Thinker. Provocateur. Letter column writer. These elements coalesce to become a fork in the road for Sim, for Cerebus and for the fans of both.
 

III. #186

 
In the spirit of research, I read a few of the letter columns in the handful of issues of Cerebus I own. Sim prints a letter from Cat Yronwode (her Wikipedia page is a must read) in issue #93. Yronwode was editor-in-chief at Eclipse Comics and an outspoken supporter of creator-owned work and free speech. In her letter, Yronwode asks to be removed for Sim's ''freebie list.'' She addresses Sim directly and writes that she enjoys the hide-and-seek game of finding the creator at the core of his work. She writes:

The 'you' behind the creations is an ugly creature not worth the search … no amount of artful contrivances by you can interest me, for they only serve to reveal your core nature again and again, and in my eyes that core, that 'you,' is a self promotor [sic.] who is incapable of perceiving diversity of opinion, in terms other than 'attack' and 'defense.' I might almost call you a solipsist, if that term did not imply considered philosophical thought.

This was 1986. Sim counters to say, ''I value rational debate.'' He goes on to discuss a column Yronwode wrote for Eclipse Comics and the many problems he had with it. Sim and Yronwode had beef. Obviously. Dave Sim, it seems, was always a contentious and controversial creator.

As a descriptor, the word “crazy” as in “he/she went crazy” is a way to shortcut or dismiss any sort of dialogue. An about face is never so abrupt; and no one goes crazy on a dime or by accident. Anyone who chances upon Cerebus today has to contend with Cerebus #186; i.e., the one where Sim “went crazy.”

Cerebus #186 was published in September 1994; it is the final part of the Reads collection in “Mothers & Daughters.” After an (in continuity) short vignette where Cerebus orbits around the moon, the rest of the issue falls to a discussion by Viktor Davis (a Sim simulacrum) about “The Male Light” and “The Female Void.” The entire essay is reprinted in a post called The Merged Void — what Wikipedia refers to as “The Dave Sim Misogyny Page” — from the website Misogyny Unlimited.

How bad is it, rhetorically speaking? Bad. Really really bad. Ugly. Gross. When I ask Sacks about what happened and how what happened happened, he says: ''When Dave Sim started Cerebus he was either dating or just about to get married to a woman named Deni (Denise) Loubert, they were married for about five years or so. For a while they were a team and put out the book together. She was the business person, he was the creator, and they worked very tightly together to put this book out month by month. It’s fair to give her some credit for the impetus or the drive to publish this book. Dave and Deni had what appears to be a somewhat nasty breakup, as people tend to do. She moved to California from Ontario and started her own publishing company. He stayed back in Ontario. After the break-up, he had a relatively normal social life with women, but there starts to be, more and more towards the middle of the series — which would place it towards the late '80s — of Sim having a lack of respect for women; he'd present women as users, is maybe the best way of putting it.''

What Sim writes in Cerebus #186 reads as very agenda-driven, very personal, very manifesto-ish. Sacks: "This is not a short little piece that shares a couple of thoughts; this is a fifteen thousand word essay, plus or minus. This is some deep stuff, and it's nasty. It's unpleasant for anyone who has positive relationships with other females in their life, wives, children, sisters, mothers, co-workers who don't fit this stereotype; it rankles your viewpoint."

Sacks makes no apologies for Sim. He points out that Sim paid for and published Cerebus #186 himself; should he be denied the freedom of expression due to the nature of his attitudes and opinions? Does buying or reading Cerebus #186 make one a bigot by proxy any more than seeing Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice makes one an anti-Semite or Ezra Pound's The Cantos makes one a fascist?
 
 
Like anyone who faces a similar “say it ain't so” situation, Sacks has had to confront what Sim's actions mean to him: ''How do you stay a fan of him? I don’t know. [Sim] produced a comic that has really improved my life in immeasurable ways. I've met some very cool people, discovered some great art through [Sim and Cerebus]. I still grapple with the question of how to work with material like this as a fan. I don't think it diminishes the legacy of Cerebus, but I think it certainly adds a level of complexity to it, when you try and tell people I'm reading it, to know that there's this giant wall that appears at some point, that you have to confront. When you have something like Cerebus #186 it's hard to not be forced into also engaging the thought behind it. I mean it's one thing to say, as an artistic technique, to have sixteen pages of sometimes impenetrable text (not necessarily the best way to keep your readers interested in your work) so in that way you could see it as an abject failure. At the same time he was able to share his views, in his own form, in his own way.”
“He created a lot of conversation, although 98% of the conversation was condemning him. So, I don’t know. Was it a success because he shared his ideas? Or was it a fai
lure because the story suffered as well as his influence and reputation in the industry? Or is it some interesting kind of in between? I don't know. What's the point? I don't know how to perceive it.''


Any loss of innocence comes at a high cost. As our conversation turns away from Sim and Cerebus, doubles back, departs and returns again, I begin to think about the differences between the art and the artist, the music and the musician, the writer and the work. I realize it is naïve, but I come to the conclusion that it may be better to confront bigotry on the page — one degree removed from the source — instead of up close and personal; comic books are easy to confront, people less so. What's more important is what one does with the information. Innocence (ignorance) is bliss, awareness is power. As difficult, “crazy,” or reckless as Sim's opinions are, so too is wishing them away. In the end, no one can answer for Sim except Sim.

Jason Sacks loves comic books. Comic books inform and enrich his life. So, it's no surprise that when asked how to square Sim (how to understand his relationship to the work), Sacks turns to comics.
 
 
''One of my favourite books is Tomb of Dracula. What Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan did with Dracula was to make him someone you could understand and feel complex levels of sympathy for. In the series, the reader's impulse is always with the vampire hunters because Dracula’s evil. He kills people. Wolfman has Dracula marry and have a child who betrays him. Before the end of the series, Dracula is turned into a human and he is put into a position where he needs to defend a group of innocent villagers against a group of vampires. As he does so, there's this amazing scene where Dracula picks up a cross to ward off the vampires. His hands are burning as he fights, you see the steam flying off his hands and the look of pure torture on his face as he's doing it to save these children. It's a reminder that beneath his evil exterior there is the soul of a good man.''

''Several issues later,'' Sacks says, ''in the last issue of Tomb of Dracula, Dracula is killed — oh, 'spoiler alert' for a comic that came out in 1979 — and his castle is blown up. Wolfman writes: 'Aye, he was a hero. A hero and a scourge. A ruler and a despot. A savior and lord of darkness. He died for his country and he was reborn without his soul. His name was Dracula, and his history was a tapestry of terror sewn across the ages… We who have chronicled his five hundred years and more have stood back and shown his existence without critique. But now that it is over we have but one thing to say. Dracula was a man. And that should never be forgotten.' In an odd way, I think that's a great analogy for Sim. He's not a life sucking vampire; no one would ever accuse him of that. He's a man who has done amazing things and he's created some work that we find aberrant. He's a man and that shouldn’t be forgotten; he's got all the complexities that any of us have, only he's played them out in public. If we can’t accept him as a person in all his complexity then I don't think we're doing justice to the full panoply of human experience or emotions.''

Dave Sim as Dracula; nothing could be more poetic, hard won or apt.
 
 
After the last panel of every Cerebus issue that I own is an ad for Now and Then Books in Kitchener, Ontario. Sim was nothing if not an opportunist. The ad shows back issues, original artwork, posters and other Cerebus-centric paraphernalia for sale. In the top right hand corner is a picture of “The Official Cerebus Toy (sword not included).” It cost my parents $15 and $4.25 for postage and handling to give it to me as a Christmas gift. The same year, my friend Dan Schulman got a Cerebus toy for Hanukkah as well. According to my mother (at the time), each “Official Cerebus Toy” was handmade and no two looked alike. Dan's was made from a different material than mine, the only similarity between the two was that each had a black felt vest and did not come with a sword.
 
 
Once Jason agreed to talk about Cerebus with me, I called my mother and asked the next time she visits would she please bring the Cerebus doll that was in the attic of their house. Cerebus, I imagine, is more at home among Sacks's Cerebus collection than in the attic of my parent's house. It wasn't difficult to part with something that I had not thought about in a quarter-of-a-century and I knew it would make Jason happy.

The one thing I did not tell Jason (or anyone else, until now) is that I drove around with that stuffed Cerebus toy in the passenger seat of my car for about a week before putting it in a box, covering that box with brown craft paper and putting it in the mail. I wasn't having second thoughts, and yet, there it was in the front seat of my car. It's a very human emotion, the difficulty one has letting go especially when it comes to something that was, for one time, an important and passionate part of one's life. We always want one last ride, one more moment to understand, to think, to revel and then it's time to move on. Complex emotions are never so simple, we are, all of us, human after all.