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 na├»ve, 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.

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