Saturday, April 12, 2014

Church and State - Part One

(Trying a sans-serif rather than a serif font. Let me know if you notice and care whether you think it's better or worse.)

“Church & State” may be Dave Sim's most magnificent achievement. This is not to dismiss the bulk of the Cerebus saga as unworthy. At the conclusion of this novel we are only 1/3 of the way through the entire saga, after all, and there are still things to be achieved that will reach beyond the grasp and probably even the conception of the Dave Sim (and Gerhard, who joins him about halfway through the first volume) who did this novel. You could certainly argue that some of what is ahead has higher literary and artistic merit than this novel does, although I might argue back that much of the later material also has serious flaws that impinge on the overall achievement, while this novel is very nearly perfect. 

Another  reason I think of this as Sim's masterwork is that in many ways this book is the entire series in microcosm - an odd word to describe a work of over 1,200 pages in two volumes, but used after all in comparison to a 16 volume work of over 6,000 pages, so I think it fits.

“Church & State” begins with Cerebus in a tavern - which is also the first place Cerebus visited after riding into the nameless "our city" in the beginning of the saga. His fellow patrons are shown to be uncivilized barbarians with fighter mentalities, much like Cerebus himself was presented to us when we met him. We meet Cerebus in this book writing, and writing and writers will be a major theme from here on, and we will meet the analogues of several famous writers along the way. Cerebus rehashes his previous history (the novel starts out with a collection of loosely connected short stories, and Cerebus again becomes Prime Minister), after which he becomes a powerful religious figure, which will happen to him again in the future. He is taken up off the surface of the earth into a journey into space, which will also happen again. He will be confronted with his own character flaws, which will happen again in an even more unmistakable and inescapable fashion. And the novel ends with a prediction of his death, a prediction that will be fulfilled at the very end of the saga. It's all right there.

Although in some ways this is the whole story encapsulated in one book, in other ways it is the antithesis of the whole saga as well, for on the topic of gender relations, everything is presented more-or-less from a feminist viewpoint.

The revisionist historian Dave Sim now maintains that when he wrote the earlier parts of Cerebus he was an "atheist feminist" (sometimes he even throws in "socialist" into the mix), and that his conversion less than a third of the way from completing the saga accounts for the difference, but I have some evidence that this is not in fact true, in correspondence between us dating back to the days when Sim was doing "Jaka's Story."

Most obviously, in the debate between Cerebus and Astoria regarding "Tarim" and "Terim," I thought it was pretty obvious that Astoria had the better part of that debate, that her arguments made a lot more logical sense than did his. Sim didn't exactly disagree with that interpretation of the scene's presentation, but pointed out Cerebus was a much more limited intellect than Astoria, and made it clear that he thought Cerebus was the one who was arguing from the correct position, even if he wasn't able to make his points as effectively. To Sim, it seemed quite clear even in those days not long after completing this novel, long before he made his views known in "Mothers and Daughters," that a male creator is the only kind of God who makes sense. He even said in one letter that, far from birth being primarily a female thing, the male seed is the real source of new life, and that the womb was merely the oven in which the bread is baked, so to speak (I think he actually said “turkey”).

Having had this correspondence to prepare me, I was less surprised than others by "Reads," and never for a moment believed the argument that "Viktor Davis" was "just a character" Sim was using to put forth a point of view that he didn't necessarily believed. It is clear to everyone now that Sim holds those "misogynist" views (I use the quotes advisedly - Sim is clearly not a man who "hates women," and he would be quick to castigate anyone who allows a definition of misogyny that is so transformed from the original and root meaning of the word that it can apply to anyone who, for instance, hates *feminism*, which is a very different thing, and in fact seems to be the current definition of the word). We’ll get to the whole “misogynist” thing later when we look at “Mothers and Daughters,” but my point is that, while this novel *seems* to be presented from the opposite viewpoint with regards to male/female issues than Sim would later take, he was saying things much like his later anti-feminist so soon after this book was completed that it seems unlikely he had changed his views after doing the Judge’s monologue. It simply has to be the case that when he wrote those words he was already putting an argument of a character who seemed likely to represent the author a viewpoint 180 degrees opposed to what he really believed.

I think it's almost certain that in fact by the time he started this book he was already disenchanted with much of the modern feminist critique of society, but was hiding that and deliberately writing the book giving us a feminist point of view. Not because he was hiding his true nature in order to keep his fairly large female readership, as some have alleged, but in fact to provide something more than an obvious straw man to later tear down. He wanted to present the feminist worldview in a convincing manner, so that when he came to tear it down the demolition would be all the more devastating and effective.

At least, that's what I think is going on here. We’ll see if I still think that by the time we get to the Judge.

Next: Floundering (but really not), the Countess, The Wolveroach, Sophia, Returning to Iest, and Reads

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Cerebus - High Society - Part Three


In the introduction to the next book, the first volume of "Church & State," Dave Sim talks about the fact that "High Society" reflects his "genuine affection for the realities of political campaigning, elections and government."

Of course, he also talks about missing Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, so perhaps his profession of affection should be taken with a grain of salt.

To be sure, there is a certain entertainment value is observing the worst excesses of the body politic, but when one realizes how many lives, including one's own, can be affected by the machinations of politicians, one is reminded of the joking etymology that derives the word "politics" from "poly" meaning "many" and "ticks" meaning "small blood-sucking insects."

On the other hand, as Winston Churchill once said, representative democracy is the worst possible governmental system - except for all the others that have yet been tried. While one could argue that direct democracy is better, this is impractical on any but the most local level, not to mention the counter argument as to whether it has ever truly been tried - it has been estimated that the fabled democracy of Athens had a hundred slaves and other non-citizens whose lives were affected for each "citizen" who actually voted on things.

For better or for worse, then, it seems that a democratic republic is the best that we can hope for in terms of political systems, and that necessitates the messiness of elections and legislatures dominated by the interests of politicians whose greatest need is to keep getting elected.

Sim deliberately masks his own opinions behind the various characters, and further obscures matters by having a down-to-earth funny-but-convincing character be so far beyond skeptical of the notion of electoral democracy as to liken increased involvement in elections as "watching gangrene spread," while he openly mocks the character who will go on to write the history of the election that he quotes extensively from, who ends the book with a dramatically enhanced quotation from John F. Kennedy, who Sim has spoken admiringly of in many places, including within the saga itself in "Reads."

So it's hard to say how much of the biting satire presented here is meant to excoriate they system and how much is just riffing on the absurdities of life seen through the political lens. The legislature of Iest seems pretty obviously to represent the Canadian or British parliament than it does the American Congress, which is natural. The convention is more a lampoon of comic book conventions than political ones, but manages to get some digs at political debates along the way. The campaign itself, once it gets under way, is an object lesson in the harsh realities of elections and how much power is wielded not by the voters themselves but by power brokers behind the scenes ("You realize," says the Abbess, "that I and I alone decide who is to represent Grace District").

The Wuffa-Wuffa farmer, in fact, the one who castigates the notion of democracy, seems to be the only political leader who actually left the voting up to the people of his district. Everyone else seems to have been able to influence, or believe they were able to influence, the final outcome.

And what are we to make of Suenteus Po? In addition to the obvious differences between the Suenteus Po, founder of illusionism still alive after 185 years (or is it 240?), between "Mind Games" in the first book and "Mind Games II" in "High Society," we are presented halfway or thereabouts through this book with a "History of the 1413 Election" from which we read several excerpts that was also written by Suenteus Po - although it turns out this is a different individual altogether, a "republican" (or even, as a nameless "editor" claims at one point, an "anarchist") who ends up joining Cerebus' administration as a speech writer.

It is important to note that "republican," in this book and generally as used in Cerebus, has little to do with the modern American political party by that name, though both "Democrats" and "Republicans" claim at least some allegiance to the ideals of one of America's first political parties, the "Democratic Republicans" of Thomas Jefferson and his fellows, who opposed the "Federalists." Today Federalism is seen as a belief in strict limitations to the power of the centralized government but in fact the original Federalists were all for the consolidation of power in federal hands - Alexander Hamilton would have seen a king in America, if he had had his druthers, whether the king was himself or George Washington or some other person he trusted with the job (decidedly NOT Thomas Jefferson). The Democratic Republicans named themselves after the type of government they believed in, the kind they thought they had instituted with the Articles of Confederacy and, when that failed, tried to ensure survived in the new Constitution.

A republic is a nation controlled by representatives of the people, as opposed to a king or an oligarchy. Rome is the most famous Republic prior to the creation of the United States, and there is a legitimate argument to be made about just how "representative" its representatives were. On the other hand, there is a certain practicality to just having the rich and powerful people themselves be the members of the Senate instead of trying to control politics behind the scenes, as they do today. Not only is it arguably more open and honest, but there is the very real fact that without the acquiescence of the rich and powerful, no government can long exist.

Witness the United Nations. Yes, there is a General Assembly where each nation, no matter how small or poor, has a vote, but the real power is in the Security Council, which is made up of simply the richest and most powerful countries. You can argue about the "unfairness" of this, but the fact is that if these countries pulled out of the U.N. it would cease to be relevant. No one would care what it said or did.

The Roman Senate was, to a certain extent, similar to the U.N. Security Council on both a larger and smaller scale. Larger, because there were many more Senators than there are countries in the Security Council. Smaller, because each Senator represented a Family rather than a Nation-State, and theoretically ruled a City rather than attempting to wield influence in an interconnected global political and economic system.

There were, to be sure, elected officials in the ancient government of Rome, and the system was more complex than most moderns realize.

I bring up Rome partly to point out that if Sim had still been interested - or if he had ever been interested, frankly - in presenting something like a realistic ancient society with perhaps some medieval overtones, a la Robert E. Howard and other fantasists of the sword-and-sorecry genre, he could have explored the theme of political intrigue in general by having Iest be something like Rome. Instead, he gave it something very much like a modern political structure, because he found commenting on modern politics to be much more interesting than creating something that would fit the world Cerebus at first seemed to move in. Estarcion will continue to evolve, going from the ancient/medieval base of the first book all the way to a steampunkish 19th-20th century with airships that look like winged zeppelins in existence by "Going Home." All because Sim finds it necessary to have certain pieces of technology in place in order to make the modern analogies he wants to make.

The Comics Journal once faulted him for this, saying essentially that he would have been better off to have abandoned "Cerebus" early on and simply create comics set in the real modern world if what he wanted to do was make points about the real modern world, but I actually think that's a wrong-headed viewpoint. The very fact that Sim's pointed comments about politics, for instance, in "High Society," are filtered through the lens of the imaginary city of Iest give him a degree of satirical freedom that would not be available to someone doing "realistic" fiction. The tradition of using the distancing effect of fantasy to make comments on contemporary society is at least as old as Jonathan Swift and "Gulliver's Travels," and Sim uses it here and elsewhere to delightful effect.

So while keeping more-or-less intact the idea that we're in a city-state in a semi-medieval fantasy world Sim is able to either skewer or at least refer to the TV show "Nightline" (mentioned last time), terrorism (though I don't believe the word is used, what is the Moon Roach if not a terrorist?) the "Making of the President" books, Nixon's "Six Crises" (making an explicit connection between his protagonist and the much-loathed Tricky Dick, no less), and JFK.

We also have here the first real glances at Dave Sim on relations between the sexes. Yes, we had Red Sophia, but she was just a joke - and a one-note one at that, a woman who threw herself at Cerebus to no avail, because while all the other men around found her irresistibly attractive, Cerebus didn't care about her at all. By the second issue, that theme had been done to death, and she didn't return until Sim found something else to do with her. And although Jaka was introduced, they really only shared a bit of dialogue in the bar and then a single extended scene together before the drug wore off and Cerebus forgot her.

But in the byplay between the Roach and Astoria, between Astoria and Cerebus, between Astoria and Theresa and Dirty Drew McGrew, the long-awaited return of Jaka, and even to a lesser extent in the relationship between Cerebus and the Elf, we see the early development of Sim's view of the "war between the sexes," which will in Sim's case go from being a vague and over-used metaphor to something resembling a real all-out conflict.

Monday, April 07, 2014

10th Anniversary Reread “High Society" – Part Two

The second chapter, "The Kidnapping of an Aardvark," is the key to everything that follows. Cerebus finally gets his fight, though it is an abrupt affair that is quickly ended - Cerebus makes short work of the McGrew Brothers which makes us think of them as incompetent, but in retrospect considering how much Cerebus was itching for a fight the fact that he went immediately for an incapacitating blow may have signaled that he actually took them seriously as a threat. He didn't want to give them a chance to wear him out.

In any case, he takes over and from that point manages his own kidnappiong. There are two key things in this chapter which will be repeated throughout the book and another which will have repercussions through the book as a whole. I’m tempted to say “introduced,” but in fact all three of them were introduced in the first book (as I pointed out in my essays regarding that). But they are emphasized more thoroughly examined here.

The first is Sim's critique of mass media journalism. This was barely mentioned in the references to Weisshaupt and his messages from the President. Here, we have a critique of TV news. This chapter was first published in comic book form as Cerebus #27 with a cover date of of April 1981. The U.S. had just gone through the Iran Hostage Crisis, a tumultuous period whose social anxiety and political upheaval seemed enormous at the time but has been largely forgotten because it was dwarfed by what happened on 9/11/2001. One of the things that was so stressful about it, and caused great strain in the body politic, was the length of time the crisis lasted. One usually thinks of a crisis as of short duration, but the U.S. was operating in crisis mode politically from the time the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized and hostages taken November 4, 1979 until the last hostages were released on January 20, 1981, 444 days later.

Sim is, of course, Canadian, but our neighbor to the north largely shared a sympathetic angst, plus of course American TV is available in the major cities in Canada, and it is in particular one American TV show that is being lampooned here. ABC had been for some time contemplating putting a news program up against "The Tonight Show" in the slot following the local news. Various attempts at more-or-less imitative talk shows had failed, and some network executives thought some kind of counter programming for those who wanted more substantial than light entertainment and celebrity interviews might do better. The show would eventually be called "Nightline" and as of this writing (4/7/2014) is still on the air, but when the hostages were taken, and it became clear after a day or two that the crisis was going to last at least a week or two (though certainly no one at the time dreamed it would be more than a year), the show was rushed onto the air on November 8, 1979 as "America Held Hostage: Day 5," and that became the running title for the duration, with the day changed each day to reflect how long America had been held hostage. From day to day, there was in fact often very little news to report on the situation, but the title stayed and the logo, even when the news report was largely about other matters and the hostages were referred to only briefly at the beginning and ending of the show.

This is, of course, the basis for Sim's "Cerebus Held Hostage" pages, with "Day One" and "Day Two" as heading and a special logo in the upper right hand corner of each. Secondly, the behind-the scenes machinations of Iestian politics as the money is raised for Cerebus' ransom, whether it is presented as a reality or as Cerebus imagining what is going on, introduces us to the byzantine nature of Iest's legislative government and its corrupt Prime Minister, which of course sets the stage for the major plot element of the book. Indeed, it is the need to repay this ransom that becomes the motivating factor for Cerebus' launch into politics. Finally, the game of Diamondback, which had been briefly mentioned in chapter 11 and elaborated somewhat in a backup story in one of the "Swords of Cerebus" volumes, is more fully fleshed out. This becomes important, because it turns out that some people (Weisshaupt, for instance) view the various cards in the Diamondback deck - Magician, Priestess, King, Queen, Priest - in much the same way that many people view the Trumps in a deck of Tarot cards, as having deep and supernatural significance. Indeed, Tarot-like themes will develop throughout two of the three multi-volume novels within the saga, Church & State and Mothers & Daughters.

Media, politics, Tarot symbolism (or something very much like it) and its relation to magic, and of course traditional religion in the form here of the Church of Tarim, which isn’t really discussed in this chapter but was so clearly introduced in the first book that it’s not a surprise when it shows up here. Three of these will dominate this book, and the four of them will dominate the next two big novels.

So the kidnapping, which seems at first just a funny episode featuring the likenesses of Dave Sim's friend Gene Day and his brother Dan presented as versions of Warner Brothers cartoon character Yosemite Sam (Sam: "I'm the roughest, toughest, root'nest, toot'nest fastest gunslinger west of the Pecos!" Dirty Fleagle McGrew: "[I'm] the dirtiest, rottenest Onliu freebooter who ever dropped outa th' third grade!"), in fact sets the stage not only for the rest of the novel, but in fact for much of the rest of the saga.

The shallowness of mass media journalism will not just be referred to glancingly but skewered in the later "one-sheets" put out by each side in the campaign. Although these were in fact directly published by the political parties and had more in common with today’s political advertising than with any sort of journalism, in their presentation they more resembled the screaming headlines that often grace tabloid newspapers. Which also applies to the description of them in this unattributed quote (but obviously from the same "Suenteus Po" who wrote the book on the election):

As for the so-called “one-sheets,” one would be hard pressed to find a less suitable appendage to the body politic. If, as was devoutly wished in the previous chapter, we are someday to witness full-blown republicanism in Iest, surely the first casualty of the people’s will would be these brazen testimonials to the colossal vanity of the ruling classes! Shamelessly slanted, impervious to truth and catering only to those aspects of human nature which might best be described as “base” …

Immediately following the kidnapping, in chapter 3, we have "Mind Games II." After being knocked out, Cerebus returns to the odd psychic plane of existence where he again meets with Suenteus Po. It is ostensibly the same Po he met in the original Mind Games. “Return" may not be the precise word, because Po tells him that he is in the "Eighth Sphere" this time, rather than the Seventh. But the "Well, well" that opens his greeting seems to imply that they have "met" before, although we are later given reasons to suspect this may not actually be the same Po. Or rather, that Cerebus has still, in fact, not met the original Po, and that these two are different mental constructs he created for himself as protective mechanism to keep him free from troublesome intruders. But this is all possibly "retcon" as they say in comics, for we will not learn it until much, much farther along in the saga.

In any case, within this chapter Po is presented as the same person we met in the first Mind Games, though he so clearly seems not to be that even Cerebus notices. "The last time we talked, you were surprised when Cerebus told you the Cirinists had plans -- and even more surprised when he told you they were dangerous."

It's possible that Sim had already thought of the idea that the voices Cerebus was talking to in the Mind Games episodes were not the real Po, or it could be that he just decided he needed Po to be a more serious character to get across the information he wanted to impart here, and while wise enough to realize that he couldn't make the change without at least admitting something was different, he'd worry about how to explain it somewhere down the road. The intricacies of plotting a 6,000 page novel as you go with the ending and some major signposts along the way in mind but details left deliberately vague until you get close to them are complex, and at this date I doubt if Sim himself could tell you clearly which details he imagined when. Perhaps when all his notebooks are archived and available future scholars will be able to determine some of this.

 (If anyone - other than a few die-hard fans - still cares by that point, but as the reason for possible pessimism on this point lies far in the future of the reread, we'll let that go for now.)

Cerebus returns from his sojourn to the Eighth Sphere to find that he has been discovered and returned to his suite at the Regency Hotel. The McGrew brothers have,  as far as he knows, made off with the ransom, which the Prime Minister now requests be repaid.

Cerebus' attempts to raise the money to pay the ransom impress the Prime Minister enough to invite Cerebus to go hunting with him, during which they discuss the current state of Iestian economics, and the Prime Minister mentions that he could forego asking Cerebus for the ransom if one of the businessmen who solicited Cerebus' attention in the first chapter were to forgive the Iestian government a loan made by his company. Cerebus arranges this, but immediately after the businessman, who is the godson of His Holiness the Pope, is crushed by a giant stone sculped into the likeness of a crescent moon, hurled at him by the Roach, who is now calling himself "The Merely Magnificent Moon Roach." After chasing him down, Cerebus finds him in a room with a woman named Astoria, who begs Cerebus to take the Moon Roach costume so that "Artemis," as she calls him, won't be able to become the Roach anymore, rather than turning him in. When he balks, she threatens to kill herself.

Cerebus reluctantly agrees, and thus is manipulated for the first time by this mysterious woman who Sim has said was based on Mary Astor's character in "The Maltese Falcon" and Deni Loubert (who was Deni Sim at the time) has said was based on her. On the one hand, the obvious dichotomy here is like the cases of Elrod and the McGrew brothers, where the physical appearance is based on one thing (Barry Smith's Elric, Gene and Dan Day, Deni Sim) and the personality on something else (Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Bridget O'Shaughnessy). However, there's a little more to it than that. There is a subtle criticism of his wife inherent in having Astoria represent here in more than looks as this novel progresses while being the manipulative, untrustworthy analog to the murderess in the famous book and movie.

When "Petuniacon" comes along, which is at once a parody of political conventions and comic book ones, Astoria arranges things and tells Cerebus where to be, at it seems pretty obvious that, as "publisher" at Aardvark-Vanaheim, Deni Sim was almost certainly handling all the details and arrangements and Dave Sim was going where he was told and signing or sketching or both. Later, he would be handling the details for himself and finding them to be no big chore, and promoting the idea of self-publishing to all his fellow cartoonists.

This is important, because while it will seem clear to some people reading this, as it does to some of the characters in the book, that Astoria is in charge, pulling the strings, making the decisions, from Cerebus' point of view this is never really true, and to the extent that it ever was, it ends with his visit to the Abbess. From then on, he thinks of Astoria as a glorified secretary.

On my first reading, indeed, on my first several readings of this book, I had the opinion that Astoria was indeed the one in charge and Cerebus was delusional. But this time, while Cerebus does seem to sometimes be passively acted upon rather than active in his own administration, I see that it's a bit more subtle than that. It is Astoria's nature to manipulate people, in particular to manipulate men. It's not so much that she truly wields the power in Cerebus' administration. Indeed, it's quite obvious that she's completely unaware of much of what Cerebus does, and is playing catch-up, pretending to be on top of things as she dances as fast as she can to keep up with events changing around her.

Theresa shows up again from the three-chapter story that ended the first book. She becomes Astoria's assistant. There's a bit of funny byplay as they both become enchanted with Dirty Drew McGrew. This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Theresa will in fact remain a character for some time to come in the saga.  Which itself is interesting because of what happens to another character from that story, the one who seems to be set up to return.

Katrina seems to be set up to be Jaka's sister. She is Lord Julius' niece, and "her sister" told her in a letter of his version of what happened in the underground tunnels in Palnu (a much different version from what we saw in "A Night at the Masque," with a heroic Lord Julius). You would expect from this that she might appear again, or at least be mentioned again. But Theresa is the only one of the three girls in that story that we ever see again, and when we explore Jaka's background and childhood in depth in "Jaka's Story" there is no mention of her ever having had a sister. Katrina's existence seems to have been completely forgotten.

But back to Astoria. Like Bridget O'Shaughnessy, she admits fairly early on that she lied, but promises that "that's all over," and then immediately proceeds to lie some more. She attempts to manipulate events, but she is actually clearly out of her depth. Blakely dismisses her early on like the glorified secretary Cerebus will later think of her as ("Now, be a good girl and run along …" - and it's important to note that at this point Cerebus is stunned that *anyone* could treat Astoria that way and she would take it; she slams the door on her way out, but she does indeed run along). The Abbess refuses to even see her. She goes out into the snow with the Roach trying desperately to drum up votes when Cerebus has (or thinks he has) already sewed up enough votes to win the election.

On the other hand, we do have the hiring of Suenteus Po (the book writer, not the one Cerebus meets in the "Mind Games" episodes), whose interview is conducted entirely by Astoria while Cerebus is apparently napping at his desk.

Once we realize what kind of character Astoria is, we look back on her account of how she met the Roach and begin to question its veracity.

If the Countess Michelle (up ahead, but bear with me) is to be believed (which is problematic, but she is certainly more trustworthy than Astoria), Astoria's account of meeting the Roach is wholly fictional. However, it's entirely possible that he did indeed “rape” her. I put quotes around it because if he did, it would almost certainly have been because she manipulated him into it, knowing that she could connect with some part of him that would find that act utterly reprehensible and use that guilt to control him.

That's Astoria's nature. That's what she does. Although she is one of the few characters in this book who actually matures and changes, and also one of the few who seems to have been given a genuinely happy and peaceful ending to her story, the Astoria we first meet here, and the Astoria we encounter through most of her appearances in the saga, is a conniving, lying, untrustworthy, manipulative bitch.

And yet Deni Loubert considers that she was meant to represent herself, and apparently made no objection to her depiction in this fashion until Cerebus raped Astoria near the end of "Church & State." That, finally, was too much for her and she reported several years ago that she quit reading at that point and as far as I know had never gone back to read the rest.