Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Cerebus Continuity

I'm postponing part 3 of "Redemption in Cerebus" indefinitely, because I decided to start rereading parts of it in preparation for that, and before long I found myself rereading the whole first book and now I'm well into "High Society," so I've apparently embarked on yet another reread. So I'm going to use this space to share my thoughts on that reread. Much of what I have to say will at least tangentially relate to the topic of redemption, as I was rereading with a particular eye to that topic and to the more general topic of religion and spirituality in Cerebus.

As you might expect, I didn't find much in the early issues, except the hint in #2 that Cerebus might not have a soul, or that his soul was in some way different from an ordinary human soul, so that the succubus in #2 was unable to find and devour it.

Which brings me to my first off-topic observation, which will be the main focus of this particular essay: although he has said many times that the overall structure of the story he would tell came to him in 1979, and that was when he first announced that he would be doing Cerebus for 26 years (first as 156 bi-monthly issues, later as 300 issues that would take him just past the 26-year point by a few months), it's clear from fairly early on that he was in fact thinking in terms of a long-term series. Not only that, but #10 on there are very few complete breaks in the continuity as we find generally in the first few issues, and one of those is deliberate. Even before he knew what the story would be or how long it would last, Dave was already telling "a single story."

That in itself is not remarkable -- "The Amazing Spider-Man" had been telling one story about Peter Parker for over a decade at that point, and had not yet reached the point where maintaining a teenage thrill-seeking audience required leaving behind all semblance of real continuity.

(What I mean by this: Peter started out as a 16-year-old high school sophomore and graduated two years later. At that one-to-one rate of aging he'd be 59 in 2006, as I'm writing this. And while there are times when the action stretches out so that several monthly issues all report the events of only a few days, the world around him has kept current, so that it's clear that the current under-30 Peter Parker is living in 2006, which is just silly, since he was born in 1947. On the other hand, in 1977, while Parker was obviously not yet 30, he wasn't still 18, either, and it hadn't yet gotten entirely out of hand.)

Not having his character live in our real current world removed Dave from having to deal with a lot of problems related to this, though it was many years before he took advantage of it. He could compress time so that two weeks took three years of his monthly comic book to chronicle, or have decades pass in a single issue (and he did both, before he was done), and not have to worry about discontinuity between the world in his comic book and the real world. There was a built-in discontinuity, which created its own problems (which we'll discuss at another time), but which saved him from having to worry about "keeping current" while aging or not aging his character.

More to the point, of course, is that Dave Sim from very early on determined to use Cerebus to examine a life, and to escape from the escapist fare comic books were generally expected to provide (and still are, to a large extent) and deal meaningfully with examining a life, albeit the life of an anthropomorphic cartoon aardvark living in a fantasy world that may or may not be our own world about 6,000 years ago. If he were doing Spider-Man the way he did Cerebus, he would have aged Parker to 59 years old, made him hang up his superhero duds long ago, perhaps in favor of some youngster trained to replace him, and gone off to make a living as a full-time newspaper photographer or perhaps a chemistry professor. He had no desire -- and no driving corporate commercial need -- to keep Cerebus working as a sword-for-hire and having Conanesque adventures.

It's often assumed that the first three or four issues were all essentially one-shots, disconnected from each other, and intended mainly to get Dave's name and talent out there for display, to show what he could do, and to build a resume or portfolio which he could use to get a job at Marvel or DC. Dave himself has essentially said as much, and really the first four issues, especially, and to some extent all the comics from the first two years, are all relatively disconnected from each other and in many ways don't fit into the continuity that he came to create after his 1979 vision of the overall structure of the story.

However, as early as issue #2, Dave obviously had some idea in his head of what made his character different from other people, besides his obvious appearance. He was already laying the groundwork for the possibility of a continuing series, just in case.

In the three issue sequence just after the first four (i.e., #5-7), he does even more, first showing us the Pigts worshipping a statue that looks like a giant Cerebus, then introducing Jaka, who is obviously set up to return at some point, then showing us yet another group that has a Cerebus-like creature among their "Nameless Gods."

By this time, it seems to me, Dave had definitely embarked on telling a long-running story and already has some ideas about it, about what aardvarks are in his fantasy world and what role they play in its history, and presumably at least some idea of Cerebus' own role in this history. This is almost a year before he had the famous acid trip and "vision" that gave him the storyline.

Issues #6-7 are also the first directly connected stories -- Cerebus gets the whereabouts of the treasure in #6 and goes after it in #7. The catastrophe in #7 leads directly to the beginning of #8, and the end of #8 flows directly into the beginning of #9.

Compare these transitions -- even though the stories are still relatively self-contained -- with the transitions between issues in the first five comics, where a narrator provides us with information about what happened between issues, but there is no direct link of any kind between the action of one comic and the action of the next. For instance, the "splash" page of #5 has the following caption:

"After leaving Serrea, Cerebus drifts west into the Red Marches where he enters the employ of Turan Genn, a mercenary captain! The summer rains are at their peak and the earth-pig executes his tasks amid much grumbling about sub-tropical rainfall . . . "

That is typical of the captions that begin all of the issues in the first year, 1-6. After that, we do not encounter an opening that is so completely disconnected from the events of the previous issue again until issue #10. After that, there is only #14, which fills us in on the events depicted in "Silverspoon," which was originally a series of single pages done for the Comic Buyers Guide (so even there, the continuity did exist in comics form, just not as part of the comics magazine publication itself) and #21, which of course, if the famous and deliberate switch of time and setting after "Mind Game." Every other issue-to-issue transition from #7 through #25 is direct and often causational, that something happens in one issue that causes at least the situation Cerebus is in at the beginning of the next issue, even if it has little to do with what happens in the rest of it (I'm thinking here in particular of #8 and #9, where at the end of #8 Cerebus is chosen to lead the Conniptins, and is doing so at the beginning of #9, but then he leaves them behind entering Imesh and they are never seen again (well, not in *this* book, anyway).

Which brings me to one last observation before I start veering back in the general direction of the topic. Allen Lulu recently complained on the Cerebus Yahoo list about Dave "abandoning" storylines and characters, and made specific reference to him "forgetting" them and strongly implying this was a fault of the later books compared to the earlier Dave who was, in Allen's opinion, a better writer.

In fact, leaving behind unexplained mysteries was part of Dave Sim's stock-in-trade from the very beginning. It is obviously an important part of how he perceives reality, that there always things that puzzle us that we never discover the answers to, and making that part of his comic book was part of his idea of verisimilitude.

We never know just what exactly the spider-thing is or why the priests of the Temple of the Black Sun worship it. We never know the Cockroach's real name nor his true origins (you can't trust his crazy ramblings, and "Artemis Strong" is a personality created by Astoria, at least according to her account). Most importantly, of course, is that crazy jump from #20 to #21, dropping Cerebus dozens if not hundreds of miles and several weeks from where we last saw him, with no explanation ever given in the comic book itself, and the explanation that was eventually given something that only posed more questions, which in turn were quite deliberately never answered.

That's part of Dave's schtick, and it was from the beginning. We were never intended to find out just exactly who Sir Gerrick was and what he was all about. He was always intended to be a mystery figure hovering in the background.

Next time, we'll go back over the first book looking intently at the subject of religion, trying to discern the differences between the obviously pagan milieu of the first few stories and the "Church of the Living Tarim," and how Tarim morphed from being "one of the gods" to being the Deity worshipped by this apparently monotheistic Church, and when we first see evidence that Cerebus may in fact be an Orthodox Tarimite himself, albeit a backsliding sinful one with little hope of redemption.

Hey -- there's that word again! We'll get there eventually. I promise.

Also posted to the Yahoo Cerebus Group on 12/05/2006