Monday, December 11, 2006

Religion in Cerebus - Part Two

In "Minds," Dave tells Cerebus that he once went through something like what he's putting his character through. It wasn't a voice in his head, though but something more like -- and then he makes a bright light not only blind Cerebus, but seem at one point to be *inside* his head, so that light comes *out* of his eyes, then grow to envelop his whole head before fading.

It's an interesting moment. It's something that could lead one to suspect one has indeed had an encounter with one's maker. It's also something one could understand as the result of spending a week on LSD. I suspect Dave's "borderline schizophrenic" diagnosis may have resulted from him trying to relate this experience to the doctor and insisting that it *wasn't* just the drug, that there really was something . . . there. But of course I don't know.

Still, it's obvious that he *didn't* write it off as just an interesting hallucination. He made it a major part of where his story was going, determined to write it into Cerebus' life somewhere down the road in his 26-year epic. I'm still not sure the extent to which the Cerebus we have matches the Cerebus mapped out in 1979, and whether or not that was originally supposed to be the climax (the "end of the story," as it were) or whether that was just so much sand thrown in the reader's eyes and something like the general outline of the last 100 issues was indeed always in place. But none of that is relevant to the topic at hand, which is to what extent Dave's vision is responsible for the way religion is presented in the book.

Dave tells Cerebus that this experience happened to him "shortly after you met the bug for the first time." One would tend to assume this means just after #11 was completed, but I began to wonder on my latest reread if it wasn't in fact while Dave was working on #11, literally just after Cerebus first met the bug.

Why? Well, because that issue, #11, has the first clear appearance of Tarim as an analog to Christ, and of Dave Sim using the worship of Tarim to lampoon Christians in particular and religious people in general, and to do so making explicit reference to modern-day events.

Cerebus pretends to be the ghost of the Roach's father and tells him Tarim wants his gold -- to build "condominiums":

CEREBUS: Praise Tarim! I am here to bring you the Word -- the Word of Tarim . . .

COCKROACH: The Word, father?

CEREBUS: Condominiums! Tarim has a condominium just for you! Luxurious living in the afterlife . . . IF you believe!

COCKROACH: I do! I do!

CEREBUS: Praise Tarim!

Now it's clear that Dave is mocking certain kinds of evangelical Christian preachers here. And I'm pretty sure there's a particular evangelical Christian preacher being pointed to. The year before this was published, in 1978, Televangelist Jim Bakker announced the
creation of Heritage USA, which would include a theme park, luxury hotels -- and condominiums. We know that Dave was a "fan" of Jim and Tammy Faye (in the sense of enjoying watching their show with amusement), because he says so in the introduction to "Church & State" Vol. 1 (actually what he says is "I miss them already").

Depending on one's definition of "meeting the bug," Cerebus met him either on page 1 (as the Merchant) or page 5 of issue #11 (when the merchant actually transforms into the Cockroach -- although we don't discover the name until page 6). The little exchange quoted above is on page 15 of that issue (page 243 in my edition, should be the same in all since it's before "Silverspoon"). Is that what Dave meant by "shortly after you met the bug for the first time?" Or was the vision later, after #11 was completed, or even after #12?

There are two possibilities. One is that Dave's "breakdown" occurred while he was in the middle of doing #11 and sharply altered the direction that first Roch story took, as well as the series as a whole afterward.

The other is that the acid trip, the vision and the resulting "nervous breakdown" were not really the sole impetus for the changes the book took after its first two years, but more of a confirmation and vision for the overall structure of a new direction Dave was already considering, and indeed already moving toward.

After having believed most of the time since I found out about it that the vision created a clear break and changed the way Dave approached Cerebus, I am now being forced to rethink that. The fact that he was hinting at Cerebus' origin as early as #5, and introduced Jaka as a character who would obviously come back in #6, as mentioned last time, go a long way toward establishing that Dave was already thinking long-term even before the 26-year plan established itself.

And while #11 is the first *clear* example of Tarim-as-Christian-God, I now think he was leaning in that direction as far back as #9. When K'Cor says "With Tarim and anti-Venusians everywhere on my side . . . I cannot lose . . . " the statement could be taken either way. At the very least it is the first time that a pagan god is referred to in a way that relates directly to trust and faith that the god will protect one. But it could be the first sign that Dave was thinking in terms of "Tarim" representing not just a god but "God" and injecting contemporary attitudes about religion into his story.

So I now think that even before the "vision," Dave was already thinking this way. He had already decided that Cerebus was turning into a long term project, and that in order to keep that going he would have to abandon the basic "funny animal Conan parody" conceit, which was already wearing thin. He had already decided that what he really wanted to do was comment on contemporary society, reflecting for example his "genuine affection for the realities of political campaigning" and also his "genuine affection for and interest in the effect of power on belief and vice versa" (from the introduction to "Church & State" Vol. 1).

So it's possible that the scene in #11 referred to above was part of that, and happened before the Grand Vision outlining the next 24 years (he was already 2 years in at that point). That the Grand Vision was not so much "Do Cerebus for a long time; here's how" but more a confirmation and a structure "You've already decided to do Cerebus for a long time; here's how."

Although many people complain that Cerebus changed after Dave "found God" and religion came to overwhelm the series -- and it's obvious that Cerebus did indeed change and to some extent the "overwhelm" charge is valid -- the fact is that from at least #11 on religion would come to be one of the primary themes that Dave explored in Cerebus. Even the electoral politics in "High Society" is driven by religion to a degree that is not wholly apparent until the end, but on rereading is in fact telegraphed at every turn.

Religion, belief, "the effect of power on belief and vice versa," the question of whether or not there is a God or gods and what He (or he/she/it, or they) might be like, and what one's moral responsibility may be in any of these cases is the fundamental root of the entire narrative, from the time Dave began to realize that it *was* a narrative, and not just a collection of comedic stories, up through "The Last Day." That is what Cerebus is all about. Throughout his time working on it, Dave was thinking, exploring, questioning, probing, ideas about religion and belief and spirituality. So it's really not surprising that he came in the end to find faith in God and use the book to try to portray that faith. If it's heavy handed, one could argue that it's no more heavy handed than his mockeries of faith earlier. Dave's view that most of his readers are atheists, and therefore dislike the heavy hand of the author promoting religion while they enjoyed the heavy hand of the author mocking religion, is not without merit, though I think it's overly simplistic and that there really is a bit of bombast and polemic in the last two books that really does overwhelm the story.

From Cerebus rousing the roach with "The Word of Tarim" about condominiums, through the priest of Theyr and the fanatical priest in Palnu, to Krull disguising himself as a priest despite not knowing enough about the Church of Tarim to know Cerebus is bluffing with his "Sacred greeting of the Grauzwerg," once the idea of Tarim as an analog to Christ and the Church of Tarim as an analog to Christianity is established it is firmly established well before it gets used full-strength in "High Society" and "Church & State." And even when the Church or Tarim is not present in the plot, morality is inserting itself as a theme even within the adventures of an amoral protagonist.

"Briefly, Cerebus thinks there might be more to life than wine, food, a warm bed and a sack of gold," says the narrator all the way back in #8, when Cerebus is about to escape being the god-king of the Conniptins and changes his mind, going back to the tent he just ran from. "Mayhap two sacks of gold?" wonders Cerebus in a word balloon. "That answer is so obvious, Cerebus is willing to bet it isn't the right one."

It's a joke, but it's a joke about the character's own amoral stance toward life, and the first indication of him questioning that stance. By the end of "High Society," he will tell the elf that he thought he could "make a difference."

An interesting difference between Dave Sim and his creation is that it's established in the storyline that Cerebus was brought up as an Orthodox Tarimite. Dave himself, of course, was brought up with almost no exposure to religion and with the idea that religious belief was essentially irrational and silly, at least according to his own account of his upbringing. By the time he was writing Cerebus, he was an amused observer of religion and something of a student of its history, but his knowledge was acquired in adulthood.

Cerebus, on the other hand, went to church every Sunday as a little boy, as we see in "Minds."

Now, there are some problems here. Dave tries to explain the whole Clovis thing with a scene between Cerebus and Cirin in "Minds," but in my opinion it doesn't work too well. There just really is no way to reconcile an Orthodox Tarimite upbringing with the barbarian Conan parody we see in the first few issues. Dave saw the disunity, knew that it was a fault and, in my opinion, made it worse by trying to patch things together. Better to just accept the disunity, acknowledge that Cerebus began as a pagan with Clovis and had his origin "retconned" in the manner of Jason Todd. It's a weakness, but not as large as the later weaknesses created by trying to weasel out on this fact.

However, once Dave decides to put religion into his book, the decision to make Cerebus knowledgeable, at least, in the Church of Tarim comes fairly early on. If one assumes that there are enthusiastic and emotional preachers in Estarcion not unlike televangelists like Jim Bakker in tone and substance, Cerebus seems to have their patter down pretty well. And of course when he hears that two priests left Fluroc he immediately knows something is wrong, because real priests wouldn't be traveling.

This, by the way, shows positively that by #17 Tarim was certainly the god-figure of a Christian-like Church and not just a god among many. The person who tells Cerebus that two priests left Fluroc doesn't say "Tarimite priests." In a polytheistic society, you would have priests of Tarim, priest of Terim, priests of Set, priests of Ashtoth, etc. Instead, from the time Dave decided to "do" religion on, "priests," alone and by itself, *always* means Tarimite priests (even the ones who are Cirinists or Kevillists and presumably worship Terim are still officially Tarimites and that's how they are "priests" per se). So when Cerebus hears that two "priests" left Fluroc, he knows that they were priests of Tarim, because the world has altered since he first came into existence, and as far as can be determined, "Tarimite" priests are the only kind there are. "Priests" now means "Church of Tarim," either Eastern or Western.