Friday, October 05, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Six

There's not as much directly about religion in Women as one would suspect. Oh, certainly, there are the facing pages from extracts of the writings of Cirin and Astoria, and one would assume they are there to exhibit some of the fundamental principles of Cirinism and Kevillism, respectively. And of course they are, in a way. But they are not spiritually oriented, really. There's little talk about The Goddess here, really. There is certainly discussion of morality, in the sense of a set of rules for living one's life (making sure girls tell their mothers all about their dreams, for instance). And there is discussion of the broader legalistic aspects of morality, more properly political than religious, such as the Alcohol Sanction. But we learned more about what Astoria believed in, what she thought about her Goddess, during the brief conversation between her and Cerebus in her jail cell in Church & State than is revealed in any of the writings here.

From the opening salvo, where Astoria asserts that "The penis is an organ without scruple" and advises women to take advantage of that fact, giving herself as a demonstration of how this can be done, and Cirin on the opposite page advises tolerance with daughters and assurance that they will "grow up" when they become mothers themselves, to the final debate on the nature of The Eye in the Pyramid, there is little here that provides insight into Cirnism or Kevillism as religions, although we learn much about their general attitudes toward life.

Nonetheless, I'll be dealing with these pieces as well as the few overtly religious moments in the narrative parts of "Women," because religious or not they do provide our deepest and best insight into Dave's ideas of what Cirinism and Kevillism are.

As I say, the first item is a call for women to be ruthless and unscrupulous in their use of sex to control men, on the justification that men are controlled by the penises anyway, and that organ has no scruples. It is at once boastful and celebratory, and Astoria seems totally unaware that the avenue she has chosen to travel is not available to all women. Like many women who are both attractive and intelligent, she completely discounts her appearance as contributing in any way to her success, congratulating herself that it entirely due to her intelligence, even while describing a path that could hardly have been taken by a homely woman. Cirin's counter is to call for tolerance of bad behavior by daughters, because they will eventually grow out of such excesses once motherhood overtakes them. While the percentage of fertile women is much higher than the percentage of attractive ones, Cirin is herself ignoring the fact that extremely homely women unlikely to attract a mate and those attractive enough to do so but infertile -- a substantial chunk of women, put together -- will never experience childbirth, in any case. She refers to it as a universal condition, but it is not so. They both, in other words, universalize from their own personal experience (gee, who does that sound like?).

This is not to deny a certain amount of truth in both positions. A young, attractive woman who is willing to use sex the way Astoria describes will indeed be able to get almost anything she wants from most men. And it's true also that childbirth does something to most men and women that alters and matures them, and that this effect is more pronounced in women than it is in men.

Their next debate is about power -- Astoria, as a daughter, chafes under the control of a matriarchy, arguing that mothers are by nature conservative and overly cautious, creating a static and stagnant political system. Cirin, points out that the expendability of males causes them to love disorder and chaos, seeking to make their mark on the world, and cautions that daughters with an "irrational fear of childbirth" may engage in the same behavior.

The next debate contains what is, for me, the first false note in the proceedings. Remember that long ago Dave said that modern-day feminists were Kevillists, and of course on the central political issue of modern feminism, abortion, the Cirinists are obviously firmly on the side of the anti-feminists.

So it seems odd to find Astoria charging that the Cirinists are hypocrites when it comes to children and family:

. . . at the upper levels of Cirin's government (and, in fact, at most levels of her bureaucracy) the children of her officials are cared for by nannies and governesses until the age of five when they are unceremoniously shipped off to government-run boarding schools. Cirin's own son, Gerrkick told me that he did not spend a full day in his mother's company until he was nearly sixteen; and then it was merely to observe her working day so that he might have a fuller appreciation of the complexities of governing Upper Felda.

Leaving aside the question of why Cirin's son, who as a male could not ever hope to hold any position in a Cirinist government, would be taught the complexities of governing, there is a very real problem here, in my opinion. There is an obvious solution to the problem of governing by mothers if motherhood is itself all important -- the delaying of career until after the children are grown, or at least until they are of a certain age. It's something many women have done through the years, something Cirin almost hints at in her rejoinder here. It seems obvious to me that if Cirinism were real that would be the standard and preferred way of doing things (though there certainly might be exceptions, especially among the upper echelons). It seems to me that Dave, eager to attack feminist motherhood and unable to do so through the Kevillists, whom he has artificially determined will all be childless daughters, has twisted Cirinism into something totally false and inherently hypocritical, something he will develop further later in the book but which seems to me to grow out of Dave's desire to paint women in the worst light possible rather than truly out of the inherent nature of the philosophies he claims to be representing here.

Cirin basically says that women should wait until childbirth to start a career, that before childbirth they are too immature, but that one shouldn't worry too much about a young woman who insists on putting career first -- for most of them, they will soon abandon it when a suitable mate comes along. She finishes:

In those situations where the cart is before the horse; where career comes before childbirth; it is interesting to note that few daughters ever return to that career. In those situations where the career comes after childbirth, career is kept in its proper place as an ancillary interest to the fuller and more important task of child-rearing.

There are a couple of things of note here. First, note the word "return," clearly and unmistakable implying that women who give birth in the Cirinist system do, in fact, wait at least some time before they begin a career, or return to one they have already started. How long? Six months? A year? Could it in fact be that the ideal is six years or twelve and that Astoria has distorted the situation, focusing on a few exceptions to the rule (such as Cirin herself) among the highest of the high? On the other hand, unless we discount Astoria's description of Gerrick's relationship with his mother as completely fabricated slander, there's an irony and an undeniable hypocrisy in Cirin insisting that a woman's career should be ancillary to the "fuller and more important task of child-rearing."

Before moving on to the next pair of quoted texts, I'd like to speak about Cerebus' meeting with the mysterious woman whom we much later discover to be the real Cirin. She tells him that women literally read men's minds -- something Dave has stated that he actually believes.

It's a little more complicated than that. "Women's intuition" is a nice way of putting it. "Women are more sensitive" is another. A not-so-nice way of putting it is that women rape men's minds the way men rape women's bodies. It's not an exact analogy, of course, because rape is invasion and invasion is the man's way, not the woman's way; absorption and consumption are the woman's way; what they're built for. Consider the two genders, one that invades and violates and the other that absorbs and consumes. The nice way of putting it is that they're complementary. The not-so-nice way of putting it is that they deserve each other; serve each other right.

I'm quite aware that these are the words of a character -- and a female character at that, and can't be taken at face value as Dave's opinion. Still, it's quite insightful that at this point in the story we're talking about a balance, about women being just as bad as men, but in a different way. There's no hint yet of the equivalent of "two legs bad, four legs good" kind of "anti-feminism" that discounts the value of half the human race Dave will develop later. "One that invades and violates and the other that absorbs and consumes." That strikes me as about right. The notion that men are all Goodness and Light and Reason and women are just absorbers and consumers of that Light strikes me as false.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Next: more of Women.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Time in Cerebus: Suenteus Po

We were supposed to discuss Alexx Kay's Cerebus Timeline some months ago, but somehow it never happened.

I am very sympatico with Alexx, having created my own timeline not unlike his a long, long time ago. Mine was not nearly as complete -- for one thing, the comic wasn't halfway finished yet at the time. I was thinking of pulling it out and working on updating it when I first ran into Alexx's first version (or was it his second?) on the Internet. Wow. He'd gone much further and deeper than I had even then, so I resolved to let him do the hard work.

Still, while I'm grateful to him for compiling lots of good factual information and agree with most of his choices where subjectivity was unavoidable, there a couple of places where I think he got it wrong. Moreover, the deeper into studying the notion of time and its passage in Cerebus, the clearer it seems to me that Dave Sim deliberately and quite calculatedly made Alexx's task utterly fruitless and impossible, muddying things so that no one would ever be certain how much time had passed when.

First, an obvious thing I think he got wrong: Suenteus Po.

Alexx does acknowledge the contradictions and troubles in trying to pin down just when the three main Suenteus Pos lived, and the further problem of the fact that there are large numbers of people by this name -- there are at least six separate characters by that name in Cerebus, if you count the successive lives of the Suenteus Po we meet in Flight as separate characters, possibly as many as eight, not even including things like the brief mention that "at the time of his [Alfred, aka Suenteus Po the Second] death at the age of forty-one, fully one third of the population of the Lower City was named Suenteus Po and believed themselves to function within a single, divine consciousness."

But in the end he puts the events of the three main Suenteus Pos as having happened long, long ago, sometime before the original Tarim and therefore before the count that produces the years we see in High Society and other places. This despite the fact that he quotes extensively the Flight's Suenteus Po about his "subsequent incarnation" (after living and dying as "Suenteus Po the First" and not referred to by any name but in light of the above mention about 1/3 the population of Lower Iest there's at least a good chance that his name was Suenteus Po), including the fact that he worked with gold coins, and in the next breath points out that the original Tarim invented coins -- supposedly sometime AFTER Suenteus Po was working with them.

But not only was he a goldsmith who worked with coins, but he mentions specifically that he worked with the "gold coins which served, as they do to this day, as the foundation of each family income in Iest," and mentions that they were "traditionally carved with the symbol of the family" who owned them. It's clear that coins are not a new invention, but have been around long enough to build up "traditions."

With Dave Sim's cyclic view of history it is indeed possible that this happened long before the "invention" of coins, just as his story "The First Invention of Armour" takes place not just long before the invention of armor that *we* know of but before a subsequent invention even within the world of Estarcion. But for there to be a long-held tradition of coin-making and coin-keeping in Iest prior to the recognized invention of coins seems unlikely in the extreme. It would have had to have been long enough ago that all records from that time were lost, which doesn't seem to be the case.

So, it didn't happen more than 1400 years ago, as Alexx supposes. When then did it happen?

Well, actually, there's more evidence than just the gold coins. All the way back in the first appearance of Suenteus Po -- or at least someone who calls himself Suenteus Po -- in "Mind Games," we have the following exchange:

PO (at this point still an unknown voice in the dark): Well it's not as if I don't have anything *better* to do. I have my own quasi-religious movement to worry about . . .

CEREBUS: Cerebus doesn't . . . uh -- your *own* movement?

PO: I thought you'd recognize me -- I'm Suenteus Po . . .

CEREBUS: Founder of Illusionism . . . ?

CEREBUS: Cerebus thought you were dead . . .

PO: Quite *understandable*. Most people one hundred and eighty two years old *are* dead.

Now, leave aside for the moment *which* Suenteus Po Cerebus is talking to here. The obvious supposition is that it's either the Suenteus Po we later meet in Flight, or one of the "capricious aspects" of that Po's personality acting independently. In any case, this seems to clearly establish that Illusionism, at least as an organized (to the extent the Illusionists are organized) movement identified by that name, is a relatively recent newcomer to Estarcion, at least compared with the Church of Tarim. Whether or not the entity he's speaking to is telling the truth is irrelevant to this important point: Cerebus takes it as either an already-known truth or an unsurprising new detail that the founder of Illusionism was born one hundred eighty-two years ago.

And who was the founder of Illusionism? Well, according to the Suenteus Po of Flight, it was Suenteus Po the Second, aka Alfred, the son of Suenteus Po the First.

Therefore, the invasion of Iest by Suenteus Po -- at least the one we hear about in Church and State from the Judge and again in Flight by Suenteus Po -- took place something less than 200 years ago. It was all very recent, as historic events go.

This does not jive with the impression that these things all happened unimaginably long ago, but then, neither does the story we learn about the origin of Cirinism and jive with its presentation as something that's been around for "thousands" of years. Dave may be making a deliberate point about sweeping historical changes that, once they are accomplished, make people think things have "always" been that way.

And of course, we know that Dave does deliberately mess with his readers' heads, and especially in regards to the passage of time. It was almost like he was toying with Alexx and I (even though I'm sure he didn't know of our existence, as neither of us knew about each other and our timelines) when he said that a fortnight had passed since Cerebus had last seen Jaka and then gave her a year's worth of new growth on her hair. This goes all the way back to the infamous gap between issue #20 and #21, when Cerebus not only got transported from Togith but lost several weeks.

At the time -- or at least a bit later, Dave attributed this to a party where he had gotten high and lost time, but if we can trust Viktor Davis there was an even more significant loss of time and disorientation in Dave Sim's life:

Viktor Davis looked down and saw two cookies on a small, flowered plate. He realized he was in the kitchen of his grandparents' house in Stoney Creek, Ontario. A female voice (his mother? his grandmother? his sister?) was telling him that the cookies were for Santa Claus. Moments before, Viktor had been seated in a classroom at Forest Hill Public School, trying to focus his attention on some lesson or other. Evidently a period of a year and several months had elapsed.

We don't know for sure that this happened. "This is my autobiography," says Viktor Davis, standing in for Dave Sim, in Reads. "This is as accurate a word picture as I can paint for you of who I am." But elsewhere in Reads Viktor tells us of a decision made the night John Lennon died to stop the series at 200 issues, and to keep this decision secret. Later, he tells us he was only joking. Viktor is an unreliable narrator. But I happen to believe this story, and even though it's treated lightly, a throw-away anecdote slipped into the narrative, I think it was probably one of the defining incidents in Dave Sim's life.

Dave Sim created Viktor Davis to stand between him and the audience because he didn't believe in the concept of reliable narrators, didn't believe in the possibility of a text that could be said to be True. I think the childhood experience so briefly alluded to in Reads is so profound and so disturbing that it probably is vital to understanding Dave Sim's psychological makeup and because of that fundamental to understanding his use of time in Cerebus.

He doesn't want you to be able to map things out the way Alexx tries to do, because he doesn't believe in the reliability of chronology. He deliberately makes this not only difficult, but in fact impossible. He places clear contradictions, as in the case with Jaka's Story following Church & State -- even if you disallow Dave's offstage claim that it's been a fortnight, you can clearly see by the state of decomposition of Bran's body that Cerebus hasn't been away a year or more when he returns to the hotel (yes, that's left out of the phone books but it was in the comic). How long could it have taken him to walk from there down to the place where Rick and Jaka are living? Hours? A day? Certainly not weeks or months.

Then there are the Cirinists and their abolition of the calendar. We can see the changing of at least some seasons in Guys -- but how many years pass, exactly? Again, in an offstage comment, Dave has spoken of months passing unnoticed between one panel and the next. My guess is that Guys spans ten years or more. Someone else thinks five. We can never know for sure.

Dave Sim obviously has a unique perspective on time, born of his unusual experience in childhood. It might be interesting to do a close reading of Cerebus studying the myriad ways in which this perspective pops up -- but I'm not going to do it now. I'm still working on the religion angle, which I promise another installment of soon.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Five

Last time, we stopped where Po was instructing Cerebus on the lesson Bishop Posey represents for him. After that, Po goes on to describe his second life, and this is the one with the analogy to Christ's passion and the echo of the Trial we saw in "Church & State" (all quotes below are from pp. 194-196 of "Flight," and I'm quoting the entire text):

At a very early age, I evinced interest in the primitive gold-smithing tools in my father's small workshop. Ours was a small and impoverished village and there was little gold to practice on except the gold coins which served, as they do to this day, as the foundation of each family income in Iest; whether entrusted to a patriarch in the Lower City or to a matriarch in the Upper City.

There are several curious things about this passage. First, Po had introduced this section with a sort of cliffhanger at the end of his description of the lives of his earlier incarnation, Suenteus Po the First, and his son, Suenteus Po the Second: "In my subsequent incarnation, I was born to a gold miner and his wife in Rivershire Province, twenty years after Alfred's death." If there's anyone who would have access to gold, even in an impoverished village, one would think it would be a gold miner. Perhaps this was an attempt by Dave (or Po?) to make sure we thought of his father as a poor worker, and not a skilled craftsman as Po himself later became. But the two things seem to contradict each other.

Another is the whole set up of gold coins entrusted to a patriarch or matriarch as the "foundation of each family income." I never really understood the economic system of Iest, and this passage makes me wonder if Dave understood money and exchange and how investment works and such. If so, I wish he had given us more detail about the system he worked out, because in the few isolated passages like this one where he touches on it, it just doesn't seem to make any sense. Each family had gold coins to invest? For most of human history, the foundation of the income of 99% of all humanity has been labor, and an economy where almost everyone had not only some investment income but enough investments for that to be the foundation of the family income would be so radically different from anything that we've known that most of the analogies Dave consistently made between Estarcion, particularly Iest, and the modern world would just fall by the wayside. Actually, if there were that much gold that evenly distributed, gold would almost certainly cease to be of value as a unit for monetary trade and something would have had to replace it.

And finally, we touch on the time element again. I suppose it's just meant to show Po reminding us that when he lived, the patriarchs (under Suenteus Po III) ruled the Lower City while the Matriarchs (under the Great Andrena, apparently from the Trial echo Astoria in an earlier incarnation) ruled the Upper City, but the whole thing is confused by the "to this day." This is probably just meant to apply to gold coins still being the foundation of family income, but in any case seems to be wrong. If we take the whole sentence literally, he's saying that matriarchs rule the Upper City and patriarchs the lower "to this day" -- well matriarchs are currently running the Upper City, but it's a very new proposition, not a continuation from hundreds of years ago, and patriarchs certainly do not rule the Lower City. Even if you give Po the benefit of the doubt of an awkward construction and take the phrase to refer only to the coins, it's *still* wrong -- gold coins *aren't* the foundation of family income anymore. Cerebus gathered them all up and Cirin has them all.

Po continues:

One side of the coin is struck with the emblem of the local governor at the time it is issued. The other side is blank and is traditionally carved with a symbol of the family who possesses it. I grew adept at carving these symbols, each more elaborate than the last and soon families were coming from neighbouring villages to have my design added to their coins. I learned to scrape traces of gold from the coins to melt and use as inlay. I invented new tools for engraving finer lines and patterns. A devout Tarimite, I carved His Name in ancient Pigtish rune letters on each coin brought to me.

OK, we don't have the actual tenets and the equivalent of Commandments and such for the Tarimite faith, but it's pretty obviously meant to be an analog of Christianity (or, historically speaking, Judaism in this particular scene), and besides there are certain constants in pretty much every major religion that has ever existed, so I think it's safe to say that there's a disconnect here when Po professes to be a "devout Tarimite" in the next breath after describing how he stole gold from his customers. "Oh, well, it's was only trace amounts, they never noticed." So? It's wrong to steal dollars but OK to steal pennies? He's a thief. A devout Tarimite thief, but a thief nonetheless.

The sin of Pride, almost unavoidable for an Artist. Dave said in Reads that the Artist's work must be more important than "the wife and kiddies," or rather that it should be, but many would-be Artists get sidetracked by the latter. Here, he presents a Pure Artist to whom fairly fundamental morality must fall by the wayside so that he can practice his Art. He's not doing it out of Greed. He doesn't want the gold to spend. He needs it to make Art.

Healers and apothecaries began using the coins in their treatment of family ailments. Miracles were spoken of in hushed whispers and soon more people came from the larger villages and then from the City itself; nobles, lawyers and merchants. As whispers became words and words became legend, the coins seemed imbued with the belief of the people made manifest. Priests of the Eastern Church grew jealous of this faith; felt their influence and control of the population waning with each passing day in Rivershire Province and elsewhere. They took their case to Suenteus Po III, informing him that I was building a kingdom within Iest and that I had declared my family carvings as more worthy of loyalty than the governors' emblems on the obverse.

He doesn't say, exactly, that they are lying about him. He implies it, certainly. I've read that passage several times over the years and I've always assumed that he never said what they said he said, that they were slandering him (Bearing False Witness) because of their jealousy. But it doesn't actually say that. Jealous people can tell the truth, too -- Deep Throat turned out to be an FBI guy passed over for the top spot who was jealous and hurt and had an axe to grind, but everything he said about the Nixon White House turned out to be true. Just because someone's motives for going to the authorities are less than pure, just because the accuser is vindictive and spiteful, doesn't make the accusations wrong.

Did Po say these things? Was he "building a kingdom within Iest?" On the whole, I'd say probably not, but I'm struck by the wording, the very careful wording, I'd say, both on the part of Po and also on Dave's part, not to let us know for sure, either way, just as Jesus, at his trial, refused to answer his accusers.

When they came to arrest me, I knew this had all transpired before many times; as if I was an actor in a play. I remembered my life as Suenteus Po I. As they read the indictment I had a curious sensation that I was imprisoning myself.

As they led me away, there was a flurry of resistance and some blood was spilt. I told my defenders to stand back; not to make it any worse than it already was. They complied and I could see from their expressions that they, too, now felt like actors in a play.

Many of them wept openly.

More Christ analogies. The servant of the priest who lost his ear at the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus telling his followers to put away their swords.

I was brought before Suenteus Po III, a bloated caricature of his father, my son, Alfred. He was amused by my threadbare appearance, my regional dialect. The mages and charlatans who held posts in his Illusionist court were amused as well; they felt that the priests of Tarim had finally lost their minds, seeing a threat in this misshapen peasant. Their questions had a comic turn to them. I answered each question as simply and as honestly as I could. I felt I was part of the joke and that soon they would tire of me as an amusement and I would be set free; though what my fate would have been, then, I have no idea.

But, Po III was seized with the thought of enlarging the jest. He asked if I carved only coins that were minted in the Lower City. No, I said, a number of them had been brought to me by representatives of the Great Ladies of the Upper City. He asked if I felt no qualms as a good Tarimite in crafting coins with the Goddess on them. I admitted that it had troubled me, but I felt that the Word of Tarim should be given freely everywhere and paid witness to. He turned then to his senior advisors and asked what they thought Great Andrena, leader of the Council of the Goddess in the Upper City might think of my heresy. There was much levity at the very prospect.

The play had resumed its course.

Like and yet unlike. Here, Suentus Po III plays Pilate -- except that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, who then sent him back for judgment. Note that Po III seems to tacitly acknowledge that the goldsmith Po is no threat. There is no reason to do him harm. He is being sent to Andrena -- and surely Po knows what is likely to happen to him -- for amusement.

He asked if I had any further words for the illustrious body before me. I said nothing. He informed me that arrangements would be made to transfer me to the custody of the Guardians of the Upper City. With a theatrical gesture, he drew forth a small bowl of scented water and dipped his fingers lightly into it.

I wash my hands of you, he said, and I was led away.

The washing of the hands seems to be an essential part of the proceedings, at least as Dave sees it, or saw it. He made it an unmistakable part of the Trial in Church & State.

That night I was led before Great Andrena. There is no need for me to relate our conversation; the course of the Trial. You experienced it yourself when you tried Astoria as Pope.

You didn't sentence her to death. Events intervened and you ascended instead.

That gives us small cause for hope, does it not?

I was taken to a courtyard in a small prison attached to the Council Building. The charges against me were read again and then the fagots were lighted and I was burned as a heretic.

Obviously, there are differences. History does not exactly repeat itself, but themes repeat themselves, and echoes. Of course, it's denigrating the New Testament Jesus to be just one more echo of that endless list of faces we will see on p. 25 of "Reads." Dave probably doesn't quite believe that anymore, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't consider it blasphemous, either, and more of a "slightly wrong guess" than a serious mistake.

I wonder, given Dave's use of the "homosexualist" (as he calls him) Oscar Wilde in Jaka's Story and Melmoth and his later commentary, whether he is deliberately toying with the audience by using "faggots" (the misspelling is in the original) in its original context, knowing surely that all current North American readers, at least, will inevitably have the other meaning brought to mind. I'm positive he's aware of it. I'm just not certain whether it's a deliberate choice of something he decided he can live with because it's precisely the right word there.

Suenteus Po tells us of his life as a would-be conqueror who really, truly, he assures us, was just trying to preserve "Vanaheim on earth" before it corrupted into something mundane by forcibly installing it in another place. Then he tells us of his life as a Christ analogy, complete with the washing of hands and the martyrdom.

And what lesson are we supposed to learn from this? What lesson has Po himself learned?

My experience taught me that there is no benefit and little wisdom in attempting to influence the minds and the wills of the mass of people. In both my lives I have described to you, I sought that kind of influence and effect; I was a Reformer. In my succeeding lives, I have seen the long-range effects that profound change always brings about. Each Great Movement is sown with the seeds of its own destruction; its corruption and decay as inevitable as Death itself. In each succeeding life I've led, after leaving my parents' house, I have sought a simple and uneventful existence. My quarters are always mean and rudimentary; a bed where I might sleep, a table where I might eat and a chair for sitting on. At this moment, I live in a one room apartment in Iest's Lower City. I have no friends and no contact with any of my relatives. My one luxury is a crude chessboard, made from a discarded packing crate; the pieces carved by hand from scraps of firewood.

Queen's bishop to King's Bishop Four.

I'm sure the first thing that will strike most of my readers is the "one room apartment" with "no friends and no contact with any of my relatives" and how much this sounds like the life Dave Sim has chosen for himself, and indeed, the fact that this is both Po's ideal and the lifestyle he himself practices is one reason why I find myself inescapably drawn to conclude that his viewpoint here is essentially Dave's own, that this lesson is meant to be taken to heart, that Dave believes these words to be essentially true.

Certainly it cannot be denied that every Great Movement -- at least every political and social movement -- "is sown with the seeds of its own destruction. Any student of history can tell you that. Religious movements are a bit trickier, but one can certainly argue that the Christianity that so upset the Roman Empire early in its existence was in fact destroyed by becoming co-opted to the Establishment, and that the overall message is indeed true of all great movements of any kind.

Notice that Po almost openly admits that he has not been telling us the whole truth. When he presented his life as a simple goldsmith, he was doing what he did purely for the glory of Tarim and as an Artist, and only jealous priests charged that he was creating a movement. Yet now he admits that he was "attempting to influence the minds and the wills of the mass of people."

Again, I think Dave is deliberately undercutting Po's trustworthiness here precisely because he feels such an affinity to him, and because back in these days the relativity of truth and inability of anyone to be sure of anything was one of his chief messages. In interviews in those days, he often said things like, "the reader's guess is as good as mine." I think he wants to make sure we don't just see Po as Dave's mouthpiece and automatically trust what he says.

And of course, to underscore the point even more, the passage ends with Po's next chess move -- and it's one that is impossible. It can't be made.

The correct next move in the "fool's mate" Po is luring Cerebus into is "King's Bishop to Queen's Bishop Four." What Po says is "Queen's Bishop to King's Bishop Four." But White's Queen's Bishop is still trapped behind two pawns, and can't possibly move.

When this came out in the original comics, I immediately wrote Dave a letter. I had a chess set out, you see, and was doing each new move when the issue came out, so I knew right away it was impossible. I thought he had made a mistake. I didn't hear back from him and he didn't print the letter, and in fact about the time it would have made print if he did Po realized his mistake and it became part of the book.

To this day I can't say I'm 100% sure whether it was deliberate or Dave "fixed" it by inserting it into the story as Po's mistake on the basis of my letter and/or similar letters from other readers, but I'm quite confidant it was deliberate. It fits so perfectly, the pompous, pontificating I'm-so-smart-I'm-going-to-lure-you-into-the-
fastest-checkmate-possible Suenteus Po misspeaking and screwing up, with potentially disastrous consequences (when you play Cosmic Chess, you have to expect Cosmic Consequences).

The one niggling thing that hints it may have been a retcon is the apparent lack of such disastrous consequences. Despite having eschewn interfering in affairs, Suenteus Po is trying to arrange the meeting that ends up taking place in Reads, and, well, the meeting does in fact end up taking place. His plan works, as far as I can tell. So the mistaken chess move doesn't seem to have mattered.

Except to make him look like a doofus.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Four

OK, where was I? Oh, yeah: Po.

Po tells Cerebus that as Suenteus Po the First he was a reformer, and accuses the Judge of lying about him. He also mentions that "Suenteus Po the First" had taken that name in honor of a great historian from several hundred years before.

When did all this happen, by the way? Alexx thinks it was long, long, LOOOONG ago (he puts it before year zero in his timeline). But this is directly contradicted by the second life Suenteus Po tells us about in detail, the one we saw and heard echoes of during the trial. Since he was making coins and worshipping Tarim, he couldn't possibly have lived before the human Tarim who invented coins came along. I'm guessing it was just a few hundred years ago, but in any case I suspect Dave is either carelessly or deliberately playing fast and loose with the chronology (probably the latter), and you'll never be able to pin it down.

Anyway, Suenteus Po, for all the cultured sophistication and belief in "the greatest freedom for the greatest number," did build his army in exactly the brutal and ruthless way the Judge described, by his own admission. "His description of the raising and training of my army is accurate in every detail." Po objects only to the claim that he pointed them toward Iest and said "Kill!" What he really said, he claims, was "Freedom."

He uses this occasion to mock and scorn the judge, saying that "it is the nature of the judgemental to see only Death in Freedom and to see them as interchangeable." This is the reason the Judge got it wrong: "He saw me as saying 'You are free to kill and cause wide-spread destruction. Do as thou wilt.' What I was saying was 'What we have in this place is dying, atrophying, becoming corrupt. We must go elsewhere and begin anew.'"

Well, this is all very fine and high-sounding, but let's recall the raising and training of that army, which the Judge accurately described "in every detail":

Suenteus Po the First -- thank God he's not alive today -- began his military career recruiting young boys barely out of adolescence into the harshest imaginable training program twenty miles within the disputed boundaries of the Red Marches . . . directly above the extensive network of underground cities which were constructed and have been occupied by the Pigt races for several thousand years since the sudden and relatively untimely demise of the Black Tower Empire . . . about which little is document, less is suspected and almost nothing is known for sure.

Three thousand-one hundred and fifteen boys walked into the disputed area, armed only with short swords and a change of underwear -- having been instructed to forage for food, built shelters for themselves, and for four days defend the area at all costs in the name of the Sepran Empire. At the time little more than a loosely knit collection of hamlets, ports, cities and provinces, strewn across the Northwestern lands of Estarcion.

On the third day, driving nearly insane by black flies, a lack of fresh water and a shortage of food, they were set upon by a large band of Pigt soldiers, who were tied of six thousand-two hundred and twenty-nine feet -- one of the boys was an amputee -- knocking small clumps of earth off their secret underground ceiling into the secret underground soup bowls . . . by dinner-time half of the boys had been killed . . . by midnight when the Pigts retreated, there were only four hundred and eight of the original expedition.

Through the spring, and summer, and into the fall, Suenteus Po continued the process . . . each time sending exactly three thousand one hundred and fifteen boys into the wilds of the Red Marches . . . each time demanding the defend the area with their lives for four days and each time ending up with a few hundred and some-odd survivors who returned to the Sepran lands scarred, weary but alive -- and with a definite enthusiasm for bloodshed . . . until at last he had a force of four thousand six hundred and twelve dedicated and practised killers . . . four thousand six hundred and four of whom could have shaved with an abrasive wash-cloth.

Finally . . . that harvest season . . . just after the grain had been stored and the apple cider was starting to turn . . . he led the four thousand six hundred and twelve survivors out onto the salt flats north of Serrea -- formed in part by the detonation of the sodium chloride bomb by the smart punk Redwoods -- and THERE showed them -- row upon row -- gleaming in the brilliant sunshine -- three thousand one hundred and fifteen full suits of armour -- short swords, long swords, long bows, cross bows, shields, chain mail . . . and assorted dirks, daggers and helmets . . . they got the idea.

The battle raged for most of two days. Into the valleys of the surrounding hills, back onto the flats . . . great clouds of dust raised by the conflict, visible from a distance of twenty-two miles UNTIL . . . by sunset of the second day . . . with the dust beginning to settle . . . there stood two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six survivors armed and armoured from head to toe . . . . . . and one hundred and nineteen leftover sets of equipment -- the boys' enthusiasm having gotten the better of them towards the end there.

Now, does this sound to you like someone trying to preserve a Golden Age, a "Vanaheim on Earth" someone who sees a free society becoming corrupt and wants to institute it elsewhere? More to the point, with an army raised and trained in such a way, is there really a difference between pointing to Iest and saying "Freedom" and pointing to Iest and saying "Kill!"?

It is perhaps instructive just what innovation in governance made the Sepran Empire fall, in Po's eyes, from a system dedicated to "the greatest freedom for the greatest number" to a corrupt system that must be abandoned: the introduction of taxation.

Despite his high words and current austere lifestyle, I mistrust Suenteus Po when he speaks of Suenteus Po the First, and it colors everything else he says. And yet, to the extent that Dave has a viewpoint character in the book other than himself, to the extent any character might be said to be speaking for Dave himself (up until the Cerebexegesis, anyway), it seems clear that it would be Po.

I'm reminded of Jerry Rubin. When he told kids at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, "Don't trust anybody over 30" (a phrase he never claimed was original and seems to have been coined by Berkeley activist Jack Weinberg), he added "-- or under 30, for that matter." More to the point, he had had his own 30th birthday a few weeks before.

Don't trust anyone, kids. Including me.

Once upon a time, that was a major part of Dave Sim's message, so it's not that surprising that he places a seed of doubt in setting up the character who may be his mouthpiece in Flight.

Suenteus Po the First's son, Alfred, took the name Suenteus Po the Second. It is he that conquers Iest (by the simple expedient of ignoring the Upper City altogether). And it is he, it turns out, who is the founder of the religion/philosophy/political movement known as Illusionism.

Driven nearly mad by his precipitous fall from grace, realization came late to Alfred that the Great Forces which he had believed himself to Contain, he had merely Held. Further, that what he had Held was now slipping, like sand, between his fingers. He replaced his governors and his Statesmen with Conjurors and Mages. He declared that all who would follow him were to be called Illusionists. All Life was an Illusion, he said, which explained (to his satisfaction, at least), the mire of failure in which he found himself. He conferred his name on the circle of devotees which surrounded him and empowered them to do the same.

By the time of his death at the age of forty-one, fully one third of the population of the Lower City was named Suenteus Po and believed themselves to function within a single, divine consciousness. Since that day, Illusionism has alternately flourished and declined across the length and breadth of Estarcion, rising and then falling, gaining influence and prominence one day, and being subjected to persecution and purge the next.

Since the Suenteus Po who narrates this entire history at no time expresses either affection nor respect for his son, it seems clear that he is not, in fact, an Illusionist, despite Cirin's misapprehensions in that direction. He seems to be fairly dripping with disdain for Illusionism in this passage, for instance.

I skipped Cerebus' first move in the chess game, but his little visit with Bishop Posey gives Po another opportunity to call Cerebus a Reformer. Again, the word has to be seen in its simplest abstract form -- one who wants to "make a difference" by making his mark on the world, by changing things, by leaving evidence of his passing, not necessarily one who has the desire to help his fellow human beings live fuller and richer lives.

"The hardest lesson for the Reformer to learn," says Po, is that he chooses not whom he inspires, no does he choose the form and substance of that inspiration."

Of course, Dave, who wants to "reform" us all by way of persuading us that his theory of gender differences is correct, has found this to be all too true, since two of his three biggest fans are a lesbian and a self-described "hippy," as far from the kind of person he was *looking* to inspire as Bishop Posey is from, say, Bear. And it's clear that the form and substance of the inspiration the Yahoo group, the most visible and vocal group of Cerebus readers on the planet, has taken from his work is largely not what he would have wished (though there are exceptions to that).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Book Review: First Among Sequels

Taking a short break from the "Religion in Cerebus" series, I recently read my first Thursday Next book by Jasper Fforde -- who I had never heard of until recently. I wrote a review, but found that the book editor of the Post-Dispatch isn't interested. So I thought I'd post it here.

This is either the fifth, the sixth, or the first book to feature Thursday Next, depending on how you're counting.

Those who have read the first four will no doubt consider it the fifth, but there's a book they won't be familiar with on the list of previous Thursday Next books in the front, The Samuel Pepys Affair, which has a line through it and a notation that it is no longer available.

Moreover, this book claims to be the first one featuring the *real* Thursday, not the highly fictionalized one suitable for action/adventure yarns more-or-less invented for the previous books. That Thursday is also a character here, along with the Thursday Next from the unavailable fifth book. If that's not enough duplication, there are the Danver clones -- multiple copies of the austere housekeeper from Rebecca.

It's difficult to describe the Thursday Next novels to someone unfamiliar with them. They take place in an alternate universe -- but then, what book doesn't? You can't possibly meet the real Rabbit Angstrom, after all. He doesn't exist. So a world where he *does* exist, however much like our own it may be, must be an alternate universe.

Fforde takes this idea and plays it to the hilt. There is a whole universe of universes, a vast Bookspace in which whole universes made of books float, mingling in groups of related genres. Thursday can go between the "real" world (well, it's real to her) and the book worlds, and does so in her job as an agent for Jurisfiction.

Thursday's real world is obviously not ours -- genetic engineering has brought back the dodo, for instance. But the differences often make hilarious comment on our own real world.

For instance, the book opens with the news of a hotly contested political debate about the stupidity surplus.

"The reason for the crisis was clear: Prime Minister Redmond van de Poste and his ruling Commonsense Party had been discharging their duties with a reckless degree of responsibility that bordered on inspired sagacity. Instead of drifting from one crisis to the next and appeasing the nation with a steady stream of knee-jerk legislation and headline-grabbing but arguably pointless initiatives, they had been resolutely building a raft of considered long-term plans that concentrated on unity, fairness and tolerance."

The problem with this is that sooner or later, the stupidity is going to have to come out. Instead of being a little bit stupid more or less all the time, the government was building up a surplus that could only be expended by something monumentally dumb. "Only a blunder of staggering proportions would remove the surplus, and the nature of this mind-numbing act of idiocy was a matter of considerable speculation."

There's also the ChronoGuard, a sort of time travel police, an organization Thursday's son, Friday, is destined to grow up to be head of, except that it's three years since he was supposed to have joined and he shows no signs of interest in it whatsoever.

Fforde's stories are so full of literary in-jokes that even though I'm fairly well read I'm sure I missed half of them. Witty, charming, funny, exciting, puzzling, imaginative and rollicking good fun, this book is a delight even if you've never read any of the others. I know this because it was my own introduction to the series, and I can't wait to go find the others.

First Among Sequels
By Jasper Fforde
Viking, 366 pages, $24.95

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Three

I'm going to go through each book in M&D one at a time, but I'm not going to restrict myself to things in that book. I may speak of something Po tells Cerebus, for instance, and then compare it to similar or contradictory bits from the other books, and when I get to Reads and Minds I'll be hearkening back to the first two books. So although I'll be using the structure of M&D itself to some extent, I will very much be discussing M&D as a whole throughout.

While most of what I have to say about Flight revolves around Po's extended chat with Cerebus over their chess game, I would be remiss in ignoring completely the last bit of evidence that Cerebus fulfills some long-ago prophecy as the "redeemer" of Iest. On page 30 of Flight, a character we'll soon learn is named Bryan spots Cerebus killing Cirinists outside and points it out to his wife, who doesn't believe him at first, until she sees Cerebus for herself.

"He's killing all the Cirinists," says Bryan. "He's been resurrected -- that's what! By Tarim! And he's come back to redeem Iest! Just like the prophecies said."

(emphasis in original)

Now, on the one hand it would be hard to find a much more explicit comparison to Christ than to claim a character had been "resurrected" and was sent back by God (whom the Iestians identify as "Tarim" to "redeem" Iest. But the redemption here isn't at all a Christian redemption. Is much more like the kind of "redemption" that the Jews of Jesus' day who believed in the messiah were generally looking for, which Jesus definitely did not provide: someone who would rout the Romans and set up a Kingdom of God with its seat in Jerusalem. To the extent that Cerebus is seen by people as a "redeemer" in Cerebus, this is what they mean. No one is looking for him to redeem their soul, to help the in the afterlife. They are all looking for redemption in the here and now, and it generally means vengeance and glory and a return to power for downtrodden people who remember or imagine better days.

Did Dave not understand the Christian concept of the redeemer? Did he understand it but, like the people of Jesus' day who had something else in mind, reject it? I don't know, but there seems to be no doubt that an explicit Cerebus/Christ analogy is being made here, but with a definition of "redeemer" that is seriously at odds with the Christian one. I think that's important, because to the extent that Cerebus ever fulfills the prophecy, it is definitely this earlier, more violent vision of redemption he embodies.

Of course, Cerebus can't defeat the hordes of Cirinists by himself. He rallies the people to his cause -- or rather the men. And those of them within the sound of his voice obey him, and are slaughtered. Then he disappears.

It takes a while, including a number of encounters with fake Pos -- including, apparently, the one he met during "Mind Games II" -- but eventually, this leads to Cerebus encountering the real Suenteus Po. Or one of them, anyway. The primary Suenteus Po, if you will, though he is neither the first of that name nor, as it turns out, the one whom Cerebus thought of immediately when we first encountered the name back in Mind Games I -- the founder of Illusionism.

This Suenteus Po has had several lives. We hear about two of his earlier ones in some detail. Despite not being the first person -- or even the first notable person in Estarcion's history -- to use the name, the first life we are told about is the person who is apparently known to Estarcion history (and the Judge) as Suenteus Po the First. A bit disconcerting that the man known as the first wasn't really the first, but it's sort of like the English Kings -- no one thinks Richard the Lion-Hearted was the first man named Richard who ever lived in England, but he's still King Richard I.

Po tells us that as Suenteus Po I he was was a "reformer." This is an important word in his vocabulary, one he uses many times in his talk with Cerebus. He says of Cerebus that he has a "reform-minded spirit." Just before Cerebus finally meets Po, he goes through a literal "out-of-body" experience (indeed, the entire encounter with Po takes place between Po and *part* of Cerebus' consciousness that has left the rest of him behind), narrated by Po, who says, almost immediately upon their meeting:

Reform is the centerpiece of the story I told you. Formation and reformation. The fragment detaching from the whole; its disposition and course. All that encompasses human experience is contained therein.

Now, the pages in question (139-146 of "Flight") do not describe anything that remotely resembles what I think comes to most people's minds when they hear the word "reform." Sim -- or at least Po -- has taken the word and deconstructed it to an abstraction that bears little, if any, relationship to its everyday meaning. In the course of those pages, in the brief recap quoted above, Cerebus is "re-formed" in some sense, first growing immensely large, then a fragment of him detaching from the rest. But is the resultant Cerebus "better" or "improved" in any way?

Po, as we shall see, would argue that reform in the ordinary sense is impossible. That while a reformer may seek to make things better, all he can possibly do is just make things different, and that he cannot even predict what kind of changes he will end up making.

For what it's worth, and against the charges of those who claim that Dave Sim became conservative when he converted to monotheism (and for that matter, to Dave Sim's own claims that he is in fact a "real" liberal), this is not only a conservative position, but in fact the heart and soul of true conservatism. Change is something to be deeply suspicious of, because it never works out the way the "reformers" intend, and some of the consequences will always be bad. Even changes that turn out to be "for the best" are really not uniformly good, but merely over time and on balance the good changes outweigh the bad ones.

It's important to keep this abstract view of "reform" in mind throughout Po's talk with Cerebus (I say "with" although it's really a monologue -- Cerebus says nothing throughout the encounter, just as he says nothing in his encounters with the Judge and with "Dave"). It's the only way it makes sense to call Cerebus a "reformer" -- he's a thug, after all, who seldom thinks of anything but his own immediate pleasure. When he said near the end of "High Society" that he thought he could "make a difference," many people thought he was suddenly evincing a desire to save the city from its financial disaster, or make it a better place, but it's clear that what he really had in mind were the daydreams of conquest we see him having during the campaign. That's the kind of "difference" he wants to make -- and only the most radical restructuring of the term can think of that in any way as a "reform."

Monday, July 30, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Two

Let's start with the obvious: Mothers and Daughters consists of four volumes, each with its own title.

Each of these volumes presents a voice engaging in philosophical discourse that goes beyond commenting on the action at hand into analyzing life, the universe, and everything, as Douglas Adams put it.

In the first volume, Flight, the voice is that of Suenteus Po, speaking to Cerebus, although as we shall see one can make the argument that Po is to some extent Dave Sim's mouthpiece, and that Dave is addressing the reader more-or-less directly through Po's discourses to Cerebus.

In the second volume, Women, we have the facing text pages containing extracts from the works of Cirin and Astoria. In this case, any temptation to see either or both of these figures as representing Dave's point of view will be pretty thoroughly exploded by the end of the next volume. Still, it's worth noting ere that the "Cirin" who authored The New Matriarchy, for instance, is probably the *real* Cirin, not Serna/Cirin the usurper. While it may seem inconsistent with his view of women in general, by creating the plot that he did and presenting her to us the way he does, Dave actually seems to have some sympathy with and give some credence to the original Cirin. And while nothing could be farther away from the good and the true, in Dave Sim's mind, than modern feminism and by extension the Kevillism he has said is the Estarcion analogy to it, the character of Astoria, as presented in Women, ends up on a par with Po as one of the most enlightened characters in the entire saga.

The third volume, Reads, has the extended discourse from Viktor Davis that has made "misogyny" an unavoidable word in any serious discussion of Dave Sim -- if you don't use it to describe him, you really have to explain why not, or you're not really being serious.

The final volume, Minds, again has a character ostensibly addressing Cerebus but also speaking directly through the character to the reader, and this time there's no question that the character is Dave's mouthpiece, since the character is, indeed, "Dave," Cerebus' creator.

The extent to which we weigh the relative value or merit of each voice's observations and arguments goes a long way toward deciding which bit of information is reliable, which viewpoint is trustworthy, which conclusion we can be certain Dave Sim shares and wants to get across to the reader.

It's pretty obvious that the Cirinist/Kevillist tracts are not meant to be taken by the reader at face value. They represent, as Dave would now say, the voice of YHWH, or two separate voices of YHWH arguing with herself, splitting and splitting and splitting again in the manner Victor Reid would analyze in Reads (although Victor saw it as an inevitable consequence of Kevillism per se, while Dave would argue that it's a consequence of the feminine mentality). On the other hand, we can assume that these are what Dave Sim considers to be accurate summations of the viewpoints he identifies as Cirinist and Kevillist. What other insight we may be able to glean from them is problematic.

Some readers will find fault with presentation of Po as a spokes-voice for Dave, since Po clearly argues in Reads that there is both a God and a Goddess and seems to be implying that they are equal, a point of view that seems strenuously at odds with Viktor Davis' observations later in the same book. On the other hand, there are many clues that Po is a privileged character, presented to us as one who is superlatively wise, knowledgeable, and trustworthy.

Finally, there are the two different versions of Dave himself, one of whom tells us that the mask of a separate identity with a fictional name is a fundamental necessity, while the other speaks directly to Cerebus with his real name. Is one of these more "real," more truly representative of Dave Sim than the other? Oddly enough, I'll argue that, while both are obviously fictional constructs containing only limited aspects of Dave Sim's real personality, "Viktor Davis" is, by way of being a fuller and more detailed creation, more Dave than "Dave" is.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part One

(I've decided to start over with the numbering instead of numbering this part Nine because this is going to be quite long and be transmitted in several parts, and I didn't feel like going up into the teens. Hopefully, I'll eventually tie it all together into a seamless whole and whatever parts or chapters it breaks into will be structural rather than chronologically convenient.)

In this work, Dave Sim brings it all together. We get an in-depth look at Cirinism and Kevillism, the two great matriarchal systems setting themselves in opposition to the Eastern and Western Tarimite patriarchies. We get Dave Sim's first lengthy analysis of gender differences. And, finally, we get the meeting between Cerebus and his Creator that Cerebus was expecting back at the end of Church & State, though what he gets is every bit as deviant from his expectations as that experience was.

This book is pretty much the last word on the subject of religion prior to Dave's Sim's conversion. Oh, there's a bit of stuff in Guys, but no new information, really -- the festival we see the remains of is discussed her. And of course as we all know, toward the end of Guys Dave began reading the Bible for the first time in preparation for mocking it in Rick's Story, and it almost immediately began to change him in some fundamental ways. I will do one more of these essays after finishing a reread of the last 100 issues, but I've just finished a third reread -- not as in third ever, but the third in the last few months -- of Mothers and Daughters, because the information and analysis here is so dense and so contradictory, so it's going to be another long wait, I'm afraid, before we get to it.

Wait, I hear someone say, did you say contradictory? Oh, yes indeed. Blatantly and unresolvably, so unmistakable that I find it hard to believe it could be anything but part of Dave's deliberate plan, to avoid having any "final answers," since it's obvious that before his conversion, at least, he didn't think any final answers were possible. On the other hand, there's a contradiction even before the first page proper of the very first book -- right there in the introduction -- that can't be anything but a mistake, an error on Dave's part that is both understandable and baffling, and makes one wonder whether the contradictions aren't merely the sloppiness of a man who has thrown himself into a demanding, nearly impossible task that has him juggling bits and pieces of ideas he's been dealing with inside his head and on scraps of paper for over a decade, so that he no longer can keep it all from tumbling down around his ears.

In the Introduction to Flight, the first volume of Mothers and Daughters, Dave talks about hearing the "voices" of Cirin and Astoria debate various ideas and topics over the years in his head for a dozen years and says, "That was the genesis of the facing text pages interspersed with the story-line that you will see throughout this and future volumes."

Except there aren't any facing text pages giving Cirin's and Astoria's points of view in Flight. Nor, as it turns out, in the final two volumes of this four-volume novel. Those pieces exist only in Women, the second volume. Now, on the one hand the mistake is understandable: Dave was working on Women at the time. The Introduction is date February 1, 1993, the month #167 came out, although Dave was probably working on #170 or so by then. Women, according to the Cerebus Wiki (, comprises issues #163-174. So Dave had been doing those facing pages for more than six months, and had been hearing those voices in his head, and occasionally writing down their arguments in his notes, for over a decade. You can see how he had come to feel like he'd been doing it for a lot longer than he had. And perhaps the final structure of Reads and Minds had not yet revealed itself to him, and he was at that point expecting to continue the debate through to the end.

And yet, it's also baffling -- did he not so much as glance over the pages collected here before writing the introduction? Did he really have no idea of that complex and intricate interweaving of illustrated text, comics, and non-illustrated text that he was going to use in Reads a mere four months from embarking on it?

It's a frankly bizarre mistake. And it makes one wonder about the appearance of a order and structure and plan in Cerebus -- how much of it is real, and how much the happy accident of the unconscious genius locked inside a sloppy mentality?

OK, that's too harsh. But consider a the more serious contradiction:

We discover in Minds the "true" secret origin of Cirinism, and it all revolves around the *real* Cirin and her friend, Serna. Serna is, of course, the aardvark we've known as Cirin through the entire series so far, and Cirin is the old woman Cerebus meets briefly in Women. Previously, we learned that Astoria herself had created Kevillism, at least according to Theresa's briefing to Weisshaupt -- which is backed up here by allowing us to see the young Astoria receiving for the first time the volume of philosophical sayings called the "Kevil."

And yet, we are told in Reads that Victor Reid is embarking on a project tracing the rise and fall of Cirinism and Kevillism over centuries. When Cirin is injured, her handlers are fearful of bringing Astoria into her presence, afraid that she might "declare herself the new Cirin" and establish a new rule under herself. Now, one might argue this is a reference to Cirin's own deposition of the real Cirin, but certainly at the time it happens (before we know that story) and I'd argue even in retrospect (because it seems unlikely that they all would even know about that, much less discuss it openly) it seems that they're making reference to "Cirin" as almost more a title than a name, like "Caesar," that there is always a Cirin at the head of the matriarchal movement, whatever her birth name might have been.

This is the largest and most obvious of the contradictions, and it seems irreconcilable. Cirinism and Kevillism are two forces that have contended with each other and with the forces of patriarchy for centuries or even millenia, or Cirinism and Kevillism are both relatively new things that have sprung up in recent memory -- certainly within the last few decades in the case of Cirinism (yes, the aardvark Cirin might be hundreds of years old, as we later discover their lifespan is not necessarily the same as humans', but the *real* Cirin is still alive and doesn't even seem to be of severely advanced age, maybe 50 or at the outside 60), and of course Kevillism couldn't possibly be more than ten or twenty years old if Theresa's story is true. How can they be both?

One could argue that the story in Minds must be true, because Dave tells it, and Dave wouldn't lie to Cerebus. But we see him deliberately mislead Cerebus by giving him partial truth, withholding important parts of the story (Jaka getting ready for her date, with Cerebus never discovering she was stood up). That's not the same as a deliberate lie, of course, and I tend to believe that the story is primarily true so far as it goes. But obviously, even if the names "Cirinism" and "Kevillism" didn't exist prior to this incarnation of the ideas as political realities in Estarcion, I think it's clear that we are meant to believe that the forces and ideas these names represent are more-or-less immmortal, pre-existing the historical political structures people find themselves living under, and of course, still existing 6,000 years later in our own time, at least according to Dave.

NEXT: the structure of Mothers and Daughters and how it influences a theological analysis of the work.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Part Eight

Before moving on to Melmoth, I want to say one more thing about Jaka's Story, and that is to remark on the morally ambiguous character of Jaka herself. She is the agent of redemption for Pud, and the murderer of her own child. She is the sensible provider who loves and takes care of a man-child who seemingly would be lost in the real world without her, and she deprives him of the one thing he wants most in life. She is in almost every way a better person than Mrs. Thatcher, yet the latter is able to show her as a liar who deceives herself and those around her.

There's a good reason why many people think "Jaka's Story" is the high point of the book. I'm not certain we ever see this complexity and ambiguity, this sharp delineation of real human character in all its contradictions, again.

But let's move on.

There is little to say about Melmoth, although obviously it, too, deals with a subject of interest to most religious people: death. Generally, though, religion concentrates not on the act of dying, which is depicted here, but on what happens to us after death, about which "Melmoth" is silent. The only thing of religious interest here is the faithful portrayal of the Last Rites performed for the dying Oscar Wilde, and not so much those rites themselves as Dave's commentary on them:

I am not unmindful of blasphemy and its attendant consequences. While I am not specifically a church-goer, nor affiliated with any denomination of system of belief, I have an appropriate amount of respect for the Church of Rome and its attendant power and mysteries. I approached the section of the story which dealt with Oscar's baptism and the administration of Extreme Unction with a wariness and apprehension suitable to the situation. I had done no research on the subject until the day arrived that I had to begin laying out the sequence. I went to the library filled with the dread of the peril to my immortal soul and found a volume on Catholic rituals. I discovered that Extreme Unction was one of the rituals which had been simplified in several ways by the Second Vatican Council. Instead of anointing the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the mouth, the hands and the feet, the priest now only anoints (if I recall correctly), the forehead and the hands. And whereas the anointing before had to be done with consecreated olive oil, now any vegetation-based oil could be used in a pinch.

Since the ritual had been changed, I no longer felt that I was blaspheming against the Catholic religion, but merely documenting a recently-corrected misapprehension of the late Victorian era; still an act of unsavoury aspect (or two), but far from the High Crime I feared committing.

Now remember, the Dave who wrote those words was, the current Dave would have us believe, an atheist. Let's look a bit more closely at this passage once again and examine that proposition.

I am not unmindful of blasphemy and its attendant consequences.

What exactly are the "attendant consequences" to blasphemy for an unbeliever? If you don't believe in God, if you don't believe in anything that the religion you are "blaspheming" against has to say, how can you believe that any of the consequences they might believe in could possibly happen to you?

There is, of course, the possible consequence of being burned at the stake as a heretic, but as a late-20th/early-21st Century North American Dave is pretty safe from that particular consequence.

While I am not specifically a church-goer, nor affiliated with any denomination of system of belief, I have an appropriate amount of respect for the Church of Rome and its attendant power and mysteries.

This is a pretty remarkable statement, it seems to me. It sounds suspiciously like something a Lapsed Catholic might say, frankly. Not at all like something an atheist who was the child of atheists and raised completely without religion would say, if he were still truly an atheist with no belief in God or the Hereafter. This sounds like someone who is half convinced that the Catholic Church really does have something going for it, something he almost wistfully admits he does not, perhaps cannot share, but which he recognizes as at least some part of The Truth.

I approached the section of the story which dealt with Oscar's baptism and the administration of Extreme Unction with a wariness and apprehension suitable to the situation.

Again: Wariness of what? Apprehension of what?

I had done no research on the subject until the day arrived that I had to begin laying out the sequence. I went to the library filled with the dread of the peril to my immortal soul and found a volume on Catholic rituals.

OK, did I misread that, or did our supposed atheist just state flatly that he has an immortal soul? Dave is usually a fairly careful writer on subjects like this, and he goes out of his way, it seems, by stressing it by using that word. Not just the jocular "dread of peril to my soul (if I have one)" you'd expect from a real atheist, not even the "dread of peril to my soul" you might expect from that opening, but "dread of peril to my immortal soul," a nice turn of phrase, instantly memorable as it rolls off the mental tongue, as it were, but unmistakably and undoubtedly theistic in import.

I discovered that Extreme Unction was one of the rituals which had been simplified in several ways by the Second Vatican Council. Instead of anointing the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the mouth, the hands and the feet, the priest now only anoints (if I recall correctly), the forehead and the hands. And whereas the anointing before had to be done with consecreated olive oil, now any vegetation-based oil could be used in a pinch.

One reason why it's always fun to read Dave is how often I learn something. I probably already knew more about Islam than the average non-Muslim American before I read "Islam, My Islam," but reading that probably tripled, at least, my knowledge. You never know when you're going to run into something Dave has done research on. I found this very interesting. However:

Since the ritual had been changed, I no longer felt that I was blaspheming against the Catholic religion, but merely documenting a recently-corrected misapprehension of the late Victorian era; still an act of unsavoury aspect (or two), but far from the High Crime I feared committing.

I am still baffled by this. I don't understand exactly why he felt the depiction of Extreme Unction in his comic book would have been blasphemous in the first place. I suppose making the priest a Devotionalist administering to a fictional Oscar in a fantasy world city that may or may not be our world about six thousand years ago, as opposed to an actual documentary-style comic like Jack Jackson's histories or Joe Sacco's journalism comics, might make some people say so, but the veneer of fictional disguise here was very, very thin. This practically *was* a documentary on the death of Oscar Wilde. As far as I know, the Roman Catholic Church is not a secret society like the Masons. There is no Veil of Secrecy over its rituals. Depicting them is not forbidden, as far as I know. Some Catholics may have been offended by The Exorcist, or by the intercutting of the baptism of young Michael Rizzi with the various murders carried out at his Godfather's orders in the movie of that name -- but as far as I know there was never any official Church condemnation of the basic fact that the rituals themselves were being depicted in fiction.

And why the fact that the ritual had been changed since would affect the status of the blasphemy is even harder to understand. I mean, I understand what Dave is saying here. I understand why he thinks it matters. I just don't understand how a mind can work that way.

Wow. I thought this would would be a lot shorter than this. Of course, most of it is running Dave's quote in full twice.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Concept of Redemption in Cerebus - Part Three

You may remember that the multi-part essay "Religion in Cerebus" began as a digression from a discussion of the Concept of Redemption in Cerebus, and extended because it ended up sparking yet another reread of the whole saga through the lens of a topic that became, for me at least, more interesting than my original one.

However, with "Jaka's Story" I find I must return to the original theme, at least briefly, because here we find, not just a redemption story, but a truly Christian redemption story, rare in literature and especially rare in the kind of action/adventure literature that Cerebus must eventually be placed within, no matter how it struggles to free itself of the shackles of the genre. By this I mean that we have a redemption that is totally unearned, a gift of grace that saves the soul of an undeserving nasty man, redeeming him into a sympathetic character.

I'm talking, of course, about Pud Withers.

Our first sight of Pud is standing at the window, imagining the conversation he will soon be having with Jaka as she comes in to buy the day's groceries. He is interrupted by Cerebus, who is on his way down the mountain after the conclusion of "Church & State" and sees the sign and comes in for an ale.

When Jaka comes in, her reunion with Cerebus derails the expected conversation, and Pud is seen standing alone, holding a prized apple, an ineffectual, pathetic figure.

Ineffectual, pathetic, slightly sympathetic -- you almost can't help feeling sorry for the guy. That's Pud Withers as we first encounter him. Even when his imagined conversations begin to turn toward more intimate connections -- he talks about his wife having passed away, and how lonely he is -- we are at first only amused and saddened by his unrequited passion.

But passion is a dangerous thing, and before long the imagined conversations take on a darker tone. In the sequence on pp. 193-195, Pud imagines himself starting with the supposed death of his wife (he slips and says "mother" once and we realize Pud never had a wife) and leading up to telling Jaka, "There will have to be some . . . changes made." The sequence ends with the ominous reflection of Pud's face in a puddle of water on the floor that he is mopping, looking not at all harmless and ineffectual but dangerous and threatening, as he thinks, "Don't move, Miss Jaka. Please. I'm not going to hurt you."

At that moment Pud changes from comic relief to villain. It is clear that he plans to rape Jaka, if not literally and physically, then psychologically, by using her dependence on him to coerce her into sex.

The next night, it almost happens, but instead Jaka gets drunk and throws up on him, then runs home in disgrace. The next morning, shamed, she goes to his grocery store, but he makes light of the situation, tells her they're both going to forget the night before, and they have a bright conversation much like the one he imagined back at the beginning of the book, and everything seems to be as it was.

But when she leaves, he has the "Don't move" dialogue running through his head again. Pud is still set on a dangerous course. The reader is not at all sympathetic to him anymore. He is a Bad Guy, a threat to Jaka.

He begins to make his move on page 265. The conversation goes almost exactly as he has imagined it, word for word, right up to Jaka's reaction to his "There'll have to be some changes made."

"Changes, Pud?" she says. "What sort of . . . ?"

And then they are interrupted by the door opening and an old man, an old soldier it turns out, walks in, having been attracted by the Guffin (painted by Oscar) on the road. The old man orders an ale, Jaka dances, and much later, the old man leaves, promising to come back the next night. Jaka is exultant, sure that this is just the beginning and soon the places will be full of customers. She leaves. Pud is dejected. He goes and sits by himself and muses, having yet another imaginary conversation with Jaka on p. 279

Miss Jaka, I'm not a rich man. When . . . when Mama died she left me all the money she had made from her . . . her career. It was a lot of money, Miss Jaka. To me, anyway. Of course, I never got to use money until I was almost twenty-five and then it was only a few copper bits at the most and even then, it was only just to save her a few steps. She'd remember something she forgot to get and she'd give me a few coins and point me at the stall and say "Get me some eggs, would you, Pudley" of "See if Mr. Stephanie has that new spice I asked for, Pudley."

When Mama died.

When Mama died a man came to the door and told me how much money she left me. He wanted me to sign papers, Miss Jaka, and give power of something I forget the word but it was power of. I know, because I didn't like the sound of it, Miss Jaka, not one little bit. So I told him if the money was mine, I wanted him to bring it to me and I would have the power of it. That's exactly what I said to him, exactly. The power of it. So he'd know that I knew what he was talking about.

What I'm trying to say, Miss Jaka, is that that money's almost gone now. Between getting your costumes repaired and buying new costumes and beads and feathers and belts and . . . and the nuts and the apples and the tinned meats and . . .

All the money.

The money it took my mother a lifetime to save. In less than a year.

Tonight, Miss Jaka, tonight that little old man was here all night and he had exactly one ale. One ale, Miss Jaka. One half a copper bit. For the whole night.

I saw him give you two crowns, Miss Jaka. Two crowns for your dancing.

When the rest of Mama's money is gone. In a few weeks. Maybe a month. You and your husband will leave, won't you, Miss Jaka? Leave me. To die all alone. Without a copper bit. With mountain properties no one will buy since the Big Mountain Quake. You'll leave me just to starve to death. Just sitting here like I am now. Starve to death. Starve to death.

Or maybe I'll walk across the roadway, Miss Jaka. Maybe that's what I'll do. Just close my eyes and walk straight ahead across the roadway until . . .

At that point Jaka comes back in, on p. 280

JAKA: Pud! I almost forgot to give you these.

PUD: ut . . . Miss Jaka . . . that's your money. We agreed . . .

JAKA: Oh PUD! Don't be silly. I know our food costs you more than three bits. A lot more.

JAKA (cont.): Don't you worry. We're going to pay you back EVERY COPPER BIT! You'll keep all of my tips for the next few months. And Rick will find a JOB soon . . . and THEN. . .

JAKA (cont.): THEN, Mr. Pud Withers, I'M going to make this the busiest little tavern in IEST . . . and YOU . . . YOU I'm going to make into the WEALTHIEST tavern owner in ESTARCION. Just you SEE if I don't.

Pud's reaction to this is to fall on his knees in prayer.

Bless me, Tarim, for I have sinned

I have looked on a married woman with lust and I almost . . .

I almost


Please, Tarim, have mercy on me and I promise, I swear to you I'll never do a bad thing again.


Please Tarim.

Oh, please

I'm sorry, Mama

I'm sorry

Pud is redeemed by Jaka's action. Fully and completely. When he is killed by the Cirinists less than a hundred pages later, it is a shock and a tragedy. He has become a sympathetic figure again, and we are saddened by his death rather than feeling, "Good. He got what was coming to him." He is no longer a Bad Guy. Through no action of his own, except sincere repentance and acceptance of the Grace that has been visited upon him, he has been redeemed.

This is an overtly and unmistakably Christian redemption story, and it's all the more remarkable to see it in a book written by someone who has never been a Christian or particularly sympathetic to the Christian point of view. We've already pointed out the lampooning of Christianity in "Church & State" especially, and even after Dave Sim became a monotheist, he still seems to have little use for the Christian concept of unearned redemption, as his answer to a Christian in the Blog & Mail of February 24, 2007 shows. And yet, here it is, perfectly displayed (as long as you allow Jaka to be an Angel, and not a Viper or a Scorpion, as it were -- little joke from WAAAAY up ahead, for those who haven't read the whole series yet).

The whole redemption question by Larry that began this series of essays was "What would have constituted Cerebus (the character) redeeming humanity." This is the answer. If somehow because of Cerebus, each and every individual on earth, or at least some substantial portion of them (Christians, after all, speak of Christ redeeming humanity when in fact most of them believe he redeemed only those who have accepted him as their Savior), were changed for the better the way Pud was changed for the better by Jaka, that would be redemption.

Of course, Mrs. Thatcher would be quick to point out that the evil Jaka redeemed Pud from was brought on by herself in the first place. If she hadn't danced in front of him in those flimsy costumes, if she hadn't aroused his lust in the first place, he wouldn't have needed redemption. I disagree with that position, but it's one that shouldn't just be ignored. I'm not going to do much more than acknowledge it here, however, because I haven't time to mount a serious refutation and it takes me too far away from the general subjects I'm working with here. Still, I thought it would be less than honest to close without at least acknowledging it.

But whether or not she was responsible for Pud's fall in the first place, Jaka is certainly responsible for his redemption. He is not. He is ready to rape her, or at best coerce her into sex, and after the interruption is so dejected at not having been able to carry out his designs that he is contemplating suicide. And after she comes back in, a simple act of generosity, of human goodness, turns him around, changes him into a better person.

May we all be aware at all times that our behavior can have affects both good and bad on other individuals, and strive to be like Jaka here in setting an example that will touch the hearts of those around us and inspire them to be better people, and may we all be better people in aiming for such an aspiration.