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.