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.