Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cerebus 10th Anniversary Reread: Cerebus (Volume 1) (Part 1)

My first impression on rereading this book 10 years after the final volume of Cerebus was published, and more than 3 decades after the stories collected here were published, is that the usual dismissal of this book as representing amateurish stories featuring Cerebus as a funny-animal parody of Conan the Barbarian are really accurate only of the first handful of stories. I've always recognized that the quality of Sim's art grew rapidly in these early stories, and that the "amateurish" accusation isn't really fair after the first year or so, and by the time we reach the so-called "Palnu Trilogy" (reprinting #14-16, not given that title in this book), the quality of the art was in fact quite high, and easily comparable to the comics being published by Marvel and DC at the time.

More importantly, though, Cerebus isn't really operating as a "barbarian" through the whole book, even during portions where he seems on the surface to be represented that way. Also, the whole thing is more connected than I remembered. Although it is definitely a collection of "stories" rather than a continuous novel, there is more connective tissue between the episodes that I had remembered, and it's quite clear from very early on that each of these stories is part of a continuous narrative. Long before Sim's announcement that the series would last 26 years and tell a complete story, ending in Cerebus' death, he obviously had some notion of doing something like that. The last completely disconnected story here is actually "Death's Dark Tread," which represents the original issue #4, published barely six months after the first issue on Sim's original bi-monthly schedule, and even #3 and #4 feature the introduction of characters (Red Sophia and Elrod the Albino) who will return and become important parts of the larger story.

After that, there really isn't a single issue that stands completely alone. "Black Magicking" is the closes to it, and it appears only halfway through the book. Issue #5 ("The Idol" - originally untitled) gives us a hint of Cerebus' importance in the world he inhabits and hints at future developments, "The Secret" introduces a character who is obviously set up to return someday (Jaka), and "Black Sun Rising" re-emphasizes that aardvarks are something really special in Estarcion, and from there on you have basically episodes in what is pretty obviously one story.

There is also something interesting going on time-wise here. Although the first story is complexly unconnected in time from the next, we soon get references to the passage of time, and several issues go by in a row where not much time passes. Cerebus is "a day's march" from Iest when he leaves the Pigts and muses that "It never fails -- two hours in any of these accursed cities and some farmer with more muscle than brains comes flying at me …" near the beginning of the next story.

At the beginning of "Merchant of Unshib," originally published in #10 (June 1980), Cerebus says to Sophia "In the last week, Cerebus has had his back blasted, his ribs fractured and his Empire slipped out from under him by a blimp in black armour." The blimp in black armour was last issue, but the back got blasted back in "Black Sun Rising," which was issue #7 (December 1979), and that couldn't have been more than a couple of weeks - and probably only a couple of days - after "The Secret," which in turns seems to take place over a few hours just a day after "The Idol." So from August 1978 to June 1979, almost a year of time for the original readers of the comic book, something less than a month - maybe only a couple of weeks - passed for Cerebus.

This sequence is followed immediately by "The Merchant and the Cockroach" (#11 - August 1980), where three weeks pass from one page to the next, summarized in a caption on the first panel of that page. Later, we'll have an episode of "lost time." Cerebus is drugged at the end of "She-Devil in the Shadows" ( #19) and is drugged through "Mind Games" (#20). In  "The Death of Elrod" (#22), he discovers that instead of having lost a day or two as he thought, "some weeks" have passed. We know that he woke up at the beginning of #21 in Beduin, far removed from Togith, the place he'd been when he was drugged. An "explanation" of "What Happened Between #20 and #21" was published in a "Swords of Cerebus" collection, but it wasn't really very enlightening).

Sim would later stretch and compress time even further later on in the saga, spending years during the original run of the issues that became "Church and State" depicting events that take place over a couple of weeks, and later chronicling decades over the course of a few pages  in "Latter Days." But it's interesting to note that he was doing this kind of thing this early on.

But why do I say Cerebus isn't a barbarian here? He still presents himself that way throughout the book, and while he loses the horned helmet fairly early, he's still wearing the medallions that were part of Barry Smith's version of how Conan looked at the end of this book.

For one thing, Cerebus is far more cerebral than the average barbarian. There's far too much talking for "Cerebus the Barbarian" to be appropriate as a title.

Cerebus shows himself to be smarter than the average barbarian in the very first issue. After defeating a sorcerer, one of his companions says "How did you come to know so much of the ways of these wizards?" and Cerebus replies, "Cerebus has his feet in two wolrds … though I was born to be a warrior, the ways of sorcery are not unknown to me."

Cerebus may think of himself as a "warrior born," but in fact he is not very warlike even in most of this book, much less the rest of the series.

In the first three issues, we see him in various jobs as a sword-for-hire, twice as an individual, once as part of an army of sorts. In the fourth issue, he is posing as a merchant but circumstances cause him to have to fight, first with a monster, then with Elrod, then with the city guards. In the fifth issue, he's said to be a sword-for-hire in an army again, but we first see him separated from his forces, he doesn't do any fighting (unless you count destroying a clay statue with punches) and heads to the city of Iest at the end, apparently deserting his job as a mercenary.

He does do some fighting in #6 and #7, and while drugged in #8 he is sent out to kill some people, which he does while hallucinating they are Elrod and Sophia. This may be the last time Cerebus clearly kills someone in the book, and is definitely the last time he defeats someone in battle with a sword.

In #9, he has the duel with K'Cor, in which he doesn't do all that well and it's not really certain at the end why K'Cor abandons the fight and lets him go. Certainly Cerebus does not clearly win the battle.

In #10, Cerebus mostly uses his brain rather than his brawn or his sword, to trick everyone around him and end up with the Black Lotus, a "Maltese Falcon" like object that is the MacGuffin of this particular story. In #11, after selling it to the Merchant, he observes the Merchant turn into the Cockroach, and even though terms like "Multiple Personality Disorder" are not part of his vocabulary, fairly astutely figures out what's going on. The way Sim depicts his intelligence struggling through his very limited knowledge to arrive at the answer is actually quite well done. There is a fight scene at the end of #12, and it's possible that Cerebus kills three city guards then, but since he's armed with an oar it's more likely he's just knocked them unconscious.

There's a brief fight at the beginning of #13, but Cerebus is soon overpowered by superior numbers. He doesn't fight the rest of the issue. He does fight in "Silverspoon," which reprints a series of one-page strips that ran in the Comics Buyers Guide and take place between #13 and #14,

Then we have the so-called "Palnu Trilogy." The name was given to #14-16 when they were reprinted in "Swords of Cerebus," apparently to call attention to the fact that it was essentially a single story over three issues. Up until then, the perception was, each issue had stood alone, but as we have just seen this was not strictly true. #12 was obviously a continuation of #11, although it was admittedly presented more as a story and its sequel rather than as a continuous story. #7 led directly into #8, because if Cerebus hadn't been injured and drugged by the giant spider he wouldn't have been so easily manipulated in the early pages of #8. #8 leads directly into #9, because Cerebus is leading the Conniptins to Imesh at the beginning of the latter, and the whole reason he goes to that city is to start a campaign of conquest as the new Conniptin leader. #10 leads inexorably to #11, because having stolen the Black Lotus Cerebus needs to find someone to sell it to.

It is arguable that you can see the entire sequence of #5-12 as one continuous story, albeit a somewhat episodic one. And this is *before* Sim announced his plans for a 26-year continuous story. #13 does somewhat stand  alone by itself, but it also sets up a joke whose punchline won't come until #80, several years later. So it's pretty clear that by then Sim was already thinking long term.

But with the Palnu Trilogy the kind of broad sweep that Sim will use in "High Society" and then "Church and State" and then the remainder of the 300 issues begins to be apparent. It is all of a piece, a sort of min-mini-novel within the overall storyline, setting us up for what is to come stylistically and thematically as well as structurally and in terms of the actual plot (Lord Julius and his bureaucracy being crucial to how the next several hundred pages of story will develop).

Cerebus enters Palnu in #14, and is immediately given a job in the Palnan bureaucracy. Granted his job fits with the idea that he is a "warrior" (athough the title is "Kitchen Staff Supervisor" his actual duties are to be in charge of security, chiefly to prevent the assassination of Lord Julius, so he's basically an executive level bodyguard). However, we do not see Cerebus sword-fighting anyone in the entire "Palnu Trilogy" He does briefly use a sword against the giant snake in #16, but quickly realizes it is useless and tosses it aside.

The next actual swordfight Cerebus engages in, in fact isn't until # 19 ("She-Devil in the Dark") against Ghita - and he does very badly against her indeed, barely escaping with his life. For the rest of the book, he does nothing more violent than crashing through a door with a lamppost in #24. In fact, our barbarian hero spends an entire issue comatose, although we in fact are privy to his trip to the astral plane during at least the early part of the period in which he is drugged (see "lost time" above).

When Cerebus teams up with the T'Gitans in #17, it becomes clear just how far removed he is from the barbarians around him, with the possible exception of their leader, Gudre. He can pretend to be one of them, as he does at the end of #18, but he is far more sophisticated.

So really, after #8, there's very little fighting, and Cerebus doesn't always emerge victorious when there is. So much for "Cerebus the Barbarian."

But, as Arlo Guthrie would say, that's not what I came here to talk about.

I came to talk about the draft.

(No, not really, but I'm afraid you'll have to wait until next time to find out what I *really* want to talk about.)