Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cerebus 10th Anniversary Reread: Cerebus (Volume 1) (Part 2)

This book is usually thought of as a collection of mostly unconnected stories that are parodies of Conan the Barbarian, with a talking aardvark instead of Conan as the main character. On this reread, I discovered for perhaps the first time how wrongheaded that description is of all but the first four chapters here. Those chapters are indeed separate stories instead of proper chapters in an overall book, and the first one in particular is almost completely unconnected from anything else. Starting with "The Idol," though (originally published in issue #5 with no title) we are firmly in the grip of a long story whose roots are being established, even though Sim didn't really know where that story was headed yet.

The first four chapters are indeed almost slavish imitations, through the lens of parody, of the comics produced by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith (before he added the "Windsor") for Marvel's "Conan the Barbarian" comic book in the early 1970s. The first chapter, "The Flame Jewel," has some innovative tricks up its sleeve in presenting the standard "steal a precious jewel from a dangerous sorcerer" trope, and a good joke at the end on the thieves who hire Cerebus. The second chapter,  "Captive in Boreala," opens with an obvious homage to the opening of Conan #16, "The Frost Giant's Daughter," but wanders a bit, seemingly uncertain where to go next, before arriving at the Eye of Terim and the dark, sardonic laughter in the darkness that hints of something important but ends up never being explained in any of the 298 issues to follow. I think of this as the first hint that the young Sim had an ambition to turn this funny-animal parody of Conan into something more, but by the time he realized what it was to be, this story no longer really fit into his plans. He tried to explain this and chapter 4 ("Death's Dark Tread") away in "Flight" many years later.

There does at first seem to be a VERY important piece of foreshadowing in "Captive." The beautiful, glowing, strange white globe that seems to be the gem called "The Eye of Terim" (and perhaps it really is what the legendary Eye of Terim was all along) turns out to actually be a horrible-looking creature called a succubus that has sucked the souls from countless men and seeks to do so with Cerebus.

Now, anyone familiar with the whole Cerebus saga and Dave Sim's later-expressed view of women as soul-sucking voids cannot help but look at this as an example that he was headed in that direction all the way back in early 1978 when issue #2 was first published. Especially given that a "succubus" is, according to Merriam-Webster, "a demon assuming female form to have sexual intercourse with men in their sleep." The thing is, Dave Sim has disclaimed all conscious knowledge of the meaning of the word succubus at the time he wrote this story, and has even said that at the time he did this story he thought of himself as a feminist. He was vaguely aware of the word, knew it was some kind of evil supernatural creature, and he liked the sound of it (the "succu-" seemed to fit with a creature that "sucked" souls), so he put it in there, entirely unaware that this would become the first "soul-sucking void" and that that image would come to be one of the defining points of his life's work.

So synchronicity, perhaps, rather than foreshadowing, might be best description of this appearance of a soul-sucking void so early in the story, and as I say it isn't really a story yet, just a series of unconnected episodes. It is noteworthy, though, that though Cerebus is lusting after the "Eye of Terim" he still at one point swears by "Tarim." In "The Flame Jewel," the sorcerer used "Terim" in one of his incantations and also uttered "Tarim" as an oath on the same page. So even this early Sim does seem to be consciously setting up a world where among the many gods men worship are a "Tarim" and a "Terim," who seem by their names to be obviously related to each other in some manner and yet are also separate and distinct. Whether he already envisioned them as male and female versions of the same deity is doubtful, and it's pretty clear that at this point Tarim is not "God" as modern monotheistic societies think of that term, but just a small-g "god" like Zeus or Thor. (Tarim is, in fact, one of the things borrowed from the Conan comic book, where there were two warring societies whose dispute was centered on which of them deserved to have possession of the living Tarim, a god-man embodied in a descendant of the original through dozens of generations.)

The third story, "Song of Red Sophia," takes even its title from a Conan comic book, the last one Barry Smith did, "The Song of Red Sonja." The story itself has nothing to do with that story, but the character is essentially that character, borrowed from a non-Conan story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard. She was later associated primarily with artist Frank Thorne, who drew a series featuring her. Sim used Thorne as the basis for the character Henrot, who is Sophia's father, and in fact "Henrot" is an anagram of "Thorne." So this issue is a tribute to Thorne as much as Smith, and it even seems that Sophia is intended to be an imitation of Thorne's Sonja rather than Simth's, although Sim's art is not yet good enough to tell the difference. This issue features some serious backsliding with respect to the art - one page where he uses an interesting three-panels-in-one trick to show the quick action of a duel has, in the face of the middle Sophia, the worst art since that deformed horse back on the first page. However, the art as a whole is actually better, and the idea of Cerebus as a cartoon character in a realistic world is beginning to be realized.

The storytelling in "Song of Red Sophia" is a huge step up in sophistication from "Captive in Boreala." Instead of a meandering story that seems to start out with no destination in mind (whether or not that is accurate), we have a story told almost entirely in flashback, giving us a glimpse from just moments before the climax, then going back 3 days to show how we got here, then proceeding to the conclusion and epilogue. While not exactly "experimental," in the usual sense of breaking new ground for writers in general, it's clear that Sim is experimenting for himself with different storytelling techniques.

Red Sophia and Elric, who first appears in the next story, "Death's Dark Tread," both will reappear later and could be taken as evidence that the overall story has already started, as in a sense it had even though its author seems only vaguely aware of it. In fact, they are both part-and-parcel of the aping of "Conan the Barbarian," as both characters appeared in that comic. In fact, Sim has said that at the time he first did issue #4, he had not read Michael Moorcock's "Elric" stories or even seen a book cover. His only exposure to Elric was from Barry Smith's version in Conan #14-15, and he was completely unaware of how dissatisfied Moorcock and many of his fans were with Smith's version, and how unlike Moorcock's description of the character it was.

I regard the continued use of these characters after Sim left the Conan parody behind to be part fan-service and part simply using the tools available, rather than evidence that he was already thinking long-term when he introduced these characters.

Although Elrod (a name I assume is a joke on L. Ron Hubbard, and hence a hint of Sim's interest in religion that will soon come to dominate the series) is based on Smith's version of Elric in terms of physical appearance, in all other ways he is essentially Foghorn Leghorn from the old Warner Brothers cartoons (or, as Sim would have it, Senator Claghorn, the radio character on whom Foghorn Leghorn was based, but since Sim is far too young to have listened to Claghorn on the radio growing up, I'm going to assume the primary influence is the cartoon, and his reference to the radio character simply evidence of the breadth and depth of his self-education). He is one of the funniest supporting characters in the saga, second only to Lord Julius, and his popularity with fans probably had a lot to do with his continual reappearences over the years.

The story itself is a mess, not necessarily in terms of it as a single narrative - it's a bit meandering, not fully cohesive, but it's funny and does all finally fit together. But the appearance of Death as a character, and the way that Death is presented, is so out of touch with the storyline that eventually developed that in "Flight," where Sim was catching up with a lot of old threads and trying to weave them into his story and/or explain them away, he actually felt compelled to bring in another supernatural character who confronts this figure and tells him "You are not Death."

(For much the same reasons, I regard the short story "Demonhorn," which is not collected in the saga but was presented in the "Swords of Cerebus" collections and Sim has even officially placed in the chronology between #5 and #6, to be completely non-canonical, whatever he says.)

Although there are, to be sure, bits and pieces and hints of what is to come, up until now, Conan the Aardvark has been little more than a simple parody of Conan the Barbarian. With chapter 5 of this book, though, that all changes.

Next time, we'l start the saga proper.