Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cerebus Reread - Volume 1 (Part 3)

 I had intended originally to do three of these. Part one was going to be first impressions, part two a more thorough in-depth analysis with spoilers, and part three a summary I could use in rewriting my Cerebus page when I redo my website, including finishing out the saga since “Guys” had just come out when I last updated that page (I think I first created it when “Reads” was just out and “Minds” was still coming out in comic book form).

However, I find myself still stuck in analysis mode. And this next piece is already longer than it should be and I’ve only gotten halfway through the book. Which is actually about right, because there is a major thematic change starting with Chapter 13 (“Black Magiking”) that relates directly to Dave Sim having his drug-induced vision in the midst of a “nervous breakdown” that gave him at least an outline of what the story would be. So this piece will only take us through Chapter 12, and we’ll start next time with the second “half” of the book (it’s a “half” because it’s slightly larger than the first half, not only because there are 13 chapters in issues 13-25 and only 12 in chapters 1-12, but the second “half” also includes “Silverspoon”).

To my mind, with chapter 5 we're really into the ongoing story that becomes the 300 issue saga that is "Cerebus." It starts out very much like the previous issues. It's an undetermined amount of time since Cerebus' encounter with Elrod, and he's joined a mercenary force, which we never see because Cerebus has gotten separated from them and the end of this story sees him deciding to leave the area altogether and travel to the city of Iest.

Indeed, it will be some time before Sim throws away the Conan parody altogether, but it's definitely a secondary element from here on, something to trot out to get laughs or to fall back on. He's already moving into deeper waters. In chapters 5-7, we get not one but two hints from wildly different sources about Cerebus' unique (well, at this point we *think* he's unique) importance in his world, plus we get introduced to a love interest that you can tell by the way she's introduced is due to return at some point.

It's very interesting to note, by the way, that up until now Cerebus has been apparently totally immune to the attraction of the female gender, and even with Jaka has to be drugged to be affected by her. It seems that either human females have no attraction and he'd need an aardvark mate to really feel anything (a possibility that, if it occurred to Sim at all, was obviously rejected along the way), he truly has no biological urges toward sex (which, as human as he seems despite his appearance, seems unlikely and also doesn't match his subsequent behavior), or something in his past has caused him to build a Spock-like wall surrounding his emotions. The evidence seems to point to that last possibility, and it's interesting that Dave Sim himself ended up decades later more-or-less advocating that approach, despite by then having allowed Cerebus to thaw his icy heart and let the gentler sex affect him after all. Although, to be sure, the consequences to Cerebus of letting women into his mind and heart were not exactly positive.

Be that as it may, if it wasn't obvious at the end of "The Secret" that we'd be seeing Jaka again, her name at the bottom of a letter to her uncle, Lord Julius, as Cerebus rides away from Iest at the end of "A Night at the Masque" certainly sealed the deal, even though we still wouldn't see her until the middle of the next book.

"The Idol" establishes that Cerebus is not totally unique in his world, and that at some point someone or something that looked just like him was worshipped as a god. That point is reinforced in "Black Sun Rising" - and it's significant that Cerebus has these two experiences within weeks, perhaps even within days of each other, with his first meeting with Jaka (while drugged, which he won't remember for some time) in between.

Then Sim headed off on a tangent. His stay with the Conniptins is obviously not part of any long term storyline (although he did manage to use them again, despite apparently killing them off in "Swords Against Imesh" - (apparently K'Cor didn't do as thorough a job of poisoning the wells around Imesh as he thought).

I'm not sure, but I think at this point Sim had a kind of loose structure in mind, something like "Lone Wolf & Cub" (which he probably wasn't familiar with) or "The X-Files" (which wouldn't premiere for a decade and a half), where you would have some stories that were episodic stand-alone incidents and some that contributed directly toward the development of the overall storyline. If that was his plan, he changed his mind by the time he finished this book, because there really isn't anything like a stand-alone episode from the start of "High Society" to the end of the saga.

The Conniptins, K'Cor and the return of Red Sophia are all fairly episodic, and arguably as separated from each other and from the overall storyline as the first four stories, but there is a significant difference - after slaughtering four men in a hallucinatory frenzy brought on by giant spider venom and fever, Cerebus doesn't really *act* like a barbarian any more. To be sure, he does have a couple of sword fights in Imesh, against Lord Koghem and K'Cor himself, but in the first he uses his wits more than his strength to defeat his opponent, and against K'Cor he is actually overmatched, and K'Cor's abandonment of the fight is one of the biggest flaws, narratively speaking, in the whole saga. The explanation he gives explains nothing - even if it were true (which it apparently is not), it would have been just as true before he agreed to the duel as it was at the point he cut if off, and while Cerebus was perhaps not as easy to defeat as he expected and he had sustained a wound, in his armor against an exhausted Cerebus it was only a matter of time before he would have defeated him.

Personally, I think Sim just wrote himself into a corner here and came up with K'Cor's lame reasoning because the only other outcome possible at that point was to kill off his title character and start a new book, and he'd already decided he wanted to do this book for a long time. He may even have already been thinking about 26 years.

The duel with K'Cor is the penultimate time Cerebus wields a sword in this book (to use a word correctly that Sim misuses in “The Idol”). The next and last time will go even more decisively against Cerebus, and he will barely escape with his life. So by this point he is already no longer the funny-animal-but-still-supremely-competent-Conan-clone he had started out as.

Also, while somewhat episodic, all these incidents are tied together chronologically much more tightly than the early episodes. The transition from chapter 1 to 2 is completely vague, and 2 to 3 is not much better. 3 to 4 are connected by a caption in the beginning of the latter, but 5 is floated out there with only a nebulous "After leaving Serrea, Cerebus drifts west …"

After that, though, we have a connected continuity through most of the rest of the book. Chapter 5 ends with “Iest is a day’s march away,” and on page 3 of Chapter 6, Cerebus says, “Tarim! It never fails -- two hours in any of these accursed cities and some farmer with more muscle than brains comes flying at me …” Even allowing for exaggeration on Cerebus’ part about how long he’s been in Iest, obviously no more than a day or two has passed since he destroyed “The Idol.” 

E’Lass, when planning on his sojourn to the Temple of the Black Sun, muses that he’ll need food for two weeks. I assume from this that the temple is a week away from Iest (I’m assuming he’ll want to eat on the way back, as well).  Plus, when Cerebus shows up there next chapter (“Black Sun Rising,” Chapter 7), the narrator tells us that it would have been easier to follow the lowlands to the south and swing back to the north, “but Cerebus is a follower of the ‘old ways,’ so he has taken the direct route.” Even though the direct route is “through a dozen mountain passes and across treacherous terrain,” one assumes that it is if anything shorter than the more obvious route, so it’s possible that Cerebus has gotten there even more quickly than E’Lass was counting on.  In any case, no more than a week could have passed since the end of “The Secret.”

At the beginning of Chapter 8, Cerebus is still suffering from the after-effects of the sting from the giant spider he sustained at the end of Chapter 7. The amount of time passed is not specified, but surely it can’t be more than a few days.  Indeed, on page 6 of “Merchant of Unshib” (Chapter 10), Cerebus summarizes what has happened to him since that spider blasted his back, including the entire contents of Chapters 8 and 9, as having happened “in the last week.” After acquiring the Black Blossom Lotus, Cerebus presumably goes immediately to Beduin to sell it, where he encounters the merchant who turns out to harbor a secret identity – the Cockroach. Three weeks pass between pages 15 and 16 of Chapter 11 (“The Merchant and the Cockroach”),and  two more between that chapter and the next (“Beduin by Night”), which ends on Cerebus’ 27th birthday.  This is significant, because Chapter 5 first introduced the notion of Cerebus’ age, and that him coming to the Pigts “in his twenty-sixth year” was the fulfillment of a prophecy.

(In fact, one’s “twenty-sixth year” would be the year *before* one’s twenty-sixth birthday, just as one’s first year is before one turns one, so he actually came to the Pigts in his 27th year. Of course, Sim was at the time a high school dropout with limited education who in that same chapter misuses the word “penultimate.” He eventually became one of the most successful autodidacts I’ve ever known, and I’ve known several of them, and I think most people would guess from reading his references to various writers or conversing with him about just about anything that he probably has a college degree, and would certainly be surprised to discover he doesn’t even have a high school diploma. But the 22-year-old Sim still had some major defects in his education.)

There is a temporal problem here. At the beginning of Chapter 5, it would seem from the incessant rain to be spring. From later evidence, Cerebus’ birthday also seems to be in the spring – indeed, the most likely time for it is in mid-to-late June, so I’m guessing it’s June 17 (Dave Sim’s birthday). That would seem to mean that he had essentially just turned 26 recently when Bran Mak Muffin says to him, “You’re 26, aren’t you?” The problem with that is that Chapter 13 (“Black Magiking”) starts with the words “The first breath of summer in Lower Felda …” It is clear not much time has passed since the end of Chapter 12. Cerebus, who was holding a piece of a broken boat as he was washed down the river out of Beduin, has washed up on shore, still in Lower Felda. If Chapters 5-12 represent no more than two months (based on the internal evidence of time passing in and between chapters), how can a year have passed?

Things like this were later to become magnified and even at times deliberate, driving fans like myself and Alexx Kay, the kind of people who create timelines for themselves to keep everything straight, absolutely crazy (Kay’s timeline was much more elaborate and well-documented than mine ever was and is still available on the Web at

Thematically, what we have is a person who thinks of himself as a barbarian and a warrior, but who has some education and is far more sophisticated than most of those around him, moving farther and farther away from the barbarian warrior persona he has chosen for himself and toward the more sophisticated role he is eventually to play. We also see him on occasion being manipulated by those even more sophisticated and learned – first Bran Mac Muffin, who despite his surroundings and companions is obviously a scholar of old Pigtish prophecies, if nothing else, and when we next meet him will fit in with a more-or-less modern city and its political machinations quite well, then the Doctor and the Commander of the Conniptins. Both times, Cerebus recognizes what is going on and rejects it. He destroys the Pigts’ idol and flees, and starts to flee from the Conniptins. But he has second thoughts about the latter, and part of his determination to stay rests on his belief in his ability to turn the tables on his would-be manipulators. “The men had pledged loyalty to Cerebus, not to the commander.” We see that Cerebus himself is quite capable of manipulation in Chapters 11 and 12, as he gets the Cockroach to help him steal the Cockroach’s own gold.

Next time: God and Politics (the first hints of Church and State)