Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Cerebus Reread - Volume 1 (Part 4 - Tarim as God and Political Shenanigans (the first hints of Church and State))

OK, this is taking *way* too long, I’m done reading “High Society” and need to get my first impressions of it down before they’re no longer first impressions, so I need to make short shrift of the rest of this book.  I need to make these shorter and quicker or I’ll never get the whole thing done.

With “Black Magiking,” we see a major change in the world Cerebus occupies, and in the next three issues we see a major change in Cerebus’ life and lifestyle. He will initially reject the latter and try to go back to being a barbarian warrior, but it will never work.

Up until now, Cerebus has inhabited a world that was a typical sword-and-sorcery world copied from the first 24 issues of Marvel’s “Conan the Barbarian” comic book, written by Roy Thomas (often, but not always, adapted from one of Robert E. Howard’s original stories) and drawn by Barry Smith (before he added the “Windor”), who was at the time one of Sim’s personal heroes in terms of stretching the medium of comic book art. Indeed, he has said that the whole point of Cerebus was not just to do “Howard the Duck” as a parody of “Conan the Barbarian,” but to do the art in such a way as to have a very cartoonish Cerebus walking around in a very realistic world, the kind of hyper-reality (compared to most comic book art of the time) portrayed by Barry Smith in those Conan books, and he described it specifically in those terms: “A Chuck Jones cartoon character walking around in a Barry Windsor Smith world.”

The basic milieu, familiar nowadays not just to Conan fans but to fans of heroic fantasy in general, usually includes a sort of mashup of the ancient and medieval worlds, mostly individual city states, with perhaps a nascent Empire or two absorbing other cities into their sphere of influence, with more-or-less medieval technology, especially when it comes to weaponry (crossbows are usually present, but not gunpowder). For those stories set in our own Earth’s past, it is usually imagined that once upon a time magic worked in a way it no longer does, but it was still operational at the time of the story. And in keeping with the idea that these stories are set long before Christianity there is usually an assumption of a polytheistic world, one where there are several, perhaps dozens of super-powered beings that might as well be thought of as “gods” and are worshipped as such by humans. “Demonhorn,” which is not part of the collected books and I regard as non-canonical (despite Dave Sim himself once placing it in the continuity between two early issues), makes it unmistakable that the impression one has reading the first half of this book that Cerebus inhabits such a polytheistic world is correct. Not only do various character utter oaths in the names of several different gods (Tarim, Terim, Clovis, Ashtoth, Ishtar, Set and Tauran, for instance, all in the first 6 issues), but there doesn’t seem to be anything like a Church or a monotheistic religion to contrast with this, as one might have in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, for instance.

There are hints of Sim’s abiding interest in religion – at this time, and through most of the saga, it’s the interest of a fascinated outside observer chortling like Puck,”Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Sim has said that he often had the TV on while he worked, not so much watching it as absorbing it by osmosis while using it for white noise to actually help him concentrate. He said that in the context of introducing the T’Gitans, whose leader is a smarter, more serious version of Sgt. Schulz. Earlier, though, we can see that he spent at least some of that time watching or at least listening to Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, who pretty much had to be the inspiration for Cerebus’ exhortation to the Cockroach (while pretending to be the Roach’s father, visiting him in a dream):

Cerebus: Praise Tarim! I am here to bring you the Word – the Word of Tarim.

Roach: The Word, Father?

Cerebus: Condominiums! Tarim has a condominium just for you! Luxurious living in the afterlife – IF you believe!

Roach: I do! I do!

Cerebus: Praise Tarim!

 Suddenly, Tarim is not just one of many polytheistic gods in an ancient culture, he’s a stand-in for the modern God worshipped by the followers of Jim and Tammy Faye. It’s a funny bit, and on first reading, I’m sure most people think it’s just a bit of anachronistic funny business. I certainly did. In fact, in planning this very essay, after reading this umpteen times and just rereading it again, I was still thinking of “Black Magiking” as the introduction of the concept of “Tarim” as a stand-in for the Christian God in Cerebus’ world.

Certainly neither Cerebus nor the Roach could know what a “condominium” is, and this does stand, to my mind, as much of an example of Sim breaking the fourth wall – and frankly, not a very successful one (he’s to have a few other flubs like this before doing it really, really well in the latter parts of the series, particularly “Minds” and “Rick’s Story”) – as it is an early example of the role of religion, and in particular Christianity, in Cerebus.

Still, it can’t be denied that this is the first tantalizing hint that this is where Sim is headed.

In Chapter 13, “Black Magiking,” Cerebus encounters an emissary of the Church of Tarim, who seems very much like a medieval priest, particularly the kind who was always on the watch for Witches and Devil-Worshippers. Cerebus seems unsurprised by this. From this moment on, Sim will pretend that he never used “Tarim” in such a way as to equate him with a bunch of other polytheistic gods, and he gradually drops the use of almost all other gods’ names from the dialogue. He will even later explain away Cerebus’ once-constant oaths about Clovis (“By Clovis’ Beard!”, “Clovis’ Molar!”, “Clovis’ Teeth and Tankard!”) by saying that Clovis is a northern version of Tarim invented by Tarimite missionaries to ease their charges into proper worship, or something like that – it didn’t make sense to me at the time, and I doubt if it will when I get to it in the reread, far, far ahead.

From this moment on, we forget (or at least pretend to forget) that Cerebus started out inhabiting a polytheistic world. We are now in a world where all civilized people (not necessarily the barbarians Cerebus will still consort with on occasion, but all the people living in the big cities where he’ll be spending most of his time from now on) are either members of the Church of Tarim (or I should say one of the *two* Churches of Tarim – but we’ll get to that), Cirinists or Kevillists who worship Terim (again, we’ll get to that) or cynical atheists who use other people’s beliefs to their own ends. Bran Mak Muffin, who essentially worships The Great Cerebus when we see him again (not in this book), is the only exception to this I can think of offhand.

One could argue that the cities were always this way, but with the exception of a brief visit to the lower-class portions of Iest and his stay in Beduin with the Roach, Cerebus has always been out in the countryside, among the pagans (a word which originally derives from the Latin word for “country folk). The problem with that idea is that the Church of Tarim as a stand-in for Christianity is introduced to us not in a city, but among a village of superstitious farmers. So it’s not just the urban sophisticates who have embraced Tarim as the One True God, and the Church of Tarim is revealed to be very, very old – it is never actually specified, but the clear implication is that the original Tarim, who was to some certain extent an analog for Christ, although very different in historical terms (the first, for instance, to coin money, which certainly makes him quite different in his primary interests), lived about 1400 years before Cerebus – but we’ll be getting to dates and things in the next book.

So “Black Magiking” introduces us to the Church of Tarim, which will be a primary thematic and plot element for the next several books. Then we have the interlude of “Silverspoon,” where Sim stretches his artistic chops and instead of imitating Barry Windsor Smith tries to imitate Hal Foster, which perhaps mixed success but it’s actually astonishing that he can pull even a semblance of Foster off without embarrassing himself, considering the level of art he was producing just a couple of years before. “Silverspoon” introduces us the Lord Julius, and leads directly into what at one time was called “The Palnu Trilogy,” Sim’s first 60 page story (81 if you count “Silverspoon”). The main interest in Chapters 15-17 (we are now off the count from the original comics because of “Silverspoon,” which was originally published as single pages in the Comics Buyers Guide, and these represent issues 14-16 of the original comic book) is Lord Julius, who is the Estarcion version of Groucho Marx (whose real given name was Julius), being Groucho Marx as the leader of an Estarcion city-state, apparently the richest and most successful one around. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

(In case you’re wondering why there should be an “Estarcion version of Groucho Marx,” Sim at the time espoused a cyclical view of history, wherein everything that happens has happened many times before and will happen again, never exactly the same, but never completely different, either. This gave him an excuse to use historical and fictional characters in his milieu, supposedly our world about 6,000 years ago. Of course Julius Marx would have appeared in this world. And if he had been lucky enough to be born into an important family, he might have used his anarchic wit to rise to the top. We will see many other real people along the way, mostly artists of some kind – writers, rock stars, comic book creators – and also versions of other people’s fictional creations – primarily the Cockroach, who is a parody of the Batman, and later becomes Captain Cockroach (Captain America) and many, many others.)

So the nature of religion and belief, especially explored through the Church of Tarim that is to a large extent similar to and meant to be analogous enough of Christianity that points made about it are meant to be seen as points about the latter, and political intrigue among the ruling class of an at least semi-modern society, are both set as our themes by the end of Chapter 17. And while that chapter ends with Cerebus rejecting cities and civilization and riding away from Palnu, the fact is that these two themes will dominate him for much of the rest of his life, not to mention providing the title for the third and fourth volumes of the series.

 Cerebus is among the barbarians again with the T’Gitans, but it’s actually quite clear throughout these chapters that he isn’t one of them.  Sim has some fun by having Cerebus meet a more or less pure incarnation of Conan (called “Krull,” which was the name of another Robert E. Howard character who was essentially a clone of Conan but living even earlier (by Howard’s pseudo-history), before the fall of Atlantis). When Cerebus tricks the merchants into giving him their goods, and then tells the T’Gitans how he obtained them by threats of violence, we see more clearly than he does himself how far removed he has become for the barbarian warrior sword-for-hire we met in the beginning of the book.

In “She-Devil in the Shadows,” Cerebus has a sword fight with Ghita, whom he at first mistakes for Red Sophia. This is one of many inside jokes for comic book fans in the series, that it’s not really important whether one gets or not to enjoy the series. Frank Thorne, who had done the “Red Sonja” comic book and whose version of Red Sonja Sim first made homage to in her introduction (along with Thorne himself, who used to dress as a wizard to attend comic book conventions, as Sophia’s wizard father “Henrot”), later did a comic book about a character called Ghita who was pretty much exactly the same as Red Sonja. In this story, after Red Sophia left home (to marry Feras at Cerebus’ direction), he missed her. But there were things he didn’t miss about her – she was far from perfect. So he decided to create a duplicate, but one who would be better-tempered, for instance, and all in all perfect.

The experiment failed. Ghita is worse-tempered. In fact, while he has managed to imprison her in the chamber just outside his room, she kills anyone who comes near. Cerebus barely makes it past her alive, and seems to be trapped in Henrot’s room forever.
Well, of course he gets out of it. Where his sword failed it is his ingenuity that wins the day. Then he gets what he came to town for, goes to collect his barbarian companion, and is drugged by a prostitute-cum-fortune teller who turns out to be a high-level Cirinist.

I don’t have much to say about “Mind Games.” The main criticism I’ve made before, that the Suenteus Po we meet here seems to be so far away from the Suentus Po’s we will meet in the future – not just the multiple people with that name, but the multiple versions of what are supposed to all be the same guy, the “original” Suenteus Po (although the founder of Illusionism turns out not to really be the first of that name, either). Sim thought it would be funny to make him a drugged-out hippy, and it is, but it doesn’t fit well with the serious character he decided he needed Po to be later.

Po mainly operates here as an authorial mouthpiece to impart to the reader through funny dialogue rather than endless boring captions a bunch of important narrative exposition. Since we don’t really need all the details, we are given primarily tantalizing hints of the political/philosophical/religious struggle between the Tarimites, the Illusionists, the Cirinists and the Kevillists.

In the introduction to “She-Devil in the Shadows” in “Swords of Cereubs #5,” Sim said of the conspiracy whose existence – but not details – are revealed in these chapters:

 I tried to explain the problem a while ago by explaining that most of the factors involved are secret societies – to put it in a more modern context, it is like a secret cell of Soviet spies in the U.S. government hiring North Vietnamese and Cuban infiltrators to find out if the Red Chinese embassy in Japan is really spying for the Lithuanians in an attempt to find out if the KGB was behind the plot to kill the Popeand hire more Afghanistan refugees to double check the rumours about the John Birch Society joining forces with the Mafia to break the stranglehold the Teamsters have on the underground network of solidarity supporters in Moose Jaw.

Come to think of it, three hundred issues might not be enough.

 That was written in 1983, and of course, most of the “modern” references are now horribly dated, but anyone with any knowledge of late 20th century geopolitical history should get at least most of the references.

As it turns out, it never was *all* explained, but enough of it was explained for us all to be reasonably satisfied.

The next issue, Cerebus is a long distance and, as it turns out, several weeks away. He was drugged by Perce in Togith not long before Concordance Eve, when the T’Gitans planned to attack Palnu. As it turns out, Cerebus has missed the invasion, which is just as well because the T'Gitans were cut to pieces and there were no survivors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Cerebus finds himself somehow in Beduin. This is never really explained, although there exists a piece called “What Happened Between Issues Twenty and Twenty-One” that teases us with an explanation that doesn’t explain anything. While there, he runs into the Roach, now “Captain Cockroach,” and Elrod, working together as a team selling “United Feldwar States Government-In-Exile War Bonds.” They take him to see President Weisshaupt.

President Weisshaupt is a combination of George Washington, whom he resembles, and Adam Weisshaupt, who founded the Bavarian Illuminati about the same time the U.S. declared its independence from England, and who somewhat resembled Washington, and who some conspiracy theorists claim came to America and took Washington’s place some time after 1790. With Weisshaupt, Cerebus is thrust back into political intrigue again, although he tries not to get interested, much less involved, and when Weisshaupt’s schemes come apart Cerebus manages to escape.

There is one problem I have with this entire story, though. Part of the raison d’etre for Weisshaupt’s “United Feldwar States” is to “save” the economy of Lower Felda, of which Beduin is the capital. But at the end of “Beduin By Night” the government has discovered the Roach’s stash of gold, which should have provided a solid boost to the economy. Even if a few politicians at the top managed to siphon off most of it for their own purposes, those purposes would have led at least some of it into circulation as they bought luxuries for themselves.

The last story in this book is a three part story that starts off as a parody/homage to “The Beguiled,” introducing Charles X. Claremont. I’m going to skip trying to analyze this story because a) I don’t think it’s really ultimately all that important to the overall storyline (although yes, Charles X. Claremont returns despite being apparently killed and yes, this is the source for “Fred, Ethel, and the Little Fellow with the Hair) and b) this is way, way, WAY too long.
Next one’s going to be a LOT shorter, I promise. For one thing, “High Society” was not the revelation for me that this book was. I read this book and saw it totally differently than I had seen it in umpteen rereadings before. I read “High Society” (yeah, I’m already done with it) and laughed uproariously but basically have about the same opinion of it that I did when I read it 30 years ago. So it will be much easier to talk about succinctly.