Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Cerebus 10th Anniversary Reread Volume 1 - Part 5 (Postscript)

I know I said I was done, but I had to say a quick word about the art.

First, as I said I was impressed even more than earlier readings by how quickly the art progressed. By chapter 4, really, Sim was doing a halfway decent job of getting across his idea of a cartoon character in a realistic world, and if his backgrounds weren't quite Barry Windsor Smith they were quite recognizable and unembarrassing Barry Windsor Smith homage/parodies.

I had remembered that by the Palnu story Sim was good enough to make you forgive and forget the early issues of the comic book. What I had not remembered was that by chapter 5, really by chapter 4, there's nothing to forgive or forget. Heck, by chapter 3 there's only one embarrassing page in an otherwise quite well-drawn story.

What we have in this book is a young artist who is improving almost from page to page. Yes, the first page is disastrous. But when he is brave enough to try to draw a horse again in chapter 7, it's a fairly decent horse, not a deformed abomination. It seems to be there, in fact, mainly for him to say "See? I can so draw a horse!" because it is immediately forgotten once Elrod makes an appearance. By the time we see another horse, in "Champion," we have a beautiful animal any horse lover would be proud to own.

For my money, the art really starts getting good with "The Idol," a story that Dave Sim apologized for the art for in the "Swords of Cerebus" introduction. And I like it for exactly the same reason he apologized for it:

Dave Sim had figured out how to cheat.

There are actually very few panels in this chapter with full backgrounds. The early pages are lots of vertical lines representing rain with an object like a tree or a patch of grass to mark the setting. Then Cerebus descends a ladder into a tunnel of solid black. Once inside, the torchlit tunnels of the Pigts are dimly lit enough that things fade into the shadows, and in the torchlight conversely it's bright enough to highlight the characters in the foreground and white out the background. Which may not be *exactly* how torchlight really works in the real world, but is certainly effective at getting the *idea* of torchlight across.

And that's the point. With this issue, Sim discovered that he didn't have to present a fully realized, perfectly representational background in every single panel. He still wanted to -- as evidenced by his apology for this issue in his later essay about it. It was still part of his vision for how the book should ideally look. But he realized that, given time constraints and practicality, he could pick and choose when to do a lot of detail and when to let one or two striking details get across his idea for him. This tension between wanting to put Cerebus in an absolutely real world and the restrictions imposed by needing to write, pencil and ink an entire comic book by himself every month -- and more importantly Sim's wonderfully creative response to the situation -- will continue throughout the early part of the series, up until Gerhard joins on and suddenly relieves him of having to worry about doing backgrounds altogether. When we get to Church & State, I'll bring this up again, discussing in detail a particular chapter done just before Gerhard started that to me is the perfect apotheosis of this approach.