Friday, April 04, 2014

Cerebus 10th Anniversary Reread - "High Society"

This will go much more quickly. My impression of the first book on reading is was very, very different from how I had perceived it the first - gee, it must be a dozen times or more that I've read it, counting reading the original comics, the Swords collections, and the Bi-Weekly reprints as well as the collected volume itself. Despite feeling like I knew it by heart, I was surprised by it this time.

I was not surprised in the same way by "High Society." Delighted, certainly, but I was delighted the first time I read it. It is what it is, possibly the first true "graphic novel" produced in North America, a brilliant parody of politics, economics, comic books, fandom, the news media and probably a few other things he's juggling while developing an alternate world that seems as solidly built as our own. 

(One of the saddest things for me in the way things change in the later years of the series is that Sim seemed to grow tired of this world-building, and Estarcion became less and less a world of its own developing along its own lines by its own rules and more and more just a somewhat-different analog of our own world Sim could use to make statements about the real world within the context of Cerebus’ story. Of course, he always did that, and he did transform Estarcion early on from a Conan-esque world to one more closely resembling our own through massive infusion of new technology (starting, I suppose, with Weisshaupt’s invention of movable type back in the first book). But in the early days, there was still a world that felt in many ways as real as ours despite being deliberately totally different.)

Anyway, the only big surprise from this reread is that I don't think I'm going to be so quick to say that people should start with "High Society" and only go back and read the first book if they like this one. I now think you should probably, quite logically, start from the beginning. But that's not so much a change in my impression of this book as it is the change in my impression of the first book that I've already done to death at this point, so let's finally leave it behind.

Although it’s the next book that will be called “Church & State,” and on the surface it seems like this one is all about politics, in fact the Church of Tarim is a major presence throughout the book. It’s clear and obvious, and yet somehow people manage to not notice it.

The government of Iest is subordinate to the Church of Tarim. Consider this passage from “The True History of the 1413 Election” by Suenteus Po (not the Mind Games guy, the one in Cerebus’ cabinet): 

“The legislature had never been intended as a governing body. The Church of Tarim instituted it when it became apparent (some hundred years earier) that a disproportionate amount of His Holiness’ time was being spent adjudicating economic matters. His soloution was to allow each district of the city-state, in proportion to their contribution to the economy, to send representatives to debate and form economic policy for the Mother Church. These representatives were appointed by the local churches and then elected by the local people to serve either as conservative or libertine economists in Iest.”

Lest anyone that origin sounds too far-fetched, it is not totally dissimilar to the beginnings of the English Parliament, which existed in its early days largely as a way for the King to justify taxes to the general populace without having to constantly quell revolts and rebellions.

But I knew all that going in. I noticed a long time ago that in many ways this book is a warm-up or prelude to the bigger, 2-volume novel that follows it, in much the same way that Ayn Rand often said that “The Fountainhead” was a “prologue” to “Atlas Shrugged,” or the way that World War I prefigured and foreordained World War II. (What I hadn’t realized until this reread was that this prefiguring goes all the way back to very nearly the beginning of the saga.)

One of the few surprises – and I’m sure I knew it long ago and just forgot it – was discovering that “What Happened Between Issues Twenty and Twenty-One,” with its surprise appearance by Astoria at the end and revelation that she’s had a hand in manipulating Cerebus’ life since long before he ever met her, was first published (in Swords of Cerebus Vol 3) in “Fall 1981.” Since Cerebus #31, the first appearance of Astoria, is cover-dated “Oct ‘81” she was obviously still a brand-new character at the time. Indeed, this revelation probably didn’t mean as much to people who bought the Swords volume when it first appeared as it did to people who encountered the story later in their reading of the overall saga. When her connection to Cerebus waking up in Beduin was revealed, most Cerebus readers had just met her and had no clear idea yet who she was, except that she was obviously more than she seemed.

So my initial plan of presenting first impressions and then moving on to analysis would make this a very short first post. I probably should have left it that way, but I’ve already written several more pages of draft, so here goes:

This book starts with another of Cerebus’ attempts to return to the barbarian warrior he still believes to be his fundamental character. It will become something of a running gag that he will keep making this attempt, and keep getting thwarted.

This, too, started in the first book – Cerebus getting disgusted with Palnu and the ways of the cities, going off and hooking up with the T’Gitans, who want to conquer Palnu as an invading barbarian horde.

In this case, he’s in a bad, bad mood, having dragged a sack of loot through 50 miles of swamps. He’s determined to start a fight with someone. He walks into the Regency Hotel – something he has had to make an incredibly strenuous effort to do (we’ll get back to that point in a moment), knowing that it’s the ritziest and classiest hotel in the whole city and they would under normal circumstances never let him in even if he was willing to pay double for a room, and goes up to the desk clerk, knowing that he’s going to be turned out and looking forward to the ensuing fight.

But when the desk clerk discovers who he is, he treats him like royalty, showing him to a free room, offering him a free meal, and when Cerebus pretends to pitch a fit about the crowded nature of the dining room, he is shown to a private alcove where he can dine alone.

Only he’s not left alone. One after another, businessmen come up and offer him money to remember them and their businesses. Finally, Cerebus manages to get one of them to tell him why. It’s because Cerebus is the former Kitchen Staff Supervisor to Lord Julius. Everyone is hoping that he still has some influence with the Palnan leader, and that through Cerebus they will be able to do business with the prosperous city-state to the south.

Cerebus manages to get out of the Upper City (more on that in a moment, honest!) and picks up a 50-pound sack of flour on the way to a dangerous tavern on the bad side of town. There, he throws out both an insult and the flour at everyone in the bar, and of course they charge him.

“Impossible odds; mentally unbalanced foes; cramped quarters for a good punch-up … and people say Iest has no night life …”

And then the Dock Police show up. They never come to this tavern, but here they are, specifically to protect Cerebus.

He manages to elude them and starts up the steps to the Regency.

Up the steps? Upper City and Lower City?

Oh sure, everybody reading this has read the whole series and understands the whole setup, and you’re probably thinking that it took Gerhard’s backgrounds to make you understand the whole thing. At least, that was what did it for me. But I must admit – and again, I’ve noticed this before now, just not when I first read it – that that’s more my lack of attentiveness than the fault of Sim’s writing and art.

Sim had his vision of how Iest worked and what it looked like firmly in place from the very beginning of this novel, and it’s right there, if you look closely. In the beginning of the second chapter, Cerebus has climbed one thousand three hundred and twenty-four steps and *still* not reaching the Regency, so the “Upper City” must be a good deal higher up than the “Lower City.” And on page 450 of my edition (page 18 of chapter 23, “Balances”), there’s a very clear picture of exactly what the upper city looks like from a distance.

I read this entire book at least twice, maybe three times before reading “Church and State,” and finally understanding what Iest looked like. And when I reread this book again after realizing what the setup was, I shook my head in disbelief that I didn’t get it, because it really was so clear – especially on that page.

Just in case anyone’s reading this who *doesn’t* know what I’m talking about,  Greater Iest – where the rich and powerful live, the site of the Regency Hotel, the Legislature, the Executive Mansion, the Cathedral, all exist at the very top of a butte, a massive upthrust of stone that towers over the rest of the city, called “Lower Iest.” There is a road that winds around this mountain, which is how most of the upper half gets to and fro, in carriages. There is also a stairway on the end of the butte on which the Regency Hotel is situated, so that it is possible – though very difficult – to get to the Upper City, and to the Regency specifically, more quickly by foot than one could manage walking around and around the mountain along the road. I call it a “butte” because of it’s shape. It’s usually referred to in the saga as “the mountain” or “the tower.” It seems to be black – could it be the Black Tower of the Black Tower Empire? Sim never says – but it’s interesting that when the first Black Tower showed up in the story (the castle of Necross Ha-Ha-Ha The Mad), he went out of his way to assure us that it had no relation to the Black Tower Empire. He never said that about Iest, even though the Upper City is pretty obviously sitting on the top of a Black Tower.

Or maybe he did have another explanation for the Black Tower I’m not remembering. If so, I’m sure I’ll stumble across it up ahead in the reread.

That Cerebus either climbed all those steps, or took the long road all the way around the mountain a few times, in the beginning of the book, when there were any number of inns at which he could have stayed in the lower city, shows just how foul his mood was, and how determined he was to make his mood even fouler by the time he encountered the desk clerk, and why he got continually frustrated through the first chapter as his intentions to start a fight with someone – anyone, over anything – are continually thwarted. It’s true that the first page says that the Regency is his “last hope” of finding a place to stay for the night, but it really seems quite unlikely that he truly managed to hit up every single inn or tavern with rooms upstairs in the entire Lower City before climbing the stairs. More likely, he hit two or three, got turned down, and his mood turned dark indeed and he decided that a) he had enough loot in his bag to pay for far better accommodations than he was inquiring about, b) it could take forever to find an inn that had an empty room, c) if he was going to take that long, he might as well climb the stairs and stay at the Regency, and d) Even though he could afford it, he knew they would initially assume he couldn’t and treat him like dirt and try to refuse him a room, and by then he’d be just ready to pound somebody’s head into the floor, which would greatly relieve his already-foul mood.

He gets madder and madder with each step, knowing in advance he’s going to receive exactly the kind of welcome he does end up receiving when he gets there. The Regency isn’t his “last hope” because every other inn or tavern in Iest is booked solid, it’s his last hope because once he made the decision to walk up those stairs, he’s determined not to walk down them tonight. He’s going to stay at the Regency, period.

At least, that’s how I imagine it. I don’t know if that’s what was going through Sim’s mind when he wrote it, but that’s how I read it.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go chapter by chapter giving a play-by-play. I’m planning to do an in-depth analysis, but not quite *that* in depth. Next time we will talk about the kidnapping plot, because it sets up the whole novel – without the need to repay his ransom, Cerebus would never have gotten involved in Iestian politics in the first place. And we have to do “Mind Games II” because it’s the first of Sim’s several famous (or infamous, depending on your view of them) switcheroos, where someone or something you thought you knew and understood turned out to be something very different, usually without explanation.

(This is jumping way, way, WAY ahead, but by way of reference, someone posted recently (or recently posted a link to) an old interview with Sim regarding the second appearance of Countess Michelle, and of course the first question was why was she so different and his answer was that he didn’t see her as different at all. Who knows, maybe he doesn’t see this “Suenteus Po” as being that different from the one in the first “Mind Games,” but most of us do. And I'll discuss why and deal a bit with Michelle and other similar cases next time)

So, next time we’ll do the kidnapping and “Mind Games” and talk a lot about Astoria. I’ll probably put off an actual in-depth discussion of Iestian politics until the next piece after that. I have some observations about Sim’s apparent ambivalence to democracy I want to share. I’m not sure that’s the right word, because “ambivalence” doesn’t usually connote the extremes of the inherent contradictions it posits – in this book Dave Sim has a real love-hate relationship with the nature of electoral politics, which is the necessary heartblood of any kind of representational democracy. You can’t have elected representatives without having an election.