Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Cerebus - High Society - Part Three


In the introduction to the next book, the first volume of "Church & State," Dave Sim talks about the fact that "High Society" reflects his "genuine affection for the realities of political campaigning, elections and government."

Of course, he also talks about missing Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, so perhaps his profession of affection should be taken with a grain of salt.

To be sure, there is a certain entertainment value is observing the worst excesses of the body politic, but when one realizes how many lives, including one's own, can be affected by the machinations of politicians, one is reminded of the joking etymology that derives the word "politics" from "poly" meaning "many" and "ticks" meaning "small blood-sucking insects."

On the other hand, as Winston Churchill once said, representative democracy is the worst possible governmental system - except for all the others that have yet been tried. While one could argue that direct democracy is better, this is impractical on any but the most local level, not to mention the counter argument as to whether it has ever truly been tried - it has been estimated that the fabled democracy of Athens had a hundred slaves and other non-citizens whose lives were affected for each "citizen" who actually voted on things.

For better or for worse, then, it seems that a democratic republic is the best that we can hope for in terms of political systems, and that necessitates the messiness of elections and legislatures dominated by the interests of politicians whose greatest need is to keep getting elected.

Sim deliberately masks his own opinions behind the various characters, and further obscures matters by having a down-to-earth funny-but-convincing character be so far beyond skeptical of the notion of electoral democracy as to liken increased involvement in elections as "watching gangrene spread," while he openly mocks the character who will go on to write the history of the election that he quotes extensively from, who ends the book with a dramatically enhanced quotation from John F. Kennedy, who Sim has spoken admiringly of in many places, including within the saga itself in "Reads."

So it's hard to say how much of the biting satire presented here is meant to excoriate they system and how much is just riffing on the absurdities of life seen through the political lens. The legislature of Iest seems pretty obviously to represent the Canadian or British parliament than it does the American Congress, which is natural. The convention is more a lampoon of comic book conventions than political ones, but manages to get some digs at political debates along the way. The campaign itself, once it gets under way, is an object lesson in the harsh realities of elections and how much power is wielded not by the voters themselves but by power brokers behind the scenes ("You realize," says the Abbess, "that I and I alone decide who is to represent Grace District").

The Wuffa-Wuffa farmer, in fact, the one who castigates the notion of democracy, seems to be the only political leader who actually left the voting up to the people of his district. Everyone else seems to have been able to influence, or believe they were able to influence, the final outcome.

And what are we to make of Suenteus Po? In addition to the obvious differences between the Suenteus Po, founder of illusionism still alive after 185 years (or is it 240?), between "Mind Games" in the first book and "Mind Games II" in "High Society," we are presented halfway or thereabouts through this book with a "History of the 1413 Election" from which we read several excerpts that was also written by Suenteus Po - although it turns out this is a different individual altogether, a "republican" (or even, as a nameless "editor" claims at one point, an "anarchist") who ends up joining Cerebus' administration as a speech writer.

It is important to note that "republican," in this book and generally as used in Cerebus, has little to do with the modern American political party by that name, though both "Democrats" and "Republicans" claim at least some allegiance to the ideals of one of America's first political parties, the "Democratic Republicans" of Thomas Jefferson and his fellows, who opposed the "Federalists." Today Federalism is seen as a belief in strict limitations to the power of the centralized government but in fact the original Federalists were all for the consolidation of power in federal hands - Alexander Hamilton would have seen a king in America, if he had had his druthers, whether the king was himself or George Washington or some other person he trusted with the job (decidedly NOT Thomas Jefferson). The Democratic Republicans named themselves after the type of government they believed in, the kind they thought they had instituted with the Articles of Confederacy and, when that failed, tried to ensure survived in the new Constitution.

A republic is a nation controlled by representatives of the people, as opposed to a king or an oligarchy. Rome is the most famous Republic prior to the creation of the United States, and there is a legitimate argument to be made about just how "representative" its representatives were. On the other hand, there is a certain practicality to just having the rich and powerful people themselves be the members of the Senate instead of trying to control politics behind the scenes, as they do today. Not only is it arguably more open and honest, but there is the very real fact that without the acquiescence of the rich and powerful, no government can long exist.

Witness the United Nations. Yes, there is a General Assembly where each nation, no matter how small or poor, has a vote, but the real power is in the Security Council, which is made up of simply the richest and most powerful countries. You can argue about the "unfairness" of this, but the fact is that if these countries pulled out of the U.N. it would cease to be relevant. No one would care what it said or did.

The Roman Senate was, to a certain extent, similar to the U.N. Security Council on both a larger and smaller scale. Larger, because there were many more Senators than there are countries in the Security Council. Smaller, because each Senator represented a Family rather than a Nation-State, and theoretically ruled a City rather than attempting to wield influence in an interconnected global political and economic system.

There were, to be sure, elected officials in the ancient government of Rome, and the system was more complex than most moderns realize.

I bring up Rome partly to point out that if Sim had still been interested - or if he had ever been interested, frankly - in presenting something like a realistic ancient society with perhaps some medieval overtones, a la Robert E. Howard and other fantasists of the sword-and-sorecry genre, he could have explored the theme of political intrigue in general by having Iest be something like Rome. Instead, he gave it something very much like a modern political structure, because he found commenting on modern politics to be much more interesting than creating something that would fit the world Cerebus at first seemed to move in. Estarcion will continue to evolve, going from the ancient/medieval base of the first book all the way to a steampunkish 19th-20th century with airships that look like winged zeppelins in existence by "Going Home." All because Sim finds it necessary to have certain pieces of technology in place in order to make the modern analogies he wants to make.

The Comics Journal once faulted him for this, saying essentially that he would have been better off to have abandoned "Cerebus" early on and simply create comics set in the real modern world if what he wanted to do was make points about the real modern world, but I actually think that's a wrong-headed viewpoint. The very fact that Sim's pointed comments about politics, for instance, in "High Society," are filtered through the lens of the imaginary city of Iest give him a degree of satirical freedom that would not be available to someone doing "realistic" fiction. The tradition of using the distancing effect of fantasy to make comments on contemporary society is at least as old as Jonathan Swift and "Gulliver's Travels," and Sim uses it here and elsewhere to delightful effect.

So while keeping more-or-less intact the idea that we're in a city-state in a semi-medieval fantasy world Sim is able to either skewer or at least refer to the TV show "Nightline" (mentioned last time), terrorism (though I don't believe the word is used, what is the Moon Roach if not a terrorist?) the "Making of the President" books, Nixon's "Six Crises" (making an explicit connection between his protagonist and the much-loathed Tricky Dick, no less), and JFK.

We also have here the first real glances at Dave Sim on relations between the sexes. Yes, we had Red Sophia, but she was just a joke - and a one-note one at that, a woman who threw herself at Cerebus to no avail, because while all the other men around found her irresistibly attractive, Cerebus didn't care about her at all. By the second issue, that theme had been done to death, and she didn't return until Sim found something else to do with her. And although Jaka was introduced, they really only shared a bit of dialogue in the bar and then a single extended scene together before the drug wore off and Cerebus forgot her.

But in the byplay between the Roach and Astoria, between Astoria and Cerebus, between Astoria and Theresa and Dirty Drew McGrew, the long-awaited return of Jaka, and even to a lesser extent in the relationship between Cerebus and the Elf, we see the early development of Sim's view of the "war between the sexes," which will in Sim's case go from being a vague and over-used metaphor to something resembling a real all-out conflict.