(This is part one in a series of ... some undetermined number. Part two can be found here.)
I want to accomplish a number of things here, so bear with me as I approach Dave Sim from a couple of angles. Given my interest in the ideological conflicts within an author, I think it best to start from the biographical. Here's the condensed version:
- 1977: Begins publishing Cerebus
- 1979: Drops acid, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and decides Cerebus will run for 300 issues.
- 1980: Publishes the first issue of what will later be collected in High Society, inaugurating an unprecedented decade-long run of brilliance.
- 1990: Jaka's Story concludes, inaugurating an unprecedented 14 year run of published mental instability.
That may sound harsh, but what I have in mind here is the notion of high art as the product of unsound minds. My modernist bias may be showing here, but with good reason—Sim possessed a kind of creative control unseen since the days of the high modernists. He could publish what he wanted, when he wanted to and expect to be taken seriously. That last part is more significant than it might seem.
It's one thing to be a James Joyce; another entirely to be a James Joyce who expects his works will be read and discussed by his peers. The expectations that you'll be read by a committed audience changes how you approach your material. (No more self-indulgent slap-dash, my stuff must sing!) Writing one of the three most popular [independent] comics of the 1980s—expanding the political slapstick of Duck Soup into sprawling medieval allegory of the intrusion of kings and popes into the lives of individuals—convinced him he was above the petty squabbling he so brilliantly depicted.
With no publisher holding editorial power over him, Sim was charmed by the power he once parodied. As Daniel notes, Sim is convinced that the late complaints against "the feminist-homosexualist axis" are nascent in the earlier works. I bring this up now only to dismiss it: I'm sure he believes that, the same way I sometimes believe my thinking about Silas Weir Mitchell is nascent in my dissertation prospectus—which is only to say, I address the very same issues about which I'll one day draw entirely different conclusions.
They are there, only the parody has turned to homily. For example, here's the back cover to Cerebus 126:
Four years later, in Cerebus 186, Sim would appear, thinly disguised and ranting:
The point, of course, was that the Male Light was not the exclusive property of Men. It was very close to being the exclusive property of Men, but as Viktor Davis had reminded himself, "there are exceptions." In the case of self-publishing (Viktor Davis' idea of self-publishing was best summed up by Don Simpson's promotional slogan: "One Comic Book. One Universe. Why Pay More?"), there were the indisputable contributions of Colleen Doran and Teri Wood. The problem, of course, in acknowledging exceptions in the Female Void-Dominated Age, was that exception was always extrapolated into being a Universal Truth. This was the shaky foundation upon which Feminism was (and is) built. There were (and are) women who begin their sentences with "I believe..." or "I think..." And they do think. They have reasoned and coherent world views. They realise that inspiration is simply the starting point, that without dedication, hard work, and an avoidance of the Rapacious Voids which dominate our civilisation, the "hard, gem-like flame" becomes wavery or is extinguished. This sensibility occurs more often—far more often—in men than it does in women. This is not bigotry, this is not sexism, it is a fact which is supported by empirical evidence. The Bronte Sisters are not William Shakespeare, Madame Curie is not Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale is not Louis Pasteur, Penny Marshall is not Orson Welles, Joan of Arc is not Jesus Christ. The Male Light is not a genderless thing, but it occurs where it occurs and sometimes (not often) it occurs in women. Where the Male Light occurs, it must overcome all manner of adversity, not the least of which is the war between the Heart and the Mind. The mistake Feminism makes is in thinking (or, rather, feeling) that legislation can be passed to eliminate adversity and, in this, it has been quite successful, to the general detriment of society. The Founders of Feminism, those with Good Brains and the ability to Reason and Contribute, in regarding the babbling cacophony of the "I feel..." Brigade they have unleashed upon the world in the name of numerical parity in all areas of human endeavour, have much to reflect on. I doubt that they do (or will). But I think they should.
That is but a portion of what he wrote in that issue. I'm not attacking his opinion here, merely commenting on how he violated the very conventions of the genre in order to do exactly what he had earlier inveighed against. In retrospect, I'm sure he believes that the Oscar Wilde meant it ironically, and given his talent for blustery deflection, Wilde may have may actually have. But at some point Sim lost sight of the fact that even if he did believe that "no artist desires to prove anything," Wilde still produced art over invective.
All of which is only to say that what I've written tonight is a prelude, a means of laying out the conflicts I believe will play out. (Which is, yes, dull. But a necessity, since some of my readers may be unfamiliar with Sim.) Tomorrow I'll address the framing of Jaka's Story and its implications for the narrative as a whole. The short version: I don't believe it a coincidence that Sim bound his narrative within the conventions of a 19th century novel at the moment his inner ideologue got the upper-hand on his inner artist.
(I feel obliged to add: unlike the series on Keats' Grecian Urn, I've written this one out in advance. If y'all would prefer I present it all at once, I can. I'm just not sure that a 3000 word essay is proper material for a blog.)