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Sunday, 04 March 2007

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The Little Evil Cerebist

That's it, I'm changing my name. Damnit. (Sigh.)

Sisyphus

Ok, technical question? Don't make me get out the Abrams Glossary, just clarify --- doesn't a frame narrative have to have the teller in it, or show that it is a frame, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness? You've _shown_ pages from the back story but only _told_ about the pages where the speaker and auditor (Rick and Oscar Wilde) are present. Is there a reason for that? Am I just confused about terms? And how do the creepy portraits of the little girl and all that sensual emphasis on her victimization relate to the people exchanging the frame story?

Ray Davis

Scott, I'm enjoying this, but I have another mild dissent,,,, "Consider this: the information contained in these panels is related to Wilde by Jaka's insecure husband, Rick." Rick insecure? He may be the least jealous man in American comics (after R. Crumb, anyway). Don't you mean "trusting"? That's why understanding that his trust has been betrayed causes such a violent reaction.

Sisyphus, the trouble is that Scott's spoiling one of the major surprises of the book. The reader isn't sure where these prose inserts are coming from until almost the end. We have to take them at more or less face value as an interleaved flashback meant to complicate our present-day view of a stripper gone underground with her ne'er-do-well husband.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, Sim later reinterpreted the Oscar / Rick relationship with his snowblower, it seems. From an online interview
(here and elsewhere):

"Take the three love triangles in Jaka's Story: Cerebus wants Jaka real bad, but he sleeps in the little guest room eating his heart out and actually makes friends with Rick even though he's Cerebus the Barbarian. Pud spends every night alone with Jaka who is dressed in a sexually provocative manner and just makes amiable chit-chat or listens to all of her petty little problems for hours on end. Oscar has got a major woody for Rick. And even with all this sexual tension that is so thick you could cut it with a knife, still all of these people keep very much to their own side of the sexual barricade."

So Sim at this point analogizes the Oscar/Rick relationship to the Pud/Jaka relationship. That's not especially homosocial.

I do think that all of this is an interesting depiction of the limits of a disregard for authorial interpretation. Why are so many people interested in what Sim thinks about his story? Well, for human interest in Sim as a character in part, because (I would say) Sim is very present as an author-function in the story, but also because Sim has written and continues to write so much about it. I tend to think of authorial interpretations that you read as being in some way added to the story as a sort of appendix -- you can't completely ignore them, even if you'd like to. So the criticism I've glanced at about Cerebus seems divided into two categories, fan criticism (which concentrates on What Happened and What Dave Said) and critic criticism, which tends to get subsumed by Saving Cerebus From Sim. For the critic to write, the author must shut up.

Tom Hitchner

This is more of a quibble, but am I the only one who doesn't think that Wilde is particularly well ventriloquized in the pages given above? The writing seems to be from the school that feels that a Victorian style is constituted of a heavy use of adverbs and parenthetical phrases. "To call Nurse's porridge irredeemably unpleasant is to compliment it extravagantly," "Having risen (the 'shine' part was both conversational formality and small irony for Nurse was, in fact, thoroughly intolerant of morning cheerfulness -- or cheerfulness at any other time of the day, for that matter), Jaka faced her morning bath" -- Wilde's prose was never as strong as his dialogue, but these sentences are Bulwer-Lytton caliber. (The author and the contest.)

Scott Eric Kaufman

First, I'm not ignoring her: the Little Womedievalist and I settled her rechristening off-blog.

Second, Sisyphus and Ray, I was trying to save the surprise -- or replicate it, if you will -- for the next post. There's no way around the spoiler here, other than to not make it an issue. It will, however, be the focus of my next post.

Ray, I see him as insecure; after all, anytime Jaka even looks in the direction of another man, he demands she prove her love for him with sex. (Not that he always receives it, mind you.) That happens four or five times in the book. You're correct, though, that reading him as trusting makes the ultimate betrayal that much more wrenching. For some reason, I've always found these sorts of disagreements interesting on the theoretical level -- why do I see insecurity where you see trust? I'm not sure, in this case, but it does have something to do with how we contextualize and prioritize other information we know about the character. (I'm blathering here, but you know that.)

Rich, I don't think the author must shut up -- however, that sentence's snappily written -- so much as cede interpretive fiat. Sim can say whatever he wants to about his own work, but it's going to end up in the matrix of readerly assumptions which has Ray seeing trust where I see insecurity. There's something to that acknowledgment: namely, that if you take the chance and try to move readers, you're going to compel them to respond individually to what you've written, ipso facto you can't control it. I'm not sure why I'm feeling so Iser-lite today, but there you have it. ("It" being "nothing much," hence the "-lite.")

More later, after I reinsert my thinking thing into my noggin.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Tom, your comment wasn't there when I composed mine. Here's what I'll say: the ventriloquizing effect is cumulative. Yes, the mileage on individual sentences varies, but the overall effect is convincing. That's one of the reasons my "spoiler" isn't much of a spoiler: well before the ruse is revealed, it's fairly obvious that Wilde's the author of the interwoven narrative.

That said, you have a point about those sentences.

Rich Puchalsky

The author can't control interpretation of his or her work, that's a given. But Sim has been highly successful at making all critics concerned with Sim's interpretation. People can disagree with it, but I doubt that anyone in the history of critical interpretation of Cerebus is going to blithely ignore what Sim has to say about it. The double go-around is a highly inspired move in this game; writing a contemporaneous introduction / lettercol apparatus, plus a years-later contradictory interview series, means that in addition to Sim As Author there is also an Early Sim As Critic and Later Sim As Critic.

Doug M.

"Sim revels in ventriloquism—and well he should, as he is among the most talented literary ventriloquists I've come across."

I don't think that's quite right.

Sim was an incredibly talented /mimic/. He's the guy who could do a great Groucho Marx. And this is no small thing. It's painfully easy to do a bad Groucho, really hard to do a good one. And Sim could mimic a wide range of artists in a variety of fields.

But "ventriloquist", to me, means a creator who can make his characters speak with voices that are clearly not his own. And I think this is what Sim _couldn't_ do. He could borrow others' voices, but he had trouble creating fresh ones.

IOW, much of what's good in Cerebus is not very original; and much of what's original is not very good.


Doug M.

Ray Davis

Sorry for spoiling your spoiler, Scott. (Luckily, smart readers skip my comments anyway.) As an afterthought, wouldn't it be more accurate to call the prose an "embedded narrative" than a "frame narrative"?

And wow, we really did take away different views of Rick in Jaka's Story. When I look at him, I see a lazy, good-natured horndog. Like a sexually active Jughead or Maynard G. Krebs. He believes he's very lucky to have gotten Jaka, but he doesn't obsess over the possible fragility of the relationship. If his frequent suggestions were treated as unwelcome (instead of inopportune), the effect might be different.

Maybe it's the tension between taking what we view as comic convention or as nuanced realism? That seems to be the biggest theoretical difficulty posed by Cerebus. Although Sim's tonal clashing is less controlled than, say, Jaime Hernandez's or Walt Kelly's, at his best, and with the right readers, it really clicks (with a loud gear-stripping groan). But it clicks differently for different right readers. (John Marston might make a good comparison.)

Rich Puchalsky

Reading the series backwards, doesn't Cerebus realize that he's going to Hell at the end precisely because Rick isn't there? I had thought from snippets gleaned here and there that Rick == Jesus, in an ironic but also serious fashion. That means that his relationship with Jaka is supposed to be characterized by an unworldly trustfulness, doesn't it?

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