Some of you may remember this series (Part I, Part II, Part III) from long ago. The Interwebs did, and so arose an opportunity for revision and publication (complete with preapproval from Sim and Gerhard to include panels and pages from the series) in a forthcoming collection. Below is the abstract I concocted while foolishly spending much of my time writing the actual essay, but that's neither here nor there. The close readings of the texts themselves will commence somewhere near the end of this capsule history of what I'm calling "modernist freedom," but previews of them can be found at the links above. That said:
Cerebus and Modernist Freedom
When Dave Sim and his fiance, Deni Loubert, founded Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc. in 1977, its express purpose was to publish Sim's own parody of the sword and sorcery genre typified by titles like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja. Two years, twenty-five issues, countless tabs of LSD, and a stint in a psychiatric ward later, his increasingly threadbare parody—later collected in phone book-form as Cerebus—was re-envisioned as a project of almost unimaginable magnitude when the 23-year-old Sim declared that the series would run for 300 issues, at which point he would be 48 years old. For a writer to dedicate 25 years to a single project is not merely unheard of in the domain of serialized comics, but in literature at large, comparable in stamina to the 26 years William Gass labored on The Tunnel and superior in final effect to the nearly half-century in which Ralph Ellison failed to complete Juneteenth. Moreover, Sim rarely had—or, at least, rarely abused—the luxury of stopping production on Cerebus to write essays in the mode of Gass or Ellison, as the schedule required to produce a monthly comic demanded that he work without cessation. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the serial nature of monthly comics eliminated the possibility of revision in the traditional sense. Sim could not simply revise a previously unpublished chapter to accord with another of similar status, he had to incorporate previously published material into his increasingly complex cosmology—a feat he accomplished sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not. He possessed, in 1979, the kind of creative freedom editors can afford Grant Morrison today: he could remake this fictional world so that it functioned in accordance with his vision of it. When coupled with the increasingly popularity of his title, this freedom from editorial interference allowed Sim to develop Cerebus solely in reference to his expectations and those of his readers, a financial and artistic arrangement that shares more with that of Continental modernist literature than not. James Joyce knew Ulysses would continue to be serialized in The Little Review because of the number and influence of its subscribers and the unflagging support Sylvia Beach; this knowledge afforded him the opportunity to risk formal and narrative strategies at which an artist lacking it might balk. Despite Joyce's constant anxiety about money—he once wrote his mother, "Your order for 3s 4d of Tuesday last was very welcome as I had been without food for 42 hours (forty-two)," as if the gravity of his situation could not be communicated unless he literally spelled it out—the commercial success of the book was assured long before its serialized chapters were bound, so the question of whether the final version of Ulysses would represent Joyce's vision of it never needed to be asked. In short, at issue was not whether Joyce had creative freedom, but what he would do with it. Because Sim worked under circumstances that are, at the very least, analogous—only with independent comics in the 1980s taking the tenuous position of little magazines in the 1920s—the central question should not be whether he possessed creative freedom, but how he exercised it. Joyce is not the singular Irish modernist for Sim—that title belongs to Oscar Wilde—but the comparison warrants further investigation. In what follows, I will trace the evolution of Jaka from an early parody of a foreign stripper, complete with references to herself in the third person ("Jaka thinks you are cute!" [Cerebus 126]); to the complex subject of an Oscar Wilde novel charting her life as a Princess of Palnu in Jaka's Story; and ending with her being, as Sim wrote in Going Home, "pretty consistent ... All that changed was that Cerebus switched from not really wanting Jaka to really, really wanting her ... As soon as you switch, they switch [because] Jaka is a self-absorbed aristocratic airhead. She always was." This final diminishing in her author's eyes sells his characterization of her short, but it is indicative of how Sim would later come to abuse the very creative freedom that once allowed him to become one of the strongest and most innovative in literature, of the graphic variety or otherwise.