Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Cerebus and Modernist Freedom, Part I (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...
Cerebus and Modernist Freedom, Part II: Snow-Machines, Archaeology, and the Damage Done (This is the second in an ongoing series. Part one can be found here.) If I'm to discuss Jaka's Story, I should at least be polite enough to introduce to you to Jaka , pictured here in a rare happy moment. Her life has not been an easy one: she was born into the royal family of Palnu, but a life of royalty she did not lead. From the moment she awoke, her nurse hounded her every movement—and perhaps this was for the better. In the few hours when the nurse wasn't roughly scrubbing this or manhandling that, the six-year-old Jaka was molested by an unknown member of the royal family or the palace staff. (These nightly molestations are alluded to on a single page, but it is a significant page, and one I will return to later.) The reader is first introduced to Jaka as a young woman dancing in a nightclub. According to Sim in his editorial introduction to Cerebus 114—the "Prologue" to Jaka's Story—she is based upon the mistress he had when he first married his wife, Deni: "I was naive and ridiculous and the poorest imaginable husband material (still am) but my subconscious was at least able to dredge up what I considered a particularly interesting character out of a singularly unstable period of my life." Then again, in response to a letter in Cerebus 268, Jaka is "a spoiled, myopic, insensitive, self-absorbed and self-important harlot princess (quite apart from her position in the heirarchy of the city-state of Palnu)." I mention this not to point to Sim as a hypocrite, but as a way to track the development of his thought: Jaka begins as a complex character with a fraught and troubled past, but in the end becomes a symptom of feminist effrontery. In the strict allegory into which Cerebus will eventually descend, Jaka will come to mean something. She ceases to be a character with motivations the minute she becomes this meaning-laden symbol in possession of an established allegorical function. To belabor this point, indulge me in a brief discussion of another allegory, Dante's Commedia. Every character in the Commedia symbolizes and personalizes the sin. In the Inferno (Canto V), the soul of Francesca da Rimini is blown about by the winds, the perfect contrapasso for a woman whose lust led to her ruin. Dante uses a familiar figure from (then) recent Italian history in order to prevent his readers from falling into a purely allegorical mode of the sort found in Le Roman de la Rose, in which a Lover is thwarted by Jealousy. Sim's revisionary account of Jaka shovels abstract generalities on top the rich character he had created, much like a snow-machine transforming the rugged terrain of an archaeological dig into a pristine white field. Why would someone take a snow-machine to a dig? Because life is easier when less complicated. Because history can be rewritten with a little effort and lot of alcohol. Those are fine, if ultimately inadequate, answers....

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