Sunday, 27 April 2014

Cerebus Book 2: High Society (#26-50)

"Why the heck do you wanna be Prime Minister then?" - Lord Storm'send

"For the money"
- Cerebus

My interest having been sparked by his guest appearence in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, this is where my Cerebus story starts proper.Back in 1990, even in specialist comics shops, the indie comics that ended up on sale via import tended to be somewhat hit and miss.  With the first twenty-five issues impossible to find, it was in fact the rereleases of High Society that I spent my hard earned pennies on.  These are the only Cerebus comics I own as floppies as well as a trade paperback, and there is something to be said for having them like that.  Not only did you get a letters page, but excerpts from Dave Sims notebook of designs and single page guest comics too.  The painted front covers are nice as well, if Dave Sim ever decides to release a compilation of all the Cerebus covers in one volume, I'd happily part with cash for a copy.  There is strong competition from Jaka's Story and Minds, but I can honestly say that High Society is still my favourite of the whole Cerebus saga and when I was drawing comics for my own amusement back then, it was High Society that was my biggest influence.
Probably the most noticable thing about the book is the dramatic use of plain, all black or white backgrounds, with the characters no longer being rather overpowered by the thickly over detailed backdrops of the first book.  Obviously in retrospect this can be seen as a time saver on the part of Dave Sim, so he could keep cranking out a twenty page book at a monthly rate.  But when Gerhard joins to do the backgrounds later on, lessons have been learned and back and foregrounds work together in harmony.  But while the backdrops have become starker, the layouts start to get more experimental, with splash pages using no dialogue balloons instead there is type written "script" style storytelling as well as issues which need to be read sideways, utilising longer panels on a horizontal plane. And the comic's panel count has gone through the roof, Dave Sim has so much to say with such complex interplay of characters and plot at work that up to twelve panels per page become the norm.  Putting todays "decompressed" storytelling in comics to shame.
Mind Game II: Chatting With Suentus Po

The basic story of High Society is how a barbarian fish-out-of-water like Cerebus manages to navigate his way through the cut-throat world of diplomacy and politics.  The driving force behind his ascendency to the Prime Minstership of the bankrupt city state of Iest being the scheming ex-wife of Lord Julius - Astoria. 
Astoria raking in the cash
They meet, when after some disasterous misuse of cash that wasn't his own by Cerebus gets him almost thrown to the Tarimite Inquisition (the Head Inquisitor gets crushed just in time, by a stone moon thrown by the Moonroach whom she is also manipulating) she pulls his gonads out of the fininacial fire and promises to make him rich. Although it's not revealed until later books that she is in Iest building up a powerbase to take on the Cirinists, she is an excellent female character, a shrewd schemer who takes Cerebus to the top and he only starts to fail when he arrogantly sidelines her during his presidency.  She has her dumb muscle in the form of The Roach, here going by the identity of Moonroach, and she see's Cerebus as easily manipulated into doing as she wants as long as he has enough food, booze and cash to keep him happy.  The twenty-five issues cover the up's and downs of their electioneering, victory and complete failure to hold onto power.  There is so much stuffed into every issue that some focus is necessary here and for me the arc hits it's heights as emotional drama, out-and-out comedy and a somewhat jaundiced view of politics with the three issues - "The Night Before", "Election Night" and "The Deciding Vote."

Cerebus and Jaka
"The Night Before" reunites Cerebus with exotic dancer Jaka.  The entire issue plays out just between the two of them as Cerebus arrogantly assumes she has come to him for a handout now he is wealthy and well connected and will be happy to come and live with him.  This leads to the following, heart breaking exchange:

Cerebus: You made the right decision coming to Cerebus.  Cerebus will see to it that  you never have  to dance again.
Jaka: (tearfully) I like dancing

Cerebus: In Greater Iest dancers are considered..well.. to be perfectly honest.. It would be bad for businesss if people knew Cerebus was living with a dancer.

Jaka: I see.  And would you still kill a yak for my supper?  Or would that also be bad for business

(angry) If you really want a yak.. Cerebus will buy you one.

Jaka:   Thanks.  But it wouldn't be the same somehow.

Which shows beautifully and economically how much Cerebus's exposure to money and power have changed and corrupted him from the somewhat carefree adventurer he used to be.  Jaka refuses his offer, saying she came to give him a gift.  Cerebus sneers at her wasting the last of her money on it, but as she leaves him he begins to unwrap it and the final page is one devstating close up of him holding the gift - the sword he lost during a misadventure in book one - and a single tear falling upon it.

Still, this is early Cerebus when he refuses to learn anything from the setbacks in his life and so he throws himself into campaigning against the goat Lord Julius is putting up for the opposing candidate.  The next few chapters expertly capture the wheeling and dealing of the election trail as they try and muster support in enough ridings to win the election. Two newspaper's front pages are used to help keep us abreast of what is happening, one biased for Cerebus, one for the goat.  When finally election night dawns, we get an issue that superbly illustrates the tension of a close run election, with Cerebus getting madder and madder (when Elrod appears he grabs him, whirls him round his head and flings him into the auditorium) the closer the results get until finally he snaps.

Leading to some humourous panicing on the part of Lord Julius who starts trying to rustle up some protection only to find he's sold pretty much all of it to finance his campaign.. and other things.

Lord Julius: What about those two tall guys with the big spears who were walking in front of  me when we got here?

Servant:  You told me to trade them for a silver and gold bathtub in the shape of a squid.

Lord Julius:  Well that certainly sounds like something I'd do.

Moonroach and Astoria and a lot of booze.
In the event the election turns out to be a tie, and Cerebus, Astoria and Moonroach travel out to the snowy riding of the farmer Lord Storm'send.  Who, after locking Astoria and Moonroach in a shed with all his moonshine (and they manage to get apocalyptically drunk as we cut back to them during the issue) makes Cerebus follow him to where he intends to light one of two torches signalling who gets his deciding vote.  There is much slapstick humour at the expense of Cerebus trying to walk in snowshoes and tripping and falling constantly (with the lovely comic sound effect "whuffa whuffa" as he stumbles along), while Lord Storm'send lectures him on his rather jaded views about democracy.  Making it somewhat satisfying when Cerebus then punches his lights out when the torch has been lit and he refuses to tell Cerebus who it was for. The whole issue is one that needs to be turned on it's side, it uses tall panels for great effect but mainly I believe it was for sake of the "Punching" page, which uses the longer horizontal panel layout beautifully.
And so Cerebus becomes Prime Minister of Iest. Unfortunately once he has a hold on power, all of Cerebus's worst instincts are multiplied, with his desire for money as his main driving force. He sidelines Astoria, and shows litle interest in furthering her causes of republicanism and getting women the vote which she is trying to push for. He treats his bureaucracy with contempt and immediately hires mercenaries to invade a neighbouring country, which turns out to be completely broke as well and Lord Julius whom they owe money to immediately adds that countries debts to Iest's.  Then when Cerebus does finally get a hold of a large amount of cash Lord Julius - the main economic power in the region - revalues the currency so as to render it worthless.  With the return of the Tarim worshipping Papacy to Iest and unable to pay his armies to fend off the invasions from all sides, even after the Hsifans join them (Cerebus became a hero to them in Book 1), Cerebus decides not to follow Astoria's advice to become Prime Minister in exile and walks out on her, with just his vest, medallions and sword to his name. Although not before sharing an emotional farewell with The Regency Elf, perhaps the only time we see Cerebus fully crying.

Along with a colourful cast, including Chico Marx as Duke Leonardi the leader of one of Iest's neighbours, incompetant kidnappers the MacGrew brothers and the Regency Elf - a sprite who only Cerebus can see in the grand hotel he lives in at the start, High Society is packed full of fun, satire and extreme politcking that never gets dry and boring.  Somehow, Sim manages to make things like summits hysterically funny, mainly thanks to his ability to write Marx Brothers style comedy.  The sheer density of the writing means repeat visits to this book are a neccessity and it obvious why, when Dave Sim chose to go the self publishing route (refusing an offer of $100,000 up front from DC in exchange for only ten percent ownership, he decided to keep full ownership and not long after the release got a cool $150,000 from the first lot of sales of the book) he chose High Society to start off with.  With a little background knowledge from the first book needed, this is very self contained coming to a definite conclusion and no cliffhanger into the next one.  High Society is a magnificent book,and will always remain my favourite of the series.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (#8 ) Guest Starring Cerebus The Aardvark.

Ah this brings back memories.  This, my friends is how I first came to be interested in Cerebus's adventures.  When the Turtles broke big in the UK (and believe it or not, in the UK, the Turtle's cartoon was censored - the nunchuks edited to look like sticks and the word "Hero" substituted for "Ninja"), a four volume set of the first twelve adventures were released in full colour. This was in 1990 and my sixteen year old self just had to have them as back issue's at my nearest comicbook shop were impossible to get hold of.   The original's were of course in black and white as befitted the Turtles indie comics status, and normally I don't like colour being added to black and white art.  But I have to admit, it's a nicely done job and obviously made the comics more marketable to the wider audience the Turtles were reaching by then.  Although this comic was originally released in 1986, when the Cerebus storyline had left it's fantasy roots far behind, I'm reviewing it now because it obviously fits in during Cerebus's time as a wandering soldier of fortune (The key being the fact he still has his horned helmet at this point).  I think it might be safe to say that if Dave Sim hadn't paved the way (alongside Elfquest another indie comic that started in the late 70's) with a self published  black and white comic, Eastman and Laird might never have made a success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  And a world without the Turtles hardly bears thinking about!  So an appearance of our favourite dickish aardvark in issue #8 feels like a tribute to an inspirational work.

It's a somewhat daft and slight little story.  A time travelling bimbo magically transports herself to New York where she meets the Turtles. Then takes herself and the Turtles back in time where they bump into Cerebus, who appears to be under a wizards curse and has to get some magical scrolls from a nearby castle.  That's OK though as the bimbo manages to lose the time travel maguffin to the monster inside the castle, so she, the Turtles and Cerebus team-up to defeat him.  Unfortunately the maguffin gives the baddie the power to disable each one of them, but before he can kill them, the big giant head of the owner of the maguffin arrives like a deus ex machina and sorts everything out by zapping the monster further back in time, giving Cerebus the scrolls he needs, returning the Turtles to 80's New York and taking the bimbo (who is actually his student) back with him to his own time period.  Like the first Cerebus book, it's got it's tongue rammed firmly in it's cheek when it comes to playing with the tropes of  the Conan style fantasy genre and while Cerebus remains his usual, humourless self, the Turtles get to crack wise and kick arse in a thoroughly entertaining manner.

Cerebus actually fits in pretty well with the Turtles artistically, with them all being anthropomorphised, weapon wielding creatures. The same can't be said of the later appearence Cerebus makes in the baffling, Dave Sim penned Spawn comic (which I'll be covering later on).  But on the other hand Cerebus is also something of an odd choice for a starring role in a Turtles comic.  The reason being is that right from the start the Turtles were obviously being aimed at a fairly wide audience of kids and younger teens and as such don't have a lot of depth or subtext at work in their stories.  And by the time this crossover was published, Cerebus was well into the huge Church and State arc, which is a complex satire of the relationship between religion and politics. And very much aimed at older teens and adults.  For every reader like myself who delved into Cerebus and got hooked thanks to his co-starring role here, there must have been many more left totally bewildered by their further investigation into the aardvark's adventures.  I imagine though, the success of the Turtles took Dave Sim by surprise as much as it did their creators and he'd probably never imagined Cerebus being exposed to such a huge potential audience.  Despite their similarities as self published, black and white, indie comics, Cerebus was never, ever going to be a pop cultural icon like the Turtles became.  But thanks at least to this fun little co-adventure I became a much bigger fan of the furry, grey, git than I did the Turtles (and I am still pretty fond of those early Turtles adventures, for the art more than the scripts though) and ended up following him to the (very) bitter end rather than those heroes in a half shell.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Cerebus Book 1: Cerebus (#1-25)

"Power is better than money?" - Cerebus
"Most assuredly... Power is money" - Weishauppt

When I started my Cerebus journey back in the 80's the first comics I bought of it were from the High Society arc and so when I finally picked up the first volume of Cerebus I was somewhat surprised at how crude it was in comparison.  Not just the rather adorably long-nosed Cerebus The Aardvark himself, but the simplistic layouts and thick black undifferentiated linework stand in stark contrast to the finer detailed High Society and beyond work. Then there is the use of a purple prosed omniscient narrator, which is also dropped from High Society onwards. Storywise it was apparently around issue #4 when Dave Sim started introducing elements that would reverberate much later in the storyline, with the introduction of Elrod Of Melvinbone, Foghorn Leghorn speaking albino Ruler Of A Dying Race (a parody of Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone) and the Chaos Emerald, a seemingly throwaway plot item that results in a startling twist many, many issues down the road.

Page One of the very 1st issue
One of the things that stays true of Cerebus right to the end is the parodying of pop culture characters and the appearance of barely disguised real people in the narrative. Red Sophia, who first pops up in issue #2 is a parody of Red Sonia from the Conan stories (and interestingly, considering her modesty is only covered by a chainmail bikini, she isn't drawn in an explotative and sexist manner a pattern that holds for all subsequent female characters in the series).  The most extreme example of comic book pastiche is The Roach, who shifts outfits and personalities to poke fun at various comicbook superheroes for the next couple of hundred issues. For example, later in the first book he imitates Captain America with Elrod as his side kick "Bucky" who gets killed and then repossesess his body in a short plotline that also introduces Weisshaupt and his schemes for greater power in the region.  This looks like a daft throwaway moment that doesn't quite seem in keeping with the world of Cerebus as so far described, but again does pay-off much further down the road.  Also making
appearences are "Sump Thing" and "Woman Thing" and a magician called Charles X Claremont.

Captain Cockroach
There is no overarching theme to these first twenty-five issues, unlike what will come next.  Cerebus is a mercenary for hire, travelling about that part of the world bumping into the various characters that will be part of the storyline for quite some time after.  As well as Elrod and The Roach, there is a small arc of issues where he is appointed Kitchen Staff Supervisor to Lord Julius (Groucho Marx), ruler of Palnu.  Because Lord Julius is extremely eccentric, this means Cerebus is actually Secretary Of State for Defence (because I started reading Cerebus with High Society that was the one thing that confused me, why were people flocking to suck up to the ex-Kitchen Staff Supervisor?).  Because he's based on Groucho Marx, it gave Dave Sim a chance to go wild with the verbal comedy and I have to say he pulled it off very well.  It's also very entertaining seeing the very serious Cerebus being slowly driven out of his mind by Lord Julius daftness, until he quits and moves on again.
Lord Julius
 Jaka (Lord Julius's niece) is the most important character introduced in this volume, although there seems to be nothing all that special about her at first.
Jaka's first appearence
She's an exotic dancer that Cerebus is drugged into being attracted too, when he recovers he pushes her aside and goes on his way.  But the drugged Cerebus love-struck and gooey eyed at her lovely dancing promises to "kill a yak for your supper" and she very quickly falls for him in response, enchanted by the stories of his mercenary adventures. Though it's not implied that they slept together during their first encounter which is most definitely retconned further down the line. But she gradually assumes more importance to Cerebus and to the storyline until the storyline is arguably as much about her as it is about Cerebus. As you can see from the exerpt the dialogue is still a tad clunky, as opposed to the naturalistic style adopted later on as Dave Sim hones his writing as well as his artistic craft. 

Mind Game One
And really that's the main pleasure I got from this first book, it's seeing an artist and writer improve dramatically with each issue.  In fact there is a big jump in the quality of the artwork and layouts from the end of this book and the start of High Society, which suggests to me that he had deliberately kept his style as
more simplistic towards the end to keep the look of the first book coherent.  The fact that he was already thinking of the series as a set of arcs even this early on shows incredible confidence and faith that he'd be able to pull it off.  You only have to compare "Mind Game One" with it's sequel in High Society to see that continual improvement in action.  "Mind Game One" is a mess, with a confusing layout (it's designed so that the grey parts when joined up, make one big Cerebus) and although it shows Cerebus cleverly playing off the Cirinists and Illusionists against each other (and we'll be finding out a lot more about them later in the story) it's very hard to follow who's saying what to whom.  "Mind Game Two" uses elegant panel layouts and transitions, and plain text with no speech bubbles to convey a lot of information without confusion and comes relatively few issues later. Sim is also not afraid to redesign a character he likes to fit in with his current style.  Bran MacMuffin being the main example, going from a barbarian "Pigt" (an underground sect who worship Aardvarks) clad in a loincloth in this volume, to a stylish, suit clad gentleman in High Society.

Cerebus and Red Sophia

If you like fantasy comics, Cerebus is a fine example of a loving send up of the genre.  There are fight scenes, weird cults, monsters, wizards and magic, barbarians and beautiful, scantily clad maidens.  Cerebus's personality is established as well and interestingly he's something of an arsehole.  He's rude, vicious, selfish and covets gold above all else.  Yet somehow you're interested in what happens to the little bastard even if his repeated bad luck leaves you thinking "yeah, he deserved that."  And, again starting from this point, much of his later character development depends on him being a total bastard.  First as a lesson in absolute power corrupting absolutely and then as extreme misfortune forces him to own up and change his behaviour.  The fact that Dave Sim was laying the foundation right from the start is impressive and shows how totally committed he was to having the comic run for three hundred issues this early on.  Nevertheless, at this point in time this collection can be read independently of the rest of the series and you'll still get enjoyment from it even if you don't decide to move on to the less fantastical continuation of the plot.  I recommend that you do of course, because High Society is next and to my mind that's where Dave Sim hit's new heights of scripting and artwork, in fact when Sim decided to start releasing them as collections, he started with High Society first.

However, although Cerebus book one might not have much underlying meat to get your teeth into, unlike later books, it's still very welcoming to the casual reader.  If you are at all interested in the Cerebus series, do start right from the beginning.  Most of the later books are much better, but knowing how Cerebus formed relationships with characters that continue to appear further down the line will increase your pleasure of those plot elements tenfold. I'm not saying the book is only worth it for the continuity, but that was big elemnt of it's appeal for me.  Cerebus book one then, light hearted high fantasy parody and vital groundwork of many of the books to come.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Cerebus The Aardvark - An Introduction

"Cerebus, as if I need to say so, is still to comic books what Hydrogen is to the Periodic Table." - Alan Moore speaking when Cerebus was around 70% complete.

It's been ten years now since Canadian artist and writer Dave Sim's Cerebus project published it's final issue.  It seems only right that I cover this series first, as it's one I embraced during my first period of loving comics in the 80's, but didn't get around to finishing until my second (and current) period of loving comics.  The comic, despite it's lengthy run is still considered somewhat obscure by mainstream standards, poke around the net about it now and it seems roughly four general things are known about it: 

One:  That is ran for a very long time and Dave Sim was responsible for every single issue.  Two:  That it went from a light and funny book, to a darker and more serious one.  Three:  That it's vastly misogynistic and Four:  That Mr. Sim "lost his mind" towards the end.  Well, obviously I'll be covering these in the reviews in more detail as I go but here's my quick opinion of these points.

One:  The series did indeed run for a long time, from December 1977 to April 2004 and three hundred issues.  The story of Cerebus, a humanoid aardvark in a olde worlde of normal human beings, it splits into 16 "books" - Cerebus, High Society, Church and State I and II, Jaka's Story, Flight, Women, Reads, Minds, Guys, Rick's Story, Going Home, Form and Void, Latter Days and The Last Day (also a five issue mini called Cerebus Zero that collects a few issues that came between the big arcs) Dave Sim scripted every single issue and drew every one up until halfway through Church and State when artist Gerhard came aboard and started drawing backgrounds for the comic, although he had no input in how the story went.

Two:  The series startes out as a light parody of the Conan series, with elements of Howard The Duck (spoofing real and imagined people) before moving onto political and social satire.  It's not commonly agreed where the series takes a turn for the dark, though I have my own opinions (and will cover them when I reach that point).  It has however inspired a trope on TV Tropes called "Cerebus Syndrome" which covers all types of TV shows, comics, anime etc that get more serious as they go along.

Three:  Ah, the misogyny.  Now, I am a woman.  I am a feminist.  I even hold a Masters Degree in Women's Studies.  I should be the worst audience for a comic written by a man who starts calling himself "evil misogynist Dave Sim" in the last couple of books.  But it's not a totally cut and dried thing.  One of the reasons I will defend him from the charges of misogyny is that, up until the last two books, he has a very wide range of interesting female characters.  They are drawn with care and respect, made to look very different, have different personalities and a couple are really awesome and badass.  There is no gratuitous cheesecake, even Red Spohia who only wears a chainmail bikini is drawn more to emphasise innocent fun than sex. A couple of the volumes even pass the Bechdel Test, for goodness sake! The problem is mainly confined to when Dave Sim steps outside of the story and starts talking direct to the audience in the text parts of "Reads" and the appendices of the final four books.  I wil deal with his thoughts on women when I cover "Reads" because those were part of the original comics.  Covering the appendices would get very repetative and boring because it is mostly him saying the same things over and over. 

Yes, I am insulting him, because having to wade through all the sexist nonsense while finishing the saga left me feeling rather ill disposed towards Mr.Sim.  That won't stop me picking out other interesting bits and pieces from the appendices when I reach them, but really, I think that if you ignore the "Reads" text pieces and appendices of the last four books, only the final two can really be said to contain misogyny in story and that's sidelined somewhat by the trans and homophobia, anti-semitism and Islamopobia that suddenly appears as well.  And noticably neither of the final two books contain any female characters of note either.

Four:  Did Dave Sim go "mad" towards the end?  There seems to be some unsubstantiated stuff on the net that says he did, but if Latter Days is anything to go by, his experience of psychiatry is very much rooted in Freud and Jung.  I entered the care of a psychiatrist around the time Latter Days was being produced and those theories were completely discredited by then as a way of treating mental illness, which does say to me that if he had any contact with the mental health profession it was before the Cerebus project even started in the early 70's (actually Wikipedia supports this, he was hospitalised for excessive marjuana use in 1979 which was not long after the Cerebus project started).  No, what seems to have happened towards the end was he got religion.  Sad to say, but the final two books are derailed by Christianity more than crazy, and oh dear, not the nice, tolerant kind of Christianity either.

Anyway, that's a quick intro to Cerebus.  Time to crack on with the individual books.