Monday, February 16, 2004

Chasing Yahweh (With A Stick)

Cerebus: Latter Days, compiling issues 268-285, Dave Sim and Gerhard, Aardvark-Vanaheim Press

It was some 25 years ago I discovered Cerebus the Aardvark at Eide’s Comic Shop in Pittsburgh. At that stage the “direct sale market” was just getting underway, and Cerebus and Elfquest were only available at such stores. At the time, it was a “funny-animal/fantasy comic book, in which the protagonist, a short, grey, bad-tempered aardvark, encountered characters like an Elric clone with the voice of Foghorn Leghorn, Groucho Marx as a local city-lord, and a Batman satire known as “The Cockroach”. The irreverent attitudes of the characters and the dead-on hits against comics and fantasy in general built a following for the book. Cerebus’s creator, Dave Sim, said the book would last 300 issues, and end with the death of its main character.

Three hundred issues later, the story is coming to a close. Both creator and character changed over time. The fantasy trappings have evolved into politics, social, and religious commentary and into Sim’s personal philosophy and cosmology, which is more than just a little twisted.

Here’s the personal philosophy: The universe has a male force and a female force. The female force is evil and crazy, because women are evil and crazy.

And that’s pretty much been it for the past 200 issues.

I switched to the collected “phone books” after a while, both because of the difficulty of keeping up monthly with a small-sales title, and that it was just easier to put up with Sim’s philosophy in his collected editions. A relentless monthly visit on misogyny (yeah, I’m aware of the pun in that comparison) is a bit wearing. It’s the difference between listening the cranky old guy at the end of the bar griping about “Wimmin & Feminazis” once a year as opposed to every week.

And that is what Sim has become - an old crank. He’s declared war on the opposite gender, and nothing you or anyone else says will convince him otherwise. Women are evil, evil, evil!

Now the interesting thing about his philosophy is that his own comic undercuts him. For a rabid misogynist, his female characters have always been the more interesting and deeper, while his male figures have been built upon recognizable archtypes and established figures: Oscar Wilde, Groucho Marx, Ernest Hemmingway, as well as comic figures, both creatives and characters. In Latter Days he corrects this problem by keeping women to the margins as much as possible, but he does strong women very well, which is frustrating when you’re trying to convince people they are evil, evil, evil!

Cerebus himself often sabotages Sim’s message by acting like, um, Cerebus - just as evil and foolish and emotional as any of the evil evil evil women. Cerebus is not Sim, but they do agree on a lot of points, and if your main character is screwing up your theme, either the theme or the character needs to change.

So we come to this collection, Latter Days, which is the winding up towards the big 300. Cerebus has broken up with his long-time lover, Jaka, been rejected by his home town, and now wants to end it all. After a few false starts, he decides to make himself a target for the female-controlled government of the Cirinists, but instead is kidnapped by the Three Stooges (no, really), who follow the faith of Rick (who was Jaka’s first husband and the Cerebus Christ-Figure). So the Stooges hold Cerebus hostage and read to him from the Book of Rick until he goes a little crazy, thinks himself a superhero called the Rabbi (a take on Vertigo’s The Preacher) then leads the Men against the Women, first dressed as Charlie Brown then as Spawn, and overthrows the gynarchy and establishes the rule of Man (the last bit pretty much happens off panel, and Cerebus contributes little save as figurehead).

So the second half opens up with Cerebus, after another bout of insanity (discovering his hero, the Rabbi, was himself a Cirinist feminist plot), is visited by Woody Allen, who brings the Torah to him. Not a fantasy version of the Torah, but the Torah itself – first five of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, the books of Moses. Yeah, those books. And Cerebus spends the next several years of his life working through what they mean, and sharing it with us.

In effect, Cerebus is doing in the last half of the book to the reader what was done to him in the first half of the book - a relentless religious pummeling. And I’m not sure that’s intentional or not, because self-sabotage is both inherent in the Cerebus character AND in Sim’s writings.

Anyway, Cerebus’s definition of the Torah is that it is a conversation between the good male force and the evil female force, labeled “God” and "YHWH" (called here “Yoohwhoo”), respectively. And the difference between the two is when the Torah says something that Sim agrees with, that’s the male God. When the Torah says or does something that Sim disagrees with, that’s the female YHWH. So Cerebus takes a very, very sharp knife to the document, parsing out sentences and fragments of sentences to assign to good wise maleness or evil foolish femaleness.

Of course, the end result is that it shows that a sacred text can be interpreted any way one sees fit, if you work on it hard enough. But unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be Sim’s point here. Which is a good example of sabotaging yourself.

And, through the second half, we’re dealing with Woody Allen’s own progress through his movie and public incarnations. The fact that Sim chooses Allen as a character here is interesting, in that at the end of it all Cerebus reveals that this entire book was no more than a flashback told in order to score with a young woman -a young woman who looks just like Jaka, who he broke up with at the end of LAST BOOK (underscoring Woody Allen’s own personal life and fascination with young women).

So Cerebus undercuts himself and Sim’s message once again. One of the interesting things about Sim’s work is that it is so hermetically sealed in its own internal logic, and points like this cannot seem to be unintentional, but if they are intentional, he's saying his philosophy, lovingly presented over 25 years, is a complete goof.

I think Sim is serious about his beliefs as portrayed here. In a recent interview with Comics and Game Review, he pretty much summoned himself up in a almost-female hissy-fit about how the comics universe has ignored him for 300 issues, and closes by accusing the interviewer with being feminized (and therefore bigoted). I’m serious about this. It gives a wonderful insight into the brain.

Cerebus entertains and makes you think, even if what you’re thinking is “Is this guy kidding?” Sims has taken a bad relationship and turned it into a career. Indeed, that’s what Cerebus is really all about – relationships. Man/Woman, Creator/Consumer, Mother/Daughter, Guy/Other Guy, Powerful/Powerless, Believer/Infidel. Relationships. He just doesn’t seem to know it. I think that’s one of the things that fascinates me about the series.

And for me, I have a sudden urge to read the book of Genesis again. So this collection can’t be all bad.

More later,