I saw Cerebus the Aardvark #1 on the stands in my comics shop in Monterey; I was twelve. I did not buy it because it misspelled a mythological figure’s name, which I took to indicate unforgivable ignorance, and because at first inspection it seemed to make fun of my very favorite comic, Conan the Barbarian. I was perhaps an over-serious pre-teen and did not think highly of silly or parodic comics if they were not in Mad Magazine.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, I encountered the “you don’t read Cerebus?!” response from my friend Simone and began my reading approximately with the depicted issue, which begins Church & State Part II, and my purchasing with the trial of Astoria near the end of that sequence. Apparently I was in it to win it, because as the years passed, I acquired every issue I could as far back as I could, filled in the earlier ones with the helpful reprint series issued at about then, and in the fullness of time, one by one, purchased every new issue until the series’ conclusion at #300.
The Roach – suffice to say – is a character who sequentially and very successfully satirizes various mainstream superhero and semi-superhero characters throughout most of the title’s long run. At this point in the story he hilariously transitions from a Wolverine to a more generic Marvel persona in a new skintight black costume who can stick to walls (tha-pock tha-pock), now named after and heavily invested in something called the Sacred Wars. Queried about it, he explains that he can’t say, because they’re Secret Sacred Wars.
One of my favorite bits is the two-page, multi-panel spread of the Secret Sacred Wars Roach further “explaining” the Sacred Wars in detail, via his henchmen’s (Drew and Fleagle in unflattering Secret Sacred Wars Roach costumes) memorized monologues. The layout puts Cerebus glaring at the reader in mute frustration at the left edge, and the next time you see his face it’s set in the same expression at the bottom right. I want that spread as a poster. I also like the business of his gestures, while forgetting that Cerebus’ head is still stuck to his palm.
At one point, on a page which is unfortunately not present on the internet, the Roach extols the virtues of Conflict as the origin of Character, which he rightly knows he “needs more,” to the point of battering the brothers around, then seizing Drewroach and forcing him to repeat after him:
- “Let me hear you say it.”
- Drewroach, significantly speech-impaired by the mighty hand engulfing the lower half of his face, manages to squeak,“Fonflif.”
- “Louder.” “Fonflif!”
- “PRAISE CONFLICT.” “Fwafe fonflif!”
Now, briefly I’ll dip into talking about what an author meant, something I don’t ordinarily do, but in this case Sim is very helpful:
Another of Big Jim’s hard and fast rules of storytelling was that “conflict creates character” which is why Dirty Fleagle and Dirty Drew spend most of their time as the Secret Sacred Wars Roach’s henchmen beating crap out of each other. My own view would be that conflict forces decision-making and decision-making breaks down into bad decision-making which is destructive and good decision-making which is creative. In both cases the development of character can result: in the former case because a lesson is learned from making a mistake and in the latter case because a good decision results in immediate improvement. It seems to me that believing that “conflict creates character” in and of itself explains why there was so much conflict in the editorial offices of Marvel Comics through much of the 1980s. [emphasis mine – RE]
My selective excerpt doesn’t convey Sim’s larger, positive point about Jim Shooter’s editorship, so before you assume anything about that, see the full passage at the link below.
But I’m not talking about policy or legacy, I’m talking about the immediate and on-the-ground effect on making stories. Sticking with the specific “what is conflict” point alone, I’m saying, right on Dave. Conflict isn’t a fight, it’s a demanding situation, in which in-the-moment decision-making matters very much. I’ll go further along my usual road and specify that the situation must correspond to something in the rich but bounded array of familiar human problems.
Rich but bounded. That’s crucial. We aren’t infinite creatures. We have particular developmental paths, a particular physiology, what we biologists call life-history which is different for every species. This freaks people out because they think I mean there’s a single individual human experience, which is not the case. In fact, the opposite: the boundaries make us capable of appreciating the different individual experiences within them. A quick outline, emphasizing that for each bulleted topic, there are literally dozens of potential problem-situations and situationally-viable options:
Intimate and personal
- Family and parenting
- Romance and fidelity
Social and political
- Aggression, violence, transgression
- Cooperation and exploitation
- Deception of oneself and others
Think of the first three wrapped in a historically-specific matrix of the second three, such that “family” in one era and location invokes different values and immediate decisions from “family” in another … but is still recognizable as such.
Stories are thought-experiments of the human experience. One doesn’t have to romanticize that experience or make up nonsense about “humans unlike other animals” in order to love it and be fascinated by it, and thus to love and be fascinated by stories. Conflict only makes sense to us as a decision-point concerning some combination of these topics. Violence (a “fight”) is one of them – insofar as it’s linked to, arises from, and gets/gives context to one or more of the others.
Whereas many, I’d say most violent confrontations in superhero comics do no such thing. They’re contrived to the point of absurdity, based on coincidence, weird senses, mind control, and time travel, as I shall outline in a moment. I grant that rarely even these confrontations are grounded in emotional or circumstantial causes which resonate with me as a reader; in other words, when the misunderstanding or other circumstance of the fight is a subordinate feature of a fictionally-solid situation. If that happens, then nothin’ wrong with that! But the Secret Sacred Wars in Cerebus satirized the fact that this is the extreme minority case.
It’s not just about the Secret Wars, nor about Shooter individually. All superhero comics including the ones I have most enjoyed and talk about here at this blog are painfully stuffed with contrived “we must fight” moments, based on the following plot points:
- “Villain robs bank or commits other brainless act in broad daylight, when hero happens along,” to the point that one wonders if villains ever do anything bad outside of the path of the hero’s habitual patrols. Sometimes super-senses are shanghaied into existence to justify these events, but interestingly they are rarely used for anything else despite being nominally still in the hero’s possession.
- Misunderstandings or unreasonable responses, between hero and villain or, often, between hero and hero. Mind Control Incidents (MCI) are frequently used to justify these when otherwise the characters would seem to be suffering from significant social and cognitive disorders.
- Time travel is another colorful and dubiously justifiable way to get the above two points into play.
The Secret Wars, both of them I suppose, happens to be a distilled, extreme degree thereof, editorially enforced as such, which is not nothing, but I don’t want to single it out in terms of the phenomenon itself. This is a constant thing. Instead I want to raise the much more difficult question of whether such scripting is intrinsic to superhero stories, as opposed to being an artifact of the historical context and exigencies of such comics throughout the decades. In other words, can comics feature superheroes in their startling absurdity (powers, costumes, et cetera) and yet also their politically-relevant and/or emotionally-affecting drama, without such contrivance? And to stamp my question yet further into difficulty, without, repeat without self-reference, deconstruction, or meta-commentary?
Much less reliance on coincidence (i.e. present similarly to most other story-based media), little or no misunderstanding, little or no mind control, and little or no time travel insofar as it forces the former into play – what would superhero story creation look like then? I can name a few titles that did this a little bit. Could a whole writing stable accord with it, such that it characterized a whole line of super-powers titles?
Special request: your personal opinions of Dave Sim or Jim Shooter are not the topic here. Also, since the comic and this storyline and the Roach are stuffed full of geek-out must-repeat bits, please attempt instead to be cool and talk about the conflict thing.
Links: A moment of Cerebus
Next: Whom were they watching?