God, an aardvark, and the man in between
Speak not the name! Wait for it … Dave Sim. OooOOoohh!
For whatever reason, currently I’m putting up comics-and-religion posts, and it ain’t no secret that Sim/Cerebus presents about as thorny a case study as can be found. Plus, it’s an autobiographical comics blog, and I’m one of the title’s lonely #300 dead-enders, so here’s where I work out a little Cerebus the Aardvark on you.
Note for the baffled: Cerebus the Aardvark is a black-and-white, creator-owned comic that ran 300 planned issues from 1977 to 2004. Its author, Dave Sim, was at one time regarded as a leading light of comics (and no one has ever credibly demeaned his skill); this changed drastically given a two-step process of first, arguably, defaming women in the early 90s, and second, becoming devoutly religious and arguably right-wing in the 2000s. He and the title have been more-or-less excommunicated from comics fandom, although debates still rage about how arguably, punctuated on either side with such phrases as “you have to admit.” Some of us who stuck it out to the end traded between our interest in the characters/ideas and our fascinated horror at the car crash.
Couple things first, ground rules if you will. First, this post is about religion as such in the comic and as expressed by the comic; it references the other OMG-Dave-Sim sex-and-sexism issues as needed but not as the topic. Obviously a women-topic post about the comic is in the works for later. Second, I do not highly regard the circular process of (1) using the comic as a lens/referendum on the guy, while (2) simultaneously using the guy as a lens/referendum on the comic. That’s lazy and thoughtless. Since as you’ll see, it’s textually necessary to discuss the actual-author when talking about religion in the comic, please keep in mind that I’m avoiding that circle as best I can.
Whew. What was it I wanted to write about, again?
I submit that the full honkin’ 300-issue run of Cerebus the Aardvark constitutes a blanket condemnation of religious institutions – specifically, as rock-bottom incompatible with any experience of revelation, significance, sense of purpose, or “the numinous.” There’s a lot of these institutions in the story, some of them very present and detailed like the Church of Tarim and later, the Cirinists, and finally the “Cerebus” church of Latter Days; some seen only occasionally but story-significant like the Pigtish Earth-Pig cult; and some glimpsed and revisited but generally removed from the action, like K’Cor’s goddess-worshipping city. And they all, totally, suck.
They suck at serving people as social institutions – name it, the role of the Church in democracy in High Society, Cerebus’ “give me all your gold” popery in Church & State Part 1, the utterly toxic precepts and conflicts between the Kevillists and Cirinists which catch fire in Part 2, Cirin taking on the exact same paths as Cerebus did during Mothers & Daughters, and finally, most grim in Latter Days, the almost immediate breakdown and self-caricature of a religion even when it is working off a genuine prophet springboard. They also suck at anything metaphysical, insightful, or enlightened. In the story, achieving contact with the divine via temporal religious power is called the Ascension, involving a golden sphere. You’ll lose count of everyone trying it, and (spoilers) it never works. It really, really doesn’t; all of the story’s back-history is defined by the succession of misbegotten attempts and failures.
Near the end of the story, in Latter Days, and positing that Rick’s writings about Cerebus and Cerebus’ exegesis are at least sincere, perhaps even genuine revelation, well – what happens, but the institution that grows up around these writings and purports to understand and appreciate his contribution, is simply borked. Indeed, in The Last Day, Cerebus’ own son and social legacy are shown (to adopt the in-text judgment) to be nothing more than raw error and abomination.
To nod toward the gender issue, I submit the text is blatantly clear that identifying divinity or church with a gender is a disaster too. The men and women who purport to represent this aim, in fact, several factions of either, screw it up so badly that nothing results but murder, atrocity, and oppression. I’ll reserve for later Cerebus’ rape of Astoria and Cirin’s recapitulation of all his mistakes once she gets into power, but they fit into this point without qualification.
It boils down to a flat moral statement: that churches cannot express religious or symbolic meaning, but rather are state entities through and through, and such an entity cannot “ascend” to metaphysical status at all. No matter what you do in terms of temporal power as multiple characters try – it’s never anything but an exercise in ego, as Suenteus Po says, “the vestments of the fool.” Cerebus experiences this brick wall over and over: as a designated and baffled messiah, as a resource for others’ power plays, as a (or even the) power player, as an aspirant into the mystic several times with increasing sincerity, and even as the direct recipient of cosmic insight who inspires a new church. You just don’t get to earthly power, personal success, social progress, or “save the world” through one of these things.
By contrast, the title also includes – although not at all continuously – several steps to escape the fiction and directly to address the concept of God. The fictional gods and demons of the story introduced in roughly the first 100 issues are dialed down and down, examined and found wanting, and jettisoned. It begins at the end of Church & State, in that Tarim and Terim are projections onto a much more primal/cosmic conflict between maleness and femaleness, then kicks in hard during Mothers & Daughters, scrubbing all of purportedly “fantasy world gods and demons” out of the picture, including Khem, Death, the Pigtish idol, the Judge, K’Cor’s goddess, and various symbolic objects like the gold coins in the river. I’d even put Elrod and the Roach into this category; their expulsion from the story removes the last “in-setting meta-surreal magic fun” entirely.
That doesn’t stop characters from contacting or being contacted by something, with the implication that the interface is borked. Although the numinous experience is presented as valid and genuinely revelatory, each instance is entirely silent about what, and how it does or doesn’t relate to a given character’s notion of divinity – in fact, that it doesn’t is pretty much the textual answer. What does happen is a succession of other, often meta characters who explain Cerebus’ story to him, “what that meant,” “why are you here,” typically through visually spectacular breakthroughs into metatextual space. Most of them are blatantly stupid and wrong: the two wizards don’t know, the little guy with the hair doesn’t know, shoot, not even the “great big white glowing strange thing” itself knows what it means! Every single attempt at ascension, golden globe after golden globe, parsed male or female or Fred-and-Ethel both, via magic, via scholarship, via violence, via temporal power, via genuine revelation … none of them work.
Slowly, the later interlocutors start to know and say more substantive things, rather than being utter idiots. They also increasingly blur the fiction/meta lines – the Judge, Victor Reid, one or more aspects of Suenteus Po, Viktor Davies, and “Dave,” and although the “unreliable authority” concept applies in full, they all force self-reflection onto Cerebus. Toward the end of this sequence, the real Suenteus Po (who very sensibly exits himself from the entire comic), and then Dave (who at least seems like he’s an authentic author-presence, or trying to be; see below) give him pretty good advice as well as go through some provocative self-reflection of their own.
The final such in-fiction character, Rick, breaks the whole “Dave” comics-author focus to direct attention completely outward from the fiction (no wonder he’s nuts, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong; plus he gets crucified eventually, so there ya go), to prompt, not Cerebus’ contact with, but acknowledgment of, and faith in, God. The sequence ends with Dave again, himself apparently undergoing the same thing, no longer confronting and threatening his creation but giving him a chance at the kind of story he says he wants.
Well, he doesn’t get that in the long run, but instead, following an odd bit in which Cerebus is literally brainwashed with Rick’s Gospel, we get The Book of Cerebus which is basically his exegesis of the Torah. Hitherto real-world religions were almost absent from the text, so this is hard going in story terms. The exegesis is presented as “the textual truth” as far as I can tell, which is why I’m talking about it in the “God” section rather than the Churches one. Its content?
As prequel and orientation:
- The primal male/void, female/light conflict as described by the Judge at the end of Church & State Part 2, the first third of the series, is dualistic, and the male force is pretty much in the wrong, beginning Creation with an act of semi-inadvertent but still culpable rape.
- This gets revised completely via the passages with Viktor Davies in Reads, during Mothers & Daughters, at about 3/5 of the way through the series. (This is also pretty much the end of the story, which plot-wise, mostly concludes at the 2/3 mark.) The reversal is total: now the femaleness is the void impinging upon and destroying the maleness/light, and to many/most readers marks the “moment of misogyny” which influences the rest of the series.
In Latter Days and also in part of The Last Day, then, these ideas are taken into direct contact with Biblical material, as I said. The primary idea is that it’s a dualist/adversarial story between the real God and “Yoowhoo” the female pretender or resenter … and here’s where I break with anyone who ever read a comic in saying that some of that isn’t deranged.
- It’s non-controversial that the Jahwist and Elohist contributions to the Pentateuch are different texts, which were mashed together into the document called “JE” before later compilations.
- It’s also non-controversial that they express different sentiments, values, and interactions with humanity.
- Although contested, some readings uphold the idea that Jehovah/JHWH/YHWH was a female deity and Eloi was male.
- Historically, there are many sects or communities of commentary in both Talmudic and Euro-Christian tradition which interpret the Pentateuch as real vs. false deities in combat.
So if that’s God for this story, well, Sim didn’t make that up, or rather, in presenting the text that way, has long-standing company from various sources, some of whom are (gasp) avowedly feminist. Speaking intellectually and considering the Pentateuch has been (cough) studied more than a little (see Read your Bible), The Book of Cerebus’ problem isn’t any of the above, or that it’s over-complicated, but that it’s overly simplistic. Imposing his specific narrative of Man-Logic vs. Woman-Nutbar onto that mass of multiple-origin glued-together verbiage isn’t any different from imposing, say, the rest of the Hebrew Bible texts, the Gospels, Rabbinical doctrine, the Trinity, or the Quran onto it either. You can do it, but that doesn’t mean the older text makes any intrinsic sense of that kind.
Taking the long view of 300 issues, the titular protagonist deteriorates badly and thoroughly. For the first few major stories, Cerebus is a smart guy – lots of character flaws, sure, but loaded with situational awareness of everyone else’s goals and weak spots. He’s manipulable in very specific emotional ways, exploited by such sharpies as Weisshaupt, Astoria, and Claremont, but even then he’s got a chance, and in the long run, manages to come out ahead against them too. He’s right up there with the few other characters blessed with a bit of genre/medium self-reference.
Then … he gets dumber. It might begin as early as Jaka’s Story (just after the 1/3 mark), but it’s definite following the events of Mothers & Daughters. Granted, too, that this point marks the shift from external, large-scale story into extremely intimate relations in small spaces. The grand tease of “three aardvarks” in Church & State Part 1 has run its 100-issue course, and soon he loses the whole feature of “aardvark chaos magnet,” so he is “just a guy” now.
But he is simply not the same person at all, being so notably stupid, unable to understand or use various words, emotionally infantile, always at least one step behind even the most otherwise clueless or simple people. I get that the author called him a “born loser” in an early editorial. I also get that this whole segment of the story, called Guys, is about stupid guys, but the shift is not in degree, but jarringly in kind – he’s Flanderized to the point of outright retardation. All his quick improv and potential for sudden reversals is gone – to “Dave,” at the end of Minds, Cerebus is literally nothing but “my obnoxious gray creation” (I don’t have to infer; he says so, right there in the story; see below) and his contempt is vast.
The thing is that it didn’t have to be that way. There is a solid development sequence in place, from an uninterested adventurer, to basically another ambitious asshole, then he’s profoundly humbled in several ways, actually gets a chance to lobby for what kind of protagonist he wants to be (the romantic lead; he gets his chance and fails), and is finally humbled again in terms of his “importance,” and through stages, eventually coming to acceptance. It goes well with the shift away from the motif present from just about the very beginning, that to other characters, Cerebus is a supreme or crucial or legendary being of destiny. This gets it in the neck too! The entire “messiah thing” is broken, not actually understood even by the metaphysical players, not even by the most faith-driven and arguably decent character in the early stories (Bran), not even by the voice of the inspiring/revelatory entity itself. You can’t make yourself important, as Fred-Ethel-and-the-little-guy-with-the-hair does, or later, as Cerebus tries to do.
Making him so genuinely stupid subverts the power of that arc – it would have been a much better story to see Cerebus cope with these changes as a thinking person rather than a gormless dope.
“He got religion, he went nuts, and it sucked!” Hold on there. It’s not a crime to get religion and to incorporate it into one’s work. Fyodor Dostoevsky comes to mind. So does Gene Wolfe. Let’s also acknowledge that reading all the Abrahamic texts as a continuous historical document-production, as opposed to necessarily-adversarial doctrines, is an already-existing thing. Karen Armstrong calls it “triple vision.” (Although Sim’s final version seems to have become Pentateuch-only, which I find less interesting.) And finally, let’s set aside any interest in his own-and-actual lifestyle … So he stopped his hard-drinking, chain-smoking, self-described fornicator habits, and behaviorally as well as intellectually decided to become a modern-day Cathar – so what? No skin off mine either way.
The tricky part about this death-of-the-author preference of mine is Sim puts himself in there. If I were to assess this fictional presence as a character, then I’d say … well there are two to talk about. The first is Victor/Viktor Davis (Sim’s real-life middle name is Victor, by the way), who is totally a matter for that second post I’ve been promising. The second, more important in this post, is “Dave” and his final appearance as a visible, in-fiction present Dave.
These latter two, or differing presentations of the same, are interesting. “Dave” (Minds) is basically self-involved. He admits that his motivations for creating Cerebus were initially commercial and changed to mere curiosity, resents his fictional protagonist for various degrees of self-defeating shitty behavior, and tries to frighten him into shaping up. But Dave (end of Rick’s Story) is more humanized. For one thing, he’s finally naturalistically visual in the comic, genuinely “there.” He even relents a bit and sees how Cerebus will do if he gets a chance simply to have some time with Jaka (Going Home), even though that’s doomed too. In the larger scheme, he apparently feels he needs to get with God but, oddly, forces his own creation, Cerebus, to do so. Which seems sorta unfair, or even a bit hypocritical, for someone who so fervently defies his own perceived Demiurge (Yoowhoo), to play demiurge himself. This logical or illogical tension could be read as a provocative feature, one that his incessant editorializing on most features of the story never mentions, intentionally or otherwise, but nevertheless adding much bite to the convention of in-fiction author presence. Or maybe I’m being overly generous to justify my sunk cost of 300 issues.
Still, there’s more than one hint that even the last, relatively unmasked versions, apparently shorn of conceits, are still in-text characters. My favorite instance is when Cirin’s cacophonous defiance shatters and duplicates “Dave’s” thought-balloons, such that the intended line “I’m having trouble keeping my thoughts straight” tellingly reveals that “Dave” finds writing Cirin as a character dips a bit too deeply into his own mother issues. Others include the disparity between Dave’s vs. Jaka’s accounts of what she was thinking during a critical scene earlier in the story. So that’s interesting too. (Please don’t misunderstand me – I am not claiming that “the in-fiction author is a character” in order to say “but the real Dave Sim doesn’t believe that!” Although all indications are that he in fact did and does, it’s simply not relevant to my purpose whether he does. My purpose being to say that it’s interesting to regard these figures in the story as being, well, in the story.)
The thing is, the demiurge-level creator, the writer of the book, considered as a character, seems to get a lot less subtle and kind of outright mean. All the characters, men and women both, new and old, lose complexity after Suenteus Po and Astoria voluntarily choose the Zen or Anchorite path and vanish from the title. It’s a late development: even in Reads, infamous for its condemnation of the female Void, plenty of major and minor female characters were fascinating, compelling, thoughtful, and consequential. Cruelty toward women was deemed very much not OK; Cerebus’ own potential for this is regarded with loathing by himself and Dave both.
The change starts with female characters who are borderline to actually loathsome, like Ziggy and Joanne. I’d place the final shift in these matters at the 4/5 mark, between Going Home, featuring the F. Scott Fitzgerald expy, whose troubles with women and alcohol are complex, sympathetic, and tragically amusing, and Form and Void, featuring the Ernest and Mary Hemingway expys, for which they are gross, depressing, and riddled with violence. Also, on a specifically religious note, his pre-9/11 interest in “triple vision” seemed aimed at arriving at a genuine ethics, including some editorial and some in-fiction mention of Islam, but afterward, that’s definitely gone. The correspondence with Sim’s own years-long process of professing his own conversion and changing his lifestyle from hedonism to asceticism is direct.
So what to make of this? I’m left with my reader’s response that I don’t really care what the real-live guy believes or does. Not in a mean way, I just don’t know him, or vice versa. Neither of us has to judge the other. I care about what the comic says insofar as it’s emotionally compelling rather than a matter of agreement. The author’s purported presence in it, or his beliefs as a story element – those are OK things, plain old literary technique as far as I’m concerned … so what do I think at that level?
- That it’s a bummer that he lost his sense of humor, no matter what he came to believe.
- That someone as quick-minded and curious failed entirely to benefit from thinking scholars, about religion and the Bible, instead of writing them off as fake-ass “book learnin’.”
- That – same context – his 9/11 thinking so completely retreated into boilerplate Crusades-cum-Cold War, Cold War-cum-War on Terror in breathtaking anti-intellectualism, especially for someone who’d previously trusted absolutely zero institutions of power.
- [gender topics reserved for another post]
“My time” with Cerebus began properly ten years into it, during the Church & State Part 2 story. That’s relevant here because one’s starting point with this title creates a personal set-point for what one thinks is good about it. That typically translates to what one would prefer to see characterizing the entire run (past and future to that point), and that translates to bitter, long rants.
I don’t really want to do that here. For better or worse, these six thousand pages represent both a high-water mark of artistic and economic achievement for comics and a prime example of grappling with religion as fictional content and non-fictional influence. One doesn’t have to agree with the specific content and influence to examine that.
Let me finish with a bit of autobio. I’ve written about my unpleasant emotional state in the early 1990s before, when I was grappling with a lot of the same issues Sim brings up: partners’ actions in relationships which seemed not merely personal differences but outright psychosis and malevolence, hitting hard into and against the crisis between feminism-as-humanist vs. feminism-as-reactionary, and the grim reality of what a self-defined, self-driven professional effort could and could not achieve. Cerebus was major reading matter for me through this – not as validator; you didn’t see me pumping my fist and going “yeah Dave! Fuckin’ vampiric voids!” but with a genuine reader’s interest in someone else’s presentation of issues I recognized, and in which the anger as such was familiar, rather than a threat. Even the parts that repelled me were relevant to the reflection this prompted: if I knew I didn’t think that, then what did I think? And given that disparity in views, then what parts of the story attracted or “spoke” to me anyway? I found that both comfortable and provocative to consider, issue by issue.
I had hit and resolved my own men-and-women critical point during the summer of 1993, over a year before #186 and the Viktor Davies “female voids” material appeared. I was much more securely placed. such that I didn’t find the ideas in it revelatory nor did I feel the need to reject them ostentatiously. As the book went along I became increasingly uninterested in that issue – instead I was interested in power, religion as institutions, the issue of one’s sense of “place,” and relationships, all of which were rewarding topics in the title. And I think they still are.
A little lost? No problem, way more famous bloggers than me have spilled more digital ink on Cerebus than I will. Links: Thoughts of a workshy fop (Cerebus tag), A Moment of Cerebus, The Cerebus re-read challenge, Fun and games with Dave (extensive embedded links)
Next comics: Sword of God, The Edge, p. 10 (September 27); One Plus One, Two, p. 1 (September 29)
Next column: I just want to talk to him (October 2)
Posted on September 25, 2016, in Storytalk, The 90s me and tagged Aardvark Vanaheim, Astoria, Cerebus, Dave Sim, Flanderization, Pentateuch, religion, Tarim, Terim. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.