I take no part in ostentatiously excluding Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark from modern comics discussion, and I dislike the stink of piety that rises from it. “Are you now or have you ever been” regarding liking or valuing Sim’s work was instituted about twenty years ago and unfortunately seems to have stuck around. Before you snark “well he deserves it” at me, please consider that Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin have not only depicted but expressed vile (rather than “problematic”) gender positions, but also more consistently and with more widespread impact, I would say, than Sim. I see no comparable consequence for them, their readers, or developers of their material.
I’ll speak with a little insider knowledge at the time (for #186, fall 1994), regarding both the Cerebus fan community and a few comics pros. I think the exclusion is founded less on a specific feminist-or-simply-decent position than on seizing an opportunity to stand on the goodright-think platform for mutual gain. Much lies in the lap of Gary Groth, particularly back then before the internet had fully produced its panoply of opinion-makers, when The Comics Journal provided the sole pundit-status imprint for what one was supposed to say. To my knowledge no one has reviewed the step-by-step process of transferring Sim from comics champion to sparring partner to persona non grata, but I wish they would. It wouldn’t reflect favorably on the magazine.
Regarding the intervening decades, anyone committed to comics scholarship has no excuse. In terms of pure art and design, Cerebus is simply one of the best examples of the medium in its history, and there isn’t a working creator alive today who isn’t directly or indirectly influenced by Sim and Gerhard artistically – and economically and professionally, even more so.
How about morally? Well, whose morality? Here, I’ll quote myself from an earlier post:
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.
So never mind Dave Sim. I’m talking about the comic: the characters, how they’re depicted, what they say, what they do that affects other characters, and their roles in how things play out. Which also means, never mind what you think is right or wrong. I’ll take it to a real issue that does in fact matter to me, and let me put it crudely: are Sim’s women characters “cunts?”
It has a lot to do with the comic as a story. It’s ridiculous to accuse, say, Ranxerox of being awful because its female characters fit the bill (they do) – it’s Ranxerox for God’s sake, why else are you reading it if not for such things? For Cerebus, I’m going with the evident observation that it’s a novel, and a pretty serious one, in which the clashes of personalities and goals and circumstances produce some real outcomes. In that context the question stands.
I don’t like her or she’s a bad person are not criteria, nor is using one’s sexuality in a mean or disagreeable way. Enough male characters fit that bill to turn it into a “degrees of” argument, and then into a “degree of each degree,” which is no use. The same applies to standard stereotypes for minor characters which are very common and cover just about any mid-20th-century North American humor you can name; I don’t see a reason to distinguish in gender terms between sending up Mrs. Henrot-Gutch the harridan mother-in-law vs. Filgate the New York Italian jumped-up hood, or the obese-devout chambermaid vs. Boobah the gluttonous idiot. Same as well to parodying public figures like Margaret Thatcher or Keith Richards.
I’ll set some criteria:
- One-dimensionality, meaning, no reflection and flexibility
- Identifying femaleness or female anatomy with stupidity, weakness, or evil
Take it to the tape.
Church & State
I’m considering this story (#51-111) in isolation, as it’s the linchpin for all plot events in the full 6000 pages. From the larger perspective it’s the first major clash among multiple conspirators from various levels of political power and reality, but from the protagonist’s point of view, it’s driven by his interactions with four women: Michelle, Red Sophia, Jaka, and Astoria. Cerebus is interesting insofar as each woman finds him interesting, whether as representing a given power-interest, or on a more personal basis. I also think that the personal basis turns out to be the more important component in each case. Here’s where each woman is present and active along the sequence of events.
- C&S 1: Cerebus is manipulated by Michelle and Weisshaupt into marrying Red Sophia and becoming prime minister again, this time under Weisshaupt’s guidance rather than Astoria’s
- C&S 1: Cerebus becomes pope and wrests actual power away from Weisshaupt
- C&S 1: Red Sophia leaves him; he also rejects (or is denied) escape from the situation with Jaka
- He’s then is ousted by other power-seekers; intimations begin that more is at stake here than merely a political position
- C&S 2: Astoria re-enters the story seeking to take control at a metaphysical rather than political level, but Cerebus outmaneuvers her and recovers his pope-hood with Michelle’s help
- C&S 2: Astoria is arrested for heresy and murder, and among a complex series of events, Cerebus rapes her; amid her trial and much metaphysical upheaval, the Great Ascension begins
The most evident power-player among these characters is Astoria, but it’s hard to distinguish among character development, revelation of back-story and depth, and re-invention for purposes of a new storyline. In the preceding volume, High Society, she was a political manipulator and nearly-pathological liar who took over control of the Roach from Weisshaupt and supplanted Weisshaupt as Cerebus’ primary handler. It”s eventually revealed that her goal is women’s suffrage, treated with astonishment by the other principals.
Church & State provides a more complex back-story for her via some intelligence-gathering by another female character named Theresa, and the step by step revelation that Astoria’s been part of a revolutionary effort among the female members of the Church all along. (For non-Cerebus-ers, this effort is split between the Cirinists, the mother-conservatives, and the Kevillists, the daughter-radicals.) The details are complex but hinge on her disagreement with Cirin over whether “women’s liberation” does or does not include a pregnant woman’s authority over the fate of her fetus. She doesn’t take an active role until Part 2, much of which is very mysterious in the moment but is clarified later – suffice to say she clashes magically with Cerebus and is removed from the situation, but returns later having assassinated a powerful political figure, the Lion of Serrea, in the interim.
Run a search on “Cerebus Astoria” and you’ll get multiple hits concerning the rape in #93. Aside from Trina Robbin’s excellent analysis in the letters page at the time (reprinted in A Moment of Cerebus), what I don’t see in the internet summaries or discussions is the rapid-fire shifting of power between the two of them before, during, and after the act. Even as a beaten and chained prisoner, she initially confuses and dominates him as she’s almost always done, even removing her panties and taunting him with the bind between sex and his married-and-papal status. He then blindfolds and gags her, pronounces them married, rapes her, and pronounces them divorced.
I don’t think the text supports a “she deserves it” reading. It’s not played for laughs. Cerebus is exerting his power over her just as he’d exerted it over Weisshaupt (humiliating, condemning, and indirectly killing him), very much in “you’re not the boss of me” wise. The fact that she’d been messing with him until then isn’t relevant to the basic brutality and purpose of the act. The majority of the text is her thought balloons, and she’s both humiliated and physically disgusted – and significantly, it doesn’t even work: she recovers her position in their battle for control soon afterward. More significantly, the content of the Great Ascension in later pages delivers an incredible “you are unworthy” message to Cerebus based precisely on his willingness to do this very thing.
To stay with the immediate text, this scene in the cell also includes the first display of her fanaticism, where it’s revealed that she’s actually the author of Kevillism and her goals, far from the mere policy reform of suffrage, include profound militant sexual revolution. But interpreting her intensity at this point is tricky, in that it’s tied up somehow with the “cosmic role” that she’s trapped in, or rather the pair of roles that gets played over and over, including flashbacks to herself as Pope and Cerebus as the principled prisoner.
That’s all part of the utter shake-up of the subsequent trial, the scene which redefines literally everything that’s happened in the series to date, and which provides the foundation for all the points I discussed in God, an aardvark, and the man in between.
Even as Cerebus tries his hardest to get out of sentencing her to execution, his historical or spiritual “role” to do so keeps taking over, and I interpret Astoria’s insistent martyrdom to be the same – and yet, they keep switching roles, hallucinating back and forth between historical periods, to the extent that when he does pronounce the sentence, he is her instead and bellows “Kill him!” to confusion of all present. And that’s not played for laughs either. They’re both shattered by the intensity of these imposed roles and the effort to resist them.
By contrast, Michelle at first seems to be a minor figure. She appears in considerably less pages and her back-story is much less detailed, but I submit she’s at least as significant as Astoria in story terms. In Church & State Part 1, she’s introduced first as “the Countess,” unruffled and unusually compatible with Cerebus’ unusual psychology and personality, privileged but far from naive. Her back-story implies her role as a cordial rival to Weisshaupt who takes care of the Roach now and then.
Her dialogue imparts a lot of important information but in the fashion of speaking to a listener already knows it, and much of that isn’t revealed for a long time. So many, many pages later, one has to go back and re-read to understand what she is saying about the Cirinists and Kevillists, Astoria, Sir Gerrik, and Cirin, and how many of the conflicts of Church & State, and later stories, lie in this tangled little web of sex, kin, and control.
Readers of Cerebus, feast your eyes on that a while. You’re welcome. (Bonus point: Sir Gerrik is never ever seen in the entire series and plays no active role off-panel. Bummer.) (Other point: minor inconsistencies in different characters’ dialogues have led to much fan circles-and-arrows epiletic tree building; I’m taking the other route and merely passing them over, so certain details of the diagram can be considered “fuzzy.”)
Anyway, during this sequence, despite interruptions by an apparently-being-dumped boyfriend and the aforementioned Roach, she and Cerebus tentatively and rather honestly begin canoodling a bit, based – shock – apparently on genuinely liking one another. I enjoy this sequence for a lot of reasons, not least that the pages I’ve chosen come from three separate scenes, such that with each quiet interlude, the two of them get just a little bit more comfy as they hang out.
Then the whole thing is borked by the spectre of Claremont inside the Roach’s head, who manipulates Cerebus into alienating her, and as it happens, he then falls directly into Weisshaupt’s manipulations and wakes up hung-over, mind-blown by some drug or other, and married to Red Sophia. (Keeping up, non-Cerebus-ers? Good luck …)
Church & State Part 1 goes on to Cerebus resuming the prime ministership, becoming the pope, rebelling against Weisshaupt and causing his death, and getting unceremoniously evicted from the papacy in a series of events too freaky to describe here. At the opening of Part 2, Michelle is briefly involved again, wryly helping the Secret Sacred Wars Roach who’s off anyone’s leash at the moment, and she carries out Weisshaupt’s dying request to help Cerebus regain the papacy.
She tells Cerebus some things: that she had been a set-up by or protege for Weisshaupt rather than a born-into-it countess; that she was grateful to Weisshaupt for seeing her educated, but that she despised his power obsession and his sense of grand purposes; and most importantly, that Weisshaupt had planned to set her up as Cerebus’ companion during the Great Ascension.
This ties back to my points in God’s privy parts as well as the interesting notion that Weisshaupt had intended a male-female pairing for the Ascension rather than Cerebus alone. Also, as he’d originally planned to do it himself, I wonder who he’d planned on accompanying him?
The key point here is that she refuses to do any such thing and tells Cerebus this to his face.
Michelle is barely seen again throughout the rest of the comic, and never in a way which reveals her situation or fate. She is the first of three major characters who deliberately exclude themselves from the power-seeking, competitive situation, and who seem actually to leave the series, steering themselves clear of the author’s ability to affect them. Michelle is also the only one to do so specifically regarding her effect on Cerebus, deciding not to ruin his life or to let her life be ruined. Given that she also escapes the first in-story attempt at the Great Ascension, everything about how that event plays out and therefore, everything about how the story proceeds at all, for every other character, is profoundly affected by her decision. And yet I see no mention of her in any “what about women in Cerebus” discussion I’ve encountered.
Now for the romantic-interest characters, Red Sophia and Jaka, who in this same volume are respectively the one he gets stuck with and the one who got away.
Red Sophia’s famous earlier appearances were parody, case closed, just the same as the Prince Valiant character, and she’s never above delivering the occasional joke scene. In Church & State Part 1, she’s more interesting but still a bit of a goofball, including farcical wife-comedy. In an earlier dialogue, when she quotes him saying that all she ever wanted from the marriage was free privilege and comfort, she accurately responds, “Sure. Same as you.” Under the poofy hair, she’s quite reasonable, not demanding anything from him or clinging – he’s the whiny-needy one, not her. Bit by bit throughout Part 1 she gains in story stature, as the only person who’s not afraid of Cerebus after he becomes pope, perfectly capable of skewering his pretensions.
Without mysteriously transforming into a different character entirely, she shows judgment, dignity, and an admirable sense of humor in coping with a real insight: that Cerebus doesn’t and will never love her. And then shows that without pitching a fit or blaming or freaking out, she has decided that it’s not enough, implying that to her, the potential relationship was important after all. (I grant you that her brief appearance in Part 2 is nothing but low comedy.) (However, in a much later sequence, she reveals, heart-breakingly, that she did love the “inside” Cerebus who wasn’t evident to her mother, and defends her position despite public censure.)
Talking about Jaka in Church & State is riddled with pitfalls, as she receives so much more attention and story-role or roles later in the series. It’s hard to dial back and understand that here, although she’s given more depth than in her earlier appearances, she has way less depth than the other three characters I’m talking about. I guess I have to explain that she played a comedic role in an early issue, which then became a more dramatic lost-love role for a scene back in High Society, and now Church & State brings a similar scene in which she’s shown to be married and pregnant, and thus Cerebus can’t “leave it all behind” and run off with her.
Therefore giving her role in this story its tragic, romantic bite requires some skillful play with previously-unseen characterization and memes, not least among them Jaka’s prodigious 80s bangs, rather than working from past content. Their closing good-bye waves induce you to bawl shamelessly, believing in the authenticity of their prior relationship, however undepicted. (Yes, you. Read it and see.) That it’s not merely a trick in the series’ larger scope should be evident a few paragraphs down.
Many, perhaps all good writers talk about their characters getting away from them, and I think it happens all the time in Cerebus. The series from 1 through 111 (the end of the Great Ascension) is a classic study of a great story emerging from a lot of improvised pieces – not least in the striking force delivered by these female characters.
Mothers & Daughters
Mothers & Daughters, #151-200, composed of almost evenly of Flight, Women, Reads, and Minds, is the mirror to Church & State Parts 1 & 2, similarly including a mystic confrontation with “the truth” at the end. I venture to say that just about everyone has read the text pieces in Minds and clutched themselves in horror. I’ll be weird and talk about the story instead.
Cirin – only glimpsed once prior to this point and revealed to be an aardvark – is now ruling the land with an iron fist, atop a religious and state hierarchy, pretty much exactly as Cerebus had always wanted to do, and just like him, she’s become obsessed with the next Great Ascension. Astoria’s languishing in prison – just as she was under Cerebus’ brief second tenure as pope – until she can finagle her way back into power, which she handily does. Much mystical and political drama later, at the beginning of Reads, both of them, Cerebus, and the mystic Suenteus Po, long a participant in the story but now physically present and also an aardvark, have come into confrontation.
Astoria provides a wealth of material in this story and it’s hard to confine myself just to the resolution – suffice to say that she demonstrates scary expertise over the abuse of the assumptions of sisterhood, and there’s a scene with a woman calling her out on her power-tripping bullshit which deserves a whole chapter in someone’s dissertation because Astoria is smart enough to know she’s right.
It also turns out to be the door left open when, during the four-way confrontation, she realizes that all the power-seeking has been a wrong turn. That top half of the page takes my breath away – four profound, succeeding phases of emotion, culminating in serenity. It’s profoundly dramatic: until this point, she’s been the single most effective manipulator and conspirator of the series, not always successful, but always bouncing back and working her way to the top again. Even here she’s significantly ahead of both Cerebus and Cirin in her inside knowledge.
But she chooses instead to listen to Po, to decide she agrees with him, to regret some of her past, and to move on. Or rather sideways, choosing to take Po’s path and to set aside all power manipulations, because “because I can” is not enough. It’s the path already marked out by Michelle, who isn’t mentioned here but whose prior decision is stamped all over it.
(Geez, that little catch in Cerebus’ voice … they may not like each other a lot, but these characters have history, and when she opts out, you can see a piece of him finding itself lost.)
Now how about Cirin, who at this same point in the story does absolutely no such thing, and instead, like Cerebus, doubles down on her determination to rule the world and to be the most important person in it. Cirin – I’ll call her by this name rather than her birth name, Serna – is at first glance the story’s essential villain to date. She’s ultimately at the center of everything that’s tripped up or blocked Cerebus since nearly the beginning, she has succeeded at everything he tried to do and reduced him to nothing, and she’s hidebound, authoritative, apparently humorless, and evidently plain mean.
… and in addition, through the series of events throughout these fifty issues, she’s deep as hell. Unfortunately no more reveals are forthcoming regarding Sir Gerrik, whether he was adopted, his father whoever he was, and Astoria’s maybe/not aborted pregnancy. But about the origins of Cirinism, geez. Serna’s history is obviously a whole ‘nother untold series: sidekick to a revolutionary, then she took over the movement via running its security, then took over her mentor and best friend’s actual identity, to set up a reign of thought-control as scary as it’s impressive. And yet she’s not wholly a monster, as she knows damn well what she’s done and has buried her shame and self-criticism about it under a shell of ruthlessness – yet reveals her feelings in a moment of vulnerability which rivals those few that Cerebus displays.
All this and now in this climactic scene – shocking to the reader – she’s suddenly shown to be unquestionably the single most personally lethal character in all 6000 pages, fighting the notoriously dangerous sword-armed Cerebus to a standstill and beyond despite being middle-aged and overweight, and beginning with no weapon and a broken arm. I’d say “wow, she must have been a real bad-ass back when,” except that she believably transcends that description now.
It’s probably at the top of any serious list of comics fight scenes, beginning when Cerebus suddenly realizes he’s in for it (the first page shown here), and continuing into crunching impacts, spattered gore, and gritty terror, of which the second page I’ve chosen is only a bit. Throughout, Cirin puts the Kingpin in the shade: inhumanly powerful, perfectly skilled relative to her size and build, coolly strategic, dealing with anticipated and unanticipated pain alike with the same determination, and indeed visibly, at all times, driving the fight with her indomitable will. The sequence where she sits on the steps and raises one hand, waiting for Cerebus’ attack with her death-glare on full, is chilling, and at least to me, even kind of switched me over to her side. It’s Cerebus’ only moment of pure fear that he’s going to lose a fight, and nothing leads the reader to think that he’s necessarily wrong – the confrontation only ends because the author literally intervenes, implying that even he couldn’t see his protagonist winning, and displaying through a number of interesting visual devices that he’s personally torn between these characters.
Similar to Michelle in high-impact for minimal depiction, Mothers & Daughters also reveals the real Cirin, who is not an aardvark, and whose name and social leadership were stolen by Serna. She first appears in Women, before the events I’ve described already, shown to be living under house arrest which appears permanent. She provides remarkable insight and thematic punch, but remains mysterious (who is this wonderful old gal, why do the Cirinists seem to revere and fear her so?) until Minds, when “Dave” shows Cerebus the secret history of Cirinism. The events of the usurpation are among the most psychologically horrifying of the series.
It’s a bit unfair to such an intriguing character, but I’ll stick with the one point of stressing that Cirinism is now shown not to be fundamentally flawed – only that it went off the rails into authoritarianism when Serna pulled her coup. Keep that in mind whenever you think this story is about the essentialism of male and female endeavors.
C’mon, get with it: Sim writes and illustrates great female characters. Multiple characters? Check. Consequential backstories? Check. Differing viewpoints? Check. Different relationships to protagonist and to other characters? Check. Differing shapes and sizes, not correlated to ugly/dumb/comedic or beautiful/dumb/all-sex? Check. Understandable motives for actions, across the whole spectrum of ethics? Check. Changing viewpoints, understandable character development based on events? Double-extra-check. High-impact actions toward protagonist, and/or actions providing contrast/comparison with his? Triple-multiple-check.
Significantly, these major characters completely do not correspond to any of Sim’s invective about female irrationality and self-centered emotion. They just don’t. I submit that for the few minor characters who do, their depictions don’t pass out of the realm of real behavior which a real person or two has exhibited from time to time, and incidentally that some of these characters are male. That invective may as well have been delivered by some other guy half a world away, for all the effect it has on the story.
This post has considered only the mirroring between Church & State vs. Mothers & Daughters. My sequel post takes a larger view regarding the whole series, including the multiple roles of Jaka and the most difficult figure of Joanne.
Plea for mercy: I wish I knew how to scan at a setting which does justice to the art. It keeps coming out splotchy and uneven. In the comic, Cerebus is at no time polka-dotted.
Links: Cellulord: Aardvarks over the UK, including an interview and an array of current Sim or Cerebus links; and Open thread: is Cerebus the worst comic ever? in which, crucially, Berlatsky’s argument converts in the middle away from his title question of whether the comic is bad, to the undefined, conveniently-shifting criterion of its “legitimacy.”
Next comics: Ophite, Gnosis, p. 9 (January 21)
Next column: Gone ape indeed (January 22)
Posted on January 15, 2017, in The 90s me, The great ultravillains and tagged Astoria, Cerebus, Church & State, Cirin, Comics Journal, Dave Sim, feminism, Frank Miller, Gary Groth, Gerhard, Howard Chaykin, Jaka, Michelle, Mothers & Daughters, rape, Red Sophia. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.