More women part 2
Here’s the sequel post to More women, completing my current venture into the sticky fluids of Cerebus, Dave Sim, women, and story thoughts. Let the flailing commence!
In the previous post, I stayed with what I see as the primary story of the series, which is nevertheless only about half of the actual issues (#51-200), or two-thirds if you include #1-50. It’s composed of the full-mirror comparison of Church & State‘s insurgent women in a male establishment / Mothers and Daughters‘ alienated men in a female establishment, with the “node” of Jaka’s Story and Melmoth in between.
In this post, I’m looking at #201-300, which, for the little my view is worth, I think is weaker than the previous or main story. Weak or strong, it definitely does not provide a structural climax to the series as a whole, being instead an epilogue or addendum. I’m not entirely certain it’s even a story so much as a symbolic exercise for a position piece, but then my poor brain tries to address “what’s the difference” and goes poot.
OK, #201-300 appeared in pages between covers with “Cerebus” on them, so there you go, and here, so do we. The question? As before, addressing what women are and do in this comic. This time the content is based on a extension-offshoot of the previous relationship map which looks like this:
Despite the map’s simplicity, it’s trickier to summarize because the “lines” occur almost entirely separately in time rather than as a social car-crash. Also, each character is developed extensively from prior appearances and has important effects on later events which are at least as important as being in scenes and saying stuff.
- Back during Minds, “Dave” shows Cerebus several versions of what his future life with Jaka would be like, one of which includes an affair with a woman named Joanne
- Toward the end of Guys, Joanne turns out to be real and has a liaison/relationship with Cerebus which does no one any good
- I s’pose I should mention Ziggy here, a horrid woman well-deserving of a vile epithet, who matters to the story only in showing how stupid a guy can be in falling all over himself to please her, and possibly as a cautionary tale to Cerebus which he fails to recognize
- Rick’s Story concerns Cerebus and Jaka’s ex-husband Rick, last seen at the end of Jaka’s Story; Rick has sex with Joanne and comes to much grief and a bad magical-emotional ending with Cerebus
- Rick then undergoes a religious epiphany and composes The Booke of Ricke regarding Cerebus as a prophet or messiah, and much of its content displays his emotional turmoil over the circumstances you can see in my diagram
- All of Going Home concerns Cerebus and Jaka free of all obligations, traveling to his family home just as he’d offered her ‘way back in Church & State; (spoiler) it doesn’t turn out well
- In the final section of Latter Days, called The Last Day, set over a century later in the context of a church-society largely inspired by Rick, it’s shown that in the intervening years Cerebus married and fathered a child by a woman he calls New Joanne
Just as in the previous post, you can point to Dave-says-this and Dave-says-that all you want, and I say so what. His point of view isn’t my concern; I read comics. Going by one-step-removed reactions to my previous post, I thought of putting it this way: what if Sim (or any author) issued the exact volume of commentary, integrated and not-integrated into the story text in the same way, with precisely the opposite message? You can choose whether it’s down-to-earth or reverent, but either way, it’d be a very positive, bordering on idealized view of women. I’d think the first step would be, instead of taking him at his word, to see whether the text – characters, story – actually delivered that content.
That’s what I’m doing here. If you want to know what I think of what’s said by Viktor Davies (a character in the story), or by “Dave” (the in-fiction author who plays a role as a character in the story), or especially by the person Dave Sim (e.g. his editorials, interview comments, et cetera), it’s easy. The early stages (e.g. #186) raised discussable points, then the next stage bordered on abusive what with the spankings, and the final stage is anti-intellectual, “not even wrong.” But I don’t care what I think of this material, insofar as it’s a judgment upon him – nor should you. I’m saying, he could say “wacka wacka wacka,” and the only zone of concern is whether the comic says “wacka wacka wacka” too, in raw story-and-character terms.
Therefore, Jaka and Joanne.
Jaka’s presence and roles throughout the whole 300 issues aren’t a small topic. In her few appearances in the first 100 issues, she becomes a Hollywood-ish surprise love-interest. Then she is of course the primary character in Jaka’s Story, a very powerful, almost self-contained drama which serves as the linchpin for the story mirroring as described in God, an aardvark, and the man in between. It’s also one of the very few available 1980s stories about abortion which isn’t about right-or-wrong policy but about the tensions and expectations of marriage, and probably the only one I can think of which really does “leave the reader to decide.” Whereas in the section of issues that I’m talking about here, all of that is essentially irrelevant except for the specific principle that she and Cerebus think their dramatic romantic arc is now over … and are wrong, because that very thing turns out not to exist.
My first point is that when you look back over #201-300 and realize that its whole structure is about Joanne, Jaka is incontrovertibly a detour, even a blip. This runs directly counter to the idea that Jaka is the romantic lead of the whole series – which would indeed be the case if you stopped at the end of Guys, in which case Joanne would be the blip.
My second, related point is that the entirety of Going Home is a confirmation of “Dave’s” point in Minds that Cerebus is simply not going to get to finish his story over the sunset with Jaka, as both of them had hoped all the way back in Church & State Part 1. It’s explicit as can be: Dave, in his appearance/guise without quotation marks at the end of Guys, decided to go ahead and let Cerebus have it that way after all, if that’s what he wanted so badly. And sure enough, it tanks, for two reasons.
- Jaka is not quite who he thought, being less the plucky dancer after all, and more the celebrity royalty of Palnu. (One could quibble about this characterization given the previous stories, but I’m not really thinking in those terms here, staying focused.)
- In reader terms, nor is she quite the champion of art-as-such that she was back in Jaka’s Story
- Cerebus is way more the northern hillbilly than she thought, and when his home community shuns him and Jaka for contravening custom and expectations, he completely accepts it and agrees with them, rejecting her with intense self-loathing and even hatred toward her.
The conclusion of Going Home is therefore a Mighty Bummer for the one tenuous grip on reader-sanity for Cerebus, which is that Jake and Cerebus are the true lovers of the story who deserve a fair shot. However, I actually quite like this point, and here I’ll rely on the previous story after all. The romance between the two was based on a drugged liaison and some romantic retconning on both their parts, not on a relationship at all. My recent reading confirms to me that the only women in the story who genuinely liked Cerebus’ quirky outlook and blunt-reality insights, who called him on his bullshit whenever he produced some, and who saw something in him to commit to, were Michelle and Red Sophia. The former decided to get out of his and others’ toxic orbit quickly, and the latter began with a real commitment, well after their wedding, when she realized how much his pope-and-power act was costing him, and ended with a decision similar to Michelle’s. Bluntly, Jaka never ever displayed a comparable understanding or real relationship-decision regarding Cerebus, nor did he regarding her.
She’s not the Jaka you wanted. That’s true. She’s also not the Jaka Cerebus wanted, given the values now revealed to be foremost for him. He really does learn what Dave (the in-fiction author) kept trying to tell him, just as real people often discover, that this anticipated happy-ending lovers’ dream isn’t going to happen. My point is that none of that means she’s a bad character in dramatic or thematic terms, or (if you want) a bad person in ethical terms, unlike Ziggy. She’s not a ditz, bitch, foil, or load, and most significantly she doesn’t try to hurt Cerebus in any way.
Now at last for Joanne, the primary antagonist of this entire sequence, not as an active agent like Cirin, directed against Cerebus in a conspiratorial or political sense, but as a certain kind of person in a strictly personal interaction. She shows up first in Minds, as a hallucinatory this-is-your-life-if sequence Cerebus experiences through interacting with “Dave,” his creator, when he asks for specific outcomes and “Dave” shows him how they all go sour. In this sequence, the pudgy, aging Cerebus is bored in his “I just want to be normal” suburban marriage with Jaka and has an affair with the neighbor lady, upon which Jaka kills herself. Joanne, said neighbor lady, is aggressively normal in a terrible neurotic, empty-headed way, with small talk overlaying what seems to be … well, a desperate void, much like Sim has been editorializing about at length in the prior two years of the comic at this point.
So it’s a bit of a shock toward the end of Guys when who should wander into the bar and strike up a sexual encounter and insta-relationship with Cerebus but Joanne, the same in personality and appearance but with little or no memory thereof and now “real.” It’s as if the in-fiction author Dave is conducting an experiment of his own, in that if Jaka and Cerebus can’t work out, and if the Jaka-Cerebus-Joanne triangle can’t work out, then what happens if it’s just Cerebus and Joanne? The answer is unmitigated disaster, as she engineers a fair amount of trauma for Cerebus and also for the next unlucky person to enter the bar, Rick (Jaka’s former husband). If any major female character in the comic merits the word I used in the previous post in framing the topic, it’s Joanne.
But not so fast. Here’s the thing about Joanne: she isn’t easily written off as parody or caricature. I experienced her actions almost verbatim from many women I dated – if that is the right word – from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. I had a lot of lovers during these years, and I’m talking about, I guess, over half of them: to put it mildly, deeply troubled and literal engines of chaos. Trapped between vulnerability and control, between smugness and anxiety, between rambunctious sex and constant processing. The relationship transformed from doing things together into stressing over why-and-how we are together, which I could understand if it were a twenty-year wedding anniversary, but after a week?
I used to call these experiences “sleeping with Prozac,” because of all the rapid mood-and-crisis swings (not my most sensitive phrasing; to clarify, I don’t know what meds were or weren’t involved). The urgent reports on whether the relationship was “advancing” or “going nowhere” day by day, the sudden bleak collapses of esteem, or the equally sudden, extensive criticisms of phrases you’d used or expressions your face may have shown over the past few days. Add to that the gradual inclusion of many friends and family members into a complicated drama and whose every opinion was stress fodder demanding more processing. Best of all? It’s contagious. After a while, you’re doing all this too.
By contrast, a while before this during the mid-80s, I was in a long and tempestuous relationship that included loss of virginity, a significant clash of cultures, ongoing recovery from an eating disorder, infidelities plural by both parties, a serious break-up and back-together, sex dysfunction and recovery, couples counseling, and more … yet all of that was completely understandable in comparison, two difficult real people, always genuinely human throughout, whereas these later experiences seemed more like encountering demonic possession.
I guess I’m just whining at this point, but maybe this was some kind of whacked generational or metaphysical moment. (i) It was truly surreal how I never encountered anyone like this all my life and then got involved with one, then later another, then five or six in a row in the space of five years, and then not once since; (ii) at the same time, a bunch of my married friends ran into horrific domestic drama that seemed very similar to me; (iii) several other women I knew got roped into this kind of drama by the ones I’m talking about and then distanced themselves from former best friends whom they no longer recognized; and (iv) much later, at least a couple of the women, in quite nice and non-romantic conversation, told me I’d been a reasonably good guy, and spoke of themselves back then in critical terms (one woman used the phrase “raving bitch”) and with some wonderment that they had been doing that. Sunspots? Alien mind-rays? Something in the water? I dunno.
There is one difference: that none of the real women I’m talking about were as empty-headed as Joanne. No “void.” They were bright, professionally skilled and successful, physically uninhibited, quirky in neat ways, and until the oddness started, really fun to be around. As their own testimony indicates, they experienced the tough stuff much as I did, as if it swept down upon us. For all I know, I was contributing to it just as much as they were in a complementary way (see And I’m not the bad guy for the comics lens into my role). That’s the overriding weakness of this sector of the series – not that this depiction of Joanne is misogynistic in a stare-point-howl Invasion of the Body Snatchers moment, but that the inclusion of her apparent stupidity in this otherwise-resonant, discussable negative behavior turns the story into a cheap “take that” rather than solid drama or, consonant with the series as a whole, black-comedy-drama.
Now for this part of the series’ biggest big-picture, in the concluding twelve issues of The Last Day within Latter Days. It’s long after what had been a brief encounter with Joanne and the disastrous sojourn with Jaka, but Joanne turns out to be even more significant to the story, even if the character is probably dead by now. During the off-panel interim before this point, Cerebus evidently married again to a woman he calls New Joanne; whether that was her name I don’t now, but I take it to mean their relationship was similar. They had a son, and now the ex-wife and the son are leading a counter-revolution against him, called the Joannists either after her or after the reference to the Joanne we know in Rick’s holy book or both.
This social movement is described approvingly by the son in such terms as correspond to stereotypical “Marxist-feminist liberal takeover” in talk radio, and confirmed to some extent by Cerebus’ limited contact with the outer world. It culminates – taking it in internal-text terms – in utter abomination, if somewhat incoherent, including Islam (implied to be deranged savages), a complete political takeover by queers and transgender whatnots, and genetic experiments creating sphinxes which are going to found the Egyptian pharaohs as implied by Shep’s garb. (The latter are said to be due to Cirin’s influence which is a little odd because she’d never supported any such thing, nor the other things in this list, being instead all about social conservatism.) Therefore, at least in this relatively limited but privileged-by-position ending space of the series, Joanne turns out to be the indirect Big Bad, relating to Cerebus as an earthly counterpart to Yoowhoo’s resentful demiurge status relative to God, and having utterly destroyed him as a leader and a father, i.e., as a man.
Whether I agree with this thematically (I don’t) or think it’s good or bad writing isn’t the point. What matters here is how it works as literature in terms of characterizing Joanne. I could tap-dance: since all we’re getting is what Shep-Shep says (who comes off as pretty much a psychopath) and what Cerebus thinks (and he’s a senile, disconnected recluse), the material is a little thin. At the very least the text had always previously provided the other major women characters room to speak for themselves, so here I could say “we don’t knowwww Joanne was all that bad,” et cetera.
But I don’t want to do that. Let’s take it as read that Joanne was as empty-headed and/or troubled as depicted, and that the events described in Latter Days occurred and were occurring pretty much as the characters say.
First, authenticity. Are these empty caricatures, based on made-up nonsense, bad because they’re women and in being women, bad? Let the record show that’s not the case for Jaka, in which the story concerns the real-life event of a mutual incompatibility. Joanne’s case is closer to the redline. The genuinely awful behavior itself isn’t made-up, and I think it’s in the service of a reasonable point, but she’s definitely less of a person in dramatic terms – and here I’m using the other female characters with similar presence in the series for comparison, not an ideal that I think a story “should” conform to. Joanne’s unique in having such a presence but with content no deeper than horrible ol’ Zig-Pig, who’s one of the series’ many caricature-characters. I think it’s not a meaningless caricature – Ziggy’s behavior and Bear’s lamentable response to it are, sadly, not unknown in those circles called reality – but for as consequential a character as Joanne, that’s very weak character gun for 100 issues of Cerebus, in comparison to the plot-driving women in the prior 200.
Second, relevance. I’ve talked about my experiences in and views on women’s issues before, e.g, Long live Lib and Missed! Ran out! Dang! Unnhh! Without getting all distracted by Sim’s statements about Marxist-Feminists and the like, I’ll say here I have no position on them because those topics are fictional, like “Islamofascists” and “welfare queens.” Instead, given my outlook on the issues, i.e. never mind his, the gender clashes in Cerebus are still excellent story and discussion material about real issues. For example:
- Is feminism a sector of liberation or of civil rights?
- Please tell me I don’t have to explain the difference.
- No, nothing is obviously or automatically “both,” and the two are historically often opposed for many issues.
- In either case, is it complementary to or in conflict with the corresponding efforts toward class and ethnicity?
- If it’s civil rights, which historical establishmentarian policies does it oppose? Which does it support?
- Does it have any intrinsic relationship, pro or anti, to authoritarianism?
- To what extent does titular leadership matter?
- Is there more than one feminism? In which specific aims and actions do different versions conflict?
- Before you start, the First, Second, Third Wave narrative is, at the very least, badly incomplete.
- Does feminism (and which) include one or more prescriptives for men, and what are they? Positing a male person who has “arrived” in these terms, what would he look like or do?
These are good questions! They were briefly asked and should have been discussed in the 1970s. They were silenced and buried in the 1980s. They should have been revived and discussed in the 1990s. They weren’t. And that’s why Cerebus is more necessary to read, examine, whatever you want to call it, rather than less (i.e., dismissed). Its depiction of women and its female-driven plot events can be tracked directly to these failures.
Can I call for a be-done-with-it for the Sim and/or Cerebus shunning now?
I’ve lived through every phase of Bob Crumb’s progress through characterization-narratives, including one of non-personhood as far as comics culture is concerned. Given the films Crumb and American Splendor, he’s persona grata again, and there’s a museum ‘n all now. Perhaps some day we’ll see the movie “Sim,” with or without Dave actually in it, which recasts him in a more discussable way – but to mention such a thing now is merely to invite grimaces and gestures of dismissal. Maybe there’s a little hope to be found, as in Fun and games with Dave which shows that the door is more open than we, in the thick of comicdom, imagine.
Next comics: Ophite, Gnosis, editorial (February 4)
Next column: Still beautiful (February 5)
Posted on January 29, 2017, in The 90s me and tagged Cerebus, Dave Sim, feminism, Going Home, Guys, Jaka, Joanne, Latter Days, Rick's Story, Robert Crumb, The Last Day. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.