Thursday, 4 August 2011

A big Spread-7

(still talking about Dave Sim and Cerebus...)
A round 1970 the comics medium was recognized by its more progressive afficionados, mostly in Europe, as a worthy art form of our times (e.g. the 1967 exhibition in at the Louvre). Conversely, American comic books entered into a dismal and conservative phase. The '70s saw the rise of the independent comics producers, but these were fannish efforts in the high fantasy genre with their invented maps and cosmologies and all. I thought The Lord of the Rings was a literary masterpiece, and The Silmarillion even better, but I could never see the point in building a whole imitative genre in its wake, in prose or comics or whatever. There was First Kingdom (1974-) Cerebus (1977-), ElfQuest (1978-). (The anthology Star Reach (1974-'79) was in there too and Pekar's American Splendor started in 1976, but for obvious reasons I'll leave that out of the argument). In the decade that supposedly saw the introduction of the graphic novel, the best comic was Doonesbury, a newspaper strip. It seemed that until Spiegelman launched RAW in 1980 that American-style comic books had chosen to be just another of the geeky genres. Indeed, since the '70s they've never been able to break free of that thoroughly earned public reputation.

I didn't pay much attention to Sim's Cerebus for a long time, until the mid-'80s when I noticed that it was cut from quite a different cloth from the others (plus most of the new ones that had come along in the interim). It would be wrong to say that it didn't take itself seriously, more correct to say that Sim didn't see taking things seriously as being at odds with having Groucho Marx shuffling around in there, or Mick and Keef from the Rolling Stones. In the genre of high fantasy, this would normally be felt to have broken the spell somewhat. Our consumer culture conventionally wants its fiction in general and its fantasy in particular to come packaged along with all the stuff for putting it together, like IKEA furniture. But with Cerebus I looked for issues in which actual people were hauled in. And it was to play their own part and not that of a character. I always felt that Sim saw in a person a way of diverting the thrust of his story rather than fitting in by way of an inoffensive cameo. An early favourite of mine was Issue #92 (nov '86) which had a caricature of the comicbook publisher Bill Marx, with whose imprint there was a possibility of me getting involved. Reading an issue of Cerebus is certainly no way of giving a person an audtion, but I just had to look.
"The springboard for this story-line was a dinner that I enjoyed, courtesy of Harry, at the Now & Then Books 15th Anniversary party. Also in attendance and seated directly opposite were Seth and Bill Marks of Toronto's Vortex Comics artist and publisher of Mister X respectively."
"I don't recall hearing Seth say more than five words so I had to improvise his voice.
I decided to use Diana Schutz's."

Caricature is one of the foundational cartoon skills. Sim presumably studied the work of Mort Drucker in Mad, but until Sim, nobody had integrated caricature into a narrative so well since the great Walt Kelly in Pogo. (in this case however, he obviously didn't know that Seth was going places or he'd have paid more attention to the face than the voice)

That same year, 1986, Sim released the first of his 'phonebooks', High Society, at 512 pages. Reading his rationale now, he appears to have seen this at the time primarily as an expedient manoeuvre rather than a goal in itself. " I have arrived at this decision for a number of reasons (a) the difficulty involved in keeping each volume of Cerebus in print at all times, (b) the convenience of being able to introduce new fans to Cerebus with two large volumes and (at most) two dozen back issues, (c) a manageable format for someday having all 300 issues available, (d) the opportunity to expand Cerebus' exposure by making it available in bookstores." Nevertheless, the first volume that he created with the phonebook in view from the beginning is perhaps the most integrated, and perhaps satisfying, volume in all of his oeuvre, Jaka's Story. He began it in the Sept. 1988 issue, with the book's finished title at the top of each issue for the first time, and concluded it in July 1990. The phonebook was out in Oct 1990. It remains one of the most important of graphic novels. From Sim's own introduction:
"It contains no heroes and no villains; merely people set in motion and in orbit about each other. Like Wilde's ill-advised action against the "screaming, scarlet Marquess' it begins innocently enough and plays itself out against a highly moral backdrop to an all-too human ending which defies (in the case of thinking persons) convenient or reassuring conclusions."
I re-read it recently and enjoyed it like visiting an old friend.

next: about size.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Matthew Adams said...

Jaka's Story was my introduction to Cerebus, I loved it but found the other stuff a bit disapointing when I read it (maybe my expectations were too high after Jaka), and I always felt to uncomfortable with most of it (maybe I am too much a child a of my time).

5 August 2011 2:05:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Ray Davis said...

For all these years I've thought that caricatured some peculiar Canadian notion of Andy Warhol. Knowledge is good: Seth is funnier.

6 August 2011 10:52:00 am GMT-5  

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