Well, we have come pretty much to the heart of things here at the Escape Pod Comics Cerebus Read, have we not? Within Reads, a slim 246-page volume, is packed enough food for thought to occupy a reader for a lifetime. The questions Dave Sim asks us are tough ones, and the questions he asks us to ask of ourselves are even tougher.
I am currently recuperating from surgery in a rehabilitation facility. My injuries and the subsequent surgeries were such that I am immobilized for much of the day and have been, until the last few days, in some considerable pain, with my mind clouded by the necessary pain medications. As a consequence it took me five days to read Reads. I consumed it in small bites in between physical therapy sessions, my concentration wavering due to the pain and the clouds of fog swimming in my brain. I stopped often to type notes on the laptop, afraid I would lose this thought or that one, concerned as I always am about trying to write something worth reading in these posts. I thought a lot about each passage (both text and comics) I had read, turning it this way and that in my mind and contemplating the differences between how I perceived and interpreted them for myself now and upon my first reading of Reads.
As I look over my notes (two typed pages) I see that they break down into three subjects: The Story Of What Takes Place In The Throne Room, The Story Of Victor Reid, and Victor Davis Tells A Story. Let us begin:
The Story Of What Takes Place In The Throne Room
And then there were four.
As Cerebus, Cirin, Astoria and Po all face each other in the Throne Room, Po takes the lead. In his address to the others he fills in some blanks for them and the readers and all the characters’ motivations become more real, more understandable, and more human. Dave Sim’s use of exposition here is unusual (for him) and in less skilled hands might have been clumsy. Fortunately we are in skilled hands.
Po here seems to be yet another Dave Sim surrogate. His near omniscience (Po’s knowledge of the world of Cerebus and even the inner lives of its inhabitants is second only to their /his creator), his willful isolation and resolve to remain above the petty squabble for “Ascension” and his advice to the others that they would be happier should they decide to follow his example makes of him an example, perhaps even an ideal, of what Sim may have wanted for himself at the time.
And then there were three.
Astoria drops the bombshell that ties the comics portion of Reads with the latter, Victor Davis portion of Reads. Cerebus is an hermaphrodite. This fact brings to light the motivations behind some of Cirin’s and Astoria’s actions, but in relationship to the Victor Davis text pieces it takes on greater importance. Cerebus is effectively a Merged Permanence (as Victor Davis describes it) in his own right. His reasoning, often sound, is nearly always derailed by his endless emotional hunger. His need for respect, power, sex, wealth, etc…, is never sated. Both the Light and the Void are within Cerebus and they struggle against one another constantly. The rest of the series plays out on this battleground.
Astoria taking Po’s advice and choosing to leave the throne room exemplifies perhaps the greatest character development of any of the countless characters within Cerebus. Astoria learns and changes the most. This is interesting as she is in effect the prototypical modern feminist that Victor Davis (and in later volumes of Cerebus and elsewhere, Dave Sim himself) rails against, or rather it is her beliefs, presumably still intact, that he rails against, and yet she comes off here as entirely sympathetic.
And then there were,,,,No, wait. What about Kay Sarah Sarah And Elrod The Albino, Last Ruler Of A Dying Race?
At this point, coming as it does after we’ve been informed of the magical energy that coalesces around aardvarks, the revelation that Elrod The Albino is a manifestation of same is something less than revelatory, however the manner in which Sim reveals it to us is entertaining (of course) and interesting.
“‘Bummer,’ thought Kay Sarah Sarah, ‘for Elrod had been her third favorite Cerebus character after Jaka and Lord Julius...’”
This line of dialogue, appearing as it does in a comics section of Reads immediately following the last Victor Reid text section and immediately preceding the first Victor Davis text section is perhaps the first full on “meta” self-referential moment in Cerebus. Prior to this Sim has thrown anachronistic references at us, usually for an easy laugh (a Star Trek reference comes to mind), but this is not that, A character in the book just said out loud that other characters in the book were characters in a book called Cerebus. Couched as it is in the funny-ha-ha (and it is funny) it might be easy to miss that this is BIG NEWS. It sets the stage for Victor Davis and for the appearance of Dave Sim himself in a later volume.
Okay, now. And then there were two.
The fight scene between Cerebus and Cirin is brutal, savage. The crushing pressure of Cirin’s hand upon Cerebus’ sword arm is palpable. The pain and desperation in both combatants eyes is disturbing. This is far from violence as entertainment and/or excitement depicted in our mass media and our comics and presumably in the reads of Estarcion. This is hard to watch, as if someone were beating someone you love, or perhaps worse, as if someone you loved were giving someone else a beating.
One absolutely stand out comics page shows Cerebus on all fours, bestial, looking as much like an aardvark as he ever will, the fight for survival reducing him to a primal form. Gone is the cute, anthropomorphic Cerebus, his three-fingered hands and three-toed feet transformed into clawed paws dug in for traction and his tail held aloft for balance and adjusting his aim as he prepares to spring upon Cirin’s sword wielding arm.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention Gerhard’s amazing artistry in crafting the Throne Room. The light streaming in from the windows and the reflections they cause in the polished marble of the floor create a depth of field I have never seen before in a comic book. Take another look at panel one on page 61 of Reads. I feel as if I could only tilt the page at the right angle I would be able to see my own reflection staring back at me.
The Story of Victor Reid.
I disagree with the supposition that Victor Reid is a Dave Sim surrogate, even in a several layers removed sort of way. As a character he is more in the vein of the second Oscar, his story a cautionary tale of an artist, albeit an altogether different tale than the one told of Oscar, or the Oscars (No, I shan’t put you through all of that again). Like Oscar, Victor Reid is another of Dave Sim’s nightmares, another example of the sort of artist he does not want to become.
Victor Reid, like Dave Sim, is relatively successful, a medium size fish in a small pond. Reid chose to sign with a publisher and accept an advance. His ego inflated by his admirers and his sudden temporary wealth, he spends his nights drinking and eating and carousing, neglecting to do the work he has already been paid for.
Despite this Reid is fortunate enough to have stumbled upon an idea for a read that would be like no other. Instead of the salacious yet Cirinist approved bodice-rippers that made his name and earned him his publishing contract he would write a read that examined Kevilism and Cirinism and as a bonus purport to tell of an actual verifiable Ascension, that of Cerebus. He is excited and works to the point of distraction. Like Dave Sim, Victor Reid was going to elevate his chosen medium.
Of course the economic realities of the situation come crashing down upon Reid. His publisher wants what they paid for, more bodice-rippers, He capitulates out of fear of losing his contract, his wealth, his admirers, and all of the comforts to which he had recently become accustomed. We last see Victor Reid now married with children, a slave to royalty cheques, presumably still churning out bodice-rippers for his publisher, his notes on the original Ascension languishing in a drawer somewhere.
One of the more telling passages is the first chapter of Victor Reid’s revamped bodice-ripper version of Ascension in which he recounts the rape of Astoria. Compare and contrast Victor Reid’s version of that event to that of Dave Sim’s. While Reid’s is intended to titillate and (as our Supreme Court might put it) arouse prurient interest, Sim’s is equal parts horror and subtlety, begging questions, some of which are answered within Reads.
Menachem was right when he wrote “Victor Reid is not Dave Sim.” Victor Reid is everything Dave Sim labored (and I mean labored) so hard to avoid being. Self publishing and making a living and telling the story he wanted to tell without interference, Dave Sim became his own dream of what he could be and banished the possibility of becoming Victor Davis to the dustbin of long forgotten nightmares.
Victor Davis Tells A Story
The central mystery surrounding the character of Victor Davis is how far removed are the beliefs of Victor Davis removed from that of his creator, Dave Sim? I think the answer is “not very,” or perhaps even, “Not at all.” Of course I mean Dave Sim’s beliefs at the time he wrote the issues of Cerebus that would become Reads. His beliefs have certainly evolved since then. That’s evident even within the pages of Cerebus that follow Reads. But his view on the sexes and society have not changed much since Victor Davis made them public.
While Menachem is correct that Victor Reid is not Dave Sim, he seems to see Victor Reid, Victor Davis and Dave Sim (the character that will appear before too very long within the pages of Cerebus) as a sort of progression in which we get closer to the real (“real”, Real) Dave Sim. As I wrote above, Victor Reid is to me in no way a version of Dave Sim. And while Victor Davis and Dave Sim (the character) are extraordinarily similar, I think that Dave Sim (the artist) created them for two very different purposes and audiences, the former to speak directly to us, the readers, and the latter to speak directly to Cerebus, his creation. As to which of them is closest to the real Dave Sim, who can say?
The views expressed by Victor Davis (and, for the record, those of Dave Sim are problematical for me. While I think he accurately describes the symptoms in our dysfunctional lives, relationships and society as a whole, I think his diagnosis is incorrect. The connections that Victor Davis tells us that he can not help but see between seemingly disparate events and coincidences are what inform his diagnosis, so let us take a closer look at those connections. Victor Davis gives us an example:
“The Beatles music compels (Prince) Charles Manson (Man-Son) to brutally murder Sharon Tate (tete is “head” in French), a blond actress, practically seven years to the day after the death of Marilyn Monroe (Moon Row).Edward Kennedy is implicated in the death of Mary Jo (Mary and Joseph) Kopechne even as Apollo 11 (The Sun God, two magicians) speeds towards the moon. All of this transpires within a couple of weeks in the summer of ‘69.”
What conclusions are we supposed to have drawn from these connections? Are they so self evident that Victor Davis feels no need to inform us what the are? And to be frank, I don’t see even the connections. Let me have a go at it:
“The Beatles (beat-less) music compels Charles (in charge) Manson (monsoon) to brutally murder Sharon (sharing) (Larry) Tate, a blond actress, practically seven years to the day after the death of Marilyn (Maryland) Monroe. Edward Kennedy (can he die?) is implicated in the death of Mary Jo (marriage? Oh!) Kopechne (cop pick knee) even as Apollo (Up? How low?) (7-)11 speeds towards the moon. All of this transpires within a couple of weeks in the summer of ‘69.”
Is there any more meaning to be found within Victor Davis’ example than within mine? Try it yourself with the sample given or any newspaper article or excerpt on any kind.
If I think Victor Davis’ diagnosis is wrong (and I do), then what do I think is the correct diagnosis? Victor Davis touches on it briefly but significantly when he discusses corporations and politicians. He doesn’t mention the science of advertising and I think it plays a huge role too. But this is a critical analysis of Cerebus and not a forum for my Democratic Socialist viewpoints, so I’ll spare you. (You’re welcome.)
So if Dave Sim (the really really real one) sees the sorts of connections in things that Victor Davis does, and I think it is evident that he does given his writings outside of Cerebus, then Cerebus is his attempt to make sense of those connections, to get to the truth (“truth”, Truth, “Truth”) of the matter of, in short, Life, the Universe and Everything (Trademark Douglas Adams).
Is Dave Sim a misogynist? No. I see no evidence that he hates women.
Is Dave Sim crazy? Mentally deranged especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way? No. Quite the opposite.
I don’t subscribe to Dave Sim’s worldview, cosmology, religion, politics, or his views on women. But I am certain he would be a charming dinner companion and a top-notch neighbor. I don’t think I could say the same thing about Tom Cruise and they let that guy walk around without a minder. Or do they?
First a response to LJ’s very well thought out and written piece:
Very dead-on with the Hermaphrodite aspect of Cerebus, LJ! As I expound upon my ideas here I would like everyone to realize that THIS aspect of merged permanence and Cerebus’s true nature work perfectly. This is a central theme of Cerebus, how he always sabotages himself or makes some rash emotional decision that ruins it for him. Becoming aware of his nature is the crux on which the entire series turns, if you notice- from here on in, as a self-aware merged permanence, Cerebus is going to act very differently than he did before.
Oh, and nice catch on the Kay Serah “meta-textual” brilliance, never noticed that!
Yes, yes, yes on the awesome art work. I think the most amazing part is something that has, by now already become pretty standard for Cerebus the series; the 3 dimensional aspect Gerhard’s meticulous work adds. It’s certainly, though, never seen on the level it is seen here until maybe Going Home again. Stellar work that really adds to the dizzying nature of what it going on.
Yes, that was sort of my point. It’s clear Reid is not Sim- he’s a “what if” or “Elseworld” version, I think… and he exists to get us comfortable with the discussion of Reads as comics and writer as Sim, to me. Beside for doing many other things, of course. But I’m still in my rejoinder, not my larger, thought-out piece.
This is where we get to the main thing I want to write about, and I don’t disagree with you, LJ, about the purposes Viktor and “Dave” play in the book: one for us, one for Cerebus. As for agreeing with Dave Sim’s opinions or beliefs… well, now is as good a place as any to start my “real” piece so:
The Problem With #186 (Or: Whose Line(r Notes) Is It Anyway?)
The biggest problem with issue #186 to me, is not the paganist, Zoroastrian-esque, anti-feminist point at it’s center. I am one of those people who can read all sorts of opinions and not be insulted by them. Especially when the person giving them doesn’t advocate DOING anything about them. Observations come from, well… observations. And the experiences that shape the observer, of course. Whatever it is Dave Sim is trying to say here, at the end of Reads, is his world view and I don’t see any reason to get up in arms over it or upset.
(You knew it was coming.)
The problem with the ideas expressed at the end of Reads is how BADLY they are expressed. Viktor Davis starts off strong, he starts by citing Alan Moore and telling us that all stories are true. Fine, okay. To me, and many others who read the book when it first came out, this seemed to be a hedging technique, something Dave Sim was doing so that he didn’t have to COMMIT to whatever he wrote. Whether that was his intent or not, what follows in Cerebus is a muddled mess than just gets more and more confusing and less and less specific.
We start with the Light and Void from George’s story on the moon. Fair enough. Sim uses some pretty amazing writing to put us, the reader THERE as he speaks to us. He even magically balances the various reactions different readers will have without losing the thread. All well and good. What follows, though, is some fairly sophomoric imagery in which the Light and Void engage in some sort of cosmic bukkake, sending long trails of star semen all over the place. Even this is not that bad, though one seems to wonder where the narrative is LEADING.
Then he starts with the “games.” In a display of shocking prudishness, Sim seems to recant his more overt imagery and creates these various sexual exchanges using all sorts of euphemistic terminology that only adds to the obfuscation of his point.
When the concept of Merged Permanence is introduced, I will admit, that I was lost. This is my third time reading Cerebus and the first two times I just sort of assumed all would be made clear as things go on. This time, trying to read as critically as possible, I just couldn’t make sense of it. Sim wants us to believe that this “Merged Permanence” is the same thing he shows us in the theater, the women eating the brains of their mates, controlling but the connecting idea is missing. To me, the central point of Reads, and this idea of merged permanence and Cerebus as a “working model” (for want of better words for it) of it DOES work as the series continues. And, if you read the letter’s pages and essays that follow #186, I think that Sim does a decent job of explaining what he was trying to say here, I just don’t think he does a very good job of it at this juncture.
I’m a big Cerebus fan and appreciate the various skills Dave Sim brings to his book, but this, to me is one of the few places where he just doesn’t BRING IT. It’s possible that the problem lies in me or on the fact that Sim spends so many issues writing so WELL, leading to SOMETHING that it just doesn’t seem that he delivers on.
Apparently unable to keep himself from foreshadowing, Dave Sim opens Minds both figuratively and literally with a sort of Dave-as the-anti-Galactus self portrait, creator of worlds as opposed to destroyer of worlds. All star-stuff and empty space, his head appears in outline, but anyone having read Cerebus up to this point must have been able to recognise that shock of hair and unruly forelock.
After the various revelations and tieing up of loose ends of Reads, it’s quite a bit of fun to watch as Cirin, having read Cerebus’ mind, finally realizes what we readers already know, that Cerebus has only the vaguest knowledge of the faith he professes and the god he worships. In this he is not unlike most adherents to most faiths.
(Not you, dear reader. I wasn’t talking about you.)
Cirin gives voice to her sincere outrage, enjoining Cerebus to repent and save his immortal soul. But I can’t help but imagine her thinking, How? How did this ignorant little upstart ever get this far. How has he thwarted me at every turn? How? How?! I must admit the idea of that amuses me to no end.
That is one of the nice things about Minds. There is a lot at which to be amused. The entire my-god-can-beat-up-your-god sequence is rife with sidelong glances and pointed looks, as both Cirin and Cerebus bluster and bloviate. Once again, Sim’s lettering serves the story well, telling the reader not just what the characters are saying, but giving the reader a sense of what the characters are likely thinking and feeling as they say it.
And Cerebus forced to dodge meteorites is a neat little bit of funny business in and of itself.
Once Cerebus has been separated from Cirin and there is no one around with which to fight it seems to sink into him at last that this is indeed The Ascension. Perhaps stinging somewhat from Cirin’s ridiculing his theology Cerebus begins to ruminate, reliving moments in his life in relationship to Tarim. Which brings us to the kitchen knife incident.
It is here that I find the greatest difference in my reaction to Minds some fifteen odd years after having first read it. After establishing within Reads that Cerebus is an hermaphrodite, Sim then establishes within Mnds that (due to the kitchen knife incident) Cerebus is unable to bear a child. While the scene is one of many that serves to illustrate Cerebus’ relationship to Tarim, the fact that Cerebus is unable to bear a child skews the Cerebus-as-Merged-Permanence-Battleground in a way that I must shamefully admit I had completely missed previously. This makes Cerebus not a true Merged Permanence in and of himself, but an amalgam of Male Light and Void Subjugated Male. Making Cerebus not an allegory for man vs. woman but for man vs. man or more to the point, man vs. himself.
This makes sense because in Sim’s view women (or the great majority of them) are incapable of thought and therefor problem solving. If so then they certainly would not be capable of being any sort of competent adversary in a man vs. woman battle. But a man (again in Sim’s view) must be ever vigilant in order to guard his Light against the ubiquitous Void. Dave Sim’s problem is not with women as they simply can not help (once again in Dave Sim’s view) but be slaves to their Void natures, but a man has a choice, and can choose to not allow his Light to be devoured by the Void.
I wonder how this new interpretation inform my reading of the the latter third of Cerebus? Does anyone out there want to talk me down off of this ledge?
Continuing to reflect on his relationship with Tarim throughout the years Cerebus, apparently regretting his life choices thus far or perhaps simply preparing a defense, begins to cycle through something akin to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Interestingly he does not do so linearly, but skips around and repeats them and never really spends much time at all on acceptance. Of course we’ve seen the little gray fellow take a jog around this particular vicious circle before but here Dave Sim mixes the pathos with the humor so deftly that the reader is laughing at Cerebus and empathising with him at the same time. Again Sim’s extraordinary lettering is integral to creating this effect.
Once Dave reveals himself to Cerebus we’re treated to some more exposition in the vein of Po’s speech from Reads. Dave fills in a few plot holes for Cerebus and the reader and also presents a treatise on the relationship between creator and creation. But unlike Po’s speech and the repetitive ramblings of Victor Davis (also from Reads) we are rivy to Cerebus’ reactions to Dave’s monologue. Cerebus’ physical reactions never reach the slapstick level of dodging meteorites, but the character’s body language and facial expressions allow us to again empathise with Cerebus as he receives Dave’s words, so we as readers react to Cerebus as opposed to Dave. And since the tit;le of the comic is Cerebus and not What Has Dave Sim Have To Say This Month, that is as it should be and thus the reading experience is an improvement over Reads.
I find it interesting that Dave also reveals himself to Cirin. That her reaction is rage and denial seems a little out of character and plays a little too easily into her being a representation of Victor Davis’ Void. Cirin, as self-deluded as she is, is in a remarkable situation, but not one for which she was unprepared. She had been actively preparing for an Ascension for some time. After flying through space and taking a tour of the solar system, being presented with a male voice (assuming Dave announced himself as a voice in her head as he did with Cerebus) claiming to be her creator might be disconcerting to the devout Terimite, but even if she thought it was a demon or a false god, I can’t imagine her not taking the time to interact with it and learn something.
The strangest thing in Minds (and perhaps in all 300 issues) is the Injury To Eye Motif. While Dave Sim often paid homage to comic tropes it is to what end he put this particular trope that is so unusual. Historically it was used to exact an appropriately horrific comeuppance to a deserving character. Just when some dastardly villain seemed about to get away with his crime...SLICE! In this way a supposed balance is restored. An eye for an eye if you will.
But Dave terrified and traumatized Cerebus by lancing the sty that Dave created to teach Cerebus empathy, not to punish him. This act is designed by Cerebus’ creator to make Cerebus understand how much he has hurt Jaka and Joanne, but did Cerebus ever really spurn Joanne’s love and cause Jaka’s suicide? I suppose the argument could be made that anything Dave creates within the comic is “reality” and can stand alongside and concurrent to any other “reality” he chooses to create. However when all is said and done, Jaka is alive, and Joanne and Cerebus have not even met.
To my mind the responsible party for the “reality” in which Jaka commits suicide and Joanne’s heart is broken is Dave. It is he that altered Jaka so that she would love Cerebus no matter what. It is he that altered Cerebus so that he was neither physically or mentally abusive to Jaka. It is he who created Cerebus’ core nature.
I know this gets to the heart of what Dave Sim is trying to convey with Dave, that is the complicated nature of the relationship between creator and creation, and the nature of free will. But each time I read this scene I can not help but think of the Robert A. Heinlein penned character, Lazarus Long, who said, “Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a God superior to themselves. Most Gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”
Dave almost (but not quite, damn it, I am still pissed) redeems himself with his wry and half-hidden smile at Cerebus “asking nicely” to be left alone. Cerebus here has had enough. He simply could not process any more information. It is all too much.
After a few weeks of being left alone on Pluto, Cerebus calls Aardvark-Vanaheim in his head and this eventually leads to Dave allowing Cerebus to go anywhere he wishes. It is both amusing and interesting that Cerebus thinks and says he has been on Juno, not Pluto, as Juno (among her many other aspects) is the goddess of marriage and childbirth..
This concluding volume of the four-part Mothers & Daughters storyline is a much more fun read then was the sometimes tortured syntax of Reads and I think Dave Sim gets his points across to the reader much more effectively than he was able to in the previous volume .The character of Dave is a far more effective meta-intrusion of the author into his work thatn was Read’s Victor Davis. We the audience were unable to talk back to Victor Davis, forced to simply listen, while Cerebus was able to interact with Dave, petition him to act, and even get a rise out of him at one point. But it does seem less a conclusion to the the themes expressed in Mothers & Daughters than it does A Very Special Episode With A Very Special Guest Star, no matter how entertaining and how expertly executed.
However, Menachem’s recent Twitter-based crowing and chest thumping regarding the supposed “definitive” proof of the his “two Oscars” position being found in Flight by virtue of an Oscar’s appearance therein has caused me to be...less content, let us say. And so I will take Menachem’s numbered rebuttal of my position and reply to each,
1. Time. Within Flight’s flashback sequence featuring Cerebus and Bear in conversation around a campfire, Bear informs Cerebus about the Cirinists telepathic ability and penchant for savage violence. I've always assumed it took place between the end of Jaka’s Story and the beginning of Melmoth. Cerebus has no interest in the Cirinists in Jaka’s story, even though his city has been invaded, he has been deposed, and he is in hiding. Perhaps he ran across Bear while they were both using their old haunts and campsites to avoid Cirinists and Cerebus, knowing only that Jaka, Rick, and Oscar have been taken by Cirinists, begins to question Bear. That is evidence of time passing between Jaka’s Story and Melmoth. Not definitive evidence, but an interpretation. As far as Oscar’s change in appearance from Jaka’s Story to Melmoth, yes, it is my supposition that two years of hard labor could (and in fact did in the case of Oscar Wilde) devastate the appearance and health of a man to whom labour of any kind had been astudiously avoided until his imprisonment.
2. Oscar’s debts. Saying Oscar was “adroit at getting money from his publishers” belies the fact that he is shown repeatedly reminding his publisher that he is owed moneys and going so far as refusing to send the latest installment until he is compensated for the previous one. He also was renting from Pud, on a lonely road on the side of a mountain. Upon meeting Lord Julius he fawned over him and was delighted at the implication that he might receive an invitation to a party at the Regency or Lord Julius’ estate. These are hardly the actions of a man with a great deal of money in the bank. Also, while he certainly would not rack up debts while in prison, Oscar’s wife and children presumably continued to require room, board, etc….
3. Reggie and Ronnie, etc… Even “respected writers” have friends, some of whom might help look after your wife and children as you waste away in prison, or even help you out after you've been released, as did Wilde’s friends. I’m afraid this point in particular is an empty argument.
4. No mention of Oscar’s children and family in Jaka’s Story. Well, neither is there any mention of Cerebus’ family, or Rick’s family in Jaka’s Story. And given that, however many Oscars there may be, they are all based on Oscar Wilde, then it is not difficult to imagine such a character living apart from his wife and children from time to time, just as Wilde did.
Menachem’s “definitive” proof of his “two Oscars” position seems to be that Archbishop Posey, arrested and sentenced to five years hard labor in Melmoth, appears in prison and in the company of an Oscar in Flight. On its surface and with a strict linear reading it does seem conclusive. However I see two problems with his conclusion.
The first problem is that while this Oscar is seen in but three panels and in deep shadows at that, there is no doubt that it is certainly one of our Oscars, but he looks aged and withered and much more like the Oscar of Melmoth than the Oscar of Jaka’s story. This seems to fly in the face of Menachem’s Rebuttal Point #1. If only a few weeks have passed since Posey’s imprisonment and a few more weeks have passed since the Oscar of Jaka’s Story’s imprisonment, than how to explain the haggard countenance of Flight’s Oscar?
The second problem is that the scene with Posey and Oscar is related to us by an unreliable narrator, one of many Suenteus Po’s (and all Suentos Po’s are unreliable narrators), an Illusionist for pity’s sake, in the Eighth Sphere on a giant free-floating chessboard during Mind Games VII or eighty-three or whatever it was! Ascribing any literal interpretation to this scene or many of the scenes that take place in Flight is folly.
And that literalness is where Menachem’s original “one Oscar” versus “two Oscars” (and I would argue that we are now faced with “three Oscars”) rebuttal breaks down completely. There is no way a reader can read Jaka’s Story, Melmoth and Flight and interpret their entirety both chronologically linear and literally. There is no way when doing so that Oscar can be one and only one man, and conversely there is no point to there being two Oscars, much less three Oscars, if we remain committed to a chronologically linear and literal interpretation.
Menachem wielded Occam’s Razor in his rebuttal but he wielded it inexpertly. He states that “it is too much work” to reconcile “one Oscar” and so “two Oscars,” by virtue of its being “the easiest, most narratively (sic) clear solution,” is simpler and therefore correct. This argument completely ignores several things. This is not the first time nor the last that Dave Sim will expect his readers to “work hard” to understand the stories he is telling. Taking any of Cerebus from High Society onward completely literally is to miss completely the levels upon levels of complexity and the richness and depth of meaning these stories convey. Applying Occam’s Razor to inconsistencies within Cerebus is to rob oneself of the joy of asking “what does this mean?”
I know Menachem well enough to know he is able to appreciate the many levels at work at once within Cerebus. I’m not suggesting that his interpretations are any less thoughtful and valid than my own, or your own, dear reader [sound of crickets chirping.]
However, I am disappointed that his rebuttal was so literal and failed to even attempt to address my interpretation of why Dave Sim chose to include the character of Oscar, or the characters of Oscar and Oscar, or the characters of Oscar, Oscar and Oscar, in the first place, and what meaning the reader might draw from those character(s) inclusion. It seems to me that solving that puzzle for oneself is the only way to give meaning to a what is, if interpreted strictly chronologically linear and literally, a largely meaningless character.
I hope to address flight on the morrow, and I’d be lying if I were to say I wished this were the last word on Oscar(s). I’m having fun!
Anyone have anything to add before we move on?
Essentially two separate and slow moving stories, one functions as a coda to Jaka’s Story and the other as a prologue to Flight. The stories share a setting in time and place and little else. It is a testament to the skills of Dave Sim and Gerhard that two such disparate stories manage to, if not exactly complement each other, then at least bridge the years between the adjacent volumes of Cerebus, though not in an altogether satisfying way.
Cerebus, in a near catatonic state, has procured room, board and the occasional ale, and spends his days sitting outside his rented residence, either content to allow the world to pass by unnoticed or perhaps unable to process all but the most insistent stimuli. That he continuously clutches Missy, Jaka’s treasured childhood doll, found by Cerebus after her arrest by the Cirinists, is an indication of the emotional trauma he has suffered. In fact. that he took and kept Missy at all speaks volumes about the changes he underwent during his time as Rick and Jaka’s houseguest.
Sim and Gerhard use repeated images to illustrate the passing of time and the monotony of Cerebus’ existence. These are broken up from time to time with the sort of comic turns we’ve come to expect from Sim, but with a twist. Cerebus almost never responds in the way we’ve come to expect from him. He suffers silently at the hands of an incompetent and unpleasant waitress. He sits so still and unmoving that workmen renovating the bistro he frequents simply cover him with a dropcloth. That either of these situations fail to illicit aardvarkian rage is telling. These episodes create a subtle tension in the reader despite their gentle comedy.
Cerebus slowly (everything in Melmoth happens slooowly) begins to respond to his surroundings under the ministrations of the bistro’s new waitress. Her obvious infatuation with Cerebus, her delight at his slightest response to her, and her ever so slight resemblance to his lost Jaka illicit signs of life from the earth-pig. One fine morning we even catch a glimpse of the old Cerebus as he angrily threatens an old man who fails to return his salutation.
But the guards come down, literally and figuratively, when Cerebus overhears a pair of Cirinists’ conversation in which one recounts her abuses of Jaka while she was in her charge and waiting for her death sentence to be carried out. What happens next is violent in the extreme, but cathartic for the reader and Cerebus, and sets the stage for Flight.
The character of Oscar is a sympathetic one, as were all the characters in Jaka’s Story, save the Cirinists. Caught up in the raid at Pud Withers’ pub, he was off-handedly sentenced to two years of hard labor for having “no artistic license.” Released from prison and gravely ill, Oscar, with only one or two friends at his side, awaits his death in his rented room. The reader is forced to linger at his deathbed, mourning his loss even before Oscar’s actual passing. It is an emotionally powerful series of passages, but it is terribly one dimensional and adds nothing to the ongoing story.
This thinly veiled account of the last days of Oscar Wilde is Dave Sim’s first attempt at biography in the pages of Cerebus and, while it won’t be his last, it distinguishes itself from the others by its isolation from not only the ongoing story, but from the world that Sim has created for Cerebus. Swapping real city names for fictional ones and changing “telegrams” to “letters” was nearly all that was necessary to shoehorn this story into the world of Cerebus. But to what purpose?
Melmoth sheds no light on the character of Oscar as he was portrayed in Jaka’s Story. It informs us not at all of the political, social, or economic changes that have occurred under the Cirinists’ regime. It does nothing to move the story forward.
Why then did Dave Sim include this story in Cerebus?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do have a theory. It is entirely my own and subjective to the point of absurdity, but it is what I think Melmoth is about.
I think in Melmoth Dave Sim gives voice to his fear.
Consider that Meloth ends with issue #150, the halfway mark of the comic’s run. At this point in time Dave Sim is a ROCK STAR in the comics community. A big fish in a small pond to be certain, but a big fish nonetheless. He has accomplished much of what he has set out to do and, failing some catastrophic event, he and Gerhard have only to stay the proven course to reach issue #300.
But Sim had already shown himself prone to taking chances. The rape of Astoria and the anti-climax of Church & State, the marginalization of Cerebus The Aardvark, the long text passages and single page illustrations of Jaka’s Story, all had as many detractors as enthusiasts. And while the next volume, Flight, is a return to form in many respects, the following volumes of the Mothers & Daughters storyline, and in particular the infamous issue #186 is four years away as Sim & Gerhard begin Melmoth.
Dave Sim knew he was going to make waves when he made public his views on feminism. He thought those waves could and probably would affect both his livelihood and his standing both inside and outside of the comic community. He struggled with the decision for some time.
Note that Melmoth begins with the bespectacled Normal-Roach, meek and subservient to the Cirinists, his hands often between his legs, presumably protecting his manhood, muttering under his breath as he looks frantically around for the “Cunty cunty cunts,” terrified that they may hear him and punish him for his words. Note also that Melmoth ends with Cerebus, after years of inaction and repression, pushed to the breaking point, striking down two Cirinists and then considering, if only for a moment, suicide as a means of escaping their inevitable and overwhelming reprisal.
In between these two scenes we have the story of a well respected literary ROCK STAR of his time whose refusal to deny himself or recant his thoughts or his actions led to his imprisonment, first literally and then figuratively, and whom died, penniless, a social pariah, his artistic works rejected by all but a few devotees.
Swimming beneath the placid surface of Melmoth is the story of an artist wrestling with his conscience, trying to decide whether to keep giving the punters what they want or to express himself truthfully and perhaps suffer consequences as dire as he can imagine.