Across The Pond: Cerebus

Hi Space Fans! Eighties-boy is here!

After being all nasty and sneery in the last column I wrote (about the awesome predictability of stories about comics in newspapers), I thought I ought to say something nice, to restore the Cosmic Balance, which all comics readers intuitively understand. Help was at hand in the Melbourne City Library. This institution has a largish comics shelf near the front door. I say ‘largish’, but it’s the only library comics section I’ve seen in my entire life, so it’s large enough for me. Comics being easy things to read, the selection changes daily. It’s equally balanced between translated Japanese comics and American stuff, with most of the American stuff being superhero related. There is however, a steady stream of cooler American titles, such as ‘Fax from Sarajevo’. There are old collections like ‘the Spirit’. Yesterday I found a gigantic Cerebus collection.

Aaaah, Cerebus. I haven’t borrowed the book, since I’m way behind on the pile of other stuff I have out from that library (Ranma 1/2 and classic MAD). Cerebus was a good part of the nineteen eighties for me, and if you haven’t had a look at him, you really owe it to yourself.

By the way, for me the 1980’s were a fine decade – music got really interesting, having been shaken up by punk not long before, good books were written, P.J O’Rourke was funny, Michael Jackson was black and, most importantly, I had youth, disposable income and hair. Too bad about shoulder-pads and the threat of the Bomb (which hasn’t actually gone away). I think the silly aspects of that decade are overrated and the cool ones overlooked. Of course, I would think that, wouldn’t I?

You don’t have to be an 80s dinosaur like me or Donald Trump, to enjoy Cerebus. Like all the good things about that decade, Cerebus is timeless as is the other great 80s comic Love n’ Rockets. The series is of its’ time. As well as poodle hair and shoulder pads, there was a ‘talking animals’ boom of sorts in the 80’s, Howard the Duck, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, those annoying elves etc.

I first heard of Cerebus at a Melbourne Uni Science Fiction Association weekend camp. We went up into a house in the hills outside Melbourne and spent all the time playing games, talking about Phillip K Dick and reading this terrific new comic. I was hooked. I went out and bought all the issues I could get my hands on, and the collections when they came out too.

So what’s it about? Well, it’s the story of an aardvark called Cerebus, who inhabits a vaguely medieval world full of human beings. His presence there is never explained, nobody ever asks how he comes to walk on his hind legs or talk. He can fall in love, get drunk and so on. The only aardvaarkish things about him are that his fur stinks when he gets wet and that he can punch people with his tail. He is a mercenary fighter, good with a sword but good at outsmarting people. Often, he is just a witness to odd goings on. He thinks about himself in the third person (my favorite Cerebus aside is “Cerebus always feels out of place asking intelligent questions in Upper Felda”).

It’s a satirical strip, initially of comics, but later on of show biz and politics. One notable thing about Cerebus is that the strip changes as it goes on. Very few comics do this. They develop a ‘dark look’, go all artsy, churn up new characters and so on, but the story remains the same. Batman in his most adult moments meets bad guys, has a tough time, struggles a bit and then wipes the floor with them just as he did in the 1930’s. Cerebus really changes.

At first the story is a simple parody of Conan the Barbarian. The big joke is that the barbarian is an aardvark who talks, and that the other charactersare idiots. At one point Cerebus defeats the champion of a group of warriors. The chief wearily explains that the fight has to be to the death but that he’s sure that Cerebus won’t kill an unconscious man (because heroes never do), so they’ve devised a further test. While he’s explaining this, Cerebus is picking up a sword and advancing on the fallen foe. The word ‘STAB’ fills one panel and the chief just says ‘ah’. There’s a dippy, nympho character based on the chain-mail bikini-clad Red Sonja.

As the strip moves on, superheroes are brilliantly sent up, through a character called The Cockroach, who is always acting as a silly version of Batman, Captain America or Moon Knight*. Cerebus first cons the Cockroach by improvising the story of Robin’s origins:
Cerebus: my parents were acrobats. Red Claw Assasins cut their ropes, then beat them to death while they were lying on the safety netting.
Roach: (tearfully) That’s terrible
Cerebus (to self) Yes, it was the best Cerebus could come up with at short notice.

Sim introduces famous people into the strip, drawing them as themselves. He’s most successful with this in the case of Lord Julius, who has the looks and lines of Groucho Marx. I’ve never been a big Marx brothers fan, but Lord Julius is hilarious in the comic. Sim said that the character wrote his own dialogue and I can believe it.

Cerebus also encounters a lovingly drawn parody of Prince Valiant, complete with well written paragraphs underneath each panel. The Prince appears as Lord Julius’ bratty nephew.

The satire in Cerebus passes one of my tests for genuinely funny satire. It remains funny even if you don’t know who is being sent up. It’s very easy to get a laugh out of a room full of people who think George W Bush is a peanut (and pretty easy to find a roomful of such people). Real talent is making people who’ve never heard of him laugh. I mentioned Moon Knight before. The Cerebus version is funny to me and I never read Moon Knight, even in my most Marvel-obsessed days. Friends of mine who didn’t read any comics found the send ups funny.

What happened next to Cerebus is a very eighties story. Like Woody Allen (who appears in the strip later on) and Steve Martin, bright talented types who wanted to be loved for their minds Sim started taking himself way too seriously and (apparently) the last books are almost unreadable. I’m lucky I dropped out while it was still good. I did read one of Sim’s columns for a comics magazine and it was very depressing – a long rant about the innate inferiority of women to men based on a range of kooky analogies and founded on his not having gotten it off for a long time. He’s turned into a long-winded version of the crazy Colonel from Dr Strangelove, rambling about Vital Bodily Fluids. A great shame. However the first big Cerebus book is a glory from beginning to end.