Well, here we are. I actually read this 8 months ago, but I got involved in helping out Dave and Sandeep with the Cerebus in Hell? project (view details at amomentofcerebus.com, or pick them at your local shop). Dave contends that this is the most controversial graphic novel of all time, and I have to say that if it’s not #1, it’s gotta be in the top 10. One point of controversy is that the book is split down the middle between the continuation of the events in the comic, and large chunks of straight text, which was a bit much for monthly readers at the time. You might remember the concept of “reads” themselves from Church & State. In that storyline, Weisshaupt was able to “convince” Cerebus to stay married to Sophia after an all-night bender, reassume the title of Prime Minister, and have these schlocky paperbacks ghostwritten for him. Dave takes advantage of the “reads” concept by using it in the comic as a bit of a platform for his opinions on comic publishing and on women and relationships. That second topic is what most people think of with regards to the polarized opinions surrounding this book. I’ll get to that in a bit.
At the end of Women, Suenteus Po had met Astoria and Cerebus at the steps to the western church. The story picks back up here, as the three walk in together to meet with Cirin and her bodyguards. Po notes that the bodyguards are both unnecessary and useless, as Cerebus could cut them all down easily. Po asks Cirin to dismiss them, to which she agrees, seeing Po’s point that she would “lose [her] throne through force, but may yet keep it through reason. Po then addresses each of the assembled one by one, revealing certain truths in an effort to sway them from their ambitions for power. In Astoria’s case, he merely notes that as she never wanted followers or a throne, her interest in the Ascension is self-defeating since it would result in precisely those trappings. To Cirin, he reveals that Astoria had never had an abortion, and as this was the main reason for her persecuting Astoria, there is now no longer any need. He puts it to Cirin that she knew this, and that her true reason for opposing Astoria was simply that Astoria didn’t pledge undying loyalty to Cirin. He states that Cirin’s only enemy has ever been herself, and that far too much blood has been shed in hiding that truth from herself. He advises her to relinquish her power and spend the rest of her days caring for her children, the very thing that Cirinism supposedly prizes above all. When speaking to Cerebus, Po discusses the mystical nature of aardvarks and relates certain powers or strange biological events that have happened to all three of them in the past. He also discusses the aardvarks’ “magnifier” nature that we’ve seen affect people and things around Cerebus, and relates it back to his theme that the only thing people can control is themselves. He asks Cerebus if any of the times he’s been in control (as the leader of an army, as Prime Minister, or Pope) has brought him a shred of happiness. He knows the answer, of course. Po urges Cerebus to follow in his example and seek a sort of transcendent state through an ascetic lifestyle, which he mentions Cerebus had briefly touched while catatonic on the front porch of Dino’s Cafe in Melmoth.
Having said his piece, Po takes his leave. Astoria, clearly convinced by Po, is the next to go, but not before revealing that Cerebus is a hermaphrodite, perhaps one of the most shocking moments of the comic thus far. She does so in order to inform Cirin that Cerebus cannot impregnate himself in order to create a line of aardvarks, which Cirin has attempted but never succeeded at. As she turns to leave, Cerebus asks her with some obvious concern where she will go, which is really rather interesting. Perhaps he feels guilty for raping her, or he appreciates her helping him in High Society. Perhaps he was touched by Po’s words and is momentarily showing some empathy for once. In any case, she leaves and after some short dialogue involving whether or not Cirin has a likeness of Cerebus growing in her armpit (one of the strange biological phenomena that Po referenced earlier), the two begin a brutal fight. Cirin proves herself to be the only opponent that we’ve seen hold their own with Cerebus, even while her arm is in a cast and Cerebus wields his sword! The battle is incredibly bloody, superbly choreographed and paced, realistic, and particularly thrilling. The fight is mostly going Cerebus’ way, until Cirin is able to wrest his sword from him and cuts off his right ear. At this point, there’s a page which depicts Dave at his desk, drawing the previous page. Suddenly back in the story, there’s a huge BANG (“something fell”) and the floor of the throne room crumbles away. The implication here is that Dave made this happen, rather than any sorcerous or religious machination in the story. Cerebus and Cirin scramble to the throne at the top of some stairs just as it detaches from the earth and ascends upward, apparently toward the moon. Cirin scans Cerebus’ mind and sees his memory of The Judge, but the throne flies completely past the moon and into space, creating some understandable anxiety in the two.
When Reads was being released monthly, half the book would be given to the story above, and the other half to pages of text on the verso with a terrific illustration on the recto. In the first half of Reads, this space is occupied by a story about a Victor Reid, who is a successful “reads” author. Reid signs a publishing deal with Vertigo Horse (get it?) to write a series called Ascension (the follow-up to his successful “Palnu Trilogy”), and his life begins to decay from there. I don’t want to get too much into the story itself—I think it would be better read and not summarized by me—but suffice it to say that Dave sees self-publishing as freedom from the prostitution to any of the major comics publishers. He also views relationships with women and domesticity as an agent for stifling creativity in men, which leads into the second half of the text portions in the book. Here, he takes on another pseudonym, Viktor Davis, and begins speaking to “the reader” directly. He speaks at length about conversations with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, which always made me wonder why he wrote this under a pseudonym. If he’s explicitly mentioning real people, why doesn’t he refer to himself as Dave Sim? Is it in order to convincingly speak in third person, or to separate these sections from his Note from the President? It did create some confusion at the time as to whether the opinions expressed in this section were those of this Viktor Davis character, except that Davis refers to himself as the creator of Cerebus and speaks explicitly about it (teasing the reader that Cerebus would end at issue #200 rather than #300 as previously stated). Again, this is something that is better read than summarized by a ho-hum writer like me. I’d like to be brief, as this section is fairly complicated, though I have very little confidence in whether I can do that without glossing over important details or misrepresenting them. If you’d like to know more, I’m much better at talking about this volume than in writing about it. Come see me.
In a nutshell, Davis brings the reader into the book and begins manipulating the reader’s perception through the written word, which foreshadows the events in the following volume, Minds. He writes at length on reality and truth, referencing conversations on the subject with Moore and Gaiman. Gaiman once remarked that if you don’t believe in a truth, all you can say about it is that it’s at least true to somebody else. Davis relates being diagnosed as a borderline schizophrenic in 1979 and goes on to question what makes anyone’s reality objectively real. One possible bit of what Dave calls comic metaphysics might be seen here, as that reference is on page 183 of Reads, and a reference to Cerebus #183 is only one page prior to that. Maybe a stretch, but still kinda weird. Davis then returns to his light and void cosmology/gender assessment, first seen in Church & State. He’s updated the Judge’s gender assignation, so now we have the male light and female void. The male light enjoys being with the void for a time, but eventually the void wants to be closer, ever closer. The void wants merged permanence (essentially, marriage), which leads to reiterating Davis’ position that women are an anti-muse, extinguishing the creative male light with their desire for attention. There’s some more practical discussion of human relationships based on Davis’ experience—how he witnesses women react with emotion rather than matching logical statements with likewise rebuttals. He says this creates a position from which women can never lose, as there’s no beating emotion in an argument. One simply finds oneself going in rhetorical circles.
As you might imagine, this stuff created quite a stir at the time, the ripples of which are still being felt today. A lot of the Cerebus readership dropped off at this point, both because of the text blocks and what was communicated by them. Dave continues with these lines of thought today, writing most recently (in the notes for Cerebus Archive Vol. 6) about how the “feminist theology” we live under makes it impossible for males to truly be men any longer. They’ve become feminized pets in a world where any statement or belief that doesn’t belong in the feminist theology leads to the ostracizing from society of the male who uttered it (his assessment of what happened to him after this volume). Effectively neutered, men are at the mercy of a society which Dave sees as different from the Cirinist takeover of Iest only by a matter of degree.
Now, Dave writes at length about how the public thinks of him as “crazy Dave Sim, the misogynist.” Whereas he would consider himself to simply have more clarity than most, and certainly a more conservative or traditional philosophy of gender roles. I do know that he believes himself to be objectively correct in his beliefs. It’s also clear that he is disappointed by what he perceives to be the comics world’s view of him; Margaret Liss has started a petition on his behalf (available here) that states that the signer does not believe that Dave is a misogynist. Until that petition reaches 2,000 signatures, Dave won’t appear in public. It’s hard to say whether he particularly laments his position in that community, though—he does talk about it a lot, and as a massive comics fan, I suppose he may at least miss talking with more people in the field about the field. But he also claims to be fully content to live a fairly ascetic lifestyle as dictated by his religion, so perhaps he would accept his position even if his views were not vilified. Up until Reads (his essay, “Tangent,” which was explicitly written by Dave Sim rather than under a pseudonym, hadn’t been published yet) readers could wave away some of the less palatable ideas throughout the series by saying they’re just part of the story—opinions of the characters, not the author. In this volume, however, Dave broke down the wall between reader and author and opened himself up to direct criticism of his views.
The revelation of these views was somewhat unexpected by many. Dave created what could be interpreted as compelling, strong female characters (Astoria, Jaka, etc.), but now he would say that this would be misinterpreting them, or perhaps that this may be a correct interpretation, but that those qualities we enjoy about those characters are not actually admirable. I can’t speculate on the catalyst for Dave’s opinions. Some people cite his divorce from Deni as a source, some people cite his borderline schizophrenia diagnosis. I find the divorce hypothesis to be thin because Dave considers that to have been a marriage of mutual ambition more than any sort of passionate love, so I doubt he was particularly raw about it. The schizophrenia would have to be damn borderline indeed, because by most accounts Dave very generally doesn’t seem to have any problem with perceiving reality, either on video on in writing. I’d be very interested to have spoken to him on the subject during his High Society or Church & State days to see whether his views were markedly different or if he just mostly kept them to himself. To me, Dave’s writing on the subject (aside from the cosmology stuff) comes off a lot more just like an eloquent MRA, and those are people that I don’t think (generally, of course) have any sort of mental imbalance. I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist, so I’ll decline to comment on that further, but those two arguments just don’t ring true to me.
Something that a lot of people can’t or don’t want to do is separate the art from the artist, especially if that artist has views that are antithetical to their own. I separate art from artists to fairly high degree—to be perfectly frank, most artists have questionable views or have acted problematically, and I’d prefer to not have my enjoyment of any art colored by the views or behavior of its creator. That would be a truly irrational thing, because Cerebus means the world to me and I don’t see any point of having tiny fractions of it that I don’t agree with poison the entire thing. There are parts of it that I don’t fully agree with (I have signed the petition), but I do understand where he’s coming from on certain points, and I have experienced some of his observations firsthand. Generalization is dangerous of course, but I’ve been in a number of relationships and I think his assessment of how men and women relate to one another is humorously accurate in my experience. In any case, what Dave thinks and what I think and what other people think is immaterial to my enjoyment of this work. The controversial sections of Reads are a pretty small fraction of the full 300, and even if I don’t agree with all of it, at least it’s written well.
Ok—back to the comic, now that I’ve thoroughly bungled my write-up of this volume. I’m not positive that I’ve correctly stated my position on any of this, but I’ve been sitting on it for months and want to move on. Next: Minds.