|Commission: The Newlyweds (2006)|
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(Click image to enlarge)
(responding to Tim O'Neil's Cerebus presentation, 28 October 2013)
...Hearing about your Cerebus talk and going over your powerpoint got me thinking about how strong your argument for Cerebus as an addition to the canon is. Given how strong your argument is, it seems likely that someone will eventually make the argument for teaching Cerebus, and it might as well be you.
It seems like you're running up against two issues that need definite answers if Cerebus is going to be taught as a canonical work, so I thought I would throw out some provisional answers to see if they were any use to you. The two issues I'm referring to are the theme of the work, and the historical signficance of the work's reception. Definite statements on these issues will provide the "hooks" necessary to teach the work to coming generations. So here are my thoughts on these issues.
In terms of a theme, I'd argue that Sim offers a profound depiction of turn of the century masculinity. He lays out the world of failed celebrity, womanizing, drinking and futile quests that have replaced warfare and establishing a household for so many of us. His treatment is all the more significant for being laid out in a language of superheroes and sword & sorcery that has become a dominant rhetoric for turn of the century masculinity.
With respect to this theme, some of the most powerful stories come in the second half of the work, after Sim's turn to the dark side. His treatments of the Rolling Stones, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway engage with some of the most important images of 20th century masculinity, in an intelligent and ironic fashion, and his depiction of the collapse of Cerebus' and Jaka's relationship as they starve in the wilderness vividly depicts feelings shared by all of us who've tried to manage household finances without sufficient income. He only deals with sports as a theme quite late in the work, but in a way that is indispensible to the work as a whole. I lost him during his biblical criticism stories, but there may well be material there that would reward a second reading of the whole work. In any case, it would reward scholarly attention, even just to resolve the issue of why he was doing it.
I feel less clear about the controversies involved in how Cerebus was received, as the question seems to me not so much why Sim was such a misogynist (why not?) as to why his work would be so intensely scrutinized by an audience with feminist sympathies. It was, after all, a parody of Conan the Barbarian using aesthetic tools adapted from Howard the Duck. While such an approach would signal to pop-culture obsessed young men that here was someone who was taking an intelligent approach to their deepest concerns, it would also seemed perfectly designed to keep any female reader at a distance. The misogyny seems obvious enough right from the beginning. The biggest change is that Sim develops his misogyny into a more explicit philosophy, just as he does with so many other aspects of masculinity that he depicts.
One way to understand what happened when Sim's misogyny went from being implicit to being explicit is to consider the figure of Jaka, since she is a character who acquires a detailed and sympathetic back story, without leaving her roots in male fantasy behind. As the princess who discovers her deepest self in exotic dancing, she is, to a large degree, that wonderful fantasy of the pulps, the stripper with the heart of gold.
Jaka's role in Sim's analysis of masculinity seems clear enough. As an impossible woman whose love for Cerebus bore no relationship to her social status or attractiveness, she served as the perfect foil for Cerebus' inability to love anyone. Her beauty and inexplicable devotion to Cerebus located the failure of the relationship completely within the hero's character.
At the same time, Jaka was open to an alternate reading, as an ideal for a post-feminist fan-girl audience. To emphasize her attractiveness, Sim gave Jaka a back story that made her both socially ideal (as strippers are not) and sexually available (as noblewomen are not). Unfortunately, in post-feminist popular culture, this combination, despite its origin in male adolescent fantasy, has become an ideal for teenage girls to achieve. Girls who read X-Men and Spider-Man, found in Jean Grey and Mary Jane Watson a combination of attractiveness, social acceptability, and self-determination that seemed to overcome the contradictions between traditional sexual roles and feminist aspirations.
The mainstream publishers have welcomed this feminine audience, leading us to the seeming promised land of a femininity rooted in male pulp adolescent fantasies. We end up debating how to make women more welcome in a fantasy world that they ought to deconstruct. Ultimately, this is only possible because of the decades of experience the mainstream companies developed in distracting their audiences from the conflicts of their fantasies with real life.
As an independent creator, Sim lacked the commercial scruples necessary to maintain the pretense that Jaka's unusual social situation was anything other than a fantasy rooted in the adolescent male gaze. When he began articulating an explicit philosophy of art to enshrine this adolescent male gaze, his female fans were forced into the same experience that his male fans had been in from the beginning. As we wannabe Conans were forced to view ourselves as a pig, his female fans realized that they were identifying with a fantasy of a profoundly sexually alienated artist. Had they not become accustomed to such identifications over years of reading pulp-derived fantasy and superheroics, the shock would probably not have been as profound.