29 May

I tried to do self-deprecating humour, but I wasn't very good at it.
Arnold Brown

I’d been quite looking forward to writing this one. I thought it was bound to go in one of two directions.


“Cerebus in Hell? is a triumphant return to form — quirky and idiosyncratic but still fascinating. It is to Cerebus the Aardvark as Promethea is to Watchmen.”

Or, more likely:

“Cerebus in Hell? is deeply offensive and nasty full of right wing invective, cheap misogynist gags and bizarre religious theories.”

I suppose it could have been both. An offensive and nasty triumphant return to form.

Unfortunately, I am going to have to be boringly honest.

Cerebus in Hell? is all right.

And Dave Sim knows that Cerebus in Hell? is all right. It’s all-rightness; it’s perfunctoriness; it’s clever-man-not-bothering-anymore-ness is part of the joke. Stan Lee never stopped believing he was Stan Lee. Steve Ditko never quite realised he was Steve Ditko. But Dave Sim knows that he is Dave Sim. He plays up to being Dave Sim. And that’s a bit funny and very sad.

He has a mysterious, unexplained wrist injury [insert joke here] and can’t draw at present. So he is creating four panel gag cartoons by pasting figures of Cerebus over, er, pages from Gustav Dorre’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. As you would. And then adding inappropriate dialogue to the resultant scene.

You might say that all he is doing here is going back to the earlier, funny episodes of Cerebus the Aardvark. The comic started out as pretty broad parody: artwork that was pastiche Barry Smith with a cartoon animal standing in for Conan the Barbarian. (The first collection contained a point-for-point parody of Prince Valiant.) Perhaps there is not that great a distance between Elric talking like Foghorn Leghorn and Virgil and Dante singing “nine hundred and ninety six trillion bottles of beer on the wall”. (“Hell really is other people”.)

You might equally say that the genre of fumetti — of adding flippant speech bubbles to photographs or famous paintings — feels more like something out of an undergraduate rag mag than the follow up to the longest sustained narrative in human history. The humour feels like something out of 1960s Mad Magazine: doubtless very daring in the 1960s but looking a bit tired in 2020.

The title, like nearly everything else, is a bit of an in-joke. In the final issue of Cerebus the Aardvark the eponymous earth pig died and entered the afterlife; it was left slightly ambiguous as to whether he had ended up in heaven or hell. Hence the question mark. Cerebus in Hell? is not a sequel to Cerebus the Aardvark; but it is just possibly a metafiction about it. Sim still remembers what Cerebus sounded like, and he is using his voice to tell jokes and make political remarks. The Cerebus persona is sufficiently strong and engaging that it carries quite a lot of indifferent gags.

Some of the gags are very indifferent indeed. Dante and Virgil give Cerebus some kale and a copy of the Bible and tell him that they will make him feel better, but sadly the Bible tastes disgusting and there is nothing very interesting written on the kale. (Tommy Cooper made that joke: Stradivarius was a terrible painter and Rembrant made shit violins.) A group of naked men are reciting weak rap lyrics, and Dante wonders why they are all white. (“What part of ironic punishment don’t you understand?”) The snakes who are devouring a group of damned souls tell their victims to check their bipedal privilege and say that “ophidian” is now the P.C term. (“We’re here! We’re serpentine! And we’re…er…something which rhymes with serpentine.”) For absolutely no reason a decapitated figure identified as Freddy Mercury sings “No time for fatlings cos we are the batwings of the underworld.”

But some of them are pretty good. Cerebus tells one of the damned to stop biting his finger nails. The damned guy explains at length that this is a minor vice and a comparatively benign way of dealing with the boredom of an eternity in hell. “So what are you in here for?” “ Biting my finger nails.”

The best moments are in-jokes. This one actually made me laugh out loud:

Cerebus (to damned soul): Aren’t you a harlot?

Harlot: I am a sex trade worker and I am a person. Chester Brown is going to interview me.

Cerebus: Oh yeah. How much do you charge for interviews?

In case the joke is too subtle, the text explains “She has every issue of Yummy Fur and reviewed Riel for her college newspaper.”

The format — paste-up and juxtapositioning -- will make readers think of the occasionally funny Wondermark web comic. Naturally, Sim lampshades this observation. One strip involves a figure of Cerebus pasted in front of a Dante who is reciting poetry in a woodland scene: “….Zonker Harris begat Berke Breathed and Berke Brethed begat Opus the Penguin and Opus the Penguin begat David Malki and David Malki begat Wondermark and Wondermark begat Cerebus in Hell with a question mark…” This is a pretty standard Dave Sim gag: when there is an obvious criticism to be made of your work, make it yourself, and wear it as a badge of pride. (One of the few genuine laughs to be got out of Glamourpuss was the self-caricature of “evil, insane Dave Sim”.) Every Cerebus in Hell? strip has a little text comment under the logo, which very frequently points out the obviousness of the joke. When this kind of thing works it puts the reader and the author on the same side. When it doesn’t it makes the reader feel that he himself is the butt of the joke. Ha-ha, you are so stupid you are finding this funny but I the writer can see through myself. After the genealogy of the history of comic strips, there is a frame without dialogue and the speaker adds “And the delayed punchline was the first day.” A punchline about punchlines. There is only so much of this a fan can take.

We are not supposed to think that any of this is happening to Cerebus the character we spent 300 mostly enjoyable and sometimes infuriating comics with. But the joke depends on us thinking that the pasted-on cut-out is at some level that same Cerebus: that Cerebus is bad-tempered, not because he is in hell, but because he is in the wrong kind of comic book. During one completely surreal sequence, the Cerebus cutout (sword in the air) screams. “Will someone tell Cerebus whether this is actually happening or not?” Later on he asks if he is dreaming or at some sort of “metaphysical reality nexus” which “could explain Cerebus knowing about Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys”. It's another audience-deprecating gag: Sim is telling a joke against himself for putting Cerebus in a story which makes no sense, and against his readers for worrying about that kind of thing.

It gets much sadder. On one of the title pages, a photograph of Dave tells the Cerebus cut-out that jokes about Facebook will alienate the millennial audience. Cerebus points out, accurately enough, that the youngest possible Cerebus fan is over fourty. And this is true: Cerebus is a comic that was great; that is fondly remembered; but that has no continuing appeal, in the way that Watchmen arguably does. Some of the people who remember how mighty and all-conquering Cerebus seemed in the 80s may read this comic. No-one else ever will.

Rather more pointedly, on another of the title pages Cerebus tells Dave Sim that he is practicing Garfield punch-lines. (“Almost as good as lasagne.”)

“It hasn’t really come to that, has it?” asks Dave

“Hey, it wasn’t Cerebus who wouldn’t take the call from Lucasfilms back in the 70s.”

Appropriately enough for a comic about hell, this has gone beyond self-deprecation into full on self-flagellation. It’s funny because it’s sad; it’s sad because it’s true. There really could have been a Cerebus movie around the time of the Turtles and Howard the Duck. Sim’s sense of artistic integrity really did refuse to countenance it. And so we are where we are.

Cerebus in Hell? is all right. And I do feel enough pity and fascination and affection for the old bastard that I will probably go on reading it. But I do hope he can find a way to completing The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, the graphic-historical-speculative novel he started in the middle pages of Glamourpuss. That was quirky and idiosyncratic and fascinating. It might yet be to Cerebus as Promethea is to Watchmen.

Stan Lee died a billionaire; Steve Ditko lay dead for fourty eight hours before anyone found him. Which would it be better to have been?


Andrew Ducker said...

I'd been wondering if this was worth reading. I'm glad you've saved me the trouble.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I would feel bad if anyone didn’t read it on the basis of my review.

I would feel almost equally bad if someone did read it on the basis of my review.