On Cerebus

I’ve been reading Websnark for a while. It’s an excellent commentary on webcomics (when it updates), and the sporadic non-webcomic rants are rather good, too. Perhaps the best and most famous part of Websnark is the term it coined: Cerebus Syndrome. Cerebus Syndrome, for the uninitiated, is when a comic is created light and humory, but evolves into something deeper. Many of the best strips go through this transformation: Sluggy did, Narbonic did, to a certain extent you could even say more singular comics like “Mac Hall” did, with it’s gradual change from being a simple humor comic to being an art experiment (though never losing it’s humor roots)
So, looking at my bookshelf the other day, I found a couple Cerebus collections that my mother had purchased for my father, who had read Cerebus near its inception. I decided to investigate the origins of one of my favorite terms.

The first thing that has to be said about Cerebus is that it’s /good/. Really good. I had heard some funny bits about it, like the fact that it included a parody of Elric of Melnibon√ɬ© who talked like Foghorn Leghorn, but I’d not realized how truly hilarious the concept was till I started reading it. Dave Sims knew how to write a comic.

The second thing that needs to be said is that the roots run deep. It’s not clear how deep, though, and I wonder how much is planned out, and how much is simply well improvised. As I write this, I’m midway through High Society. I know that there is a book devoted to Jaka, and we briefly met the character in an early issue, and then she was namechecked again later. The final image of her first appearance seems to have unusual depth: Sims was still writing a humor comic at this point, and her final words and tears and promise to wait seem out of place. This leads me to believe the seeds were planted early, but it’s not clear if Sims knew what he was planting or even if he were to get back to it.

I’ve got to compare this to an apple plantation: A farmer can lay out neat rows, and have a plan for how his fruits will develop. Or, he can follow the Johnny Appleseed method, and simply plant seeds where he goes. My father suggests that it’s more the latter, that Sims manages to find a ripe apple in the character of Jaka later on is simply him stumbling into an area he had planted in his youth. The results are supposed to be impressive, however, so I’ll still give him credit.

Another comparison that has to be made is to Sluggy Freelance’s Oasis. Oasis is one of the deepest and most interesting Sluggy Characters. She’s been the subject of at least 5 major storylines, and still so much of her character is unknown, yet she remains oddly compelling. But, for her current importance to the greater Sluggy storyline, she was killed off at the end of her first storyline. She was confirmed dead in a later “Ask the Author” comic(LINK). It was only a huge popular demand that eventually brought her back.

I also have to compare sluggy to Cerebus in terms of how the two strips evolved. An obvious comparison, considering that Sluggy is the original Webcomic to undergo the change (Possibly beaten by Kevin and Kell, but I’ve not read enough to know). Reading it now, Cerebus seems to take a much faster change. The second half of the first book is significantly social commentary, with a Groucho marx like character ruling a nation with obvious abandon. Yet, that’s only a year in. Sluggy’s first “Serious” storyline was a year in, too. However, neither is really deep to the levels their comics will later become. Sluggy’s “Vampires” is mostly a silly action romp, and Cerebus’s stories in Palnu are mostly just an excuse to have a Groucho Marx imitation wax poetic.

When, then, does the serious start to outweigh the funny? I think, for sluggy, it’s the one comic in “The Stormbreaker Saga”, where Valerie, her kingdom on the verge of ruin, is approached by the Vampire Lysinda (http://www.sluggy.com/daily.php?date=990822). The moment had been built to, for a while, with good moments in previous Sundays (Torg and Zoe running for each other across battle lines, for a frame of a hug, before proceeding to shoot/stab demons, while still hugging.http://www.sluggy.com/daily.php?date=990725)

For Cerebus, it’s probably around the 5th issue in High Society. Humor is forgotten, briefly, while Cerebus and his assistant plan their move to keep Cerebus’s position as the Diplomatic Envoy from Panlu to Iest. Rant is made about Foreign Debt, and despite the fact that his opponents are aforementioned Groucho Marx and Elric imitations, it feels /serious/.

And yet, it’s not even begun, says my father. It really gets serious in “Church and State”.

I’ve got to keep reading.