Monday, August 31, 2009

Swords of Cerebus #5: Champion, Fluroc, She-Devil in the Shadows, Mind Game

The opening page of Champion is classic Cerebus, a close up of the aardvark's extremely annoyed face, dripping wet. Cerebus is cursing Lord Julius as the horse he was given to ride out of Palnu on broke a leg, forcing him to drag 8 bags of gold through some foul weather. The fact is that Cerebus doesn't have to carry the entire 8 bags, he could bury 7 of them somewhere, get to a town, hire a wagon and team and tools, dig them up, and go back in style. Unfortunately the earth pig's mind doesn't work that way, if you have money you hang on to it. Cerebus has made and lost far too many fortunes to leave something like that to chance. He comes across a hovel, offers the penniless inhabitants some of his gold to leave it, and decides to wait out the weather there. While relaxing in the hovel, and planning out his next move there is a knock at the door. Standing outside are 2 T'Gitan mercenaries who claim to be part of an army attacking Palnu.
Cerebus lets them in, and meets Gudre and his son Stromm. Their mortal enemy is Palnu's heroic general Commander Krull, the whacko who recites his own memoirs to a personal assistant at all times. Dave admitted to watching a lot of sitcoms during the writing of this, and said that Krull was a cross between Conan (who he certainly resembles facially) and the insane Colonel Flagg from M*A*S*H. The reason for the T'Gitan's animosity was that Krull ordered Stromm's tongue be torn out. Although it didn't do much for poor Stromm, it benefited his father, given the boy's size and musculature development his lack of being able to vocalise enabled Gudre to pass his son off as Stromm God of Thunder, and son of the one true God Tarim, which meant a large number of T'Gitan mercenaries flocked to his cause. Meeting Cerebus also helps Gudre. Cerebus never passes up an opportunity to make money, and he's amoral enough to turn on a former ally without giving it a second thought. Gudre's target is the Palnan trading city of Fluroc, which is guarded by Krull. Krull may be an egomaniac, but he's also a talented warrior. Cerebus hatches a plot to take Krull out of the picture, and allow the T'Gitan mercenaries to take over an undefended Fluroc.

Fluroc finds Cerebus and the mercenaries holed up in the now deserted town, they having killed most of the inhabitants. The main joke in this issue was how many different ways the T'Gitans could mispronounce Cerebus' name. The T'Gitan accent was germanic, it having come to Dave while watching reruns of Hogans Heroes. My personal favourite was how Graus, the most prominent mercenary said the name, making it sound like 'Zerbutz.' I can remember reading the first page, and a bit with Graus repeating the name thinking 'What the hell is he talking about?' until it finally dawned on me that this was how he said Cerebus. Graus tells Cerebus how the Stromm legend got started, and Cerebus admits to himself grudgingly that Gudre is one smart operator. The T'Gitans are thrown into a panic when a trading caravan arrives at Fluroc. Cerebus tells the traders that the city was overrun by plague, and he is one of the few survivors. He convinces the traders that having entered the city they have now contracted the plague, and can only be saved by taking some of a liquid that he has. He of course is not going to part with his only defence against the deadly disease cheaply. This allows him to take the merchants for nearly everything they have in exchange for a flask of what is most probably water or T'Gitan beer. Speaking with the mercenaries, and seeing how incredibly gullible they are he starts to think that maybe Gudre wasn't all that smart after all.

Cerebus took Graus to Togith where he intended to sell the jewelry he had conned from the merchants to raise an army of pikemen to continue the attack on Palnu. While there, Graus became entranced by a fortune teller called Perce. Cerebus found that if he could obtain another golden owl like the one he had been given by the traders in Fluroc he could raise his army. Contacts told Cerebus that a man named Hortne may be able to assist. Once he arrived at the tavern where Hortne lodged he found it in uproar, largely due to some menace that was in Hortne's apartment. Always the skeptic Cerebus investigated and came face to face with Red Sophia! Although this female warrior looked and dressed like Sophia, Cerebus decided she could not be the wizard's daughter. For one she hardly said a word, and Sophia was rarely ever lost for one of those, and the other thing that she was a better fighter than Cerebus remembered Sophia being. Once past her he discovers that Henrot (Sophia's father) was behind it. The female warrior outside his inner sanctum is a construct he devised to give himself some peace and quiet. As a favour to Cerebus, Henrot gives him a magical twin to the golden owl, which will disappear in 6 months. Graus is still with Perce, who drugs Cerebus, and sends the T'Gitan back to Gudre with a letter supposedly from the aardvark. No reader knew who Perce was or what her game was, but we were about to find out. Perce was the first Cirinist we ever saw.

Dave was becoming rather interested in artistic games when he put out Mind Game. Legendary comic book artist Neal Adams had on more than one occasion hidden a giant drawing of the head of one of the characters in what he was working on amongst the art work. Dave decided that with 19 issues of Cerebus under his belt it was time to stretch himself artistically, and do something similar. If you cut up the pages of Mind Game and reassemble them the right way you get a picture of Cerebus. Having virtually no artistic talent whatsoever I can't even imagine how hard this is to do, and create a coherent story around it at the same time.

I may be a little over effusive with the praise there. Mind Game isn't the most coherent of stories, actually it's downright weird, but it's still incredibly important in the development of the book and the narrative. Mind Game came out about a year after Dave had been hospitalised by his mother and wife following several days of taking LSD, that's where the 300 issue run idea came to him and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mind Game was also born about then.

The entire story takes place inside Cerebus' mind. The drug that Perce gave him was mind altering, and also put him in a state bordering comatose. He was speaking to Perce and someone she referred to as Mother Wenda. Perce and Wenda were both Cirinists. The Cirinists were a group of ultra feminists who followed a woman calling herself Cirin, and believed that the dominant God figure was actually called Terim and was female. They were in opposition to the male dominated church of Tarim and the hedonistic Illusionists; led by another shadowy character called Suenteus Po. Readers also met Po for the first time in this issue. I have to admit I liked Po, he was infuriating, but very funny. Exactly what it is about Cerebus that piques the interest of the Cirinists is not explained, although it is hinted that it could have something to do with him being an aardvark. Using Po's advice, and his own intelligence Cerebus manages to divert the Cirinist's attention from him and onto a group of helpless Illusionists, although the issue ends on a massive cliffhanger with Cerebus passed out face down in a sea of blackness, without Wenda from the outside, and Po from within being able to elicit any response from him. Gulp.

Scott Lynch

I know this has nothing to do with Cerebus, but occasionally the space between my ears is occupied with things over than the avaricious aardvark, and this is one of them. I’m a long term fantophile (probably an obsession that began when I first picked up The Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton when I was but a small child) and always on the look out for something new and interesting to excite my synapses. For fantophiles 2006 was a great year.

3 (count them! 3!) new authors burst onto the scene with stunning debuts (I've been advised by none other than Joe Abercrombie that Pat Rothfuss was actually 2007, so there were 2 stunning debuts in 2006, thanks for making me look stupid Joe. I can do that all on my own, thanks very much!), one was Joe Abercrombie with The Blade Itself (the man is a machine, 3 years later and he’s completed that trilogy, written one standalone set in the same world and already embarked on another standalone, which he believes will be published early in 2011. A machine I tell you! A machine!), Patrick Rothfuss put out The Name of the Wind (I personally wasn’t that excited by this, it was competent enough, he uses words well and I’d like to see how it all turns out, but I won’t be waiting on the doorstep of the bookstore when he finally produces the sequel: Wise Man’s Fear. The publishers don’t seem to be concerned about how long a new author is taking to do this, I guess they know what they’re doing, I hope for Rothfuss’ career they’ve read the market right) and the subject of this post; Scott Lynch published The Lies of Locke Lamora. Now we can argue long and loud, and believe me people have, about who was the best debut, but for mine it was Lies. I loved this book! It’s hard to express in words why and why it had the effect it did. Happily for everyone concerned Scott soon followed up with Red Seas Under Red Skies, it wasn’t quite as good as Lies, but then again his debut was a hard act to follow. Unfortunately that was the last we saw as personal issues affected the author and he took a break from public life, this has delayed the publication of the 3rd of the adventures of his gentleman thief; Locke Lamora Republic of Thieves.

In about 2 years Scott updated his previously active LiveJournal twice and people began to wonder if he would ever return, then suddenly about a month ago he was back! Back with a vengeance as it turned out. Regular updates started appearing on his LiveJournal, he got a Twitter account, and then marvel of marvels the long dormant webpage was updated. There was a prologue to Republic of Thieves (in this humble blogger’s opinion Scott had lost nothing, the prologue was every bit as enchanting as anything in Lies or Red Seas) and some notes or author’s musings about writing the early chapters of Red Seas.

The 3rd bit is what got me excited and why I’m doing this, and publishing the link here. Somewhere in his long sojourn Scott revisited an old idea he’d had about a pulp style novel or serial which he called Queen of the Iron Sands. It’s in the style of the old stories published in such esteemed journals as Amazing Stories, and in some ways it seems reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs Carter of Mars series, although the main protagonist is a woman. Scott intends to publish it all online chapter by chapter and for free. It’s good stuff, no really it is, and I am not at all biased *cough* *cough*

Thanks for listening, normal transmission will soon resume.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Swords of Cerebus #4: The Palnu Trilogy

Now we get to the Palnu trilogy. In his introduction Dave describes it as a 71 page story, which it actually is, it's not a 3 issue arc, it is a self contained story. It's a 71 page story in 3 chapters.

The first chapter, or rather the prologue: is Silverspoon, which was Dave's parody or homage to Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. Dave drew Valiant as Silverspoon; a spoiled, vain, rich kid who looked for adventure as his way of getting his kicks. Each page of the story was like one of the old Prince Valiant full page strips. In the intro Dave apologised if it offended any fans, as Hal Foster died not long before publication, but he had not intended any offence. The journey with Silverspoon comes to a bad end, and both Cerebus and the vain young man are held as captives by the savage inhabitants on the island they are shipwrecked on. They are rescued by forces loyal to Silverspoon's father; Lord Julius, and that is where the story really begins.

The Walls of Palnu: Lord Julius, the director of trade and elected ruler of Palnu looks, talks and acts like Groucho Marx. For those of you new to Cerebus I can see you saying "Huh?" That was my reaction at first, then I did a little research. Groucho Marx's real first name was Julius and he once played Rufus T Firefly, the ruler of Ruritainian kingdom Freedonia in Duck Soup. I do think Dave Sim's idea of using him as a main character and political player in Cerebus was inspired genius.

Lord Julius made Cerebus his Kitchen Staff Supervisor in gratitude for saving his son's life. As Cerebus soon came to learn the titles in Palnu don't mean what they say. The Kitchen Staff Supervisor is actually in charge of Lord Julius' security forces, however he can't be referred to as Director of Security Forces as Lord Julius gave that title to the Secretary of the Navy. As Lord Julius explains: 'When you're running a bureacracy, the best way to safeguard your job is to make sure you're the only one who knows how the whole thing works.'

Cerebus uncovered a plot to assassinate Lord Julius, and went in search of who was behind it. Cerebus managed to kill one of the assassins, but was no closer to finding out who planned it all, and that means that Lord Julius' life is still in danger. The old Cerebus fur smells when he gets it wet gag is recycled.

A Day in the Pits: After trying and failing to advise Lord Julius to take less risks, Cerebus continued his search for the revolutionaries who were planning to kill Lord Julius, overthrow his government and take over. The search led him to some pits under the city. Lord Julius and Cerebus came across a giant snake. Cerebus battled and killed the snake, but the revolutionaries were still at large.

A Night At The Masque: despite the danger Lord Julius held a gala ball. Cerebus attended in order to protect his employer and the readers are reintroduced to two old friends: Turg and E'Lass from issue #6 (it is no accident that these two reappear in this issue as there is another echo from issue #6 at the end of the story). E'Lass had his eyes on a diamond worn by one of the guests. At some point he became separated from Turg and it was never explained what became of E'Lass' large, not so bright protector. E'Lass managed to separate the diamond from the owner, but as Cerebus followed the head conspirator into the same set of tunnels as E'Lass fled to, the thief thought the aardvark was after him. Cerebus failed to find E'Lass, and the thief got rid of the diamond and promised to go straight only to discover he was never the object of Cerebus' search. Cerebus unmasked, and then killed the leader of the revolutionaries, who was actually Lord Julius's Social Secretary, and then he left Palnu. As Lord Julius watched Cerebus ride away a messenger delivered a message from his niece: Jaka.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Swords of Cerebus #4: Black Magiking

I apologise for the brief absence, the computer wasn't cooperating, now I'm back here we go.

The 4th Swords of Cerebus collection really should have contained just issues #14, #15 & #16. That would have of course left no room for issue #13, and at some point that does become important later on, so the publishers were really between a rock and a hard place there, but Swords of Cerebus #4 is really all about the Palnu Trilogy, in fact it even has the words ‘The Palnu Trilogy’ on the front cover with a picture of Lord Julius, but I’m getting ahead of myself and spoiling the fun for everyone. I'm only going to cover issue #13 in this post. The Palnu Trilogy deserves it's own post.

Issue #13: Black Magiking was what the readers were coming to recognise as a ‘standard’ Cerebus story. Having lost all of his ill gotten gains in Beduin, courtesy of the Cootie’s insanity and Elrod’s meddling, Cerebus is once again somewhere out in the boonies. He is found by a couple of hunters from an isolated village. Curiously enough these two yokels not only recognise that Cerebus is funny looking they think he’s a demon of some sort. It didn’t hit me at the time, but thinking back on it this is the reaction you would expect a 3 foot tall, talking bipedal aardvark to provoke everywhere he went, unless of course he happened to be in the world from Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series.

A nicely drawn fight scene followed, I think the fight scene was there just for the sake of having a fight scene. It was rather apparent that the hunters were hopelessly outmatched, yet when they suggest bringing Cerebus before their priest he appears bound to a chair in the next panel. I don’t know if anyone has ever asked why he went so willingly when he didn’t have to. As priests tend to be in Cerebus, this one was completely deranged, but saw a use for Cerebus beyond drowning him or burning him at the stake, or however the villagers preferred to deal with their demonic monsters. This particular village is at the mercy of a powerful wizard called Necross the Mad. The priest believed that Cerebus may have been able to help them with Necross, possibly he recognised the aardvark’s talent for mayhem. It’s another thing that I don’t believe is totally explained. Cerebus, along with the priest, go to Necross’ castle and Cerebus meets the wizard himself, he is quite undeniably insane, but not dangerously so, at least Cerebus thinks so until Necross shows him Thrunk. Thrunk is a huge stone golem which Necross intends to use to take over his little corner of the world. He was also a parody of The Thing from the Fantastic Four. Necross taunted the priest and this time to the wizard’s surprise he wound up with an arrow through his chest rather than a harmless incantation flung his way. Unfortunately for the priest Necross transported his consciousness into Thrunk. Cerebus took that as his cue to get out of the castle and Necross/Thrunk crushed the priest. Happily for Cerebus the priest threw away the heavy gold religious icon he was carrying when Necross crushed him and it landed where the aardvark was standing outside the castle, so the whole episode wasn’t a complete waste of time.

There were a couple of themes in this that were common throughout the book’s life. One was religion. Religion played a large part in Cerebus. Dave was an atheist for the most of the time he spent writing the book, but he underwent a religious conversion of sorts towards the end of writing it. I’m not sure if he had some less than pleasant experiences with religion earlier in life, this may have been why he tended to portray religion and religious figures in the unflattering manner that he did. The second regular occurrence was the parodying of a character from another comic. We’d already seen The Batman as The Cockroach and now The Thing. It shouldn’t surprise, presumably Dave was a fanboy before he started his own book. I found it interesting that, The Cockroach aside, he tended to use Marvel characters more than DC ones. It’s possible that because I was almost exclusively a Marvel fanboy I didn’t pick up on the DC parodies as easily.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Swords of Cerebus #3: Swords Against Imesh, Merchant Of Unshib, The Merchant & The Cockroach, Beduin By Night

After 8 issues Cerebus had added a love interest in Jaka, and had a regular recurring character in Elrod, the world in which the aardvark moved was really starting to take shape, and it was already moving away from it's roots as a Conan parody starring an aardvark.

Swords Against Imesh picked up where the previous issue left off, with Cerebus leading his army of military fanatics against the city of Imesh. It was a city the aardvark knew well, having spent his adolescence there and learned magic under the tutelage of Magus Doran. Dave had realised that having given Cerebus power, he didn't really want him to have it yet, and this story was his way of removing that power. The city was surrounded by a huge wall, Cerebus left his army outside and scaled the wall to investigate what was going on in Imesh. In a huge tower he encountered Imesh's King K'cor; a beefy bearded character who had enslaved the city by addicting it's populace to a drug he called Buz. Cerebus had no intention of being thwarted and tackled K'cor's champion Lord Koghem, having defeated Koghem, Cerebus thinks that he now has control of the city, however K'cor had other ideas and challenged Cerebus himself. Cerebus was unable to get through K'cor's armour, and looked set to lose when the king gave up the fight, informing Cerebus that if he had left his army outside to forage for food and water, then as all the wells in the surrounding area had been poisoned to discourage barbarian attacks, then they were probably dead, and Cerebus was no threat and of no use. A stunned Cerebus watched K'cor's large retreating back and realised that he was back to where he was before he met the Conniptins.

I felt that comparing the artwork in Swords Against Imesh with that of the next issue: Merchant of Unshib, that there was a subtle change. Cerebus began to look less like the long nosed cartoon that he began as and more as the better drawn version that readers came to know and love. Red Sophia returned in Merchant of Unshib. I hoped she wouldn't become a regular recurring character, she was a one joke character to me, and the book had begun to move beyond such a two dimensional character. While trekking through a blizzard Cerebus ran into Red Sophia. His reaction said that he would rather have encountered an avalanche. Sophia told Cerebus that she knew the whereabouts of the Black Blossom Lotus; a priceless magical artifact. Cerebus agreed to help her obtain it and share the proceeds with her when she introduced her partner; Meirgen, a musclebound, brainless barbarian warrior (just Sophia's type), the trio later had a 4th conspirator join them; a treacherous T'Capmin border guard. Cerebus double crossed the other 3, took the Lotus all for himself, and for once walked away a winner.

The Merchant & The Cockroach marked another turning point for the book. The city of Beduin was somewhat more civilized than the barbarian towns we'd been seeing. It was also the introduction to one of the books most important and popular characters; The Cockroach. Dave got the idea from talking to Marshall Rogers about Batman...sorry The Batman to give him his real name, and he started thinking about doing his own version of the character in Cerebus with what was a very 'Dave' twist. In The Batman legend Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are aware of one another. By day The Cockroach is a mild mannered businessman, and by night the crime avenging Cockroach, however the businessman doesn't know what he becomes at night and The Cockroach doesn't know about the existence of his law abiding other side. After selling the Black Blossom Lotus to the businessman and watching him destroy it Cerebus accidentally happened to witness the transformation to The Cockroach. It intrigued him and he followed, as he comes to call the unhinged night time avenger; The Cootie. He observed The Cockroach find, beat up criminals and take their money, he then saw him make his way back to his house, drop the money into a hole in the wall and go to sleep. Cerebus did some exploring and realises that The Cockroach has been doing this for years and doesn't realise that there is 8 feet of gold in between the walls of his house. Cerebus tried to use The Cockroach to take the gold out of the city, but realised that The Cootie was an extremely unreliable assistant, unfortunately this happened too late for Cerebus to keep more than a sack or two of the gold.
This is also the first issue I can remember seeing Cerebus regular wardrobe of black vest and the three medallions.

Beduin by Night followed directly on. Having escaped from the authorities in Beduin, and leaving The Cockroach to their mercies Cerebus holed up in a tavern and proceeded to drink himself through what gold he managed to keep, whilst lamenting all that he had lost. After overhearing that The Cockroach had been taken into custody, he went back to the Cootie's house to check on the rest of the gold only to find that it was gone. I have to admit that seeing Cerebus have a conniption when finding that the gold is gone and referring to it as 'Cerebus gold' amused me greatly and it was so typical of the character and his incredible, overwhelming avarice. Further searching led him to The Cockroach's version of the Batcave, complete with Cockroach and gold. Cerebus told The Cockroach that they had to move the gold because Elrod of Melvinbone planned to steal it. This may have worked except that while moving the gold the two of them actually met Elrod! The fight between Elrod and The Cockroach drew the city watch, and while Cerebus fought them off, he also lost the majority of the gold in the process. Yet again Elrod had managed to ruin Cerebus grand plans simply by being there. You could tell it would not be the last time and I didn't think it would be the last we would see of The Cockroach. As it turns out it was the last time we saw him as The Cockroach, but we would learn that like his namesake The Cockroach could never really be exterminated.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Swords of Cerebus #2: Bran Mak Mufin, The Secret, Black Sun Rising, Day of the Earth-Pig

After 4 issues Cerebus had managed to exceed his creator’s initial aim and built up a small following, as well as create a world in which the character moved, however to me at this stage it was still a ‘funny animal’ comic. Two things differentiated it from Conan and the other Conanesque titles that were around: the central character was an aardvark and at times it was very funny. I find it interesting that neither Dave Sim or the fans of the time were particularly impressed with issue #5. Dave said that the story was largely lifted from issue #2 and that it contained one joke: Cerebus' fur smells when he gets it wet (this was a running gag for some time, it does beg the question: does he ever bathe?). I actually contend that it contained two jokes, one was the aforementioned smelly fur gag and the other was the play on words that formed the only title I’ve ever been able to find: Bran Mak Mufin, it’s hard to even say that without a chuckle, even funnier when Bran became a more important player in the political game later on. Why did I think the issue was important in the evolution of the character?

This is the basic storyline: Cerebus has signed on with a mercenary army and is stuck scouting in the Red Marches getting rained on (hence the wet fur), he takes shelter in a hollow tree and is discovered by a group of primitive warriors, members of the ancient and once very powerful Pigt tribe. They take him to their leader; Bran Mak Mufin. Bran seems to know more about Cerebus than he should and this piques the aardvark's interest. He goes exploring, and finds the Pigts at their worship. The object of their adoration is a statue, a statue of an aardvark! This is the first indication that Cerebus is more than just an itinerant warrior who happens to be an aardvark. He is a figure of destiny. I believe that Cerebus life and the way the readers viewed the character changed from this point onward. Cerebus destroys the statue, makes his way out of the tunnel network where then Pigts live and heads for the nearest city.

If issue #5 was a bit of a disappointment to readers and creator then issue #6 was an unqualified triumph. I think it is not only one of the best Cerebus stories written, but it is one of the best single comic issues I have ever read, it was also immensely important in the continuing story of the graphic novel as a whole. Dave said that this one was in some ways partially autobiographical, and it shows, things are handled with great affection and sensitivity as well as gentle humour.

Cerebus encounters a dying man, who with his final breath gives the aardvark the clue to finding great treasure. The unfortunate man’s pursuers; wily conman E’Lass and his large, strong, but stupid companion Turg, are also trying to gain that information. Once they realise Cerebus has it they first attempt to force it out of him, but discover to Turg’s eternal regret that even the thuggish barbarian is no match for the earth pig born. E’Lass then decides that where strength will not prevail, guile will. He drugs Cerebus' drink so that he will fall desperately in love with the first woman he sees; tavern dancer Jaka. E’Lass and Turg then heavy Jaka to get the information out of Cerebus. Cerebus is so smitten that he will do anything Jaka asks, and the scene between the two in Jaka’s room as she tries to wheedle the information out of him contains this priceless and hysterically funny exchange: a doe eyed Cerebus sits next to Jaka on her bed and murmurs lovingly to her: ‘I'd love to lick apricot brandy out of your navel.' Jaka desperately tries to steer Cerebus back on topic, but he refuses to be dissuaded from his wooing, and continues on: ‘If Cerebus had a navel would you lick apricot brandy out of it?’ at this point Jaka, convinced that her cause is hopeless, collapses with a moan onto the bed. A confused Cerebus stands over her and asks helplessly ‘You don’t like apricot brandy?’ I usually have to put the book aside to laugh.

Jaka tells Cerebus that E’Lass and Turg have threatened her. Cerebus finds them and hands out the mother of all beatings. He and Jaka plan to find the treasure themselves and start a new life together. Whilst preparing for the journey the potion wears off Cerebus, he forgets who Jaka is, and that he carried a torch for her. She meets him, but realises that he has no memory of her or what she meant to him, she promises to wait for him to remember even if it takes the rest of her life. So beautifully done and with such a tragic end, it almost makes you want to cry. I don’t think I’m the only fan who remembered The Secret for a long time after reading it. People were convinced that Jaka would one day return, but when?

Dave decided to return to safer ground with Black Sun Rising and brought Elrod back. Cerebus was on his way to see if he could get the treasure he had first heard about from the dying stranger, and had now recalled (although readers were left none the wiser as to whether or not he had also remembered Jaka), when to his horror he encountered Elrod, the big mouthed, incompetent albino. In his efforts to recover the treasure hidden somewhere in the Temple of the Black Sun and avoid Elrod Cerebus found himself battling a giant spider, and only just managed to get out of the temple with his life, let alone the treasure. Foiled once again, and once again penniless Cerebus continues his lonely wandering.

Day of the Earth-Pig was an odd issue, a good half of it saw Cerebus in a delirious fever dream trying to recover from the injuries presumably incurred during the fight with the spider in the Temple of the Black Sun. Seeing Cerebus willingness to inflict violence to get his ends an unscrupulous religious military officer nurses the aardvark back to full health, and then installs him as the leader of the Conniptin's. Of course Cerebus is supposed to be a figure head, leader in name only. By the end of the issue Cerebus is already scheming how to get rid of the man who made him the leader and take all the power for himself. The issue was left very open ended, and it looked like Dave had just started his first genuine multi issue story arc.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Swords of Cerebus #1 cont: Captive in Boreala, Song of Red Sophia, Death's Dark Tread

When the first issue was a modest success Dave suddenly realised he had to do another one. The other one was Captive in Boreala, introducing readers to an often mentioned, but rarely seen country in Cerebus' version of the Hypborean world. Another very Conan-esque setting, not surprising, as Dave was admittedly a huge fan of Conan artist Barry Windsor-Smith. It was in this issue that we first saw how Cerebus used his unique physiology to best much larger opponents, that he had a ruthless streak; stabbing a beaten opponent, although this was played for laughs. Cerebus' true avarice came to the fore. In the first 50 - 100 issues of the book the driving force for Cerebus was money, it later became power, but only because power made money. Like the first issue it was open ended. The story could be continued, but it had been neatly ended.

While working on issue #2 Dave had decided that he would parody Red Sonja in the 3rd issue. Red Sonja was rather like a female Conan. The best known version of Red Sonja was created by Roy Thomas and Dave Sim’s hero Barry Windsor-Smith, although they adapted the character from one created by Conan creator Robert E Howard; Red Sonya of Rogatino. Due to her penchant for wearing a chain mail bikini to almost cover her ample assets Red Sonja always proved very popular with the legions of fanboys out there. Dave decided to call his version of the character Red Sophia. She looked exactly the same, it was her behaviour that was different. The original was fiercely independent, great with a sword and refused to lie with a man unless he could defeat her in single combat. Red Sophia was somewhat dim witted, she followed the same rule that she would only lie with a man who could defeat her in combat, but at heart she was a self centred, Daddy’s girl (her father was a powerful and wealthy wizard) who thought of little else other than her next sexual conquest. The fact that Cerebus could not have been less interested in her was one of the attractions to the aardvark. Cerebus gratefully finished his mission with her, left her with her former boyfriend, collected his fee from her father and moved on to his next story. Sophia would become a recurring character in the books early days.

Although Dave had never read one of Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels, he was aware of them and that was the spark for issue #4 Deaths Dark Tread. Dave decided to do a version Moorcock’s albino warrior, only this was one was called Elrod of Melvinbone and he spoke like Foghorn Leghorn, he was also completely incompetent. It’s no secret that particularly in the early days of Cerebus Dave was a regular user of marijuana and LSD, he never states it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was high when he conceived Elrod. Despite not having read Moorcock’s books fans of them told him that he had nailed the character. To Cerebus, Elrod is an annoyance. Cerebus can’t stand him and somehow Elrod always seems to have the knack of spoiling Cerebus’ plans. He also became a recurring character and was very popular with fans. He never seemed to lose the belief that Cerebus was just a kid in a bunny suit.

Swords of Cerebus #1: Cerebus the Aardvark

From the very first page of the very first issue you knew you were in for something different. The third panel was a half page of Cerebus mounted on a large barbarian warhorse. Being only 3 feet tall and an aardvark to boot this looked pretty funny and made an impression on the reader. The story itself was what you could expect to find in the pages of the Conan comics that were popular at the time, it was also reminiscent of some of the Conan knock offs that were around in novel form and competing comics. The hero; in this case Cerebus, is hired by a couple of treasure hunters to guide them to a mystical artifact, which he accomplishes with physical strength and a cool head. The twist was that the artifact, like everything around it, was an illusion, but Cerebus had been paid in cold hard cash. Like most first issues, particularly when the publisher/writer/artist is an independent, both artwork and story were relatively crude when compared to the big companies like Marvel and DC, even when compared to longer running more established independent publications, although at this time there weren’t many of those. Dave was a pioneer of independent publishing. In the early issues Cerebus himself looked different, his nose was longer and skinnier, ears were shorter and the tail was less detailed. He also used to wear a small, horned helmet, which he lost in issue #4. The one thing that stands out in many of the earlier issues was the lack of detail in the backgrounds. It would not be until later that Dave would team up with Gerhard, who produced some of the most intricately detailed backgrounds I’ve ever seen in a comic.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Little Did We Know

I don't know if anyone suspected when they opened up the first issue what they were getting into. In fact I'm almost positive that Dave Sim didn't know what he'd begun. Before actually getting into the books themselves a few things need explaining. Cerebus was not the first graphic novel, and it was not the first independently published comic, but it was close in both respects.
Dave was an artist and writer who occasionally worked at a local comic book store to earn money. Like most aspiring artists he wanted to make his living at it, so decided to do at least 3 issues of his own book, at worst he would have an example of his work to put in his folio when he went looking for employment in his chosen field.
Back then (late 1970's) hardly anyone published independently, Tim Berners-Lee had not yet invented the internet and you couldn't buy a 'Independent Comic Book Publishing for Dummies' book either, so Dave was flying blind. The name of the character is evidence of this, it was meant to be Cerberus, but Dave's former wife (Deni Loubert) made a spelling error, by the time they picked it up it had already been sent to the printer so the name was left as Cerebus, which I think sounds better in any case, and is unique, unlike the original name from the mythical three headed dog that guards the gates of Hades (of course all Harry Potter fans know that the dogs real name is Fluffy). Cerebus began as a funny animal parody of Conan the Barbarian and an homage to the legendary Conan artist Barry Windsor Smith, what it later became was something very different, which will be shown as you travel with me through Cerebus' story.

Why Cerebus?

In fact the question could be why do this at all, and I suspect as I do this I'll probably ask myself that question more than once.
As my wife and I were unpacking and moving into our new house and setting up our library I opened a box that had all my Cerebus 'phone books' (every issue of the comic...sorry graphic novel was republished in a large book format, they appear to be printed on the same stuff they print phone books out of and are about as thick, so the fans christened them 'phone books') in it, and I remembered that once upon a time I was going to reread the whole thing from go to whoa. I never actually finished the story as such. I think Dave (Cerebus creator Dave Sim) was writing out his obsession with F Scott Fitzgerald when I gave up the book and comics in general. I was pleased to see that he eventually did get to issue #300 and I intended to get all the 'phone books' and read it, but just never got around to it. Anyway, I pulled out the old Swords of Cerebus collections (if anyone out there is reading this and knows if they're worth something let me know. I'm not going to sell them, but it would be cool to know if they appreciated since I bought them) and started reading them. I was partway through High Society when the idea of doing this came to me.