Change of Pace


I thought some old-time motimers might be interested in reading the MLA-panel-road-show version of a paper that I’m still working on–entitled, tentatively,

Barbarism Begins at Home: Canadian Politics and the Politics of “Canadianness” in Cerebus #1-50

    I want to begin with a couple of selections from the parergon, or frame (with all of the Derridean reversals and ambiguities the term invokes) of the text in question—which is Cerebus, an alternative black-and-white comic book published by Aardvark-Vanaheim, out of Kitchener, Ontario, beginning in 1977.

                The first item is a “Note From the Publisher”, written by Denise Loubert, who introduced every issue of the series, in a space reserved for her comments on the inside of the front cover, until she and the book’s author (Dave Sim) were divorced, in 1983.

                This “Note” comes from Cerebus #25 (published Feb 1981):

Between issue 24 and 25, I went to my first “big-time” hockey game. Because I had always watched the Toronto team on television. I had never experienced what a hockey crowd is like. It helped me to understand what “Canadianism” is, and why something as unrelated as Cerebus is a truly Canadian product.

Dave is a very “Canadian-canadian”. He loves watching hockey, he loves the change of the seasons. He especially loves the snow. And he’s not that fond of a really warm summer. His viewpoints on politics are from the angle of a Canadian, informed but wary. It seems to me that this book, althoughnot plastered with obvious symbols like maple leaves and such is very Canadian in feel.

Cerebus is always cautious and often quite cynical. But these are the things that help him survive. He is, after all, only 3 feet tall, and surrounded by 6 foot beings who could destroy him without being too upset by it. So Cerebus must be clever, not powerful, in order to come out even, let alone ahead. Which is also very Canadian. A Canadian is someone who is running, just to stay where he is and feels accomplishment when he does so. He is a survivor. If he comes out ahead, it’s never for very long. This issue is is a good example of the survivor who knows all the tricks, never misses a beat or loses an opportunity. This, of course, is all hypothesis on my part. I’m not saying Dave is saying all this in Cerebus. I’m not saying he isn’t either. 

My second excerpt comes from a letter written by frequent correspondent TM Maple (more about him later), published in Cerebus #38:

…Finally (at last!) I note that six of the seven letters printed in the issue were from American readers. Oh no! Another Canadian cultural institution is on the road to Americanization. It happened to the National Hockey League (which is still, of course, Canada’s primary cultural institution) and it can happen to Cerebus. So I say: Re-Canadianize Cerebus! Let’s get some government initiative here (DREE, LIP, OFY, FIRA, LADEDA, or whatever) to fight yet another foreign takeover. We kept the World Football League out of the country, so we can darn well help a furry animal.

                Cerebus began its run as a parody of Conan the Barbarian, a pulp phenomenon of the 1930s, which had had returned to pop cultural prominence in 1970, with the successful launch of a Marvel Comics series devoted to the character. Cerebus became an immediate cult favourite by virtue of its interesting fusion of elements from the “funny animal” and “sword and sorcery” genres. In these early issues, the series relied heavily upon the comedy inherent in its depiction of a “cute” 3-foot monochrome anthropomorphized aardvark wading bloodily into a grimly “realistic”/detailed world of magic and strife cribbed from the visual lexicon of Marvel artist Barry Windsor-Smith. During the first year or two, the artist adhered very closely to the initial formula for Cerebus—introducing the aardvark to a number of foils conceived along similar parodic lines (notably Red Sophia, a spacy seventies post-hippie in the murderous body of a Conan’s counterpart, Red Sonja and Elrod the Albino, a replica of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy swordsman Elric, who speaks like Foghorn Leghorn).

                In issues #14-16 (the “Palnu trilogy”), the series shifted into another register, away from opportunistic parody, toward a more continuity-conscious mode of pastiche, held together by an absurd/anarchic political philosophy culled from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). The key figure in this shift is Lord Julius—the ruler of Palnu, the richest city-state in Cerebus’ world of Estarcion—who tempts the aardwark away from the life of a northern barbarian by elevating him to the post of Kitchen Staff Supervisor (an extremely important cabinet position in the incomprehensible bureaucracy of Palnu). Lord Julius is, for all intents and purposes, Groucho Marx—with the important distinction that, where the latter often played mock-authority figures, too bemused or self-critical to make of use of the power vested in them by their scripts, Lord Julius is a mocking authority figure who maintains an almost mystical hold upon the reins of power in his city (and, indeed, in the entire narrative) by skillfully exploiting the incompetence and vanity of his peers. The upshot of this variation upon a scheme is that, where the Marx Brothers films portray power as arbitrarily ludicrous, Cerebus reveals it to be ludicrously arbitrary—and deadly serious, not to mention murderous, in the bargain.

                The restaging of Cerebus upon a politically charged landscape, forged through a Canadian artist’s engagement with the American pop cultural unconscious, had immediate consequences. In Cerebus #18, on the “Aardvark Comment” page, a letter announced the formation of an (American) friends of Cerebus club at the University of Michigan—complete with a photo of the founding members in their matching aardvark shirts. The following month’s issue featured a mock-political poster, designed by the same club, which declared Cerebus’ Candidacy for Dictator in 1980. The image was captioned by a blurb which promoted this drastic step as the only possible solution to the “dweedle-dee and dweedle-dum blues” generated by the American two-party system.

                And it was during this very same period that Dave Sim began using Aardvark Comment as a platform from which to rail against the equally corrupt “Big Two” which dominated the comic book production and distribution networks at that time—Marvel and DC. The first salvo was fired in Cerebus #18, when Sim reproduced a letter from Marvel’s editior-in-chief (Jim Shooter) which reminded all employees of the company that any creative work they produced at Marvel belonged to Marvel. This was, in fact, merely a restatement and clarification of corporate policies which had been in force within the industry since its inception in the 1930s.

                Cerebus was by no means the only recognizable independently-produced comic book in circulation at that time, but it was the only series that had any purchase upon the American subcultural imagination which originated in Canada. Then, as now, many people on the other side of the border shared Deni Loubert’s idea of the Canadian as “outsider” (and therefore privileged critic of American life)—and Sim did often portray himself in this light (i.e. as the voice of independent art and political commentary within the comics subculture—as seen, perhaps most prominently, in issues of The Comics Journal, published during the 1980s). All of this paratextual blurring of political, industrial, and cultural discourses would re-enter the “text proper” of Cerebus during the “High Society” storyline, which ran from #26-50.

The storyline, in bullet-form:

1.       Cerebus wanders into Iest—a major city state north of Lord Julius’ Palnu—intent upon liberating himself from the (to his barbarian mind) overcivilizing influences of the metropolis.

2.       Once there, however, he discovers that, as Kitchen Staff Supervisor (and, therefore, “ranking diplomatic representative” of Palnu in Iest), he is an outrageously sought-after figure (by local politicians who wish to curry favour with Lord Julius)

3.       Cerebus is persuaded, by Astoria, a canny, crypto-feminist politician, to take advantage of the situation and run for office as the Prime Minister of Iest

4.       Cerebus campaigns hard (and double-deals behind the scenes even harder)—eventually winning a Canadian-style parliamentary election…

5.       …only to discover that Iest is bankrupt and terminally in debt to Palnu. Moreover, the country cannot even pay its own soldiers, and teeters on the brink of a military coup.

6.       Hoping to pillage his way to prosperity, Cerebus orchestrates the invasion of neighboring Lower Felda, justifying the move publicly by paying rhetorical lip service to the ideal of liberating the enslaved citizens of LF (and, perhaps, of all Estarcion)

7.       In the process, Cerebus earns the respect and allegiance of the anarcho-romantic  movement of Iest, and turns this to good account by deputizing these young radicals as peacekeeping auxiliaries

8.       The army succeeds in its mission, and discovers, in its turn, that Lower Felda, too, is broke and in debt to Palnu.

9.       Lord Julius summons Cerebus to a secret meeting in the city of Beduin, where he demands full payment of all debts owed to Palnu by Iest and LF (all the while intimating—in pig latin—that Cerebus ought to have sent his armies against the other attendee at the conference—Duke Leonardi)

10.   Cerebus refuse, setting up several dramatic rounds of renaissance-style battle and barter by mercenary armies, all of which leads inexorably to the defeat (and escape) of Cerebus; and the imprisonment or execution of the Anarcho-Romantics

These events can be interpreted in any number of ways, but my reading proceeds, via two different routes, to the same conclusion—i.e. Sim dramatizes his own dawning realization that, regardless of the pose he adopts as an artist and citizen, he is still inextricably enmeshed in the economic and political system controlled by the metropolis to the south.

Sim’s deployment of tropes derived from the comics subculture is particularly inspired. Cerebus secures his party’s nomination for the PM-ship at a convention (called “Petunicon”) which is indistinguishable from the major promotional rallies that his author was touring so relentlessly at that time. The success of his efforts (and its dubious consequences) is best (and most shrilly) articulated by the TM Maple letter quoted at the beginning of this presentation.

Maple himself was on a parallel trajectory, within the fannish sector of the subculture. A Canadian christened Jim Burke, he first made a name for himself as a correspondent in Marvel superhero comics of the mid-1970s. Hoping to distinguish himself—and perhaps in deference to Marvel’s heritage of (sixties) quasi-radical irreverence—Burke signed his letters “The Mad Maple”. However, by this period, Marvel had become the dominant publisher in the industry, and their new editorial policies necessitated the transformation of “The Mad Maple” into the more businesslike “TM Maple”. Perhaps the most-published letter-writer of his era, Burke came to enjoy a great deal of popularity within the subculture, and when it came time to write to Aardvark Comment (whose policies would by no means have condemned Burke’s original choice of nom de plume) he did so under his corporate identity. By Cerebus #38 then, both Sim and Maple had become trade-marked “voices of Canada” within the subculture, despite the fact that their dialogue was clearly underwritten (or, at least, made relevant) by the American-led commercial system that each claimed to abhor.

One final way that I would propose looking at this aspect of Cerebus #1-50 would be to interpret the narrative through the lens of the Roach—a character first introduced (in #11) as a schizophrenic merchant who spends his nights shoring up the gaps in his colonized cosmology by beating the living daylights out of suspected and imagined criminals on the streets of Beduin. At that time, the Roach wore a costume that parodied DC’s Batman. The character’s subsequent “development” encompasses a series of identity-permutations which present Sim’s exaggerated portrait of the debased North American subject in Adornian thrall to a dizzying series of mass-cultural sub-rational political appeals. In issues #21-22, he appears as Captain Cockroach, a super-patriot along the lines of Marvel’s Captain America (and, of course, he is the dupe/henchman of a fascist-in-American –Founding-Father-Clothing/Wig). In issues #29 through 40, he plays the fractured role of the Moonroach, who has three separate identities—one, a dutiful twit descended from the “original” merchant persona, the second a teenaged “fanboy” driven by Nietzschean ressentiment, and the third a vigilante who wears a costume modeled upon Marvel’s Moon Knight and goes around dropping massive crescent moon sculptures upon Cerebus’ oligarchic rivals for control of Iest, yowling “Unorthodox Economic Revenge!”

The character’s final destination (within this sequence of stories) is his most unusual one. Immediately after Cerebus emerges as the “people’s choice”, the erstwhile Roach redubs himself “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” and adopts the garb of a Canadian Mountie. While this can be read (and almost certainly was intended to be read) as a kind of overcoming of American mass-cultural influence through the consolidation of an integrated Canadian identity for the Roach, Sim undercuts this by paralleling the story of Cerebus’ political downfall with Sergeant Preston’s gradual discovery, as a Canadian-style winter descends upon the narrative, that he has a fatal weakness to snow (which he calls “deadly frostonite”). Given the importance of snow to Canadian identity, this amounts to a form of autoimmunity within that vexed subject position. And so, just as Sim, Cerebus, TM Maple, and Sergeant Preston approach their respective crescendos of independence and “Canadianness”, each is reabsorbed into the American masscultural melting pot so clearly alluded to by “frostonite”, which immediately calls to mind Kryptonite and Superman—the ultimate figure in pop-myth of the cultural insider-outsider.

Whaddya think?

good day friends!


One comment

  1. Hmm. Interesting, Dave, and yet…

    I conceive of the “autoimmunity” disorder of Cerebus’ Canadianness (very nicely put, by the way…however I gotta ask, are we deliberately avoiding saying “Canadian Identity”? Because I’m all right with that too…) as a bit less of self-knowing, and a bit more of self loathing, myself. I loved High Society, but that doesn’t mean Dave Sim doesn’t strike me as that peculiarly provincial type of cynic, the Canadian Barroom Voice Of Doom. If I recall right, Dave, you’re Canadian, so you must have encountered some guys (and they are always guys!) like this, just in the normal course of everyday life; maybe you’d agree with me, then, that while they can be read as privileged outsiders/analysts (certainly they always read themselves that way), more usually their specific interest is in championing the “realism” of the mouse-elephant image, to their countrymen who might occasionally be tempted to forget it. Deni’s Note seems to speak volumes about this, to me: from who else but Dave did she imbibe her ideas about the hunkered-down, wary, “survivor” Canadian? Who (charmingly, but pathetically) likes snow, and mistrusts warm weather? High Society is marvellous stuff, but surely the “Canadian” message it carries is just the one that cautions against believing your own bullshit…or, if you like, getting ideas above your station…rather than the one about the intricate enmeshing of Northern “independents” with the vast power structures to their south, or any gradually-dawning realization about sense of place or proportion that wasn’t already entrenched there as a bias of boondocky cynicism, that detests boisterousness. I don’t know; it seems to me that the Roach’s most Canadian identity is also presented as his falsest identity, a construction more jimmied-up than even the Moon Roach…and Dave Sim strikes me as a guy who wherever he goes in the world sees only Canada, and indictments of Canadian pretension. Note that genuine comparison with, or analysis of, the U.S. isn’t needed for this — Canada, in some people’s eyes, is such a low-grade nation that it doesn’t even need a measuring stick to show it.

    Oooh, too much? Okay, maybe a bit too much…but there are lots of guys just Dave’s age who pride themselves on their Canadian “realism”, defending it against all comers even when there is no attack, and I seem to meet quite a lot of them, and so it’s rather a pet peeve of mine. So although I can’t find much to disagree with in this piece, I think I view your words on a slight angle, here: and from my angle, your title rings true as anything you like.

    But, it’s just a thought.

    Excuse me, gotta go re-read High Society now! Man, it’s good.

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