Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review - Cerebus: Flight

Cerebus: Flight
by Dave Sim and Gerard
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint

These days Dave Sim is best known to comic book fans for his extreme misogynistic views. When I say extreme I mean extreme; stuff that makes the typical attitude of the 1950's look enlightened. But before he went off the deep end and just was hinting at these attitudes he was known as a pioneer of independent comics, a major supporter new comic book creators, and one of the most artistically ambitious creators himself. In one of those strange twists of fate the Eisner was awarded for Sim a few weeks before he published what is generally regarded as the breaking point in the series where anti-woman theme went from a strange back current to explicit authorial statements. Less than a month after his award people would be re-evaluating his work in that context and becoming disturbed by what they found.

Cerebus started as a simple Conan the Barbarian parody but before two years of publication passed Sim made a bold announcement: he would create three hundred issues and then end the series with the title character's death. The series transformed from strict parody to something containing a lot more drama though throughout it Sim continued to parody the current state of the comic book industry. As time went by Cerebus the barbarian anthropomorphic aardvark became prime minister of a country and pope of a major religion all the while being as brutal and nasty to people as character could be.

Flight takes place after Cerebus's spirit has been broken. He knows that he will "die unmourned and unloved", the city that he ruled has been conquered by a militant matriarchy, and the woman he loved married someone else and was hauled off by the secret police. He spent roughly the past year of his worth of stories catatonic and with the 150th issue, the exact mid-point of the series, he finally took action and began cutting a bloody swath through occupying soldiers. Flight picks up at that moment as Cerebus's actions have consequences that are destabilizing reality. As he fans the flames of rebellion he is drawn away to a confrontation with a mystic who has been entangled with him from almost the beginning and wishes to impart personal insights before its too late.

Flight is not a complete story. It's not even a complete arc. It picks up in mid-story beat from the previous issue, has a lot of ominous but not very enlightening things happen, and in the end nothing is resolved. The only thing that has a semblence of resolution isn't really for the careful reader. It's a fragment of a story that just cannot stand on its own.

Making things worse is that Sim spends a lot of time bringing together some of the stranger story elements from the first few years and trying to tie them to the story he started working through much later. These are things he used when he was creating a Conan parody and if you're not familiar with the early issues they make even less sense. Going back and trying to force old story elements to fit in with a radically different direction taken years later inevitably comes across as clumsy and Flight is no different.

Which isn't to say it's completely lacking is entertainment for people who haven't been reading from the beginning. I enjoyed the parody of the Punisher as a completely repressed lunatic who can only respond to his urges through violence and the extreme behavior of comic characters from the early 90's. The sections with Cerebus's confrontation are one of the earliest points where the series dives directly into the head of it's main character. The whole thing does present an ominous atmosphere where you get the impression that the world is about to change dramatically but you can't be sure how it will change.

Dave Sim is terrific at using pacing both in his writing and artwork. He was the first comic book creator to write "for the trade" and created his issues to be read in a large block. Part of that is how his art is laid out. He'll switch from slow, tension building sequences where it can take pages for a character to walk across the room to sequences done as illustrated text.

As for the art itself Sim has a style that allow an anthropomorphic aardvark to stand next to caricatures standing next to more realistically drawn figures and it all looks smooth. He partner Gerard draws backgrounds with an architectural flair that I enjoyed. Together they create an effect similar to an early Disney animated film with hyperdetailed backgrounds and multiple styles of characters all coming together.

Strangely enough I think the strongest aspect to Sim's artwork isn't his character work or even the pacing. In my view he is the best letterer that comics has ever seen. The word balloons in Cerebus are an integral part of the artwork in a way rarely seen elsewhere. They aren't populated with words, they're illustrations of words that add emphasis to the dialog in a way that only comic books could use.

I definitely do not recommend Flight as a starting point for Cerebus. It's just too heavily tied into the backstory for that purpose. I also don't recommend starting to read Cerebus if you're going to put it down in anger a book or two past Flight (if I remember correctly the real breaking point comes at the end of Reads which is two books past this); there's no reason to get involved with a three hundred page story only to walk away when it's two-thirds done because the creator went off on some very bizarre and very offensive tangents. With those caveats in mind there is quite a bit to like in Cerebus before that point. In fact I plan on finishing reading the series some day just because the first two-thirds are so good that I want to read an ending despite my feelings about Dave Sim. It's just been really hard to justify picking the books to finish it off.