Reading Cerebus: A metadiscussion.

I was talking to my friend Paul yesterday and he commented a bit on my ongoing efforts with reading through all of Cerebus. A few things came out of the discussion that, I suppose, warrant further comment.

Paul wonders why I’m bothering to continue reading Cerebus at all. He’s read High Society and Church and State (I and II) and feels it’s best to jump ship after that point. Honestly, I’m continuing to read it because I’m finding it extremely entertaining. It’s possible - even likely - that I will reach a point where that is no longer the case, at which point I suppose it’s possible - though unlikely - that I’ll stop.

This points to an interesting problem that I’ve had since the beginning of the series. Namely, the concern that my awareness of “Dave Sim” the public figure, much-maligned and oft-condemned for his vocal misogyny, will color my reading of his books. The entire series is perpetually pre-judged, with readers jumping on out of morbid curiosity and then looking for hidden signs of Dave’s impending meltdown in every single panel. Sim - rightly, in my view - is bothered that it seems impossible for anyone to read Cerebus and comment purely on the work. A fairly thorough review of the various in-depth commentaries that are available on line certainly appears to support this assertion. Without exception, every review eventually deteriorates into “and then Dave went crazy” and all discussion of the books are filtered through that prism from that point on.

It had been my hope that I’d be able to read Cerebus without thinking much about Sim himself (at least initially), but despite my best efforts, this is proving to be largely unavoidable and I think it’s actually quite unfortunate. When I read Hemingway, I am able to do so without thinking constantly about the latter-day version of the man, whiskey-soaked with a gun barrel in his mouth. Jonathan Swift, Friedrich Nietzsche, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., P.K. Dick, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and on and on. All people whose work I am able to consider and enjoy without being beset by an uncontrollable compulsion to look for clues that help pinpoint “where they lose it.”

I recognize the validity of looking to the creator’s life and mindset when considering the scope and meaning of a creative work, but it should be a minor academic point, at best. It should not be the primary means through which the work is judged.

Perhaps pursuant to the above, Paul mentioned that he regards the choice to continue reading to be some metric by which my sanity might be gauged (i.e. only a complete lunatic would read the whole thing and the sooner I throw in the towel, the less crazy I probably am). This was obviously intended to be a tongue-in-cheek diagnostic tool, but it is worth addressing somewhat seriously.

I’ve read and attempted to make sense of PLENTY of things that I regard as offensive or crazy or poorly-reasoned. In fact, it’s what my formal academic training forced me to do. Political science and philosophy are fields that - by their very nature - enshrine a pantheon of bad ideas, failed ideologies, backwards world views and exhibitions of pure atrocity. Nothing informs either field quite so much as the sordid and ancient record of humanity’s great failures.

I’ve read Justine. I’ve read Mein Kampf. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve read Of Pandas and People. I don’t agree with or enjoy any of them, but they’re worth reading because they illuminate perspectives that differ from my own. There is merit in pushing up against ideas, arguments and creative visions that are completely at odds with your own, even in cases where you can be nearly certain that you are right and they are wrong. I actually enjoy reading Cerebus, so I see absolutely no reason to stop reading it simply because I disagree with (or will likely at some point disagree with) the author’s point of view.

People regularly take me for a contrarian (or, perhaps more graciously, an “iconoclast”), a judgment that I feel is mistaken. I’m not a contrarian, I’ve just spent a LOT of time immersed in history’s worst ideas and mankind’s most epic missteps, so I just happen to have a good nose for bullshit. And much of what I’ve read of Sim’s extra-curricular writing is, quite plainly, bullshit. Long-winded, paranoid, full of profoundly strained, nearly-painful reasoning, megalomaniacal, with logical fallacies tossed about with reckless abandon. And yes, he did use the back half of his monthly comics to print many of these rants, but they are separate from the creative bulk of Cerebus, so it is my intention to do my best to ignore them entirely.

I will continue reading Cerebus for the foreseeable future. I will do my best to view the work independent of its creator’s other efforts. I will, most likely, continue to be viewed by Paul as a contrarian and perhaps a lunatic as a result. I am sure there will come a point where I stop completely enjoying the series. There is a chance I will come to a point where I stop enjoying it at all. And it is even possible that there will come a point where I simply cannot continue reading any further. If so, that will be a real feat in and of itself - especially because the pictures sure seem to get pretty by the end and I’ve a weakness for pretty pictures.

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