Bob's Comics Reviews April 1998 Arrows


Scott McCloud : The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln

A thoroughly weird romp through American history, featuring a twelve-year old hero, Byron Johnson, and not one but two resurrected Abraham Lincolns.

It's a story with a message: don't elevate symbols over realities. The false Abraham Lincoln (with a superhero build and a greenish cast to his skin) is manipulation and cliché personified. Byron makes a nice hero, eager for Good to triumph, but a little skeptical. His friend Marcy (or Marcie; McCloud can't seem to decide) is spunky but Disneyfied. The real Lincoln is appealing, but doesn't get to do all that much, except Be Human. He's a symbol too, tho' I'm not sure this was intended to be so obvious.

The story goes soft at the end. There are hints (such as the "Tough on Crime" and "Family Values" scrolls on the cover, or an appearance by Newt, or the rifle-happy 'Lincoln Brigade') that McCloud has specific political targets in mind. But no, it turns out that the real villains are space aliens. They're an amusing read, but that's all they are-- they're completely jokey; they're not even science fiction. I suppose the intent was to make the lessons general; but general lessons are rarely deep or courageous, and the result is an enormous pulled punch, like a Frank Capra film. If only politics were, you know, more decent. Then everything would be-- well, like it is, only somehow nicer.

The book is done on computer, which gives it a distinctive look, and will strike some as the Look of the Future. With its detailed computer-rendered, texture-mapped backgrounds and conventionally drawn characters, however, it reminds me of nothing so much as those manga made from animated cartoons.

I just don't know if this is the direction comics needs to go. Do we really need photorealistic depictions of characters' living rooms and kitchens? A great artist could do great things with this, perhaps; but it could also become the default style for the Family Circus. (Well, at least the Keanes' TV and front door would look the same each time.)

It'd be more accurate to say the art is pseudo-photorealistic. Especially on a re-reading, what's often striking is not how real everything looks, but how artificial. Sometimes the illusion really breaks down-- e.g. the 4th panel on p. 78, where what we see are pill shapes with leaves papered over them, and flat walls with pictures of stones.

A nasty thought: McCloud went this route not because he's a great artist, but because he's not. (Frankly, I've been tempted to do the same thing for Fuschia, because I'm no good at backgrounds.) The backgrounds in Zot! don't exactly argue for a great visual sense. Again, a rereading suggests that any impressiveness the panels have is simply due to the unusual technique. The images are well rendered without ever being arresting; even the dream sequences never muster a tenth of the creepiness of Woodring.

I don't want to give the wrong impression, though-- Scott McCloud is still on my short list of 'buy everything the dude ever wrote' creators. He's an excellent writer, with an exploratory mind and a cool sense of humor. My favorite bit here was the (fire)sign on the wall in Byron's school library: "Shoes for Industry, Shoes for the Dead!"

Dave Sim: Mothers & Daughters
Ho hum, another 1,023 pages in the life of Cerebus. In just four years Sim puts out what for most comics authors would be an entire oeuvre.

The phonebooks are for towns rather than cities this time. There are four of them; the first two, Flight and Women, are fast-paced, disjointed, full of sound and fury; the third, Reads, is a self-indulgent rant; the fourth, Minds, is a delight, perhaps the best Cerebus volume so far.

A warning, though: this is Sim's Wigwam Bam. If you haven't read the entire series, M&D will be completely impenetrable.

Flight, Women
There's not much to say about the first two volumes. A lot happens; and yet, not very much. Probably the most important character development is with Astoria, who turns out to have qualms of conscience about the manipulations of leadership, and about the paradox of having an army of believers at her command to fight for the right not to take orders.
This is it-- this is where Sim loses his mind.

I'm not just referring to the notorious Issue 186-- tho' we'll get to that. There's also the fact that, out of 246 pages, just 130 are comics.

If you haven't read it, then what's on your mind is: should I drop $17 on this? And the answer: naah, don't bother. I'll tell you what happens, and you can skip right through to Minds, where Sim gets his mind back.

What happens:

You'll remember from the end of Women that Astoria, Suenteus Po, and Cerebus all made their way to the Upper City to confront Cirin. Po gives everybody a piece of his mind, then leaves. Astoria tells Cerebus that he's a hermaphrodite, then leaves. Cirin and Cerebus get into a fight. It's Cerebus's to lose; and he almost does, the little tosser. We see a lot of blood and a lot of angry-looking eyes. Cirin wicks off his ear. Then the throne room sends both of them on an Ascension.

That's it.

So, in this volume we're mainly treated with pages and pages of Sim's prose. Problem: Sim is a great comics writer; that doesn't mean he's a great writer. (If you're ever seen Garry Trudeau's essays you'll know what I mean.)

First, he tells a short story-- a cautionary tale about a writer who makes the mistake of signing a big contract for big bucks with a big publisher. It's strictly amateur work, preciously narrated, with a pedestrian and predictable plot. The one scene that stays in memory is a depiction of the writer's humilation in a waiting room; Sim does have a talent for evoking the resentment of a prideful person encountering someone more powerful.

The next bit Sim calls an autobiography. Sim is trying to write Experimentally here, and like all experiments it's only intermittently successful. There's a long section where he attempts to make "the reader" a character, which fails due to Sim's insistence on telling "the reader" how to react to the (decidedly less than mind-blowing) ideas and images presented. There's more amateur cosmology, in case you didn't get enough in Church & State. And then we get to Sim On Women.

Sim knows he's a crank; he speaks of many an encounter where people try to set him straight, he argues with them, and they end up saying, "You've given me a lot to think about." Sim must be singularly ill-provided with friends. Don't any of them (dare to) give him anything to think about?

His basic position is that women are poison. They're "voids", brain-eating leeches at war with the "Male Light". You don't want to get involved with them; they're full of Emotion rather than Reason; they withhold sex from you when they're unhappy; they shouldn't be allowed to vote.

Apparently Sim feels that no one has managed to refute this; but this is simply because Sim has made his theory unfalsifiable. Basically, if he hates something, it's Female; and the fact that he hates it show how bad Femaleness is. Thus, corporations suck the life out of you, just like women-- so they really are women. Thus, male politicians appeal to emotion, just like women-- so they're also agents of female control. If you see a powerful women (Mrs. Thatcher), that proves women control the world; if you see women economically worse off than men, that just shows what leeches they are. If there are some brilliant female artists, it's because the Male Light can occasionally reside in women (it's rather like how the Japanese in apartheid South Africa were honorary whites).

Like a French intellectual, Sim deals in breathtaking generalities that take one out of the realm of fact (or reason) entirely. He's worried, for instance, that Birth (female, you know) is "winning" in the war against Death (male), as evidenced by overpopulation. In the introduction Sim laments the gullibility of people who accepted the energy crunch as a crisis. What happened to Sim's skepticism here? Is there a population problem? The US has a hundred million people more than when Erlich wrote his bestseller, and it's richer than ever. Where population is a problem, so are dictatorship, ignorance, war, and ecological mismanagement-- mostly the fault of male dictators, leaders, and businessmen, by the way.

Or just flip your viewpoint a moment: what proportion of human beings escape Death? 0.000%, last I heard.

When Sim does get down to specifics, he shows himself to be ignorant or unimaginative. In defense of the claim that the Light is mostly Male, he notes that "the Brontë Sisters are not William Shakespeare." Why should we take someone's rants on feminism seriously who's never read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own? (Indeed, Sim seems to do most of his research by watching Oprah.) Woolf answered Sim's charge, completely and devastatingly, back in 1930. But even if Sim has never asked himself if economic and social conditions might have prevented a female Shakespeare, doesn't it occur to him that, on the planet right now, there are two and a half billion males who are also not William Shakespeare? Instead of Shakespeare proving that women are voids, might he not show that overwhelming genius is vanishingly rare?

Reading Sim's endless ruminations on how women eat men's brains and get in the way of the Male Light, it's hard not to respond: Geez, you really had a pissy time with Deni, didn't you? He mentions at one point that he spends 12 hours a day on Cerebus, leaving 4 hours a day for the "real world". Yeah, that could put a strain on a relationship. These days, at least: It looks like Sim was born too late; he'd have been happier a generation back, when working like a dog was all that was expected of a husband and father. Well, "happier" isn't the word, for those who know what those sorts of marriages were like.

I just don't trust Sim, here. How can someone construct a whole grandiose cosmology about Women without coming clean about his own history? Sim tries to foist a picture of himself as a cool character (all those cigarette references, jeez), a realist-- certainly not an embittered emotional wreck. Where's the admission: "Viktor Davis knew he'd had a really pissy time with his ex-wife. It was bound to have affected his view of the world."

Take Sim's statements about arguments-- that a couple runs around in circles until happiness is achieved; that men use "reason" and women use "emotion". Doesn't this sound exactly like a conversation with a divorcing or newly divorced man, balefully projecting, telling his side to anyone he can buttonhole?

Since Sim lacks "things to think about", by the way, how about this: "emotion" is often a rational strategy. Traditionally women were barred from economic independence, from higher education, from political power. Protest was met with condescension or violence. Under such circumstances displays of "emotion" were a rational and effective means of resisting near-absolute power. (It's like the game theorists' advice for those playing 'chicken': act like a madman and throw the steering wheel out the window. 'Irrational' but unanswerable.)

The irony is that you can create breathtakingly cynical and rational depictions of the war between the sexes. Sim seems to know nothing about evolutionary psychology-- hey, why should a familiarity with modern science be a requirement for publishing tracts on the meaning of life? If you like this sort of thing, read Robert Wright's The Moral Animal. You'll find discussions of maleness and femaleness that are informative, thought-provoking, occasionally offensive, and solidly grounded in biological observation and theory. In other words, exactly what Reads pretends to be but is not.

Artists are often rotten analysts. In my view, the real Dave Sim is not the bundle of neuroses who wrote Reads, but the careful observer who created Jaka's Story. The real Sim is the artist; his real views on women (nuanced, sympathetic, and a little terrified) are those that appear in his work.

I suppose most people would think the opposite, that Sim is closer to his own center when he's talking about his own life and speaking directly about the modern world. But why should that be? By his own admission he spends 3 times as much of his day in Estarcion as in Ontario. More importantly, he applies more of his faculties, including the proper percentage of mind and heart, to Cerebus. Certainly his obsessions with the power of women make it into the comic; but so do pitiless observations of male machinations, male emotions, and male self-delusion.

So Dave gets this rant off his chest, then writes the best book of Cerebus ever. Go figure.

Cerebus already ascended once, at the end of Church & State-- spiritual revelation in Estarcion mostly involves moving up. (A very medieval conception, actually. While in modern conceptions we look out into space, as if gazing out the window of a spaceship, in medieval times you looked up. Dante's trajectory was vertiginous.) Cerebus made it to the moon last time; this time he makes it to Pluto.

His traveling companion, at least at the start, is Cirin. The conversation (or argument) they have is a vast improvement over their swordfight in Reads. It's a war of wits, in which Cerebus is distinctly half-armed, but doesn't know it. After the lifelessness of the Victors, it wouldn't have seemed probable that Sim could make comedy out of these two characters, of all his creations, but he does.

Most of the book, however, relates Cerebus's confrontation with his creator, whom he has always called Tarim, but who turns out to be named Dave.

This sounds as if it could be really awful, but in fact it's remarkable. Four thousand pages of comics pays off, as creator and creation have something to talk about. Cerebus gets to ask Dave some questions. Dave's answers illuminate Cerebus's character, Cerebus's predicament. and the design and themes of the entire series. There's moments of humor, and a few hard punches to both Cerebus and the reader.

And, as usual, the level of storytelling, art, and purposeful exploration of the medium is breathtaking, but is never merely flamboyant. The last two pages of the story-- a reference to Chuck Jones's Duck Amuck-- are worth a long incredulous look. It's fascinating to trace the pictures within pictures, the thread of simultaneous action.

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