The Cerebus Re-Read Challenge
Cerebus can be purchased in its entirety from
even better, Volumes 1 and 2 are free!
Form and Void: Scram!
Form and Void did not offer me much to care about in the ideas department. I have zero interest in literary classics. There are very few I have read that I gave two shits about. I think prose fiction is a dead story-telling medium. Unless you are going to give me a readable formalist like Mark Z. Danielewski, whose stories can only be understood in the context of the formal nature of a book, I would rather have a comic-book or a television show. So, imagine my disinterest in learning about an author of literature who Dave Sim doesn't even care about.
Sim despises Hemingway as an author and as a person. He proclaims at the end of the volume that he is happy to be done with having the Hemingways in his life. I felt the same way about Form and Void as a book. Happy to not have to read any more of the lengthy interpretive notes.
Had I not read the notes I would not have gotten any of the metaphor out of the lion hunt that Sim puts into it. In that sense I consider Sim's notes an essential part of the story. The volume requires the same endurance from the readers that Sim put into thoroughly researching a subject he disliked. It is possible that the whole volume was a purposeful exercise in enduring both disinterest and disdain.
In issue #264, immediately after finishing his commentary about Hemingway pussing out of a duel, Sim calls out Jeff Smith for a duel, based on some years-old beef. I really could not care less. It just felt like Sim, in writing Hemingway, had once again taken on aspects of his subject and thought for a few months that he was a tough guy. (Even though Sim accuses Hemingway of being a tough guy in word only.) Bragging about being 5' 9" and 190 lbs is a funny way to intimidate, especially when the world knows that you spend most of your day hunched over a drawing board (We have all seen pictures. Those 190lbs were not rock-solid musculature). But, bravo for being willing to scrap. I guess.
This foul mood seems to come to a head in the last issue of the run, issue # 165, where Diana Schutz's resignation is printed
presumably due to the "Dear Jeff Smith" letter in issue # 264.
Sim's Administrative Assistant also quits, this resignation stemming from the content of the infamous "Tangent."
All of which seems perfectly tied with the story. This image also comes from Issue # 265.
Given how far in advance Sim has the stories planned out I refuse to read this panel as a response to what is going on in his life. it is another instance of Sim's odd ability to warp reality to resonate with his stories. It almost seems like he made a deal. "I will warp myself to fit the story for four-thousand pages of this, then it is your turn, Reality."
Sim now appears fully ready to remove himself from the world to devote himself to an increasingly rigorous practice of his monotheistic beliefs, as we shall soon see.
As little as I care for the story in Form and Void there is a lot of interesting stuff to remark upon in the art.
The first major thing I noticed was that all of Sim and Gerhard's small dalliances with abstraction come to fruition in this volume. Often times this is achieved through the same technique created in Going Home, where they craft one double-page spread that grounds the rest of the images in the issue, those other images being merely cropped segments of the 'home' image.
Here is one from early in the story.
and some of the most abstract crops in the volume come from it
with the panels reading almost like Barnett Newman stripe-paintings.
At the beginning of his commentaries in issue #251 Sim explicitly links his distaste for Hemingway's writing style to his distaste for abstract art.
Sim even visually ties Hemingway to Picasso as he introduces the character.
He puts that Picasso'esque picture in the last panel, the only real subject of the panel, to make sure we notice it.
This is a very purposeful part of the volume. Sim ties Hemingway's short, matter of the fact sentences to the what I think he perceives as a clumsiness, or mental simplicity, in visual abstraction.
Here are a number of less extreme examples of the abstractions Sim and Gerhard create.
The next two images use the whole page as the canvas for a formal balancing of presence and absence, of Form and Void.
Time to get nit picky.
If I am reading all of this correctly Sim exposes himself as not being very well educated about basic Art History and/or Modernist aesthetic theories. This is really surprising given how deeply Sim usually educates himself on anything he engages with.
Why do I say this? Mostly because the way he goes about creating abstractions is far removed from the concerns of Picasso, Barnett Newman, etc. What Sim does is entirely, 100% related to Georgia O'Keeffe.
Say what? Lemme mansplain ya.
Picasso, especially the kind of analytic-cubist era Picasso that Sim parodies
was an attempt to create two-dimensional representations of four-dimensional experiences. Breaking apart time, analyzing it, compressing it into two dimensions. What happens if you paint an object as if you are seeing it from all sides at once? How does one put multiple moments into one single image? Kind of like a comic book with all of the panels super-imposed over top of one another. (Now that would have made for some interesting pages!)
Even synthetic-cubism could have been interesting.
This evolution of cubism was an intentional exploration of how to confuse representation and reality, how to synthesize them into a unified space. Turning a piece of patterned fabric into the a guitar body, so that it is both a real pattern and a representation of a pattern within an illusionistic image. Again, this could have made for some very compelling comic pages.
By the time you get to Barnett Newamn, the artists were engaged in a theoretical argument over the definition of "painting," which we can all blame on the critic Clement Greenberg. They were trying to whittle down to the necessary and sufficient conditions for an x to count as a painting. "X is a painting if and only if..." Standard analytic-philosophy strategies. Careers were spent arguing about things like: which is primary, line or shape? Do lines bind shapes? Do the perceived edges of shapes imply lines? So forth and so on. You can see this concern about the primacy of line vs. the primacy of shape on full display in the above Newman stripe painting.
Sim doesn't create these kinds of abstractions (actually, non-representational works). There is no evidence of those methods or motivations. His method, as it has been any other time it pops up in his work, is always to find compositions through cropping out areas of an image to confuse our understanding of what we are looking at. This is the kind of abstraction Georgia O'Keeffe innovated. She would zoom in on her subject matter to the point that it was only slightly, if at all, recognizable. She found compositions in nature by removing things from their context by zooming and cropping.
Most famously with her flowers.
Which given all of the vaginal imagery in Cerebus and Jaka's tent flaps... what a missed opportunity for textual resonance.
Also,relevant to what Sim does with panel layouts: O'Keeffe's paintings of the door to her house in New Mexico.
There is a classic scene about these work in Season Three of Breaking Bad.
Highly recommended viewing!
To make all of these missed opportunities even more tragic, O'Keeffe was part of an Art-World power-couple with famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, one of the first photographers to really worry about how his photos were cropped and composed. Picasso himself was intrigued by Stieglitz's emphasis on composition over content, saying of Stieglitz's most famous work, The Steerage,
"This photographer is working in the same spirit as I am." 'Spirit' meaning concerned with composition over content, but noticeably no mention of method. Notice the way Stieglitz uses all of the railing and ropes to create rhythms, panels, exactly like Sim and Gerhard were doing with the boat in Fall and The River.
Point being, hmmm... I wonder how O'Keefe came to develop her unique brand of de-contextualized-abstraction-through-cropping? That famous photographer husband of hers probably didn't introduce her to the idea of zooming and cropping or anything, right? Noooo.
So much potential for layers of meaning are lost with this oversight that are not bound to just visual resonances. The entire story that Sim outlines in his annotations revolves around the wife taking over the husband's role, a theme dead center to the entire last third of Cerebus, and arguably the work as a whole. Stieglitz and O'Keeffe would have been perfect avatars for these ideas, especially as they related to visual abstraction and the Modernist movement.
It is painful for me to think about how much better Going Home and Form and Void could have been. These two books are THE blight on Sim's otherwise immaculate artistic output. Truly a missed opportunity. Good and true. Truly and good.
Okay, enough on abstraction. Let's go hunting.
I engaged in a game that I called Spot The Sim to keep myself interested while reading Form and Void.
In issue # 256, when we get to Africa and start seeing lots of animals, I immediately noticed that some animals were clearly drawn by Gerhard,
with continuous, unbroken, lines that did not vary in weight and contained flat grids of straight cross-hatch lines. Flat, really detailed, decal animals.
And, some animals were obviously drawn by Sim.
Entire edges have no lines representing them at all, as in the upper-right side of the mane. The lines are lively and have varying weight. Any hatching is active, curving across the forms to imply volume. I call this trick 'V-Squared'. V-Squared happens when cross-hatching curves to map the form of an object rather than just sit as a grid of straight lines on top of a form. This lets you encode both Value and Volume. Two "V"'s for the price of one set of lines. V-Squared. Gerhard only creates value, by piling up more or less lines to make an area lighter or darker. Sim, when he piles up lines to create value, also use the direction and curvature of the lines to map and imply volume.
So I kept an eye out for who was doing what.
It was difficult with the smaller animals, like these Zebras.
because everything is so small you can't see the tell-tale differences. I vacillate on a lot of the smaller images as to who did what. The grass and trees sure are Gerhard/
This is all Sim, even the branch the bird is sitting on.
I think Sim even drew all of the leaves in this next image because of the fluidity of the contour lines and the directional changes in the hatching. Gerhard may have put the final coat of crosshatching 'tone' over it.
100% Gerhard pig-decal
compared to Sim's nightmarish warthog.
The following is a beautiful example of how Sim drops contour lines out, and an even better example of how he uses the V-Squared technique of crosshatching. Also note how different Sim's grass is from Gerhard's, which you can see in the pig image above.
Give it a go yourself. Pull out Form and Void and try to Spot The Sim. Art assignment for the week.
My suspicions about the tag-team approach on the animals was confirmed by this piece of the commentary in issue #259
Hadn't noticed, Dave. Ha-ha.
So as to not shit all over Gerhard,
A few other noteworthy images: