The Cerebus Re-Read Challenge
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Jaka's Story: Staying Home and Reflecting
I had gotten so used to the rock-and-roll, anti-establishment, touring-artist fucking chicks, swagger-to-spare Dave Sim persona during Church and State that the sudden drop off of almost all outward facing activities during Jaka's Story struck me as odd. It got me paying attention to the topic of how Dave Sim presents himself relative to the theme of the volume at hand. Going backward to Cerebus and High Society the thesis panned out, and the idea continued to enrich my reading as I went forward.
As I discussed while detailing Church and State I first noticed the change of tone in the last ten issues or so of that run. Sim starts publicly declaring he is not famous, gives up smoking, both cigarettes and marijuana, quits being as active in Aardvark Comment, and makes comments about feeling "...like staying at home."
In the very first Note From the President of Jaka's Story, Issue #114, Sim again declares his change in outlook
The volume deals with domesticity, jealousy, and artistic inspiration; introspective, personal themes that are explored in a tight environment with a cast of five primary players. This is a far cry from the years of focus on political machinations, religious maneuvering, and spiritual ascensions acted out by a large cast of characters seen in the previous volumes. The book becomes a search for wisdom rather than a search for knowledge.
To match this Sim largely removes from the world, at least as he presents his activities in the book. Some of the old Sim hangs around for a bit, but you can see the transition happening.
On the back cover of issue # 114 we still get photographs of Sim out in public, with a beautiful woman in tow, but his appearance is much more modest and the acknowledgment of being part of a "cute couple" adds to the sense that Sim is settling down.
Sim has some trouble falling into this role right away, as we see in issue #116 where he can't help but ruffle some feathers in the domestic situation, and has already gone back on his promise to quit talking about the "Industry."
Issue #116 also sees the publication of the Creators Bill of Rights
It is worth noting that this was a group effort. A far cry from the lone-wolf rebel-yell of Church and State era Sim. It appears as if this document allows Sim to feel that enough has been done for the "cause" that he can now settle down and focus on himself and his work.
Issue # 121 sees the once lively back-cover photos replaced with quotes from Oscar Wilde about the nature of art.
The Note From the Presidents in issues #123 and 130 are indicative of the new norm, and an odd thing to see from Sim, brevity.
Issue #126 comes with a full withdrawal from Aardvark Comment and a focus on personal interactions rather than public ones.
All of this, to me, lines up perfectly with the inward nature of the themes in Jaka's Story. Stay at home, focus on the personal, really grapple with the how and why of your art.
I suspect some readers will now accuse me of ignoring all of the text pieces that make up the fictional "Jaka's Story" that exists within the narrative; that I am leaving out everything to do with how Jaka become Jaka, the coming of age stuff, etc. That is merely surface fluff for the penultimate act of the book which is about finding one's artistic voice, one's inspiration. As a child Jaka finds her voice in dance, this is suppressed by the society she lives in and it takes her removing herself from that society to be able to do what she loves. But, remember. that story is being written by Oscar, who has been struggling to finish his book and is grappling with his own creativity. Any theme you see in "Jaka's Story" has to be filtered through this layer of understanding.
Ultimately, Oscar has to see Jaka dance to gain his final burst of inspiration and in doing so gives us the clearest picture that Dave Sim can formulate of what an artist is, as summed up in this page from issue #128.
Artists are those who stare into the void (with all the significance that holds in the world of Cerebus) and have the balls not to look away. Not only do they not look away, they summon the courage to assert themselves within the void. By making such public declarations they become vulnerable to the world.
Oscar, in "Jaka's Story," writes a character that found her art in childhood, debt fee to any apparent predecessor other than nature itself. Oscar seems to feel the weight of not, himself, being inspired by such a primal source. He needs Rick telling him stories about Jaka's life. He needs to see Jaka dance because his imagination is not enough to conjure the words.
But, the ultimate point is, as much as we want to think of artists as gods capable of filling blank slates with primal bursts of creativity from within perfectly introspective voids they would be lost without the influences they encounter when they step away from the void. Sim, especially, makes it a central aspect of his creativity to always take his first steps into the void wearing the shoes of others. His frequent mimicry of other artists' rendering styles and writers' voices, use of parodied characters, and, as I am arguing, the willingness to take on different public persona, bears this out. He feels no shame, and there is none to be felt, in acknowledging that his work does not in fact exist inside of a void. It is indebted to the efforts of all those who influenced him and the giants that preceded him.
It is to Sim's credit that he has a strong enough sense of self that all of this mask-wearing never comes off as desperate grasps for a place to fit in or an identity. His self-confidence is strong enough to allow itself to occupy the stance of others. It is curious to understand what they understand. If this process leads to drastic changes in who Dave Sim is, that is fine, because the core of the self-confident seeker is still there. On the other hand, if that core rejects a position it can say it has done so not because of ignorance but due to the process of living in the opposing shoes and finding that they rubbed blisters into the heels.
Any self obviously has immutable properties, preset assumptions and existing prejudices that will affect how well it plays whatever role it takes on but it is a rare self that even tries. I value those that try.
(Someone commented that they love how Sim draws hands and I replied that I always found his hands bloated and sausage-like. The above is a perfect example of what I think of when I think of how Sim draws hands. In my opinion it is the area of drawing in which he is the weakest.)
I normally post the artwork in the order that it occurs in the books but I had to save this particular page for last because I have more to say about it than I can put into captions.
When I came to this page during my re-read I was totally dumbfounded because I made an .gif comic a couple of years ago that played the exact same trick, having a roach run around the perimeter of the page to set the internal clock of the sequence. Everything that happens in this page happens in the time it takes the roach to circle Jaka's cell. Another very clever time-keeping/rhythmic trick on Sim's part.
When I pulled the same trick I was using looping animations of different lengths to try to capture cyclical, polyrhythmic time. If this page were animated, for instance, we might have the roach circle once every twenty-eight seconds, Jaka blink once every thirteen seconds, and twirl her finer in her hair every three-quarters of a second. None of these durations line up evenly, at least for a long time, and for all three to start at the exact same time will take a lot of loops before it happens again.
I did a similar thing, much more successfully, in this comic, minus the roach on the perimeter. My interest in all of this comes from the fact that I grew up playing drums and always was fascinated by odd-meter and polyrhythmic music. I love the way comics can capture the same ideas, if that hasn't become obvious by now.
My first thought upon seeing this page was, "Dammit, I must have subconsciously stolen this roach-on-the-perimeter idea from when I first read Cerebus about ten years ago!" But I know for a fact that I VERY consciously stole it from a student of mine. In the summer of 2010 I taught a Comic Art class through the Cranbrook Summer Art Institute. During an assignment that asked students to represent time in comics one of the students drew a bug flying around the perimeter of a stereotypical set of Scott McCloud Aspect-to-Aspect panel transitions. She used the motion line of the fly to create to panel borders. I was blown away by how clever the whole idea was, proclaiming aloud that I had never seen such a trick before. As is often the case, the student hadn't intentionally used the fly to mark time, she just thought it was a cute trick for making the panel borders. Well, happy accidents and all. I tucked the trick away into my bag of tricks in case I ever needed it.
All of this thievery, intentional and accidental, is of course thematically perfect for my overall interpretation of Jaka's Story being about the nature of artists as thieves, which I only just realize as I finish typing the above. Help, guys, the SiMind is taking me over. Synchronicity everywhere!!!