Friday, October 1, 2010

For Better or For Cerebus

If you think about it, there are a lot of similarities between Lynn Johnson’s For Better or For Worse and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Both comics were created by Canadians, both were overly ambitious, both went on a devoted schedule without a break, both based their characters on members of their friends & family, both were embarrassed by their better earlier works, and both creators had a creator breakdown which resulted in flawed masterpieces.

These are just some of the more obvious parallels between the two, but there are more subtler similarities that can be found within the pages of their comics.

Both had innovative use of their fonts/background noise.



















































Lynn’s influences include the aforementioned Doug Wright, 50's sitcoms, her life, and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.











Dave's influences include the aforementioned Doug Wright, the Marx Bros., Rodney Dangerfield, Little Murders, Oscar Wilde and the Three Stooges.

















Cerebus had the ambiguous phrase, “Bang bang, something fell.” This was even covered in an essay in Following Cerebus #1, where people tried to decipher the meaning behind those words.
























FBOFW made no successful attempts to cover it up.











FBOFW went from a normal-nosed housewife talking about male chauvinist pigs to a woman with a potato nose.










Cerebus went from a normal-nosed misogynist aardvark to looking like a male pig with a fondness for potatoes.



















Lynn attempted a hybrid creation of the series that never quite panned out.









Cerebus had a male/female hybrid creature.

















Michael had killer socks that could be considered a lethal weapon capable of clearing out the room to anyone present.










Cerebus could smell so bad when wet that not even he could stand the smell, which explains why he didn't use this tactic often.
















Anthony pines for Elizabeth, his one true love, even going so far as to long for her after marrying Therese.










Cerebus pines for Jaka, his one true love, even going so far as to long for her after being tricked into marrying someone else for political reasons. And those are his good points.













Therese, Anthony’s first wife was an overly ambitious woman who used Anthony for her own means, going so far as to dictate how he should look and dress.









Astoria was a political woman who had high ambitions, and used Cerebus for her own means, going so far as to dictate how he should look, dress and act.





































Anthony intimidated his baby daughter into accepting Elizabeth as a potential mother.









Cerebus threw a baby out with the bathwater in order to make a point.





































Elly manipulated politicians by throwing a costume party in order to save a theater.










Cerebus manipulated politicians at a costume party in throwing onion dip in order to save a theatrical man.





































FBOFW had archaic devices such as typewriters and women’s lib that would only make sense to someone living in the 50s/60s.










Cerebus had archaic themes that would only make sense to someone living in the comics world in the 80s/90s, such as obscure titles like Flaming Carrot, Bacchus and Rarebit Fiends.





































John and Phil went on a camping trip that went disastrous when their canoe tipped over, forcing them to huddle up in a shack for warmth, and were only saved by an aircraft noticing their campfire.










Cerebus and Jaka’s camping trip was menaced by Mary Ernestway’s tale of Africa, Ham’s implied assisted suicide, were forced to huddle together in a snowstorm and was only saved by a volcanic eruption. (No, really!)


















Michael’s best toy was a childhood teddy bear that he kept with him well into his adult life.










Jaka’s best friend was a doll, the only remaining memoriam of her childhood, and Cerebus best friend was a mercenary named Bear.


















Gordon gave the lame excuse for his bruises that he fell down to hide his Father’s beatings.










Jaka actually got hit by a door in her eye. (At least she didn’t fall down the stairs into a crate full of doorknobs)


































FBOFW indulged in some gay denial between Lawrence and his family.










In Cerebus, he does it to himself.





































(On the next page, Cerebus indulged some gay-bashing)




















In later years, FBOFW would become more verbose, the text crowding out the artwork.

















Cerebus did the same, only more so.





































Grandpa Jim kept surviving, despite suffering through numerous heart attacks, dementia, aphasia and was somehow still coherent enough to stay alive after his granddaughter’s wedding. In the last strip, it’s revealed he died surrounded by his loved ones.









Cerebus was told a prophecy that he’d only live a few more years before he dies “Alone, Unmourned and Unloved” and survives the gamut of multiple emotional turmoil for the rest of the series’ run. Despite the prediction (it was made by an immortal, so “a few years” could be slightly ambiguous), he didn’t die until maybe 300 years later.

















EDIT - and on another note, thanks to forworse's attention to the later FBOFW strips, she pointed out another similarity that I missed.

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for bringing this post to my attention. My familiarity with Cerebus has really been limited to his being cited as a prime example of creator breakdown. I recall howtheduck having made references to it and to David Sim.

    As an aside, I wanted to let you know that your site brought Posy Simmonds to my attention. Recently, I was browsing the graphic novels at my library and, when I saw her books, I remembered your having blogged about her. So I checked out Tamara Drewe and enjoyed it so much, I also devoured Gemma Bovery. :)

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  2. Glad to know that my efforts have expanded somebody's reading material. It's too bad that Posy's earlier weekly works haven't been collected into an omnibus format. It would be interesting to see the progression of her artwork as she matured her craft.

    In fact, you could say that her later books, Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe are true "Adult comics" in the same sense how Hobbes described "movies for mature audiences". The sex scenes are not just reduced to being titillating, and most of what happens is the kind of thing people do in their daily lives. Not to mention that despite drawn images in the margins, the majority of the comic is written prose, but neither can exist solely without the other.

    If you're curious about tackling the intimidating task that is Cerebus, I strongly recommend that you start with the 5th book, Jaka's Story. Most people suggest starting with the 2nd book, High Society, where the storytelling became more sophisicated, but it's still an uphill struggle. Not to mention that there are slight allusions to the previous book of short stories, and a climax that'll only be made funnier if you've read the first phonebook.

    In Jaka's Story, you only need to know three things:
    1. Cerebus used to be a tyrannical pope before losing everything.
    2. Jaka is Cerebus' one true love.
    3. Jaka's Uncle looks and acts EXACTLY like Groucho Marx.

    Many people feel it's the best of Dave Sim's stories before he went into decline. It's also similar to Posy's works in that there are pages of text about Jaka's life that work alongside the main story. It's the only volume that my sister's ever bothered to read, and after I pushed it on her, she understood why.

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  3. Thanks for the tip on Cerebus. Sometimes I notice the volumes in the library and admit I'm a bit scared off based on various commentary that I've read.

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  4. Thanks for the link. I'm not familiar with Cerebus but I laughed at several of them and am going to see if I can find more. I wish our library had graphic novels, but no such luck, and the independent bookstore which had the best selection has just closed.

    As for Posy Simmonds, all of a sudden her name was everywhere about six weeks ago when Tamara Drewe opened in cinemas and I remembered that you'd mentioned her. I'd like to read it first and am undecided about the film.

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  5. forworse, I noticed the trailer for the film linked at iMDB.com right after I'd read Tamara Drewe. :)

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  6. The interesting thing is what's different about For Better or For Worse; unlike Cerberus, who died alone, old, bitter and fully aware of his sad, self-inflicted plight, Johnston's asshole protagonist Elly will be surrounded by friends, family and, thanks to her horrible diet, be totally unmanned by a massive stroke.

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  7. You're confusing the relationship between creator and creation. In the last years of his run, Dave Sim alienated almost everyone he worked with in the comics' world, including Dianna Schultz who refused to edit his essay length papers, and his own background assistant Gerhard. That's not even counting Jeff Smith (whose creation Bone pays a lot of homages to Cerebus), who Dave Sim challenged to a fistfight. Even Jeff Smith took time out from their little grudge to congratulate Dave Sim's accomplishment.

    Dave hasn't done much since he stopped the adventures of the barbarian Aardvark, save for the current Glamourpuss and the Judenhauss one-shot. It was this look at anti-semetism that interested me enough to reconsider Cerebus and give it a try. I was surprised at how much of a pageturner the second half of Church & State turned out to be.

    Lynn Johnson in comparision, still enjoys her relationship with the outside world, even though her best work was obviously behind her. Even SHE never verbally put down any cartoonist. She's got better PR than Dave, in no small part with her simplistic worldview.

    Trying to understand Dave would involve having to read his extensive essays in small print for multiple pages. As Art Spigelman said in his Peanuts tribute, people are more willing to handle one-sentence philosphy, which is all the philosophy they can handle.

    You also seem to be under the apprehension that Lynn is a bigger asshole protagonist. If throwing a baby down the street isn't enough to change your opinion, here's a better example. At one point, Cerebus said, "There are plenty of people worse than Cerebus. Like..." Cerebus thought for a moment, then said, "Okay, Cerebus can't think of their names right now."

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  8. That’s an interesting comparison between Dave Sim and Lynn Johnston. There are certainly a lot of elements that fit that you didn’t mention, like Lynn Johnston began her strip blatantly taking ideas from Peanuts, Cathy, and Dennis the Menace; while Dave Sim’s earlier Cerebus is lifted from the Barry Windsor Smith Conan book. Just as Lynn lifted much of her art style from Charles Schultz, Dave Sim lifted his from Barry Windsor Smith.

    As for alienation, the comparison with Lynn Johnston fits better than you think. While Lynn may not have threatened to get into a fist fight with anyone, she did slam Bill Watterson and Aaron McGruder and called them “wusses”. Dave Sim may have alienated Gerhard and Dianna Schultz; but Lynn alienated almost her entire staff when she summarily fired the lot of them, and alienated the editors at Harper Collins Children’s Books when she did spent her time in interviews promoting her children’s book by complaining about her editors’ unreasonable demands.

    Oddly enough, Dave Sim and Lynn Johnston both share an aversion to the Quebecois, although Lynn Johnston is a lot subtler about it than Dave Sim.

    I remember Dave Sim’s work very well. I started reading Cerebus at the beginning and thought it was a terrific book for years. Then towards the ending years, I continued to read it more out of loyalty than anything else. With each issue, I wondered when Dave Sim was going to stop writing long lectures on how women were ruining everything, how Canada was shamefully dependent on the US military, and his own peculiar and long-winded interpretation of the first 3 books of the Bible; and get back to telling the great stories. I actually enjoyed the Biblical interpretation and some of the political commentary; but not nearly as much as I enjoyed reading the old issues of Cerebus, when he was at the height of his story-telling. As it turned out, Dave Sim never did turn it around. In this fashion, he was once again like Lynn Johnston. As the stories continued to get worse and worse, the judgmental and defiant opinion of the creator of the comics dominated everything.

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  9. There WAS a similar comparison between Dave and Barry Smith's work, but since it was already pointed out, I felt no need to reference to it.
    http://cereblog.org/2009/01/08/there-is-no-clue-as-to-escape-routes-leigh-on-cerebus-2/

    Besides, Dave was more influenced by the funny-animal theme of Howard the Duck. The ironic thing is, while Cerebus got a ruined reputation due to its creator, Howard got a ruined reputation because of a lousy movie adaption. I've been told that the Howard comics were extremely inventive (the most imaginative one where Howard ran for President, possibly forshadowing Cerebus' run for Prime Minister), but have yet to read any of Steve Gerber's work, save for the Howard MAX series, and a few issues of the Ultraverse Sludge, a Man-Thing knockoff that worked.

    The difference was that Dave eventually had higher aspirations than Lynn, who did some stories that were better than the usual run of Afterschool Specials.
    http://www.platypuscomix.net/bored/afterschool1.html
    http://www.platypuscomix.net/bored/afterschool2.html

    As somebody who commented on Cerebus said, "It was like Alan Moore continued to produce his praiseworthy stories such as Swamp-Thing, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Supreme, and From Hell, in one long narrative with Maxwell the Magic Cat as the protagonist through all these stories." A very accomplished rate of work, but it's spoiled by a need to read these things in order to understand them, and that they've got an anthropomorphic animal running through all of them. Not to mention that some stories are more uneven than other.

    As Douglas Wolk said about Cerebus in his book, "Although Dave Sim was credited with introducing prose to comics, Cerebus is vastly more enjoyable if you skip the prose parts entirely."

    As for Lynn's falling out with her staff & editors, I wasn't aware of these happening, since the kind of things that happen with comic strip cartoonists aren't the kind of thing that most comic news sites are likely to pick up on. There really needs to be a better search function on the FOOB page, since it, like the comic it criticizes, has seen better days. I'd like to find the posts where the collections were broken down, where certain characters were psychoanalyzed, and where April Patterson said you compared it to Cerebus earlier. I'd be interested in knowing what you said.

    Getting back to the Cerebus/Howard comparision for one last point; Cerebus is certainly free from any movie adaption since due to its theme and length, any adaption would fail to accurately capture the effect of the comic. Not to mention that Cerebus is unique in that it's the only exception to Rule 34 in that there's virtually NO porn of the EarthPig. Even FBOFW has porn, but not even the furry community has anybody sick enough to want any pairings with any of the hot women in the series. (Even Rule 63 would be acceptable, given Cerebus' true nature, and would fit right in with his being terrified at being a woman) Part of it would be that the Cerebus series is too intimidating/controversial to even consider doing a parody about.

    However, I was planning on doing a short parody with a crossover in a future post, which was part of why I posted this in the first place...

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  12. The ironic thing is, while Cerebus got a ruined reputation due to its creator, Howard got a ruined reputation because of a lousy movie adaption.

    I kind of liked the movie; but I am biased that way. I showed it to my kids, and they hated it. The comic book series had already been cancelled before the movie came out. There were all kinds of issues with Steve Gerber and creative control over his character with Marvel, and he was basically booted from the comic book. The quality of the book went sailing downhill from there, as comic books often do when they are removed from their creators.

    As Douglas Wolk said about Cerebus in his book, "Although Dave Sim was credited with introducing prose to comics, Cerebus is vastly more enjoyable if you skip the prose parts entirely."

    This is not really true. If you skip the long prose parts Dave Sim wrote which were completely unrelated to the storyline, then that is true. Some of the stories are incomprehensible unless you read the text.

    There really needs to be a better search function on the FOOB page, since it, like the comic it criticizes, has seen better days. I'd like to find the posts where the collections were broken down, where certain characters were psychoanalyzed, and where April Patterson said you compared it to Cerebus earlier. I'd be interested in knowing what you said.

    The FOOB page is obviously not intended to be a professional page, nor has it ever been. There are times when I wished I could find old comments more easily too. As for what I said, it wasn’t much more than “Dave Sim destroyed his work much like Lynn Johnston did.”


    Getting back to the Cerebus/Howard comparision for one last point; Cerebus is certainly free from any movie adaption since due to its theme and length, any adaption would fail to accurately capture the effect of the comic.

    I don’t know if you can make that claim these days. The Hollywood folks seem to be grabbing onto anything comic book – even unfinished stories like Scott Pilgrim and Kick Ass. The coming adaptation of Red is proof they will grab onto any old, obscure thing.

    Even FBOFW has porn, but not even the furry community has anybody sick enough to want any pairings with any of the hot women in the series.

    Cerebus did rape Astoria. Does that count?

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  14. The Cerebus/Astoria scene doesn't really count, since it happened in the dark, and we were (mercifully) spared the scene of having to see a cartoony pig "getting it on" with another woman. Though that mental image wasn't spared in a prelude chapter in Later Days. I was more referring to porn that the fans would create themselves, not by the creator.

    There's an interesting allusion regarding Doujinshi - the more actual porn a Manga has is inversely proportional to the amount of parody porn it inspires. There's now more pages of Sailor Moon / Cardcaptor Sakura porn than pages of the original Mangas, and there's hardly any Gantz / Berserk porn.

    As for the prose, I'll concede that most of it is essential for Jaka's story, as well as certain scenes in High Society (particularly the rules for Diamondback), but for the most part, the later stories can be enjoyed without having to read the text which didn't always mesh well with the main story. Depending on how you read it, Reads can be either the shortest or longest Cerebus book, depending on whether you want to see the conversation/fight that happens in that book. Not to mention that Later Days (when Cerebus got funny again) only starts to get unreadable when Woody Allen pops up. If you just flip through those pages at that point, you won't be missing anything. Same goes for the Biblical interpretation at the beginning of The Last Day.

    Also, it didn't occur to me until I started writing back to you, but your domain name was obviously a reference to Howard the Duck, who I compared to Cerebus. I can't believe I missed that!

    Apart from a few animated cels that Dave drew himself, there hasn't been any serious effort at doing an adaption of his work. Just looking at a random phonebook volume would be enough to scare off any Hollywood producer, since there's no description of the plot on the back, and you can't tell the story from the cover alone. (Another discouraging selling point)

    The only way they would ever consider doing Cerebus would be after Dave Sim dies, and the titular character becomes popular domain (as he's said numerous times). The problem is, the character is so potentially explosive that hardly anybody would consider coming close to his vision. What would probably happen would be that they'd do the broadest possible story about a barbarian cartoon pig WITHOUT having to read the damn books, and doing what they THINK it's about. After all, apart from a few rabid fans, and the rare reader who'd brave reading the phonebooks, who's going to notice?

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  15. Another similarity that I failed to mention - people started bailing out of Cerebus once it hit the 2/3rd mark, which is coincidentally, also when people started becoming less than enthusiastic with FBOFW when it started to segue into FOOBery.

    In fact, buried somewhere in the vast reams of text that was Reads, Dave mentioned that Cerebus was going to be 200 issues instead of the aforementioned goal of 300. Then later on, it revealed it was actually a cruel joke, with the line, "Don't you trust me?" For many people who've managed to read Cerebus that far, they usually get discouraged around the first couple issues of Guys (issues 201+), and don't bother reading any further. Likewise, I consider FBOFW to "officially end" when Michael graduates, which was also around the strip's 20 year mark.

    Of course, 10 years of a comic strip versus 8 years, four months of a monthly comic book are two very different beasts.

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  16. The problem is, the character is so potentially explosive that hardly anybody would consider coming close to his vision. What would probably happen would be that they'd do the broadest possible story about a barbarian cartoon pig WITHOUT having to read the damn books, and doing what they THINK it's about.

    That certainly is the Hollywood tendency when it comes to comic book adaptations (or book adaptation or really most anything). For reasons I do not comprehend, they will spend millions of dollars adapting existing material with a fan base to a movie, and then change the source material so much that it will alienate the very fan base they were trying to attract to see the movie in the first place. From a business standpoint, it makes no sense whatsoever. However, it is this very tendency that would allow a Cerebus movie to be made.

    Another similarity that I failed to mention - people started bailing out of Cerebus once it hit the 2/3rd mark, which is coincidentally, also when people started becoming less than enthusiastic with FBOFW when it started to segue into FOOBery.

    That is a similar point in time. As I understand it from Lynn Johnston’s own writings, her disenchantment with doing a daily comic strip occurred after Charles Schulz died in 2000, which was coincidentally around the time Michael got married. She lost interest in doing quality work after that point, as if trying to impress Charles Schulz was the only thing that kept her going, even though she continued on for another 10 years after that. I suspect that if it had not been for Charles Schulz, her work would have gotten worse at an earlier date. The fun thing about seeing the reprints of her early years is that it is easy to see all the elements of the poor material she would produce in her final 10 years are already there.

    In fact, buried somewhere in the vast reams of text that was Reads, Dave mentioned that Cerebus was going to be 200 issues instead of the aforementioned goal of 300. Then later on, it revealed it was actually a cruel joke, with the line, "Don't you trust me?"

    I remember that. It was a low point in Dave Sim’s writing. It did show that his ego was clearly getting the best of him.

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  17. Thanks for giving your opinions about Cerebus. It's not exactly the most popular comic to talk about around here, since people have bad memories of the later stories, and its intimidating for a new audience.

    It occurs to me that since you were disappointed with the end result of Dave's barbarian comic, you've been looking for something to fill in the gap. For that, I highly recommend the webcomic, Goblins. I only found out about it a month ago when randomly clicking links at TVtropes, and read the entire thing in one sitting. And I'm not easily impressed.
    http://www.goblinscomic.com/06252005/

    It doesn't hurt that the main monsters look like a cross between Mogwai & Gremlins. Probably the highest praise I can give the comic is that when reading some of the later parts of the story, it felt like reading the Impel Down arc of One Piece without actually emulating One Piece. Now THAT'S pretty impressive.

    If you enjoy the webcomic, feel free to spread the joy. It deserves as much attention as it gets now that 8-bit Theater's ended.

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