For those who don’t recognise the name, Grant Hart, who has died of cancer aged 56, was the drummer and one of two singers and songwriters in Husker Du, the Minneapolis-based trio who were so amazingly influential on the punk/indie rock scene of the Eighties. If you’ve never heard of them, you’re in a sizeable majority, but without Husker Du, there would not have been a creative space for bands like The Pixies and Nirvana to develop, and turn into fame and success.
I came to the Huskers late. A giveaway 7″ vinyl EP in the New Musical Express included their version of ‘Ticket to Ride’, but it was 1987’s release as a single of Hart’s ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’, combining raw power, speed and a grabbingly glorious chorus line, that inspired me to try the current album, Candy Apple Grey.
One of the great things about Husker Du was that, for an ultra-basic three-piece, they had two great songwriters. Bassist Greg Norton kept out of it, which was probably just as well, because guitarist and singer Bob Mould saw the band as his band, and was insistent on being the primary writer, always having more of his own songs on an album than Hart.
On the one hand, this kind of creative tension can be fantastic for a band, with the two writers trying to outdo each other, and for all that Bob Mould emerged from the ashes of Husker Du with the higher profile, and more conspicuous success in a solo career, Hart was no slouch, as a consideration of some of the songs he contributed to the band demonstrates.
But rivalry only goes so far. Husker’s next, and last album, in 1988, was the double LP Warehouse: Songs and Stories. It held twenty tracks, enough for any writer, but Mould insisted that Hart would never get equal credits, so the album was almost mechanically broken down as to eleven songs for Mould, and nine for Hart.
That was what basically broke things up, though Mould alibied a lot of it to Hart’s struggle with heroin addiction. He went onto popular success with both solo albums and as the band Sugar, a couple of which I used to have. Hart seemed to disappear, and it’s only from his obituary that I’ve now learned he had an extensive post-Husker Du career, both solo and with a band called The Nova Mob. I shall have to go in search.
When all’s said and done, I came to Husker Du late, and at the end of their career when they’d signed for a major label, were slowing down (literally) the speed of their songs, becoming a more orthodox and less raw band. I worked slowly backwards, only this year coming to their other double album, Zen Arcade, seeing the band become more primitive.
But in that rawness there were always songs displaying melody, an unexpected ear for a cracker of a tune. No, Husker Du don’t rank in the front line of my personal tastes, but I’m not parting with the CDs.
In away, I’m writing this out of a sense of wrongness. I’m beginning to get inured to the deaths that keep coming. There’s no other way to handle it: age is surrounding so many long term heroes, anyone who had any kind of success in the Sixties and the early Seventies, and painful though their departure might be, they don’t get to live forever.
But Grant Hart was of the Eighties. He was a part of the musical warp and weft that saw me from my mid-twenties to my mid-thirties. To lose someone from that era is wring, fundamentally wrong. He was five years younger than me, he should have had another twenty years in him, it’s too bloody soon for that generation of favourites to start leaving us.
I’m going to steal a comment from BTL on the Guardian Obituary. Rest in Peace? No, set the room alight and drum the fuck out of that ever-growing jamming band up there! And sing your songs free and clear and urgent. Songs like this…
I’m moving forward rapidly with the revolving Third Draft of Love Goes to Building on Sand, three more chapters to finish the latest run-through, and one inconsistency (where I have given the leading lady different birthdays for each of the two years the story covers) to locate and fix.
You may remember me putting up a couple of posts, during the transcription phase, about how rediscovering this novel was exhuming ghosts that it had successfully laid to rest many years ago. And about the night when, in only twenty minutes, I tracked down the real-life avatar of that leading lady, down to her address.
There was one other old contact from the days that form the bedrock for this book, my then best mate, but he had proved elusive. He’d stayed on at the firm where we were Articled, become a Partner, gone on with the firm’s merger with another local firm, and been a Partner there, but he was no longer with them. The most recent Google reference to him that I’d been able to trace was ten years ago, and I was worried about the implications…
Well, I needn’t have been concerned. I hadn’t tried searching again since that time, but tonight, just when I should have been getting my head down and sleeping, the impulse came, out of nowhere, to try again (I’ve been off work for over a week, and gradually doing all sorts of tidying, and I suppose this loose end was something needing straightening and putting away). This time it took me thirty minutes.
Yes, my old mate is still among the land of the living, still doing the well for himself in the Profession that was obvious from when I knew him. Only, he no longer lives in Nottingham. And hasn’t since 2013. Indeed, earlier this year he’s changed firms again, but still in the same city.
He’s only gone and moved to bloody Manchester! And I have an e-mail address for him by which I can contact him. And though our paths have diverged incredibly since we were sharing a room nearly forty years ago, I’m going to chance an e-mail and see if he remembers me.
All that time, and we’ve been living in the same city for the last four years. Sometimes, your Ghosts can follow you around.
I really don’t like the way so much of the story of a Tales of the Gold Monkey episode is blown in advance by the pre-credits highlights reel. I know it’s meant to entice the viewer into sticking round and not changing channels, by promising them fun and excitement, but it’s like a saw in a Warner Brothers cartoon, cutting a circle underneath a character who drops through the floor. So we knew before we even knew anything about the story that Jake was going to shock the entire Monkey Bar by kissing – I’m sorry, snogging – a nun.
Said nun was a real nun, or at any rate a novitiate under the care of a more senior Nun, en route to a Shanghai convent into which she would disappear in self-abnegation, but to Jake Cutter, she was his old girlfriend, Brigid Harrington, a bit of a wild girl, fun-loving, tricksy and with a habit (ouch) of dressing up in costumes. An easy mistake to make, I suppose.
Sister Theresa and Mother Agnes were escorting essential medical supplies and cholera vaccine to China, and using that as a cover to transport gold bullion to relieve poverty. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous and anonymous villain stole the Air Clipper with the cargo, and dear, sweet, retiring nun Brigid stole the Goose to follow him and get the supplies back. Jake, and a very much pushed into the background Corky, managed to get on board in the nick of time, and agreed to help, although the storm-damaged Goose was in extremely poor nick and low on fuel too.
And that, basically, was the whole of the story, apart from some amusing byplay when the Goose ran out of fuel and Louie’s 180 percent proof aged rum had to be poured into the tanks to keep it flying. Sarah and Louie are left helpless and ignorant on the island, Mother Agnes still prays in the Reverend Willie Tenbaum’s chapel, even after she learns how he gives ‘blessings’, and Jake and Brigid struggle with the effect their old relationship still has on both of them. Will-she, won’t-she? Her order demands she renounce everything, including acknowledgement of her past, but now she’s seen her old lover again, can she?
Actually, she does. Brigid can’t bring herself to kill the villain who has the drop on Jake, showing that her decision has been taken long before she arrived on Bora Gora, but really it’s Jake, being all Saturday morning hero at his most boyish, unable to be tied down by love, incapable of saying what ought to be said, until she turns away, unable to wait any longer.
What it’s really called is immaturity, and besides, he’s the lead in an adventure series and he has a romantic lead co-starring with him, so guest stars have to move on, though it’s plain for all to see, and if you want to take it on a deeper level than the show is prepared to go, utterly melancholy that Sarah will wait as long as Brigid and longer, renewal willing, for Jake to offer her any kind of commitment.
The hero as overgrown schoolboy. I’m sure that wasn’t what we were meant to think of this episode but it was what I thought. The Nun’s Last Fling could have been the formulaic template, but it was none of it sufficiently convincing to entirely work, as it was a little too deep for the surface on which Gold Monkey operates. Pamela Susan Shoop, showing literally nothing but her face and hands, was good at conveying to us that here was a beautiful young woman.
Three-quarters of the way through this one and only series, it’s time to look a little at its clumsiness. The show runs with a seven person cast, of whom only three play any kind of significant role on a regular basis. The three ‘villains’, the German spy, the Eurasian Princess and her loyal Samurai, barely appear, and the German spy is nothing but a figure of fun: a clear miscalculation on Bellisario’s part.
And the female lead, the romantic interest, who’s supposed to be an American spy, might as well not be there, which is an even bigger waste. Jake Cutter is a deliberately shallow figure, despite his philosophical voiceovers, but it’s disappointing to find him being written as a latter-series Captain Kirk, with the rge to rush after whatever pretty new face swims across his ken, whilst Sarah Stickney White moons around doing nothing, and gets treated like a joke when she is allowed something of the action.
I still like the series, but it’s starting to wear a bit against my memories. In 1983, I was disappointed that it never came back. In 2017, I’m rather more aware of the slow failings of it’s imagination.
I may not read comics much, these days, but I keep up with the news, and a couple of nights ago, I learned that the comic book writer Len Wein had died, aged 69, of complications following surgery.
Wein had been a mainstay of the mainstream comic book industry, as writer, editor and then again writer, for nearly fifty years. A lifelong friend of fellow writer and editor Marv Wolfman, the pair were among that first serious wave of fans-turned-writers/artists who began to transform the industry at the start of the Seventies, and what’s more, the pair did it at crusty old DC, where, in 1972, Len Wein co-created the first of two iconic characters, Swamp Thing.
I’ve written about the Swamp Thing at length elsewhere, and Wein’s original version of Swampy, as a man who lost his humanity to become a monster who was yet more human than those who reacted to him, was a powerful vision, and one that Wein returned to in the last decade, writing his character again after a forty year break.
In the meantime, Wein’s original version was subsumed with Alan Moore’s revised vision, in which the Swamp Thing was transformed from a man turned into a plant to a plant that erroneously thought itself to have been a man, paving the way for a further transformation into an avatar of nature itself. Though I’d loved and collected the original series, I was and am still even more impressed with Moore’s version. But whilst Moore’s career on Swamp Thing and at DC generally is indelibly associated with editor Karen Berger, it was not she who offered the job of writing Swampy to Moore, but the comic’s previous editor, Len Wein, who had the creative generosity to allow his own creation to be torn up like that.
Wein’s other, and substantially more famous creation, came at Marvel, where he worked for most of the Seventies, and was for a time it’s Editor-in-Chief. This was an offhand creation, brought into The Incredible Hulk, just because a Canadian superhero was wanted. He was just a no-mark one-off, until Wein was asked to revive the long moribund X-Men as an international team, and Wein brought in his Canadian creation: Wolverine.
So: Wolverine and the new X-Men, on top of Swamp Thing. If Wein didn’t go on to create anyone else of that magnitude, and if each of these achieved their greatest successes under other hands, the fact remains that without Len Wein there would have been no Swamp Thing, no Wolverine, no massively successful X-Men franchise, and maybe even no career for Chris Claremont, or success outside Britain for Alan Moore.
By the end of the Seventies, Wein was back at DC, where he now worked rather as an editor than a writer. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s The New Teen Titans is rightly credited with restoring the fortunes, credibility and morale of DC Comics after the disastrous Implosion of 1978: Wein was it’s editor. Swamp Thing‘s return after seven years in limbo was under Wein’s purview, and it was his lengthy discussions with Wolfman over DC’s complex and convoluted Multiversal history that led eventually to Wein editing another Wolfman/Perez project, Crisis on Infinite Earths.
He was also the editor who first started another landmark Alan Moore series, Watchmen.
I’m making Wein’s career highlights sound very much a thing of the past, but though he continued to work regularly, in comics and television, after leaving DC in the early Nineties, these are the accomplishments for which I, and fans of my generation, will recall. I will also remember Wein for making the Phantom Stranger one of my favourite ever characters, and for writing him, in issues 14 – 26, as far back as 1973-5, better than anyone else before or since.
There are aspects of Wein’s writing that, celebrated at the time, have come to be less respected as time went on. The original ten-page Swamp Thing story, co-created with the late Berni Wrightson, and as perfect a gem of compressed writing and emotion as I have ever read, is nevertheless ill-worn in its florid, indeed purple prose, which was so characteristic of Wein’s early style.
Nevertheless, he was a major figure, and his career was worthy of respect throughout.
But if nothing else, I owe Len Wein for a single comic. As I’ve related before, I grew out of comics in 1970, nearing my fifteenth birthday. Four years later, waiting to buy a post-haircut Mars Bar in a newsagents, I glanced at a rack of American comics and, out of mild curiosity, had a riffle. I ended up buying Justice League of America 107, which changed my life. I cannot begin to count what I’ve spent on comics in the forty-three years plus since, how many thousands have passed through my hands, the enjoyment, fascination, imagination I’ve experienced.
Len Wein wrote that comic. He did that for me. About a decade later, I met him for the only time, at a Convention in Britain. I got him to sign Justice League of America 107, told him it was responsible for getting me back into comics, and he shied away, as if I was going to ask him to pay back all the money he’d been responsible for me shelling out.
I need to thank him again today. Thank you, Len Wein. You may have acted as if you owed me lots, but it is I who owe you, even up to all the words on this blog. You started something that became unstoppable, and I thank you. We thank you. Give our regards to the Phantom Stranger as he leads you to where the good ones go.
Though this is apparently a highly regarded episode among those responsible for Deep Space Nine, for its dark, and in some ways ambiguous tone, once again I found myself less impressed than others, for the very reasons that the show is supposed to be so successful.
For most of its length, ‘The Darkness and the Light’ was an impressively taut one-off episode, a simple, almost simplistic thriller elevated by an excellent and intense performance at the heart of it by Nana Visitor, who hasn’t really been at the heart of things for a long time, thanks to her and Major Kira’s pregnancy.
Someone is killing the former members of Kira’s Resistance Group. Each killing is technologically advanced and surgical: only the intended victims are killed, no ‘collateral damage’. Each is accompanied by a short message in electronically distorted tones saying “that’s one”, “that’s two” etc., which Nog’s sensitive lobes identify as being recordings of Kira herself.
The Major is two to three weeks from giving birth (she gives both figures during the episode, though the longer one is to her captor so may be an exaggeration to try to buy time rather than an inconsistency), and not sleeping well, especially as the Bajoran herbs she’s taking to aid with the pregnancy are counteracting the sedatives. The loss of her friends is driving her into a frenzy as he can’t do anything about it.She even tries to get her old buddies Furel and Lupaza (the former played by William Lucking, who I’ve not long since encountered in Tales of the Gold Monkey) to leave it to the authorities rather than go off and kill the bastard, although they are promptly killed (offstage).
This last killing is the final straw. In the infirmary, laid low by grief, Kira removes her ear-jewellery, cradles it in her hands as she talks of her first mission for the Resistance, aged 13, and how Lupaza made her jewellery for her from metal from the skimmer she’d blasted. It’s a scene of peculiar intensity that lifted the otherwise straightforward plot to a higher level, amplified by how the steely determined Major than uses personal emergency codes to teleport into Odo’s office, steal and erase his list of suspects, and head off in a runabout all the more effective.
Unfortunately, and for me in particular, the episode collapses in on itself from that moment. Kira perfunctorily dismisses the first three names on the list and finds number four, Silaran Prin, to be the killer, ‘first time out’. It chops the legs out from under the credibility of the story on procedural grounds, especially as the Major is promptly stunned and restrained.
Prin’s the killer alright, and his dialogue about what he’s doing and why is supposed to be both poetic and loopy, but unfortunately only gets as far as loopy. It’s a confused and confusing series of contradictions on the theme of the opposition between darkness and light, meant to carry within it a degree of profundity but instead achieving meaninglessness. It’s wildly out of place with the utterly professional majority of the story, trying to wrap up an act of simple revenge in a philosophical construction.
Prin, you see, was badly disfigured in a Resistance raid led by Kira. But he was a non-combatant, a servant: he ironed shirts. And she, unheeding of consequences, was callously injured as ‘collateral damage’. Contrast this with his noble procedure of ensuring only the ‘guilty’ are killed. She is the darness, he is the light.
The episode reasserts itself for one golden moment as Kira eschews the cliche of admitting she done wrong, it was awful, I’m so sorry but we had to be extreme, in favour of a flat out accusation of Prin as an invader, an occupier, a despoiler of her planet no matter what he did, and good on you, Nerys, and bugger moral ambiguity.
But then it collapsed back on its quasi-poesy, with more darkness versus light as Prin prepares to distinguish between the two states by giving Kira an impromptu laser caesarian to spare ‘her’ baby. It’s all getting a little frantic here, as the cavalry isn’t even breasting the horizon but, as my once friend Linda told me, many years ago, escape is better than rescue. Kira fakes Prin out by asking for a sedative, pretending it’s worked, then kicking him in the Cardassian nuts and burning a hole in his chest with a phaser.
Which she then proceeds too spoil, when the cavalry teleports in, by going all poetic herself and musing that you can’t have darkness without light (Tritism 101) and how innocence is just an excuse for the guilty which, with the greatest of all possible respect, is simply bullshit and meaningless.
An ending that reeked of over-inflated ambition incapable of coherence that spoiled an otherwise well-formed and well-performed thriller. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.
There were nine episodes, just like yesterday, and that meant nine hours of watching, like yesterday, so how come the back half took the entire day to watch, and left no time for anything other than just food and drink?
I don’t know how long it will be before I can make any kind of sense about Twin Peaks. Maybe never. The back half was a slow adding up of resolutions, or such resolutions as Lynch and Frost were prepared to allow, and there were many of them, both trivial and major, though not all resolutions were the same. And through it all, that determined deliberate pace, that intensified what was slowly unrolling, until each scene became intense.
Another Director, one more in tune with contemporary notions of pace, could and would reduce this series by as much as a third of its length by cutting out the long silences, the slow burns, the moments when your attention became utterly affixed to the screen as you waited for the movement, the word.
This was television for the pre-MTV Generation, the attention-poor demanding another visual stimulus every two seconds. This was slow television, but not dragging television.
Was the ending satisfactory? Was there an ending? Of course there was an ending, the series has ended, but once again the stopping point was on the edge. But curiously, this was a satisfying engine, or it satisfied me. There was not the shock, the terrible wrongness, the despair of the abyss with which Lynch and Frost left everything twenty-six years ago. This time we knew, we understood, we expected. Twin Peaks ended at the end of episode 17. Episode 18 began with the beginning, repeated. It began again. It leaves emptiness behind it.
Not everything has answers. Some things remain even from seasons 1 and 2. How was Annie Blackburn, anyway? And Audrey Horne? For me, enough was given to frame her story.
To be understood in any real fashion, Twin Peaks needs to be binged in some way. A piece at a time is not good enough. It beats to a different rhythm. It is one thing and must be swallowed in as large gulps as possible.
When Agent Cooper looked into a mirror and saw Killer Bob, when he smashed his head into the glass and, blood pouring down his face and started to giggle, “How’s Annie?” over and over, it was possibly the most traumatic moment television has ever given me. Because Twin Peaks, which I had devoured from the first, which I had followed through the doldrums of mid-second season, was cancelled, and these were its final minutes, final seconds. Because the wrong Dale Cooper had come back, because everything was as wrong as it was possible to be, and what would come next would never ever happen.
Don’t say never. After this, you cannot say never. As long as someone is alive, the unbelievable can happen, and this year it did. Twin Peaks came back, for that third, incredible season, like Alan Garner and Boneland, completing the trilogy begun with The Weirdstone of Breisinga-Mein, from the most unexpected yet astonishing of angles.
I have watched Twin Peaks – The Return week-in, week-out, first thing on Monday morning. Throughout the summer, it has been the only contemporary television I have watched. I have sat there glued to each moment, watching carefully how David Lynch and Mark Frost have chosen to take this undreamt of opportunity.
Unlike other Twin Peaks fans, I have come to it deliberately cleared of expectations. As long as it answered that question that horrified me so back in 1991, what happened next?, I would wait and see. And it answered it, not in the detail I would have demanded in 1991, but simply enough: the Good Cooper has been trapped all this time in the Black Lodge, the Bad Cooper disappeared and has been doing evil, out of sight, all this time. Ok, good, that’s the answer, what do we have?
I admit to having only partially understood each episode, each week, if I have understood it at all. Characters have come and gone, and I have failed to remember the relationships, or where they have first appeared. But I have watched each segment of the eighteen hour film, and I am currently wondering just how I will make my way back to ‘normal’ television shows: it’s September, the Fall Season is almost upon us, and I am not even enthusiastic from The Big Bang Theory yet.
But I have a week and a half off work, and if thunder and lightning storms and the costs and restrictions of reliance on pubic transport put me off getting away, I can get away into a proper re-watch, a bingewatch, end to end.
Now I can’t do eighteen hours, but there’s nothing to stop me doing it over two days, nine episodes today, nine tomorrow. And I’m just coming down off episode 9, and it hangs together better when you know what it’s leading up to, and characters are no longer coming out of the woodwork, I can see them first being introduced, and I have a better handle on relationships, and on which of the multifarious strands ultimately feed into the spine of the narrative – and there definitely is one, believe you me – and which are there to remind you that Twin Peaks, that small-town America generally, is a place where things happen, and people do things that they don’t necessarily want seen in public, and not all threads lead to the web.
So I’m halfway today, and it’s the downhill slope tomorrow, and the first item on this year’s self-present list is the DVD Boxset. Or maybe my birthday, if I’m too greedy to wait…
It’s a long story, in both senses of the phrase. Forgive me if you’ve heard some of this before, but it needs to be put together. This is the story of the Last Cerebus I shall ever buy.
For those who don’t know, Cerebus was a 300 issue comics series, written, pencilled, inked, edited and published by Canadian Dave Sim, published between 1977 and 2004. Discounting newspaper strips, there is nothing comparable in comics for a long-running series by the same creator or team of creators. Furthermore, Sim’s efforts build into a single, comprehensive, overwhelming story that ends with Cerebus’s death in extreme old age. Leaving aside considerations of artistic merit, this is still an astonishing piece of work.
And whilst the early issues of Cerebus are effectively a public apprenticeship by Sim, the vast majority of the work shows him to be a creative genius, and a genuinely innovative artist who extended the visual vocabulary of the medium in many subtle fashions.
Let’s leave it there, for the moment.
My story is that, like many others, I first learned of Cerebus from the highly complimentary review of issue 12 by the late Kim Thompson in The Comics Journal. Alerted, the first copy of the comic I saw, in Dave Britten’s long-gone comics shop on Peter Street, just past the Free Trade Hall, was puzzling and off-putting. This was issue 20, an ultra-experimental issue that confused me deeply. I left it on the rack.
In October that year, 1981, I stayed with some friends in Nottingham for a weekend. The comic book shop there was generous with trades, and had a more impressive range of stock. The stuff I took down netted me £20 in trade value, and I gathered £19 of purchases with relative ease. But I was stuck on what to buy with my last £1, especially as it would be months before I would next be in town.
The guy behind the counter suggested Cerebus, issue 25 as it happened. It was worth trying, he said, and as I had nothing else I wanted, I should experiment. So I agreed, my purchases were rung up, and I had a good, long, lazy read, culminating in Cerebus.
In a way, I was lucky in my choice. This was the last issue of the ‘Barbarian’ phase, and it was out-and-out gloriously funny, an extended parody of Marvel’s Man-Thing and DC’s Swamp Thing, sharp, precise black-and-white art springing out of the page, endlessly cynical, flip, hilarious lines. I was hooked.
Back in Manchester, I checked out my comics shop, picked up issue 31, the latest issue. In Nottingham again, for a pre-Christmas visit, I was able to grab issues 26-30 and 32. From that point on, except for the six month period (issues 69 – 74) when the distribution deal from Canada broke down, I read Cerebus month-in, month-out, unwaveringly.
Having started as a regular, I had twenty four issues of story to catch up on. Sim’s decision to republish those issues in a series of six square-bound Swords of Cerebus collections, with witty, informative, fascinating introductions to each issue, and the odd rarity also reprinted, was invaluable, but within a couple of years, I had managed to collect a full set, including the exceedingly rare no. 1, of which only 2,000 were ever printed. Oddly enough, this wasn’t my last one: I closed out with issue 3.
And along the way, I gained a new friend, a part-time comics dealer who took stalls at several of the regular Northern Marts, including Manchester, who I met over a treasure trove of five issues, sold me two more early ones through the post, and who then asked if I would assist him at the Manchester Marts. And it was he who, when those missing six issues arrived in one go, the week I was away on holiday, grabbed me a set: one of those six rapidly became very scarce.
I was hooked on Cerebus. Each time a new one appeared, it was the first thing I read. The crisp clarity of the art, Sim’s masterful development of each page, the fantastically cynical and funny dialogue, the growing story…
I’d begun with issue 25, just when the series was on the cusp of change. Sim was growing ever more ambitious in his work. From single issue tales, concentrating on an antic wit based heavily in a broad range of parodies, Sim was slowing his stories, extending their length, moving deeper into socio-political concerns, making stories flow more easily, one into another, and with issue 26 he was ready for an incredibly ambitious leap. ‘High Society’ turned out to be a single, twenty-five issue story, concluding in issue 50. A comic book story that took two full years to read.
It was only the start. Sim had outlines his plans for his series: that it would cover Cerebus’s life until his death, that it would last 300 issues, and that it would be one coherent story in the way that 300 consecutive issues of, e.g., Superman or Spider-Man wasn’t. And, as you couldn’t re-publish a 25 part story as a series of square-bound volumes each collecting four issues, when it came to ‘High Society’, Sim published it as a single phonebook-sized collection, available direct from Aardvark-Vanaheim by Mail Order.
And the next story, ‘Church and State’, would last an amazing sixty issues, five years from start to finish.
If only as a publishing enterprise, Cerebus was a phenomenon, a groundbreaking exercise, and Sim the poster-boy for self-publishing, removing the Publisher from the equation, ensuring complete creative control, and keeping all the income after production and distribution costs. Sim, and his collaborator and junior partner Gerhard, were making far more money off an independent B&W comic whose circulation never extended much above 36,000, than any writer or artist drawing an industry favourite with hefty six-figure monthly sales.
(Gerhard, who, after all these years, still has no first or last name, depending on whether Gerhard is his last or first name, joined Sim on issue 65, drawing backgrounds for Sim’s figures. He is an astonishingly accomplished artist, producing highly-detailed, brilliantly realistic backgrounds that never distract from the foreground story, who had no interest in narrative. Theirs was a brilliant partnership. Judge Gerhard for yourself here).
I met Sim a couple of times during this period. He attended the 1986 Westminster based UK Comics Art Convention, where I played a tiny part in interviewing him for the fanzine Arkensword, bought the original art of page 3 of the shortly-forthcoming issue 77 – which I still own – and had him sign the first five issues. “Hey, a Number One. How much do you want for this? Two hundred? Three Hundred? Four Hundred? Five Hundred?” Seriously. I never knew if he meant Pounds or Canadian Dollars, but he was up to Five Hundred before I could get my comic back out of his hands.
The same year, he and Gerhard did a signing session at my mate John’s comics shop in Liverpool, talking and signing. Instead of doing quick pen and ink sketches, he and Gerhard would collaborate on full inked and coloured drawings, which would then be auctioned to the highest bidder: I won the second of four. We went for dinner at a hotel after the shop shut, though it was John at one table with Sim and Gerhard, and me, Dave and Steve at another.
Cerebus fascinated me. I developed a sixth sense for when it was due, would wake up on a Monday thinking ‘this is a Cerebus week’. The importance the story had for me can be summed up by another UKCAC. The latest Alan Moore Swamp Thing, a double-sized special,had come out and I stuffed it (carefully) into my bag for lunch. Then I saw someone reading the new Cerebus and went racing round the stalls until I found out who had it, bought it, looked around carefully, took two steps backwards to plant myself up against a pillar, and read it on the spot.
‘Church and State’ came out as two thirty-issue ‘phonebook’ volumes. With the second, Sim started offering limited numbered and signed early editions at an additional cost, and I started ordering these. By phone, from Aardvark-Vanaheim’s offices in Kitchener, Toronto, Canada. One time, Sim himself took the order.
Why was I so fascinated? Simply because Cerebus was that bloody good. Every twenty page instalment just made you hungry for the next twenty page instalment. I had been reading this now for over a hundred issues, a hundred and twenty issues, ten years. Ten years. Just think about that for a moment, and ask yourself, what artistic or cultural things of any form that you turn to now that you were following with the same fervour ten years ago? In terms of longevity, I have only four passions that sustained me for long periods: Manchester United, R.E.M., Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Cerebus.
Did I say I followed Cerebus unwaveringly? I did, very much so, for one hundred and fifty six issues, on a (mostly) monthly basis, thirteen years. Until…
It’s the one that stops you in your tracks with Cerebus. Whoever you are, whatever your opinions, it’s the sleeper rail across the train track, that brings the train to a crashing halt, derailing everything. That’s right, issue 186.
To set the context: Sim had declared Cerebus 1 – 150 as ‘the Male Half’. He had started ‘the Female Half’ with ‘the other long one’, “Mothers and Daughters”, which was broken down into four books, three of twelve issues, the last of fourteen. As early as issue 111, he had had Iest invaded and conquered by the Cirinists, a matriarchal society, which had had depicted as adopting a fascistic approach, based solely upon safety for women and, especially, children.
“Mothers and Daughters” was based on conversations Sim had had over several years, leading him to classify women into those two categories. Simplified, his theory was that become a mother changed a woman, turning her into an inherently fascistic creature whose sole motive, for which she would sacrifice anything, was the safety and preservation of the children. It was notable that, in passing, Sim mentioned that it was the first time he had ever had conversations with women without wondering how he could get to sleep with them. Yes, right.
The third book of this ‘long one’ was subtitled ‘Reads’. Reads were the Iestan equivalent of comic cooks, cheap, lurid, often highly sexualised, serialised booklets. Sim divided the comic into two radically different parts: one was a silent fight between Cerebus and Cirin herself, in the throne room of Iest, the other a prose story. Over the course of these twelve issues, he told two stories.
The first, in the third person, was a satire on the comic book industry, with specific reference to companies like Dark Horse, and Vertigo. ‘Reads’ writer Victor Reed comes up with and sells an idea that enthuses him, is creatively original and fresh, but finds himself tied down by his publishing contract to perverting his vision to commercial requirements.
This was replaced by a first person narrative by Viktor Davis, an obvious Sim stand-in (his middle name is Victor). Slowly, the art scenes grew fewer in pages and the text more. Until it all came to a head in issue 186.
186 was Sim’s manifesto, through the voice of Viktor Davis. It’s the statement of his thesis that the world is in a state of war between reason and emotion, between Light and the Void. Nobody thinks any more. Everybody feels. Rationality has been overwhelmed in favour of what fuzzy-feelings make you feel better.
Parts of Sim’s argument hold water. It’s an interesting theory, for which there is a high degree of evidence around to support its terms. Unfortunately, Sim assigns his sides on strict gender lines. The Male Light. The Female Void.
Early on, he tells his audience that he has complete power over them, that they cannot turn away and stop reading. He demonstrates his control. He says that years before, he decided to make Cerebus a 200 issue series, not 300, but only reveal this until issue 186. I can’t begin to describe the jolt that gave me, to suddenly think I had just over a year more of this, not the nine and a half still ahead.
And he goes on to lay out that the underlying theme of Cerebus what it had been about all along, was anti-feminism. And, for someone supposedly dedicated to rationalism and thought, he went on to describe women in vile and hateful terms as leeches directly stripping a man’s brain with rough tongues.
Until I, who had followed the series unwaveringly for thirteen years to this point, stood there wondering, if this was what it was about, did I actually want to read issue 187?
Obviously, I did. I would go on to the end, by which time I now understand that circulation was so far down that Sim was making a loss on every issue. For a very long time, despite the underlying theme, Sim was still producing works of genius. And there is an underlying secret to writing that Neil Gaiman once whispered: that there is room for things to mean other than they say, and my own wrinkle on that is that a lot of the time those things are not what the author intends.
I could not accept Sim’s viewpoint. It was cleverly expressed, but also maliciously designed, in that the argument was hermetic: disagreement with it was ipso facto confirmation of it, or so Sim intended. I still can’t agree with it except in the abstract term of an opposition between Thought and Feeling, without gender attachment.
The series went on, past issue 200. I still read it, though not with the same avidity. “Mothers and Daughters” end was an end of a sort, the final 100 issues an extended aftermath, the series by then a metafiction. Another element found its way into Sim’s approach, God. He became the devout pursuant of a personalised, hybridised religion, combining Christianity, Judaism and Muslim, and pieces of each. Needless to say, this was a male God with a specifically anti-Female belief.
Sim’s creed in 186 became widely known as a Misogynist manifesto. He was pilloried for it, and became an outcast in the industry. For a long time, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but instead of letters’ pages in the monthly comic, Sim wrote essays and other manifestos, the cumulative effect of which being to make the misogyny undeniable to anyone with any intelligence.
Still I read. The storyline had become deliberately disjointed. Much of “Rick’s Story” was framed as a Gospel text, deliberately difficult to read, but it was succeeded by the reappearance of Cerebus’s long-term love, Jaka, and for all that he was for Thought against Feeling, Man against Woman, Sim could still catch the magic of love, the rush of feelings and the ecstatic joy of just being together.
And in the end he crushed it, viciously, citing terms and beliefs that he regarded as a natural matter of male honour, that did not need to be stated to be understood by any ‘true’ male but which came over as cooking a straw man to those of us who are obviously not ‘true’ men.
By now, Sim was a virtual recluse, withdrawn from the industry, withdrawn from his peers, withdrawn from anyone except those who would parrot his beliefs. I’d met him, interviewed him spoken on the phone, but I knew I would never repeat any of that because Sim now demanded a ‘loyalty oath’, a written statement that you didn’t think he was a misogynist, before he would have contact with you, and there’s no way I could sign that. Cerebus, for all its flaws, was still good. Still very good. Jaka was rudely removed from the storyline, Cerebus went north into the equivalent of Canada, stayed there forty years, until everybody else in the story had died off, then came back south intending to get himself killed by the Cirinists.
And it all went wrong, and the story went off a cliff, with long, unfunny sequences based in religion and Sim’s anti-woman rantings. A sense of disorder set in, as if Sim, so close to the finish-line, had lost mental control, was swinging wildly between his obsessions. The Men won back out, in vile fashion, Cerebus became a religious leader, indulged in months and months and months of Scriptural analysis, dividing the gospels into the words of a male JHWH or Jehovah and a female JHWH, or YooHoo, which gives you some idea of the intellectual level we were operating on by now. It was deadly dull at the very best of times.
But I had lasted this long, I was not going to be denied issue 300. And after 23 years, I wanted to make an event of this. So I bought issue 300 on the Saturday and started reading on the Sunday, with issue 1. I intended to read the whole series, end to end, and only read 300 after all 299.
It took a bit longer than I expected. By nighttime on Sunday, I had only reached issue 150. So on Monday, I phoned in sick, with a headache, and read 151 to 300. And I only managed to read it in the day by skipping all that bleeding Bible commentary.
And then it was over. Curiously enough, and most welcome, the car crash last three years, of which the last twelve months had proven to be exceptionally sick-making, as Sim threw all sense of anti-feminism restraint to the winds, ensured that the transition from 269 consecutive months of Cerebus to nothing was completely pain-free.
In the thirteen years that have followed, I have re-read Cerebus only once. It was a painful experience: all those books following books where Sim displays what makes him such a brilliant writer/artist, knowing even as I read what sort of end it all comes to, and then that ending to negotiate. This time, I re-read all the bible stuff determinedly: it took as long to get through as the rest of the entire series, or so it felt.
Sim remains a self-appointed outcast. If he didn’t hold himself aloof from everybody else, he would undoubtedly be outcast anyway. His opinions have not changed: if anything, in isolation he has become more self-righteous about them.
He holds a grudge against the world for allowing him to be treated like this, for not standing up and defending him. He imagines a world, that he acknowledges he will never live to see, where his self-evident truths are once again accepted as the pure truth they are to him.
For several years, I followed the independent A Moment of Cerebus web-site. There was something new every day and so many times it was art by Sim that I had never seen before, and which I enjoyed. There was news and commentary and Sim’s whingeing, for I cannot put it in any other way.
Things have not gone well for him. His post-Cerebus comicbook, Glamourpuss, was not a success, though it’s chosen subject wasn’t exactly commercial. Nevertheless, it did frame an ongoing story that demonstrated that Sim the artist and Sim the analytical mind were still operating at a high level, and once Glamourpuss was cancelled, plans were put into operation to publish The Strange Death of Alex Raymond as an independent series.
It would be good. Even after all these year, with his faculties beginning to slide slightly, with age, would have been good. But Sim can no longer draw at all. His drawing arm is disabled, his wrist damaged by what appears to be Repetitive Strain Injury. Unpleasant though the thought is, I cannot help but wonder if his God has finally had enough of the shit being put out in his name, and taken steps to punish his lonely disciple.
Sim has even revived Cerebus, as the mini-series, Cerebus in Hell, in which one page stories are created using paste down Cerebus figures against Gustave Dore backgrounds, with witty exchanges. Some people hail these as wonderful but I cannot understand why: there is no trace left of Sim’s ability to make me laugh.
In the end, I gave up. The new art just isn’t worth the constant self-pitying whining from Sim who, when all is said and done, is only six months younger than me and is too old to still be going on with all this shit.
What, then, brings on this blogpost, and why is it titled ‘The Last Cerebus’? Last year, after lengthy preparation, saw the publication of a large-scale hardback book, The Cerebus Cover Art Treasury. Every cover from all 300 issues, with as much of the original art as could be sourced, plus a number of sketches and commentary by Dave and Gerhard.
It was an expensive item, and I’m not easy for expensive items, but just recently, on the back of some effective eBay sales, I found myself with enough disposable cash to purchase a reduced price copy. It arrived, I’ve read it, I’ll keep it. But it’s the last Cerebus I shall ever buy.
It’s interesting, it’s frequently informative, it’s a high class production. And it’s full of the same old whining about how Sim is an outcast with its underlying tone of how he is the only man who is correct and all the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket because they refuse to see what is so obviously SENSE! And I won’t put up with that anymore.
I have, effectively, two sets of Cerebus. I have a complete set of issues 1 – 300, many of them signed by Sim and, where relevant, Gerhard. I have the phone books, all of them First Editions and many of them in the middle the Limited Numbered Signed editions. Between the phone books and the cover treasury, I think it’s time to cash in.
But Cerebus was a constant presence in my ‘cultural’ life for nearly a quarter century. I invested a lot of time in it. This is a memorial to that time.
There was a point, midway through the latest episode of Gold Monkey, when I thought that the series was being exceedingly unfair to Caitlin O’Heaney, whose Sarah Stickney White is supposed to be a) a US Government Agent and b) third in the cast. The series is exceedingly unfair to her as, once again Sarah is sidelined for nearly all the story, but the introduction of guest star Shelley Smith as Sabrina, a beautiful blonde US Government Agent out to recover precious microfilm from a certain Mr Yamamoto seemed a particularly wasteful snub to our resident spy.
However, I was decidedly wrong on that score, as I began to suspect during the back half of the episode, where twists and turns began to turn up, one after another, until my ultimate suspicion over the beautiful Ms Smith’s true loyalties turned out to be spot on, much to Jake Cutter’s chagrin.
Let us, however, wind back to the beginning to explore the set-up. The beginning is clear across the Pacific, in Shanghai, where Japanese speaking characters kill as associate of Yamamoto, but fail to prevent him and his boat leaving town. Meanwhile, on Bora Gora, Jake, Corky, Sarah and Louie are playing poker with the beautiful and highly-skilful Sabrina, who is getting right up Sarah’s nose, to which the bedazzled Jake is completely oblivious.
We then shift to Tagatiya, and the real high stakes poker match ($20,000 to enter) is being held in Princess Koji’s Casino. Jake’s been hired to fly Sabrina in, and he and Corky, immaculately cleaned up and, in Jake’s case, tuxed up as well, have been hired as escorts. Koji immediately tries to escort Jake to her bed (no female likes a hot shot blonde, there’s some pretty mutual bitchery going on here) but when he puppy dogs after Sabrina, the Princess lets slip a dark hint that our card-weilding doll may not be what she appears to be.
Of course she’s not, she’s a Government Agent. The other players include a complete anonymous Count, there to make up the numbers and not speak, a boorishly stereotypical stetson hatted Texan, who’s been badgering Sabrina for, well, we know what all the way across the South Pacific and… Mr Yamamoto.
Henderson, the Texan, is losing money hand over fist to Yamamoto as a contrived pay-off for the film, because he’s a Government Agent too. Not working with Sabrina, as I originally guessed, but for the Germans: yeah, he’s an obvious German plant…
But Sabrina tries to steal the film, which only gets her and the unknowing Jake kidnapped on Yamamoto’s boat, twenty miles out to sea and counting. Here, Sabrina spills the beans and I start to wonder why they couldn’t have given this story to Sarah.
Because I’m missing something. Jake and Sabrina get out of their cabin, snatch a boat, plan to get clear but wait, she has to go back for her purse, it’s got the film in. Meanwhile, Henderson and Corky are in the Goose, searching, and finding Yamamoto’s boat just in time to see it be torpedoed to splinters. Corky is devastated: he’s lost his best friend, his guide, protector, counsellor, but most of all his best friend. All he has left is drink.
But you and I know Jake’s not dead. He and Sabrina end up castaway on an atoll, wherein she tells him all the spy stuff I’ve just related before shagging his brains out.
Nevertheless, they’re back on Tagatiya before the day’s out. Jake finds Corky before he’s too far gone, Sabrina leaves her poker-winnings in Koji’s safe for ‘safe-keeping’, Henderson is found dead and Jake rushes everyone off, with Sabrina trying to sit in his lap in the pilot’s chair whilst they fly to the night.
Back on Bora Gora, Sabrina’s set up a romantic dinner in Louie’s back room, and she’s bought Jake a tailor-made white three-piece suit as a going away present, the going away meant to be both of them. They have each fallen in love. Here is where Sara does come into her own, with a quiet, reserved dignity from Caitlin O’Heaney, magnifying the emotions by minimising them.
The problem is that Jake, even through his sex-suffused emotion, has worked it all out. Sabrina didn’t go back for her purse with the film, the purse Yamamoto and his goons had turned inside out, it was to radio a Jap sub to torpedo the traitor. Henderson was a US Government Agent, who was buying the plans with his poker losses, and he was murdered by Koji on Sabrina’s instructions. She’s a Government Agent, alright, a German Agent.
And both she and Jake are too much patriots for this to end well. If she really loves him, she’ll give him the film. Instead, she pulls a gun on him. In true deus ex machina fashion, Louie pulls a gun on her but, instead of her handing the film over, she exposes it and scrunches it under her heel. C’est la vie, and la guerre.
Having acted like a twat throughout, Jake tries to make it up to Sarah by invitong her for lunch, to explain. He doesn’t need to, she says, still maintaining that cool and very impressive dignity. He says he knows he doesn’t, but that’s why he’d like to, over lunch. And it’s the same kind of romantic evening meal in the back room, only at lunch, and Sarah does start to show gentle signs of softening but, thankfully, we get the comic ending with Corky assuming its meant to be lunch for three, so the romantic tension between Jake and Sarah that allows Jake to go off and be a twat with any other pretty guest actress because he’s never actually made a commitment to Sarah is impliedly restored, and we don’t have to put up with any male chauvinist bullshittery from Stephen Collins.
I’m sorry, I know I defend some dodgy elements in this series by reference to the time period in which it was made and the time period in which it is set, but sometimes you have to call this stuff out, whenever it was perpetrated. Caitlin O’Heaney was unfairly sidelined during this show, but at least we were spared one degree of humiliation.
And I did like this episode, which was clever and strong in every other respect…
As I have mentioned, I have a problem with titles when it comes to books. I have no natural capacity for them, and whilst I’m satisfied with the titles I’ve ended up choosing for previous works, they don’t come until very late in the process, and several times the book has spent a long time under one title before I come up with the one that feels better. The first two books of the Tempus Trilogy were ‘The Infernal Device’ and ‘The Two Jacks’ for literally years.
The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel has been operating under its clearly sarcastic title for decades, and the only printed copy of that first version is under that name. It obviously isn’t going to be applicable to the final, available version, but I’ve been bereft of ideas for anything that might suit.
A few days ago, apropos of nothing, I remembered a very early Talking Heads song with a title that seemed to fit the underlying story reasonably well. I started playing around with it, with different versions and variations, trying to find something that seemed to fit.
Then I went on YouTube to play the song, which I don’t have in my collection. And I discovered I had misremembered the title, which wasn’t anything like as appropriate, indeed, it wasn’t appropriate at all. On the other hand, my misremembered version still fitted. And it had evidently come from my subconscious, where all the heavy lifting is done.
So I’m taking that as evidence that I’m on the right track, and the more I think of it, the more comfortable I become with it. Whereas Talking Heads first broke out with the single, “Love Goes to Building on Fire”, I have now titled 2017s literary project as Love Goes to Building on Sand.