It’s a decade now since the surprisingly successful Virgin Comics attempt to revive Dan Dare in a form acceptable to the contemporary age, and now Titan Comics have discarded the habit of a lifetime, of only publishing comics that have been successful for other people, and have hired Peter Milligan to write and Alberto Foche to draw a new series.
This time, we’re looking at four issues, so that if it’s a disaster, at least it will be brief. Today’s visit to Forbidden Planet included the first issue, so I want to record a few immediate impressions.
Garth Ennis, ten years ago, seemed an improbable writer for a traditionally ‘straight’ character who was born out of the desire to present a truly clean-cut cut, moral yet still quite human hero for young boys, yet he understood the ideals of the Pilot of the Future came from and respected Dan Dare, and his version was worthy of revival.
Milligan, on the other hand, has always been an iconoclast, an underminer of all things established, and a trickster of a writer. I’ve read very little of his work, it just not being to my taste, so I was doubtful of the choice from the moment I heard of this.
His set-up does, at first, promise a different approach. For one, there is no Prime Minister appearing as a veiled depiction of David Cameron or even, thanks all the ghosts of Spacefleet, Theresa May. On the other hand, we have the Mekon: of course we’ve got the Mekon, we always have the Mekon. It’s like only ever having Doctor Who face up to the Daleks.
Milligan’s included a lot of the old cast already: Dan, Digby, Peabody, Hank Hogan, Sir Hubert, Flamer Spry, though he’s jumbled some of them around. Digby, or ‘Digs’ is now an engineer and openly calls his Colonel ‘Dan’, Peabody’s a Special Science Advisor who walks around in uniform and carries big guns, and Dan only ever calls her Peabody. Hank’s had one line so far, and already sounds out of character.
Then there’s the Mekon. Milligan’s story, subtitled ‘He Who Dares’ actually starts five years ago, with the Mekon as the democratically elected President of Earth and Dan’s little band declared terrorists. That is, until they expose the hypnosis machine by which ol’ Greenbean has cooked the result.
He’s been in rehabilitation for five years, concentrating his supreme intelligence on growing food on the moon. Even when a Liberation Army comes to free him, he orders them to disband and hands them over to Dan for incarceration.
Can the Supreme Brain overcome the Genetic engineering that made him into a power-crazed overlord? Has he? Milligan’s certainly come at things from a previously unexplored angle (for what it’s worth, I’m going for No).
But the only problem is, if the Mekon is beaten for good, there are no enemies left. No obstacles to Galactic peace and harmony and progress. Nothing for Dan Dare to be Dan Dare for, and Dan’s actually praying for something for him to do, to get back into space for.
Which is when a dirty great spaceship appears out of nowhere, Crypt-like, and destroys one of Saturn’s moons, just like that. Dan’s prayers have been answered, or so it seems. No hint yet as to whether Tharl and his empire exist in this Future, though again I’m going for No.
Apart from this bit about Dan Dare wishing for violence and enemies, which is not, never has been and never will be any part of any legitimate version of the character, it’s reasonable enough so far. Certainly worth suspending judgement over until we see more.
As for Foche’s art, I’m always going to start off by looking askance at anything not authentically Hampsonian, and it’s fair to say that this art in no way draws from the master. Apart from a token effort with Digby, and an even more token one with Sir Hubert, oh, and of course Dan’s eyebrows (that’s all anyone ever cares about: get the eyebrows properly crinkled and it’s Dan Dare, no matter how wide of the mark everything else is), Foche makes no effort whatsoever to follow any existing design work.
And his Mekon, redesigned to make the big brain a bit more organic, has immediately become less frightening, less distinctive, less alien. Even at his most evil in the flashbacks, this guy just doesn’t look in the least bit evil: Hampson’s Mekon, indeed his Treens, were unnatural. It’s why they worked so bloody well in the first place.
But I won’t judge until the series is over, unless it takes an irreversible nosedive into the sludge to the point where it’s obviously a schtumer. There are two pages of Foche’s designs featuring half a dozen and more characters we’ve not yet met, none of whom thrill me with anticipation, but we’ll see. It won’t take long, at least.
Just over three years ago, and as part of the series on Uncompleted Stories, comic book series that have never seen their full intentions come to fruition, I commented on Matt Wagner and what we had all, in the beginning, was going to be his most significant work, Mage.
Mage was conceived as three series, each of fifteen issues (the last of which being double-sized), representing different stages in the life of everyman, Kevin Matchstick (a metaphor for Wagner himself), who learns that he is the modern incarnation of the Pendragon: of King Arthur.
The first series, ‘The Hero Discovered’, appeared between 1984 and 1986, from Comico. The second, ‘The Hero Defined’, did not arrive until 1997, a delay engendered in large part by Wagner’s struggle to regain the rights to his work after Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990.
And after that a long silence, still prevailing in 2014 when I wrote. I had anticipated/resigned myself to another decade, but we were well beyond that period, and so I categorized Mage as Uncompleted, and that was that. Thankfully, I am not a prophet.
About four or five months ago, Wagner announced the appearance of ‘The Hero Denied’, to the same fifteen issue format, again to be published by Image Comics, who brought us the second series. And today, my visit to Forbidden Planet in Manchester has seen me bring back issues 1 and 2 of the final story.
It’s far too soon to pronounce. Wagner is still drawing in the same style he used for ‘The Hero Defined’, with his son Brendan as colourist. A decade has passed since the events of that story: Kevin may still go in for the same black-and-white Captain Marvel influenced t-shirts, but he’s bald on top. He’s also married, to Magda, witch and one of the Weird Sisters of Mage II, and they have two children, Hugo, aged about eight or nine, and Miranda, about two. They’ve been in hiding from the nasties, but chance has exposed Kevin, less than a week before Magda’s potion of pure protection will be ready, after eight years preparation.
The Umbra-Sprite is once again moving, as are the Sprite’s spawn, but these are now Grackle-thorns, and all six are female. They still hunt for the Fisher King, who was absent from series 2, but they still seek revenge upon the Pendragon, and especially now his children, of whom Hugo, by the end of issue 2, has learned that neither the world nor his Dad are what he’s so far been let to believe.
No sign yet of the Third Mage, he who will follow Mirth and Wally Ut, nor yet a glimpse of anyone who may be that Third representative of Magic, and no attempt yet to come to even a premature verdict on what I have read, nor will there be until Mage, but in this year when Twin Peaks came back, and when I took a thirty year old manuscript and made it something on the verge of publication, here’s another moment of unexpectedness, and resignation refuted, to make this world, at least momentarily, less of one where faiths fail, possibilities close and stories go without endings.
Amazon have just informed me that Volume 3 of the Deluxe Sandman Mystery Theatre collections has been cancelled.
This is what you call a pisser.
I assume sales didn’t justify it, so I shall blame you lot out there. Hustle and buy Volumes 1 and 2, persuade DC that continuing is commercially viable, and incidentally treat yourself to some bloody brilliant stuff, and I shall smile upon each and every one of you, fondly.
And so it came to pass. The classic Eagle, the mid-Fifties version of the paper that is the height of excellence and stability finally came together in Volume 6. You may date that to issue 4, when the last of the classic line-up finally made it’s appearance, George Beardmore and Robert Ayton’s Jack O’Lantern, a wonderfully atmospheric Napoleonic Wars-set series centred upon ten year old Jack York, son of a supposed traitor fighting to clear his father’s name, or if you want to be really pernickety about it, you could postpone that moment to issue 18, when Frank Hampson returned to Dan Dare with the first instalment of the ‘Man from Nowhere’ Trilogy, displaying a quantum leap in his art, not just from ‘Prisoners of Space’ but from Hampson’s own best work.
The difference between stories, replacing ‘Prisoners’ undetailed outlines, two-dimensional art and pallid, flat, primarily pastel colouring in which even the space scenes appear to be brightly lit, to Hampson’s rich, detailed art, its ranger and depth of colouring and, most of all, the subtle use of light and shadow to give everything a three dimensional aspect, is immediate. The difference in story quality is also immediate: I’ve seen Alan Stranks credited as starting his Dan Dare run with both ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Man from Nowhere’, but taking into account the latter’s bitty and inconsistent storyline, I can only believe that he makes his debut with Hampson’s return.
‘The Man from Nowhere’ ran for twenty-eight weeks, including the issue of Eagle published the day I was born, for which I have an obvious special affection. It segued into ‘Rogue Planet’: indeed, the entire series still had more than two full Volumes to go before it’s end and it was superb its whole length.
Stranks’ accession to ‘Dan Dare’ doubled his work for Eagle, with ‘PC49’ going strong on page 3. ‘The Case of the Golden Knight’ took until issue 21 to complete, and ‘The Case of the New Member’, introduced a new, stereotyped, self-important and prank-playing new character in Elmer Cheeseborough Nutt, not to mention his over-protective mother was still in action when the volume ended. This last, at an eventual 37 weeks, was the longest ‘PC49’ adventure to appear.
By this time, 49 was only appearing in Eagle, with the BBC Radio series having been discontinued in 1953, by which time Archie had not only married Joan but had been turned into a father, a continuity a world away from that enjoyed by Eagle’s readers.
‘ESI’s third series, consisting of two very long foreign journeys, to the Kalahari and the Middle East, only came to and end the week before Xmas. Professor Puff’ forged on, inexorably, though instead of travelling to far off and foreign lands, the Professor and his little Dog spent most of this year travelling to far off and implausible times.
‘Riders of the Range’ completed ‘The Heir of Duncrieff’, writing out the monocled Jim Forsyth by finally guiding him to his ancestral home and lairdship in Scotland before segueing into ‘The Terror of the Pecos’, as Jeff and Luke set off back to Texas with Jim’s young cousin, Matt, who’s coming to Texas to learn how to be a man. Unfortunately, he’s going to learn it from the Indians, and Matt, having given his word, is determined not to be rescued.
‘Luck of the Legion’ was dominated by ‘Earthquake Island’, in which a shipwreck distracts our familiar trio from a secret mission in the Far East by stranding them in India where they restore a young boy to the Rajahship usurped by his tyrannical uncle. Then it was off ‘South of Senegal’ for the next adventure, still getting up steam.
And so to ‘Jack O’Lantern’ on page 10. This was the last, and in some ways the least of Eagle‘s great line-up, though most of that status derives from it running the shortest time: only nine serials, several of which, in the great Hampson manner, ran into one another, like phases of a greater novel. Jack York is the son of an accused traitor, Captain Yorke, and is being bullied in an orphanage when he is assisted to escape by Corporal Kettle. Though delighted to find his father alive, he is shocked that the Captain has become a Tobyman, or Highwayman.
But the Captain has been framed by his rascally brother Humphry, who has taken their ancestral home. And Humphry is the actual French spy, and the Captain’s new profession a means of searching guests to the house to find who is Humphry’s contact.
But ‘Stand and Deliver!’ ends with Captain Yorke trapped, wounded, arrested and thrown into Newgate Prison. Jack, who knows the truth, battles on alone to right the wrong.
Ayton’s art, in full colour on page 10, is firmly in the Eagle tradition of photo-realism. He is strong on period detail, just as Beardmore is full of the times. Jack is befriended by gypsies, who talk in the Romany manner, and by the thieves culture of London under the Bow Street Runners, who are full of their thieves cant. It’s bright, colourful and atmospheric, and if sometimes Jack’s actions exceed the plausibility required of his age, it never extends too far into the fantastic.
‘The Three J’s’ continued in their established manner, though matters were enlivened in the holiday story ‘Vive Le Northbrook’, which saw the boys travelling to France with a slightly older companion in a decrepit car, striving to keep a rendezvous with ‘Goosey’ Gander and his father, who are to transport them back to England. It’s a predictable but enjoyable deadline-story, up-against-the-odds stuff enlivened by the unusual decision to have the J’s driver meet and fall in love with a French Mademoiselle in the last chapter.
The half page format was not really working for ‘Harris Tweed’, there being insufficient space to engineer anything but cheap and obvious gags, so John Ryan decided to change to a serialised format himself, extending stories over six weeks or so, to much greater effect. There’s further evidence throughout this volume of his art gradually softening and rounding, to the point where it’s possible to see the connection to the animated ‘Captain Pugwash’ style that was so successful for so long on BBC TV.
After the conclusion of ‘The Silver Sampan’, Richard E. Jennings took a nine-month sabbatical from ‘Storm Nelson’, with Giorgio Bellavitis taking over the art duties for the next two stories, overlapping into the next volume. Bellavitis was a much less distinctive artist, with far less vigour and a less bold use of black-and-white, though visually the most obvious change was to stick a leather pilot’s helmet onto Bash Callaghan almost permanently. Jennings’s controlled exaggeration was definitely missed!
Bellavitis came off the back-page Real-Life Adventures story, ‘Mark, the Youngest Disciple’, written by Chad Varah, to take over ‘Storm Nelson’, which saw Norman Williams return to draw the life of Abraham Lincoln, as written by Alan Jason, a pen-name for Sergeant Luck’s Geoffrey Bond.
Among the minor features, the excellent George Cansdale half-page, with Backhouse’s superb art, gave way to the writer’s ‘Insect World’, with similarly excellent colour art but slightly less appeal for one adult reader.
The other big thing of 1955, was the big promotion given to the Eagle Club, which got several full-page features on p15 when it was introduced, before rather dwindling away to a calmer position on page 6, alongside the sport, when more art was required.
So now Eagle had achieved a settled line-up of excellence and vivid quality as it hit the middle of the decade. How long would this last?
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.
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.
From the shortest Volume of Eagle to the longest, as the vagaries of the calendar gave Volume 5 53 Fridays on which to publish. From this point onwards, each Volume represents a calendar year.
We’re very close now to Eagle‘s classic form, with only one feature still to make it’s debut. Well in advance of that, a stalwart of the first four years took it’s bow: only two short serials, both drawn by Hampson assistant Harold Johns, not long before his unjust sacking, before Tommy Walls came to an end in issue 13: four years, almost to the week, of fanatical ice cream consumption. Did the average health of 11 – 14 year olds suddenly soar?
Otherwise, there was little change in the strips and series, the main ones being MacDonald Hastings’ return as Eagle Special Investigator and the debut of the best of its half-page true-life/nature series.
ESI’s second run lasted just over a year but, as the readers themselves noted, did not involve the same degree of potentially dangerous activity as before, and much less need for Hastings’ brand of self-deprecation. Every so often, his page was supplanted by Readers Letters about his adventures, the best of which earned an ESI Pen-knife.
His break was taken up mainly by real-life adventure stories, but in November he was back, this time with a serial adventure featuring Mac and his regular photographer, Chris Ware, on an extended African safari to find the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, which carried over into the following year.
The other feature was to be a long-running half-page by popular TV naturalist of the era, George Cansdale, with splendid detailed and coloured art by Backhouse. Too many of Eagle’s half-pagers, though factually accurate, suffered from sketchy and imprecise art, but Backhouse’s style, and his vivid colouring, set a standard the comic never equalled in any other of its factual features, and the series ran for years.
Dan Dare saw ‘Operation Saturn’ through to its end, and a substantial portion of ‘Prisoners of Space’. By this time, there’s no overt suggestion that Frank Hampson is doing any part of the drawing, and its usually accepted that the latter part of ‘Saturn’ was pencilled by Don Harley and, because the studio was greatly reduced of assistants, and Hampson’s second physical breakdown meant that prolonged rest was essential, the work was sent out of the studio to be finished by Desmond Walduck, the preferred freelancer for situations like this.
But, especially in ‘Saturn’, there was still a clear difference in art between the cover and page 2, with the latter less-detailed and more bland, except in close-ups of Vora, last of the High Ones. When ‘Prisoners of Space’ takes over, however, Walduck’s style more or less swamps that of Harley, and there is little of interest in that. Colouring on both stories is flat and dull, making the style particularly two-dimensional.
This is not a good volume for the qualities of Dan Dare.
PC49 was fully settled into a familiar groove, in which each case would be inspired, in one fashion or another, by a new Boys Club member. ‘The Case of the Bad Egg’ introduced potential wild kid Dusty Dawson, fending for himself whilst his mother was ill in hospital, and trying to help his Uncle Knocker, of Knocker and Slim and ‘The Case of the Terrible Twins’ in Volume 2. But Dusty believes what his Uncle has told him about being framed, and as soon as he discovers Knocker is a crook, and one who intends forcing him into the business, he does his best to break away and help 49 and the Boys Club bring in the crooks.
But Dusty doesn’t reappear, despite being made a member at the end, and being invited to bunk in at Mrs Mulligan’s until his Mother is out of the hospital (the Mulligan Twins, well aware of their own brush with wildness, have turned into the most generous with waifs and strays needing somewhere to stay).
In contrast, Tam Piper, who is so much a Scot he goes around in a tartan kilt (and tartan pyjamas) doesn’t generate the case, but being a mechanically inclined young lad, is central to the Boys Club being able to present an old crock of a car to their President, to relieve his sore feet, and have it run. But the car conceals a map of the stash from a jewellery heist ten years ago, coincidentally in the same Cornish cove 49 and the boys are going to on holiday and the theif has just got out of prison… But Tam stays on and features in other stories, with his heavy Scots accent.
Partway through the volume, the increasingly simple adventures of Harris Tweed are moved out of the back half of the comic and onto page 5, opposite ESI, whilst David Langdon’s ‘Professor Puff’ continues on its mildly fantastic way, with the Prof and his dog Wuff having adventures initially in the Arctic and then in Outer Space.
It’s still not all that enthralling and, with Swift coming along to complete Hulton’s little group of Redtop comics, aimed at the gap between the kiddies of Robin and the more mature readers of Eagle/Girl, it may have been a bit more appropriate to shunt Puff and Wuff sideways a bit.
When we left Luck of the Legion, the Sergeant and Corporal Trenet were taking on a new mission in ‘The Secret City’. Bimberg turned up working (inefficiently) as a cook, but when the new Commandant refuses to believe in the mission, Luck and Trenet fake an attack to cover breaking away in defiance of his orders, and take Bimberg with them, as he actually is a good sharpshooter. It marks the beginning of the true partnership, and the continual balance between Bimberg’s childishness, love of toffees and ability to form relationships with every kind of animal, and the senior Legionnaires’ constantly inventive insults about his weight and general competence. The Three J’s was also as well-established as PC49 and adopting a similar formula in introducing a new boy at Northbrook School in each story, who in one form or another turns out to be at the heart of the adventure, being a French boy facing kidnap attempts, Martin ‘Goosey’ Gander, who is confined to a wheelchair, or the mysterious ‘Somebody’ who is running a secret protection ring.
Ling by now was cleverly attuning his stories to the rhythm of the school year, alternating 10-12 week serials corresponding with terms, and 4-6 week serials set in school holidays. On the other hand, every time the J’s started a new School Year, they were always back in the Fourth Form, which, with two supposedly clever boys among the Three, suggests that everybody was bloody awful at exams and kept having to be kept back en masse!
Storm Nelson demonstrated its international spread, concluding the first adventure in rescuing not merely Lloyds Agent Don Kenyon – who would become a regular source of commissions for the Silver Fleet – but Captain Kidd, aka Kerfuffle’s Dad, who promptly leaves his spunky Aussie son in Storm’s care to run permanent risk of death and danger!
The Silver Fleet next turned up in the Mediterranean, running a fake archaeologist and an exiled bandit to a Greek Island wracked by earthquake in search of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, before sailing out to the Pacific to intercede between feuding South American republics. Jennings’ art was clear and bold, robust and dynamic, and his depiction of Honeybun and Xerxes were lovely models of eccentric looking people who nevertheless remained completely believable.
On the back page, ‘Alfred the Great’s life story continued until issue 16, after which it was succeeded by that of Scout Movement founder, Robert Baden-Powell. Marcus Morris was at pains to point out the personal significance of this to artist Norman Williams who, as a Scout aged 12, had been commended for his artistic skills by B-P himself!
To be honest, I found the hagiographical portrait of B-P, especially in his school and early Army career, to be off-putting of the man, making him appear to be arrogant rather than confident, but then I am not and never have been a Boy Scout or any similar creature, so I’m not necessarily the best to judge. Or maybe I am? The series was collected as an Eagle book in 1957, incidentally.
To conclude: I’ve already mentioned that Frank Hampson is popularly regarded as having been absent from Dan Dare throughout this period, and his name does not appear on any page of art in the series. Indeed, ‘Operation Saturn’ strays widely from the original synopsis Hampson develops, completely dropping the attack on eugenics he’d conceived as fundamental, and despite his using his son Peter as the model for ‘Flamer’ Spry (at least from the neck up!), I can’t see him having any input into ‘Prisoners of Space’.
And there was still a substantial chunk of that story to go in Volume 6, but Frank Hampson did contribute one page of splendid art, beautifully coloured and detailed, on the penultimate page of the Christmas issue. Entitled ‘The Editor’s Christmas Nightmare’ it is a fantastic mash-up as (nearly) all Eagle‘s characters turn up in a single spot, wearing each other’s gear – Dan and Digby swapping outfits with Jeff Arnold and Luke, Sergeant Luck and PC49 arresting each other for impersonating the other, and Harris Tweed improbably popping up in the Mekon’s pink jumpsuit and on his flying boat, to lead everyone to the true culprit, Marcus Morris sleeping on the job after too much wine at Christmas lunch!
It’s brilliantly drawn, in the mature style Hampson would unveil when he made his full-time return to Dan Dare, but there’s also a bit of barely suppressed nastiness to it, with Morris being ridiculed openly (the bit about the wine was definitely true to life), and the panel where he pleads for mercy from the characters had to be altered to eliminate the noose Hampson had put around his neck…
But as a harbinger of what to come, it’s mouth-watering, and Volume 6 would see that standard of art burst onto the scene, along with the final piece of the classic Eagle puzzle.