Wednesday, April 6, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #3: CEREBUS #298-300
(I would think it would be self-evident that no one would read, or want to read, this analysis w/o having read the entire CEREBUS run. Nevertheless, SPOILERS, SPOILERS, and MORE SPOILERS.)
PLOT-SUMMARY of “LATTER DAYS 33-35:” Having reached the end of his days, Cerebus the Aardvark lies bedridden at his estate. He receives a visitor: Sheshep, his only son by human female Joanne. Sheshep, who shows no trace of aardvark ancestry, reveals that he plans to overthrow the religious orthodoxy Cerebus worships, with the help of his mother. Sheshep shows Cerebus the fruit of the grafting techniques he and Joanne have derived from Cerebus’ old enemy Cirin: a human infant hybridized with a lion cub. Moreover, the baby is a clone of Sheshep, and he believes that when the technique is perfected, they will produce a monstrous sphinx-like creature, one that shares Sheshep’s consciousness, and that in that form he will rule the world as a living Sphinx: “Harmaclus, the Egyptian god of morning.” Cerebus is appalled by his son’s perfidy and tries to get out of bed and kill him, but the Aardvark collapses and dies. His spirit leaves his body and he finds himself ascending into a radiant heaven populated by all of the people he knew in life. At the last moment Cerebus realizes that he’s approaching something more like a hell than a heaven. He tries to retreat, calling on God for help, but the light sucks the spirit of Cerebus into nothingness.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: A full myth-critical analysis of the 300 issues of CEREBUS is clearly impossible in this venue. Aside from the sheer quantity of issues involved, such an analysis would also have to deal at length with author Dave Sim’s own philosophical shift during the course of the CEREBUS serial project, in which he essentially converted from a position of religious relativism to one of absolutism. Based on my exchanges with Sim, I feel certain that Sim would not philosophically agree with the idea of his work being analyzed in terms of its archetypal “fictional myths.”
Nevertheless, the conclusion of CEREBUS is a stunning mythopoeic creation, eclipsing any comparable fiction-myth from so-called “artcomics.” Over many years a series that began as a simple funny-animal parody of Marvel’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN comic-book adaptation took on increasing layers of mythic and literary complexity, referencing the Bible, famous literary figures, and what James Thurber called “the war between men and women.” Yet one part of the CEREBUS myth remained grounded in the mythos of Robert E. Howard, who made a similar use of a fictive Egypt as a locus of obscenity and decadence. Howard’s Hyborian world was always represented as a distant “ancestor” of later real-world civilizations, but toward the end of CEREBUS Sim dispenses with this sort of fantasy-worldbuilding, and begins letting real-world culture, particularly that of the Old Testament mindscape, bleed into Sim’s world of “Estarcion.”
To be sure, Sim’s vision isn’t always coherent. The idea of pagan recrudescence is never far from either ancient Christian polemics or modern versions of same, including Sim’s own. Yet in a mishandled attempt to reference the division between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds, Sim has Sheshep tell Cerebus that the new worshippers of “Harmaclus” [sic] will be “a new group of believers… called Muslims!” Given that Sim stated on many occasions that he deemed the Koran to be a holy book equal to those of the Jews and Christians, this conflation of Muslims and archaic Egyptian pagans is puzzling in the extreme.
Nevertheless, Sim is inspired insofar as he draws parallels between the theriomorphic deities of ancient Egypt and modern Judeo-Christian fears of human-animal hybrids. I confess I do not know by what cultural quirk the Old Testament’s rules against plant-grafting became so inflated in modern American culture that even George W. Bush railed against the potential for blasphemous hybridizations, presumably in reaction to the innovations of cloning technology. However, Sim’s Sphinx-metaphor is ideal for portraying that fear of physical and spiritual pollution.
Sim also adroitly suggests that Sheshep’s grand design is doomed to failure. Sheshep believes that his consciousness will merge with that of the Sphinx (though he confesses that as yet he and his mother haven’t managed to keep the hybrids viable). Cerebus, though not directly referencing the Greek “law of identity,” exposes the foolishness of Sheshep’s plot, pointing out that Sheshep can’t experience the sensations of even the infant-hybrid he holds. There’s an additional irony that Sheshep, born of a union of a human woman and a humanized fantasy-animal, rejects his father’s beliefs but physically wants to become theriomorphic, like his father. Admittedly, he does trump his father by wanting to become an animal with more noble associations than the humble aardvark.
There’s relatively little in these three final issues that directly concerns Sim’s controversial opinions on male-female relations. Of course Sim’s demonization of femininity has its mythopoeic role to play: in contrast to the real world’s cloning experiments, which were produced by a dominantly male scientific hierarchy, in Cerebus’ world the evil of hybridization results from the impious efforts of evil feminist Cirin, the aardvark’s estranged wife Joanne and “mama’s boy” Sheshep. Furthermore, when Cerebus ascends into the “false heaven,” he sees foremost in the crowd of phantasms the three human beings who had the greatest impact on him—two of whom are male, while the other is his first true love Jaka. But it’s the face of Jaka, not the two men, that corrodes before Cerebus’ eyes to reveal her demonic nature: the male phantasms, though presumably no less demonic, aren’t seen as insidious specters.
Certain other sections of CEREBUS possess similar levels of mythicity. I imagine I’ll cover a few of them in my “1001 myths” project, but as none of them are as rich as the conclusion, I felt that “the last had to be the first.”