Lunar New Year Readings, #36: High Society by Dave Sim

High Society is a book I should have reviewed last summer. I read it in Saskatoon, in fact finishing it the night before I departed on a flight to Montreal, and forgot to review it when, a few days later, I arrived back in Jeonju. Only when looking into another graphic novel I picked up in Canada did I remember having read Sim’s fascinating graphic novel, and only then did I realize I’d been remiss in not reviewing it here.

High Society tells the story of an aardvark named Cerebus, wandering in a world of humans. It’s a magical world, a swords-and-sorcery world, and the aardvark is, well, trying to work his way into high society. He’s aided and foiled along the way by various curious characters including Lord Julius (who is basically Groucho Marx), Julius’ wife Astoria, a madman named Artemis who likes to dress up in superhero garb and charge about attacking evildoers (which means attacking anyone Astoria points at), a bizarre fairy character who lives in Cerebus’ hotel room.

Cerebus High Society cover imageBut what the book is really about is more complicated than that. There’s a lot about politics, especially campaigning; there’s a fair bit about how charisma can allow someone to get a lot of people to do a lot of things without thinking; there’s some clever criticism of the “high society” that dominates Iest; some very clever poking at the infantilism of the super-hero figure as a character; and a downright mesmerising performance by Sim in creating a character in Cerebus who is at once a total jerk, but also a completely sympathetic and completely supportable protagonist. I found myself cheering for the aardvark, and not giving a damn for any of the other characters whom he stomped on to get to the top of Iest’s government.

The graphic novel is wordy, wordier I think than any graphic novel I’ve ever read before (except The Watchmen in places, but more consistently so than The Watchmen and, I think, better-drawn). It’s a long haul, at over 500 pages, but a fascinating one and, it turns out, part of a much longer story-arc that includes 16 graphic novels in all.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that Sim — a Canadian artist, by the way — has turned out to be extremely controversial. Comic book fans tend to have some pretty strong opinions on his thinking regarding gender and power, his characterisations of men and women into types, his opinions regarding the influence of feminism on Western society. Some of what I’ve read in quotation sounds, well, sounds like it is coming from someone with mental problems, especially a kind of paranoid delusion, and so it’s hardly surprising that Sim in fact was diagnosed as a borderline schitzophrenic, and that “During his convalescence, Sim hit upon the idea of making Cerebus into a 300-issue series, something that had never been done in comics with the same artist and writer” (as stated in Wikipedia).

But madder artists have still created profound and worthwhile work. I haven’t read much of Sim’s misogynistic rants (beyond what’s here), and I’m not sure I wish to get too wrapped up in a series of books that, as they progress, become more and more a springboard for the misogynistic rants of a madman, but at the same time, there is a part of me that considers the 16-volume, thousands-of-pages long work as quite potentially the first real graphic-novel epic. As a champion of independent graphic novels, I admire him. But I have some strong reservations about his misogynistic thoughts.

Perusing his essays, I have to give him some points for picking up at least some of the things wrong with society today: journalism really has become all about “How do you feel?”, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t to the exclusion of attempting to track objective events as well. His writing of what it feels like after one leaves a marriage touched a nerve, and while in me it didn’t result in an analogous generalized misogyny, I recognize parts of what he describes as the Emotional Female Void:

I have not had a Merged Permanence in my life for five years. It took at least three of those five years for my brain to start functioning properly again. In the aftermath of being part of a Merged Void, all that is left for some time is Void Residue: Emptiness, Fear and Emotional Hunger. It is these three and the endless, fruitless search for a Permanent Cure that the Emotional Female Void calls Love. If you merge with that sensibility, you will share in its sickness. No matter what you pour into it, it remains empty; no matter how you reassure it, it remains afraid; no matter how much of yourself you permit it to devour, it remains hungry. If you look at her and see anything besides emptiness, fear and emotional hunger, you are looking at the parts of yourself which have been consumed to that point.

The ability to be alone, to have isolation as your primary state of existence, will serve you in good stead in any situation in which you find yourself. The ability to live in Merged Permanence teaches you only how to function within the context of Another’s neuroses, inadequacies and failings. It teaches you how to use your own neuroses, inadequacies and failings as both cudgel and petition. When the Merged Permanence ends, whether next week, next year, five years from now, ten years from now, you are left with completely useless life skills, emptiness, fear and emotional hunger.

Of course, I see those traits of Void and neediness in people who were abused when they were young, who were treated in a sexist manner all their lives, who are mentally ill and seek relationships as a form of psychotherapy — and there are plenty of people, men and women alike, who do this. I see it also as part of the misleading mythology of “love” that has been building in Western society since the High Middle Ages. Sim’s error seems to me probably mostly one of generalizing these problems from his own relationship to ultimate reality, to a kind of underlying Yin-Yang that suffuses the whole universe into a gendered binary, rather than seeing it as specific symptoms of a specific relationship he had in his life, or seeing both parts of this “ying-yang” dynamic as elements of the universal human psyche — including his own.

I think there may even be something to his sense that, to the degree that Corporations (a) aspire to make Company Men out of married men, and (b) at the same time go to extremely great efforts to establish an image of domestic normalcy through all media, which is suffused with consumer products and feature a wife amid the shiny consumer products — the deep-freeze, the dishwasher, the microwave oven, the newly renovated family room, the wide-screen TV, and (c) normalizes the role of a wife as the figure who embodies domestic demands and the husband as the role of domestic provider — that the Corporation really has in some sense co-opted marriage. Marriage in the twentieth century, the house with the white-picket-fence and the breadwinner husband and the wife stuck at home alone with the kids and the car and the dishwasher and the myriad of other things one had to buy when one married — this was more than a legal or religious agreement in our age. By sometime in the mid-twentieth century, it had become a kind of consumerist institution.

By “consumerist instition”, I mean a crucial system of ensuring that people continuously consumed a very specific type of products and services. The American Dream was not so much about freedom or luxury as it was about the kind of privilege to become a normative consumer in America, and the gender roles that were implicit within it definitely assigned women the work of being the driving demander of consumer goods. Look at all media from the 50s, or modeled on the 1950s culture and you’ll see the same pattern again and again: wives asking or telling their husbands about some new, absolutely necessary purchase. Husbands making faces or grumbling but finally capitulating, agreeing to add one more expensive “luxury” to the home. What Sim doesn’t seem to agree about is that both men and women playing these roles are really just cogs in a bigger system, both of them enslaved by it.

The bigger system (as I see it) is neither feminist nor patriarchal; it is corporate, money-centered, and antihuman… but it puts on the guise of either patriarchy or feminism as it pleases, and in the end serves neither sex but instead the rich classes at the expense of the rest of the society. And it’s worth noting that in its current incarnation, in which two-income families partition the raising of children to hired hands and to spare hours in the evening, the freedom to work is championed as a gained right by women. Whatever happened to the idea that perhaps everyone, male and female alike, should be a little more free from work, a little more free to live with their families in vibrant, healthy relationships? Now the absent father is complemented by an absent mother, both of whom are replaced by a babysitter or daycare service. Certainly we have moved in the wrong direction, by pulling yet one more parent out of the home? Surely we ought to be aiming for a society where home-work is more possible for parents of both genders, a society where surrogate parents motivated solely by income are less and less, rather than more and more, the norm? (And this is not such a pie-in-the sky idea, really.)

There is another troubling element in Sim’s writings: the element of the madwoman, the woman-as-consumptive-void and the beleaguered rational man who must accomodate her and is thereby consumed by her. Sim seems to be asserting that this is universally true; that it is at the core of marriage; that it is a central fact of the difference between man and woman. Again, some of this I feel a very uncomfortable echo with; I don’t like the resonance with my own past experience, and I have to say that it does not resonate well with my current experience. This is not a case of saying that, “Well, some women are like that, but not all of them,” because what I am saying is that perhaps this is a common pattern in relationships, but that it is also not merely because of women’s nature. I think there is an element of the selfish, the infantile, the me-me-me drive that Sim characterizes as Female Emotional Void, inside every human being. It’s certainly present in Sim, despite his apparent desire to proclaim his rationality; a great deal of the essay linked above is deeply emotional, and suckingly demanding of its reader’s sympathies and self-identification. It’s interesting (in a sad, quiet way) how Sim, himself diagnosed with mental illness, seems at pains to project what looks like mental illness onto womankind; it speaks of a rejection of some element of oneself, and of a projection of it onto the Other, which for Sim has been determined to be Womankind.

Just as I refuse to believe that the Emotional Void is essentially female, I refuse to believe that Sim’s “Rational Male Light” is actually essentially “male”; while the predominant majority of artists, scientists, and philosophers in the world across history indeed have been men, there are many reasons for this. For one thing, they weren’t saddled with kids that were considered universally their responsibility not only to produce (at great physical peril) but to raise; they weren’t often given opportunities to study or advance, and when they were (and when they are now) they demonstrate themselves as being capable of great things. And there is also the probability that things men do have been celebrated as “great achievements” because, well, men do them. Wars and the inventions of new weapons — mainly the domain of men — have also been celebrated as “great achievements” which is the height of human idiocy. Is it not possible that the “great things” women have managed to do despite adversities over the millennia have simply been overlooked? And that, likewise, some of the “great things” men have done have, in all, not been so very great at all? Does the advantage of biology and circumstance reveal that men are more rational, more spiritual, more ethical, and more wise? Or does it reveal only itself — that men have enjoyed circumstantial and biological advantages and that some of them (a small minority, to be sure) have put it to good use, but that when given an opportunity some women, too, also manage to put their freedoms to good use in the arena of thought, philosophy, science, and art? I am certain it is the latter that is true.

Sim’s almost-Medieval response to some very real and very pressing problems in the world is frustrating because it seems to me to fit squarely into a form of megalomaniac infantilism that is exactly complementary to the “needy female” stereotype he advances. Misogyny is, after all, not only about a resentment of women, but about a praise of the superiority of one’s own kind, which is deeply infantile and deeply megalomaniacal (and which I have observed in both men and women, just as I have observed needy, demanding neurosis in both men and women alike). This, at least, is what I take from the essay linked above. In some ways, it is a performative gesture illustrating the tragedy and the pitfalls of someone taking on the task of serious thinking about society, when he is ill-equipped to do so, and when he has it already in his head that he knows the “truth” about things.

But all of this, I must say, is digression from High Society. In this book, none of these issues arise, and none of them is even really hinted at. These issues come up much later in the Cerebus series. I would love to hear commentary from someone who has read more, most of, or even all of these books to see if they do feel it is a worthwhile endeavour, slogging through all of it to the end.

2 thoughts on “Lunar New Year Readings, #36: High Society by Dave Sim

  1. Interesting post, half review of Cerebus, some talk of Dave and more interesting discussion on what you believe about the world structure.

    As for your question – from one who has read the entire Cerebus series (several times over) – I say continue on until you don’t think you can go any further. That point is different for many people. It took me a while to get through Latter Days and Sim’s Torah commentary, but that is up ahead in book 15, and many funny, poignant and thought provoking stories take place before all that tiny type. And as with all of Dave’s stories, even that tiny type raises interesting questions. While I don’t agree with all of Dave’s answers, the book is always well drawn, structured, and interesting.

    And besides – I’d like to read your comments on the other 15 books. :D

  2. Okay, next time I pass through Canada perhaps I’ll pick u p a couple more of them. Or, perhaps I’ll order a few of them, when the whimsy hits me. But I do have a ton-load of other books to get through first.

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