Saturday 30 June 2007

Comics You Should Read: Jaka's Story

I'm going to write about Countdown in a few hours, but before I do, I thought it might be fun to post something a bit different. A lot of the time here I've been talking about comics I don't find very impressive, and don't have much to say about. That's not especially edifying either for myself or for my readers, so every so often (like I did with my post about Alice In Sunderland ) I'm going to write about something outside of the normal range of this blog but which I think anyone who enjoys comics will get something out of. Don't worry, I'm going to keep the Countdown focus for as long as I'm reading that comic, but I'll post one of these when the mood strikes.

To start with, I'd like to talk about Jaka's Story. This post is actually a slightly rewritten version of something I wrote a few years back, so apologies to those few of you who've read it before.

This one is very, very hard for me to justify here, because it's by the most horribly misogynist person I've ever heard of, someone whose every idea is anathema to me, someone who I believe to be anti-life in the true sense - everything he believes is about sucking the joy out of the universe. He wants everyone in the universe to live an ascetic life in which we do nothing but worship God, shun women and bomb brown people. Dave Sim appears to have read the Bible and Koran, found that they tell a strange Manichean tale of Good vs Evil, taken sides and started worshipping Darkseid.

And yet...

This is the single truest book I've ever read. The things it has to say about relationships, about people, about actions and their unintended consequences, about resistance to tyranny, about art... they're true and speak to me in a way no other book does. This book is by someone who I consider evil, who would celebrate the death of me and my friends, and is part of a larger work that towards the end espouses a worldview I find at least as appaling as any I know of. But it is still something I'd recommend everyone read. It's that good.

In 1988 Dave Sim had been working on Cerebus for 11 years. What had started out as a simple-minded parody of Conan the Barbarian (and an attempt to hop on the Howard The Duck bandwagon) had quickly become something more complex, and Sim had produced two ‘graphic novels’ (not counting the compilation of the first 25 issues), the 500-page High Society, a wonderful 1930s comedy, mixing the Marx Brothers with Warner Brothers cartoons (Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, Foghorn Leghorn and Yosemite Sam are all characters, retooled to a greater or lesser extent to Sim’s purposes), and the more complex 1200-page epic Church & State, which was inspired in equal parts by Tolstoy and Jules Feiffer, as what starts as high farce becomes genuinely gripping political drama, a true novel of ideas in the 19th century mould (albeit not up to the standards of complexity of a Tolstoy, but far, far above most writing in any field).

As wonderful as those works are (and to many people they are the ‘early, funny stuff’, and they’re still the books that get promoted as Sim’s best work), Jaka’s Story is something else. While Church & State had been a gigantic, complex, tightly-plotted work involving hundreds of characters , Jaka’s Story is a small, human story involving a tiny number of characters. Where Church & State is Tolstoy – empires and religions rising and falling, destinies of nations hanging in the balance – Jaka’s Story is, instead, closer to the work of Ibsen or Bernard Shaw. It feels, in fact, like a stage play. There are only eight characters with any sort of important speaking role within the story – Jaka, Cerebus, Rick, Oscar, Mrs Thatcher, Pud, Nurse and the nameless soldier – and I could easily see it being performed by a very small-scale theatre company.

Much like the works of Shaw or Ibsen, each of these characters more or less stands for an idea. Unlike Shaw, at least, the characters still work as characters. Jaka’s Story is a true tragedy in a way that very few people have managed in the last century. There are no truly ‘good’ characters in the story, but nor are there any truly bad ones – they’re all motivated by mostly selfish motives, but try their best to be decent within their own moral framework. Pud, the character who is motivated by thoughts that are at best disturbing and at worst comes very close to committing rape, is also the only character who doesn’t end up causing huge amounts of damage to everyone else’s life. Conversely, Mrs Thatcher is (or appears to be) motivated by a firm moral and ethical code, but this allows her to commit acts that no-one but a fanatic could possibly condone (it is no surprise that Sim now finds her the most sympathetic character in the text). Cerebus is motivated solely by his own drives, but even he finds it impossible to cause any harm to Rick, and it is his desire to help that leads him to be away during the denouement, and thus unable to save them.

None of these characters are ‘sympathetic’ in the classic sense of only doing good or decent things, but I can identify with all of them, from Mrs Thatcher letting her morals destroy others’ lives, to Pud Withers trying his best to behave like a decent person but with no outlet for a sex drive that leads him into ever-more-dangerous fantasy territory. All the characters are, objectively, horrible people when judged on the basis of their actions, but they are no more so than I am, or most of my friends.

That’s the real tragedy of this story – that well-meaning, more-or-less-decent but flawed people can, merely by acting in perfectly reasonable (or, at least, excusable) ways, end up causing immense harm to themselves and to those they claim to love. There is no way that these people, in this situation, could end up other than horribly damaged or dead, but the outcome is one that none of them would have wished for. Even without the reveal that Sim uses, or the (literal) Macguffin that he puts in place to lead up to the reveal, the situation is one that eventually had to end up with all or most of the characters dead, in prison, or semi-catatonic with grief, which is (of course) how the story ends.

But as well as being a wonderful human story of emotions, Jaka’s Story is also a story of ideas. While the emotional story is one that has been played out again and again, the specifics of the plot are absolutely grounded in the world that Sim set up in the previous 100 or so issues of Cerebus – nearly a decade of background details set up. The way Sim uses this background is exemplary – people can read this story without ever reading another Cerebus story (and they have – when I passed this to my friend Tilt, for example, he said it was the kind of book he wants to buy hundreds of copies of and give to everyone) - all the details you need to understand the plot are made explicit in the story. But at no point is there ever a moment of ‘as you know, your father the king…’ – there is no exposition at all, in fact. Sim gets around the problem in two ways, both of which he has used throughout his career.

The first, and most obvious, is that the background can be understood by the characters’ actions. Pud Withers’ reaction when Cerebus tries to pay him with a gold coin shows everything about how valuable gold is in this time and place. Rick’s reaction when he figures out who Cerebus is shows exactly how important a figure Cerebus has been in the recent past.

The other technique is one which has often led to criticism of Sim – his use of famous people, both real and fictional, in his stories. Throughout the 300 issues of Cerebus, more people from pop-culture and history have appeared than one could count – comedians (The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Woody Allen), comic creators (Seth, Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Eddie Campbell), politicians (George Washington, Mrs Thatcher), writers (Oscar Wilde, Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald), and musicians (Mick ‘n’ Keef, George & Ringo) have all appeared in thinly- or not-at-all veiled (and in the case of Mrs Thatcher literally veiled) form. Many of Sim’s more cretinous critics have said this is a sign of a lack of imagination on his part. In fact, it’s no different from the use of stock characters that dates back to the commedia dell’arte . If you see Oscar Wilde and Groucho Marx having a conversation, then you know things about those characters that would take dozens of issues to impart otherwise. This use of these characters is an invaluable shorthand that allows Sim to tap into a sort of collective subconscious, and write very powerfully – the fact that he uses Wilde as a comic-relief character in Jaka’s Story makes Melmoth (which is a comics adaptation of the letters and diaries of Wilde’s friends during the weeks before his death) even more powerful and affecting. And there is no greater ‘oh shit’ moment in the whole history of comics than ‘My name is Mrs Thatcher. I’m here to help you’.

This means that we have a very, very rich background to this story, implied with the lightest of brush-strokes, and which allows Sim to do very interesting things. In particular, the Cirinists, who have often been used merely as evidence of Sim’s misogyny (as if such evidence were needed), are extremely well thought out. Sim manages to create a government that, perfectly consistently, is totalitarian, theocratic, matriarchal, pro-censorship, pro-life, dresses in something close to the burqa, is redistributive, creates an absolute safe space for women, makes people significantly materially better off, and actually leads to most people being happier. The Cirinists contain within themselves most of the views that would make them hated by both the left and right, and so consistently that it will make many readers question their own views, because they will be shown to lead logically to views that they despise. What’s amazing though is that they are shown as making the world undoubtedly a better place for the vast majority, but still shown as bad. For Sim, at least the Sim of Jaka’s Story, totalitarianism isn’t wrong because it makes people’s lives worse; it’s wrong because it removes freedom from them, and no improvement in quality of life is worth that.

But all these pale in comparison with Jaka’s Story as a formal achievement. Reading the book, certainties are overturned time and again. Prose passages that we are encouraged (or, rather, not discouraged) to think of as being written by an omniscient narrator at the beginning of the work, filling in parts of Jaka’s back story, turn out to be from a novel written by Oscar, based on Rick’s accounts of Jaka’s memories. The nurse who is an evil ogre in Oscar’s telling is revealed at the end to be a kindly old lady who did her best to raise a difficult child – but is that the nurse lying to herself about her own past?

The more you read this comic, the more you realise that you know nothing. Every single character (except possibly Rick) has a motive to lie (and Rick is either so stupid or naive that his remarks may well be untrue because he hasn’t understood the situation, or he is pretending to be that way), and every single character does lie, several times. We have absolutely no way of knowing how much of what we’ve read reflects the ‘real’ actions of these fictional characters, and how much is different sets of lies coming into conflict. In a very real sense, one cannot say what ‘happens’ in Jaka’s Story, because we don’t know if anything does.

There is much, much more I could say about this. I haven't even mentioned the art, which is some of the best I've ever seen, by both Sim (figures/lettering) and his collaborator Gerhard (the meticulously rendered backgrounds). Then there's the symbolism of Jaka’s doll being used in place of the Nurse’s head. And I could write 1000 words on the short piece of text that ends ‘bad Missy’, let alone the use of repetition, the child abuse that may or may not have happened, the way that the appearance of the Cirinists has a totally different set of cultural associations now than it did 15 years ago… but I could write a book bigger than the comic itself on this stuff. I’ll just tell you to go and read it, and mention one other thing:

I’ve been trying not to spoil plot developments (although I don’t think spoilers actually matter - anything that depends on one shock to be worth reading isn’t) but anyone who’s heard the ‘cantina’ version of Heroes & Villains, by the Beach Boys, will recognise that the plot is almost identical. The really strange thing is that that song was recorded in 1967, but not released until 1990 - after Jaka’s Story. Great minds do think alike.

And speaking of great minds, I'd just like to point out to people interested that my friend Matt Rossi has recently restarted his weblog, Once I Noticed I Was On Fire, I Decided To Relax And Enjoy The Fall . He's currently writing a lot of excellent stuff about comics, and further back in the archives you can find some wonderful speculative-history posts and great short stories. He's one of the best writers I have ever read, and you'll find that any one of his posts will give you things to think about for days after reading it.


Anonymous said...

Great review, I totallye agree. I've been working thru Cerebus and wasn't really sure what all the todo was about regarding Sims' politics. Then I got to Reads and wow! Disturbing. But I still plan on pushing thru, although it is tough to support a Darkseid worshipper like that.

No Radio said...

It's nice to see someone writing about "Cerebus", since there really is so much to talk about within the series. A friend of mine just told me he's looking at starting up a site with lengthy review of each of the phonebooks and he's been reading a whole lot of Conan and Moorcock to get a sense of Sim's influences for the early work.

For myself, I don't know that I've ever suffered the kind of betrayal of trust from an artist that I did when I got through "Reads". I bought two more books hoping there'd be some sort of explanation or apology and then quickly sold off everything for about $2 a pop on eBay.

What particularly amazed me was the lead-up. Sim was at his peak when he decided to slap his readers in the face; "Cerebus" was selling more than it ever had or ever would and Sim knew it. Just one issue before Sim pissed all over his readership, the Roach, brunt of a lot of the series' industry in-jokes, briefly morphs into 40,000 Eyes Roach, exactly the number that'd be looking at the next issue's print run.

Anonymous said...

In the context of the Cerebus universe Jaka's Story is easilly the one that could be used to 'hook' another reader in without having to explain "yes, he's an aardvark, well see its like a metaphor" and you would probably want to tell them that the series ended with Cerebus leaving the bar to be with Jaka and ignore the last few books.

Sim wrote Jaka and the Cirinists with such depth that I was convinced he had somehow been granted sight beyond sight into how women think, years later it became apparent that he had merely pulled a Rick and was aping female attitudes and reactions without understanding them.

If the bookshelf was aflame Jaka's Story would be one of the first I'd try to save. Also, I second the idea that a production of Jaka's Story as a play would be an enthralling way to spend an evening.