Cerebus and the outsiders
The exhibition was called The Alternative Guide to the Universe, which was a misleading compromise of a title. If anything, it was a collection of guides; a polyphony of self-appointed authorities. Had the show at the Hayward Gallery, which goes on until the end of August and I’d recommend going to, been a fashion collection it would be called Hayward Gallery x Museum of Everything. That x implying a collaboration, a mash-up, a limited-run guest appearance, a lower-case signifier for our cross-pollinating era. I’d have no issue with that as a title because I like the Museum of Everything. I went to their opening show back in 2009, when they were on Primrose Hill in a cramped but endless honeycomb of rooms. I like outsider art, which is what the M of E specialises in; the work of self-taught artists, people who’ve practiced their art without training, frequently without contact with other artists, sometimes in total isolation. Without any commercial purpose, no matter how far down the line that goal is for any artist. Often creating art in secret, telling nobody, their entire body of work discovered by chance after their death.
There were theories of the universe, illustrated with compelling power. Mathematical links between Goethe’s colour spectrum and the I-Ching and dates in the calendar. A man who’d disproved gravity, saying that we perceive objects to fall when actually the ground is coming up to meet them; that the Earth doubles in size every 19 minutes. Cardboard constructions which are, in one man’s meticulously observed hypothesis, the building blocks of the universe. Next to them drawings of the circulons, linked rings, which another believes all matter is assembled from. Invented universal language. Time machines. Spaceships.
But, more than the theories, there were universes. Cityscapes in primary colours from a new world, an approaching utopia, where gospel music provides the insistently positive hub around which society revolves. Intensely detailed cathedrals, miles high, backlit so their tiniest aspect shines forth. Cardboard models, made of packaging materials, of curved, impossible buildings from the dreams of cities. Worlds spewed out, brought forth to paper and the world of the physical because the pressure was too great to keep them in. It’s a mistake to think of outsider artists as mad; in most cases, their circumstances might be unusual but they’re perfectly aware that they are artists, that they are creating art. But it’s hard, for the ones with the worlds inside them, not to imagine the act of creation as an act of exorcism. The compulsive element to their art, the draw which makes it hard as a viewer to break away, must surely have worked that much more powerfully on the artist. They had no choice, these men from Africa and Europe and the US, but to begin laying the foundations of their imaginary worlds in the real. Like the architects of Borges’s Uqbar, beginning to build a bridge from the imagination to the concrete.
As ever, I thought of comics. I thought of Neal Adams when reading about James Carter’s expanding Earth, remembering that Adams has long had similar beliefs. I thought about Steve Ditko when reading the polemics of those wishing into existence a more just and moral universe. But there was one artist I returned to in almost every work, who by the sheer weight and force of his comics found an echo in the whole show. I came home and plunged straight into the opening chapter of the final volume of his magnum opus, the work that constitutes most of his life. When looking at outsider artists, I was thinking of Dave Sim.
The Last Day, the final volume of Cerebus, is a ruefully, wincingly funny study of a man grown so old and so meaninglessly powerful that he inhabits the empty shell of his supposed triumph. He creaks around his apartments, desperate to fart, the collapse of his kingdom less painful than the failed attempt to climb a set of steps. But intruding into this, islands of rock-hard certainty in the mushy flow of senility, are Dave Sim’s ideas. We begin with an alternative theory of the universe, 40 pages forcing the Big Bang and the formation of stars and matter through the template of his retconned Bible reading, casting hydrogen and helium as spirits. Dave was serious about this theory – the introduction blames Marxist Feminism for the world’s failure to realise that a mere cartoonist had discovered the unified field theory that eluded Einstein – but it’s impossible to take seriously. It doesn’t even hold together for 40 pages without fudges and missed connections. And it doesn’t begin to fit into the storyline, much like the other stuff about genetic experimentation and ancient Egypt sticks out. There’s barely a storyline at this point, and really there hasn’t been much of one since #200, but Sim the proselytiser is still easily distinguishable from Sim the artist.
And even before the theory there was the universe. I’ve read everything of Cerebus that was published in the phonebooks and #0, which leaves out a lot of backup stuff. That gives me the universe of Iest, the Eastern and Western pontiffs, the theology without any of the supporting material. And in my reading Cerebus’s universe was as compulsively created as any outsider artist’s, as obsessively detailed and driven by subliminated passions as anything displayed by the Museum of Everything. It’s a world where religion, technology, politics and sexual politics make perfect sense only in the context of the ever-moving present; to look back at earlier chapters and try to make sense of them in the context of later chapters is a fool’s game. What’s vital at the end of High Society is irrelevant nonsense by the opening of Latter Days. It’s a universe coherent when seen through a magnifying chronological lens.
Is Dave Sim, therefore, an outsider artist? Some of his work bears the hallmarks. In a comics industry where everyone worked for two corporations, he self-published and ignored the prevailing reality unafraid of isolation. He ended the series living a life unconnected to others, even his family. And 26 years on a single project is something only obsession, a commitment beyond even most dedicated artists, could manage.
But to call Dave an outsider ignores the close links he had with other artists in the field; the friendships, the professional relationships, the romantic relationships. He may have been outside the traditional structure of the industry but he worked unstintingly to create a new one. And he was hugely successful, by any standard inside or outside comics: an uncompromising artist who flew around the world staying in five-star hotels to promote his work. His legacy may be debated, the misogyny and the religious mania which sprang from it causing any appreciation to be preceded with a disclaimer, but approaching 10 years since Cerebus concluded it’s clear it will be remembered. Outsider art needs establishment champions. Cerebus had such reach, casts such a shadow, that it has a thousand grassroots champions.
Comics themselves are an outsider art, unacknowledged by the traditional gatekeepers of high culture. They’re also a low art, commercial from the outset and still ruled by dollars. But the advance of time eliminates all such exclusions. Pop music becomes validated art, Robert Crumb becomes validated art, Doctor Who becomes validated art. Comics, and Cerebus, will not be different.