One of the longest running serious graphic novel series—as opposed to those of the superhero variety, though some of those are serious too—was Dave Sim’s Cerebus, which ran between 1977 and 2004.
The comics, collected in so-called phone book versions and independently published, are hard to come by—I have seen none in India and my copies were bought on Amazon many years ago—and while they are truly high-literature, the reason for their appearance in this column is a minor tale in itself.
Cerebral: Insightful essays in comic form.
I had originally planned to write this edition on the Hindi editions of Tintin—I have mixed feelings about these. One of the reasons I don’t particularly like the Hindi version of Tintin (disclaimer: I can read Hindi but it isn’t my favourite language and I have never ever read a work of fiction in Hindi unless you can count the Adventures of Prakash the Satrangi Peacock, a book I am currently reading out to my son so as to improve his Hindi) is because I think the effort to translate some of the things that I think untranslatable makes these comics look like parodies of themselves. Again, there are reasons I like the Tintin-in-Hindi books, but more on this in a later edition.
Now, there aren’t too many comics that can claim to be parodies, especially of themselves. The closest I can think of are the Cerebus books which aren’t really parodies of themselves but are pretty much parodies of everything else, including other comics. Cerebus, an aardvark who is often mistaken for a pig—the name means Earth Pig in Afrikaans but aardvarks are not related to the pig; along with the smaller rock hyraxes, they are related to the elephants—is based on a cross between Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Howard the Duck. The interesting thing about the Cerebus books, which require serious reading (of the kind required by a Murakami as opposed to a Lee Child, though I love both) is that the books are meta-comics.
Being self-published, Sim obviously had a lot of latitude to air his views, which range from insightful to provocative, in essays that appear as text pieces in the comics. One of these attacks consumerism. Another, the communists. And still another, which created the most noise and actually turned several people off Sim, feminism.
I don’t agree with many of Sim’s theories and beliefs but (with a doff of the hat to Voltaire) I will, as any self-respecting editor would, defend his right to have a point of view and air it. The essays sometimes come across as laboured, but the comics are delightful. In rambling stories about political intrigue and power struggle, Sim gently pokes fun at politics, bureaucracy, fiscal policies, and pop culture. The result is an allusion-and metaphor-rich read.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org