I’ve been reading Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, which is pretty darn brilliant. Her central thesis is:
…that many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth century Western culture as a whole are structured — indeed fractured — by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The book will argue that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heteroexual definition….
Translated from the academese, she’s basically saying (or, anyway, I think she’s saying) that heterosexual masculinity in our culture is defined in relation to, or by excluding, homosexuality. There are a bunch of problems, or inconsistencies, with defining masculinity in that manner. Those problems have provided our art and culture with much of its energy, content, and/or tension. Sedgwick is particularly interested in the way that the closet has shaped our ideas of knowledge, ignorance, and secrets, and how these ideas are in turn translated into power or action.
In her book, Sedgwick analyses a bunch of canonical texts (Billy Budd, James’ “A Beast in the Jungle,” Dorian Gray, Nietzsche). But me, I’ve got Sim on the brain this week, so I was trying to think through how her thesis might apply to Cerebus, and especially to High Society.
First of all, form its beginning, Cerebus is a parody of a particularly overblown masculinity. In fact, the central, ongoing joke of the series is that Cerebus behaves like Conan and yet, he’s clearly not Conan. In other words, Cerebus is in part a funny character because he has all the attributes of hyper-masculinity (temper, violence, a certain kind of competence, emotional distance, etc.) even though he is essentially a (feminine-associated) plush toy. The joke is heightened by the fact that the other characters in the story are, for the most part, oblivious. Cerebus is treated as if he had all the privileges of masulinity — women try to seduce him, for example, and he is treated as a political threat. Or, to put it another way, Cerebus successfully passes as a traditional (heterosexual) man.
Part of the pleasure of the story, especially on the early outings, is the reader’s knowledge of this open secret — a secret everyone in the book knows, and yet which is only rarely alluded to. Cerebus himself doesn’t talk about it, or even seem to notice it for the most part. And yet, even as the story becomes more intricate and the formative Conan meme fades into the background, the fact of Cerebus’ difference, and its relation to his masculinity, remains of central importance. High Society can, it seems to me, be read as a story about Cerebus’ masculinity — his efforts to eschew femininity, and (ahem) lay hold of a manhood which he obviously doesn’t really possess. Ironically, most of these efforts to resist the feminine involve precisely turning down offers of sex and/or close relationships with women (Astra, the elf, Jaka.) Is this (not always successful) imperviousness to female attention a sign of Cerebus’ true status as a manly-man? Or is it a sign that he is something other than a man, after all — another species perhaps? Or maybe it’s both?
I’m not saying that the (possibly non-genitaled) Cerebus is gay — or that Dave Sim is, for that matter! My point is just that the question (unarticulated, as such questions often are) makes sense of many of the ways in which gender works in Sim’s world. The malevolent, magnetic force at the edges of reason, the nexus of desire and repulsion — is it really female? Or is it a masculine presence made up of various irreconcileable bits: Conan, Lord Julius in the shower, and, of course, something else entirely? For Sim these days, women aren’t exactly human; I can’t help but think that he reached that conclusion for some of the same reasons that he decided to build his career around a character who is, and is not, a man.
Update: More about Eve Sedgwick and comicdom here