Whelp, this sucks.
If you’re unaware (and honestly I don’t blame you if you aren’t, this is a really, really, REALLY niche thing to be aware of), Dave Sim recently published a one-shot comic featuring his character, Cerebus the Aardvark, in what seems to be a very anti-LGBTQ+ storyline and message:
Now, related but unrelated, I have a Cerebus tattoo on my right calf. Wanna see? Here ya go:
I got this tattoo in 2007, and the scene it comes from was from the final page of issue #101 (page 1016 of Church & State), published in August of 1987, well before any sign of Dave’s seeming mental collapse and subsequent transition into a fucking asshole.
A brief primer on Cerebus, and why I got this scene tattooed on me:
At this point in the storyline, Cerebus had found himself on a strange karmic path that brought him from mercenary for hire, to a staff member of a powerful politician (he was the Kitchen Staff Supervisor for Lord Julius, Prime Minister of Iest, portrayed by what is basically Groucho Marx… Trust me, it makes sense when you read it), to the Pope of the whole damn country. This path was not accidental, however. He was repeating a cycle that had taken place many, many times throughout history, with each iteration seeing the tower fall before it could reach Tarim (God, basically… it’s a Tower of Babel metaphor).
Only, this time, in the story we are reading, Cerebus is tuned into the echoes from time and knows he must do something DIFFERENT. What, he has no idea. He just knows he has to take this sacred object (a golden sphere) away from where he is, immediately. Defying everyone involved and literally centuries of preordained patterns, he grabs the sphere, runs full speed at a window at the top of the black tower, crashes through it, and falls… and falls… and falls…
This leap could and probably should have meant his death. But it was the leap that broke the cycle. It got him out of the repetitive loop of failure. It set him free to pursue his actual journey, on his own terms, in his own way. Which he ultimately succeeds at, and gets to meet “God” which turns out to not be God at all, but just someone really bored and much smarter than him who has been watching for eternity from the Moon as humankind fucks this thing up time and time again.
Cerebus defies the rules, does the impossible, survives, and gets exactly what he wants… And is still not very happy (a recurring theme in the story… See:
But getting what he wants and not being very happy with it, forces him to grow. It forces him to wake up and be aware. It matures him (at least at that time in the story… MOST Cerebus fans have their own defined point at which they stop reading Cerebus, lest they remember that Dave went off the deep end and ruined it. Mine is at the end of Minds).
This concept hit me like a brick when I read it for the first time in 1991. I didn’t get it, but it absolutely cracked me up. Then in 2007, I learned the first really hard lesson about getting what you want and not being very happy. I was the producer and lead writer on what was one of the first internet-based “TV” shows, and it SUCKED SO FUCKING MUCH. I lost a lot of money, cut off a lot of “friends” and distanced myself from something I worked for years to build and put out. I got what I wanted, and I was not very happy.
So I got that moment tattooed on me, symbolized by Cerebus jumping from the Black Tower with the Gold Sphere, defying the rules and going his own way ultimately to learn the single most important lesson he (or anyone) will learn in life. It meant a lot then, and it still does in 2019.
But I don’t think I can keep this symbol on my body. And I literally just made that decision, right now, typing this.
In a major surprise to myself, I originally started writing this to explore, for myself, the differences and separations (if any) between creator and creation; between what someone believes versus what the thing they create means… And a hypothetical just popped into my brain which I’ll share with you, which helped me make the decision:
Let’s say it’s 1919, and I’m super into east Asian philosophy and religion. I believe in diversity and am very spiritual, and this symbol, called a swastika, means that, so I decide hey, I’ll get this on me cause I like that vibe. It means a lot to me. One may say that the meaning really resonates, and this one image symbolizes my adherence to and the importance of this meaning. No one even has the first clue in 1919 that Hitler would appropriate and redefine it forever. At the time of the tattoo, it’s unfathomable that this is even remotely possible.
Fast-forward thirty years… Do I feel proud or ashamed when people see the image on my body? And if I am in a position to change that image on my body, should I?
Too heavy a hypothetical? Okay, how would this be different if it was Pepe The Frog?
Pepe the Frog is now, and likely forever will be, a symbol of white supremacy in 2019. Famously, Richard Spencer was wearing a Pepe pin when he got straight-up starched:
Even Pepe’s creator, Matt Furie, has tried to reclaim Pepe, but it doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that. Symbols mean what they mean NOW, not whatever someone meant them to mean.
And in my case, the creator of a new symbol of hate isn’t actively fighting this new meaning, like Matt Furie is with Pepe. Dave Sim is actively positioning Cerebus as anti-LGBTQ+ and that is something I cannot ignore.
I cannot have this symbol on my body anymore. For whatever it may have meant to me, it cannot still mean that to me without one gigantic asterisk. I also feel, with the various and very gross splintering that comics fandom has suffered, that Cerebus is probably going to end up yet another symbol of the #ComicsGate crowd.
It’s tempting to say “I don’t care what people think about my tattoos” — that’s not necessarily true. I don’t care what PEOPLE, in the global sense, think about the fact that I have tattoos. I don’t care about the individual opinions of strangers about the tattoos themselves. But I can’t honestly say that I feel comfortable with an LGBTQ+ friend of mine, who might also be into comics, seeing this whole kerfuffle with Dave Sim and his very purposeful repositioning of his character Cerebus as being openly hostile to “The Gays” (as Dave says it). I DO care what that person thinks. I DO care what other LGBTQ+ people, whom might need some assistance or backup in a confrontation with a hatemonger shouting at them at a convention, thinks. I do. I can’t lie, and no amount of bravado and posturing about “not caring” undoes the sadness I feel when I think of how these scenarios might play out for the other person involved.
There’s another tattoo I have on me — the letters YDMS, running down my shin, which stands for Yesterday Don’t Mean Shit. That also means a lot to me — my past does not define me, it simply educates me and informs me of who I am. The same is true of Cerebus, and of Dave Sim, and of almost everything really: EVERYTHING CHANGES. What matters more than what something meant, is what you do when that meaning changes.
Cerebus — as a comic book and as a character — has done, been, and meant a lot of things to a LOT of people. Cerebus is the de-facto mascot for the early movements in self-publishing. It was a primer on the Electoral College and European Christian Oligarchies. It was funny. It was witty. It was important.
Now, Dave’s made Cerebus an avatar of the anti-LGBTQ+ jerkoffs out there who have decided it’s their business and responsibility to govern the business and responsibilities of others, which do not affect them in the slightest, because they’re ignorant and pathetic.
Now, having said all of that, I know just how easy it is for the immediate followup to enter one’s mind: “Maybe think about what you’re getting permanently tattooed on your body…”
Yea, yeah, I did. No, I don’t regret it. Not even now, not even with Dave Sim making a bold and declarative statement against everything I stand for. That whole line of discussion is “Basic-with-a-capital-B” line of conversation that old white women (it’s always old white women) want to have with me. It’s boring.
At the time of getting the tattoo, there was no possible way to know that this creator would end up taking this kind of stance with this character, in an era NONE OF US KNEW WAS COMING.
2019 is, to say the least, fucking crazy. And not one of us saw this level of political distance forming, to this degree, with this amount of insanity attached. By all measures possible, in 2016, we were in a place where acceptance and tolerance and equal rights were all but given. But along comes Trump, and the walking orange avatar for finally getting to be a racist sexist homophobic piece of shit without leaning in close and whispering the punchline to your jokes.
So here we are, in a time we didn’t think was coming. Stances have to be taken. Dave took his. I’m taking mine. I have to get a tattoo of Cerebus covered, and I have NO RAGRETS. Not even one.
I don’t regret getting the tattoo. What it meant to me then was powerful, and the meaning that I attributed to it still is powerful, to me. The actual process of getting that tattoo was an important ritual to me.
But the symbol itself? It can go. The process of getting it covered will also be an important ritual to me. While I’m not entirely sure how it will be covered just yet, I know that whatever my artist and I work out, it’ll be a new symbol, meaning exactly the same thing: following my own path, that I set for myself.
A path that I am very proud of. A path of empathy. A path of understanding. A path of loving people enough not to inflict myself on them. A path of caring about my fellow person.
How can I approach someone from a position of love, while emblazoned with a symbol of hate?
I cannot. So I will not.