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Our Northern Neighbors, The Cirinists
by Colby Cosh
from The Comics Journal #263
Panel from Cerebus #151 ©1991 Dave Sim & Gerhard

I've been asked to contribute some Canadian context to this wall-to-wall Cerebian festschrift. I have only one qualification for this: I'm a "conservative" columnist, or what passes for one, whose work appears in the National Post, Dave Sim's grudging favorite amongst the newspapers of his homeland. What I'm not is an expert on Cerebus. I had read "Tangent" online before TCJ got in touch, seen Cerebus paperbacks sitting on coffee tables not my own, and had absorbed some idea of the work's ambitions and its author's importance in comicsdom. I have now spent a summer digesting reams of relevant Cerebus issues and Sim's non-fiction. (Full disclosure: Aardvark-Vanaheim contributed free books to this research effort.)

Not being equipped to judge the whole of Cerebus as narrative, I will say that I am exceedingly impressed by Dave Sim as a prose artist. I suppose we wouldn't be subjecting him to periodic vivisections in TCJ if there weren't pretty widespread agreement about this. Comic books face high hurdles to "respectability" in a country afflicted with terminal culture-cringe, but literate Canadians now know, at least, that Chester Brown and Julie Doucet are names they are supposed to recognize. These artists now receive a kind of well-meant, head-patting acknowledgment from critics and radio producers that may be more destructive than being ignored would. Sim's politics, designed as they are to antagonize Canadians in exact proportion to their Canadian-ness, leave him stranded even further from the hope of a fair assessment. Not that he gives a damn.

This assignment was presented to me as a sort of exercise in detection: Isn't it true, TCJ suggested, that there are things about Canada which might incline an independent, creative person to form some pretty extreme opinions? I've been retained, you see, as a kind of Sovietologist. Like any freelance writer, I don't pay much attention to the text of an assignment after the handshake happens, but I think what's expected is a sort of apologia for Dave Sim -- the sort of thing a real Sovietologist might write to account for some of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's more puzzling obsessions and divagations.

Such an exercise might be beside the point, however. Without question, Sim's rhetoric veers at times into the pathological. If the reader is inclined to dismiss "Tangent" and the similar material as one man's struggle against his own toilet training, so be it; but this leaves open the question whether what he has written is true -- and since he's an artist, we are interested in "truth" in more than a purely factual sense. I don't have any interest in wrestling Dave Sim onto an analyst's couch. What I can contribute to the discussion is the observation that the rather nightmarish images of matriarchy in Cerebus do remind me of Canada at its worst, as it is meant to. Recent Canadian history is full of Cirinist moments and gestures whose shadows are perceptible amidst the texture of Cerebus.

On December 6, 1989, an engineering seminar at the University of Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique was interrupted by the entry of a slight, curly-haired young man in an anorak. The interloper, 25-year-old Marc Lepine, was carrying a Sturm Ruger Mini-14 hunting rifle and had a sickly smile on his face. He ordered the students to segregate themselves -- men on the left, women on the right. It took him quite some time to convince the class to go along with the "joke." Ordering the males out of the room, Lepine approached the nine remaining women, told them "I'm here to fight against feminism," and emptied his weapon into the cowering group. Outside, male students heard the shots and fled. A slow reaction by police gave Lepine twenty minutes to saunter through the Ecole, setting to work with his gun and a hunting knife. Finally growing tired of his labours, Lepine used the Ruger to blow his skull apart, leaving behind a suicide note that railed against feminist "viragos" who had "ruined his life." He had murdered 14 women.

The "Montreal Massacre," still the worst rampage-style mass killing in Canadian history, was a bleak moment for a country that fancies itself less violent than the republic to the south. Lepine's personal history revealed an upbringing of a sort familiar to connoisseurs of mass murder: a fatherless household, racial isolation, early and unaddressed signs of psychological instability, a haphazard passage through years of half-assed work and study. Lepine had borne the purple testament of the enraged loser from a very early age.

The uniquely Canadian reaction was to make Lepine a symbol of all malekind, in its natural propensity for "violence against women." The anniversary is still marked in this way on college campuses and at public meetings: It has become the feast day of feminism in Canada, the time when women of a certain political temperament congregate and glare balefully at the evil sex. "We know what you'd like to do to us..."

The skeptical reader is encouraged to Google the phrase "Montreal Massacre." He, or she, will be introduced to the merest edge of a feminist sub-literature that blames the male students at the Ecole for failing to halt Lepine's armed rampage; that claims that shooting a woman is "no different" from abusing her in any other way, even verbally; that describes a self-evidently isolated event as "not an isolated event;" and that implies that Lepine's crime is, in essence, repeated every time some politician refuses to increase funding for women's shelters and crisis centres.

These are minority sentiments most women recognize as madness. And most Canadian men shrug them off pretty easily -- but one's shoulders grow tired from shrugging. (If you like, you are free to wonder whether Sim might not have dislocated one at some point.) Marc Lepine has become the indispensable man of Canadian feminism. By making him "part of a pattern," the Montreal Massacre obsessives have raised him to the stature of Dante's Satan -- he's the one who acted honestly on the impulses we are all presumed to share. It's enough to make you want to retire to a tavern somewhere and fill up on rice cakes.

Widely shared or not, this virus of feminist-influenced panic took control of the political life of the country immediately and has never quite let go. Lepine's rampage raised an immediate clamor for practical measures to "end violence" in Canada -- a demand that is ostensibly taken seriously, and, in its maternalistic exaltation of safety above all other values, reflects the Canadian political scene at its most Cirinist. Even in a reasonable environment, of course, a search for measures to prevent a recurrence of the massacre would not have gone amiss: Money might have been spent on reducing police response times or upgrading security on university campuses. But "cosmetic" measures like these are deemed by the modern liberal mind to overlook "root causes" -- a phrase I'm afraid I find utterly totalitarian in its implications, but one which is still very popular in Canada.

Not, mind you, that the Canadian state went as far toward "root causes" as to, say, consider new public-health strategies to counter mental illness. To suggest that Lepine's justification for his actions was insane would be to discredit his universality, to dismiss the "reality" he revealed. Instead, feminists rallied behind the creation of a universal federal registry for legal firearms, which was eventually implemented by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien and which still enjoys broad public support despite the $2 billion price tag it "unexpectedly" carried. The registry -- as yet too error-ridden to be useful even to beat cops approaching an unfamiliar doorway -- is often described as Canada's monument to the massacre victims. But how, one wonders, can it be more comforting to be murdered with a registered firearm than with an unregistered one?

This waste of treasure was not the only policy change to which the new safety-conscious environment gave impetus. Many of you are familiar with the entertaining habits Canada Customs and Revenue developed in the wake of the Supreme Court's Butler decision (1992). In the case, a sex-shop owner tried using Canada's still-new (1982) Constitution to challenge Canada's existing obscenity law, which then outlawed any material whose "dominant characteristic" was "the undue exploitation of sex." The Constitution's text unconditionally guarantees "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." It describes this freedom as "fundamental." Butler and his counsel naturally figured that this would permit him broad scope to import and sell stroke-books.

He didn't reckon with the feminist influence on Canada's highest court, then at its most powerful. The Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), acting with the personal cooperation of American feminist scholar Catherine MacKinnon, intervened in the case and convinced the court to adopt a new definition of obscenity designed to prevent nebulous "harm" to women from pornography. The Butler test has been summarized thus in a federal-government document for telecommunications providers:

"For the purposes of the community standards test, the Supreme Court of Canada referred to three categories of sex: (1) sex with violence; (2) explicit sex which subjects people to treatment that is degrading or dehumanizing; and (3) explicit sex without violence that is neither degrading nor dehumanizing. The first category will almost always constitute the undue exploitation of sex. The second category may be undue if the risk of harm is substantial. The third category will generally not fall within the definition of obscenity unless it employs children in its production."

In principle the new test allows more for liberal treatment of material of type (3). In practice, the vagueness of the words "degrading or dehumanizing" in category (2) has made Customs agents more aggressive and unpredictable, and has subjected scholarly and intellectual materials to new restrictions. Last year a copy of Patrick Rosenkranz's seminal Rebel Visions was temporarily seized at the border for an assessment of the "degrading" sexual content quoted within. Volumes ranging from installments of The Complete Crumb Comics to issues of this periodical have been stopped and assessed for harmfulness. (There is hardly a major figure in alternative comics whose complete oeuvre could clear the Butler bar.) Canadian gay and lesbian bookshops never know what comics merchandise is going to be permitted to arrive, or when. Our basic claim to being a liberal-democratic society has, one regrets to say, been abandoned to the mercy of an idiot rule formed in the fevered mind of a sublimating castrator and implemented by analphabetics.

I trust that this audience will share my indignation. The real point, though, is that there is no area of Canadian life, or no area affected by the law, which has not been subject to the same mind-numbing effects that threw our obscenity doctrine into chaos.

I could talk your ear off about family law, if Dave Sim hasn't chewed it off already: He likes to chide women about their addiction to post-divorce spousal support, and it is worth observing that Canadian provinces are fanatical about enforcing draconian provisions against "deadbeat dads" while being lazy to the point of malfeasance about enforcing access orders for divorced fathers already deprived of equal custody of their children. LEAF can and does boast of a Chicago Bulls-esque string of important court victories before an activist Supreme Court, using its leverage in the post-1982 era to change laws regarding the definition of sexual assault, the admissibility of evidence in sex-assault trials, workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, abortion, and child-care benefits. Canadian feminists, talking amongst themselves, are not especially shy about having hammered home a radical legislative agenda without having had to convince an elected Parliament to pass laws. When Dave Sim speaks of a "dictatorship," he is merely using another word to describe a historic project of which its executors are exceedingly proud.

There is even a hidden gender angle to the difference between Canada and the United States often cited as the definitive one: health insurance. As the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian of sterling liberal credentials, pointed out in the Washington Monthly a few years ago,

"[...] if you look at the reasons why men get sick as opposed to reasons why women get sick, men, up until their 60s, essentially, they either get shot or they die in car accidents. Women do not get shot or die in car accidents. It's actually quite striking. Women die of cancer, or they die of very, very different things until you get up into the late 60s and 70s.

"[...] That suggests to me that the ideal health-care system for a man is very different from the ideal health-care system for a woman. In fact, what a man wants from a health-care system is a health-care system that is acutely oriented, not chronically oriented, that is much more interested in quality of care, much less interested in access. A man doesn't need access to care until he's very old. He wants a high end, super-specialized system that, when he has something seriously wrong with him, fixes it right away. A woman, on the other hand, wants a system that's low-tech, that sacrifices quality for a kind of presence. She can go to the doctor three times a month if she wants to and get a personal relationship with that doctor. The Canadian health-care system is a health-care system for women. The American health-care system is a health-care system that is perfectly situated for men."

The punchline here, of course, is that Americans loathe their health-care system, while Canadians are deemed by politicians and the press to regard theirs as an untouchable household god. In truth, actual polls on preserving the purity of Canada's Cuban-style medical care generally split down the middle, nearly fifty-fifty. Which maybe, given Gladwell's point, shouldn't be surprising. Canada's healthcare system, for better or worse, is arguably the precise ground on which a safety-obsessed Cirinist would join hands with the "choice"-seeking Kevillists. The only shocking thing is that Sim hasn't written a 10,000-word article about this -- yet.

All this observation is purely political, and can do nothing to excuse or explain Sim's religious speculations, which have changed form rapidly over the years. Thereunto, the reader must consult the god of his choice. In the long run none of it will matter much to the reputation of Cerebus, however intimately the philosophy is interwoven with what Sim calls "the longest sustained narrative in human history." Leo Tolstoy is still read in every civilized country, with supposed pleasure; yet it would not be going too far to consider him an orthodoxy-baiting, remote-situated Dave Sim of the 19th century, combining inexhaustible rage with an impulse to sainthood. Poschednikoff's comment in The Kreutzer Sonata that "Women, like queens, keep nine-tenths of the human race as prisoners of war, or as prisoners at hard labor" could have fit comfortably into a Cerebus story arc. After a summer's reading I've begun to see Sim as a positive reincarnation of old Count Tolstoy. I advise him to avoid train stations.

Colby Cosh is a columnist for Canadian newspaper The National Post. Read his weblog at

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