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[Retrospective]1: Cerebus

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
edited November 2014 in Graphic Violence
It was suggested we should do this so...let's do this. This is going to be a retrospective in parts of Dave Sim's Cerebus; each "phone book" will get its own thread (with this covering the preliminary material and first volume), and if we still have energy a final thread on the uncollected issues and miscellaneous bits. So, to get started, what the heck is Cerebus the Aardvark and why it is important?

Cerebus the Aardvark is arguably the most important and successful indie comic of all time. Old grognard fans - your parents and grandparents - might recall how in the 1960s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby managed an awe-inspiring 100+ issue run on the Fantastic Four; it was the stuff of legends. Well, Dave Sim and Gerhard wrote and drew their own comic, without any corporate support, for 300 regular issues, from 1977 to 2004, with the occasional side story. They did this on their own, the creators retaining all the rights to their own creation, and pursuing a single continuous story. That was unprecedented in the 70s, when most indie comics were often short-lived, shoddy affairs.

Case in point, there was an issue with Cerebus the Aardvark #1 where fake issues were being made and sold for inflated prices - one part the burgeoning comic collector bubble that would lead to the boom & bust of the 90s, one part Mafia money laundering (maybe - that's a subject for another retrospective). The forged Cerebus comics were notable in part because the printing was too good.


Okay, so Cerebus was a successful indie comic; Dave Sim in particular profited directly from its success (to the point he used to take limos to comic conventions), and it had relatively high standards of art and writing; Sim also used Cerebus as a spokesperson to support creator's rights and creator-owned comics - there was an infamous crossover with Spawn which was basically Sim showing his solidarity with the young Image comics - and was parodied by Chris Claremont in the demon S'ym during the whole X-Men Inferno run.

But, that's not the elephant in the room. No, the other reason everyone remembers Cerebus is because Dave Sim famously went batshit insane, pulling a Mel Gibson moment against women, invented his own religion, and went as weird as the latter-day Beatles. We'll get to that. I'm not going to play it up, I'm not going to play it down, but I think it's important to have that conversation in its proper place. Whatever happened to Dave Sim later on in the series, I think it's really important that he sat down in the 70s and decided he wanted to do something epic - something no-one else has ever done. A continuous 300-issue series. He famously said that if he died, Gerhard was supposed to finish the series on his own, publishing the rest of the issues according to Sim's notes, just inking the backgrounds with no dialogue whatsoever. So yes, Dave Sim might have been nuts right from the beginning, but he was inspired and ambitious and talented too, and as I think you'll see, whatever his mental state was, it was a part of this comic.


So what is Cerebus? Well, in the beginning, it was a talking animal comic spoofing Barry Windsor-Smith's run on Conan the Barbarian.


Conan the Barbarian was arguably the start of the Bronze Age of comics; a licensed product of Robert E. Howard's sword & sorcery hero, staffed with new talent from the quasi-underground Star*Reach, it turned into a surprise hit - more grown up than the kiddy fare, more brutal than the cape comics, with literary aspirations and a large body of material to draw on, it rocked the socks of the 1970s and even helped challenge the Comics Code Authority. It was also eminently parody-able; like the grimdark comics of the Iron Age to come, Conan tended to take himself seriously, and the characters were realistic figures out of a Prince Valiant comic.
Aside: It's worth noting that Sergio Argones' Groo the Wanderer was also a parody of Conan in many respects, and the underground comix had their spoofs as well. It's a mark of how good and popular the early run of Conan was to inspire so many imitators, pasticheurs, and parodists.

Talking animals, on the other hand, were basically dead in mainstream comics in the 1970s. I won't say completely dead, because somebody will through up Devil Dinosaur & Moon Boy or something, Rocket Raccoon was born in '76, and Carl Barks was still doing fantastic work on the Duck universe for Disney, but a lot of the sillier, cartoonier aspects of the Silver Age of comics were dead or dying from the superhero comics that dominated most of the market.

How many of these guys can you name? What about the flying, humanoid dog? Yeah, thought so.

Talking animals had a bit of resurgence (or maybe it was just staying power) in the underground and indie comix, most famously in the form of characters like Felix the Cat, which took a "children's" medium and brought it forward with adult situations - sex, violence, drug use, profanity, politics, etc. Cerebus was never sexually explicit, but you can see the genetic influence here. Cerebus the Aardvark started out its life as a comic parodying Conan the Barbarian, except that the central barbarian character - was a talking, humanoid aardvark in a world of humans.

It's better than it sounds, and it sounds fun.

Part of the reason it works is the art; while Cerebus initially was very cartoonish in his smooth lines and the halftone dots used to give him his characteristic grey coloring, but the rest of the art was actually a remarkably good imitation of Barry Windsor-Smith's distinctive style - which people liked - and Sims only ever improved in his artistic skills as he went along. The other part of the reason is the writing - Cerebus was smarter than most of the rest of the characters (though not always as smart as he thought he was), equipped with a suitably brutal and black sense of humor (which was later honed by the addition of a terrific wit) - and it was funny. Cerebus could play the uncivilized barbarian with simple tastes that only wanted gold and sex and power, and he could play the straight man, and he could fall play to slapstick the like of which a lot of comic writers have forgotten how to do. But it had a single story - a continuous story - that developed and grew and rarely threw anything away.

Then it got weird. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's start at the beginning.

They call these things "phone books" because they're large, softcover collections - in this case, of the first 25 issues of Cerebus the Aardvark. They're floppy and oversized, because they're printed in the same scale of the original comics, and it's not glossy paper - so it's a lot fatter, the pages are soft and brown a little at the edges with age, and this was not done in the early days. The first Cerebus phonebook came out in '87 (Sims had earlier tried collecting a few issues a time as Savage Sword of Cerebus, but didn't like the format and started over), and retailed for an impressive US$25 - in 1987 dollars! - because trades were just not a common thing back then like they are today. Indeed, you could argue that the enormous financial success Sim reaped from controlling the sale of his trades probably helped inspire the movement to collect back issues in this way - and I think he even presaged the trends a little by moving to collect storylines (aided by the fact that he was plotting the storylines, so he could judge the size of the book...but I digress again).

The first issues of Cerebus show the barbarian ("an earth-pig born!") riding into town, getting involved with the shenanigans of wizards and a Red Sonja expy ("Red Sophia") - basically an extended, artful take on the opening to "The Tower of the Elephant," but there is a lot in this black-and-white comic that grabs you immediately - Sims plays with chiaroscuro effects of shadows and light, tricks of perspective and warping reminiscent of Ditko or Starlin (and there's a straight Starlin homage in the character of "Death" a couple issues in), and plays with the layout a lot more than in a standard Marvel or DC comic of the day - he had artistic control, and he experimented with it. In writing too, Cerebus isn't quite Conan - he borrows something more from Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone in not being afraid of sorcery...which is perhaps emphasized when Cerebus meets Elrod the Albino, a character that looks like Elric (from the infamous Conan crossover annual), but talks like Foghorn Leghorn.

Seriously, I can't even describe it. But he makes the perfect character to make Cerebus the straight man in any scene.

I'm skipping a lot of stuff which, if you read the entire series, you would think is important. This is because in its entire 300 issue run, Dave Sim never threw anything away, and at one point he even started explaining the elaborate mythology he'd developed behind everything, and some of the what-might-have-beens...but that's many books away, and if you're really interested, go read the wiki.

Anyway, after some sorcerous adventures Cerebus ditches Red Sophia (who is in love with him, if a dim-witted blonde red-head), and manages to hang out with the Pigts (based on the Picts of Robert E. Howard's tales) - who as it turns out have a huge state of him that they worship. Cerebus meditates on this, but dislikes the idea of being worshiped - so he smashes the statue and escapes to a tavern, where he falls in love/lust with a skinny blonde tavern dancer named Jaka.

"If you wished, Cerebus would kill you a yak for your supper."

After an entertaining night, Cerebus leaves - and falls in with Elrod again, only to get caught up in a scheme by a cultist who plans to gain power in his sect by pretending to be an obscure demon (who happens to look like Cerebus) by dressing up in a homemade costume. After the usual expected confusion, he ends up with the Connipitins - an army of warriors that Cerebus likes to describe as "cheerleaders" for their tendency to, well, go into cheers. (Sort of like the "Everything is Awesome!" song, but ending with "Fight Fight Fight!") Seriously folks, it's the Only Sane Aardvark taking command of a decent-sized army, and starting his plan of military conquest - when it all goes pear-shaped. Like Conan, Cerebus leads his army to the wrong city, and ends up getting them all killed.

Winter has come, and Cerebus meets up with Red Sophia again ("They'd probably heal if you stopped wearing that chain-mail bikini..."), and ends up in Beduin, a city of Lower Felda.

Which is to say, after about a year, we've transitioned from the straight Conan-parody stories to what's recognizable as the beginnings of Sim's longer and more involved plotlines, with more defined geography and reoccurring characters, and from straight parody into satire; likewise, Cerebus has evolved to take on his more recognizable proportions.

Cerebus encounters the Cockroach - an insane man that dresses up something like a less-musclebound version of The Tick, a vigilante with multiple personalities that fights crime and generally gets in Cerebus' way; in many respects he seems to be Sim's criticism on the traditional comic superhero genre...but the character will evolve and get much more bizarre as time goes on. For his part, Cerebus is basically caught in a conflux of different plots, trying to deal with different factions in a quest to obtain a hoard of gold (sort of) protected by the Roach. That doesn't work out, so he skips town and ends up fighting the Black Magiking, Necross - who is an idiot and gets trapped in his own indestructible golem on the only reinforced floor of his tower.
Yes, Sim also did a White Magiking story; it's not terribly important and we'll talk about it at the end.

Cerebus then ends up in Palnu, a city run by an expy of Groucho Marx named Lord Julius.

You don't have to be 60 to enjoy this reference, but it helps.

Julius rules by continually creating a bizarre and inexplicable bureaucracy; the people that try to manipulate the bureaucracy or go through the proper channels are led into an elaborate trap of Bavarian fire drills, which is either entirely according to plan or Lord Julius is as flighty and insane as he appears. Cerebus gets involved and gets his first taste in politics. If this sounds boring, it isn't - Cerebus is basically the royal guard trying to chase down the assassins trying to kill Lord Julius, so there's plenty of action and intrigue and yuk-it-up comedy (particularly from Lord Julius), but the seriousness is played against the seriousness, and is the real charm of this part of the comic. Finally, Cerebus has enough and leaves...just as a letter arrives from Lord Julius' niece, Jaka.

(See what I mean about things getting complicated?)

And it gets more complicated from there. Sim still borrows some elements from Conan (most notably, "the Living Tarim," who is basically the monotheistic deity of choice), but he's following Cerebus' efforts to raise an army to conquer a piece of the land with Lord Julius' brilliant-or-crazy political machinations and the plans of a wizard (Red Sophia's father from a dozen or so issues back).

Then we get to "Mind Game." This is an exposition-heavy issue, but it's also a really important one - because not only is Sim revealing more about the world here (introducing Cirin and "The New Matriarchy," Suenteus Po, the Illusionists, etc.), but he's playing with the metaphysics of the world. Specifically, Cerebus gets drugged enough he has an out-of-body experience in what looks like an endless void, and starts having a conversation with two disembodied voices (one of whom is the very definition of an unreliable narrator - and here again Sim really develops one of Cerebus' key aspects: his ability to manipulate other people and play against their underestimation of him). It's hard to describe the effect; the dialogue is so clever, the background so bare, and the expressions of Cerebus so finely detailed you can lose sight of the overall layout - but the layout is actually tremendously clever in its own respect, doing away with the walls of individual panels - like Cerebus really is floating in a void. It's something that Sim will develop again later - and it is perhaps particularly poignant because of Sim's own admitted mental issues with hearing voices. Anyway, it adds another three or four levels of complication on to the series, if you care about those things, and of course we care.

Cerebus wakes up in a couch in back in Beduin, and falls prey to a war bond scam for the United Feldwar States Government-in-Exile (politics and economics, see) being run by Weishaupt (one part George Washington, one part Adam Weishaupt, founder of the real-world Illuminati); assisting Weishaupt is "Captain Cockroach" (the Roach in pseudo-Captain America garb, and Elrod (dressed as Bucky). The Roach has gained significant strength (as a result of a training program), and is being controlled by Weishaupt (as the Roach is extremely fanatical, but also easy to manipulate).


Cerebus eventually has his fill of Weishaupt's manipulation, and leaves - falling in with a small school of precocious schoolgirls which quickly turns into a satire of the X-Men (with a Professor X-expy in drag called "Professor Charles X. Claremont," no less). Prof. Claremont is a mage that uses the young girls of his boarding school to tap their natural powers to control an "apocalypse beast" - which looks like the Man-Thing, only with breasts (and appropriately, is called the Woman-Thing. Oh Dave, the wit.)


...which was Marvel's unsubtle clone of DC's Swamp-Thing...


...which promptly they run into another apocalypse beast, which of course looks like the Swamp Thing. (And is called "Sump Thing.")

Claremont tries to control both, and they end up squishing him between them in a bout of thankfully off-the-page lovemaking. Cerebus convinces the former owner of Sump Thing to give him a bag of gold and heads off...which is the last page of this collection.

None of the previous is any of the stuff Cerebus would be famous for; it's really just Dave Sim warming to his subject. No, the fame of Cerebus really rests on the next two books, the outstanding "Church & State" arcs. Don't get me wrong, Cerebus volume one is fun, and contains some important plot details if you care about that sort of thing, but the next two books are really where Sim made the reputation for the series, and what kept people reading through it even after it disappeared into some really, really weird territory.


So, discuss, and we'll continue on with the next volume in a different thread.

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Bobby Derie on


  • XaquinXaquin Right behind you!Registered User regular
    edited November 2014
    I love you for this.

    High Society - Church and State I and II are probably some of the best comics (writing and artwork) ever made.

    but as you said, we're not there yet =P

    also, hiiiiiggggghhhhhhh atop my floor to ceiling living room shelves in a place of honor:


    I will add my retrospective of Cerebus

    I had never read Conan. Still haven't. But I saw a couple movies and I read a LOT of Groo, so I knew what I was getting into (sort of). My friend lent me the first 5 phone books (that I am ashamed to say I stole) (but he later gave them to me anyway so I guess it's ok) and to be honest, I didn't think much of the first one. I rather liked the Pigts story line and I LOVE Lord Julius.

    Mind Game I really serves up a huge helping of what's to come.

    The first book is a great start to the story, but is really I think the least similar to the other books (some times for better, and sometimes for worse)


    yo, @Librarian

    Xaquin on
  • Golden YakGolden Yak Burnished Bovine The sunny beaches of CanadaRegistered User regular
    I have read them all, but kept only a few - the 1st being one of them. The sword and sorcery parody stuff is great and I'll probably always hang on to it for that. The political intrigue issues with Lord Julius and Weishaupt and Cerebus' later enforced convalesence in Claremont's school are my favorite parts. Things go off the wall later, but yeah, that's for later.

    There was a website that once hosted the first 6 issues done as radio plays with a host of voice-actors, including a spot-on Elrod ("Do you see my pointy hat? That's status, son. You can argue-I say, you can argue with me, but you can't argue with status!") - they were an absolute blast to listen to. The site appears to have vanished unfortunately, but I'll poke around for a bit more and see if I can find them

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