Previous Thread: 1: Cerebus
to Barry Windosr-Smith who taught me to dream big
to Neal Adams who broke barriers of all kinds and made it look like fun
to Mike Kaluta who gave me the title back when I was just little
This is Dave Sim's dedication on the inside of Cerebus book 2 - and it's kinda fitting. One of the nice things about Conan the Barbarian, unlike a lot of comics in the 70s, is that it had a sense of scale to it - Conan was in a living, breathing world of empires and kingdoms and dark wizards, and he could have an influence on those things, and they could have an influence on them. It's the kind of thing you get...less of a sense of in other comic books, even today. Kurt Busiek in Astro City
and Alan Moore in Top Ten
are very good at giving you the impression that you're in a world where people live and operate, where the hero can get a drink in a bar and talk to a prince in the same afternoon. You don't get the sense of that in most comics, and when people try it's usually a modern man-of-the-people kind of thing, where Captain America gets a milk shake or something, more of a photo-op than a real moment. Although there is Hawkeye
and Ms. Marvel.
Anyway, High Society
is where Cerebus hits his stride. As we left our (anti?) hero at the end of volume 1, he had just arrived at the city-state of Iest, walks up to the Regency hotel - the oldest and snootiest and most prestigious of hostels - and expects to have to browbeat (or literally engage in some violence) to get a room; however, it turns out that the mere mention of his name opens doors, and the concierge basically begs and scrapes to fulfill Cerebus' whim...
...and this is part of the fun. Cerebus has no idea what is going on. A large part of the rest of the series
, is in fact Cerebus trying to get a handle on what the hell people are up to. But he doesn't let on to the fact, he goes with the flow. The full story we'll get to by the end of the retrospective (more or less), but for right now Cerebus figures out within a few encounters that when he was employed by Lord Julius (Groucho Marx expy) in Palnu as his "Kitchen Staff Supervisor" - well, the position that Lord Julius had before he assumed the throne is that of "Kitchen Staff Supervisor." Lord Julius, bastard extraordinare, has so bamboozled the entire continent that people think Cerebus has an "in" with him - and so he's being cozened by lobbyists
Yes friends, this volume of the comic is first and foremost "What if Conan the Barbarian came to a democratic city state and got into politics?"
Naturally, his first instinct is to rob them blind. His second instinct, after getting several hundred crowns (note: local unit of currency), is to get into a nice, relaxing fight. This proves problematic, as a political potentiary...but then, he runs into a couple of ludicrously stupid thieves, and fakes his own kidnapping. Cerebus then spends the days waiting for his ransom by playing diamondback with the thieves. (Note: Sim gives a page over to the rules
, which are surprisingly simple and fun; later on we learn that diamondback is sorta-kinda-maybe symbolic in the way that tarot cards are often thought to be.) Cerebus is very good at diamondback, and in short time has swindled Dirty Fleagle and his brother Drew out of all their shares of the ransom. Of course, they doublecross him, which sends Cerebus back to astral questing again...this time to the Eighth Sphere (last time it was the Seventh Sphere)...to have another talk with Suenteus Po.
This is the kind of section that set Cerebus apart from other books; the artwork is spare but beautiful, the layouts are experimental with fantastic use of whitespace and paneling, and there's a lot
of text - it's basically an exposition dump on the religious and political state of the world, mixed with a bit of metaphysics as Cerebus works to get a handle on the Eighth sphere. I won't go through all of the finicky details, but long story short: the main religion is the monotheistic Church of Tarim, which is split into Eastern and Western papacies. The Cirinists are a militant feminist sect gaining political and military ground, the Illusionists are magicians who claim
no political goals (though Cerebus doubts it).
Also, everybody is broke except maybe Palnu. The conversation becomes more fun when Cerebus catches "Po" out in a lie and turns the tables, pumping him for information and playing mind games.
I'll be honest, there was a time when I would have sat down with a notebook and map and written all of this stuff down and sorted it out. It's hinting-at-the-bigger-picture stuff, and it's done very competently. Already at this point he's tying together some of the elements from the first book - the Pigts and all - and dropping hints about the Black Tower Empire that will be important later.
Cerebus wakes up again in the Regency, finds out that the Iestan government wants him to pay back his ransom, and meets the Regency Elf, all within a couple pages.
...I'm going to start skipping stuff, because anyone interested in a full recap can just read the issues, and in fact it's on Comixology
So what we're dealing with, in this run, is Cerebus in the middle of political and economic shenanigans, dealing with prime ministers and lobbyists on the one hand, criminals and the Roach (now calling himself Moon Roach, after Moon Knight) and other sneaky figures on the other. The closest he has to confidants are the Regency Elf (a sprite-like glowing Peter Pan-esque phantom that drinks whiskey, doesn't let anyone else see her, and acts as Cerebus' foil - he also uses her to start the groundwork for an insanity defense and at one point they have a snit and she paints "Cerebus wees in the sink" on the side of the hotel; it's that kind of comic) and Astoria, Weishaupt's business-like secretary and Lord Julius' ex-wife, who has more cunning than most of the rest of the cast put together and manages to keep the insane Moon Roach more-or-less on a useful course of action.
It's fun. At the end of the day Cerebus has the instincts of a barbarian that just wants gold and whiskey and a decent punch-up, and he's entangled in a highly civilized society. He's trying to manipulate, and to a degree he succeeds, but in a more real way he feels like he's the one being manipulated by Astoria. Things go slightly more his way when Bran MacMufin - chief of the Pigts - arrives in a snazzy suit to serve Cerebus' interests. Everything is going swimmingly until Elrod arrives - and Lord Julius is trying to make him diplomatic representative of Palnu to Iest. Which, of course, requires an election.
Yes, there's an election in this book. It's a bit like Bloom County, if Opus was a bloody-minded barbarian with a drinking problem
really liked to drink.
And Cerebus meets Jaka again. Cerebus doesn't make the best second impression, since he acts all high-and-mighty. But she leaves him a gift as she departs - his sword (which he had lost last book). Well, that basically devastates him emotionally, as it should.
Anyway. Cerebus loses the election. And then immediately begins to campaign for Prime Minister of Iest, with Astoria as his campaign manager. Again, it's politics - and, to the extant that politics is warfare by other means, it's also about the balance of trade, Palnu being the creditor for Iest and Iest running out of credit. Lord Julius' candidate for Prime Minister is...a goat. Not a talking goat, either. Just a regular farm animal. It's that sort of book, and that sort of political campaign. Again, there's a lot of text going on in the page - transcripts of conversations, characters represented by no more than blackened silhouettes - you couldn't get away with this stuff in a normal comic book. Alan Moore barely got away with this kind of crap in Watchmen
. It's incredibly fresh
, is what I'm trying to get at, to have complicated plots and history and characters with interesting motivations, even if one of them is an alcoholic humanoid aardvark running for Prime Minister for reasons even he isn't entirely clear about...
...and there's more to it than that. The religious stuff is tied in with the political stuff which is tied in to the economic stuff, and the people at the top are so hooked in with each other it's almost incestuous. Remember, this all came about because Lord Julius named Cerebus Kitchen Staff Supervisor. There are bribes, and a Mafia analogue staffed with expies. It's great fun.
Ultimately, Cerebus wins. And the book turns sideways. No, seriously, the layout goes from portrait to landscape, I don't care how they stapled it.
...and we're looking at the beginnings of World War I, more or less. I mean, people dress like it's the Edwardian age, but military technology seems stuck in the late Medieval, sans armored cavalry but with lots of crossbows. Cerebus is selling land to buy mercenaries to invade Lower Felda...again, it's Conan running up against a bureaucracy in many ways...with the idea that the plunder from the invasion will pay
for the invasion. Unfortunately, on conquering his enemies he finds out they're broke...and the main creditor is Palnu.
The economics heats up later, so I'll probably address it in the next book's thread, but basically we're looking at Ankh-Morpork style warfare, where the response to capturing the treasury is to devalue all the fiat currency. Which is part of the reason Cerebus is so interested in gold, but I digress...
Jaka shows up again, basically asking for Cerebus to leave all this Prime Minister business and come be with her. He responds be smacking her, and she runs away.
So, in the wake of failed invasions leaving the country militarily vulnerable and
broke, Cerebus gets blind drunk as the invading troops march on Iest. As Cerebus gets the spins, so too does the page. Seriously, it's a book you have to turn, I have no idea how that works on a digital comic.
Cerebus, sword in hand, goes out to face the invading army...and finds out they're Conniptins. The glorified cheerleader army that Cerebus led, and thought he'd killed, at the end of the last book.
So, having been abandoned by pretty much everybody, Cerebus decides to leave the Regency - which causes a row with Astoria, who hints that while Jake is Lord Julius' niece, so was she - "The only difference is, he married me!" Ouch. Near-to-the-last page, Cerebus kicks a pile of loot and uncovers a statue of a white bird - the Albatross, a religious icon with which Cerebus could unite the eastern and western churches, mentioned in passing throughout the book. He tosses the thing off a wall.
I think High Society is the best of the Cerebus storylines because, coming off the first book and before the rest, it's arguably the most self-contained. There's still slapstick, but less of it; still dark humor, but it tends to be more sophisticated (or the lack of sophistication is played for laughs; how many comics can get away with sight gags these days?) It really is a barbarian trying to come to terms with a complex, civilized society...and refusing, when offered the chance, of a simpler life and escape from all of it, out of sheer pride and greed and lust for power. Cerebus' personal relationships are a mess, and we see that here too. It's a remarkable step up from the first book in terms of complex storytelling, and if the series had ended here, it would still be considered brilliant not just for the plotting and writing and art, but the whole bundle which was and is
so different from the average comic on the shelves today. There was a lot of work and thought that went in to making what looks, on the outset, to be a very simple black-and-white comic starring a talking animal.