2: High Society
If you shelled out for the issues of The Cerebus Archive
, one of Sims' latter-day projects, you get a glimpse of the notebooks where he lays out and brainstormed all of the religion and politics and geography of the series in meticulous detail - and at this point he was determined to see the project through, a 17-year commitment. Readers who first pick up this phonebook might be intimidated to see that it's only #3 on the stack, and there are fifteen long years of material ahead of them - but, this is still one of the good ones. This could, in fact, be said to be part of what made Cerebus so great, such a classic - and part of why people were so upset when what happened, happened. But we'll get to that.
In much the same way that High Society reflected my genuine affection for the realities of political campaigning, elections and government, Church and State reflects a genuine affection for and interest in the effect of power on belief and vice versa. Those who find my observations to be distorted or insulting are encouraged to read any decent history of the papacy in the middle ages or watch reruns of Jim and Tammy. (I miss them already).
When we left Cerebus at the end of High Society, he had just quit being Prime Minister of Iest, leaving only with his sword. He set out to a tavern to write a book ("On Governing") which is sort of like what Machiavelli would write if he overdosed on truth serum and had his conscience removed with a hammer. After dealing with some extremely foppish Prince Valiant expies, Cerebus accepts an invitation to stay with a reclusive and eccentric countess - the type that has no servants and puts on no airs - where she ends up asking some simple questions which basically define what the next two books will be about.
Countess: If you could have any amount of money...any amount of money at all...how much would you want?
Cerebus: All of it.
And that's it, right there, in black and white. Cerebus is a clever barbarian that doesn't grasp, or want to try and grasp, the niceties of economics or the moralities of greed. If he could have any amount of money in the world, he'd want it all. The days with Cerebus and the Countess are lazy talks about the realities of economics and politics and personal matters, until the Roach - now dressed up as a Frank Miller Wolverine clone ("the Wolveroach") - appears. The Countess calls him "Uncle Artemis," and they recount his origin (again) when Weisshaupt appears. Adam Weisshaupt is still trying to move forward with his idea of "the United Feldwar States."
That's not a cigarette, it's a small bundle of toothpicks.
Believe it or not, this is going somewhere, but not where you think. From this point on in the series - arguably, you could say from when he first met Jaka in book one - a large part of the Cerebus books are about his relationships with women and power. A lot of words are said, but a lot of things aren't
spoken. Dave Sims doesn't get enough credit as a letterer; he could put more emotion into how someone says a word than any of the Blambots of today could ever muster, and Sims can write characters that say a lot when they're saying nothing, and can talk around a subject like nothing else.
Professor Charles X. Claremont shows up again. Having died smooshed between the two Apocalypse Beasts, his astral self has taken up residence in the Wolveroach's head, where he occasionally comes out to talk. In this case, Cerebus makes the mistake of taking relationship advice from a psychic, and fouls his relationship with the Countess. He leaves...and wakes up in a hotel room, having accidentally married Red Sophia.
This is actually a setup, because it turns out that divorce is illegal. Which is a slippery slide into Weisshaupt getting Cerebus back into politics, setting him up as the conservative religious Prime Minister of Iest (again), part of the complicated mix of political-religious mix, which includes the rabidly feminist Cirinist faction. Cirin is portrayed as a rebel, and the latest generation of literate women are listening to her - Weisshaupt is trying to fight back for traditional, conservative Tarimite virtues by issuing, basically, little romance novels promoting women being subservient and happy to men or being independent and dying blind and alone.
Of course, then Cerebus meets his mother-in-law.
Again, this sets the tone for the book. There are big issues, but the focus is on the people, with Cerebus having almost unconsciously fallen once more into a position of governance and power - but being unable to really exercise
that power, and being manipulated to such a degree and stuck with hanging out with people he doesn't like that he's miserable.
Also, and this is important, the popes in Cerebus
can be elected by Klingon promotion - kill the old pope, and you become the new pope (sortof). Which is why two months after Pope Harmony II died, they're on Pope Harmony IV. Who wants to meet with Cerebus. Which is where the mysticism hinted at in the last book comes back in again - talk of a Magician, Priests and Preistesses, Queens and Kings - and Cirin and Kevillism and sorcery. It's hard to summarize, because it's explicitly put forward in a mysterious manner, very little is explained. These are clues
- and, although we don't know it yet, we get arc words like "Something Fell!" Long story short, Pope Harmony IV is quickly assassinated for what he tells Cerebus.
The minor romance novels that Weisshaupt was using to promote "conservative Tarimite values" are called reads
; in form, they're somewhere between Victorian erotica and comic books. Cheap, side-stapled, floppy-covers...and many of them are terrifically sordid, such as "The Prime Minister and the Hussey" (ghostwritten as by Cerebus). This seems like an aside in the midst of personal matters and religion and politics, but it's actually a set-up for later books - and maybe a note from Sims, a comment on what the regular people do while the types like Astoria and Weisshaupt muck about with affairs of church and state.
Meanwhile, for a book about Cerebus, more and more pages seem to not be devoted to Cerebus. He's not at the center of the action, so to speak. We're getting, instead, a few pages here and a few pages there - looking at the developing situation from many different angles and viewpoints. You have to understand, again, this isn't common
in comics. More common today than it was back then, but very rare back then. Again, it reminds me of Kurt Busiek's Astro City
, or maybe even Marvels
- the ability to look at these people that could be heroes or villains, but from different eyes.
I mentioned that the technology/civilization level is a bit screwy; people dress like it's the 1800s or even early 1900s in England or France, but the military technology is limited to crossbows, chainmail, and cavalry; no industrial revolution, no gunpowder. So it's a bit of a surprise when Weisshaupt reveals his secret: working (if primitive) cannons.
We get more of the background on Astoria too - formerly second-in-command to Cirin, trained as her successor in the New Matriarchy - but she rebelled. And we get some more glimpses of Cirinist philosophy, the focus on motherhood, the anathema of abortion. This is rare territory for any
comic; abortion tends to be a wedge issue, and whether you're for it or against it people rarely examine
it, and much more rarely spin weird political-religious fantasies off of it. You can see, even this early, how Sims could have been setting himself up to get in trouble with people reading passages out of context - you've got this pro-women religious fanatics that want to outlaw abortion and who consider anyone who isn't a mother as a second-class citizen. It's the kind of thing that leads to academic essays being written.
And they did!
Things come to a head when the leading bishop of the Tarimites decides to nominate Cerebus as the Eastern Pope. So we get about twenty pages of Cerebus drinking whiskey.
While done for political reasons, inadvertently giving Cerebus supreme religious power over a full half of the Tarimite church turns out not
to be a great move. While he just sort of rolled with being Prime Minister under Weisshaupt, as "Most Holy" Cerebus lets his inner dictator reign. We get some early versions of important characters here - the sniveling but well-meaning Archbishop Posey that believes that Cerebus is Tarim's servant on earth, and Bear and Boobah, mercenaries that know Cerebus of old.
It's all the nightmares of Catholicism, really. You've got a supposedly-infallible figure who believes he's perfect and has the will to exploit it, and a population stupid or faithful or desperate enough to listen to him. Pope Cerebus gives us some of the most terrific and memorable images of the whole run.
Getting back to the beginning of the book - Cerebus as pope demands all the gold coins in Iest. Because Cerebus is a hard money kind of guy. And promises eternal damnation if he doesn't get it. Going into great detail about the punishments. And much of the book from this point forward goes into the ramifications of electing a northern peasant, mercenary, and thief as Pope. It gets more interesting, of course, because Bran Mak Muffin shows up - and it's weird to see Cerebus, who doesn't really believe in himself as "Most Holy" faced with someone that truly believes in him, and always has. We also start to get some inkling of the importance of gold
in the series in more than an economic sense - that like with the bit about Magicians and Kings and Priestesses, there's an underlying mystical element to it. We get hints of it in some of the weird magical shenanigans that appear to happen randomly to Cerebus - like sneezing fire or seeing the Regency Elf - but then he touches a gold coin said to be minted by Tarim himself...and other gold coins start flying to it, and it begins to make a sphere.
There's times where you wonder if the overarching question for Cerebus is "Conan...what is best in life?" and he doesn't have quite as pat an answer. So, spooked out about the gold sphere thing, and Sophia leaving him, he asks for Jaka...and finds out she's married. It's one of the great confrontations, in a way. So much said, and unsaid. Cerebus offers to dissolve her marriage, to quit being pope and run away with her. But Jaka refuses - because she's pregnant - and she leaves him again. There's more to it than that. There always is. But you have to read it to get the full force of it.
The meeting with Jaka is put back-to-back with a meeting between Cerebus and a dying Weisshaupt - who reveals that there are two
other aardvarks out here. Keep in mind, this is a series starring a talking animal character with no other evidence
of any other talking animal characters; not even a mention of where he came from. No ideas of a race of aardvarks or a planet of aardvarks or any of that. So it's a gut punch. And Weisshaupt dies, leaving Cerebus with maybe a small piece or two of the great puzzle.
Next couple of issues are sort of Cerebus' dreams. Weird but beautiful. Again, nothing like you could get away with. Any one of these full-page spreads could hang in a gallery. It's like Druillet, a little, it's very European
. It's the antithesis of American comics in a lot of ways. And by degrees, it brings the focus back on Cerebus - who only gets hints of the outside world, begins to grasp slightly the ramifications of his actions as pope.
...and then Thrunk, the necromancer who stuck himself in a giant stone statue, shows up, dressed as pope. And he smashes the hotel where Cerebus is staying, and Bran Mac Muffin commits suicide, and Thrunk picks up the aardvark and throws Cerebus as far as he can...the Aardvark falls into the lower city.
And that's the cliff hanger leading in to the next book.
This has been a long post, but I want to throw some vocabulary at you to give you an idea of how important Cerebus was. The first is The Cerebus Effect
- Sim's decision to collect the issues as trades shortly after the actual issues were published basically produced the expectation among fans for similar collections. The TPB frenzy that you see today exists because
of Cerebus. That wasn't typical, it wasn't even expected - and it took some time to iron out. Look at the old Marvel collections, the Essential series. They were basically aping the Cerebus phonebooks in format.
The next phrase you need to know is Cerebus Syndrome
- you can read the TVTropes on that one, although spoilers ahoy.