2: High Society
3: Church & State Volume I
You could be forgiven if you read just the first four volumes of Cerebus and call it quits. Volume II of Church & State
is exceedingly complex, and if it doesn't quite hit the emotional peaks and troughs of the other books, it's is perhaps saved by being essentially the culmination of the all of Sim's worldbuilding to date. Laid clear, by the end of this volume, are pretty much all the politics and hidden mysticism in the comic since issue one - the deal with the tarots, the church, the Cirinists, the Illusionists, etc. It doesn't explain everything
, but it is complete
in a way that none of the other volumes quite is, and frankly, after here it gets dark. Which requires an explanation of some things I promised I would get into.
Dave Sim, by his own admission, has a degree of mental illness. He does hear voices. Since he went off the meds, this has only deepened - but it's not the elephant in the room. It's just a way to begin the explanation that a lot of the the things in this book were deeply personal to Sim, both exploring and expressing his personal experiences and philosophy. Part of that philosophy is considered misogynist, or anti-feminist. Dave disagrees, and used to send out a standard form letter explaining it.
; some think it has to do with Sim's divorce in the 1980s. Most people would point to a further book, Reads
, as the point where he hit creative breakdown and started openly expressing the batshit crazy, and we'll get to there. But it's important to realize that the foundation
of thought in Reads
is embedded at least as early as Church & State
(or even High Society
). Sim wrote in an brutal, militant matriarchal religious cult that was gaining ground among a middle class of newly literate women. Maybe it started out as a thought experiment, maybe it's a mirror darkly held up to the brutal repressive patriarchal political-religious movements of today - I'm not here to judge. But it makes people uncomfortable, and it is generally the material - of all the material - in Sim's work that at this point that caused people to put the books down and walk away. So, just FYI.
When we left off in the last volume, Thrunk had just thrown Cerebus clear into the lower city of Iest. Where he meets the Roach again, this time acting out the Secret Wars, with the Fleegle brothers drafted as his sidekicks.
Cerebus gets drunk, falls unconscious, and is consumed by a big round glowing white strange thing. This precipitates another astral-plane like episode, this time involving the talking heads of a couple magicians; the scene cuts back and forth between this discussion, Thrunk pretending to be Tarim, Astoria talking to Lord Julius, etc.
Lord Julius: Ah, Astoria, blossom of my sordid youth...why did we ever part?
Astoria: Because I believe in state-owned prostitution, pharmaceutically-assisted miscarriages, ownership of men, guaranteed minimum incomes for women over the age of fifteen and the inalienable right of to self-determination within those parameters and you don't.
Lord Julius: Gosh, you know...I must've forgotten three quarters of that.
The two apocalypse beasts - now joined together, with the artist (supposedly intended to be Alan Moore according to one bloke down at the comic shop) mushed between them to make a three-headed hermaphroditic beast - shows up in Cerebus' little astral space. When Cerebus gets through with the brief astral journey, he re-materializes next to the Countess - who, representing the common sense in this comic, starts asking why everyone wants to be Tarim, creator of all things, while cleaning up. Cerebus mainly listens, and she shows him how a dust pan works. Then we get some of the backstory on Countess - a political football in the struggle between Weisshaupt and Lord Julius, a practical woman surrounded by men trying to control her life. (Of course, she then tells Cerebus that pretty much everything she said to him last
book was a lie.)
The thing you have to get used to at this point - and it can sneak up on you - is that Cerebus spends a lot of time not
talking. He has very expressive eyes and ears and snout, but he has long periods where the book is basically in exposition mode, but the layout and paneling is such that you don't always notice it. And the layouts, the art...I swear, you could do a master class on the Cerebus books on that alone, and get your money's worth.
So Artemis gives Cerebus an envelope with a last message from the dead Weisshaupt, and then he leaves. At which point he meets Kieth Richards and Mick Jagger.
Not even fucking kidding
They're two lost drug-addicted princes and Cerebus ends up high and Elrod shows up again, dressed in a giant roach costume. It's all comedic relief and druggy visuals at this point, but Cerebus gets angry enough to start climbing the wall of faces back towards the upper city. Which is a great
visual by the way, and we start - once again - to tie into the Diamondback mysticism. ANyway, the tower falls - on the upper city. The Roach engages with Thrunk, whom he calles "Epop" (Pope backwards == Antipope, get it?); this ends badly for the Roach. Astoria decides to reach the gold - the gold that Cerebus had ordered gathered as Pope - and when Cerebus sees her and tells her to go away, she literally vanishes. Cerebus makes it to the top of the hotel - where Weisshaupt had secretly hidden his primitive cannons. Cerebus uses them to first cripple the stone giant - then force him to admit that Cerebus is Tarim - and then Cerebus blasts him to rubble.
Que a dream sequence.
I'm going to break with the blow-by-blow to talk about some of the mysticism at this point, because I just reread everything I just wrote and you probably have no clue
what is going on. Fair enow, neither do any of the other readers. But we get some hints. Throughout the last couple books, in fact, we see people like Lord Julius and Weisshaupt and Astoria and Bishop Powers trying to manipulate Cerebus for their own ends - maneuvering him into positions of power and authority both secular and religious. And we get hints that the game they're playing is something bigger or other than just political or economic - there's an underlying mythology and history of which Cerebus (and the reader) is only dimly aware, but events around him tend to get...weird. While almost every effort he makes to obtain power on his own or use it seem to end in personal failure, his very presence
causes strange events to occur - like touching the gold coin making it almost turn into a sphere, or the glowing white blobby thing and semi-frequent astral tete-a-tetes with magicians. You begin to wonder, as a reader, whether or not everyone isn't missing the point and (ghost help them) Cerebus - the three-foot high talking animal - isn't the intended savior all along. We don't have the details of any
of that yet, but we know it involves the gold, and the tower, and queens and kings and priests and priestesses and a magician. It's worth noting Cerebus was apprentice to a magician, once.
Point two: Cerebus is a devout, orthodox Tarimite. In the way that my cousins are devout lapsed Catholics. He grew up in the faith, he knows the rules, but he likes drinking whiskey and sex and eating raw potatoes too much to bother with the finer details, and think being Pope of the Eastern Church makes him infallible. But somewhere, down in the cockles of his heart, he believes. It's a faith he wrestles with. But we'll get back to that.
When we come back to the real world, Cerebus is stuck in some sort of a trance, his head stuck in the round glowy thing, and the bit players go through their comedies around him. Bishop Powers arrives with the Albatross (a solid gold statue of a bird), which is the icon that reunites the Eastern and Western churches...with Cerebus as Pope. Cerebus, meanwhile, is back at his astral way station and talking to the ball of light, and Cerebus learns about the Final Ascension.
Basically, an ancient text that both Weisshaupt and Cirin discovered talks about it - and Cerebus started gathering the gold, and the tower started glowing. The sphere was the previous messiah-character, who in seven different lives and incarnations never figured out he was supposed to take a sphere of purest gold and carry it to the top
of the tower (and incidentally, accidentally invented coins on one of his unsuccessful incarnations). As for what Final Ascension is?
Glowy Round Thing: When you get to the top of the tower with the gold sphere, it rises faster and faster and suddenly BOOM - you're in heaven...
Glowy Round Thing: Vanheim, Valhalla, the Pearly Gates, the FInal Reward, Angel Headquarters..whatever you want to call it...
Glowy Round Thing: Yup.
So, Cerebus decides to go for it. He wakes up, back in the hotel, holding a sphere of gold and learns that he's the pope of the unified church. Then he finds out that the reason he's pope is because Astoria assassinated the other
pope. (Remember the Klingon promotion bit? Technically, this means Astoria should be pope! But then they'd have a woman
pope, and that just wouldn't do.)
This leads to one of the most famous tete-a-tetes in the book. Cerebus, as pope, talks to Astoria, who has been chained by her hands to a wall. It's not a nice conversation. Astoria pulls out all the stops. And then...
...well, no easy way to put it. Cerebus rapes her. Nothing explicit. Astoria basically seduces him, taking off her panties and promising him sex in exchange for a favor. But good orthodox Tarmites don't have sex unless married. And only popes can grant divorces. So Cerebus...gags her. Throws her dress over her head so she can't see. Conducts the marriage himself. Has sex with the still-chained-to-a-wall Astoria. Falls asleep after he finishes.
Then declares them divorced.
...I mentioned Cerebus is a bastard, right?
So, after a dream sequence or two, Cerebus ungags Astoria, ans we get another side of the story. Where the Ascension is a sacred trust between a female all-powerful deity named Terim
and her female adherents, and the reason it's been mucking up the last seven thousand years is because the males keep interfering with it.
Side note: This gets into one of the dodgier parts of monotheism, so if you're devout anything-Abrahamic, don't worry - the books get really
blasphemous later on. But if you like theology, you might be interested to know that there are suggestions that like many Middle Eastern religions of antiquity, the precursor to the monotheistic (and essentially male) god of Judaism had a female deity he was paired with, whose cult was demoted and then destroyed (or so the anthropology goes, as I understand it). So imagine having a religion where you have two different, opposed interpretations of the creator deity, and the division is along gender lines. Misogyny and misanthropy encoded as a fanatical religious struggle, and it casts some of the age-old questions about Christianity and Judaism ("Why is a loving god such a vindictive prick?") into the fire. Who else needs a drink?
The tete-a-tete with Astoria goes on for several issues. We get little asides like the revelation that the church of Tarim uses Ancient Pigt as its hieratic script (remember that state of Cerebus in the Pigt's underground city?), and the fun instance where Astoria asks Cerebus about why he threw the baby. (Skipping ahead a bit: Astoria founded Kevillism as an off-shoot of Cirnism that permits pharmaceutical abortion and other things that the more conservative matriarchy doesn't; sort of the the Anti-Tea Party in modern parlance.)
Astoria gets a trial, where she explains her version of events that led her to kill the other pope. When Cerebus made her vanish, she reappeared in the throne room - the pope saw her there - she heard his voice in her head - she couldn't control her actions, it was like a dream, but he was expecting it - and stabbed him.
There are times, looking back at this series after reading all the books, where I wonder how much
of this Sim had planned from the beginning, and how much he retconned. Then I think of his notebooks. But we may never know. Suffice it to say, this passage takes on greater meaning about 4-6 phonebooks later.
The trial continues, and Astoria and Cerebus start having flashbacks - of something that happened centuries ago. When Astoria was pontiff, holding trial over a taller, older aardvark, and how that earlier trial ended...as it apparently had several times before...with the aardvark at the stake, burning.
But this time it's different!
I hate to draw this parallel, but look at the second Matrix film, where Neo finds out that he's only the latest incarnation
of the One. This scene is a bit like that, only with showing instead of telling, and a much better ending. You see, in the previous times, the aardvark had been on trial and had gone to the stake. Now Cerebus is the pope...and he orders Astoria set free. Pontius Pilate style, he washes his hands of it.
Word of Astoria's trial gets to the Cirinists, via pigeon. And there we get out surprise, because they're dressed in something like a burqa, all of them, with just the eyes showing. And then we see Cirin herself:
Remember what Weisshaupt said? There are
three aadvarks. That's two.
The Cirinists prepare to invade Iest. Bishop Powers and the Sepran legions try to convince Cerebus to burn Astoria at the stake. And Cerebus finds a chest behind the throne that contains a sphere of gold - with a message from Weisshaupt: "Good luck W."
So once again, Cerebus divests himself of the trappings of church and state. He picks up his gold sphere and starts running toward the tower. Except the tower - I think this is the first time we've seen Iest properly - imagine there was a volcano on a plain, and surrounding it was a city - the lower city. And inside the extinct caldera, accessible by a long winding road, was another city - the upper city. And the volcano was carved into place faces. The other tower we've seen, the one which fell, grew up from this natural mountain, an intrusion that cast it's shadow, a spire. This time - this time it's like the entire mountain
had grown up, the base of a hollow tower. And Cerebus is clinging on to the base of it as the tower breaks away and starts floating upwards. It's a two-page spread. It's epic.
Cerebus starts to climb. And to be honest, this is where I first met Cerebus; a random issue I'd picked up in a 10-for-a-buck bin at Newbury Comics. There's no words, it's just this sweating aardvark on this dark background, struggling to keep hold of a shiny sphere of gold as he's climbing this tower. It's perfect and unhurried in the tension
we see. I say this a lot, but you couldn't do this is mainstream comics. Narrative pacing wouldn't allow it. Sim could devote pages to what in other comics would be just a panel.
Then the Flaming Carrot arrives.
Another famous indie comic of the era, but not one I ever really got into, so I don't know much about it except that it was the kind of joyful, earnest nonsense that was anathema to the grim-and-gritty late 80s/early 90s. The same kind of thing that really gave us Dark Horse Comics. It's a weird crossover, but it takes us out of the silent comics phase and introduces our destination: the Moon.
Cerebus arrives at the top of the tower and meets the Apocalypse Beasts-plus-Artist we met near the beginning. Being an hermaphroditic entity, they expect to be able to get along well whether or not they meet Tarim or Terim - and they quickly overpower Cerebus, and kick his gold sphere out into space. Cerebus gets a bit of breathing room while the artist's head talks, but the top of the tower is rapidly shrinking...and soon, there will be nowhere to run.
only REAL Hope is that the deity turns out to be a short, grey, mean-spirited misshapen misathrope with pointed ears, a snout and a tail.... Let's face it. The odds are not good.
Skipping ahead past not-Alan-Moore ranting; the big guy falls off the top of the tower, leaving Cerebus (sans gold sphere) at the top, and he falls to the moon. Where he meets Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Seriously, I can't make this shit up.
We're back to exposition. He calls himself the Watcher, and is a timeless, possibly omniscient being.
The Judge/Watcher...talks a lot. It's the history of the world, sortof, and we get the flood myth as a scientific episode, and a lot of finger-wagging about opportunistic priests. Cerebus has a limited attention span, so the Judge explains early that no, Cerebus does not conquer the world when he gets back, and Cerebus has a brief vision of an Aardvarkian Empire destroyed. The Apocalypse Beast is going to burn up in re-entry. This isn't heaven, it's the Moon...and then we start getting some of the backstory we wanted, starting with Suenteus Po the First. It's geopolitical fanfiction, and it's good stuff. Cerebus wanders off for a bit, so we miss how it goes, but the punchline ends with:
And so--for weeks after--you won't be able to swing a dead cat in Jerusalem without hitting someone descended from the House of David...anointed by a close relative...riding into town on a donkey.
At this point I should point out that Dave Sim, always interested in religion, at some point started working out and operating his own individual blend of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Again, you read something like that in the news, and then you look at this comic, and you wonder how long ago
this particular strain of stuff started percolating through his skull. We may never know. But we do know that this is sort of the big leap - where Sim is actually trying to connect the events in the comic, with the talking aardvark and fantasy cultures, to real-life religions. It's enough that you begin to question, a little, his sense of reality - you get the uncomfortable feeling that on some level this is what he really believes
. On the other hand, as revelations go, this isn't too bad.
We get the story about how men in the present day will discover the Big Bang. And the Judge tells us about what there was before
the Big Bang. A male void, Tarim. And then a female light, Terim. A dualistic creation myth, told in black and white, the origin of the universe recounted with something that looks for all the word like a cell undergoing mitosis.
ANGER was Tarim's first reaction. And I QUOTE. 'Nice girls don't explode.'
So we've had the geopolitical stuff, or some of it. We've seen the marriage of science and religion in what amounts to a retelling of genesis if Stephen Hawking got high. The history speeds up, zooming through the Cold War, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and the Star Wars program, predicting the eventual development of weapons that cause extinction of all life on earth. ("Many buttons are pushed.") And then we get the whammer.
While you were gone, the deadline you set for the end of the world came and went without incident. All of your followers have deserted you. Cirin has attacked and seized, with her mercenary forces...Lower Felda and all of Iest. Including all of the gold you had in your hotel. You live only a few more years. You die alone. Unmourned. And unloved. Suffering...suffering you'll have no trouble doing. And if you are tempted--ever--to consider your suffering unjustified. Just remember your second marriage.
And the last page shows Cerebus standing alone next to houses in Iest crushed by the falling tower.
Like I said at the beginning, readers could end it there. It's a complicated mess of a book, but it gives a definitive ending. It answers some questions. There are revelations here, even if all the revelations amount to "people are bastards, and nobody has the answers, which are really rather simpler than you might think." But there is a shift in tone, with the real-world elements that have been brought in, with the hard-line matriarchialism that Sim has the Kevillists and Cirinists expound - which again, I've always read as more of a parody of the conservative Christian male-dominated political-religious sects. But there's a lot going on
here with gender relationships; I wouldn't say that Sim has flipped his wig on it just yet. But the thing is...the thing is...this is only the end of the beginning. The first 1020 pages. There's so much more left.
Next time: Jaka's Story.