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[Retrospective]5: Jaka's Story

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
Previous threads:
1: Cerebus
2: High Society
3: Church & State Volume I
4: Church & State Volume II

TL;DR:
1: Cerebus - Funny animal parody of Conan the Barbarian gets serious.
2: High Society - Cerebus gets into politics; runs for Prime Minister.
3 & 4: Church & State Volume I & II - Cerebus gets religious...and metaphysical.

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If you ask a fan for the best bits of Cerebus - the ones they would hand to someone totally new to the series to show them it at its very height - those bits would be High Society and Jaka's Story. They're the two arcs which are almost stand-alone - indeed, you can almost skip straight from High Society to Jaka's Story without missing much of a beat - and they're both tremendously good, but for different reasons.

Jaka's Story is a step away from the other Cerebus books; where Cerebus has always been at least nominally the main character in a labyrinth of personalities, this one focuses primarily on a secondary character - Jaka - whom we met in the first Cerebus book. She was a dancer, and Cerebus fell in love/lust with her; they had a relationship of indeterminate length, and she liked him. Later on, it turned out that she was the daughter of Lord Julius of Palnu - a princess in all but name - but when she and Cerebus meet up, in High Society and Church & State, both times there's something else in the way of the relationship. At first, it was simply Cerebus being too caught up in politics - alienating Jaka and breaking her heart; then it was the fact that Jaka was married - and pregnant. You hear a lot of people tell writers to "show, don't tell" - well Dave Sim, who made a science of stuffing his books with exposition about the politics and geography and religion of the Feldwar States, could give a master's class on all the things that aren't said when Cerebus and Jaka meet. It helps that their relationship to this point has been so sporadic, their meetings so few and bittersweet, you can almost get romantic about them.

This is usually where Dave Sim stabs you in the gut. And this time is no different!

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Part of the problem for the collected edition of this volume is that Dave Sim wrote a three-page introduction. This is the sort of shit that gets him in trouble. Sample:
From observation, I have often been dumb-founded at the failure of female instincts in the area of lecherous Mama's oys and a literary treatment seemed called for. "Oh, he's just a fried", "Him? Oh, he's harmless." assertions made in so off-hand, so diffident a manner, as if an over-active sex drive were the province along of average, good-looking men. Every day we read of carnal crimes committed by 'good boys', quiet fellows who 'keep to themselves', attend church twice a week, maintain good grades and are (by all reckoning) pillars of the community and living embodiments of clean, Christian living. Their desires, natural and organic, fester within them, their shyness and their unappealing physiques the frail but insurmountable barricade which makes what is difficult for the rest of our gender, unattainable for them. That the merest handful of them surrender, finally, to internalized rage and sick need is testimony (to me) to the monumental restraint which characterizes the existences of nearly all men; many trapped on a tread-mill of over-rehearsed conversations they will never initiate. Much of the comics-reading community is composed of fellows very like Pud Withers and, as a consequence, much of my efforts are in sympathy with (and dedicated to) them and their unhappy road well-travelled.

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Alright, let's get it out of the way. This is also the book where people really started accusing Sim of being a misogynist. The stuff in the last couple of books you could argue was political or religious satire. This book, we take a look at a state that's been taken over by some radical conservative matriarchial religion types - sort of a grotesque inversion of the worst paternalistic political and religious aspects of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all rolled into one. And one of the key things to understand this book is that such an environment is just as crappy for the women who have to live under it as it is for the men who are the victims - but one of the other key things is that this is Sim trying having a first go at providing a woman's perspective of life, but it's his idea of a woman's perspective of life. So, this is quite literally the most literal case of an unreliable narrator in existence; it's like Chris Rock trying to write a sympathetic-but-true story about slave owners, there's an inherent perspective bias, even if he makes some really keen observations from time to time.

This book is starts out with multiple narrative, alternating between them every couple of pages. In one narrative, it's a read (one of those novelette things all the rage with the newly literate class, sort of like dime novels) about Jaka's early life and childhood; on another, it's Jaka's daily life - married, not visibly pregnant, and working both as housewife and breadwinner by dancing at a wayside tavern - one of the customers is the author of the Jaka read, a thinly-veiled expy of Oscar Wilde.

So we're not really getting Jaka's actual childhood story here - we're getting a sort of mythologized version of it (although how fictitious it might be isn't revealed until many books from now). To add to the sort of mythology of it, in the chunks of the read looking at Jaka's childhood, her nurse's face is blotted out - covered up by the face of her childhood doll Missy. It's a nice trick, reminds me of Peanuts or Muppet Babies where you never see the adults faces directly. The read presents Jaka's childhood as privileged - on the surface - but lonely and unhappy; no friends, no playmates, no interaction with her parents or guardians except for Nurse

Jaka's husband Rick is basically a worthless, skinny, layabout that is casually critical of her domestic skills and seemingly in no hurry to get a job. There's a great one-pager where Jaka communicates her unhappiness at this situation entirely by sound effects - slamming doors, loudly washing dishes, y'know, the kind of stuff people do in real life when they don't want to actually talk about things. That's by way of prelude. On with the story.

So, Cerebus has just fallen from the moon, and landed in lower Iest, which the Cirinists have taken over. He wanders into a wayside inn with nothing but his vest, amulets, and sword.

This is where we meet Pud Withers, the barkeep, who is standing at the door this morning running through the internal conversation he's going to have with an unknown Missus. This provides the third narrative - Pud's ongoing internal conversations. All the things he can allow himself to wish was said.

Cerebus demands ale, and pays with a gold coin.

Aside on economics: as Pope, Cerebus demanded all the gold in Iest, and damn near got it. When the tower took off (and parts of it collapsed on the city), said gold appears to have been either inexplicably buried or completely taken over by the Cirinists (I'm a little hazy on the details). Consequently, gold is rarer than ever, and sole ownership of a single gold coin is enough to make one fabulously wealthy; most coins (we later learn) are owned by consortiums who leverage the buying power or live off the interest. A lot of this isn't made clear...well, ever...and I've never made up my mind as to whether Dave Sim is a serious gold bug that believes in hard currency or if he was using it as an interesting plot point so he could avoid mucking about with money except when it was convenient. Either way, there you have it.

So, Jaka arrives, meets Cerebus, and they have a tearful reunion. It turns out she's the Missus that Pud Withers is having his internal conversations about. She invites him over to tea; you can sort of see the tangle of relationships we've got here, which only Jaka seems to be oblivious too. Jaka is married to Rick, who feels he's due more affection but is unwilling to work for it; Pud wants Jaka, but she's married to Rick and Cerebus steals her attention just by existing. Cerebus wants Rick, but is uncomfortable about the whole marriage thing - whatever else has happened, he's still an orthodox Tarimite.

Oh, and Jaka had a miscarriage.

You can see how this stuff is complicated already, right? Not just soap opera complicated, but crit. lit. studies complicated; you could write a thesis on how all these men build up their own images of Jaka, while the real Jaka moves about unaware of it all, and when the real Jaka doesn't meet the expectations they have for the Jaka in their heads...well, that's a ways away.

Cerebus: Listen. Kid. Cerebus is in love with your wife...

Rick: I know, she's great isn't she?

Further aside: Cerebus always refers to himself in the third person. I have no idea why I never mentioned this before.

So Cerebus comes to stay with Jaka and Rick. Cerebus drinks at the tavern where Jaka works. In the read, a twelve-year-old Jaka discovers she loves dancing and gets a head injury. Partial male nudity on page 80. There's a great sequence where Cerebus lies awake at night listening to Rick and Jaka almost having sex. Jaka and Cerebus even get some alone time of their own, which leads to the closest thing to character development and plot summary as we've ever gotten in this comic:

Cerebus: Cerebus remembered you and Cerebus didn't come back to find you. That was wrong and Cerebus is sorry about that. You brought Cerebus back his sword...and Cerebus treated you as if you were looking for a handout. THAT was wrong and Cerebus is sorry about THAT... You tried to persuade Cerebus to leave his post in a time of war. That was wrong...so Severbus isn't sorry he stayed at his post. But Cerebus hit you when you were only trying to save him...that was wrong so Cerebus is sorry about that. Cere js tried to get you to leave with him when you were pregnant with someone else's baby...that was wrong, so Cerebus is sorry about that. But the war is over...and you aren't pregnant anymore. Cerebus isn't leaving here without you Jaka.

Okay, so maybe it isn't ALL THE FEELS, but you have to see the panels to really appreciate the pacing - that was spread out over three pages and 18 panels (the default for a lot of this book is six panels a page, it reminds me of something Warren Ellis once said about pacing in comics, and how six panels was cinematic.) It's unhurried, every aspect of it. Gerhard's backgrounds are beautiful and detailed, the characters are realistic, the expressions on their faces and eyes is fantastic. There's a lot of focus on the position that their hands are in, their bodies...it's the kind of thing that still isn't common today, and when you do see it most of the time it's because they've worked up a 3D model in photoshop or something for reference.

Jaka's response to Cerebus is even more of a kick in the pants. And the love quadrangle plays out for a little bit. Then Oscar arrives.

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It's getting Victorian up in here.

This is sort of a shape of things to come; whatever else Sim might be, he remains one of the great unrealized comic biographers of the age. Oscar Wilde basically walks onto the page as Oscar Wilde; we've had some characters that look and act like Groucho Marx or whatever up to this point, but this goes beyond caricature - this is as loving and accurate a portrayal of the man, warts and all, as you're likely to get.

Page 163 - uncanny copy of Whistler's Mother spotted. How did I miss that the first time around?

Rick gets along well with Oscar - who is not above a little harmless flirting - Pud gets flustered by one of Jaka's more provactive outfits - and Jaka does not like Oscar (and by extension, voices a few choice words about people that like to study literature).

Jaka: They can't just read a book...they have to pick ever word out with tweezers and examine it...

That's have the trick, see - Pud and Rick are fairly ignorant souls lost in their own little worlds; Cerebus and Jaka have experienced a lot more. Oscar is the outsider, but he's an educated outsider, taking Rick's attention away from Jaka, and our new font for exposition. In this case, we have a guffin - a horned idol, a remnant of pagan (and matriarchal) religion in Iest, outside the pub and Oscar starts talking about the history and significance of it. Pud's fantasies grow a bit more...forceful. Cerebus starts playing a game with a ball which we later call Five Bar Gate, and I'm only mentioning it here because it's important later. Pud and Oscar have a confrontation over the fact that Oscar is painting the guffin outside Pud's shot - Pud calls him a sodomite, Oscar counters by implying why Pud is letting Jaka and Rick stay at his place so cheaply given the inflation.

Meanwhile, in the read, Jaka has hit about twelve years old. Old enough to start take a little authority back for herself from her aged nurse. It's really a...I don't know how to put it. It's like a Victorian's story of a girl growing up, it has that sort of Dickensian quality with classes and a child raised so separate from reality that a lot of it is unknown to them - wondering about doors she's never opened, that sort of thing - but it's a mockery of real childhood, all grown-up sufferings and innocence and ignorance projected on a child.

Lord Julius stops by, in drag, which causes Oscar to kowtow a bit. It's nice to see the sophisticate thrown out of his element for a moment.

The painted guffin brings in a traveler, and Jaka gets to dance for him, making everyone damn happy (except for Pud, with his little fantasies of using economic leverage to take advantage of Jaka).

Cerebus leaves for a bit. Oscar is writing letters to his publisher, demanding to be paid for the (apparently enormously popular) read Jaka's Story.

From the above, you can tell that Sim has settled once more into his pattern of jumping back and forth, unhurriedly, between different viewpoints; it draws out the action and sustains the mood to the point that developments sort of creep up on you, as different characters meet and interact, and some of the story-behind-the-story unfolds. For example, we're treated to the night in the pub where Oscar sees Jaka dance, and Rick tells her about Jaka's Story...which is from what Jaka had told Rick in confidence about her twelfth birthday, when Astoria was married to Lord Julius...and then things come to a head as the Cirinists break in the door.

They kill the old man, the sole customer ("Self defense." one says "Agreed." and "Agreed." the other two echo.) Pud is executed. Jaka claims diplomatic immunity for herself and Rick, and is taken in for questioning. Oscar...ah, Oscar.

Cirinist: What's that under your arm?

Oscar: This? Oh, it's my book. It's...it's called 'Jaka's Story. It's all about a young girl, you see...growing up in...

Cirinist: Have you got a permit?

Oscar: I'm sorry?

Cirinist: A permit.

Oscar: Why no...but my Publisher -- Mr. Lane-Smithers..int he Upper City...I'm sre

Cirinist: Not a permit to publish. A permit to write.

Oscar: Why...why no. I've never heard of such a thing.

Punchline: "Two years hard labour." ("Agreed." "Agreed.") "No artistic license."

Long story short, Oscar gets two years hard labour. This is a very truncated parable of how the actual Oscar Wilde (who was published by Lane at the Bodley Head), who tried to fight charges of sodomy and gross indecency and ended up in prison. This isn't in any way a true rendering of real world events - you should hear what Wilde's conviction did to Lane's business - but it is about as good a version of it as you can get while not wanting to deal with laws regarding homosexuality in a repressive (and trigger-happy) matriarchy. The idea that you might need a permit to write has particular resonance with Sim, who has always been very much a champion of freedom of speech (particularly in the comics format). If you need an in-your-face about how messed up the Cirinists are, that's your clear marker - something you take for granted, taken away from you.

The third (roughly) and final section of this book is Jaka in prison. And it turns out that the woman in the cell next door used to be her nurse. So we get, again, a different perspective on who Jaka is, by how these two - whom we can't see, it's tremendously dark and stuff in all the panels, really emphasizing the loneliness of prison - interspersed with a couple double-page spreads from the climax of Jaka's Story. One of the guards is annoyed that Jaka has been talking and rips out a chunk of her hair (and a coin-sized chunk of the scalp underneath).

Scene change. No more dark dungeon. A light, open, though bare room - still a cell, but an upscale one.

Aaand...then Margaret Thatcher arrives.

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Dave Sim is Canadian. So maybe this hit closer to home for him. Whatever your nationality or political affiliations, you might have different views on Margeret Thatcher's time as Prime Minister of Great Britain in the 80s. It has, certainly, inspired quite a lot of comics - from Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, and many of the other British comics writers that chafed under the Iron Lady. What you have to understand is...she was a terrible person. Even if you're a conservative, that shit that she said, the stuff that she did, even a simple accounting of her actions as Prime Minister sounds like it violates Wikipedia's NPOV. She was a cartoon character. She was damn near a Captain Planet villain. If Dante were alive today, he'd have trouble confining her to one circle. And it comes as no surprise that Mrs. Thatcher, in Cerebus, is one of the most fucking evil and annoying characters in the whole fucking series. ALL Of it. 16 books plus assorted issues. And that makes it great that she shows up here, when she does. Because every great story should have a great villain. In High Society, Cerebus is wrestling against mostly impersonal forces - but here...Jaka has to deal with a matronly bureaucrat that abuses every fucking micron of her personal power over Jaka. Even if you take the rest of the story away, this is one of the best treatments of a prisoner you're likely to see - someone that's wrapped up in a system, designed to strip away dignity and power, not knowing what series of magic phrases will finally get you out from under them. The closest thing I can think of to it is V for Vendetta...and Alan Moore goes somewhere very different with that then Dave Sim does. Dave Sim goes straight 1984.

We get a lengthy sequence where Mrs. Thatcher tries to get Jaka to sign a confession of wrong doing, saying dancing is wrong. Jaka understands it's illegal, but doesn't believe it's wrong. And you can about see how that might go; it's the arguments that conservatives would use against stripping or pornography (although we were never clear that Jaka ever actually stripped; Dave Sim isn't above a nip slip here or there, but he didn't really intend this to be a pornographic comic.) Thatcher plays hard ball. She takes out Pud's diary, reads part of it out loud. Oh, you should see some of Sim's lettering for her. It's fire and ice and brimstone; the way she emphasizes certain pronunciations, words, syllables...you could hate her just for the way she talks. Fantastic.

The read Jaka's Story climaxes with the revelation that what should have been - what Jaka thought was - her coming out party, at the age of 12, was really an 18th birthday party for Astoria. Lord Julius had set it up. Obviously as a joke at her expense. You don't get the full measure of it unless you're reading the whole damned book, but imagine that from the age of seven on, you're living alone except for teachers and nurses, and you finally realize you have a bit of authority to yourself - you're looking forward to joining the adult world, to meeting people, to being treated as an equal - and it's a joke. And the punchline is you.

Rick is brought in - the Cirinists have cleaned him up a bit - and Jaka is restrained and gagged. We learn from Thatcher that the Cirinists use mandatory pharmaceuticals on girls of childbearing age to keep them from getting pregnant until they're married. And that the same extract will cause miscarriage in pregnant women. And according to their files...Jaka went to a midwife, in secret, and took the extract to miscarry when she was pregnant.

Rick goes nuts, strikes Jaka. He is led away (and the Cirinists break his thumb for hitting a woman) to be given into the care of his mother. And we learn that a delegation from Palnu is in the next room, for Jaka.

So that whole thing - all the emotional anguish and physical pain she just caused - was just Thatcher getting her petty revenge on Jaka. For dancing, and not signing a confession that it was wrong.

Cerebus arrives back at the inn, which is not a burnt-out shell.

And in the end, Jaka is back in Palnu, where she had run away from so many years ago. The last page, as the first page, is the final page of the read Jaka's Story, wishing someone would rescue her and keep her safe.

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I don't know if this summary does it justice. Again, the pacing has to be considered. The quality of the art. Things said and left unsaid. But this is, perhaps, the most unusual of the Cerebus books, notwithstanding how Cerebus is largely absent from the beginning and the end. It is certainly about the most stand-alone. I wouldn't say it is the best, because High Society has a greater breadth, and you can get lost in the politics, and more jokes and slapstick. Jaka's Story is...smaller. More personal. And you might think, given that she got a book to herself, that Jaka is a great character in the Cerebus books...well, she is and she isn't. We've already seen how, in the first four books, she flits in and out of Cerebus' life - his One True Love, as Dave Sim himself says. But whatever their attraction for each other, there's more to them as people.

And again, if they left it there, it would still be ranked a masterpiece. But there is more.

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  • XaquinXaquin Right behind you!Registered User regular
    That is a fantastic summary.

    I had forgotten about Dave Sim's lettering.

    I can't think of anyone else that does it even close to as well as he does.

  • djmitchelladjmitchella Registered User regular
    Cerebus: Listen. Kid. Cerebus is in love with your wife...

    Oh, I had that t-shirt, though it got worn out a long while ago, sadly.

    And, agreed, while Sim has always done great lettering, I think Thatcher is probably the high point.

    Xaquin
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