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[Retrospective]7: Flight

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
Previous threads:
1: Cerebus
2: High Society
3: Church & State Volume I
4: Church & State Volume II
5: Jaka's Story
6: Melmoth

tl;dr:
1: Cerebus is an anthromorphic aardvark Conan the Barbarian
2: Cerebus gets into politics
3 & 4: Cerebus becomes pope
5: Cerebus hangs out with Jaka
6: Cerebus is in a state of shock, the death of Oscar Wilde

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Sorry for the delay on this one, been working on my second book and...yeah, anyway. This is the first book of the four-part "Mothers & Daughters" storyline. It leads off directly from the last volume, Melmoth, where Cerebus has killed a Cirinist and is on the run in Iest. I'm going to quote Sim's introduction pretty much in full, because it gives you an idea of how fully he's giving himself in to the worldbuilding that's he's been working on from the earliest issues. I promise I won't make a habit of this.
Dave Sim wrote:
Mothers and Daughters (this is the first book of four book series) is the Cerebus story that I have had the longest time to think about. I got the original germ of an idea for the story-line back in 1979, when I first conceived of Cerebus as a three hundred issue series. essentially, the story concerns the matriarchy which has been founded by Cirin in Upper Felda and the 'daughterarchy' (to coin a word) founded by Astoria in opposition. In the story, the two opposing belief systems are called Cirinism and Kevillism. I gave my speculative side free reign in conceptualizing a matriarchal society which has survived into an industrial age. I found the best means for developing the political structure of an industrial-age matriarchy was to frame an on-going debate in my head between Astoria and Cirin. Whenever I had a spare moment, I would select an element of society and try it out on them. Whichever element was at issue, I had only to try on one voice or the other and its opposite would soon by interrupting the original voice with her objection. I quite enjoyed the process (and still do), because as a male, my opinion was neither desired nor tolerated. Of course, by the time twelve years had gone by, I could've filled the fifty issues of Mothers and Daughters with just an Astoria vs. Cirin debate. That was the genesis of the facing text pages interspersed with the story-line that you will see throughout this and future volumes.

Of course, as with any dramatic device, it becomes difficult to to apply my unusual perceptions to the real world. Why was it that feminists almost universally despised Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister of England? (answer: Margaret Thathcer was and is a Cirinist, while classic feminist thinking is largely Kevillist in nature). Even the self-description of the two sides in the abortion debate identify themselves along these lines. Pro-Life (all life is sacred, the babies must be safe; Cirinist) and Pro-Choice (I am an individual and I must have control of my own body and life; Kevillist). There are peculiar aberrations as well. [...]
Cutting it off there, he gets into gender and politics and stuff, but you can see the shape of the thing. This is the kind of worldbuilding that regular comics don't get a chance to do and have no experience in; DC and Marvel put out new stuff every week but only agglutinate mythology relatively slowly, while this is much closer to science fiction, and as science fiction it's impressive, provocative stuff...but there's a but. The whole inner-voices debate and the applications of made-up terms to real life kinda blurs the edge between reality and make-believe a little too finely; there's stuff that people will just about tolerate in fiction that they tend to lose their shit at if you apply it in real life, and while I don't think Sim is misogynist in the normally recognized sense of the word, I do think you could forgive somebody for misunderstanding his position...or his rhetoric...and assuming he was.

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Kevillist, Cirinist, daughterarchy...we could be okay...oh shit, magiking, hmm...

Post-intro, this book technically starts with a long rhyme. I'm not entirely sure what the point is, it's got a really weird fantasy vibe to it, and I've never seen it referred to or hinted at meaning anything in the text, and this is a series that loves that kind of thing. So we're skipping it unless I find something that makes it worth talking about.

This book flips back and forth between different viewpoints - when we first see Cirin, in the upper city, in full burqa, is rummaging through the Papal Library of the Eastern Church, looking for works on the One True Ascenscion and burning the rest. When we first see Cerebus, he's armed only with his sword and the doll Missy, fighting for his life against Cirinists in the lower city. Lord Julius is trying to come to grips with doing his Bavarian Fire Bridge Politics on a matriarchal society that refuses to meet with any trade group with less than 50% female representation. Etc.

There's a lot of mythology clean-up in the first few pages too - basic fantasy stuff that Cerebus had encountered in the first Conan-pastiche days gets explained and written out of the series in a carefully-thought-out but relatively abrupt bits of exposition as loose threads are tidied up and burned. For example, the Judge from the end of Church & State II shows up and explains that the shadowy, nigh-omniscient entity calling itself Death from way back in Cerebus is revealed to be "...a demon of a mouse-fraternity in Pre-Sepran totemistic Estarcion..." that gradually rose in divine rank until he supplanted Tarim - but couldn't handle the responsibility, so he created a new identity for himself as "Death" and placed the knowledge of his true identity in the Judge (whom he also created). Unfortunately, he's spent the last seven thousand years sitting on his ass and is informed of his identity a few seconds before being destroyed because he'd accidentally surrounded himself with succubi in the form of power gems (if that sounds convoluted...well, it is. Don't worry about it. Tl;dr: a Jim Starlin expy from the first dozen issues of Cerebus is explained and removed in about four pages.)

Canonporn aside, Sim also plays with the mysticism he's been building up in the background. As Cerebus fights for his life, the state of him that he'd destroyed in the Pigts' marshes suddenly reforms; a sliver of glowing light emerges from the Black Blossom Lotus (the greatest magical artifact in the world, which Cerebus lost in the Feld River early on). The Cirinists all communicate using telepathy, with the higher-up Cirinists having better abilities. My favorite telepathic message, from Cirin's chief general:
It's Normina Swartskof - the one who captured this penis of a town for you
(You're going to have to picture this as telepathic shouting by a belligerent female version of Gulf War general Norman Schwartzkopf, but it's great.)

Cerebus' fight attracts some of the men of the town, since he's technically still Pope. He successfully gets some of them to rebel. (Bizarrely, a nude miniature gesticulating image of Cerebus appears to a nude woman modeling for a reads cover. I don't know why. She's very well-shaped, though.) A giant stone phallus/tower starts growing above the upper city, giving Mrs. Thatcher quite a shock.

The Cirinists slaughter them all. And Cerebus vanishes in thin air. Cirin thinks Suenteus Po and the Illusionists are behind it; the Roach says "It's Time!"

Okay, this blow-by-blow stuff isn't working. It's too fast-paced and confusing. Let me sum up.

In the second volume of Church and State, we found out that for the last unknown thousand years, messianic figures have appeared and attempted a process called Ascension - which takes place in Iest, and involves a growing tower, and a sphere of gold. It ties in with the Tarim/Terim religion, which was apparently initially matriarchal, and with the magical traditions (the Illusionists). And it involves aardvarks. And for the last seven thousand years, at least, it's failed. Now, things have rolled around again, and there are forces moving to try it again - Weisshaupt, who is dead; Cirin, who seems to have the strong hand; Astoria, opposed to Cirin; Suenteus Po, maybe, although it's hard to tell what he's up to; and Cerebus...who knows the least about the entire process, but who seems to be the catalyst that causes a lot of things to happen.

The Roach, who has been manipulated by Weisshaupt and Astoria and is opposed to the Cirinists and sort-of aligned with Cerebus, has an epiphany and takes on a new identity: PunisherRoach (armed with automatic hand-held crossbows and accusing the Cirinists of being "lezbos" and "dildo jockies" as he kills them en masse). Unfortunately, the bloody and brief-lived rebellion sparked by Cerebus' reappearance is crushed so thoroughly that all the magical stuff that seemed to be happening because he was making progress...stops. Which is pretty par for the course; every time it looks like Cerebus is following the path destiny set out for him, something sidetracks it.

Meanwhile, the Cirinists conduct a bloody purge of all those who saw Cerebus appear and disappear. And Cirin apparently has an engineer attempting to cast a perfect sphere of gold 46 meters in diameter which is insane, but looks cool. No, seriously, it's like something from a medieval treatise on architecture or anatomy, it's a gorgeous bit of pure draftsmanship dropped in the middle of the narrative, right next to a parody of the grimdark characters of the day.

Getting back on track - there's a lot of bit players that show up. Astoria, who is still in prison. Bunky the albino. The Regency Elf and the Judge are both having conversations with twins of each other. I think the overall metaphor is multiple dueling ascensions, but that's Sim's style - he tells you a lot through the exposition, but not all the stuff that you the reader want to know. Mrs. Thatcher plays office politics, which for the Cirinists gets pretty bloody. For anyone curious about what happened to Cerebus...

He's back in the Seventh Sphere, talking with Suenteus Po. Well no, not really. Or Cerebus doesn't think so - he thinks he's not in the Seventh Sphere, and the voice he's talking to isn't the real Suenteus Po. So Cerebus decides to go up.

And this is the heart of the narrative. Whatever else Cirin is doing trying to make an impossibly large sphere of gold, whatever the PunisherRoach is doing killing Cirinists, whatever weird magical happenings are occurring, hell, whatever Sim said in the beginning about the book being about a conversation between Astoria and Cirin - the gist of the actual plot is Cerebus, in flight in some astral realm. It's where Cerebus gets a bit mystical. And it's great. The rest of the stuff is kind of background noise against the conversation being had between Cerebus and - what appears to be - the real Suenteus Po. And like the other mind games, this is a great one. It shows Cerebus has finally made some progress.
Cerebus wrote:
Everyone tried to distract Cerebus. If it isn't you, it's Lord Julius and if it isn't Lord Julius, it's Astoria. Or Elrod. Or someone who wants to paint a picture of Cerebus. Any time Cerebus decides to do something, someone comes along and gets Cerebus to do something else. The more people Cerebus is in charge of, the more distractions there are and the less Cerebus does what Cerebus wants to do and the more Cerebus does what someone else wants him to do. Well, Cerebus isn't in charge of anyone any more, so Cerebus is going to do what Cerebus set out to do. Cerebus is going up and and Cerebus is going to find the top of the Eighth Sphere or the Ninth Sphere or the Tenth Sphere or whatever and wherever it is. Up i sup, even if everything else is black. It's like climbing a mountain. You know you're at the top when you run out of mountain and until run out of mountain, you keep climbing.

And Cerebus, guided by the voice of Suenteus Po in a kind of guided meditation, arrives - at a giant chessboard floating in the sky. And we get our first sort of look at Suenteus Po, the third aardvark - who looks a lot like the aardvark in the past that was burned at the stake in Church & State II. And as they play, Po talks. He's a great character. One of the greats. He's a philosopher and a redeemer who has reincarnated multiple times, often dying a martyr's death, and has an iron-clad belief in decentralized government. In addition, he casts a lot of doubt on the Judge's retelling of historical events, and gives us a brief history of Illusionism, and a lot of backstory about the vision Cerebus and Astoria had during her trial at the end of Church & State II.

There's a lot of loose thread cleanup and Diamondback mysticism still implicit in this book, which rather dovetails with the chess game that they're playing in many respects; so much so that with the talk of Kings, Queens, Priests, and Priestesses can get a bit confusing. We get more looks at bit players (including Oscar from Jaka's Story, here in prison and confirming he's not the one that died in Melmoth). The next dozen pages are beautiful but sort of confusing, but three things are clear:

1) Cerebus loses his chess game with Suenteus Po, and the conversation ends.

2) Events continue to spiral toward an ascension - Cirin's sphere inexplicably becomes 46 meters in diameter, the Pigts see a flaming three-fingered hand emerge from the earth and fall back again, the Roach visits a prostitute and gets laid (spawning a series of transformations from VenomRoach to flaming-skulled GhostRoach), Lord Julius survives an assassination, Astoria is released from prison (causing her Kevillist followers to rise)...

3) Cerebus is, one way or another, still in the middle of it.

...
..
.

If this book seems confusing to you...well, that's natural. It's very different from the other books. It's really only the first quarter of a big story line, on the order of Church & State, and it's much more heavily dependent on the backstory. There's some great visuals, layout, and lettering here as usual, but between the exposition and the layered symbolism of dream sequence, cosmic chess game, Diamondback, politics, religion, and inexplicable mystical happenings...well, you can be fairly forgiven for asking what the fuck is going on? Even Sim's introduction doesn't really help, because all the stuff he talks about with regards to Cirinism and Kevillism really happens in the next couple of books. This is seriously a comic where you could make one of those crazy-person charts on the wall with string and note cards and thumbtacks and that would be perfectly acceptable. It's a complicated book, and it's not friendly for new readers to just pick up...

...but, it does feel like it's actually building to a payoff. After the sort of anticlimax of Church & State II, and the relatively self-contained Jaka's Story and Melmoth, it's kind of interesting to see that Sim hasn't let any of this stuff drop off the radar. But at the same time, you know there's like nine more books ahead.

...

Incidentally, I was looking at the ad on the inside back cover (1 year/12 issues of Cerebus monthly for only $45 + shipping!)...and the first six books only cover the first 150 issues of Cerebus, with:

Cerebus 536 pages
High Society 512 pages
Church & State Volume I 592 pages
Church & State Volume II 630 pages
Jaka's Story 488 pages
Melmoth 258 pages

...or 3,016 pages total, before we ever get to Flight. This comic is insane. I love it.

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