[Retrospective]8: Women

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
7: Flight

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
7: Cerebus, Cirin, and Suenteus Po all work toward the Final Ascenscion


Key thing about the cover: it's in the shape of an ankh. The ankh is the de facto image of the Tarim/Terim religion, sort of like the cross is for Christians. The symbolism doesn't actually go very deep on that one and doesn't mesh well with the rest of the setting, I think Dave Sim probably unconsciously borrowed the idea from Jim Starlin's Warlock comics to be honest, but it shows up much more frequently in this book than before, so fair warning.

I'm going to skip over the philosophy of this, the second volume of the Mothers & Daughters story arc, to bring you this joke from Dave Sim's introduction:
I created an unexpected joke in the title of this volume. It's all Ger and I can do to keep from laughing when the advance phone orders come in. 'I'd like to order Women.' (hey, wouldn't we all?) 'Can you tell me when Women will be available?' (my guess would be when Hell freezes over) 'What's the price on Women? 9the bounty varies from state to state and is strictly illegal in Canada, I'm afraid.)

This is kind of an important point to grok when dealing with Dave Sim: at the end of the day, no matter what you think of his philosophy on gender and politics and religion in the pages of Cerebus (or out of it), he really is just a regular guy that can yuck it up like everyone else. Indeed, I think a very large part of what keeps Dave Sim relatively sane is the idea that he's just a regular guy, who likes to go down to the pub for a pint and gets a good chuckle out of a small witticism. It's low-hanging fruit, maybe, but it keeps him more grounded - which is, when you get down to it, what we really like about many comic book writers. We may stare with awe at the cosmic vistas and energetic crackle of a Kirby comic, or the careful set-up of Alan Moore, or the mythopoetic sweep of a Gaiman fairy tale, or the sly wit and pop-culture immersion of Kieron Gillen, but at the heart of things the stuff that keeps them from being unapproachable and completely out of touch is the homey little details - the ability to laugh at a joke, the need to design your supersuit so you can take a slash, the Thing mumbling at the latest Stephen King novel, stuff like that. And Dave Sim gets it...when it doesn't get away from him.

(Also, that thing about phone orders? Yeah. No kickstarter in the 90s, kids.)

We're back to every-page-a-snapshot, more or less, switching back and forth between characters and supporting documents. Pages from Kevillist and Cirinist literature ("The penis is an organ without scruple, without humanity, without common sense." vs. "It is very difficult for a mother to recall that confused and turbulent time in her life when existence is profoundly unfocussed and a girl feels very strongly all the myriad forces which exert themselves upon her; both external forces and, more perniciously her own tendency to submit herself and her will to that which is transient, attractive, compelling and ill-advised."); the PunisherRoach is in love with a prostitute (that doesn't end well); Astoria teaches a hairdresser how to actually do hairdressing and comments on women's fashion; and Cerebus poits back into existence after his celestial chessmatch with Suenteus Po. There's a Cirinist version of Oprah starring Red Sophia and her mother. Bunky the Albino is trying to lead the men into violent rebellion. Cirin learns the files for Astoria are missing, likely replaced by Kevillist infiltrators.

You begin to get the gist. This isn't a story told straight away; this is a story told in snippets and flashes, like clues dropped in a mystery. It reminds me, on this third read-through, of something that shows up in a later book, and I wonder if it's deliberately meant to invoke something that Sim develops further on...or if it's just his way of following multiple plot lines. Dunno. Then I get a few pages further in, and Cerebus is talking to an old woman with scarred lips - obviously a prisoner of the Cirinists, but a ranking one - and we get this little gem:
All women read minds, with very few exceptions.

It's a little more complicated than that. "Woman's intuition" is a nice way of putting it. "Women are more sensitive" is another way of putting it. A not-so-nice way of putting it is that women rape men's minds the way men rape women's bodies. It's not an exact analogy, of course, because rape is invasion and invasion is the main's way, not the woman's way; absorption and consumption are the woman's way; what they're built for.

Like I said, this is something Sim develops in more detail in later books, but this is...well, this whole multi-thread retrospective is a spoiler warning...this is one of the key expository one-sided dialogues which reveal far more than you think, but it's still one person's perspective. That's kind of a key thing in this series, with all the people that think they know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth - it's always their truth, and some of it may even be factual, but it's always just one view of the whole thing. It's really brilliant, in a way, that Sim can get into the heads of his characters and do this, even if it does reduce Cerebus to mostly monosyllabic "Aye" or "Nay" and some nodding to get people to continue talking; in a very real way, he is the audience, and the audience is Cerebus. But to skip the lit crit for a sec, yes this does mean that in Dave Sim's Cerebus women are supposed to be telepathic to some degree, and this is why the Cirinists are so dangerous - they've managed to harness and utilize that innate gift and "link up" into a kind of psychic network. Beyond childbirth, it's the mystical basis for the Cirinist faith and faction.

Much of the book, of course, is taken up with Sim's dialogue-of-sorts between Cirin and Astoria, through their respective publications. It's weird how well Sim thinks this stuff through; it's stuff that you could argue as a feminist or a politician or a philosopher, but there's meat and bones and chewy gristle to it, not throw-away fappery. This is the kind of stuff that could have been written if civilization had veered left instead of right, if pro-choice and pro-birth literature were written primarily from the perspective of women writing for an audience of women - which means, of course, that they largely ignore men and the male perspective, and tend to dismiss or degrade them out of hand. Does that realistic cynicism make Sim misogynist? You could argue it.

PunisherRoach, having been rejected by his love interest, starts calling himself Swoon and becomes a pastiche of Neil Gaiman's Dream of the Endless.


Cerebus finishes his conversation with the unnamed old woman that knows too much, and is sent to the Horseshoe Tavern - which, like all other taverns under Cirinist law, are "Men Only," and sort of a safe refuge for men. This is also important in later books. In his room, Suenteus Po realizes he made a mistake in his game with Cerebus. Cirin and her generals mull over what the hell Cerebus is doing (he's sitting in a tavern, with the doll Missy, drinking ale), imagining it's all a complex Illusionist plot; the engineers for Cirin's sphere of gold find their problems solving themselves... as usual, this is all too complicated for a blow-by-blow to do it justice. And Cerebus dreams.

I love the dream imagery in Cerebus. It's not like real dreams, at least not like any I've ever had. It's the kind of dreams that you imagine people should have in stories, surreal and beautiful moments that break the rules of form and format, heavy with symbolism, just these multi-page arcs that seem to imply so much, but say so little.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Cerebus sleep-walks to the top of the tavern - holding his sword up - a tower grows, just like before...and then he belches, and it falls.

Arc words from the Church & State: "Something fell."

It's panic in the city, of course; the Cirinists and Kevillists start going at it, everyone is on edge, Astoria breaks her arm. But it's also Sim playing with us again; we as the audience know that Cerebus is the protagonist of this story, we maybe think we know what a lot of characters in the story suspect - that Cerebus, who does so little on his own provocation, may well be the savior-figure that they've been waiting for. But didn't we do that, at the end of Church & State? Why are we still looking at this mystico-religious ascension? What are the mechanics of it, what does it mean?

Well, for one thing it means we get a couple pages where Cerebus talks to the Regency Elf. Who it turns out is not the real Regency Elf, but something like a tulpa or egregore that Cerebus generated unconsciously after visiting with Suenteus Po the first time. She calls herself Cerebus' Dream Daughter, and sadly I think this is almost the last time we ever see her.

The Roach visits Astoria and Cirin in their dreams; it doesn't end well for him. I can't tell if that's a playful jab at Gaimain or a "what would Cirinists and Kevillists think of the 'Dream King'." That's what this book does to you; it makes you ask these kinds of questions. Often while making slightly dirty jokes.

Cirin, meanwhile, is in a sort of coma. They brought a doctor in; that's good for a page or so discussion on fundamentalist religious views on medicine and sorcery, and how political and religious bias can apply to science; I'm rather glad that Sim got through this phase quickly instead of dwelling on "faith healing."

This comes together as Cirin and Astoria meet, in dream, on a cosmic chessboard like the one Cerebus and Suenteus Po met on. It's a nice backdrop for a conversation that neither woman could have in real life - but again, we get a flashback to another time, a different aardvark (Suenteus Po) being beaten. For all she's done, we get the intimation that Astoria is still repeating some part of a cycle... Cirin wakes up with a broken arm, mirroring Astoria. Again, we're struck with the tarot/diamondback/chess symbolism of the story, the underlying mysticism that is never quite explained. (Meanwhile, the Roach is having a sort of wet dream.)

One of the focuses of this book is on "sorcery." It's not something really explained in the book; it's pretty clear that in the beginning magic in Cerebus' world was...well, just Swords & Sorcery type of stuff, like you'd get in a Conan story. What it evolved into, over many books, however, is something a little more interesting. There's political and religious weight behind and against sorcery, much like in the Middle Ages, when charges of sorcery were used as political attacks against figures (often combined with heresy or sodomy) - unprovable, but jut the accusation had weight. Here though, they know magic exists - sorcery is associated with Illusionists - Cerebus once apprenticed to a wizard - but again, we're stuck with "well, what does it mean?" and for answer, all I can say is we don't have enough pieces yet.

I could fill this review with just the snippets from Astoria and Cirin's journals and tracts. They're brilliant. But the best is when the two discuss Cerebus - if only they could see what each had written about him. Neither quite gets to the truth, but Astoria - who calls him "a useless, foul-smelling, dim-witted little toss-pot" and "Julius planned this all along just to make me look like an idiot." - maybe gets closer to it, while missing the quintessence of the aardvark (which, again, Sim develops further later...I know I say that a lot, but after you read the series through once, it's hard not to see little things as they develop and think of where they lead.)

Meanwhile, Cerebus drinks off his scotch and sees himself as a young and an old aardvark. Then we get something weird which I had forgotten about:
Cerebus had been wide awake for some time. He felt no ill effects from his drunken binge. He heard the voice of Magus Doran; their final conversation over two decades before.

'You have been my least successful pupil and yet I am as certain today as I was the day you came here that Tarim has chosen you as his champion. When the time is right you will hear these words again. The priestesses and the queens seek to steal the magic and make it their own. Throughout history they have controlled, manipulated, contained and infected pure male magic. It is not theirs. It is outs! They are the soil in which the plant grows but they are not the plant itself. [...]
And on a bit, but it also includes that rhyme about Here's the bird that never flew from the first volume of Mothers & Daughters, apparently "It is the legend of Ketigern, the mage patron of the city of your father's birth."

...which is weird, but not maybe for the way you think. In a story where everything is set up to be an argument between two pro-female factions of a goddess religion, the fundamentalist male perspective that feels emasculated and wishes to negate women's role altogether is...odd. Bad flavor in the mouth. And doubly weird for it to be said to Cerebus.

Which provides the spark Cerebus needs to leave the taven, sword in hand, across the rooftops of Iest. Meanwhile, Cirin's sphere of gold is coming to fruition. Astoria is ready to make her move, and steps out to meet Cirin. Magical things start to happen; Cerebus leaps from a rooftop and starts to fly; towers being to rise all over the city; Cirin's assassins aimed at Astoria fade away. One side of Cirin's sphere collapses. An assassin tries (and fails) to kill Cirin.

...and finally, Suenteus Po shows up, and with Astoria and Cerebus they walk into the papal palace to meet Cirin.


It's not a particularly long mindfuck, but it's a busy one. It's a damn good cliffhanger, when you think about it. After all this time - we're at something like 3,500 pages - we're going to have four of the principal characters in this story together, in the same room. We've gotten a lot of information, but maybe, hopefully, we'll finally get some answers.

Reading back over this, I'm not sure I've done it justice. The plot is complex, there's lots of threads to follow, and the whole thing with the DreamRoach is somewhere between bizarre and slapstick. And yet, I can't really fault the pacing in this book. Events seem to drag out, but then they happen all at once - as, perhaps, they should. People panic and make bad decisions, as they do in real life. We still don't know all the details of the mysticism, the gender politics, involved - but what we do know is that it's not a wedge issue, it's not some simple disagreement or petty argument, there are two (or three, with Magus Doran) very different points of view here, and a lot of people have been playing this strange game, working for a climax which...hasn't occurred yet, despite what happened with Cerebus in the end of Church & State. The final ascension, the true ascension, is waiting.

The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos


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    XaquinXaquin Right behind you!Registered User regular
    Beautiful summary sir.

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    Golden YakGolden Yak Burnished Bovine The sunny beaches of CanadaRegistered User regular
    Reading these brings back lots of memories about my own read-through of the series.

    Next two are the first Cerebus books that I wound up reading for the first time - not the best point to enter the series, but it was certainly an eye-opener as to what could be done in a comic, that's for sure.

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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    I've got a friend that commented I'm being too kind here, as at this point we're basically looking at a publishing company taking advantage of a person's mental illness for their own profit...eh. We still haven't seen Sim go totally off the deep end yet. That's coming up!

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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    XaquinXaquin Right behind you!Registered User regular
    But he owned the publishing company right?

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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    Yeah. I guess you could say he was exploiting himself? Or, something. But this was after Sim had broken up with his wife (who went on to found Renegade Press), so it's just him and Gerhard, and I can't stay mad at Gerhard for anything.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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