2: High Society
3: Church & State Volume I
4: Church & State Volume II
5: Jaka's Story
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
8: " "
It occurs to me, in writing these retrospectives, that while I started off talking about what Cerebus is about, the impact the comic had on the comic world, the influence and importance of Dave Sim as a proponent of creator-owned comics, I've largely gone over to telling people how lovely the art and layout and lettering is, and recapping the story. Which is all very well, but this being a retrospective more than a "Let's Read Cerebus" series of threads, I'm going to revert for at least a paragraph of two and go a bit meta.
is not an easy book. You've gotten that a lot over the last couple threads, but it bears repeating because even if you're not of a mood to treat this as a bottom dollar critical literature course look at the graphic novel, we're still looking at book three
of a four-part storyline, which was in turn preceded by three thousand pages of comics. So, this is not an easy entry point into the Cerebus series, and I'd even argue that the individual issues aren't particularly good as standalones - without context, they're little more than highly confusing, very wordy comics that vary between full pages of text and some rather minimalist images. That's important
for two very real reasons: for one, it shows that Dave Sim is still experimenting and stretching out what the comics medium is capable of, and two it speaks to fact that Dave Sim was trying successfully to tell a long-format story in the unfamiliar graphic medium.
In our current era where triple-digit runs of anything
are more likely to be marketing gimmicks like softboots than honest issue counts, it's still amazing that Cerebus ever made it to 100 issues, much less 300. At the time, it was unprecedented; even today it's something of a rarity - how many comics by a single creator have passed 100 issues? I think Savage Dragon passed 200, but I stopped paying attention to that years
ago. Which is part of the problem with long-runners, in that the continuity continues to pile up - look at any issue of The Avengers
50 or 100 issues apart, and you'd be amazed to see two characters the same on the team. With Cerebus
, however, Dave Sim had a plan - or at least an end - in mind from a very early point. I don't think he had it planned out all the way, because it's hard to plan for mental illness, but there is that which is different about Cerebus
than there is about Savage Dragon
: there is only one direction (forward), and there is an ending. Superhero comic books are mythological in nature; the characters tend to retreat, generation after generation, to certain status quo ante. We bitch about Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane getting retconned away, and in five or ten years (if not sooner) a new generation of creators will come in and revert the change to what they remember from their childhoods, and then five or ten years after that the kids that grew up with the Sinister Spider-Man will try to bring him back and...well, like I said, cycles. It takes a lot to break a cycle, or to alter it substantially - Frank Miller, for all the scorn plopped on him over the years, made some definitive changes to the character of Batman with The Dark Knight Returns
, because in his own words, he wanted Batman to be older than him again. It was unbroached territory, and he ventured into it, crafting an image of Batman that influences current incarnations of the character to this day.
is not mythology. Cerebus
is an epic. A single work of vast, sweeping scope, arranged in books or chapters to be easier to digest. And until Dave Sim's copyright wears out - roughly a century or two after he dies, at the rate our current copyright law is working - his take on Cerebus
is going to be the only
take. Somebody may one day play Virgil to Sim's Homer, and write an Aeneid
to his Iliad
, but it's going to be like the Russian sequels to The Lord of the Rings
: you or I will probably never live to see it on the shelves. Right now, for today, we can only appreciate Cerebus
for what it is and was.
As the title suggests, this book is primarily told through snippets of reads
, the quasi-dime novel shockers introduced in Jaka's Story
, which sort of combine the puerile offensiveness of pornography or pre-Code crime comics with a newly literate early industrial society under a harsh fundamentalist religious regime with stringent criminal codes regarding behavior and sexuality. They are, basically, a release for the characters in the setting, an insight for the readers on the characters, Sim's proffered commentary on his fantasy society and religions, and by his own admission a look at the creative process. Not exactly the stuff to get fans crawling into the comic stores; we're talking entire pages of full-text, with the facing page mostly blank except for a (relatively) small but exquisite single-panel picture. A literal glimpse into the world. Every now and again, we get a few "regular" comic pages continuing the actual plot. Cerebus
readers, I suspect, were a lot like Usagi Yojimbo
readers are today: they don't stop buying, they just die one by one. Most of the Reads
discusses the reads written by a "Victor Reid" (our Oscar from Jaka's Story
)...it is, in a fictionalized format, very similar to the more biographical material that Sim would later tackle in Glamourpuss
, albeit in a text-heavy way.
The actual plot-action concerns the meeting between Cirin, Suenteus Po, Astoria, and Cerebus. It is, again, a lot of people talking, with Cerebus not doing a great deal of it. These are fantasy conversations, the ones you imagine in your head that happen when great and intelligent and clever and serious people are in a room together talking about weighty things like "What is truth?" (one of the arc phrases for this comic) and reality and illusion. In practice, it's not so much a discussion as four people at different compass points on their particular religious and political spectra describing their view of the situation...and those views don't match.
Suenteus Po is the Illusionist, an aardvark, and the chess player. He doesn't want power, but by his words and just his appearance
and presence he may be a king (or queen) maker.
Cirin is the Cirnist, an aardvark, and a fanatic. She does
want power, even more than she already has, and is very dangerous for it - but she tends to get isolated at the top.
Astoria is the Kevillist, a human, and a politician. A player for years, she's finally coming to realize that she hasn't been playing the game as much as the game has been playing her, and that all of them are repeating roles that they had played in previous incarnations.
Cerebus is a Tarimite, an aardvark, and at heart a simple soul. He's no less dangerous than all the others; because they underestimate him, he might be more
dangerous. He is also not quite what he appears to be...
There's more of the old Diamondback/tarot/chess symbolism explained, but the big revelation is that Suenteus Po is trying to convince Cirin and Astoria to accede to Cerebus, the only one who hasn't
killed anyone to be pope, and who both of them had underestimated at every turn. Po doesn't want to be Pope, or King; he wants to break the cycle of reincarnations which Astoria and Cerebus first experienced back in Church & State
. Astoria, for her part, is willing to listen; she's had the closest thing to a character arc in the whole series, finally coming to the realization that she doesn't want
a thrown and mindless obedience. Cirin is faced with the fact that her greatest enemy has always been herself. Cerebus, Suenteus Po admits - and this is one of the greatest lines n the whole series:
Suenteus Po: You, I've never known. I've watched your every move...listened to your every word. I've shared your every waking thought. There hasn't been a day go by that you haven't surprised me.
Hard not to see Dave Sim putting the words in Po's mouth, there. We also get out first (well, sortof, I'll tell you about the White MagiKing in the final post of this series) real explanation of what an aardvark is
: agents of change, attracted to areas of change and power (politics, religion, the arts, the military) and possessed of small "powers" - the random magical whatsits that seem to afflict Cerebus throughout the series, like sneezing fire or creating the Fake Regency Elf.
This is the first time in history there have been three aardvarks.
And Po talks, seriously and forthrightly, for perhaps the first time in the entire series, about all the stuff we've been talking about with Cerebus - his struggles with control with power, how trying to actually enact his will has never actually made him happy. So doing, Po leaves, Cerebus throws a small tantrum, and then Astoria drops the bombshell:
Astoria: You're an hermaphrodite.
Astoria: An hermaphrodite. You have both male and femal genitalia. Even more interesting -- you have both male and female reproductive organs.
Cerebus: ... (you really should see the eyes for this one)
Cerebus: You just made that up.
Astoria: That fur-covered pocket betweeb your legs Where your penis sits when you aren't erect or urinating. It's a vagina.
It's one of those moments that sounds
terrible, and today would spawn some terrible Rule 34 artwork, but the more you think about it the more it makes sense
. It's brilliant in a bazillion ways. It explains why Cerebus is "caught between" the (male) Suenteus Po and the (female) Cirin, hell it explains why Cerebus doesn't wear pants
. It's awesome in the Old Testament sense of the word.
Then the rabbit hole goes deeper, and Astoria explains that Cerebus could potentially impregnate himself (or Cirin) and create an entire race
of aadvarks (except Cerebus' plumbing isn't quite hooked up right to do it himself, thankyouantirule34). She lays all her cards on the table, her motives, her schemes, yet how all of her power...seemed to revolve around Cerebus. Nothing she did made her happy, she never had any of the power or control she imagined, except through someone else. So, like Po, Astoria walks out.
The Roach appears, again, this time still riffing off of Neil Gaiman's Sandman
characters - albeit as a cloaked version of Destiny with implausibly large breasts. Shit like this is what gets Sim into trouble. Elrod the Albino is revealed to have been an illusion accidentally created by Cerebus, and so vanishes.
Cerebus and Cirin start to fight it out. This is a nasty, drawn-out affair. Vicious, going across many pages, a violent, wordless...
And then Dave Sim draws a picture of himself, at the drawing table, staring at the unfinished panel. Shit just got meta, folks.
It turns out it's not actually Dave Smith. It's "Viktor Davis," and it's followed by a sort of rambling personal essay with real-world quotes and references by noted comic book writers and artists like Robert Crumbe, Jeff Smith, and and Barry Windsor-Smith. It's a metafictional piece about the second half of Reads
. See what I mean when I say this is not an easy book? These metafictional texts pepper the second half of the book, a barely-fictionalized autobiography of Sim that serves to...shape the context of the story; Dave Sim put a lot of himself into the book. Literally. I mean, not as much as the guy that had his ashes mixed into the ink for the trade of Squadron Supreme
, but damn close. You would be forgiven for thinking that these pages are the journal entries of a person with mental health issues, because well, they practically are. Some of them cut so close to the quick it's painful:
This was a subtle point which, to Viktor Davis, had the unmistakable stink of Truth about it. He found the implications of this Story (for such it was) far-ranging and compelling in the extreme. It amount to an alternative view of human history where fact, genuine fact, virtually did not exist. All that existed were stories, lies, myths, and legends. It revealed a madness inherent in the scientific world where, for untold generations, educated people had laboured in the relentless search for the indisputably factual, seeking to define the known universe and to fit all elements of it into an orderly system of numbers, ratios, and proprortions, even as their inescapabale 'storyteller' nature, chaotic, fractious and imaginative, was working at cross purposes to their avowed intent. Each theory, each 'story' they created, became real, became True, for a percentage of their community.
...and so on in that vein. Seriously, there's quotes from "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in this thing, references to Vaughan Bode and W. C. Fields...I'm not even going to try and parse it. I don't know if it's fair to say it's "a glimpse inside the madness," but it is a glimpse into some of the stuff that won't appear in the comic until the last couple books...but which were introduced in Church & State
. There's talk of light and darkness, the void and the material universe, the Big Bang and the Universal Mother...well, at this point Dave Sim is writing about the reader reading the story about Viktor Davis writing about the reader reacting to reading how the reader reacts to reading this.
The fight continues. It's bloody, and nasty, and - as sort of obliquely foreshadowed a book or two ago - Cirin cuts off Cerebus' right ear. The throne, carrying Cerebus and Cirin, lifts off from Iest into the starry sky. This time, they head past the moon.
The last sentence of the text piece in Reads
You Crazy Diamond.'
Wish You Were Here
So, like I said, Reads
is not an easy read. It's barely a fucking comic at this point; I've know illustrated novels with fewer words than this. If this was your entry point to the series, it would probably also be your exit
point. But for those with the constitution to wade through this...there's kind of a weird balance to it. There are so many books in this series where so little seems to happen, and then you get these moments where the exposition turns to explanation - like Suenteus Po and Astoria do early in this book - and a lot of things that you have previously written off as stylistic device or Sim not knowing what he was doing and preferring to draw pretty scenery instead of fucking plotting the book suddenly snap into context. It's those moments which sort of make Cerebus
great. And then the tap breaks off, and we get this...metanarrative, over and under and through the "actual" plot. This is not the sort of shit you can get away with if you have an editor; this is the stuff that you can only do when you are your own boss. It's the kind of thing Gabe & Tycho can get away with, with Twisp & Catsby and side-projects and dickwolves. Who the fuck do they have to answer to with this stuff? Nobody. And Dave Sim was there, before them, laying the groundwork for the stuff they would eventually get away with in some respects.