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[Retrospective]14: Form & Void

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
8: Women
9: Reads
10: Minds
11: Guys
12: Rick's Story
13: Going Home

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: " "
9: Suentues Po and Astoria bow out; Cirin and Cerebus Ascend
10: Cerebus meets Dave
11: Cerebus falls in love with a bar
12: The gospel according to Rick
13: Cerebus travels with Jaka (and F. Scott Fitzgerald)


It's funny when you think about it, but my early copies of the phonebooks aren't exactly ratty, but they show signs of use. Well-loved. Near the end, they're almost pristine. This is only the third time I've ever read through Form & Void, and I think it shows. This book is 14 years old now, or almost it, and it could have been bought off the shelf yesterday. I think I've been reluctant to revisit it because...this is not the end of Cerebus. But this is probably the end of Cerebus as readers for the last 13 volumes - something like 240 issues and over 7,000 pages - have known him. This isn't the end of the series, but it's the beginning of the end of the series, so to speak. There are only two phone books after this one, and those are...well, the going gets tough.

When we talk about Cerebus, like with any long-runner, we remark on the changes that the series goes through, as much as the fantastic moments or art or anything like that. You don't really appreciate this in superhero comics, because you rarely get one creator or creative team working on them at length. But you can see it, for example, One Piece and Dragon Ball, and webcomics like Sluggy Freelance or Order of the Stick. With long runners, the work reflects the author; their interests become the focus, their change of interests become mirrored in the work. So it is with Cerebus; we've been along on a journey with Dave Sim, and the nature of the book has changed, and Dave has changed, and we have changed, over the course of the decade-plus that has gone into it. But it's not the spontaneous shift of a new creative team, the sudden bizarre alterations of powers or costume or lineup that are supposed to keep the audience excited. So this isn't just a long-runner, it's a slow-burner, and the ending - though we have been assured consistently that there is an ending - is always in doubt. That too, makes it different from your average serial strip. We're promised an end. Maybe not the best ending, maybe not a happy ending, but a completion to the story - and we're coming up on that. I think, perhaps, that Dave Sim has been trying out endings in his books, and definitely had the ending for Cerebus in mind long before he actually wrote it.

But, to the book.

At the end of the last one, Cerebus and Jaka had put off their travel to the north for a season, and spent some time with an F. Scott Fitzgerald clone. This book continues this storyline, but is also primarily a comic biographical snapshot of Ernest Hemingway - "Ham Ernestway" in the Cerebus-verse - who may be, whether you like him or not, one of the great stylists of English prose of the early 20th century. His very concise, dry, reserved style fitted the atmosphere of his pieces and his characters - and a writer that put a great deal of himself into his stories. His viewpoint was masculine in a way that defined the quiet machismo of the 1930s - not big and boisterous, but the subdued male bonding of fishing and the cracked nerves after returning from the war; of bull fights and cocktails; of mistresses who he could tell to get an abortion in three words. I don't even particularly fucking like Hemingway, aside from maybe one story (A Clean, Well-Lighted Place), but I respect him as a writer, and as an important writer at that.

So Cerebus and Jaka are traveling with Ham and his wife (based on Ernest Hemingway's wife Mary), and Cerebus is a massive Ham Ernestway fan. It's weird, because a lot of the book is based on Mary's African diary, but the art of the book is Sim getting his eye in on Canadian nature, lots of snow and parkas and bare trees. So we have black African "native" porters, speaking in African languages, but dressed up like they're in Saskatchewan during one of those interminable winters. Also, bonus points to Sim for what has to be my second-favorite off-screen lovemaking scene. For my favorite one, click the spoiler.
Howard Chaykin is your tiny comic god.

Around page 559-560, Ham Ernestway commits suicide. This is, I think, what Sim was leading up to, and maybe the focus of his fascination. We've seen it in some of his other biographical works - Melmoth of course, but also Glamourpuss and some other examples a little farther on in Cerebus. Maybe fascination is the wrong term; but there are only three things you can say about every biography - they were born, they lived, and they died. They all end the same way. And like I said, Dave Sim seems to have an eye for the endings.

Cerebus goes a little nuts with Ham's death. He identified with him, as a man's man, kind of idolized him. It ties in to one of Sim's ongoing themes, Cerebus' understanding of his own masculinity. It doesn't help that Cerebus and Jaka get lost in the woods during a storm and think they're going to starve to death. But they get out of it okay, and Cerebus and Jaka go back to being a couple, alternately talking about their future meeting Cerebus' parents and getting married, and bickering over inconsequential things.

Then we get to one of the most interesting parts of the book. Because, y'know, we never really find out a lot about Cerebus' people, his early life, his family. So when he starts talking about blood oaths and then reveals that he knows how to access the Black Tower Catacombs - built by the Black Tower Empire hundreds of years ago. It''s actually a bit of worldbuilding that is intriguing, it's the world of Cerebus that we don't get to see, swallowed up as it has been with trying to cram in Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

So then, we find out Cerebus' parents have died. Cerebus' mourning is...fantastic.


It's the end of Cerebus and Jaka. He does the "Go on. Beat it. Scram." He rends his clothes, and paints his face with dirt. And that, save for the pages of notes on Ham Ernestway/Ernest Hemingway, is the end. The end of Cerebus as we've been talking about for fourteen books and fourteen threads.

I like the Cerebus and Jaka relationship because it is, to me, so real. It has its ups and downs. It's not a storybook romance with a happily-ever-after. They have sex. They get drunk and say shit they shouldn't. They get angry at each other and make up. They break up, and get back together, and break up again. They're real people, in a way where lots of love-interest characters just seem to have "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" written into their soul. We've seen them together, and we've seen them apart. I think we've seen them apart more often. But it doesn't really matter. These are the two we would have shipped, if shipping was a thing.

Mandatory musical interlude.

But does it work? Eh. It's not the best ending. Because to compare it to another great comic book romance:


Now, there's more to it than that, but it's the fundamental difference in the relationship. Cerebus and Jaka love each other, but they're fundamentally different people - Jaka is one of the most powerful women in the world, from a cosmopolitan society, educated and pampered; Cerebus is from a backwoods fucking misogynist village out in the boonies where women "are supposed to know their place" and every man is sworn by blood-oaths into keeping the secrets of the Black Tower Empire and crap. They're each strangers to each others' worlds - and yet, and yet. We have to ask "What if?" What if Jaka, who saw that Cerebus was hurting, grieving, maybe broken a little inside by the loss of his parents, decided not to leave? What if she had cared for him instead?

Well, the last two books of this series would have been totally different, you can believe that.

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