2: High Society
3: Church & State Volume I
4: Church & State Volume II
5: Jaka's Story
12: Rick's Story
13: Going Home
14: Form and Void
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)
14: Cerebus travels with Jaka (and Ernest Hemingway); breaks up with Jaka
The cover might be a little hard to see all the details, but it tells you a lot about the book. But before we get on that, I'm just going to come out with it. This book, which covers ~420 pages (not counting notes) and 22 issues of the Cerebus comic, is pretty much the
book I've been warning people about since...oh...at least Church & State
. Which, on this my third (and possibly final) reading of it, might be a little unfair. But this is a long book, and the end...if it's not here...is very definitely in sight.
It leads off almost immediately from Form & Void
; Cerebus, still stunned from his parents' death, is trudging northwards toward Isshuria to "find someplace nice...where Cerebus can get himself killed." Still not entirely psychologically altogether, he doesn't do well. He stumbles into a tavern, where people are playing a roleplaying game about being "real men," winds up as low-man of the community service totem poll, shoveling out the latrines, and then blacks out. When he (and the narrative) continues, he's been herding sheep for three years. What follows is arguably the single best section in the last three books.
"See--Sheep lack the will to live. (You just have to listen to the NOISE they make to know THAT."
It's hard to express the subtle charm of Cerebus (alias "Fred") the sheep-herder. The sheep are nearly brainless, constantly beset by problems, and the art is gorgeous, right down to the buxom, sweaty, bra-less shepherdess Mrs. Gurzky scratching her ass. It's probably the happiest we've ever seen Cerebus. He spends his days herding these retarded sheep (one that kept getting its head stuck between boards he called "Elrod"), eating lots of fattening foods, drinking corn liquor, reading...reads (including the 75 issues of "Morpheus"), "spanking the monkey" to Mrs. Gurzky taking her bath, etc.
And it's on page 13 it starts to fall apart. Because up until then, you the reader thought that this was Cerebus narrating his life. But in fact, this is an older Cerebus retelling
his life as he remembers it. So it's foreshadowing the rest of the book in a way.
Let me get back to the cover.
Things you notice about the cover: the title is in a font meant to resemble Hebrew; the titular story is "Chasing YHWH," where YHWH is the transliteration into English of the Hebrew name for God; "I prefer the early, funnier ones..." - Sim having a bit of self-aware fun at are expense, here; and of course, the ginormous size of Cerebus' ass. There's more - the series of television screens across the top are all true - but, leave that out for half a minute, because the first bits tell you all you really need to know. This book is about:
1) Religion. And we don't mean fantasy religion. We got hints of this in Rick's Story
, and Sim has really been leading up to this one, but we're talking real Old Testament Jewish and Christian religion.
2) Cerebus gets old. And fat.
The first point is sort of a warning; whatever people think about Sim's take on fantasy feminism, the political-religious-social setting he presents is vivid and compelling. The real-world religious stuff is for some boring, for others heretical, but above all it is unusual
. I would argue that in the majority of European and American (North and South) comics, there is an uneasy balance between atheism and Christianity, with the cultural inertia resting on a large underlying confirmation of the Christian Mythos. So you might have Thor and Olympus and space gods in Marvel comics, but there is also a Heaven and at least one Hell and a One-Above-All that might take the form of Jack Kirby but is, in effect, God. DC comics was, at least until the latest couple of reboots, even more adamant that there was a
heaven and a
hell, and a god and angels and all that. Even in European comics which take greater inspiration from Eastern religions or paganism or occultism, like the varied graphic novels by Jodowrosky, you see a preference for messiah-figures and Christian imagery among the alchemical workings and transcendent geometries. But it is very rare
for a comic to actually try to come to grips with the words of the Bible (except, of course, the Comic Bible, which is seriously the only way young me got through the begats), or to make any sort of intelligent point. Usually "serious" looks at Jewish and Christian religion in comic books is reserved for Chick tracks and pro-Christian silliness like "Illuminator."
There's also Eisner's 'A Contract With God', but that's a minority. Go read it. You'll be a better person.
The second point is less a warning than an observation; comic books don't normally allow characters to really grow old. They might grow up
(remember when Jubilee and Shadowcat first started, they were basically pre-pubescent and their relationships with Wolverine bordered on the illegal?) They don't even normally allow for different body types beyond some perfectly-sculpted ideal, where Susan Storm can snap back to a six-pack after squeezing out two sprogs in the space of an issue or two, Power Girl has the physique of a weight lifter and the breasts of a cosmetically-augmented stripper, and almost every single male lead is about 6 feet tall, absolutely ripped, and as smooth as a Ken doll. People may complain about the Manara Spider-Woman cover, but Spider-Man has been in the same pose so many times, I think one of his less-documented powers is the ability to retract his genitals into his body.
My point being for both, that in this comic Sim continues to defy expectations and go outside the norm - pretty much because he can, and he wants to, and he has absolutely no-one to stop him. This is his ego run amok. Back to the comic.
Anyway. A tiff between Mr. and Mrs. Gurzky leads to the revelation that Mrs. Gurzky knows
Cerebus has been spying on her, and tells her husband in a fit of pique; the whole sequence is pretty funny, but the end result is that Cerebus is out of a job and wanders north (and, when he runs out of north, east).
Yes, the whole shepherd/traveling thing is supposed to emphasize Cerebus' similarities to Jesus. Look, I didn't write the damned thing, alright?
Cerebus is wandering about, working at an ice farm, and finds an actual Five Bar Gate arena - you remember, the game he'd play with Bear in Guys
? - and Cerebus becomes, basically, a pro Five Bar Gate player. His day was basically spent training and reading his latest favorite comic
by "Garth Inniscent."
I'll just leave this here.
This is about the point where you figure out that Isshuria more-or-less is equivalent to Canada, and the Five Bar Gate trappings resemble hockey to a greater degree than mere similarity would allow. Anyway, Cerebus loses the final bout to legendary player Paul "Coffee" Annan. Anyway, this sets the tone for the next couple of years - Cerebus would beat everybody right up to the finals, then lose to "Coffee" Annan. The exact number of years isn't stated, but it's suggested to be enough for Mr. Annan and Mrs. Annan to have a baby, which grows up and moves out. Indeed, old enough that when Cerebus finally beats
Annan, it turns out to be because Annan died of old age.
So Cerebus decides he's been going about this all wrong, and if he wants someone to kill him he should head south and let the Cirinists do it.
"Everyone died in the end."
"No. In the end,
everyone is dead.
It's not the same thing
- Roger Langridge
"La Journee Parfait"
All of that was the 40-page prologue to the story itself. I wanted to get through it because...well, that's the fun part of the book. It's a lengthy lead-in, but it's the lead-in. The rest gets odd.
So to get the Cirinists to kill him, Cerebus took his not-insubstantial fortune and built a swanky tavern full of half-naked dancing girls in the heart of Cirinist territory. The Three Stooges show up.
Okay, so this gets...kind of complicated. So, in real life, like many entertainers, the Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Shemp Howard, Curly Howard) were Jewish. If you want to get into the details of why
, it basically boils down to something called "pariah capitalism" - Jews were traditionally limited in their forms of employment due to social bias, but because they existed as a culture apart from Christianity they were also exempt from certain restrictions on employment; as a consequence some Jews managed to find lucrative niches in initially unrespectable fields - like commerce, money-lending, publishing, and entertainment. Some of them were very successful, and established strong traditions for certain fields. So what we have in this comic is a...sort of happy coincidence, I think. It's obvious that Sim wanted to do a biographic story on the Three Stooges, and it is equally obvious he wanted to do a story on Cerebus and religion and the Old Testament; by luck the Three Stooges are Jewish, so...it turns out that they're all apostles of Rick (from Rick's Story
), and the Book of Rick. So the Three Wise Fellows take Cerebus to their hidden temple...built to Rick's exacting specifications of the bar he found Cerebus in. (This is, in turn, based on the measurements of the Temple in Jerusalem given in the Old Testament; but imagine if you would a bar built along the lines of a Gothic cathedral.)
So Cerebus is being help hostage by these three fanatics, and slowly going nuts from their combination of slapstick and religious debate - and remember, this is all OlderCerebus looking back and remembering what it was before he realized they were onto the One True Religion - and remembering as well each issue of Rabbi
(who was basically Silver Age Superman, with umpteen bazillion powers - and, naturally, Superman was created by a couple good Jewish boys, because comic books were another pariah industry that certain Jews gravitated to.) I'm not just saying that either, because Sim basically calls attention to it by including the "Ben-Gurions of the Galaxy."
Long story short: In the pages of Green Lantern, the appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy was based on David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel.
So Cerebus - through combination of brainwashing and messianic figure in a comic book - figures out he's the messiah predicted by the Prophet Rick, the (sort of literal) son of God. And he hatches a plan to deal with the Cirinists (involving male-only hunting lodges, flintlock rifles vs. crossbows, and a complete lack of cover).
It doesn't help at this point that Cerebus is completely nuts
, and thinks (at least for a moment) that he really is
Rabbi. Which he sort of disproves by trying to fly and immediately breaking his leg. This leads to one of those graphically fascinating sections that only Dave Sim could really do - although Eisner's fight with the Octopus in a pitch-black room lit only by a swinging flashlight comes close - in that we get nearly a dozen pages of no artwork
, pitch black, with all the motion and movement told entirely by how the individual frames
of the panels are divided and shaped. It's brilliant.
So, the Cirinists vs. the Cerebites plan doesn't go exactly to plan. There's this Todd "Far Lane" McSpahn guy.
Todd McFarlane, talented artist, creator of Spawn, founder of Image comics, bit of a douche. We won't get to "Ferry Titz" Jerrold.
Basically, Todd added a few tactical twists to Cerebus' plan, and whupped the Cirinists. So...fuck it, we're skipping ahead. Basically, it's Spawn jokes, Todd McFarlane jokes, and Cerebus wins the war against the Cirinists, all while the Three Wise Guys play apostle and continue writing their new gospel. The new Cerebite religion goes okay.
"It worked for a while
...but then some guys stated acting like COMPLETE DICKS
==going around killing people JUST because Cerebus said that those who murder cleanly are BLESSED
. So Cerebus had to institute the "COMPLETE DICK RULE
"--where any TWELVE Cerebites could declare a guy a "COMPLETE DICK
" and blow his head off."
(A note: at this point, I think Sim is channeling less Jesus of Nazareth and more the Prophet Mohammed, whose rise to power involved actual military action. More to the point, I think he's also digging himself out of the theological hole that the Cirinists left him in as far as his ongoing religious studies - Cirin herself never appears, nor does Suenteus Po. Of course, given the amount of time Cerebus spent playing Five Bar Gate, maybe they both died of old age.)
This being Cerebus, the light-hearted mood doesn't last. And it comes back to earth very quickly and painfully with the Three Stooges, particularly the decline of Curly Howard, who suffered a stroke. The story is told sporadically, with about one image every three panels, the others containing snippets from Moe Howard's letters to his brother (adapted to the timeline of the comic and with Cerebus' comments).
Jesus wept. This is just...if it was any other comic
, I don't think it could be pulled off. Sim is at the top of his game, with the faces, the stances - you have scenes cut away from old Stooge serials, and the awful droop on Curly's face from the stroke, and the tone of the letters, shifting from personal to business...it's the death of the Three Stooges. Not mean, not ugly, not clean, just...it is. They get older, and they die. I don't know what the fuck that means to you. It reminds me of the 80s, after the cartoons have left off on Saturday morning, and there are these old black-and-white Stooges reels that ran on tv. And Sim, I know, he must have been watching those same reels back in the 60s and 70s. But y'know, it's a shared moment. It's like watching Kermit the Frog singing at Jim Henson's funeral. If you don't know
what's going on, if you don't have that relationship with the characters from when you're young, it doesn't have the same impact. Kids that read this far into Cerebus are not going to have a clue.
So Cerebus is old, and gets nostalgic. He's head of...well, basically a religion, again. So he tries to find what made him happy, in what made him happy. He tries herding sheep, but he gets a kid (a Charlie Brown expy) to herd some sheep for him, but because it isn't Cerebus himself, so it doesn't work. So he turns to collecting "mink" issues of Rabbi
. Gets the whole run, makes a hobby of it, becomes the self-declared expert on Rabbi
I can't throw stones.
Finally it gets to a twenty-year old copy of the Reads Journal
, with an interview with Garth Inniscent on Rabbi
, where he reveals that the entire run of Rabbi
was a careful metaplot element by the author of Rabbi
to get Cerebus to wipe out the Cirinists and then render him a completely helpless vegetable. It makes slightly
more sense in context, but it's actually one of the few bits of the comic I remember sitting back and admiring it. Because we've talked before about how Cerebus the character is not stupid, but he's relatively simple and impressionable, attracted to masculine ideals - so this guy crafted a bloody, pulpy wish-fulfillment fantasy in Rabbi
based on an obscure religious work (in the Cerebus-verse that is) called the Torah, and he waited until he was dead to reveal how he'd been manipulating Cerebus just to break the little dude.
So Cerebus is insane (more so) for a little while. Until he meets Woody Allen, who gives him a copy of the Torah to read and comment on. (The character's actual name is Konigsberg, which is Woody Allen's birth name, but I'm just going to call him Woody Allen.)
I get the distinct impression this is the story that Sim really wanted to get
to, hence all the time skips and Cerebus' episodes of blank time and whatnot. But this section is framed cinematically, more movie-esque - title cards and everything - but this is the bulk of the book. It's Cerebus reading and commenting on the Torah, explaining Genesis to Woody Allen, and Woody just responding as Woody does. And this is what this book is famous for; it's a bloody religious commentary
. And remember that Cerebus isn't the sharpest tool in the shed to begin with, but he's trying to make sense of the weirdness in Genesis, and all the dogma around it...and that's just in the Jewish version. So, for example, Cerebus decides to pronounce YHWH as "Yoohwhoo." This goes on for...entire issues. Seriously, pages and pages of Cerebus' religious commentary, interrupted by Woody Allen hijinks.
Cerebus: You've probably noticed by now that "Yoohwhoo" and "cheerful thoughts" don't really go together.
Summarizing Cerebus' re-reading of the Torah, he essentially recasts the story along dualistic lines, basically retelling the story of Terim and Tarim, except this time cast as Yoohwhoo and God. That's technically heresy if anybody cared; the Gnostics went to the stake for that kind of thing.
There's a couple pages in there where Sim borrows R. Crumb's style, just for kicks. He does it well!
We're finally given a break from Woody Allen's neurotic self-centered artsyness, Sim redrawing stills from classic movies, and Cerebus' commentaries on the bible when Cerebus looks in a mirror and notices how big his butt has gotten. He solves this by a strict regimen of 100 sit ups a day, climbing 18 sets of stairs a day, and eating nothing but vegetables. This almost causes Cerebus to order people skinned alive, but he does lose wait. We also find out that Cerebus is 46 years old, which surprises me, because I could have sworn he was older...but, I don't care. Call it 46 then.
...and back to Torah commentary. There's a great Maus
shoutout as we veer off for a bit into Woody Allen's life, leading up to the (infamous) thing with Soon-Yi. I'm not going to go into that, you can wiki the details. But I will say that this is Sim as we've sort of...he has strong opinions, on people. On their lives. But he doesn't always like to comment. He will present them in a certain way - he will show his appreciation, but that includes the bad spots too. And maybe he won't call them out on it, but he refuses to ignore it either.
Speaking of great comics by Jewish creators about events in Jewish and world history...
So the end of it...it's a montage, little artifacts and snippets from Cerebus' journey this volume, strewn out over the room, the frames moving across them like a Ken Burns effect, and he's having this lovey-dovey conversation...and it turns out he's on the couch. With Jaka. An older Cerebus. And he pronounces them man and wife.
It's a weird ending. It's sort of a parallel to Cerebus' marriage to Astoria. He's back to being pope or whatever again. He's spent dozens of pages going on and on about his essentially masculine-centric dualistic religious reinterpretation of the Old Testament. And he ends up...I guess ten or twenty years after the events of Rick's Story
...pretty much where he was, with Jaka.
AND AGAIN. This would be a nice ending to the whole series. Not a perfect ending, because seriously, it took me forever to read through all that Torah commentary again, and I'm going to have dreams tonight about the begats. But again, it's Sim playing with his endings. And he had better hope he gets it right, because there's one more book left...