Two weeks ago, I discussed the origins of my “Cerebus” mega-read. Last week, I talked about the 300 issues overall, and some of the responses from the world at large. This week, I wrap up my look at the series by providing a reflection and brief evaluation of each of the 16 collected volumes. Consider this your Reader’s Guide to Cerebus, for the Discriminating Intellect!
One of the great ironies of “Cerebus” is that Dave Sim, for all his introspection and apparent self-examination, can be as unaware of his own context as his main character is. Cerebus the aardvark is often a great comedic straight man because of his lack of awareness, but when Sim talks about “The Emperor’s New Art,” his name for “The Moronic Art Movement of the 20th Century,” or, what we would call “Modernism,” in the back pages of Volume 14 of “Cerebus,” he derides Picasso. In another section of his Annotations, Sim contrasts Pablo Picasso to Norman Rockwell, talking about how the art world praises the former for his genius but dismisses the latter for being a mere illustrator. From Sim’s point of view, Rockwell is the great artist, and Picasso is the sham. The Emperor with no clothes.
But Sim is far closer, stylistically, to Picasso than Rockwell. Not in terms of rendering individual figures — certainly Sim is more illustrative than abstractly cubist, but in terms of his approach to his chosen artistic medium, Sim employs fragmentation and narrative cubism far more than any kind of Rockwellian storytelling realism (or even romanto-realism, whatever that might mean). Sim brings in multiple voices and multiple styles. He’s a formalist chameleon who uses parody and pastiche in layers of meaning throughout the series. But because his figure drawings, bolstered by Gerhard’s sturdy background, look superficially more like Rockwell than Picasso, Sim digs his trench in the Rockwell camp and calls Modernism a “Moronic Art Movement,” even as he employs more of its narrative techniques than his comic book peers.
His use of Modernist tropes is one of the things that adds the literary depth to “Cerebus,” beyond the fact that Sim just happens to include a bunch of literary allusions to the series. So, in honor of the fragmentation of high Modernism, I will jump right into a reflection on each volume of “Cerebus.” I may, like Dave Sim himself, eventually develop a Unified Field Theory of my own, but for today, for this month, I will let my responses to individual volumes stand as my approach to “Cerebus.” Fragmented, though they may be. (And it probably won’t stop me from providing some kind of overall ranking of the series at the end, because I just can’t resist that kind of thing.)
Volume 1: Cerebus
This is raw, completely unpolished Dave Sim. Barbarian parody with the beginnings of Sim’s character-based humor popping through. It’s only interesting to see how far the series advanced in the first two years, and for the introduction of a handful of character who would later become essential to the series, though they change so much in their later behavior that this first volume is almost completely skippable.
One thing I would like to point out, though, is that the Roach, Dave Sim’s superhero parody character, is the best part of this volume, and the best part of many of the issues he appears in. He’s the Tick before there was a Tick, and as he shifts from persona to persona (parodying Batman in this volume at first, then later appearing as Captain America, sorry, Captain Cockroach, with the Elric stand-in as his Bucky), he provides a voice for Sim’s running commentary on superhero cliches.
In fact, one of the aspects of “Cerebus” that’s often overlooked is how much it comments on trends within the comic book industry. All the way until the very end, this series is as much about Dave Sim’s relation to comic books as it is about anything else. The superhero parodies foreshadow many more to come, as even some of mainstream comics most prominent creators make an appearance in future volumes.
Volume 2: High Society”
Though the entire 300 issues of “Cerebus” can, and should, be seen as one long graphic novel, in the mold of the digressive Russian novels that Sim talks about so much in the back matter of his comics, “High Society” is a chapter that also works as a self-contained story. And as a self-contained story, it’s one of the first true graphic novels, ever. It’s still one of the few true graphic novels, honestly, with a central thematic focus, but a large cast of characters and a multitude of sub-plots.
Cerebus becomes Prime Minister and gets swept up into the board meetings and political shenanigans that come with the job. It also prominently features Astoria, Sim’s symbol of the independent woman, aka “the feminist.” Basically, even in these early volumes, his approach to relationships between men and women is to put the men on one side, and to divide the women between Astoria-like feminists and Cirin-like matrons (who are also a kind of feminist). Sim’s sexism is present from early on, and it’s not something that just appears out of nowhere in later volumes. The difference is that he seems to be using the characters here to say something about gender relationships and politics and society, and later, he just begins showing straightforward contempt for women. But the seeds are here.
Also notable, and something that makes Sim distinct, beyond his inventiveness and skill as a post-Eisner artist, is his use of conversation. Sim’s characters talk to one another. They converse. Here, he shows that he’s quickly becoming one of the best dialogue writers in the history of comic books. And that’s a skill he never loses, even though his characters become flatter as the series marches to its conclusion and they have less interesting things to say.
It’s also something a young, fashionable Dave Sim talks about in a 1987 interview for “The Masters of Comic Book Art” documentary What he says there is worth paying attention to, and I’ll reference it later for another reason. But in that documentary he says, “It’s two people in a room.” That’s what the essence of storytelling is, he claims, at least back then. “If you’re going to do a film or a comic book or any other entertainment that doesn’t have just two people talking, you’re missing the whole essence of what’s human.”
Volumes 3 and 4: Church & State
This is why Dave Sim was long considered one of the great comic book creators of all time. He follows up an ambitious 500-page graphic novel with a 1200-page graphic novel! Of course, we now know it was part of something much larger, but, like “High Society,” “Church & State” is designed to stand on its own, even if the ending catapults Cerebus to the moon where he misses out on the repercussions of what was set in motion while he ascended to the role of Pope.
This massive, two-volume story is Sim’s satire of religion and power, and it’s the high point of the entire series, though there’s plenty to enjoy in the 12 volumes that follow.
But what’s often forgotten about this two-book pair is how funny it all is. Sim nails the slapstick and parody (with the Roach making many appearances, first as a Sienkiewicz-ian Moon Roach, then later as Spider-Roach then as Secret Sacred Wars Roach…and, well, you get it) and the layers of irony.
There’s also a horrifying rape sequence that changes the reader’s perspective on the character dynamics in the story. That Sim can mix something that powerful (and it’s certainly not gratuitous, though it is as repulsive and terrifying as you can imagine, even though nothing is actually shown on panel) with the comedy and satire in the story arc, well, it just shows him at the height of his narrative powers. And by a third of the way through the two-part story, Gerhard is drawing the backgrounds, which makes everything look more grounded.
Though “Cerebus” is ultimately a fragmented narrative, there is a repeating pattern on the macro-scale that emerges by the end of “Church & State,” as Cerebus attempts his first Ascension.
Basically, at every 100 issue interval (so leading up to, and shortly following issue #100, leading up to issue #200, and leading up to issue #300), Cerebus looks to reach a higher level of awareness, to physically or spiritually ascend to a higher plane. The first time he tries, in this story arc, he learns that the universe began with the blackness of the void and the emergence of light. In retrospect, this is the beginning of the Dave Sim cosmology about the female void and the male light, and he doesn’t shy away from those terms. To readers at the time, it may have just seemed like cosmic mumbo-jumbo (it may still seem that way), but it later becomes an important aspect of Sim’s conception of the world. This is his autobiography, remember?
Though he would ultimately replace the female void and male light cosmology with its inverse by the end of the series.
“Church & State,” even with some of its cracks showing, is still a tour-de-force. It’s one of the great graphic novels of all time.
Volume 5: Jaka’s Story
Sim doesn’t try to top the epic “Church & State” with something even bigger, but instead tells a much smaller scale domestic story about a single location and a handful of characters. This is basically the story of the dancer Jaka – the symbol of beauty and longing throughout “Cerebus” – and her husband Rick, with Cerebus playing a small, but essential role, along with an Oscar Wilde analogue and an innkeeper who pines for Jaka. Though Sim used blocks of text in previous stories, in “Jaka’s Story” he goes into full Oscar Wilde pastiche mode, writing his version of the story of Jaka’s childhood in tiny font, picture-book-style, with sequential pages alternating.
This volume is nothing like what has come before, and though Sim tries to repeat this literary experiment later, this is his most successful attempt. It also ends with a surprise that reminds the reader of the larger story Sim has been telling from the beginning (or at least from “High Society” onward). This is a gorgeous volume, and the one-two-three punch of “High Society,” “Church & State,” and “Jaka’s Story” are easily the best 2,000 page narrative in the history of comic books. Had Sim quickly wrapped up his loose plot threads in one last volume and then called it quits, I doubt anyone would argue with his ranking as one of the greatest comic book creators of all time. (But he continued for 164 more issues, and that’s when the trouble really started to emerge.)
It’s worth noting that the phonebook collections omit the issue before and the two issues after “Jaka’s Story,” though all three of those issues are quite good, and serve the story well. I don’t know why Sim hasn’t folded them into this volume. (They used to be available as a slim, “Cerebus Zero” reprint, but I don’t know if that’s still around. I happened to have the original single issues at hand, so I didn’t look very hard for the reprint version.)
Volume 6: Melmoth
Though Sim apparently began to lose readers with the quiet storytelling of “Jaka’s Story,” I would imagine that this follow-up didn’t help to regain anyone who walked away. It’s the volume that tells the world that this series is not really about the adventures of an aardvark and the society around him, it’s about Dave Sim and whatever Dave Sim was interested at the time he was writing the story. It’s all autobiography, but it becomes increasingly apparent in “Melmoth” when Sim’s research on Oscar Wilde for the pastiche in “Jaka’s Story” becomes an entire story here about the death of the real Oscar Wilde. It’s another gorgeous volume, and it gives a pathetic, tragic death smack in the middle of the 300 issue series, so I’m sure Sim liked the symmetry it would provide. But what it really does is underline the approach Sim would take with so much of the volumes that follow: take whatever he was reading at the time and weave it into a story that made sense to him.
Here, he takes the multiple accounts of the final days of Oscar Wilde, and synthesizes them into a fictional account, but one he seems to pose as a more authentic version of what likely happened.
That’s what he’ll do by the end of the series with his Bible study too.
“Melmoth” is worth reading, by the way. I might be giving the impression that it’s some dry text, and it’s not. It’s a little more constricted than the previous volumes though. Okay, a lot more constricted. As a long epilogue for “Jaka’s Story,” it works quite nicely, though.
Volumes 7-10: Mothers & Daughters
Though it spans four volumes, each individually titled (“Flight,” “Women,” “Reads,” and “Minds”), this is a shorter narrative than “Church & State” though no less formally ambitious. In essence, all four parts tell the story of Cerebus vs. Cirin. The man of action vs. the woman who wants to control the world. But within that overall structure, it’s fragmented in all kinds of pieces, with all sorts of typeset texts woven in, from theatrical dialogue scenes to warring feminist manifestos to yet another Oscar Wilde variation to an inside-the-story version of Dave Sim himself, writing about artistic experiences. Oh, and that Dave Sim analogue, known in the story as Viktor Davis, he’s the guy that writes the essay about “The Female Void and the Male Light” at the end of “Reads.”
Thus, what had been implicit becomes explicit, and Dave Sim gets the reputation for misogyny that he will never shake. In later volumes, when he half-jokingly, half-angrily refers to himself as “Dave Sim the evil misogynist” it’s hard to have any kind of sympathy for him, after his continuous disdain for women based around a juvenile Vulcan-esque theory that emotion is the problem, and reason is the answer. I don’t think Sim is a misogynist, by the way, because hate would imply an emotional angle that he doesn’t bring to his side of the argument. Nope, its not that he hates women, it’s just that he is dead wrong about women, about the relationships between men and women, and even his comic book shows how off-base he is, with none of his men ever able to transcend their own emotions.
The comic book parodies continue throughout with the Roach assuming a variety of (often hilarious) identities, including Punisheroach and Swoon, based on a certain pale-skinned Neil Gaiman character.
And as the story rushes toward issue #200 the next Ascension begins, with Cirin and Cerebus both heading into space, to find out the true meaning of everything. Basically, the cosmology from the end of “Church & State” becomes more detailed here, with the contrast between the void and the light and the secrets of Cerebus revealed.
What’s most notable, though — besides the fact that the story still has virtuoso flourishes right up until the end of “Minds,” flourishes which are easier to appreciate if you can past the vile gender politics of Dave Sim and his in-story analogues – is that on page 176 of “Minds,” after several pages of exposition explaining what has really been going on since issue #1, Cerebus turns toward the reader, looks up, and thinks “Your turn.” According to Sim, in his introduction to the volume, “After that simple two-word dialogue balloon, it was time for complete improvisation.” Sim hadn’t conceptualized the series beyond that point, though he still had over 100 issues to go to meet his 300 issue promise. So what does Sim do, as part of the improvisation between him and his character? He starts talking to Cerebus. It’s Sim and Cerebus, having a chat, all inside the character’s head. I told you it was autobiography all along.
Volume 11: Guys
Though the theme of this volume can be boiled down to: girls always show up to ruin the fun, it’s not as simplistic a book as that might make it sound. It’s not a complex storyline, but it’s one of Sim’s best, and it’s certainly the highlight of everything since “Jaka’s Story.” “Guys” is about male friendship, with a large cast of characters revolving around a pub, filled with celebrity cameos from film, literature, music, and comics, like Rick Veitch, Eddie Campbell, Ringo Starr, Marty Feldman, Norman Mailer, and Don Simpson.
The comedy is broad, but the dialogue is some of Sim’s best and the cartooning is astonishing.
No doubt this volume falls into “bad last third of ‘Cerebus'” reputation trap, and I know some readers who bought it in single issues bailed out in frustration at the lack of major events. But this is, like “Jaka’s Story” a small-scale domestic drama. This one just happens to be about guys hanging out and making fun of each other.
Volume 12: Rick’s Story
Jaka’s former husband, who Sim always identified as a kind of Jesus figure, in terms of his immense kindness and non-threatening manner, returns to Cerebus’s life. This volume, like “Melmoth” reads like a long epilogue for what came before, following up on “Guys” and building on it only incrementally. This is one of the weaker volumes of the entire series, with Sim struggling to make Rick funny and veering off toward sincerity and piety instead. It’s notable as the place where Sim began to research the Bible (intending to mock it as part of this story and what followed), but then became a devout believer in his own version of the ancient texts.
It’s also notable because Jaka returns, and the series looks to be heading toward some kind of happy ending, with the loving reunion between Cerebus and his beloved-but-never-fully-united Jaka.
Volume 13: Going Home
Cerebus returns to his kind-of-clueless, unbelievably lucky, kind-of-constantly-annoyed roots in this volume, as Cerebus and Jaka spend quality time together in the first half, then travel toward Cerebus’s home in the second, with a lengthy F. Scott Fitzgerald pastiche to add texture to the book.
Alan Moore and Rick Veitch make appearances, providing some comic relief, but the best part of this volume is the Fitzgerald stuff. In Sim’s pastiche version, using a character called F. Stop Kennedy, he mimics Fitzgerald’s literary voice far more effectively than he did Oscar Wilde’s. He was a good Wilde mimic. But he really nails Fitzgerald, who Sim clearly has a fondness for. And Fitzgerald’s real-life story clearly aligned with Sim’s wrong-headed view of gender relations, with the narrative of the crazy wife who dragged the husband down fitting neatly into his self-prescribed narrow view of the world.
A bit of Fitzgerald-by-way-of-Sim, a piece that shows his facility as a literary mimic: “Genevra’s single flaw-if it can be accurately described as such-was not that she had doubted, but, rather, that she had believed.” Genevra is Kennedy’s literary version of Jaka, and that single sentence captures the character as well as any of Sim’s illustrations.
It’s also a notable volume because (a) it’s very good, even though everyone seems to dismiss it as being part of the unreadable final third of the series, and (b) it’s the last volume that really has any substantial conversation between characters. Though characters talk after this, they never connect in any meaningful way. Not like they do here, though even here, the emotional reality is not based on the actual relationships between the characters, with each character deluded in his or her own way. Still, that’s the essence of the human condition, and the last vestiges of the Dave Sim from the 1987 interview can be found in this volume.
After this, stuff happens, characters talk, but they no longer communicate. Not for anything longer than a moment. As Sim’s autobiography, that is particularly telling.
Volume 14: Form and Void
This one’s a mess, with moments of quality sprinkled through. The whole first half is an Earnest Hemingway pastiche, with Cerebus as the sputtering Hemingway fanboy. Turns out, though, that in doing his Hemingway research, and reading the Hemingway catalogue, Sim found that Hemingway is one of the most overrated writers of all time. Sim really dislikes Hemingway, but he may dislike Mary Hemingway even more, calling for her to be put on trial for the first degree murder of her husband based on her negligence at the end of Hemingway’s life.
This volume is completely readable, but besides some of Cerebus’s absurd idolatry, there’s no humor to be found anymore. Nope, this is serious “Cerebus” from now through the home stretch, with some wild grasps at humor in the next volume. One of the flaws this series is that it had set itself up as a satire for so long, and then stopped being funny. For readers, that’s probably a bigger stumbling block than the typeset walls of text or the paranoia or the gender politics or the religious ranting. Maybe not.
Oh, and here’s how Sim ends this volume: Cerebus and Jaka finally arrive at Cerebus’s village to find that his parents had already died. Cerebus blames Jaka, for no good reason, and tells her to “Scram.” That’s the end of their relationship. Sim seems to indicate his increasing preference for solitude.
Volume 15: Latter Days
If the trilogy of “High Society,” “Church & State,” and “Jaka’s Story” rank as one of the highlights of comic book history (and it should), “Latter Days” deserves a place as one of the most wildly inconsistent graphic novels of all time. It isn’t a complete loss, with stabs at humor in the first half of the book, including Todd McFarlane wearing a Miracleman hockey shirt. But that stuff, plus some Spawn parodies (notably, a decade too late to have any bite) just feels like an out-of-touch guy trying to make a few yuck-yucks once again. It’s entertaining to watch the attempts, but none of them land.
And then you get the lengthy exegesis of the Torah, where Cerebus comments on what he thinks the holy book really means. That tiny text is contrasted with images of Sim’s Woody Allen parody character, who is drawn from traced photos. (He used the approach in the previous volume, but not to this extent, and we can see his cartooning turning into the style he would now use on “Glamourpuss,” and it’s a far less interesting visual approach than Sim just…drawing.) In Cerebus’s exegesis, which is Sim’s actual religious belief, according to the back matter, the character explains that God is what existed before “Let there be light” and the light was what turns out to be YHWH, pronounced by Cerebus and Sim as “Yooh-Whoo,” seriously. Instead of interpreting the ancient text to be a collection of different stories or a version assembled by multiple authors (which Sim claims to have believed at first, until he actually read the thing), he concocts a story that he indicates makes sense out of all the inconsistencies in the text. In essence, he’s playing for his version of a religious “No Prize,” but he genuinely believes that his explanation, with a male God and a female Yooh-Whoo, in conflict from one another, is the true story of the universe.
It’s not that this stuff doesn’t sound crazy, but it doesn’t sound any crazier than any other cosmological explanations Sim has provided in the book. He has flipped the void from female to male, and the light from male to female, but his interpretation of the Torah is in keeping with his long-held gender politics. Sims complains about the “isms” of the 20th century that have destroyed thought, he applies his own, Sim-isms to everything he sees. He has one view of the world, so its no surprise he sees it everywhere he looks.
Volume 16: The Last Day
Ultimately, this volume provides a painful, but powerful, ending to the story of Cerebus the aardvark. And an end to Dave Sim’s autobiography, with his protagonist clawing at the ground, trying not to get pulled away as the final page draws near. But to get to the tragedy at the end, you have to get past the absurd debacle in the beginning, a debacle that Sim introduces with these words: “… if a comic-book writer and artist did actually come up with The Origin of Everything (a.k.a. The Unified Theory which Einstein spent his intellectual life pursuing) wouldn’t you have heard something? Wouldn’t the theory be splashed all over newspaper headlines and magazines and television and radio?”
“Mm, no. No, I don’t think so.”
“Particularly (as in this case) if the writer-artist in question wasn’t a feminist. See, if you aren’t a feminist in our society, whatever else you may be it is taken as a given that you are definitely wrong.”
Sim, now not merely paranoid, but delusional enough to think that he has actually discovered the Unified Field Theory but no one wants to hear it because he is not a feminist (!), then goes on to present his story of the origin of creation, with footnotes explaining how the science proves the Unified Field. Here’s an excerpt, explaining that God did not want to reunite with YYWH because of the potential for catastrophe: “Considering that the Big Bang was just a scale model of what would have happened if God had brought forth His own equal and joined himself to it, I think God has a point.”
That is, no joke, part of Sim’s Unified Field Theory. That’s the science that the world is overlooking, because of his gender politics.
It’s not much different from the science the Puritans used to explain everything: divine providence, because “God willed it so.” Yup, that’s the absurdity that begins the final volume of “Cerebus,” and while it may work as parody of science and religion, because Sim not only plays it straight, but insists that it is the absolute truth most of the world is too feminist to understand, the reputation of “Cerebus” is almost irrevocably destroyed.
But if you can stick it out, past the ranting, nonsensical religio-science, you get to see the kind of tragic realism that comic books rarely do well, and a prolonged, painful death scene that is almost without peer. Sim throws in some “Citizen Kane” allusions in the final volume, and that’s fitting, with the alone and unloved Cerebus reaching his final hours, but Sim goes far beyond what Orson Welles dared to show about the putrid reality of bodily decay and final rest.
Man, this final volume is just brutal, but so is death.
When Cerebus sees his life flash in front of him, it’s a moving moment, because Sim uses images from previous comics, and we, and Cerebus, and Sim, have been through a lot since those days. It feels like a life has been lived, over those 6,000 pages. It’s been Sim’s life, of course, and our lives, and Cerebus is but lines on paper, but as he looks back on the fragmentary moments of his life it is incredibly powerful.
Sim, though interprets it differently: “I think the whole point of our life flashing before our eyes is to show our souls (whoever we are) what an intrinsic waste of time it has been. Mostly unmemorable, mostly uninteresting.” This is Sim talking about the images he has drawn, as they flash in front of a character he has drawn for all of his adult life. “What an intrinsic waste of time it has been,” is all we get.
As a final coda in this 6,000 page autobiography of Dave Sim, what we get in the end is a surprise. It’s Sim in the back matter, talking candidly about the relationship between himself and his parents. He describes his mother’s encroaching death, and his troubled relationship with his father and dying mother. He describes how he recently severed all ties with his parents, and this is how he talks about the situation: “Truth to tell, having walked out on my parents I don’t miss them any more than I miss my placenta. It seems to me an apt analogy. Yes, it was something I needed at one time. I’m much bigger now. I don’t need it.”
That is Dave Sim, at the end of his “life” as the writer and artist of “Cerebus,” the longest comic book narrative in human history created by an individual. Sentimentality is surely for feminists.
So where does that leave us? Thirteen-and-a-half volumes of good-and-often-amazingly-great comics, and a few hundred pages of absolute misery. Take the best of “Cerebus” and it’s some of the best comics in history. The worst brings down the overall average though, doesn’t it? I’m not sure. I think a comic that aspires and achieves, even if it fails at times, is superior to anything that’s merely good. Merely good we can find all over the place.
But there’s only one “Cerebus,” and there’s only one Dave Sim. In all of his infuriating, fascinating, brilliant, horrible genius.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan