I read CEREBUS for about a year some 6 or 7 years ago. When I realized I was more entertained by the editorial from Dave Sim than the stories, I dropped the book. (It was also a matter of limited finances at the time.) While CEREBUS is often referenced by creators looking for a long tenure on their given titles, it seems to have dropped off the radar screens. This falls into another theory of mine about how sticking with a single title for any period of time means falling into obscurity. But that’s another column for another time.
With all of this in mind, I decided to start at the very beginning and picked up the first phonebook the other week. For those of you not familiar with CEREBUS, it’s a projected 300-issue storyline following the life (and eventual death) of Cerebus, the Aardvark. Along the way, the title delves into politics, society, and gender roles. It began as a bit of sword and sorcery/Conan parody and turned into something bigger and more complex. Each storyline is collected in massive trade paperbacks affectionately referred to as “phonebooks” due to their size. (Recent collections, I noticed, are often only half the size of the first half dozen or so. I understand the need to collect storylines individually, but I do wish Sim had stuck with the thicker books. It’s tough to call a collection of 10 issues a “phonebook.”)
Dave Sim is the writer and artist, with faithful assistant Gerhard drawing in all the meticulous backgrounds.
This is a review of the first phone book, simply titled CEREBUS. It collects the first 25 issues of the black and white series for a mere $25. It’s been packaged like that for the past 14 years, and has gone through 9 printings.
The book didn’t start out as an epic story with storylines stretching out for up to five years at a time. It started out as a simpler CONAN parody. The early issues collected in the book are closer to GROO than the CEREBUS you may have heard about. I’d recommend this first collection on the strength of the hilarious single-issue stories that begin around the third issue and carry on through the rest of the book. You’ll see some of the names and places that will eventually form the basis of the overall storyline. Everyone from Jaka to Elrod to the Cockroach are here. Iest is visited. Some politics are breezed through, although it’s rarely taken seriously. You get the feeling that Sim is just making this up as he goes along and putting these names and places where necessary. It would only be later that he managed to weave it into something bigger.
The thing that struck me most about the first telephone book is how funny it is. The most ardent CEREBUS fans often downplay the importance and the quality of the first trade. While the art in the very first few issues is lacking, Sim finds his groove fairly quickly and settles into an art style for this book well before the 25th issue is done. You can easily read this first trade on its own merits and enjoy it without getting lost. There’s very little continuity throughout the book for the first half of it. There is some during the second half, though. Sim neatly compartmentalizes each story in its allotted pages. There’s a strong beginning, middle, and end. He separates the stories often with large caption blocks explaining where Cerebus has been and what he’s done since the last issue. If anything, the differences in atmosphere and location and situations between issues are the most jarring part of the book. Sim very clumsily, in some instances, brings the reader up to speed with straight-on exposition. That’s OK, though. It gets the story to where it needs to be to begin.
Once you’re in the story, you can marvel at any number of things. What started out as a simple CONAN parody soon grew past its Barry Windsor-Smith artistic homages and into something more. Bit by bit, you see Sim getting comfortable. The accents and the dialogues get wilder. Sim has always had one of the most adept ears for accented dialogue in the industry, although he hardly gets noticed for it anymore. He can do all the accents and lettering tricks he needs to get his point across for that. The humor gets more broad and explores a wide variety of types, from slapstick to puns to Marx Brothers riffs with Lord Julius, convincingly patterned after the Groucho Marx character, Rufus T. Firefly, of DUCK SOUP. Check out “The Walls of Palnu,” “A Day in the Pits,” and “A Night at the Masque” for perfect examples of Sim’s love for Marx Brothers humor. The last of those stories is set during a masquerade party, and Sim goes wild with cases of mistaken identity, satires on high society, and some governmental mayhem. “The Walls of Palnu” is the best of the light dialogue in the book. Take this exchange between Lord Julius and Cerebus:
Julius: I’ll come straight to the point! As a reward for saving my son’s life, I’d like you to be in charge of my security forces… Your official title will be “Kitchen Staff Supervisor.”
Cerebus: Why not “Director of Security Forces”?
Julius: Impossible – that’s the title I gave to the Secretary of the Navy…
Cerebus: But if he’s the secretary of the Navy, why did you give him…?
Julius: When you’re running a bureaucracy, the best way to safeguard your job is to make sure you’re the only one who knows how the whole thing works.
It’s great verbal slapstick that mixes in pointed satire. After another six panels, it should come as no surprise that Julius’ loopy dialogue forces Cerebus to think, “Cerebus finds this very confusing.”
It’s not all broad comedy, though. In “Mind Game,” the entire twenty page story happens inside Cerebus’ head. All you see is page after page of Cerebus completely in the dark talking to a pair of disembodied voices. It’s a tour de force of pantomime combined with, as the title suggests, outright mind games. The wild variations in page layouts can sometimes run the eye a little ragged over the page. The overall effect is as disorienting as it needs to be for the story’s purpose, finally ending with Cerebus passing out. It’s also in this issue that Sim seems most comfortable with his style for Cerebus. The sometimes variable-size snout begins to disappear, and the gray furry aardvark stays on-model for the entire issue. Gerhard’s fine ink line isn’t present in this volume. He didn’t start drawing some of the most detailed and meticulous backgrounds in comics until later on in the series.
It is followed by issues of super-hero parody, including everything from Swamp Thing to Uncanny X-Men (made popular by then-fledgling write Chris Claremont) to Captain America. Some of it gets a little silly, but that might just be the fault of looking at these stories twenty years later, after countless superhero parody stories have been done to the point of no return.
Throughout the issues, Cerebus is the straight guy. He doesn’t crack the jokes or do the wacky things. That all happens around him, and it makes him a more cynical and world-weary character for it. Cerebus is always in it for one thing – himself. The world be damned. He can’t even be bothered with the hot chick in chain mail bikini who distracts him from the gold at the end of his mission. You can debate whether or not Cerebus is a likeable character. I would say he is. I don’t find myself rooting for him, but I do like the way he reacts to the craziness that goes on around him and the unique solutions he finds to cut them off at the pass, when necessary. He’s not furry and lovable. He’ll sooner chop off your hand that let you pet him. Unless, of course, there’s vast quantities of gold and ale in it for him. But you will enjoy his early adventures.
CEREBUS is most often looked at as a prime example of the world of self-publishing. Sim is an ardent believer in creator’s rights, and that everything a creator creates should be his own. To that end, he believes Gerhard – who, remember, “only” draws the backgrounds – is as much an owner of Cerebus now as he is. He’s written volumes on how to be a successful self-publisher, and at one time featured the liveliest and most entertaining (and lengthy) letters column in all of comics. The letters columns, sadly, disappeared for a while, but now seems to have come back to the monthly book.
In the end, GROO is a worthy successor to this first trade. Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier do a bang-up job filling in the gap of sword and sorcery hilarity that Dave Sim left to do a more serious and epic storyline. In its own way, GROO even follows the publishing ethic of CEREBUS. The two creators, who’ve always kept the copyright to their character, own it. There are also reprint collections in print of a lot of their work and new collections being done all the time. However, GROO’s trades are woefully behind on collecting all of the original 100-and-some-odd issues of the on-going series. However, I don’t know that all of them are still in print. CEREBUS would be a worthy companion to them on your bookshelf, in any case.
I’m looking forward to reading the next tome, HIGH SOCIETY, although I’m a bit wary of being turned off by the somewhat more serious and rigorous tone I know the book is going to take. We shall see.
You could do much worse than picking up this $25 volume. There’s more than enough reading material in here for the money. CEREBUS is an important part of modern comics history, but don’t let that overshadow the entertainment this first volume can provide. It’s funny and fun to read all at the same time, with or without the historical grounding.
Tuesday looks to be an exciting column. It will feature several reviews of books due to ship next Wednesday. There’s a wonderful batch coming out next week.
More than 250 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.