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Dave Sim’s Cerebus

Sim, Dave and Gerhard. Cerebus (published in 16 volumes (comprising 300 issues of the monthly comic)). Kitchener, Ontario: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1977 – 2004.

I started reading Cerebus about halfway through in the 150s. For the past twelve years (up until early this year) I was reading it in monthly twenty page installments. Even for those familiar with reading comics monthly, Cerebus was a different experience. While most comics in installments are (and certainly were even more so back then) made with some kind of individual unit in mind, Dave Sim (writer, character illustrator, and letter) had no such strictures. He published the book himself, planned it to run 300 issues (Cerebus’s death being at the end of the story), and thus looked at each issue within a larger framework. There were times when nothing (almost literally nothing) would go on for months at a time. That makes for an odd and fragmented reading experience (take your favorite novel and read a few pages, once a month, and see how it is). It’s much harder to grasp the bigger picture that way.

Sim collected the monthly issues into larger volumes (comprising the equivalent of chapters in Cerebus’ story). After I started getting into the comic, I went back and read the first half in volume form, reading large (the books are from 120 to 600 pages in length) chunks of it at a time. But I waited until the story was finished before going back and reading the second half in the larger book form. It was getting pretty abstract at the end for me as far as keeping track of what was going on. I bought up all the volumes and read them from beginning to end: 6000 pages of comic. It’s probably impossible for me to sum up anything, but I feel that something must be said.

If there is any justice in the comics world, Cerebus will go down as a masterpiece of the form. While it is not always successful and by the end was often politically distasteful, the work stands on its own, sui generis. I am reluctant — and it is not a comparison that completely holds water — but can’t avoid writing that it is to comics what Pound’s Cantos are to poetry. Not only in the sense of experimental, very large, and not widely read, but also in connection to the creator vis a vis the work. Pound had fascistic leanings; Dave Sim rather less egregiously wanders into misogyny as the book progresses. He has been much criticized for it in the places where Cerebus/Sim would get noticed, but, while he seems to blame “feminism” (I have to put that in quotes, because he uses the term rather neologistically) for the world’s ills, I think he ends up as much more the misanthropist, than anything else.

Do I find some of his view distasteful and just plain wrong? Yes. Do I still think Cerebus is a masterpiece? Yes. No question. Having made this long winded preface, I’ll move into the work itself.

Cerebus started out as a Conan parody (the name being an early misspelling that stuck of Cerberus). The title character is an aardvark who moves in a fantasy world of humans (I use the fantasy, but should note that there are never any elves (okay one elf, but her existence is an anomaly, I think) or dwarves or whatnot in the story and the fantastic elements are quite toned down after the first volume). The Conan/barbarian element dropped off relatively quickly and Cerebus the Aardvark quickly moved onto other things.

We first meet him as barbarian mercenary but as the story progresses he becomes (among others) a prime minister (political parody), pope (religion is a huge topic in the comic), a houseguest, a mostly catatonic bar patron, a strandee far from anyone else, a bartender, a lover, a religious leader (different than pope, this time it is his own religion), and an old man, leaving out all the times when he is in-between different roles. Throughout he is surrounded by a large cast of characters, both temporary and recurring, many of which are parodies of such notables (real and fictional) as Red Sonja, Groucho Marx, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, the Three Stooges, and numerous comic book characters and creators.

Sim says that the work was his attempt to reach “truth”, changing his ideas as he tried different concepts and found them lacking. In this sense the story as a whole revolves around larger personal searches for fulfillment: money, power (political and military), love, religion, along with lesser fulfillments in drink, sex, or obsession. Over the course of the story we can see Sim’s concepts change even while Cerebus does not always succeed in changing along with them (which I don’t mean as a negative criticism, I think part of the work is Cerebus’ inability to change himself). Cerebus is a work of “big ideas” well done but in the end of the story where the big ideas (in this case religious exegesis) overpowers the story completely, it goes a bit wrong.

As a comic, Cerebus is formally amazing. Sim (and partner Gerhard, who did the background art starting around issue 60 something) perfected a number of aspects of the craft over the years. One of his standout skills (that is often under-considered in comics as a whole) is the use of text. The expressive use to which he put speech/thought balloons is staggering and unequalled. His work could be studied by comics creators for that aspect alone. He also (and this he considered one of his main accomplishments formally) worked with inserting blocks of text (prose passages) into comics. This is one of the areas where many considered he failed, but I think he had mixed success with such. Many times the text blocks were well integrated into the comic, working in a way that images could not, to enhance the story. Other times the text dragged the work down to an unpleasant morass. I see a lot of this being connected to the stylistics he took on with his texts. Sim is a linguistic parodist/pastichist (?) of a high order: from the comedy of Marx and the Stooges to the writing of Wilde and Fitzgerald to Biblical literature, but the reader’s interest in the parodies/pastiches can only be maintained as far as they know the work or are amused by the style. Personally, I found the Wildean texts far too wordy for my tastes, but enjoyed the Fitzgerald pieces. The Biblical texts are a whole other story (for later).

The use of time in Cerebus is also unrivaled in the medium. The freedom of having 300 issues to tell his story and no one to tell him what to do enabled Sim to create great changes in pacing in the story. He could slow down the story to an almost standstill, letting pages go by with only the tiniest hint of movement, or speed the story up so that the pages and the time flies by at a rapid clip. In this way the story of Cerebus’ life echoes the way we experience real life: some moments feel interminable while others pass us by without notice and are quickly forgotten. The use of repetition in panels was often utilized to create slowness and comprises some of the most formally fascinating scenes in the work. On a larger level this use of time worked to have time pass slowly over large number of issues (from one point of view one of the volumes tells the story of one meeting that stretched on, in real publishing time, for a year) or cause years to pass in a panel or two.

It’s hard to get anywhere in trying to summarize the book or point out certain parts of it. It is an engrossing read with highs and lows. Unfortunately one of the biggest lows is the first volume, which consists of the “barbarian” part of Cerebus’ story. The art is not matured and the stories leave much to be desire, falling rather flat in their sword and sorcery parodies. This is most unfortunate for those new to the work, who will most likely be put off by the lesser first volume. The other main low point for me is the second to last volume which features extensive text blocks of Cerebus’/Sim’s commentaries on the Pentateuch (even I, a hearty Cerebus fan found myself unable to read all that) and an unamusing parody of Woody Allen. Minor problems come from Sim’s time-stamped parodies of the comics industry that would be opaque to someone not up on the comics world but also less than interesting, some years on, for someone in the know (thankfully these elements are for the most part unnecessary to enjoyment of the story). Beyond those instances the majority of the story is well constructed, coherent (thought often mysterious for long periods of time until a revelation occurs), enjoyable, thought provoking, emotional (at times laugh out loud funny or heartbreaking), and a visual delight.

I won’t get into the gender and religious issues in the work that I disagree with. That would take a good deal more time, rereading, and thought than I can spend right now. I don’t think, different decriers notwithstanding, that those issues mar the work irredeemably. Cerebus is a comics masterpiece and for those willing to spend the time, it is worth the trip.

Some fans (the people that also bring us “Wrapped in Plastic” the Twin Peaks magazine) started a magazine on Cerebus this year (after it ended) called Following Cerebus. I’ve only seen the first issue so far but it featured a long and quite interesting interview with Sim and some exegetical type essays. Since Sim doesn’t maintain a website, they are also selling the Cerebus volumes online through their site.