CEREBUS: an introductory survey


by Thomas P. Kalb

I hate to say it, but there aren't many comic books that are worth rereading. Let me hasten to append the fact that I am no literary snob; I have been reading comic books for some thirty-three years, ever since my mother, impressed by my dedication to the Adam West version of Batman, brought home a copy of Batman number 181. In the ensuing years I have enjoyed thousands of meaningless battles, hundreds of daring new directions (usually reversed after a few months), death after death, resurrection upon resurrection . . . and a handful of works which reward multiple readings.

Chief among those comics worthy of re-perusal is Cerebus, a comic self-published by Dave Sim, whose title character is a bipedal, intelligent, occasionally erudite, and cute (but dangerous with a sword) aardvark. As of this writing, there have been more than 260 issues (of a projected 300); at an average of 20 pages per issue, that means Sim and his longtime artistic cohort, Gerhard, have produced over 5,200 pages of story. I have read every one of those pages at least three times, and some story arcs have drawn me back for fourth or even fifth readings.

Why? In the beginning, Cerebus seemed to be little more than a parody of Barry Windsor-Smith's work on Conan the Barbarian, both in terms of style and content: Funny little aardvark with sword challenges big bold Beowulf type warrior. It was certainly competent and entertaining, but had it stayed there, I for one would not have lingered. After 25 issues of Cerebus the Barbarian, however (collected in a 500 page graphic novel simply entitled Cerebus), Sim ushered in a new age for his diminutive "hero"—Cerebus became involved in politics. This story arc‚ collected in another huge graphic novel called High Society, dealt with the political scene of a fantasy kingdom by offering an idiosyncratic mix of political satire and comic book and fantasy novel spoofs. Marvel's Moon Knight became Sim's Moon Roach ("It felt like I was having an origin!"), and Michael Moorcock's Elric became the Foghorn Leghorn talking Elrod ("Son, I say, Son…"). Add to that mix the Groucho Marx "like-a-look" Lord Julius and his suspiciously familiar looking brothers and things began to get very interesting. And lest this sound all too juvenile friendly, let's also add that in this story line we were also introduced to the Aardvarkian Age equivalent of PACs, a politically motivated suicide, and a somewhat ambiguous rape scene in which our hero was the perpetrator.

Apparently things still weren't sticky enough for Sim, however, as after High Society he washed Cerebus out of the political game and had the dangerous but cute little animal become Pope. It was a bit of political maneuvering on the part of the Church, whose leaders hoped to be able to pull the naive Cerebus's strings. It didn't work. After his appointment, one of Cerebus's first acts was to address a crowd of the faithful assembled outside his hotel. In a short speech, he declared that the poor and weak were unloved by God (known as Tarim in the world of the comic), and that "The best Most Holy can do is to put in a good word for you with Tarim—however, it is going to cost you. Tarim's mercy does not come cheap!" Cerebus's scheme to squeeze every gold coin out of the people would seem to reflect nothing more than the standard charges of corruption which have been levied at the Catholic Church since Chaucer's time, but Sim does not take this easy way out. After thousands of bags of gold coins have been collected, Cerebus becomes ill. (Not too subtle, that.) Shortly thereafter, in a riveting scene, Cerebus stoops to pick up a single gold coin and the bags begin ripping open as coins fly towards him, melding themselves into a half moon shape which seems to have great religious significance. (Sim is often willfully ambiguous, but that is at least half the charm of this series.) It does seem clear that Cerebus's greed has somehow been manipulated by a higher power—leading us to conclude that in Sim's theology, God works via even the basest of His creations. There is a fundamental belief in the power and benevolence of God at work here—an intuition which finds support in some of Sim's comments in the notes to his later stories.

The "Cerebus as Pope" story is available as Church & State volumes I and II, weighing in at a massive 1,200 combined total pages, and might bear comparison to Flannery O'Connor's classic Wise Blood.

Eventually this story, too, came to an end . . . more or less. Apparently Cerebus is still Pope for some factions, just as he still seems to be Prime Minister to others. But after dealing with these titanic power struggles in the secular and spiritual worlds—and after three or four mystical confrontations with beings from a higher level of reality, a run-in with Oscar Wilde, and a few other quirky scenarios, recounted in the collections Jaka's StoryMelmothFlightWomenReads, and Minds--Cerebus ended up in a bar, in a land where women were clearly the dominant figures, and men were rarely seen and more rarely heard.

Things happened in that bar. A seemingly grim definition of male/female relationships, for instance, and a look into the nature of masculinity—all of which could easily be misconstrued as simple misogyny, of course, but Sim does not make things quite that simple. His obvious disdain for some of the aspects of feminism do not necessarily blunt his points. This is no knee-jerk woman hater. This is a man who has clearly thought about the ramifications of gender in the modern world, and who sees real danger in current societal trends. You don't have to buy, but it's worth your time to window shop.

After the bar story arc, collected as Guys and Rick's Story, things became even more interesting. At this point, Cerebus and Jaka (niece of Lord Julius and Princess of the realm) began to head towards Cerebus's homeland by boat. And for two dozen or so issues the story primarily centered on Cerebus, Jaka, and their fellow passenger, F. Stop Kennedy. One would certainly be justified in thinking that a journey aboard a boat (without sea monsters, Vikings, or pirates to attack) would be quite boring. Au contraire. In fact, this was the first section of Cerebus which I felt compelled to re-reread. F. Stop Kennedy is Sim's version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and not only does Sim do justice to Fitzgerald in text page "excerpts" of the novelist's work in progress—and not only do Sim's notes show the serious amount of scholarship he has engaged in to write this bit of the story—but he actually inspires the reader to seek out Fitzgerald's works. I had never been much of a fan of Fitzgerald's work, and I would have expected the "man's man" Sim to excoriate this rather feminine styled writer, but his faithful homage inspired me to read The Beautiful and Damned for the first time in my life, and to yearn for the time to read more.

This story constitutes the most recent Cerebus graphic novel, which is entitled Going Home. It would be an excellent starting point for someone who has not been kindly disposed toward "comic books" in the past, as it is so obviously the product of an intelligent and clever mind.

The Cerebus monthly comic book has already reached part 7 of what will constitute the next (and probably penultimate) Cerebus collection. In the latest issues, Cerebus and Jaka have left F. Stop and the boat behind, and are currently sojourning with another familiar looking writer character: Ham Ernestway. I find myself possessed of the urge to go back and finish To Have and Have Not—though Hemingway does not fare nearly so well in Sim's estimation as does Fitzgerald.

The entire Cerebus story (up through the "Fitzgerald" issues) is currently available in graphic novel format—huge, black and white volumes which retail for between $17 and $30. Any of them are well worth the price. The artwork is beautiful (courtesy of Sim's caricatures, portraits, and animated looking people and Gerhard's finely rendered backgrounds), the writing is crisp (and funny and intelligent), and the combination of story and commentary is at the very least thought provoking. I own nearly all of the issues of the comic book, yet I felt the need to purchase the collected editions, also—it makes the re-reading so much more convenient.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000