This one’s for the comic book fans. Just to warn you.
And, needless to say, many spoilers lay ahead.
* * * * *
For the longest time, March 2004 has been the furthest outpost on my cultural calendar, the one firm, definitive date amidst an otherwise nebulous future. Who and where I would be in March 2004 was anyone’s guess, of course, but even in 1992 I knew two things: first, in 3/04, I would be three months away from my thirtieth birthday, slowly rounding the curve towards what I perceived at that time to be really, really old age.
And second, I knew that in March 2004, Dave Sim would release Cerebus #300.
Oh, sure, there was always a healthy amount of doubt and speculation about the feasibility of Sim’s promise. Back in issue #26 or so, just as Sim was embarking upon his first major years-long storyline, he announced his audacious plan: he would self-publish 300 issues of Cerebus, and together they would tell the story of one character’s life, the way he always thought it should be done in comics. And issue #300 would ship in March 2004. People laughed, of course, and even coming late to the party as I did (I started reading when Sim was about halfway through), I marveled at his chutzpah. But I always believed he could and would do it.
Issue #300 came out today, right on schedule. And you can almost hear Sim chuckling. “Who’s laughing now, boys and girls?”
The issue’s arrival, sadly, has been greeted with a muted mixture of half-hearted congratulations and sighs of relief, and in order to find out why we’re going to have to delve a bit into who Sim is and what his work has been about. But first I want to say this. In my mind, there is no arguing this point: Cerebus is one of the finest examples of what can be done with the comics medium when freed of editorial interference and genre restrictions. It is a huge, towering achievement that masterfully weaves theme and symbol into a gleaming whole, a superb example of comics as literature, and a master’s class on fully utilizing the long-form narrative.
It is also impeccably crafted. By the novel’s conclusion, Sim had written and drawn 6,000 pages, and his collaborator, Gerhard, had fleshed out roughly 4800 of them with some of the most intricate background linework you’re likely to find anywhere. By the 3,000-page mark, Sim and Gerhard had become masters of the form, and quickly turned into bold innovators, playing with panel arrangement and layout for dramatic effect. The later pages of Cerebus are among the most beautiful black-and-white comics art ever created. And it also quickly became apparent that Sim is the best letterer in the business. His words pulse and breathe with life – you can hear every word of his dialogue, exactly the way he intended it, and that’s a level of communication to which most comics rarely aspire.
If you think I’m making too much of what is, in the end, just a little comic book, then you haven’t read Cerebus. But that’s okay – it puts you in good company. By the end, Sim and Gerhard were selling only about 6,000 copies of each issue, and you’d be amazed to discover how many scathing, negative reviews of the work as a whole have appeared online, most beginning with the reviewer admitting he/she hasn’t read Cerebus in years. “I haven’t read an issue of Cerebus since #200 or so, but I’ve flipped through a few lately and they look like they suck. And Dave Sim is evil.” You know, stuff like that.
Cerebus used to be the talk of the industry. It started off in 1977 as a “funny animal in the world of humans” book, like Howard the Duck. (Which, by the way, was a great comic, before George Lucas got his hands on the property…) Cerebus is an aardvark, three feet tall and gray, with a pronounced snout and a penchant for referring to himself in the third person. In the early adventures, he carries a sword and undertakes quests for gold in an archetypal fantasy land. It was a skillful parody of Conan, right down to the Red Sonja doppelganger, Red Sophia. (Quick aside – Sim managed the neat trick of making Cerebus’ aardvark nature both a) central and pivotal to the story, and b) irrelevant. No one talks to him like he’s an aardvark. Very few characters even seem to notice that he’s an aardvark.)
Sim’s ambitions quickly became clear with issue #26, the start of High Society. Cerebus journeyed to the city-state of Iest, and became wrapped up in the whirlwind of politics for 25 dizzying issues. Issue #51 began Church and State, the longest single story of the run, which found Cerebus at the center of a religious and political power struggle. Taken together, High Society and Church and State form a cohesive, engrossing, hilarious 86-issue skewering of that famous maxim about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Its ending even hinted at the larger cosmic issues Sim was driving the story towards.
Sim deftly explored family life and gender issues with Jaka’s Story, the next chapter. In fact, Jaka’s Story remains, along with Going Home, one of the most precisely observed portraits of human behavior in Sim’s catalog. And it has an ending that will make you recoil. In retrospect, many of the seeds of Sim’s later points were planted here. The first half of Cerebus was capped off with Melmoth, a well-researched peek into the last days of Oscar Wilde.
It was with Mothers and Daughters, the 50-issue arc that came next, that the true shape and scope of Cerebus came into focus. In carefully unfolding layers, Sim laid bare his cosmology and his belief structure. What appears at first as interruptions in the ongoing story, tangents and side streets, becomes the basis for a series of reality upheavals. Mothers and Daughters is a fascinating, clever and brilliant examination of creator and created, of artist and art, and of the dangers that face those searching for their destinies, even on levels beyond our comprehension. It utilizes text and meta-text in ways not even Grant Morrison has managed to outdo.
And it also contains issue #186, the culmination of years of planning, in which Sim’s alter ego, Cerebus reads writer Viktor Davis (it’s difficult to explain, but it all makes sense in the book), contemplates the “male light” and the “female void.” He concludes that the greatest danger to any artist full of “male light” is the sucking away of that light by women. It’s an involved and intricate piece, a window into Sim’s odious yet oddly well-reasoned worldview. It was also the beginning of the end for his audience.
From this point forward, Cerebus became an exercise for me in separating the artist from the art. Save for the final story arc, I have always read Cerebus in collected volumes, which has spared me the extended text pieces and essays that have filled the non-story pages of the monthly book for years. Still, Sim’s points are fairly easy to grasp from the story itself (and from “Tangents,” his multi-part “last word on gender issues” from a few years back). Sim has drawn a deep division between reason and emotion, the former of which he labels male and the latter female. Women, he says, are emotion-based creatures, incapable of reason, and since reason can never win in a battle with emotion, men have no choice but to ignore them completely or capitulate to their worldview. Which, in his mind, is incredibly dangerous, and has pretty much already happened.
Since #186, the comics press has ignored Sim, the way they would ignore the Unabomber if he had a monthly comic book based on his manifesto. No praise of Sim seems to trickle out without a generous helping of withering contempt for his views assaulting it from all sides. Sim would call this an emotional response, not a rational one. Just to show what I mean by the exercise that Cerebus has become for me, allow me a few seconds of Davespeak:
Cerebus, as a whole, makes me feel uneasy. I feel disgusted by many of his back-of-the-book views and I’ve tended to feel more and more uncomfortable as those views have crept into and slowly redefined the comic book. However, I think that Cerebus is a masterpiece of the comics form, and I think that Sim has utilized comics to its fullest extent in approaching and elucidating his points. I think that the completed novel should be treasured and highly regarded for as long as comics are made and read. It’s just that occasionally, I feel like throwing all my Cerebus volumes away.
Nothing has symbolized Sim’s idea of the war between the male light and the female void to me like my own reactions to the later issues of Cerebus. Sim himself appears in the book at the end of Mothers and Daughters, wrapping up the story so far and sending the comic in completely unexpected directions. He re-examines and redefines much of what has come before, especially with regards to Cerebus’ One True Love, Jaka, and her husband, Rick. I read with slight revulsion and horror as Sim turned his nuanced portrayal of Jaka in Jaka’s Story into the harping, irritating Jaka that travels with Cerebus through all 34 issues of Going Home. And I watched with some awe, I must say, as Sim rewrote Rick from the ground up, turning him into a saint and a prophet, albeit with some mental issues.
The final book, Latter Days, found Cerebus as the head of a new church, and concerned itself almost entirely with theology according to Sim. It’s perhaps the most fascinating of the books, if only for its real-life mirrors. Sim has embraced God, yet has done so by developing his own religion, a mixture of Judaism, Christianity and Islam anchored by his unique interpretation of the Bible. He goes into extreme detail on this last point, dedicating eight issues of Cerebus to commentaries on the Torah, rendered in nearly microscopic type. (He calls it the “Cerebexegesis.”)
Not surprisingly, his religious ideas seem to stem from his gender issues, and it all comes to a massive climax with #289/290 (a double issue), in which he lays out his complex cosmology. It’s yet another bold reinvention of the conclusion of Church and State, and probably the apex of Sim and Gerhard’s formal comic storytelling innovations. As far as the Cerebus storyline is concerned, #289/290 can be summed up with the admonition, “Don’t go into the light.” Ten issues later, that warning comes full circle for Cerebus, now 300 years old.
The final issue feels like a surprise, but in retrospect it’s the only way this series could end, honestly. We get the big “something fell” that has been foreshadowed since Church and State, and we get Cerebus’ final chance to avoid going into the light. Sim doesn’t give the little gray guy a break, even at the end, and it’s his big weakness, his love for Jaka, that does him in. It’s a final hammering home of the point, a final bit of the uncompromising heartlessness that has characterized this book. (His last word? “Heeelllppp…”) It’s perfect, and it leaves me with those same senses of awe and revulsion at war.
Now that the shape of the work is evident, several observations present themselves. First, Sim may try to characterize Cerebus as a two-act work (and he has, calling the first half “male” and the second “female”), but it’s really in three acts, each roughly 100 issues. (The first one’s a bit longer, the second a bit shorter.) Each concludes with an examination of light and void, and with Cerebus getting what he wants without being happy. The fantasy-oriented first third concludes with the (ironically named) final ascension – after much struggle, Cerebus is chosen, and he talks with a higher being. Of course, he’s told that he’ll never conquer the world, that he’ll die alone and unloved, and that people will one day find a way to blow up the sun and kill everyone. (Don’t go into the light.)
Cerebus sits out both Jaka’s Story and Melmoth – and if anything characterizes the monthly comic book, it’s long stretches of inactivity – but sparks a second ascension in Mothers and Daughters. He meets his creator, gets all his questions answered, but then his world is turned upside down. He spends the next 30 issues or so hanging out in a bar, but the third act hits its stride with the Cerebites’ vanquishing of the Cirinists in Latter Days, and it ends with Cerebus’ final contact with higher forces. Three rising waves of action, and three climaxes, all with the same point. It’s a brilliant structure.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is the ways in which this book has really been about Dave Sim and his journey. At the start, Cerebus is a brave barbarian out for money, a state which mirrors that of the self-publisher seeking his fortune. (Sim even states in Minds that he created Cerebus hoping to make himself rich and famous.) As Sim’s interests turned to larger things, so did the book, taking on politics and religion in its first third. Authors that Sim studied for inspiration (and for allegory) made appearances in the book – Oscar Wilde as Oscar Melmoth, F. Scott Fitzgerald as F. Stop Kennedy, and most importantly, Ernest Hemingway as Ham Ernestway.
Cerebus’ storyline is all about Sim’s search for truth. You can feel him developing his ideas and his basic philosophies within the story. When he first puts forth his gender-based cosmology in Church and State, it feels unfinished, but it is slowly refined in Reads and comes to full flower in Latter Days. Of course, any search for truth will eventually end up with an examination of God, which is where Cerebus concludes – with the Bible, God, Rick and the One True Cerebus. Interestingly, Sim’s ideas start small and become huge, whereas the story seems to do the reverse – it begins with a vast, untapped fantasy world and ends with 10 issues that all take place in one room.
The temptation has always been great to consider Cerebus an avatar for Sim himself, and assume that Cerebus’ opinions mirror Sim’s own. If Sim’s own appearances in the book (in Minds and Rick’s Story) talking to Cerebus weren’t enough to dispel that notion, then certainly the ignoble end Sim gives to his aardvark creation must be. Rather, it’s more likely that Cerebus represents the parts of Sim he wishes to see eliminated – his greed, his lack of faith, his ultimately tragic attachment to one woman. With #300 coloring the previous issues, Cerebus emerges, in a way, as a cautionary tale written to its author.
The major difficulty I have with Cerebus as a work of art stems from the very principles that guide it, however. One can see much of Sim’s worldview as motivational – for a writer/artist dedicated to making it through 6,000 pages in just over 26 years, imagining a world where forces beyond your control have aligned to make sure you don’t follow through on your grand artistic design in order to prove them all wrong makes a bit of sense. Unfortunately for the work itself, it feels like Sim has applied his reason vs. emotion argument to his characters.
That’s the rub – I don’t get the sense in the latter half of this book that Sim sees his characters as any more than allegorical devices to advance his points. They’re brilliantly crafted allegorical devices, but I don’t believe that Sim feels for them, or cares about what happens to them. That’s different from a common complaint I have with writers who seem to hate their characters, and wish bad things upon them. Sim just doesn’t allow his work to emotionally resonate, and that, I believe, is a change – Jaka’s Story is as resonant a character study as one could hope to find.
In the end, Cerebus reflects its creator’s own worldview – it’ll make you think, but it won’t make you feel. Your enjoyment of it will depend on whether you see this as a drawback.
There are countless other issues raised by Cerebus, and countless other observations to be made about it, but many of them require a complete re-reading, which I have planned for after the final collected volume ships this summer. It’s an uneasy work, as I’ve said, but it’s hard to overstate the impressiveness of Sim and Gerhard’s achievement. They developed a model for long-running, independent, self-published works in a field that, economically, is designed to prevent those from existing. They created a cohesive, complex work of literary merit in a medium dominated by pandering and spoon-feeding. And they did it all while patiently explaining that anyone – anyone – could do it, given the drive and willpower. “If you really want to self-publish,” Sim once famously said, “no one can stop you. If you don’t really want to self-publish, no one can help you.”
Who knows what Sim and Gerhard will go on to do next, if anything. Sim has taken to referring to himself as a retiree. Even if they produce nothing else, however, the Cerebus team has created a milestone achievement – a staggering, poisonous, praiseworthy work of art, the likes of which comics may never see again. Its passing is an event, and hopefully the philosophies at its center will not weigh the completed work down into obscurity. It’s too good, and too important, to meet a fate similar to that of its main character – dying alone, unmourned and unloved.
Thank you, Dave and Gerhard, for all 6,000 pages. Even the ones I disagree with.
See you in line Tuesday morning.