Die Alone, Unmourned, and Unloved: Reflections upon Reading Cerebus
Last Sunday, I finished reading Cerebus. I bought all 16 phonebooks collecting the series last year (I already had the zero issue and World Tour book from backing the digital High Society Kickstarter, so no gaps there either) and, prompted by Andrew Hickey deciding to write about the series over at Mindless Ones, I dove in. Two months later, give or take, I have finished and have spent the last week thinking about the series, wondering if I have anything to say about it. I believe I do.
Finishing Cerebus is not unlike finishing Ulysses: you have read a large, ‘important’ work and you look around, waiting for someone to pop out, congratulate you, and declare you a winner or some other equally stupid sentiment. When, really, all you did was read 300 comics, something you possibly do all of the time, consistently reaching that ‘milestone’ without realising it. Still, there’s an emptiness to finishing something so immense and singular. You’re done. And that’s it. No more Cerebus for you. Sure, there are some apocryphal stories and Following Cerebus and, hey, a good reason to reread glamourpuss, but Cerebus itself is done. There is no more.
Given the reputation that Cerebus has and the way its readership dropped during the final third or so, you wouldn’t think that the case. Most people talk about having to push through to the end if they even make it there. Yet, I hit the end of the series and wanted more. Not literally, of course. The series had run its course and there was nothing else to add. Nonetheless, the instinct was there: “I want more of this! I’ve read 300 issues over the past couple of months and I can’t stop now! Give me more!” It’s a reaction of habit, of mindset towards a specific task, and a comment on how goddamn great Cerebus is. It wasn’t a chore to reach the end; it was a joy. It may have went into unexpected areas and storytelling approaches, but the high level of skill and craft that Dave Sim brought to the writing and, along with Gerhard, to the art is so staggering that, even in the final third, there’s no looking away, no feelings of “Well, I made it this far, I guess I’ll stick it out…” It was always engaging, always challenging, always interesting. The closest I got to those seemingly typical feelings was in looking at a lot of small-print text and going “I thought that I was reading a comic” or my general frustration with reading excessive phonetic dialogue (but that isn’t a Cerebus-specific criticism (the amount of desire/willpower it requires for me to dive into an Irvine Welsh novel is pretty high and I rather like his writing)).
Part of my level of engagement comes from not worrying about Sim’s intentions too much. That’s a mistake that so many readers fall into. While aware of his personal beliefs (particularly when they were expressed explicitly in the comic), I didn’t let them limit what I took out of the work. A good example is the very end of Cerebus where (and, here, we hit me talking in detail about the very end of this series and, considering when it finished and the seemingly lack of drive on most people’s parts to read this comic, I’m not going to worry about spoilers) Cerebus dies, his life flashes before his eyes, he goes to Heaven, sees all of his loved ones, friends, family, past associates, etc., notices that Rick Nash isn’t among them, questions what’s going on, and does his best to escape being pulled into the light, screaming for God to save him, which does not happen. There are several important details at play here that inform Cerebus’s reaction to his death. The absence of Rick strikes him as strange/suspicious because Rick was a prophet that created the Cerebite faith through the “Book of Rick” where Cerebus is depicted as a prophet, leading him on the path to write the “Book of Cerebus” and stand at the head of that church, eventually reading the “Books of Moshe” (aka the Torah), becoming devout to God, and so on. Rick not being in Heaven seems strange because, as a man of faith responsible for Cerebus’s religious awakening, his absence is conspicuous. Add to that the idea that the light represents Yoohwhoo, the “He/She/It” that broke off from God, and is seen as a negative force in the world (a false god), and Cerebus is terrified of going into the light. Sim’s intention with this ending is that Cerebus, once again, fails to recognise the dangerous path he is on, sucked in by Jaka (the love of his life) and his other dead friends. He only sees too late that the wrong people are in ‘Heaven’ and that he has failed another test of faith (as he consistently did while alive). What happens as a result is left ambiguous.
However, I only learned of Sim’s intention with this ending after I read it. What I read was Cerebus dying, going to Heaven, seeing his loved ones, failing to see a man who, while responsible for the Cerebite faith, was someone that Cerebus mockingly referred to as “Girly Boy” and generally had little regard for in life, places so much emphasis on his specific, personal belief in how the universe is, that he panics when the reality doesn’t conform to that specific, personal belief. Rick isn’t in Heaven because Cerebus doesn’t really want him there; Rick was an impediment to both Jaka and Joanne, and someone that Cerebus didn’t really like. Cerebus is so caught up in the religious world that Rick has foisted on him, one that left him alone, scorned by his son, and fairly miserable that what he gets upon his death is what he really wants: Jaka, Bear, Ham Ernestway, and all of his old friends. That is his real Heaven. There is no failed test. There is just a man who cannot escape a way of life that has left him miserable even after that life is over. The one big hole in this interpretation is that Heaven is populated with a wide array of characters from the comic, including some that Cerebus didn’t particularly like. However, they all were allies at one time or another and were more… annoyances that anything. They were from more exciting, interesting, fun times… Rick, on the other hand, was someone who was always in the way.
Obviously, my reading of the end conflicts with Sim’s intention, but what does that matter? My reading is based off of what I read. Sim’s intention has no bearing on that aside from creating an internal dialogue where I consider my interpretation and his intention. That’s part of where my interest in Cerebus was cultivated as I read: Sim raising ideas and arguments that I disagree with and, then, considering them, rethinking both what he raised and what my initial reaction was. That dialogue, that tension, is part of the joy of this comic. The commentaries on the “Book of Genesis” in Latter Days are fantastic for that – and is actually a place where I’m sympathetic to Sim’s approach. As an atheist, I obviously don’t agree with those commentaries (nor any that would put those stories in any context than as stories in a book), but Sim’s personal interpretation is so unique and different from anything I had encountered before that it is captivating. And, what’s more, it is a close reading of the text where he takes what’s there and gives a radically different interpretation that what was seemingly intended. The intention and common reading doesn’t matter, because Sim gets something completely different out of the text. And is pretty funny about it much of the time, too. However, Sim suggests the primacy of what one takes from the work is what matters, not the intention upon creation (despite arguing that only his interpretation is what the Torah was really intended to communicate, semi-end-running the whole interpretation/intention argument by making his interpretation the intention).
Much of the final third of Cerebus is like that: what Sim apparently meant and what is there on the page for me. Something that seems to get people tripped up is the idea that Cerebus is a character whose views are to be taken seriously at all, whether they represent what Sim thinks or not. Cerebus is a very flawed person, something Sim explicitly points out in Minds. This is a character that will jump on any chance to be in power, to be rich, to be loved, to get what he wants. His entire religious life during the final 50 pages seems less than a sincere show of faith and belief than another chance for Cerebus to be in charge and be important. It’s the only time where, once he attains that goal, he doesn’t screw it up immediately, seemingly allowing himself to fall into a life where he believes the hype that put him in that position. He lives in the giant Sanctuary and begins his commentaries on the Torah, because that’s part of what that lifestyle entails. He delivers a radically divergent interpretation because that’s how he maintains his position of primacy in his Church. And, when a woman that looks just like Jaka shows up, his old urge to be with her comes up again. It’s not that he “fails the Jaka test” again, it’s that Cerebus is Cerebus is Cerebus and he is always selfish, always greedy, always lustful, always determined to get what he wants when he wants it – so determined that he can make himself believe anything in that goal. So, when Cerebus becomes a mouthpiece for views or ideas that I don’t agree with, how is that anything new? While Cerebus is an engaging protagonist and one that I rooted for most of the time, that doesn’t mean he’s one that I agreed with. Similar to Walter White in Breaking Bad, you root for his success because that keeps the story going. Cerebus is interesting because of his myriad of flaws.
Dave Sim’s supposed misogyny didn’t pose much of an issue for me either for a few reasons. Firstly, his personal views don’t matter to me. They don’t. What matters is the work. Secondly, based on what I see, he isn’t a misogynist because that necessitates hatred and I never saw evidence of hatred. Sim presented his view of the world in a fairly rational (from his perspective) manner, free of emotions. His views on women are extremely problematic and, hey why not just say it, wrong. However, it isn’t hate. It’s simply the world as he sees it, no more dissimilar than you describing what you see in society when you observe cars or trees. It’s such an odd way to observe the world that it’s understandable how it can be conflated with misogyny. (The one thing you need to understand is that applying typical concepts to Sim doesn’t work because his approach to the world is so outside the norm that those concepts lose all applicable meaning with him. At least, from what I’ve seen/read.) (And before anyone jumps on me, I’ll through my old partner in crime under the bus with me, since Tim Callahan wrote pretty much the same thing in his “When Words Collide” column when he reread Cerebus three years ago: part one, part two, and part three. Thirdly, all of those views are filtered through characters in the comic. Those characters all have unique personalities, motives, histories, and reasons for arriving at where they are in the story. If a character expresses a view that I disagree with or acts in a way that I disagree with, that doesn’t offend me, that’s part of reading fiction. I expect to encounter a variety of characters that bring forth ideas and perspectives that challenge my own, especially in a work as sprawling and large as Cerebus. That any of the characters represent the true views of the author is immaterial. I don’t presume to know if they do or they don’t, and I don’t allow the certainty of that knowledge, when available, to impact my reading of the work, if possible.
The most challenging instance of this approach was when I read the conclusion of Reads, the infamous issue 186. In Reads, Sim spends a large chunk of the volume using text pieces to tell two stories that intersect thematically with what’s happening in the comic, but also exist outside of the narrative, particularly the second set of text pieces, centring on Viktor Davis, a seeming stand-in for Dave Sim (though, the character is folded into the narrative proper later as a friend of Rick’s before he married Jaka). In issue 186, Davis outlines the ‘Male Light/Female Void’ concept that is now one of the main things that people know about Sim and one of the main reason why so many were driven away from Cerebus at the time and, now, don’t bother with it. I get that. Not many people want to read a paper-thin analogue for the author talk about the innate brilliance of the ‘ rational Male Light’ that is sucked away by the ‘ emotional Female Void,’ especially when it seems to inform his approach to his comic. Reading it, I prepared for the worst and found a fairly superficial ‘men are great, women and family are not’ piece that wasn’t anything that I haven’t seen a hundred times before in a wide variety of contexts (from family sitcoms to the downfall of the Beatles to people in my day to day life). But, then, I started considering what he wrote and how it applies to me. That was the challenge. I didn’t want to immediately dismiss what was written just because it struck me as Wrong. I wanted to examine what I really thought. And I found that, sometimes, I completely agree with what he wrote. Ironically, those times are the ones when I’m at my most emotional and irrational. As the father of an eight-month-old, I’m still struggling with the dramatic change that marriage and fatherhood have brought into my life. Sometimes, it’s incredibly frustrating that things aren’t like they were and, it’s at those times, when I’m self-pitying, selfish, and angry that these people have prevented me from doing what I want when I want, that, yeah, the idea that it’s nothing more than a ‘Female Void’ (and something else that isn’t a ‘Male Light,’ because “light does not breed”) sucking away my ‘Male Light’ is appealing. Why wouldn’t an argument where I’m amazing, I am always right, and everything wrong in my life is the fault of others not be appealing? It plays upon the most self-indulgent parts of me – I have this ‘Male Light’ that is so singular, so spectacular, so amazing – yeah, right, you know? But, like I said, that’s when I’m at my most emotional and irrational – something that still makes me laugh about this whole thing. When I’m rational and think about my life, I love it. But, it is something that I struggle with, and issue 186 has helped me with that, because it held up a view of the world that I sometimes indulge in, privately. It laid out the arguments for that alternate world where I’m somehow aggrieved and wronged by my own choices (that weren’t my fault!) that allowed me to look at it and see how wrong it was, rationally.
Beyond that, it was just characters on the page, acting the way that they act. While their construction wasn’t always as well-rounded as they could be in that final third, that, oddly, made them easier to read about. They were even more imperfect, creating more dynamic conflicts. Sometimes, as Tim noted, they wound up talking at one another than to one another, but that seemed appropriate for the conflicts in question. In Going Home and Form & Void, Cerebus and Jaka couldn’t talk to one another, because they were never having the same conversation. Before, sometimes, they were. Now, they were in the relationship that they had both tried to make happen in the past and, through external circumstances, failed; however, it was a doomed relationship, especially by that point. Both of them had been through so much that they weren’t the same people that fell in love initially. They got together because of that old love and stayed together because of it, hoping that they could somehow find their way back to it. Instead, it was a relationship of reluctant compromises and wildly differing desires.
The conflict between the Cirinist and Kevillists always read to me less a criticism of women than a presentation of the conflict between ideologies in a manner that didn’t necessarily draw in dominant political ideologies from the real world. Basically, a stand in for a conflict between capitalism and socialist, but through a completely different motivator than economics. More than that, it was boiled down to a conflict between two people from those ideologies and their personal issues. It may have played out on a grander stage, but, filtered through Cirin and Astoria, it was really about Cirin and Astoria. The ‘magnifying effect’ that Cerebus and the other aardvarks had was at play and was a big part of how the series was constructed where these largescale events happened in the background to a degree as we followed the specific conflicts and events in the lives of these specific people. That Cirin was the leader of the Cirinists and represented them was part of her character, but what was primary about her actions was that they were her actions, to put it more explicitly. What Cerebus thought about women only went as far as what Cerebus thought about women (and who would put much stock in that?).
It isn’t a matter of ignoring the intention entirely, just not being constrained by it. Or, more accurately, allowing that intention to manifest itself in the work without outside commentary being necessary. Sim considers the work itself primary and self-evident in communicating what he wants to communicate, and has said so on numerous occasions. There is a small tradition of authors revising works to have the specific intender impact; the most notable example is Pamela by Samuel Richardson where he put out several revised editions based on how readers misinterpreted the work per what he intended. If it was solely about communicating specific ideas in a specific way where there is no mistake what is meant, then doing so through a fictional narrative in an artful fashion is just about the worst way to do it. If all Sim wanted to do was express his ideas cleanly and directly, he could. Instead, he produced a comic book centred around a fictional aardvark where what he wanted to communicate had to be filtered through that lens – and, because Sim wanted to make it ‘good,’ he did so in a manner that emphasised his technique and skill, both as a writer and artist, leaving a giant gap between intention and what was on the page. It’s an unavoidable gap – but it’s as large a gap as the one between Cerebus and Sim himself.
I don’t disagree with people who dismiss the first volume of Cerebus as somewhat unnecessary (or, really, not the best starting place based on how the series shapes up once High Society begins), but I don’t agree either. That perspective is valid. A good chunk of that first volume features crude art and stories that bear little relationship to what comes later. However, Sim shows a lot of glimpses of the cleverness and intelligence that would be on display for the rest of the series. I rather enjoyed those fantasy parody stories and the groundwork laid there that Sim would never disown or even really distance himself from. While the series evolved and changed, he drew upon those first 25 issues at various points and always allowed that element of Cerebus’s past to stand. That he was once the character from those stories informed him extensively. Reading them isn’t required to pick up on that, but it doesn’t hurt.
It’s kind of funny how, for some, the first volume isn’t essential, nor are the final… actually, I never quite got where it was exactly that people stopped reading Cerebus. Issue 200 was the end of Sim’s planned stories up to that point (he seemed to do just fine with the remaining 100 issues…) so that could be an easy jumping-off point. But, that’s post-issue 186… I’m sure there are some who stick to High Society through Jaka’s Story since that seems like the mostly agreed upon peak of the series. For me, that misses out on the most thrilling part of the series: the epilogue/end of Melmoth where Cerebus kills the Cirinist guards and is off-and-running. After the quiet nature of that volume with Cerebus’s reaction to the then-thought death of Jaka, it’s just one of those moments where you can hear the musical score in your head and your pulse jumps and you can’t wait to grab the next volume. I can’t really grasp the idea of leaving anything out since it’s all important, all of the single pieces of these 300 issues. Any time I try to think of place where someone could just jump off, I remember a bunch of amazing things in the next volume that they would be missing out on.
Cerebus provides a unique opportunity to see an artist develop, grow, and change in such a constrained environment. For most writers and artists, you see this happen over a variety of works where there isn’t as direct a line because of the differing demands of each individual work. While Cerebus is divided into individual issues and larger stories, it is a single, linear work where each issue and volume flows into the next somehow. Tim said it best when the story of Cerebus is the autobiography of Dave Sim, both as a person and an artist. Looking at the first issue of Cerebus alongside the last, the contrast is remarkable. Besides the title character and the writer/artist, nothing is the same (and Sim had Gerhard providing the backgrounds in #300 so even that’s an additional change). Yet, it’s a straight progression from one to the other where you can see each step of development and growth. Where Sim goes from aspiring creator doing a light parody of Conan the Barbarian to ending the epic story of a man’s life as he faces his death and what lies beyond, done in as spectacular and moving a fashion as anything I can think of.
Whenever I went back to a previous volume to check on something, I was constantly amazed at how much Sim had progressed as an artist. While, by the beginning of High Society, he had mostly settled into the style most recognisable as his, he never stopped improving and experimenting and pushing himself. Because I’m a very writer-oriented reader (and writer about comics), I didn’t pay as much attention to the art as I should have. (While I noticed the difference Gerhard made, I really need to go back and really look hard at his contributions. What’s funny is that I was probably more aware of him than Sim when I was much younger, because I had an issue of Wizard where he did one of those art instruction features that ran in every issue about how to draw the background. If I recall, he used a page from Guys for the feature. I remember Marty very clearly from that feature.) That said, you would have to be blind to not take note of the amazing art that Sim and Gerhard produced. The formal experiments that Sim constantly engaged in, pushing the comic book page as far as he could and beyond. I remember Augie de Blieck talking, once (or twice), about Sim’s phenomenal lettering and was blown away at how much Augie undersold it. The integration of the writing, the art, and the lettering is of the highest calibre in Cerebus. It reaches its height in Guys and Rick’s Story with Cerebus’s internal dialogues as thought balloons overlap and compete for space over top of incredibly expressive art. Those were pages that I would stop and just look at, blown away at how everything was working together in seamless harmony. I have never seen pages that work as well as those ones on every level.
Sim’s willingness to do very minimalist pages was surprised. I expected him, with his formalist experimentation to move in a more dense direction, but much of the middle portion of the book, from Jaka’s Story up through Minds, he definitely pulled back a lot of the time, willing to let images sit by themselves, to let them have pages to themselves (though only taking up a portion of the page) and seeing what impact that has. That makes the latter third feel even denser, because Sim pulled back so much for that middle third as times.
From a sheer cartooning/artistic perspective, nothing touches The Last Day. Old Cerebus… just thinking about him makes me laugh. Cerebus pushed the idea of Cerebus as an ancient aardvark so far and did so much physical comedy with him… Cerebus was always a funny book (even during its ‘serious’ phases), but that may be the funniest (and, by the end, saddest) volume because of the way that Sim can consistently do stunning visual gags with this wrinkled, shriveled up old aardvark holding his pants up and shuffling around his room. If I had any doubts that Sim was a master of his craft by that point in the series, The Last Day killed them.
But, he was always a very visually-oriented humorist. That shouldn’t be surprising in a visual medium like comics, but, often, funny comics are funny because of the writing and not the art as much it seems. At least in comic books. Even comic strips to a degree don’t rely on the art to communicate the jokes as much as the words. Sim, while a funny writer, uses his art more, I found. Or, at least, to complement and enhance verbal/written jokes. Elrod, for example, is very funny for his dialogue, but would only be half as funny were it not for Sim’s visuals of this lanky, blank-eyed, lanky albino imposes himself in the physical space of others. It wasn’t just that his imposing, interrupting personality evidenced itself through words, he went right up to characters and physically invaded their space and made sure to plant himself there.
The way that Sim could alternate between styles took me aback. Prior to Cerebus, I had gotten glamourpuss as it came out, but, there, Sim was very much in a photorealist preference of style. I didn’t expect him to so easily depict cartoon animals, realistic looking humans, cartoony humans, superheroes… When others talk about Cerebus being, at certain points, characters from a variety of genres interacting, that extends to visual representations. Yet, it doesn’t look like a mishmash of conflicting and competing styles. Cerebus, while different from Astoria and the various incarnations of the Roach, for example, still looks of that world. They somehow coexist through Sim. It’s a subtle difference and was still effective even when he would tell different narratives in the same volume, using different styles, and still produce a surprisingly harmonious-looking work.
The harmony between Sim and Gerhard was also surprising given that Gerhard is very much an adherent to realism and Sim was willing to go in any and all directions. The contrast between Cerebus and Gerhard’s backgrounds only served to make Cerebus seem more real somehow. You would think that the ornate, intricate, strongly referenced backgrounds with produce an effect like seeing animated characters in a live action world in a movie, but it doesn’t. Maybe because it’s all drawn art… But, that definitely surprised me. That and the way that the foreground characters and backgrounds rarely seemed out of touch with one another. It was a very visually smooth synthesis of the two men’s work.
Read 300 issues like this and they’ll impact you in weird ways. The weirdest, for me, had to be the morning where I woke up and couldn’t get the phrase “Something fell” out of my head. It kept coming back. In Cerebus, it designates a moment of change/bad things happening. That day, something happened at work with a co-worker that resulted in their termination. Cue spooky music.
One weakness of Sim is that, once he gets into an idea, he will run it into the ground. He knows few half measures. Something that I was surprised that I didn’t particularly enjoy as the series went on is the use of the Cockroach, a character that shifts from one superhero identity to the next (always with the word ‘Roach’ in there somewhere… aside from when he becomes Swoon, a riff on Morpheus from Sandman). It was a gag that worked sometimes, but I often found tedious. I have read a lot of superhero parody material and Sim’s is fairly middling. He didn’t seem to have a lot to say really beyond poking fun at some of the more superficial elements. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was an occasional gag, but the Cockroach crops up a lot in the first 150 issues. However, that’s a character that’s a favourite of many people, so it’s definitely personal taste. Even the excessiveness of the Torah commentaries seems a bit much at times. While interesting at first, there isn’t a lot of new material, really, as it goes on. Just variations on the same ideas and arguments about God and Yoohwhoo.
As well, while we’re on the very subjective pet peeves I have: I mentioned phonetic spelling of dialogue, but also overly stylised lettering can be a big annoyance. The faux-scripture for the various religious books shown is just flat-out terrible to read, both in style and lettering font. It’s not the idea of that much text that makes those sections more of a chore to get through, it’s font where numerous letters look nearly identical written in a style that doesn’t adhere to modern grammar, spelling, and transposes letters. It worked the first time, but just dragged me down any time that style popped up.
Something that I can’t get over is that the comics industry seems to have gone out of its way to justify Sim’s paranoia and self-perception as a martyr at the altar of ‘feminism’ by treating him and his work like such a pariah. Cerebus won exactly one Eisner award and that was for the reprint of Flight as a collection. I know it’s not uncommon for important, phenomenal works to not be rewarded in every artistic medium, but it’s hard to believe that a writer, artist, and letterer of this high a level not winning a single Eisner for any of those disciplines. Nor Gerhard winning an Eisner. It boggles the mind and is definitely symptomatic of people’s inability to separate a work and an artist. But, also, pre-issue 186, what the fuck was going on? Nothing? Really? (Beyond the Eisners, Sim won a little bit more, but not as much as you’d think for something so well crafted.)
The use of real people as inspiration for various characters shows how good Sim could be at mimicry (again, not always in ways that were conducive to an entertaining read). Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest and Mary Hemingway are the big ones when it comes to taking their writing and using it for his own purpose, either outright or by doing his best to mimic their styles. Sim wasn’t afraid to steal outright and alter in small ways to make it fit the story he was telling, but that technique definitely made the inclusion of those characters more worthwhile and deep. I did laugh at the Fitzgerald/Hemingway shift where one was introduced in one volume and the other in the next, clearly for a specific effect and, in doing research on Hemingway after Fitzgerald, Sim realised that he didn’t care for Hemingway’s writing. It still worked, but, damn, talk about finding yourself in a weird little corner.
I wanted to have more to say about the work itself, not just delivering a lengthy defence of it, but that seems to have exhausted my thoughts on the series to a degree. It’s so large that it’s difficult to pick out specific elements to expand upon. To a degree, it’s hard to separate the events of certain volumes from one another. And, having spent the last bit with those final volumes, the earlier ones are less prominent in my memory, making a response to the latter third more natural than expansive gushing on the brilliance of High Society or Jaka’s Story (a volume that didn’t blow me away as much as it was hyped up to – but, that’s what hype does, I guess). I’ll end by repeating myself to a degree:
I enjoyed Cerebus immensely. It is one of the Great Works in comic books. You should read it. Don’t listen to what anyone says about its content (even me). Read it, think about it, and make your own determination. It’s worth it. I don’t know when I will reread Cerebus, but I look forward to it.