Bingo and I discussed rereading Cerebus at the beginning of the month in the Resolutions thread. Well, here goes.
For the majority of AWers out there scratching their heads and wondering what Cerebus is, some background is in order. I”m going to cheat and copy the description from Page 45’s website (www.page45.com – Britain’s finest comic shop):
CEREBUS was written and drawn by Canadian Dave Sim from start to finish over the course of 23 years. He was joined halfway through CHURCH & STATE on backgrounds and colour covers by landscape artist Gerhard, a man whose meticulous crosshatching puts him right up there with Bernie Wrightson (FRANKENSTEIN), Franklin Booth and even Gustav Doré, and whose architecture is as extraordinary in its own way as Schuiten’s.
“What’s CEREBUS about?” is the usual question.
It’s about 6,000 pages, 300 issues and 16 graphic novels long, plus extras.
It’s about life, death and the bits in between: war, greed, faith and religion, exchange rates, politics, love, freedom of artistic expression, the repression of artistic expression, the war of the sexes, sickness, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, idolatry, adultery, delusion and old age. On reflection I guess it’s also about the bits before and after. On one notable instance it was about the often illusory relationship between the reader, the creator and the printed page, especially in a periodical comic with a letters column (see CEREBUS: READS).
It’s also a parody, caricature and satire. At one point it parodies SANDMAN (Neil Gaiman is an enormous fan), it parodies SPAWN (Todd McFarlane is an enormous fan – though that’s less than a ringing endorsement, I grant you), it incorporates Bacchus (Eddie Campbell loves JAKA’s STORY), it caricatures Margaret Thatcher (who has never even heard of it), and it caricatures Oscar Wilde (who is dead). But that doesn’t mean it’s comedic from start to finish. Rarely have I seen old age and death being addressed at length and so profoundly in comics outside of CEREBUS. Old age in particular seems almost taboo.
As I’ve said, it contains page after page of comicbook innovation: new devices invented by Dave unique to the medium of comics. The lettering itself, once he really gets going, becomes the visual equivalent of onomatopoeia.
But this is the first book and there’s little of that happening here. Around the 10th issue in this reprint of #1-25 – and certainly with the introduction of Lord Julius (Groucho Marx) – the wit really kicks in, but I’ve known this volume’s first few issues put people off the series for life. Understandably so: it starts off as little more than a parody of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the artwork is comparatively primitive with nods to Barry Windsor-Smith, but you will see the artist in him grow on the printed page.
Instead we recommend you begin either with CEREBUS ZERO which contains the three short stories not included in the books, CEREBUS VOL 2: HIGH SOCIETY if you enjoy riotously funny satire or CEREBUS VOL 5: JAKA’S STORY, if you prefer profoundly moving straight fiction.
Which is odd when you consider that the trappings of CEREBUS are far from straight fiction. For a start its star is an anthropomorphic aardvark in a world full of humans. He is, if you like, the ultimate outsider; a nuisance to some, a deity to others. Also, the world they all inhabit is an anachronistic mix of rifles, swords, sorcery, old Tudor houses and Georgian hotels. There are rocking horses in genteel park playgrounds, and there’s a thriving publishing industry for prose at the same time that barbarians are running amok in loin cloths. The extraordinary thing is that it’s seamless: that it works.
So anyway, CEREBUS VOLUME ONE.
Cerebus is a greedy, belligerent and bellicose barbarian. He’s a nomad. He wanders around from tavern to tavern, drinking whatever he can and pocketing whatever he can lay his four-fingered hands on. Drugged one evening, he falls in love with a dancer called Jaka then barely remembers he met her. Later, without realising it, he starts work as a bodyguard for her uncle Lord Julius (Groucho Marx) whose stranglehold over the local economy is maintained by baffling the opposition. Cerebus also discovers an enormous statue of himself, worshipped by a tribe called the Picts, and in a fit of rage he destroys it. There will be… repercussions.
In addition there’s the first of his out-of-body experiences called Mind Games: if you take all the pages apart and past them together they form a single image which you can view Dave holding aloft in our photo gallery of the Cerebus UK Tour ’93.
So there you are. Cerebus. There is much more that could be said – it’s 6000 pages long after all (laughs at the lightweights over in the War And Peace thread). That summary barely touches on the cosmology throughout the work, the literary biography, the experiments with form, the sheer technical brilliance, or just that the run of nine graphic novels from High Society through to Minds is as good as comics get. This book literally redefined what the medium was capable of. There’s controversy as well. Some of Sim’s views on society are not, shall we say, compatible with modern liberal beliefs. But we’ll save that until we get to Reads.
In many ways, Dave Sim reminds me of his fellow Canadian Neil Young, not least in his fierce determination to do things his own way regardless of critical orthodoxy or fan appreciation (every single issue of Cerebus was self published). They both have large bodies of work with pockets that are alienating, but when they are on their game, there is no one to match them.
All of that notwithstanding, that Page 45 review does touch on one of the major problems with starting Cerebus – the first book just isn’t that good. If we are looking at a reread with the aim of drawing other people along, I’d suggest we start with the second volume, High Society, which can easily be read as a standalone, and is a quantum leap on from the first. HS is a genuine graphic novel with a beginning, a middle and an end, as opposed to the first collections bundling of unlargely unrelated small story arcs, and the art is far better, if not a patch on the brilliance to come.