In March of last year, the Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim published the final twenty-page installment of Cerebus, the 6,000-plus-page comic-book epic he’d been writing and drawing since 1977. (Virtually all of it is collected in sixteen volumes published by Sim’s company Aardvark-Vanaheim.) It is an absolute masterpiece—one of the most ambitious and fully realized narratives of the past century. And its flaws are plentiful, wide, and maddening, and penetrate straight to its core.
For one thing, if you want to start at the beginning, you’ll have to wade through a few hundred pages of Sim’s juvenilia. When he started Cerebus at the age of twenty-one, he had no idea that it was going to be more than a short-lived parody of Conan the Barbarian—not even Robert E. Howard’s original stories, but the early-’70s Marvel comics drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, whose style is ineptly imitated by the early Sim. He didn’t work out the project’s scope—300 issues, one every month for its final twenty-four years, concerning several centuries’ worth of politics and religion in a fictional continent rather like medieval Europe—until a nervous breakdown a couple of years into it.
There’s a lot of Cerebus that’s deliberately derivative, too. Dozens of characters are modeled on real-world celebrities, cartoon characters, and comics artists, and a handful of Sim’s jokes will be lost on anyone without an intimate knowledge of the comics scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Most of the Melmoth volume of Cerebus deals with the death of Oscar Wilde; the core of Going Home is a series of parodies, pastiches, and paraphrases of F. Scott Fitzgerald (as “F. Stop Kennedy”); Form and Void includes a long section adapted from Mary Hemingway’s (excuse me, “Mary Ernestway’s”—her husband is “Ham Ernestway”) African diaries, mostly to set up the argument that Mary actually murdered Ernest, because women are by nature soul-sucking voids.
Oh right. About two-thirds of the way into Cerebus, something in its tone abruptly cracks, and the misogynist pus that bubbles up never fully abates after that. (Sim has insisted that he’s not a misogynist, just “not a feminist,” but he’s become rather a single-issue candidate about it; he also claims, for instance, that using s’s rather than s’ for the possessive form of names that end in s is a Marxist-feminist plot. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) It becomes rather tough-going if you like your art to be compatible with your politics, unless you’re one of the eighty-five people on the planet whose gender politics are as far right as Sim’s.
Make it all the way to the home stretch and you’ll hit the wall, where all but a few readers give up (and Sim’s assistant and background artist of twenty years, the single-named Gerhard, nearly quit): the “Cerebexegesis,” as it’s informally known, a 140-page sequence in the penultimate book Latter Days, whose typeset passages (in tiny type) are a very close reading of the first thirty-eight chapters of Genesis. Very close indeed. The gist of it is that God and YHWH are separate entities, and that the latter (whose name should be pronounced “Yoohwhoo”) is the diabolical female piece of God’s spirit who lives inside the Earth, tries to usurp God’s rightful place (because isn’t that just like a woman), and is more or less the Demiurge.
This is, as it turns out, what Sim himself believes, although weirdly enough it’s intended to function as parody in the context of the story. As he points out, if it turns out to be the truth, he’s “the only sane person who perceives reality accurately and everyone else alive today and everyone who has lived in the last six thousand years or so is and was immersed in full-blown schizophrenia.” It’s accompanied by a cute, intricately realized visual riff on the history of European art movies, Freud and Jung, Woody Allen’s career, and Jules Feiffer and Robert Crumb’s drawing styles, but the text itself is unbearable. By the end, the character who’s reading it in the story gives up and starts listlessly flipping through it.
That’s followed by an even more unreadable forty-page explanation of the universe, in pseudoarchaic biblical language and a Gothic font, plus footnotes, e.g. “‘The light,’ then, becomes a simultaneous ‘living metaphor’ of both an electron and electron motion; that is, a simultaneous ‘living metaphor’ of both the spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters and the wave created by that movement of the spirit of God. The bringing forth of ‘the light,’ therefore, made merged, simultaneous existence a reality (and the lunatic template which women thus apply to everyone and everything).” Sim reportedly prides himself on incorporating prose into comics, but it’s probably much easier to appreciate Cerebus if you simply skip over all the typeset parts.
On top of all that, the protagonist of Cerebus increasingly resists any kind of sympathy: he’s a murderer, a despot, a fool, a fuckup who has plenty of chances to do great things and blows it every time thanks to his pathetic vanity and romantic delusions. When he dies at the end, he is, as a sort of oracle predicts much earlier in the story, alone, unloved, and unmourned. Also, he’s an anthropomorphic, hermaphroditic aardvark.
That’s the apology—it’s hard to discuss Cerebus without apologizing, one way or another; the good stuff is coming. Before I get any further, I should note that Sim’s reputation as a world-class jerk tends to overshadow his actual work. I’m not interested in addressing any more of the sad particulars of his biography here, and, having spent all of an hour in the same room as the guy almost twenty years ago, I’m not in a position to assess his psychological state. But his I-dunno-maybe-everyone-else-is-schizophrenic routine is significant; he’s also described himself as a sort of professional schizophrenic who lives in his invented world at least as much as consensus reality, and tends to conflate the two. That’s where his art comes from, and where it leads.
Cerebus is a novel of (very big) ideas, and one of the biggest is the nature of reality and its relationship both to subjectivity and to the stories that communicate versions of reality. “The definition of schizophrenia—the inability to perceive the difference between reality and fantasy—is, to me, self-evidently ludicrous because it presupposes that there is a universally agreed upon perception of what reality is,” Sim has written, and several thousand years ago someone asked something similar. Cerebus doesn’t refer directly to the Bible until about 90 percent of the way through the series, with one major exception: at the climax of its opening third, there’s a version of the trial of Christ, with Cerebus in the Pontius Pilate role. He asks the same question Pilate asked Christ: “What is truth?”
Sim provides plenty of answers, which of course aren’t very satisfying—a bitter running joke is that every time any of his characters explain the way things are, they’re either lying to serve their own interests or they’re simply deluded, even if what they’re saying makes perfect sense at the time. Some characters poach their subjective truths word-for-word from real-world writers; one volume ends with a passage from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address being written on a cell wall by an imprisoned, idiotic “Anarcho-Romantic” aesthete who believes that what he thinks is Cerebus’s philosophy (it’s not) is the great hope of the common people—or, as most of the characters in power call them, “the peasants and livestock.”
Cerebus demands a sort of schizophrenia from its readers, as well: it makes you succumb to its conflation of objectivity and subjectivity and blatant deceptions, and see patterns of meaning in coincidences and unrelated events. There are a handful of extended dream sequences, which seem at first like Cerebus’s unconscious mind reprocessing his experiences, and on rereading are revealed as prophetic visions. Images and words appear as echoes years before or after their actual occurrence; the reader’s world keeps intruding into the fantasy world on the page. Close a volume of Cerebus and veiled allusions to it seem to be everywhere. (The furious, resentful Bishop Powers, so insistent on dogma that he can’t see what’s in front of him, now seems to prefigure the later Sim himself.)
People who’ve heard of Sim but haven’t actually read Cerebus tend to think of him as some kind of cackling Henry Darger figure, endlessly filling up crude volumes of his awful fantasies. They couldn’t be much more wrong. He’s a shockingly gifted cartoonist, one of the most innovative storytellers in the history of his medium, and routinely pulls off technical feats that no other cartoonist would dare. (Church & State includes an eighty-page sequence that’s little more than two characters in a small room having a political argument, and it ends with a hundred-page monologue; both are utterly compelling as visual narrative, which spares the reader from the numbing Fountainhead effect of the Cerebexegesis.) He draws even grotesque caricatures with an absolute certainty of each character’s body, not just their expressions and physical shapes but the way they move through space and interact with each other. And Gerhard’s microdetailed background architecture has the same kind of certainty of every beam and stone.
The formal symmetries and echoes within Cerebus are spectacular, especially given that every chapter has gone unrevised since its initial publication. The series can be divided into three units, each roughly 2,000 pages, and each culminating in a failed ascension into Heaven. Alternately, it can be split into a “male half” and a “female half” (everything we believe is true in the first half is inverted in the second), or on a sort of angle into a “Cerebus half” and an “Astoria half” (which we’ll get to). Almost from the beginning, it’s loaded with resonances and symbol systems and setups—the final few scenes abruptly detonate thematic explosions for which the groundwork had been laid decades in advance.
It’s also a novel of characters and character actors—some are one-dimensional types who are there for the sake of the plot or comedy, some have a profound internal life and evolve over time, and Sim loves to screw with readers’ perceptions of which ones are which. Jaka, a dancer Cerebus meets early in the series, is set up as his one true love—the thing that can save him, the other half with whom he can eventually be reunited. But after we’ve had a few thousand pages to work from that assumption, Sim points out, brutally, that we (and Cerebus) know nothing about her beyond the surface—that we’ve simply imagined her as the romantic heroine for all the wrong reasons. Then he redeems the idea of their love as redemptive, and then dashes it again, and again. Near the end, the aged, lecherous Cerebus compromises what little is left to him so he can seduce a young woman who doesn’t realize that she looks exactly like the long-dead Jaka. It’s a devastating scene, and a few readers, unable to bear the idea that the story had perverted their expectations so badly, somehow convinced themselves that it depicted a happy reunion with the real Jaka, magically young again.
What makes the series’ twisted mechanics move is that Sim is a hell of an entertainer, when he feels like it—the early books, especially, are often knock-down hilarious, and there are flashes of wicked comedy right up to the end. He’s especially brilliant as a mimic. When he “casts” a real person (or a character from someone else’s comics) in his story, he gets them down immaculately—their speech patterns, their body language, the kind of role they’d be perfect for. Lord Julius, the bureaucrat who maintains a stranglehold on the continent’s economics by his control of interest rates (and, after money is abolished, by his monopoly on distilleries), is none other than Groucho Marx. A pair of hammer-wielding, handlebar-moustached, not-too-bright brothers share the voice of Yosemite Sam. Two dissolute princes slumming it in the lower city are late-’60s versions of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (“Keef! You ’aven’ bin strite since fou’een-ow-noine!”) The efficient, nannyish functionary who’s forever putting everyone else in their places as cruelly as possible is a mercilessly caricatured Margaret Thatcher. And the bumbling “Three Wise Fellows” who install Cerebus as the figurehead of a new religion go by the names Mosher, Losher, and Kosher: they’re the Three Stooges.
The Stooges’ faith is the caboose on the series’ train of philosophical and religious sects, each of which defines reality its own way. At the beginning, there are the Tarimites, who believe that the god Tarim created everything out of the void; their church is split into feuding Eastern and Western divisions. (Cerebus becomes the Eastern church’s pope and immediately announces that, unless everyone hands over all their gold, pronto, Tarim will destroy the world by fire. Of course, being an infallible pope means that he gets to dictate the truth: a very dangerous thing.)
The Tarimites’ counterparts are the Terimites, who believe that the goddess Terim created everything out of herself. Their affiliates the Cirinists believe that the only appropriate requirement for citizenship is giving birth; they lead an iron-fisted agrarian revolution that eventually takes over most of the continent. The Kevillists, a Cirinist splinter group, are basically anarcho-libertarian feminists. Then there are the Pigts, who believe that Cerebus is the Messiah who will lead them to glory, and the Illusionists, who are the reason the series includes at least six different characters named Suenteus Po, and more. There are also Jews and Muslims in the world of Cerebus by its end, but no Christians—although one major character is crucified, off-panel.
All of this ideological conflict was in the series’ background long before it became the focus of the story—where Cerebus begins is very different from where it ends up, and its tone changes dramatically from volume to volume. The first book, simply called Cerebus, begins with our hero as an itinerant, long-snouted barbarian from up north—in those days, Sim apparently thought an aardvark Conan was a funny idea and didn’t realize he’d be stuck with it for the rest of his career. Cerebus has some Conanesque adventures, most of them involving parodies of familiar characters, notably Elrod (Michael Moorcock’s character Elric with a Foghorn Leghorn accent), the Cockroach (Batman as a babbling lunatic), and Lord Silverspoon (Prince Valiant as a whiny rich kid). By the book’s end, Sim is finding his feet as a writer and artist, and Cerebus starts to get mixed up in politics.
High Society is the second and funniest book, and by consensus the best place for readers new to Sim to begin. It’s the one in which Cerebus shows up in the elegant but nearly bankrupt city-state of Iest, gets dragooned into its political intrigues, and eventually becomes its prime minister. In the two-volume Church & State, Sim floors the gas pedal, and the arrival of Gerhard’s backgrounds radically improves the art. The deposed Cerebus is reinstated as prime minister, then appointed pope, then ascends to the moon on a tower of stone skulls. Expecting to encounter Tarim, he instead meets “the Judge” (drawn to resemble Lou Jacobi in the film version of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders), who explains the history of his world and his universe to him—its macrocosmic pattern is that the female light is smashed by the male void—and dismisses Cerebus’s life as a waste.
The Judge’s speech can be read as the dramatic climax of the series, or, if you prefer, the first of its three climaxes. When Cerebus returns to Earth for the drawing-room tragedy Jaka’s Story, Iest has been taken over by the Cirinists’ totalitarian, fascist matriarchy, and he takes refuge with Jaka, now a dancer in a pub, and her husband Rick; meanwhile, their friend Oscar, i.e. Oscar Wilde, is writing a book about Jaka’s aristocratic origins that’s mostly “true” in a Wildean aesthetic sense. Cerebus doesn’t even appear in most of the second half of Jaka’s Story; he returns for the crawlingly paced Melmoth, sitting traumatized in a café where, upstairs, “Sebastien Melmoth”—Wilde again, but not the same character—is dying. Sim calls the 240-page Melmoth “a short story,” the idea being that if you’re going to call something a “graphic novel,” it had better be really substantial.
A frenetic story arc called “Mothers and Daughters” takes up four volumes of the book collections, Flight, Women, Reads, and Minds. Here, Cerebus launches an insurrection against Cirinist rule, which is immediately crushed. In its aftermath, he meets Cirin (the founder of Cirinism—sort of), Suenteus Po (the leader of the Illusionists), and Astoria (the woman who first elevated him to power, and the architect of Kevillism). Cerebus and Cirin begin to fight to the death, but are rocketed separately into space, while pages of the story alternate with an exceedingly tiresome roman à clef about the comics industry, which becomes a screed about how men are actually the capital-L Light, and women, who incidentally can read minds, are the capital-V Void, and if you’re guessing that this is where Cerebus starts to go seriously awry, gold star.
The other point of “Mothers and Daughters,” though, is that it’s where Sim ramps up the metafictional games he’s hinted at earlier in the series: directly addressing the reader through semiautobiographical proxies and as himself, toying with the levels on which he controls his audience’s reality and perceptions. (Women also features a delicious parody of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics.) When Sim returns to the plot in Minds, Cerebus, stranded in outer space, encounters his creator—“Dave”—who explains his nature and his failures to him, then sends him back home when he promises to change his life.
That’s the second climax, at the two-thirds mark; Sim implies that the end of Mothers and Daughters is the end of Cerebus proper, and that everything that comes after it is a sort of epilogue. For the final third, the pacing mostly slackens, and there’s an increasing atmosphere of futility and stasis. Cerebus spends all of Guys in or by a pub, where he drinks himself insensible for years on end while the world outside its windows is utterly transformed. Eventually, all his friends grow old and leave, and he becomes the bartender. Then Rick, Jaka’s old husband, walks in—this is about ten years since we’ve last seen him. In Rick’s Story, he’s writing a book about his religious conversion, and Cerebus is at the center of his belief system. Shortly after he leaves, Jaka arrives; together again at last, she and Cerebus decide to move up north to his hometown, Sand Hills Creek.
Their trip constitutes the thinly plotted, involuted, visually gorgeous two-volume Going Home storyline—the second volume’s called Form and Void—most of which documents the on-and-off friction between them, interspersed with weird literary pastiches. When they finally get to Sand Hills Creek, everything that’s wrong with their relationship detonates, horribly.
Latter Days and The Last Day are an epilogue-to-the-epilogue. Thirty years or so pass; Cerebus, longing only to die, is abducted by adherents of the religion that Rick has founded around him. With an army behind him, he conquers the continent and establishes his own fascist utopia, then retires. Finally, he encounters Konigsberg, the Not-So-Good Samaritan (Woody Allen), to whom he explains his aforementioned unique interpretation of Genesis. (That’s right: explaining Judaism to Woody Allen.) Another hundred years later, Cerebus is wrinkled, sick, senile, and dying, and his empire is in tatters; he’s written a final testament so that his son may carry on his dynasty, but his hopes are categorically shattered. He dies, and we find out what happens to him after his death in a short, blackly brilliant sequence that casts a new light on everything we’ve seen before it.
That’s a lot of plot (and I’m leaving out much more), but it happens in jolts—more than a few times, revolutions change everything while Cerebus is dozing or not paying attention. Sim loves to play with readers’ perceptions of time and significance. A twenty-page sequence dissects three seconds’ worth of events; a year or two passes between panels, without remark. In Latter Days, Sim casually mentions that a major character has been dead for a while—and, a few pages later, lets it slip that actually the entire supporting cast of the series is dead.
But the weird, bumpy way Sim presents his world’s history, as a series of not-entirely-trustworthy, not-entirely-compatible narratives that focus on immediate details and miss the big picture, is absolutely in line with his rejection of consensus reality. He explicitly opens Cerebus up to interpretation: if he makes it clear that he’s not emphasizing a lot of the important parts, it’s an open question which the important parts are.
For instance, Cerebus can be read as a story about power and what it means to exert your will over somebody else, which makes the crypto-anarchist Astoria—arguably the series’ most interesting character—its central figure opposite Cerebus, who desires power only for its own sake. The section from Astoria’s first appearance to her last occupies almost exactly half the series, and things go straight to hell the moment she departs, rejecting the idea of power altogether and going off to cultivate her garden à la Candide. Like pretty much all the politicians in Cerebus, she thinks of herself as a reformer. She’s an advocate of democracy because she believes it can lead to women’s suffrage, and her split from Cirinist maternalism proceeds from her commitment to absolute self-determination—which has turned her into a master manipulator and a control freak. (Even in chains in her enemies’ dungeon, she’s running the show.) When the crunch comes, of course, the movement she believes she’s pointed toward self-determination expects her to lead it.
But no vision of reality can be wholly trusted in Cerebus; nothing is unambiguous. The only major character that Sim suggests is actually righteous is Rick, who’s a gullible dweeb at first, sweet-hearted but not too bright. In his later years, he’s delusional to the point of derangement, interpreting everything in his environment—a bar, a chair, a woman who flirts with him—as a religious portent. The “holy book” he writes is the work of a hopeless, obsessive schizophrenic. He is also, as it happens, the true prophet of God. In order for the final sections of the series to make sense, you have to believe both of those things at once—which goes beyond willing suspension of disbelief and into a deeply uncomfortable realm. That way lies madness. That’s the idea.
There remains the great hurdle for readers that the final third of Cerebus is mostly just a hard, nasty slog. Besides the excruciating prose interludes and misogynist blather (Sim writes these days like he’s expecting to be nailed on hate-literature charges—well, he wishes: “total-dick-literature” is more like it), the character interaction that makes the first two-thirds fun is gradually extinguished. Most of the final volume is Cerebus locked in a tastefully appointed room, muttering to himself. It’s exhausting. You could, perhaps, skip the “epilogue” of the last six books, or decide that the series should really be called Astoria and bail out when she leaves. But then you’d miss the payoff. And, inconveniently, as Cerebus gets sludgier and meaner, Sim gets better as a cartoonist—more expressive, more daring with design, more committed to integrating even his lettering into a Gesamtkunstwerk of word and image and idea. Think of it as the Birth of a Nation of comics.
Which brings us back to the aesthetics vs. politics problem. It’s comforting to see first-rate art that’s compatible with one’s own political views; but to see first-rate art that’s violently opposed to one’s own political views is necessary. If your sympathies are even vaguely secular or liberal—if, that is, you’re reading the Believer, whose title Sim would probably find bitterly amusing—then the second half of Cerebus is an attack on you. It demands a response in the reader’s mind, and if you can see past “what a total dick,” you’re likely to come out of it with your own thoughts about gender, power, and the nature of creation (with both a large and a small C) clarified.
Anyone can come up with a grand twenty-seven-year plan for a mammoth work of art, but Sim, along with very few others in human history, actually went through with it. He made the commitment to his story and spent more than a quarter of a century grinding away at it, and he finished it, exactly when he said he would. A serious, ambitious, completed large-scale work, no matter how deeply flawed it is, beats a perfectly envisioned but unrealized project every time. At the very least, Cerebus is worth reading for the same reason a grand, half-ruined cathedral of a religion not your own is worth spending time in: it’s a cathedral. Take what you can from it.