Reads is really three stories. There are two long text pieces we will come back to, but the one most germane to the overall storyline is the continuation of the confrontation between Cerebus, Cirin, Po and Astoria that closed out the last volume. Po is firmly in control here, keeping the other aardvarks on a firm leash as he expounds on the emptiness of power. He is humble, measured, certain and wise. Once he has said his piece, he walks out of the throne room and indeed out of the story. The only one who takes any heed of his words is Astoria. She renounces the chase for power, and opts to seek a quieter, meditative life amongst nature. Her decision is beautiful, one I’m envious of. Of course, Astoria being Astoria, she can’t resist one last quip. That final pause, smile, and suggestion are one of my favourite things in the whole book. And then she’s gone as well, leaving Cerebus and Cirin to duke it out in an epic, gruelling, very physical fight scene that lasts for dozens of pages. They take chunks out of each other, Cirin cuts off Cerebus’ ear, both are drenched in blood. It seems clear that the fight can end in nothing but death for one of them, until – something fell – the walls of the throne room fall away, and the throne itself, with the two rival aardvarks clinging on, starts rising and accelerating away from Iest and out into space. The end. This whole section is amazingly choreographed and drawn, with Gerhard once again excelling at creating a solid three dimensional space for the characters to move around. Paired with the dialogue and four way interaction in the earlier part of the book, this is some of the best Cerebus yet. But it’s only a third of the book.
Like I said, there are two long text pieces running alongside the comics action. Throughout the first half we learn about the misadventures of Victor Reid, a writer of “reads”, penny dreadfuls of the kind we previously saw Oscar writing about Jaka. It’s a roman a clef based on the early 90s comics scene with plenty of recognisable characters. This means that it is hopelessly dated, but it’s interesting in as much as it is a robust defence of Sim’s attitude to publishing and creativity – do it yourself, maintain control, be beholden to no one. Cerebus was of course a self published work throughout its entire run, and this is basically Dave explaining why. But if that wasn’t metafictional enough for you, the second text segment (I say segment, these are more like long essays), opens with a drawing of someone who looks an awful lot like Dave turning from a drawing board on which we can see the pages we’ve just read being created. It’s time to meet Victor Davis. He wants to talk to you.
And talk he does. From here, we are off into something very like the Mind Games from earlier volumes. Victor Davis is addressing someone labelled “the reader”, leading them on, tricking them (I vividly remember my reaction to the issue 200 fakeout when I read it for the first time), and controlling them. It’s interesting stuff, with cameos from Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Davis then switches to telling the reader how (he believes) the world works, an arrangement of Lights, strong, creative, dynamic leaders, and Voids, empty leeches that feed off them and pull them down. Not so controversial in itself – I’ve met plenty of Voids and Lights in my own life – but Davis goes on to divide these qualities along gender lines. Women are Voids, who literally eat the brains of their male partners. Unsurprisingly, this is where a large chunk of the audience got off the bus. This is the part of the series that has led to Cerebus being excoriated online and Dave Sim dismissed as a wacko nutjob (mind you, as far as Dave’s unusual beliefs go, you ain’t seen nothing yet), and that’s before you get onto the Death vs Life spiel after the attacks on feminism. There are points that might be interesting in here, but the presentation of the ideas is let down by hamfisted hyperbole. The writing is incredibly verbose – the Merged Permanence argument Dave spends pages and pages outlining is far better described in Cyril Connolly’s famous one sentence quote about the pram in the hall. Once you wade through it, however, there is much to chew on throughout this whole piece. To what degree are we supposed to equate Victor Davis with Dave Sim? The repeated refrain of “all stories are true” stacked against the way the Big Bang here is exactly the opposite of what Dave showed us at the end of Church & State? How the idea of Merged Permanence is given dramatic life in the hermaphrodite Cerebus, constantly chasing power and wealth but never finding satisfaction? But the burning question, of course, is is Cerebus misogynist?.
I can’t answer that. I’ve turned it over in my head for years, and I’ve never definitively come down on one side of the fence or the other. Some of the statements in Women are highly contentious (“women rape minds….”). Victor Davis’ screeds don’t make for pleasant or sensible reading. And yet, and yet…in just this volume, we’ve seen Milieu’s diligence and passion in the Victor Reid story being thwarted by a lazy indolent man too weak to stand up for himself. We’ve had Astoria, the prototypical modern feminist, as the most sympathetic character, the only one who can recognise wisdom when it is shared with her, and one of the few characters in the whole work who is given a satisfactory character arc (and she has a great exit). Elsewhere in the series, the relationship between the workshy parasite Rick and the artistically committed Jaka is exactly that of a Void and a Light, yet the genders are opposite to Davis’ proclamations.
So, did I enjoy Reads? Pfffft. The Victor Reid section is superfluous and forgettable. The Cerebus stuff is brilliant. The Victor Davis part is alternatively intriguing and infuriating, thought provoking and ridiculous. Ultimately, Reads is what it is. To a significant proportion of that part of the public which cares about comics, it’s come to define Cerebus, although of all the volumes in the series it’s the one that has least to do with Cerebus the character or Cerebus the story. Reads is what you get when you turn away from the Victor Reid route. It’s not edited, it’s not focus grouped, it’s not smoothed down or made palatable. I’m not sure if I like it, but I admire the tenacity, the unyielding vision, the individualism that forced it into being.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.