I’m rereading Cerebus for the first time in a decade or more. High Society was always lodged in my mind as the first of the really good Cerebus books, but I was concerned about the reliability of memory and the perils of revisiting old favourites. I shouldn’t have worried – this is still great stuff. It’s funny, sharp and switched on, an amazing jump from the first collection. I don’t think we see another quantum leap in skill like this in the rest of the series, or indeed in any other artistic endeavours I can think of off the top of my head.*
That said, the beginning is still raw Cerebus. The issue breaks are very obvious and there are far too many narrative captions (they finally drop out maybe a third of the way through the book, and Dave’s storytelling skill has increased so much that you don’t even notice their absence). The kidnapping and the Fleagle brothers are great fun, but it’s when Astoria enters and starts manipulating Cerebus that it kicks up a whole another level. The economic and political detail is still far ahead of anything else I’ve seen in comics (apart from non-fiction works like Darryl Richardson’s Supercrash), but it’s also very funny. Some of my favourite sequences are the campaign trail encounters, where Dave’s gifts for mimicry and revealing character through dialogue shine. It may be a fantasy world, but these sketches are so recognisably from our shared cultural understanding. John Cleese, misanthropic depressed Jewish comedians, That Farmer Guy From The Wuffa Wuffa issue, all so vivid in just a couple of panels. Election night itself is memorably tense, an excellently orchestrated issue. After that, we’re into Cerebus’ premiership, such as it is. Some people have complained that this section is rushed and flies by too quickly. It might well be that they are right and Dave had written himself into a corner after committing to wrapping up HS in 25 issues (if so, not the last time it will happen. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the size of the work – there was no going back and revising what was already in the public domain), but I always thought it was deliberate, and, along with the page design literally knocking Cerebus’ world sideways, supposed to emphasise how overwhelmed he was by events. Maybe, maybe not.
A few other random observations:
The very last page is, considering it was created by a twentysomething, an astonishingly acute take on the tendency of the idealistic young to believe in pointless doomed causes.
On this reread, I was completely floored by a particular stupid comment of Elrod’s. Innocuous in itself, it takes on a whole new meaning once you’ve read Minds, which wouldn’t be published for another twelve years or so. That’s some pretty hefty foreshadowing.
All those words about how it’s much better than the first book and how this is the best starting point notwithstanding, it’s surprising how many elements of what I’d consider to be “Core Cerebus” are still waiting to be introduced at the end of the book. The Cirinists have been an absolutely minimal presence, if they’ve featured at all, the Tarim / Terim dichotomy has barely been mentioned, and any information about the nature and number of aardvarks is missing – at this point, Cerebus is still basically just a funny looking character. Lots to come… I am itching to crack on with Church & State now.
*(FWIW, I reckon Sim’s talent continues to build, albeit at a more incremental level, all the way through to issue 220 or thereabouts. After that, his technical ability soars – the lettering, page composition and character art in the final few books are all tremendous – but his narrative ability pretty much deserts him, until a late flourish with The Last Day).