Short review – it’s amazing. This is the longest sub-story in the whole Cerebus project (unless you count Mothers & Daughters as one book instead of four). It starts with Cerebus as houseguest and ends with, well, everything.
I mentioned in my High Society review that a lot of core Cerebus was still waiting to be introduced at that book’s end. This is where it all happens. We finally see the military force of the matriarchal Cirinists, and learn exactly what Cirin is (ahem). Cerebus’ magical nature comes into focus, things like the tiny Cerebus appearing to Astoria, or the sneezing fire (and how good is the sequence where he picks up the one coin supposedly minted by Tarim, and the other coins start ripping their way out of the sacks and flying towards him?), and the preoccupation with cosmology starts. If I remember right, Dave has three attempts at explaining the beginnings of the universe throughout the 300 issues, and I’m not sure any of them have the impact of the amazing double page “that’s what left of her” spread here.
It’s a running theme of the book that Cerebus is his own worst enemy and Church & State makes that clear. His vanity and greed ruin his chances again and again, not least with the sphere that melts while he is distracted by the artists. It’s this quality that make him so manipulable as well. As in High Society, he is set on his path through the book by the actions of others. For someone who doesn’t have a huge amount of screentime, Weisshaupt is perhaps the most influential character in the series thus far. I love that Dave is confident enough in his worldbuilding to show us the consequences of actions we didn’t see, without the overexplanation and infodumping of lesser works.
There is more foreshadowing scattered throughout the book. Dave must have planned this (the first 200 issues at least) down to the smallest details. I am constantly amazed at this laying of groundwork for things that wouldn’t be fully explained for another six or seven years. Once again, Elrod’s first appearance contains a seemingly throwaway line that means an awful lot more once you’ve read a few books on, as does one of the sequences in Cerebus’ dreams shortly afterwards. Even little things like Boobah thinking something fell in the pantry resonate with knowledge of what’s to come. Possibly the most extreme is the way one illustration in the first volume suggests that Dave had a pretty good idea of the way he was going to draw the key moments of issue 300 even back at this point. And as for “You live only a few more years. You die alone. Unmourned. And unloved.” – well, we’ll see, won’t we?
I could sit and pick out highlight after highlight (“Oy should wont to boy drogs wif moy ‘alf”, “Sounds like my ex-wife” “It is”), but my favourite part of the whole book is the Astoria’s trial sequence. The rising tension and sense of something hugely disruptive approaching is expertly handled, and the way the page layout forces you to read quicker and quicker is masterful. In fact, the rhythms of the storytelling throughout are phenomenal, and then Gerhard’s appearance partway through the first volume is the final piece of the jigsaw. His backgrounds – hotel, tower, moonscape – are just exquisite. In fact, almost everything here is wonderful. There’s philosophy, comedy, cosmology, drama, a sharp understanding of power and institutions, plus the sheer quality of the characterization, the dialogue, the art, the structure – this is quite possibly as good as comics get. Not bad for a funny animal book.