On the face of it, Jaka’s Story is an unlikely follow up to Church & State. It shifts from the cosmology, mysticism and fate of nations stuff that has underpinned Cerebus up till now to a small scale domestic drama with but a handful of characters. Jaka is now living in a mountain village with her husband Rick, dancing in a local tavern and trying to keep it all together. The tavern owner, Pud Withers, lusts after her, running endless unlikely seduction scenarios through his head. Their neighbour, Oscar Wilde (yes, that Oscar Wilde), is writing, without her knowledge, a series of reads based on her childhood, using information he gleans from his talks with Rick. Extracts from these, describing Jaka’s childhood in Lord Julius’ household, run throughout the book in a text and image format that Dave would use increasingly often in later Cerebus. Cerebus himself is shellshocked by the revelations he was vouchsafed on the moon. As the former Pope, Iest and her new rulers are very dangerous, and so he becomes a reluctant secret houseguest to Jaka and Rick. This is our first taste of life under the matriarchal Cirinists, and their threat hangs over the first two thirds of the book, before being terribly realised in the last act.
This is the first book in the series that seems to have been composed as a novel rather than a serial. Unless you’re counting the page numbers you’d have no way of knowing where one individual issue ends and another begins. The whole thing just oozes craft. The care and depth of thought that has gone into the creation of these characters and their interactions with one another is tremendous, and the thinking through of structure is evident in the way, to pick a few examples at random, adult Jaka’s imprisonment mirrors her younger self’s anticipation of emancipation, or the repetition of the gardeners sheltering the younger saplings. The character art has completely left behind caricature (well, apart from Mrs Thatcher (yes, that Mrs Thatcher), who is not so much a character as shorthand for the smiling and solicitous machinery of repression). Gerhard shines again, of course (he actually built a model of the whole “set” and used it constantly as reference to ensure that his drawings of the apartment interior were consistent from one scene to the next).
Rick may be the most sympathetic character Dave Sim has ever created. Feckless idiot that he may be, he is completely devoted to Jaka (best bit of dialogue in the whole book – Cerebus: Listen, kid. Cerebus is in love with your wife. Rick: I know. She’s great, isn’t she?). He is so amiable and guileless that until, the very end, it’s hard to imagine him feeling anything more than passing annoyance at things like Jaka not waking him up when she returns. Pud is brilliantly drawn. Sim nails the seething pit of resentment, thwarted desire, hate and self loathing that boils away in the heart of a less than alpha male. There’s an Alice Donut album called ‘Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent’ that I think of whenever I remember Pud Withers. But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy towards him as Sim sketches in his background and childhood at the hands of a domineering mother. That’s another sign of the quality of characterisation at work here. In a medium that’s more readily associated with men in different primary coloured tights hitting each other, this is a work with endless shades of gray. No one is completely good, no one is completely bad. Even Jaka dances knowing she is endangering everyone else in her life. From one angle, that’s extreme selfishness. From another, it’s a compulsion, a need to create Art. There are clues to Dave’s take on this in the foreword, where he likens her dancing to his own work, trying to create something of quality in a field that is well below the critical radar. Later in that foreword, he says something along the lines of “I can’t see the fate that befell [Oscar Wilde] as anything other than Society vs The Artist”, and this is the core theme of the book for me, and another dimension to Jaka’s tragedy. What do you do when you are compelled to do something, but that something can land you and your loved ones in the direst of straits?