Reads, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

51bb55p3dklReads 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.

Women, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

women

It’s taken me a while to get to writing this one up, maybe because it’s the first volume of this reread that I’ve come away from with a slight feeling of disappointment. In memory it was really exciting, as the four main characters (Cerebus, Cirin, Astoria and Po) embark on individual courses that finally bring them to the great throne room, and the promise of confrontation and the Final Ascension. That does all happen, and the convergence in the final pages is expertly handled, but it’s only about the final twenty per cent or so of the book. Most of the rest is taken up with lengthy dream sequences. While this fits well with the Roach’s latest incarnation as a Sandman parody, such sequences have never been my favourite part of Cerebus. Of course, without the dreams we wouldn’t have as many wanking jokes – the bit where dream Cirin is chastising Swoon / the Roach is laugh out loud funny – so I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice.

As befits a book called Women, the main focus characters here are Astoria and Cirin. This is where Dave really expounds on their political movements. Throughout the book there are facing text pages from each’s manifesto, spelling out the Cirinist and Kevillist viewpoints on all kinds of subjects. Up to now we’ve seen Astoria as a very clever arch manipulator, but we’ve never really known what such manipulation was in aid of. It’s interesting to learn in and of itself, but it also indicates just how much effort Dave had put into the building of Estarcion, and how much work lies under the surface of the story, like an iceberg of fictional history and politics.

While it’s still brilliantly done (really, at this point I’m taking the fantastic art, lettering, dialogue, page construction, etc as a given, which is probably unfair), I don’t think there’s enough differentiation from Flight to merit it being a separate volume. The next two parts of Mothers & Daughters have very individual and distinct feel and this just doesn’t. Furthermore, it doesn’t do enough to advance the storyline – by the end, essentially all that’s happened is that some characters already in Iest have gone somewhere else in Iest. I wouldn’t be complaining if this had been substantially trimmed and rolled into Flight at the planning stage (although that would break the nice correspondence of the four volumes of M&D to the first four storylines).

So, as I say, a slight disappointment. It’s in no way bad, I just don’t think it sustains the achievements of the previous books as well as it could. Oh well, onwards to Reads. That’ll put the cat amongst the pigeons.

The usual random observations:

Astoria’s “go away” is exactly what Cerebus did to her in C&S, likewise just before an ascension. More recurrences and echoes.

I was also sure that this book had the reveal of exactly who the old woman in the cottage that Cerebus crashes into is, but I was wrong about that as well. Trust me, it’s worth waiting for. A comment of hers (“Trust me, all women read minds, with very few exceptions”) also contributes to the title – I just don’t think Dave could resist the idea of four consecutive spines spelling out Women Read(s) Minds(,) Guys(!).

Melmoth, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

198466(This review is slightly out of narrative order – to be clear, Melmoth fits between Jaka’s Story and Flight in the overall Cerebus narrative).

Throughout Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim had faced a barrage of complaints that there wasn’t enough Cerebus / action / advancement of the overall storyline / mystical woo (delete as appropriate). So, ever cognisant of the needs of his audience, he gave them twelve issues of Cerebus clutching Jaka’s doll and sitting almost catatonic outside a cafe while, up the hill, Oscar Wilde is slowly and painfully dying. That’s it. There are cameos for passing characters from Church & State while Cerebus is occasionally dusted, but Oscar’s death is the focus of this one. It’s told in the same text panel and image style as the “Daughter Of Palnu” extracts in Jaka’s Story, using actual letters from Robert Ross and Reginald Turner describing the last days of the real Oscar Wilde. The mood of the book is stately and sombre. It is a study of a man on the edge of the abyss, unflinching without being graphic or voyeuristic. As you might expect, it is dark and disturbing, with all the emotional heft a serious consideration of the subject deserves. That’s not to say there is no light relief. Mick and Keef are back for a few pages, and the Roach’s latest incarnation as normalroach is an hilarious study in repressed anger, but you won’t be closing this one with many chuckles.

Given that this story takes us up to the exact halfway point of the saga, it’s easy to draw comparisons with what we know about Cerebus’ death, which at this point Dave had been promising for several years would occur in the very last issue. In his final days, Oscar is far from alone, unmourned and unloved. A great deal of the emotional power of the book is in the sadness and confusion of Robbie and Reggie, and their helplessness in the face of the inevitable. With the text taken from other sources, Dave can concentrate on the art, which is just wonderful. The character sketches are superb, and Gerhard has upped his game even further on the backgrounds. For such a slow, small story, there is a real cinematic feel, a sense that the events on the street are being viewed through a camera which simply records what it sees, sometimes panning up and down the hill, from Dino’s Cafe to Oscar’s hotel and back. A powerful, haunting work.

This is, believe it or not, where I started reading Cerebus. Probably not the best jumping on point, but even with little knowledge of the background, the quality of the work was evident. It was autumn 1990, and I’d just started at Nottingham University. There was a basement in the Virgin Megastore with a comics concession in, and I eagerly fell on it, as exactly the sort of thing I’d been starved of growing up in the deep South West. After I’d been in a few times buying pretty much whatever DC put out with a Mature Readers tag, the bearded guy behind the counter said “you might like this”, and slipped a random issue of Jaka’s Story into my bag, explaining that the new storyline, Melmoth, was starting imminently. I read it, didn’t really understand what was going on, but liked what I saw, and started buying the monthly issues regularly. That was Mark Simpson. Over the next few years, he, and his co-worker Stephen Holland, introduced me to so many great comics. After that, Mark and Stephen went on to open Page 45, and blew me away with their vision of what a comic shop could and should be. I kept in touch once I’d left the East Midlands (Mark and Stephen both ended up coming along on my stag night), and I’ve bought my comics from them for quarter of a century now. Well, only Stephen for the last ten years or so. One night in 2005, Mark went to sleep and just didn’t wake up. As if this book wasn’t suffused enough with death, I’ll always associate it with Mark, just for that simple act of kindness (which, let’s face it, was also a pretty good business decision, as it led directly to me spending hundreds and hundreds of pounds on the rest of Cerebus). There’s a nice piece about him on the Page 45 website: http://www.page45.com/world/about/mark-simpson-1968-2005/ . Rest in peace.

My usual random observations

– Something that struck me this time is the sequence where Cerebus sees the chained Astoria in the middle of the road, and then seems to swap places with her again, as happened in C&S. This is a pivot, and it’s after this vision that he starts to (slowly!) emerge from his catatonia. It also seems to have affected things in the outside world – it’s after this, for instance, that the waitresses change, which I don’t think is otherwise explained or commented on. I’m not entirely sure what is going on with this swapping. Any ideas?

– those are some very pigeony pigeons.

– what an epilogue. After almost forty issues of Cerebus doing very little, this explosion into action kickstarts the second half. The next couple of books are Cerebus back in high gear, and it starts here.

– In the afterword, Dave talks about having to excise one of Oscar’s comments, as he could find no workable equivalent for “Jew” and didn’t want to face a deluge of mail questioning the existence of Judaism in ancient Estarcion. Just remember that when we get to Latter Days.

Flight, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

198468After three years of slow paced storylines exploring character without a tremendous amount of action, Flight virtually explodes off the page. For a short book there is an awful lot going on here. Cerebus’ bloody retribution from the Melmoth epilogue inspires a short lived uprising. The Roach becomes Punisherroach and mows down Cirinists until Elrod turns up and spoils everything. We see far more of the inner workings of Cirinism than we have before, and we learn just how obsessed Cirin herself is with planning her Ascension. Cerebus himself disappears out of the world and returns to the abstraction of Mind Game. Throughout it all the voices of anonymous townsfolk offer commentary and confusion. Cerebus’s reawakening has consequences far beyond his own person, a magnifying effect that we will learn more about in the rest of Mothers & Daughters. His return to action is mirrored in many tiny ways across Estarcion, all building the huge sense of rising action that runs through this one, until it finishes poised on the confrontation between Cirin and Astoria that slingshots us into the second part, Women.
Being only the first part of Mothers & Daughters, there’s no narrative resolution here, which makes it a bit harder to write about themes and subtext and so on, but there are a couple of things worth talking about. I’m pretty sure that part of the idea behind splitting M&D into four books was a conscious attempt to mirror the first four Cerebus storylines. It’s most explicit here in the parade of characters and settings from the first volume that reappear, but also in mood – this is the closest the series ever comes to the sword and sorcery adventures of the first book. Comparing the two shows just how far Dave’s talent has developed. The panelling is absolutely miles ahead of the first volume, and plays no small part in the freneticism of the story, and as I seem to say about every book, the art and character observation just gets better all the time. There are other little nods, like the return of the text captions narrating the action in the Pigt sections. (For the record, I reckon Women reflects High Society’s depiction of political intrigue and squabbling, Reads is an attempt at an origin story of the universe like Church & State and Minds is a sustained interrogation of one character as was Jaka’s Story. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read them…we shall see.)

My patented random observations:

This is the second time we’ve seen a depiction of Cerebus lose an ear. Hmm, I wonder if that’ll pay off in later books?

The Cirinist suppression of Cerebus’s reappearance is heartbreaking and chilling. And speaking of heartbreaking…poor Bishop Posey. At least he died happy, proving to us that the Oscar in Jaka’s Story was not the same Oscar in Melmoth.

As I said about Melmoth, this was when I was buying Cerebus issue by issue, and I can still vividly remember the thrill of realising exactly who and what Suenteus Po was. Just superb storytelling.

Jaka’s Story, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

0919359124On 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?

Church & State, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

198464Short 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.

High Society, by Dave Sim

198463I’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).