Cerebus Ten Years On

March 31st, 2014

“What do you think he’ll do now, then?”
“Kill himself, I suppose”.

Those were the words I heard, between the man behind the counter who was ignoring me, and the customer leaning on that counter, when I went to Forbidden Planet ten years ago to purchase my first Cerebus trade, High Society, after reading good things about it in Neil Gaiman’s Adventures In The Dream Trade and… strange things about it on Andrew Rilstone’s website. I didn’t realise at the time, but they were talking about Dave Sim, the writer, artist, letterer, and publisher of the comic I was buying, who had just released the 300th and final issue of Cerebus, cover-dated March 2004.

That is the kind of coincidence upon which Sim, who is thankfully still alive and well, would build a whole cosmology. He’s not a man who believes in coincidence. It may, in fact, be the only thing in which he doesn’t believe.

There are only two opinions anyone holds about Sim’s magnum opus. Either they think it’s one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time, or they haven’t read it.

This is literally true. But it’s not as uncritical an endorsement as it may sound. Put simply, Cerebus is a work that does everything it can to put readers off, so the only people who’ve managed to get to the end of the story (which takes place over the whole three hundred issues) are those who are predisposed to like it.

There are many reasons for this. One is the sheer daunting size of the thing. It’s six thousand pages of comics, all telling a single story. That’s a *massive* work. That’s Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four, plus Sandman, plus Watchmen, plus Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, plus From Hell, plus all the Alec comics. It’s the length of every Judge Dredd strip in 2000AD up to about 1997. And it’s all the work of two men — Dave Sim doing pencils, inks, writing, lettering and publishing, with, for the last 225 issues, background artist Gerhard (who draws possibly the most exquisitely detailed photorealistic line art in comics history).

On the other hand, it’s less than six months’ current output of DC superhero titles. So, you know, it’s not that much more of a commitment than many comics fans are willing to make.

The second and third problems are really the same problem. It’s a man’s entire life’s work (Sim has since done 26 issues of Glamourpuss, a short work of graphic non-fiction called Judenhaas, a couple of jam strips and some covers for IDW, but Cerebus is what he devoted his life to), but it’s one story. Reading it is rather like being told one has to listen to all the Beatles’ records in order, from the very first recording of John singing Puttin’ On The Style at a village fete in 1957, through all the stuff on the Anthologies as well as the released records, through to Paul, George and Ringo recording I Me Mine in 1970. Fascinating, no doubt, but one would quickly want to just skip to Revolver and leave the recordings made in Paul’s room for another day.

The first few issues of Cerebus are painfully amateurish — they look like the kind of stuff that kid in your class at school who was quite good at drawing and really liked Dungeons & Dragons would draw, because that is to all intents and purposes what Sim was at that stage. But they’re part of the story and you’re meant to have paid attention, because Sim is going to expect you to *remember* in issue 151 that in issue 4 Cerebus picked up a gem but later dropped it into a sewer. So there’s a tendency to just bounce off before you get to the good stuff.

Then there’s the fact that no two Cerebus storylines are anything alike. It contains parodies of Spawn and Preacher, a potted biography of the Three Stooges, potshots against The Comics Journal, fantasy sequences with Woody Allen appearing in Bergman films, and a close, line by line, reading of the first five books of the King James Version of the Bible. And that’s all just in one of the sixteen books. If you like one aspect of Cerebus that’s no guarantee you’ll like the rest.

The way I recommend people approach Cerebus is one I got from Andrew Rilstone — start at the beginning, and keep reading until you hit two volumes in a row you don’t like. Once you hit two you dislike, you’ll probably not like any more. But if you just hit one, the next one might be different.

If you don’t like the love-triangle domestic drama you might like the non-fiction account of the last days of Oscar Wilde’s life. If you don’t like the barbarian story with a funny animal protagonist you might like the Marx Brothers pastiche political satire. If you don’t like the blokey comedy set in a bar where 60s pop icons mix with 90s indie comic characters, you might like the three-hander about the schizophrenic having religious visions. If you don’t like the vicious parody of Sandman you might like the long diatribe about how women are evil leech-like creatures who exist only to sap all the creativity from men and leave them hollow husks…

Ah.

Yes.

Here we get to the third, and biggest, obstacle to people wanting to read Cerebus. Sim himself.

The usual one-word summary of Sim is “misogynist”, but that’s not strictly true. He *was* a misogynist, for a while, in the early 90s, but his views are now far, far stranger than that. Put simply, he believes that all women, all LGBT people, anyone who holds any post-Enlightenment views whatsoever, people like Wahabist Muslims who hold the wrong *pre*-Enlightenment views, his parents, his sister, the Canadian government and press, the comic industry, atheists, liberals, socialists, and all major Christian denominations, are all, mostly consciously, working for an evil trans* demiurge called YooHWHoo, who lives in the centre of the earth and who caused the 2004 tsunami because she was angry that Sim had revealed the truth about this in his comic.

He also believes that he, and he alone, can see the true message in the Bible and Koran, from which he has created his own syncretic religion, and that women were psychically spying on him when he masturbated.

He is, in short, quite obviously mentally ill, and while that illness initially seemed to fixate on women, it has widened to encompass everyone in the world who isn’t named David Victor Sim.

(Oddly, Sim seems quite friendly with all these groups of people who he thinks are working for the most evil being in the universe. He’s said that other people’s immortal souls are their own business, and is quite happy to consort with the evil creativity-sucking infidels).

And this can definitely put people off from reading Cerebus — understandably so. Had I known about Sim’s views before starting to read it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. But I did, and ten years later it’s still one of those works that make up a large chunk of my mental architecture, whether in little ways like additions to my stock of phrases (“your other left, most holy”, “you can get what you want and still not be happy”, “Capostrophe! Calumnity! Catachresisclysm!”, “”One less mouth to feed is one less mouth to feed”, “Mind your manners, son! I’ve got a tall pointy hat! Status, boy! You can argue with me, but you can’t argue with status!”) or in larger ways (I can honestly say that reading Jaka’s Story did more to make me something approaching an emotionally mature adult than any single other experience I’ve ever had).

So over the next few months, I’m going to look at each volume in turn, and try to persuade you of the opinion I hold, the one that everyone who’s read the whole of Cerebus holds. On the way, we’ll take a lot of digressions — we’ll talk about comic creators’ rights, the black and white boom of the 80s, 1930s comedians, an unfinished Beach Boys album, Warner Brothers cartoons, Philip K Dick and more.

Or at least, that’s the plan. No plan survives contact with the enemy. After all, when Dave Sim got the plan for the 300-issue Cerebus story, he was a self-described atheist feminist. But then, as Suenteus Po said, “The more worthwhile the Road, the more seductive will be those paths divergent from it.”

24 Responses to “Cerebus Ten Years On”

  1. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Very much looking forward to this. I’ve read High Society, but tbh I was probably too young to do it justice. I’m sure your essays will be as illuminating and erudite as ever without shying away from the problematic elements of Sim’s work.

    I thought Glamourpuss was astonishing – genuinely beguiling and befuddling, sometimes genuinely amazing, and always beautiful to look at. A total curio.

  2. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Oh, I *loved* Glamourpuss, and I’m backing the completed Strange Death Of Alex Raymond that Sim’s now doing.
    I think for you, the Cerebus stuff you’d like most would be either Jaka’s Story (the best single standalone graphic novel in the series) or Latter Days (possibly the worst in terms of normal storytelling, but *massively* formally inventive).
    High Society isn’t as great as its reputation, simply because it’s more than thirty years old and the bar has been raised since then, but it’s still well worth reading and rereading.

  3. Aaron Poehler Says:

    “There are only two opinions anyone holds about Sim’s magnum opus. Either they think it’s one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time, or they haven’t read it.”

    You do neither Sim nor yourself any favor by overstating the case. I’ve read the entire run including back matter, and I don’t think Cerebus stands among the greatest artistic achievements of all time. Is it worth reading and examining? Yes. But no, it’s not in the top 100 of artistic works I’ve encountered during my brief life, let alone everyone’s.

    Sim, for all his faults, seems dedicated to what he believes to be truth. Don’t blind yourself to reality in your fervor for his work. Cerebus is a massive but massively flawed book taken as a whole, and there is no consensus among those who’ve read it outside your apparently small circle of like minded devotees.

  4. Illogical Volume Says:

    Aaron – Actually, would you believe that Andrew has a lovely, wide circle? I can provide you with links and pictures if you like?

    He has so far proved his mother wrong by failing to go blind through self-abuse (i.e. reading all of Cerebus), and he also manages the magical task of not being a dick on the internet, which is apparently harder than it might seem.

    Feel free to disagree with the man, but you know, maybe try not to come on all hoity toity next time, eh?

    (D)Andrew – I’ve only read the first volume of Cerebus, which didn’t do much of anything for me despite some spirited commentary from David Fiore. I could see Sim the caroonst improving between every issue, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep me going.

    I might try to read along with you this time though, because Glamourpuss was one of the most unusually compelling comics I’ve ever read, and given smart folk like you, Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, David Fiore and Bobsy all think there’s something in this Cerebus lark, I probably owe it to myself give it a proper go.

    Whether I come away thinking it’s one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time, of course, remains to be seen…

  5. Illogical Volume Says:

    I’m a dick on the internet though, obviously.

  6. Bastard Tweed Says:

    As to the dichotomizing of all people in the world in regards to Cerebus, I rather took it as mildly humorous hyperbole on the work’s brilliance and madness. In essence, my noggin immediately translated the statement as, “Ye gods, how could you have the will to finish such a monster if you DIDN’T think it was one of the greatest etceteras in the history of so-forth?”

    But, there again, I don’t really understand people who don’t love Pynchon yet finished Gravity’s Rainbow, and that baby’s nowhere near as daunting. A failure of the imagination on my part, I suppose.

  7. David Roel Says:

    What counts as having read “all” of Cerebus? *All*? Even the Torah commentary? Every page of the Torah commentary? Every sentence of the Torah commentary? Sim has said that anyone who skipped that, skimmed through that, hasn’t read *all* of Cerebus. I admit I haven’t read *all* of that, so, according to Sim, I haven’t read *all* of Cerebus. I’ve read the rest, though, and I don’t think it’s one of the greatest works of all time.

  8. Allen Rubinstein Says:

    I was well known around the TCJ parts as someone well plugged into Cerebus – had one of the lengthy letters published by Comics Journal that Sim later responded to with his usual level of writing skill and sophist nonsense. Cerebus contains some of the best comics I’ve ever read in my life. It also contains some of the worst comics I’ve ever read in my life. The thing is just this enormous pile of stuff – a titanic achievement of dubious value by a very prolific, visionary, insanely-talented crank. That’s the real crime of it all; nobody, but nobody does cartooning the way he does, before or since. He’s unmatched as a craftsman and pioneer of comics technique. The artistic community could have pulled up a chair to the master and benefited in ways unimaginable if he wasn’t also utterly unbearable. I wouldn’t touch Judenhaas or Glamourpuss. After reading his book for fourteen fucking years, I had had enough of the mind of Dave Sim to last me a lifetime.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go work on perfecting my human-animal hybrids.

  9. Allen Rubinstein Says:

    By the by, I don’t know about causing the tsunami (Gerhard himself calling Sim, “The most paranoid person I ever met”), but I’m pretty sure the YooWhoo name was supposed to be a joke.

  10. Whittso Says:

    Brilliant. I’m really looking forward to this. Cerebus is such a mix of sublime genius and school boy humour, curdling into paranoia and anger and naked meanspiritedness. I started reading it the same time I started reading a lot of vertigo and a lot of indie comics when I was at school. I moved to university and a lot of the other comics gradually fell away, but something kept me on Cerebus right to the end. And I’m glad I did… even thought the last book was a painful slog, the final scene had a kind of mad gold to it.

  11. Andrew Hickey Says:

    David R, yes, I’m referring to actually reading every word of the thing, including the Torah commentary, Sim’s “theory of everything”, the lot, no matter how tedious.

    Allen, YooHWHoo was meant to be a joke at first. Like so many of Sim’s jokes, he quickly decided it was the truth. Certainly he uses the name in an apparently-unjoking manner in his Collected Letters Vol 1 and (I think) some issues of Following Cerebus.

    Bastard — yes, that’s right. Apparently Mr. Poehler has a tediously literalistic manner of reading. Who would have thought it of someone who’s read all of Cerebus?

  12. Tam Says:

    Cerebus is hugely influential and, once you get past the first volume, the next 200 episodes are always pretty good and occasionally great. I haven’t read the end run so I’m looking forward to see what you have to say about it.

    The way people refuse to read him for his personal views probably says more about how parochial comic readers are than anything else. There are plenty of great books written by people who were probably arseholes which are still worth reading unless the readers fear they’re too feeble minded to resist being seduced by the author’s opinions.

    You’re dead right about most people who read the entire series thinking it’s one of the best things ever. My theory is this is the same principle that counts for the enduring popularity of ‘War and Peace’, it takes most people so long to read it that no one wants to admit they’re wasted so much time reading what’s basically a middlebrow soap opera (interspersed with long tedious passages in which Tolstoy explains why Tolstoy is cleverer than Napoleon). Although to be fair, Cerebus is much better than that and Sim’s not quite such a misogynist as Tolstoy…

  13. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Tam, I think that’s part of it, but there’s also the fact that when it was being published as floppies, you weren’t just buying the comic, you were buying the backmatter, which had stuff like Tangent and Mummy’s Boys and Islam, My Islam in there. I can *definitely* see people not wanting to read — or to support — stuff like that.

    The problem is that that spilled over to the work itself, which has far less of that kind of simple-minded hateful ranting (although it’s not absent from it). It’s given the comics a reputation of being like misogynist Chick tracts…

  14. Tom W Says:

    Man I am bones excited about this project. There probably isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about Cerebus, the vast confused puzzle that it is, and certainly I’ve thought about writing something who it but been intimidated by the sheer breadth of it. Every book requires so much commentary, so much explaining of where Cerebus was at and where Dave was at and where the comics industry was at. It crazes my head to contemplate it. So I’m very glad someone else is doing it.

  15. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Tom, I’m sure I won’t even scrape the surface, even though I’m planning on doing… ooh, let’s say, four thousand words or so for each phonebook. That is, of course, about the same amount of words I used for each storyline in Seven Soldiers — and those were four-issue stories, and fairly obvious superhero ones, while the phonebooks are often twenty-six or more issues long. It’s an absolutely ludicrous project, but I’m going to attempt it because I have *so much to say* about this…

  16. Hollow Spectacular Says:

    Is there anywhere that the phonebooks can be bought reliably and affordably? Cerebus is something that I’m very interested in, but it’s awfully expensive for something that I know I’m going to loathe in places (and adore in others, I’d expect).

    In the meantime, I’m definitely looking forward to experiencing it vicariously through Andrew’s writing.

  17. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I’m afraid they are the price they are — basically they’re done in fairly small print runs, by an independent publisher, and they’re *big* (they’re called phonebooks because nine of the sixteen run to considerably more than five hundred pages, and even the others are far longer than most graphic novels).

    If it helps, though, Sim has said that he has no real problem with people who can’t afford the phonebooks torrenting them, reasoning that if they like them they’ll buy something from him in the future. (Sim has a very lax attitude towards intellectual property law generally).

  18. Tam Says:

    If you’re anywhere near South London and you’re quick then you can probably still find the two volumes of church and state for a pound each in the trinity hospice charity shop…

  19. Tam Says:

    (in Streatham)

  20. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Sadly, if Hollow Spectacular is the person who uses the same name elsewhere, as I assume, he’s in the US. However, for anyone who *is* near Streatham that’s probably the best deal you’ll ever get on reading material in your life…

  21. Hollow Spectacular Says:

    I’m the same person (as far as I know, anyway), but I’m definitely not in the US. Though at the wrong end of the UK to pop down to South London, sadly. I’ll keep an eye out in charity shops anyway, though.

    I considered torrenting, and apparently official digital versions of the first two books seem to be available at cerebusdownloads.com, but with something like Cerebus where the art is a lot of the point, I’d quite like to read them in something resembling the original format. That might be more of a long term goal, it looks like.

    Thanks, all!

  22. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Then I am very confused as to why I was convinced you were in the US. My apologies.

    The art only really becomes much of the point half-way through Church & State, when Gerhard joins in — digital versions are more than adequate for the first two volumes.

  23. Christopher M Says:

    Count me as yet another actual person who read all of Cerebus and would never say it was “one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time.” There seems to be this assumption on the part of many of Sim’s fans that Sim should just kind of get a gold star for just finishing this massive brick of a comic at all – a sort of Perfect Attendance Prize for art. “He did write and draw all of that stuff, every month, for thirty years, even if there’s a bunch of it that’s just him scratching all over the pages like the serial killer in Seven. Surely that must earn him a Greatness or two out of sheer tedious effort, right?” (In fact, the length is part of the appeal, and part of the mystique, of Cerebus at this point – try to find a review of it that doesn’t mention its length, or the time it took Sim to write the fucking thing!)

    And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of raw talent on display in Cerebus. The problem is, there’s a lot – a lot – of really bad storytelling, too. Not just Sim being experimental; not just Sim being “offputting”; let’s even put aside Sim’s utterly odious, borderline fascist politics – because after all, who wants to muck up our beautiful pretty comics with politics? – and talk about the fact that as a story, Cerebus starts to lose interest in its own protagonist a little over two-thirds of the way through its course… and indeed, starts to lose interest in itself, to the point where Sim starts grabbing at any other passing narrative with any other characters – Hemingway! the Fitzgeralds! Mick Jagger! the Three Stooges! – to distract himself from having to finish the massive project to which he has committed himself, and with which he seems increasingly bored.

    The effect of all of this is that at some point the narrative starts repeatedly derailing itself, often for the benefit of increasingly spastic, increasingly random pop culture references (a friend of mine, being unfairly glib but still making a bit of a point, once described Cerebus as “the thinking man’s Family Guy.”)

    Is Cerebus a fascinating read? Most of the time, yes. Is it very well-drawn? Absolutely. Did Sim do lots of neat things with lettering? Sure. It is also, by any reasonable standard, an incredible fucking mess: tediously unreadable for huge stretches, wildly uneven for others, its best moments sometimes mixed in with the worst drivel imaginable. You could almost call it… schizophrenic! Those who finish Cerebus will tend to be either the die-hard fans or the unhealthily stubborn (that would be me).

  24. bobsy Says:

    I haven’t read all of it but am happy to say from the evidence of what I have read that Cerebus is very high up there among the finest/bestest/favest examples of the funnycomicbooks medium. This obvs puts it in as a contender for best anything of the C20th, so yeah.

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