Cerebus: Church & State Volume 1

September 30th, 2014

If High Society had been ambitious, Church and State was going to be ridiculously so. While High Society‘s twenty-five issues had been the longest ongoing storyline in a comic up to that point, Church and State was, after two issues of palette-cleansing comedy runaround, fifty-nine issues long, totalling a little over 1200 pages. While it has been issued as two volumes in trade paperback, the first volume stops at an arbitrary point and the second volume continues the page numbering from the first — this is one big story, rather than a couple of merely long ones.

And really, this is High Society parts two and three, or at least so it seems at first — we will see as we go along that over the rest of Cerebus there are two types of storyline: those that continue the big story about the politics and religion of Estarcion (High Society, Church & State, the four volumes of Mothers and Daughters, Rick’s Story, Latter Days and The Last Day) and those which deal primarily with the Cerebus/Jaka relationship, or with tangential ideas about the real world that Sim wants to discuss (Jaka’s Story, Melmoth, Guys, Going Home, and Form & Void). The two are, of course, interwoven to an extent — Rick’s Story, for example, would make no sense at all without Jaka’s Story, while much of the framing narrative of Latter Days is made up of the same type of celebrity satire we see in Guys — but roughly speaking one can read the former set and get the big political story, while the latter set are much smaller in scale.

Later in the series, Sim will alternate these, but this early on he clearly just wants to get even bigger and more epic than he has before, and so as well as becoming Prime Minister again, Cerebus goes one step further and becomes Pope.

Pope Cerebus saying "That is not true! Tarim loves rich people! That's why he gives them so much money! Tarim loves strong people! That's why he gives them so much strength to beat everybody up! Tarim hates poor people, which is why they don't have any money!"

We will look at the story itself in a little while, but for now it’s important to step back and take one of our infrequent looks at what was going on behind the scenes. Early on in the run of Church & State — issue 55 — it was announced that Dave Sim and Deni Loubert (Sim’s wife, and the publisher of Cerebus) had split up. This was supposedly an amicable split, and Loubert continued being publisher for Aardvark-Vanaheim until issue 77, but the fact that two issues after the split Sim had Cerebus get stuck in an unwelcome marriage (to Red Sophia, the Red Sonja parody from the early issues) that he desperately wanted to find a way out of suggests that for Sim, at least, the split was not quite as amicable as they claimed at the time.

Similarly, after Loubert had announced she was leaving Aardvark-Vanaheim, but before she left forever, we got this:

But as one partnership ended, another was beginning. Starting with issue 65, Sim had an artistic collaborator — something that would become increasingly necessary as Sim took over all the functions of the publisher himself.

Gerhard (who is only known by that name, and has never made his surname publicly known) and Sim had an unusual relationship. Normally, when two artists work on the same comic page, one will “pencil” — drawing the full image in pencil — and then the other artist will “ink” — going over the pencil lines in ink, adding shade and depth. Many people assumed that when Gerhard joined Cerebus that this was how he and Sim were working, to the point that often Gerhard would get nominated for “best inker” awards.

In fact, what generally happened was that Sim would pencil and ink all the figures himself, and do all the lettering, while leaving the backgrounds to Gerhard — possibly another sign of the influence of animation on Sim’s work. While Sim would give Gerhard some idea of what needed to be in each panel, Gerhard was otherwise given complete artistic freedom with the backgrounds, just a Sim was with the figures.

The difference, once Gerhard is on board, is immediately noticeable. Gerhard is possibly the best artist in comics when it comes to realistic black-and-white line art. His meticulous cross-hatching gives Estarcion a weight and realism it had always previously lacked — this feels like a real place, not just a series of blank spaces with the occasional chair or desk dotted about. Gerhard would remain on the comic until the end, and over the years would ensure that no matter how strange the stories Sim was telling (and by the end they were very strange indeed) the comic always looked beautiful.

And working with Gerhard made Sim push himself to be better than he ever had before. The early volumes of Cerebus have art which is often functional at best. While Sim was often capable of truly great, if imitative, work, like the Eisneresque layouts of some of the early Roach pages, he was working on too tight a deadline to do consistently good work, and looking through High Society and the early issues of Church & State there are plenty of panels where the anatomy seems off, or someone’s nose seems badly positioned. By the later issues, this was no longer the case, and Sim had developed a wonderful art style of his own, equal parts Eisner, Mort Drucker, and Neal Adams, with grounded, recognisable figures that nonetheless had the grotesque, rubbery expressions of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Church and State is, for many people, the high-water mark of Cerebus. Certainly, it’s the point at which everything comes together perfectly for the first time. If we’re to compare Sim to the Beatles (a comparison he often uses himself), Church & State might be thought of as his Rubber Soul, the point at which Sim and Gerhard’s combined ability finally reached the point that they were capable of realising Sim’s artistic ambitions, but where they were still rooted enough in Sim’s early work that the fans of the “earlier, funny stuff” were still on board. (It’s also a point at which Sim’s unique and offputting politics had not yet become apparent, but more of that in eight essays’ time…)

Many of the series’ most memorable moments appear here — lines like “your other left, Most Holy”, “You can get what you want and still not be happy”, “something fell”, and others would remain not only the kind of lines that Cerebus fans quote the way Monty Python fans quote the parrot sketch, but in many cases would recur throughout the rest of the storyline, setting up resonances that only become apparent when looking at the whole storyline.

Of course, not everything is as meticulously planned as one might imagine when one sees these patterns occuring in the rest of the story; the character of Sir Gerrik, for example, is made much of in the early parts of Church and State, as a mystery which will be important later on, but this thread is pretty much dropped. Similarly, the Countess, who appears in this storyline for the first time, out of nowhere, with hints as to an important role in the grand scheme of things, but who never appears after Church and State finishes (possibly because Sim had a falling-out with her real-life basis, Aardvark-Vanaheim publishing assistant Karen McKiel). Sim clearly had a rough idea where he was going, but was also very consciously and obviously throwing out threads which could be picked up later if he had an idea — a lot of the apparent pre-planning of Cerebus seems to be an illusion created by later references back to throwaway lines.

But we’ve still not talked much about the storyline itself. As I said at the start, this is very much a continuation of High Society, seeing Cerebus reduced once again to poverty after having lost his role as Prime Minister of Iest. However, Cerebus’ prominence soon sees him rise to power once again, and this time he comes into conflict not just with the machinery of the state but, as the title would suggest, with the Church.

And this is where Sim’s technique of just throwing things in without pre-establishing them really comes into its own. Most of the details of the conflicting churches and polities are never made clear, but references to obscure aspects (the “exodus within” for example) lead us to assume that Sim knows all the details (in that particular case, he later explained the exodus in a chat with the Cerebus Yahoo! discussion group — as with many explanations, it was less interesting than what many people had created in their own heads).They also lead us to feel like this is the real world — when one picks up a newspaper today, one is not given an explanation as to the backgrounds of ISIL, or the situation in the Ukraine, or the theology of the Catholic church, or any other topic which may come up; one is rather just thrown in at the deep end and expected to make sense of it for oneself. In this way (if in few others) reading Cerebus is

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