Cerebus: Church & State Vol II

December 17th, 2014

like reading a newspaper, and it feels like getting reports from a real other world, one which has its own history, politics, and theology.

In later storylines, this distinction between Estarcion and the real world is broken down, to the point that one book is almost entirely given over to a discussion of the Bible, and Sim seems to believe, at least somewhat, that he was writing the prehistory of our own world — but so did Tolkien, and while Sim’s fictional world is nowhere near as fully thought-out as Tolkien’s, it was, for a while, possible to believe that it was, if only in Sim’s mind.

But Sim had a rather different purpose in mind than creating a secondary world fantasy. He wanted to build a stairway to heaven.

Sim had several goals in creating Cerebus, and he has often said things which seem contradictory about his motives, but one thing that seems to be the case is that Cerebus is about Sim’s own search for truth — a truth he now, of course, believes it led him to. To put it as simply as possible, Sim believed that if he spent twenty-six years trying to create a single, coherent, work of art, without ever going back and revising it, and if he put in every idea he had, and made it as honest as possible, that process would lead him to “the truth”.

As he told Tom Spurgeon in 1996:

What I’m trying to do is through the act of creativity to try and understand and try and develop some level of understanding of what is that big thing up there: the cosmic muffin, God, the Life Force, whatever you want to call it. I spent a number of years trying to be hot on its trail or if it’s just a weird little voice in my head or what it is. But that’s what I was dealing with in the climax of Church & State and Mothers & Daughters.

As is often the case with Sim, the means he used to do this were inspired by 70s guitar-rock, but later took on religious connotations. In a discussion with a Cerebus mailing list, he later said the idea came from “I’m pretty sure, referencing Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. The idea of heaven being “up there” and there being a stairway or a means of ascending into heaven, whether it’s Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel or Muhammad’s Night Journey”.

What Sim did was to have Cerebus structured so that at, very roughly, the 100-issue, 200-issue, and 300-issue points (to within a year or so either way) Cerebus would make some kind of ascension into the heavens, in which he would be presented with the truth — or at least a version of it. There would be two trial runs, and then at the end there would be the real thing…whatever that was.

When Cerebus ascends this time, after a brief crossover with Flaming Carrot, he meets a character called The Judge, based on a combination of the judge in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders and the Watcher in Jack Kirby’s comics (Marvel comics were still, like 70s guitar rock, a big part of Sim’s mental universe — much of the civil war in the middle parts of Church & State was presented as The Sacred Secret Wars), who tells him the history of the universe — or a history of the universe, at least.

In this history, the universe begins in an act of rape.

Sim these days presents this as a “feminist” reading — claiming that at the point he conceived this idea he was an ultra-feminist — but it’s notable that the biggest controversy in the series to this point had come from a scene in which Cerebus himself commits rape, earlier in Church & State. Please note before we go on, though, that this was not presented as anything other than utterly wrong; Cerebus also, in the same storyline, commits mass murder and is seen on panel killing a baby. Cerebus is the series’ protagonist, but he is not in any sense a hero.

But still, there it is: at this point, well before Sim’s public image becomes “Dave Sim the crazy misogynist”, he has the universe created in an act of rape — and in what reads suspiciously like a rape joke, in that the rape in question was the “big bang”, although the scene is presented as one of horror. Tarim, the male god in the cosmology expounded by the Judge, is a void who wants to join with the female light of Terim, the godess. He forces himself into her, and she explodes, becoming the stars and planets, while he’s the space between them. And like any rapist, Tarim blames his victim. And he’s discovered that the universe is contracting, and one day Terim will be whole again, and as the Judge puts it “Part of the void plots their reunion…part of the void…plots his revenge.”

The message of Church & State — well, one of the many messages, as we’re talking about the culmination of ten years’ worth of storyline, and a story that itself lasted nearly five years — seems to be that men are destructive. If Cerebus is to be taken as male — and for the moment there’s no reason to think he’s not — then we see in both microcosm and macrocosm that women are creative, nurturing, forces, and men walking libidos who want to destroy anything beautiful that they cannot possess.

The Judge goes on to outline the future — or at least a possible future (because while the Judge presents himself as omniscient, this is undercut even by his own dialogue). Cerebus will only live a few more years. He will never conquer any more of the world than he has now. And he will die alone, unloved, and unmourned. In six thousand years’ time, men will visit the part of the moon where the Judge is standing, “penetrat[ing] into her corpse with metal bundles”. The Judge goes on to describe the “desecration of her corpse” by “male-dominated civilisation at its apex”, the Challenger disaster, the Star Wars missile defence programme, and then…

Church & State is about as bleak a vision, in the end, as it’s possible to get. It’s no wonder that Sim later rejected pretty much every element of this worldview, while keeping enough of the outline to create artistic parallels. Those who know Sim’s later theological views can already see, here, the first draft of what he now believes to be the truth about the universe.

But this is to put too much emphasis on the ending — which is, of course, not really an ending, since there would be another 189 issues to come out after the Judge’s five-issue speech. Church & State is as much about the journey as the destination — the plotting between factions (which we will deal with in much more detail when we return to that storyline for the four-book Mothers & Daughters story), the parodies of comic characters (the Wolveroach) and real people (Prince Keef and Prince Mick), and in particular the individual scenes, such as Cerebus, in his role as Pope, condemning his former mentor Weishaupt to hell.

Church & State is the story where Sim and Gerhard’s combined ability finally reaches Sim’s ambitions. In later storylines, it would exceed it, but by Cerebus #111, Sim and Gerhard were, quite simply, the greatest creative team ever to work in comics.

And Church & State is also the last point at which critical opinion on Cerebus is pretty much unanimous. After this we have two books which are, to my mind, the comic’s highpoint, and indeed possibly the highpoint of comics as an artform, but which divided fans, who wanted more political infighting in Estarcion. And when the Estarcion politicking came back, there were…other problems.

But here, in Church & State, we have what is possibly the Platonic ideal of a Cerebus comic — beautifully done, funny, mind-expanding, and with gender politics just dodgy enough to leave a nasty aftertaste knowing what’s coming later, but not bad enough to spoil the comic altogether. Sim and Gerhard would do better, but this was their first masterpiece.

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