Cerebus is possibly the most daunting work in the whole history of art. This is not an exaggeration.
In every other field of art, other than comics, an artist works on different projects over the course of her career. James Joyce starts with the relatively straightforward short stories of Dubliners, progressess to the modernist-realism of Ulysses and ends up in the impenetrable brilliance of Finnegans Wake. Duke Ellington starts out with the ‘jungle music’ of the Cotton Club era, progressing to the lush big bands of the forties and then to his sacred concerts. The Beach Boys start with Surfin’ Safari, go on to the experimental work like Pet Sounds and Smile, then mature albums like Holland or Love You, before the dreck of Summer In Paradise. The Marx Brothers start with the poor The Cocoanuts, go on to the sublime Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers and end with Love Happy.
With few exceptions, then, one can pick and choose an artist’s best work, from the period of her life when she is at her most creative, and analyse that more-or-less in isolation. Even in comics, even when one writer or artist has stayed with a title or strip for decades, usually that is still not one single work. When Charles Schulz drew a strip with Lucy taking the ball away when Charlie Brown tried to kick it in the 1970s, we weren’t meant to see that as the 220th (or whatever) time that had happened to the same people — the characters didn’t grow in any meaningful way, and there was no expectation that a reader in 1975 had been reading in 1960 or would still be reading in 1990.
Similarly, reading Jerry Siegel’s 1960s Superman scripts, they bear little or no relation to the scripts he wrote in the 1930s for the same character, and one is not expected to have read the earlier work to understand the later.
But Cerebus is one man’s life’s work. We see, in the pages of this one comic, twenty-seven years of a man’s life and work, in order. And it’s all one coherent story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. There are some parts of it that almost work as stand-alone ‘graphic novels’ in the conventional sense, but in general it makes absolutely no concessions to the fact that it is a serialised work released over multiple decades. If Sir Gerrick is mentioned in issue 54, in September 1983, then when he’s mentioned again in issue 163, nine years later, you’re just damned well meant to remember which one he is. Haven’t you been paying attention?
So even without all the other things that make this work so difficult (its complexity, its length, Sim’s views, the difficulty of obtaining the books through bookshops) there is the major barrier of Sim’s learning curve to overcome. It’s no wonder this series is read so little these days — nobody would be listening to the Beatles if the only way to hear Strawberry Fields was first to listen all the way through all John Lennon’s attempts to teach himself the guitar. In the same way, no matter how sublime Jaka’s Story is (and it is easily the best ‘graphic novel’ I have ever read in my life), most people who would enjoy it will never get to it.
Sim’s early work, collected in the first volume of the series, simply titled Cerebus, is at a double disadvantage because he had no peers. At the time there were only a very small number of comics published in the US (Sim is Canadian, but has always been part of the American comics scene). There were the comics made by DC and Marvel, which had a certain minimal level of professionalism, there were the underground comics, which were dying off, and a handful of ‘ground-level’ comics, which were mostly people working for DC or Marvel trying to make comics that were a bit like the underground comics.
The only other people self-publishing a comic aimed at the same audience as the superhero comics (which Cerebus definitely was, at the beginning) at the time were Wendy and Richard Pini, with their series Elfquest. Otherwise, Sim was pretty much alone, and the field of indie comics was built on his work in more ways than a lot of the people involved would now acknowledge.
This had advantages and disadvantages. At the time, it was an advantage — it was perfectly possible at the time for someone to buy every comic that came out. DC and Marvel between them, in the month that Cerebus #1 was issued, put out 85 comics. This may seem a lot, but in March 2012, the same two companies put out 154 comics, and that’s not counting the publications by Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Dynamite and so on competing for the same shelf space.
Something as amateurish as the first few issues of Cerebus, then, would be bought in 1977 just because it was a comic. Without that lack of competition, it is doubtful that Cerebus would have lasted more than a couple of issues.
On the other hand, it means there’s no peer group against which to compare this early work. Later self-publishers wanted to be Frank Miller or Alan Moore (or Sim himself — the early issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are an attempt to cross Sim’s early style with that of Miller), and there’s no real context of amateurish comics attempting to be like Barry Windsor-Smith or Steve Gerber that this work can be judged against.
Because make no mistake, much of the first volume of Cerebus is amateurish. It’s the record of a bright high school dropout stoner trying to integrate all the influences that an intelligent misfit would have when growing up in the mid-1970s (the Beatles, the Marx Brothers, Warner Brothers cartoons, Robert Anton Wilson, Harvey Kurtzmann, but especially Marvel comics and especially those written by Gerber or drawn by Windsor-Smith), and its main point of interest is seeing Sim’s style coming together, as he figures out ways to make these influences work together. If nothing else, it’s a testament to the power of hard work — start out with work that looks like the work of that kid in your class at school who could draw a bit, and do a page a day every day, and within a couple of years you’ll be pretty good (and within a couple of decades you’ll be the greatest creative force ever to have worked in your medium).
Even at the end, this doesn’t feel like the work of Dave Sim, but like a fill-in issue of Howard The Duck. But we do have the introduction of two of Sim’s greatest comic creations, Elrod of Melvinbone (who is simply Michael Moorcock’s Elric but with his speech patterns and whole lines of dialogue lifted from Foghorn Leghorn) and The Roach (a superhero parody character we’ll be looking at in much more detail in future). There’s also the first “Mind Game” issue, a great formal game with the comic book page of a type that few if any comics creators would dare to do. But if this was the only record of Sim’s work, he’d be a minor figure at best.
But early in the run of Cerebus, Dave Sim had a vision. He saw a rough structure of a 300-issue story, and he decided he was going to do it. After this juvenilia, he started a twenty-six issue story, which would still be one of the shorter stories he would do from this point on. We will deal with it, in a much longer post than this one, next week.
Partly because it’s taken me *much* longer to get the next Cerebus piece up than I’d hoped (either tonight or tomorrow, even if I have to spend the entire time glued to the keyboard), and partly because at least one person I know has started reading Cerebus recently and is deeply unimpressed with the first volume, here’s a little bonus – ten of the best moments from the series, to show it does get better…
I’m missing some of my favourites out here, like the whole prayer sequence (“Cerebus is a bad flyspeck!”) because the pacing of the series tends to mean a ‘moment’ can be ten or fifteen pages. Likewise, scenes like Jaka’s conversation in prison only have resonance because of everything that’s been built up in the story previously. But here’s some of the sequences that last three pages or fewer…
All character art, script and lettering Dave Sim. Background art Gerhard
Cerebus – the full three hundred issue story – is, if not the greatest art-work of the twentieth century, at least a strong contender for that role.
That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not intended to be. And it’s not a statement made through ignorance. Place it up against any of the obvious contenders – Ulysses, The Rite Of Spring, Citizen Kane, King Kong, Revolver, Rhapsody In Blue, The Wasteland, Pet Sounds – any work of high or low culture, any revolutionary piece that overturned ways of thinking or any culmination of centuries’ worth of art – and I guarantee that it will match them for technical skill, for formal innovation, for emotional depth, for the number of ideas in there, and also for entertainment value. There are pieces of art I prefer to Cerebus, but I honestly can’t think of any that I can say are better.
But while Cerebus is a great work, it’s also a great body of work. From 1977 to 2004 – a period longer than, for example, the whole run of the original series of Doctor Who, a period that spanned punk at one end and the invasion of Iraq at the other – Dave Sim (and, from 1984 on, Gerhard, who drew the backgrounds), wrote, drew, lettered and published an average of five pages a day of a single story.
I can’t think of another example in history where that’s been the case, where an artist has made a single work the whole of their professional life. A few examples come close – Charles Schulz, for example, drew Peanuts for forty-nine years – but Peanuts isn’t a continuing narrative. You can read any of the strips in any order and be at no disadvantage. On the other hand, if you were to pick up (to pick an issue at random) Cerebus #273, you’d see an aardvark who thinks he’s a superpowered rabbi trying and failing to detach his foreskin, jumping and breaking his leg, then 16 pages of white lettering on a black background with no other pictures. We won’t even get into the essay at the back…
There’s something magnificent in this, the sheer chutzpah of deciding aged twenty-one what you’re going to be doing aged forty-eight and sticking to the plan, of sitting down every day for twenty-seven years and drawing one more page in the same story. As someone who merely said he was going to do a blog post about Cerebus every week – and is two weeks behind on the second one – that’s a level of discipline I find hard to comprehend.
But it means that all Sim’s ideas, all his obsessions, everything in his life entered the same story. As someone, I forget who, put it, Sim’s achievement is roughly equivalent to Alan Moore – if Moore had drawn, as well as written, Watchmen,From Hell, Promethea, Swamp Thing, Lost Girls, Marvelman, A Disease Of Language and A Small Killing – and if every one of those stories had been part of one larger story starring Maxwell The Magic Cat.
But of course, this also means that the beginning of the story is a bit of a slog (and that I’ll have less to say about this volume than about later ones). Sim started out as a 21-year-old with little obvious talent. The first few issues of Cerebus are very obviously in thrall to two creators. As an artist, Sim desperately wants to be Barry Windsor-Smith, while as a writer he clearly admires Steve Gerber. You could have worse models, of course, but it leads to the first few issues being like this:
These first few issues are essentially just Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics, but with the title character replaced by an aardvark, with ‘hilarious’ consequences.
But what’s fascinating about this first volume is just how quickly Sim grows as an artist and writer, and how soon he starts pushing the boundaries of what’s doable in comics. By issue twenty (of the twenty-five included in this volume) we get this:
Read page by page, the grey and black areas represented different states of consciousness in which Cerebus, drugged by a kidnapper, talks alternately with that kidnapper and a telepathic communication from elsewhere, but the comic as a whole made the image above. When Alan Moore and J.H. Williams did the same thing thirty years later it was praised as wildly innovative, but Sim not only did it first, but had it make more in-story sense and had form and function fit better.
Over the course of this ‘phonebook’ (as the trade paperbacks of Cerebus are referred to – they’re often over 500 pages long, and printed on cheap newsprint, much like the Marvel Essential or DC Showcase series. Among the many things in the comic industry Sim pioneered was the now-standard practice of keeping everything in print permanently in trade paperbacks) one can see Sim shake off the influence of Barry Windsor-Smith and start trying on a variety of different styles. My particular favourite in this one is this Eisner-inspired panel from issue 11:
But he was still definitely learning at this point, and also struggling with keeping to a regular schedule – one can often see the linework getting sloppier towards the end of an issue as he rushes to complete it by the deadline. At this time as well, Sim was still obviously having difficulty integrating the cartoony Cerebus into the more ‘realistic’ world he was creating:
From very early on, though, we start seeing the characters who will form the supporting cast for the first 200 of Cerebus’ 300 issues. In issue three we get Red Sophia, an airheaded parody of Robert E Howard’s ‘female Conan’ Red Sonja:
Issue four gives us Sim’s first really inspired creation, Elrod of Melvinbone. The albino last ruler of a dying race, with his black sword Seersucker, Elrod is Moorcock’s Elric in body, but with the vocal mannerisms of Foghorn Leghorn. Looney Tunes cartoons would be one of the main inspirations for this early phase of Sim’s work:
Issue six brings us Jaka, a dancer who Cerebus is drugged into loving and then forgets – for now. Their romance becomes one of the major driving forces of the story:
There’s also the Cockroach – a mentally unstable man who takes on various guises throughout the series – The Cockroach, Captain Cockroach, Moon Roach, Wolveroach and so on – in a parody of the superhero genre that clearly (ahem) ‘inspired’ The Tick a few years later:
And we have the first of the real-life figures (of sorts) to make his way into the story, in the person of Lord Julius, the rather familiar-seeming ruler of Palnu, who rules by instilling so much confusion in the bureaucracy that he’s the only one who understands the system:
While introducing these characters, in stories that are mostly one-off stories (with the occasional two- or three-parter) parodying other comics (we have Professor Charles X Claremont’s School For Girls and the first meeting of Sump Thing and Woman Thing, for example) Sim slowly sets up the background against which the first two hundred of his three hundred issues will be played. Lord Julius is ruling the city-state of Palnu and is the most important political figure at the moment. ‘President Weisshaupt’ (a George Washington lookalike – a reference to the conspiracy theory that Adam Weisshaupt, head of the Illuminati, replaced Washington) is trying to take over the United Feldwar States.
There are various tribes of barbarians to the North, and there are at least three other groups – the Cirinists, a group who at this point seem like nuns, whose ‘only goal is to wipe out fun in our lifetime’, who worship the goddess Terim (rather than the god Tarim, worshipped by Cerebus), and whose holy book is called “The New Matriarchy”, the Illusionists, led by Suenteus Po, who at this point seem to be hippies-cum-Buddhists, who mostly just want to smoke dope and be left alone, and the Kevilists, about whom we’re only told they exist.
The power struggle between these different groups will power the main plotlines for Cerebus’ first eighteen years or so, but we also have some of the themes that will come up over and over again cropping up here. Two separate groups (the Pigts, led by Bran Mak Muffin, and the Cirinists) decide they want to worship Cerebus as the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. We have several oppositions between male and female (and a third, neutral, force) from Cerebus’ fight with Red Sophia through to the meeting of Sump Thing and Woman Thing. And we already have the sense that Cerebus is very important to all the groups and individuals who are jostling for supreme power, and that political and religious power are closer in this world than in ours.
Cerebus gives little clue as to just how great a cartoonist Dave Sim was soon to become, but of its twenty-five issues, maybe ten of them are at least as good as anything of its time. Had Sim given up after these issues (and had the rest of comics continued on the same course – an incredibly unlikely event, as for all that Sim has been airbrushed out of comics history he was probably the single most influential creator of the 80s) Cerebus would be remembered now as a pretty good Howard The Duck knock-off with a few funny gags and some nice ideas.
But it got much, much better quickly.
Next week (honestly, I promise) High Society
I am planning, over the next few weeks, to review the whole of Cerebus on here, roughly one post per ‘phonebook’ (some of the more interesting ones may take two posts, and I may do supplementary posts on subjects like the Marx Brothers, Oscar Wilde, Rick Veitch’s dream comics, Eddie Campbell’s Alec stories and other things which have clearly influenced the series).
I am doing this because I believe one can and should separate the wonderful work itself from the views of the creator. If it’s acceptable for me to say that Bernard Shaw is one of my favourite playwrights, despite his vociferous support for Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, then surely it is possible at least to take Sim & Gerhard’s work as a thing in itself, separate from the noxious views of (one of) the creator(s).
Except that it’s not quite that simple, is it? Because Dave Sim clearly thinks differently to other people, and that difference in thought informs his writing, and is quite possibly one of the things that make his work more interesting.
Simply put, anyone who says something like:
I think YHWH’s contribution back in the early sixties was Peter, Paul and Mary. I mean it is a way of looking at Christianity, seeing Peter, Paul and Mary a the three cornerstones after Jesus. Of course, being YHWH her point was; if you have Peter, Paul and Mary what do you need Jesus for? I think that amused God a great deal — to the extent that he countered with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Paul of course, was actually James: James Paul McCartney. SO John and James were the leaders of the band, like the sons of Zebedee, John and James, the brothers Boanerges, the sons of thunder…
So it was a good joke that on the cusp of being famous John and James had ditched Peter, Pete Best, the drummer since this is basically what the biblical John and James had attempted to do with Peter the apostle.
The George part I think was God’s way of saying that leapfrogging Peter – that is the Vatican – lands you in England and Henry VIII’s decision to make himself not only king, but head of the church as well. There have been three king Georges.
Now, having ditched Peter, that meant you had three kings or a Ring of Stars.
The Beatles were the template that attracted their own disciples, the Rolling Stones, which was another play, in my view, on the fact that there had been a pool of disciples for the two Jesus’. There was Peter, Cephas, the rock or stone, but he rolled back and forth between the two Jesus’s.
is clearly not thinking ‘normally’, whatever ‘normally’ means.
But what I don’t want to do is turn the whole thing into me trying to psychoanalyse Dave Sim through the medium of his cartoon drawings of an aardvaark. So what I propose is this – in the rest of this post I’ll identify what I think is the most relevant of Dave Sim’s differences. I’ll talk a little about it, and then not mention this again directly. The connection will be there to be made in future posts, but won’t be explicit. Those who don’t care about my untrained opinion about the mental health of someone I’ve never met can skip this bit. I really don’t even like doing this, but it’s *so* difficult to disentangle man and work…
I think Dave Sim’s problems fundamentally come down to an overactive theory of mind. Now, theory of mind is usually just an ill-defined stick with which unscientific psychologists choose to hit people with autism, by claiming that people with autism don’t have one, without actually asking them. But there’s a core meaning there, which is that most people will, if they see someone behaving a particular way, assume a set of motives for that person’s actions. (Autistic people can do this, just as anyone else can – but they’re more aware than other people that they may be assuming the *wrong* motives, because they know other people think differently from them. Normal people are more likely to assume that everyone thinks the way they do.)
However, in some people this instinct goes into overdrive. With those people, they become convinced that they know others’ motivations, even when provided with evidence to the contrary. Some people even start to impute motivation to inanimate objects and natural processes. It has even been suggested that this is the basis of religious belief, although based on spurious evidence - this study just shows that when religious people think about the emotions and behaviour of God, who they consider a really-existing being, they use the same part of the brain as when thinking about other really-existing beings, while this discussion manages to be equally offensive to both religious people and autistic people (and yet he says that the autistics are the ones who don’t distinguish between other people and inanimate objects!)
But this gives us a lot of explanatory power for a *lot* of Sim’s stranger behaviours – his belief that natural phenomena are caused by spirits (e.g. YHWH causing the Asian tsunami of 2004) or that historical events have some hidden meaning (see the quote above), and his attributions of frankly bizarre motivations to others (e.g. his belief that a gift from his parents was cursed, detailed in the notes to Latter Days) would seem to stem from this.
More importantly – and the only reason I bring this up, as I consider speculation about the mental problems of someone I’ve never met distasteful at best and extremely unethical at worst – is that this explains a good deal about his writing. Often – almost always – Sim’s characters are sharply observed in their behaviours. They often behave in unexpected or unusual ways, but after we read this we think “Yes, that is *exactly* what Jaka [or Julius, or Cerebus, or Pud] would do.”
Sometimes we can even identify with the characters, and say “Yes, I hadn’t realised it, but that’s exactly how I’d react in that situation”.
But this observation rarely extends to internal states. Apart from the utterly chilling portrayal of ‘nice guy’ nerd and attempted-rapist Pud Withers’ mental state, and the caricature that is Cerebus, we’re rarely given a glimpse of anyone’s internal monologue (understandably, as for most of the story Cerebus is the viewpoint character), and when we are, it often seems somehow… off.
And when Sim talks in text pieces about why he had characters behave as they do, his reasons often make so little sense that he might as well be saying ‘curious green ideas sleep furiously’ – there’s a basic cause-and-effect disconnect there.
This disconnect will come up time and again in our discussions of Cerebus, as I attempt to go through the whole thing, but I promise the only further mention I’ll make of how it connects to his mental state will come, if at all, in the discussions of Rick’s Story (about someone who had a lot of similarities with Sim, but had a mental breakdown and became convinced he was the Messiah) and Latter Days (the vast bulk of which is taken up with an exploration of Sim’s idiosyncratic theology, which seems very hard to detach from his mental problems). I hope to avoid it even then.
But now that the elephant in the room has been dealt with, we can get on with talking about the aardvaark.
Biography lends to death a new terror – Oscar Wilde
Melmoth, the sixth and shortest of the separate ‘graphic novels’ that make up the work Cerebus, is, at two hundred pages, described by its author/co-artist Dave Sim as a ‘short story’, because it takes so little time to read in comparison with his longer, more obviously dense works. Melmoth is a huge departure from everything that Sim had done before in Cerebus, not advancing the plot of the main series at all until the epilogue, but rather telling the story of the death of Oscar Wilde through the letters of the friends who were with him in his last days.
On the surface Wilde may seem a strange subject for Dave “the feminist/homosexualist/islamofascist/Marxist conspiracy are reading my mind when I masturbate” Sim, but Melmoth is the work of a very different Sim to the one we have today – a man who had recently contributed a story to Alan Moore’s GLAAD compilation (a benefit comic to attack anti-gay laws in the UK), and who dedicated this work to a cousin of his who had recently died of AIDS. And Sim treats the subject with the respect that it deserves.
After the emotional climax of Jaka’s Story (still, to my mind, the single greatest graphic novel ever created, by quite a long way) Sim had a year to kill before getting back to his gigantic political-religious conspiracy plot, and so he decided to keep the title character sidelined (Cerebus himself had not appeared for a year at the start of Melmoth, having gone off to buy a bucket of paint at a crucial moment and missed the climax of Jaka’s Story), having Cerebus appear for a handful of comic relief pages each issue, completely catatonic after the shock of Jaka’s Story‘s ending, while Sim told the real story – the story of the death of Wilde, drinking himself to death under an assumed name in exile.
And it’s done beautifully. Other than some dialogue in the early pages, every detail of the story is taken directly from the letters of Wilde’s friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner, both dialogue and caption narration, with the only changes being the replacement of real-world place names with their comic-world equivalents (and the letters are reproduced in full in the end notes). We see Wilde slowly dying, starting off with him clearly ill but able to walk and converse, and ending with him emaciated and incoherent. Along the way he’s clearly trying to pretend, to himself as much as his friends, that he’s OK, but he looks visibly more distraught in almost every panel, as the realisation of his imminent death hits him, while also so tired he clearly almost welcomes death.
With little in the way of real writing to do, the story has to be carried by Sim and Gerhard’s art, and luckily they were both at their peak here. Sim, in particular, while he’s not doing the formal experimentation of earlier or later stories, manages to use an art style that is distinctly his own but also very strongly hints at Wilde’s contemporaries (some panels look to me exactly like Beardsley, though he denied any influence when I asked him about it in a chat on the Cerebus mailing list).
But it’s the fact of Sim not writing – as such – this story (about a writer who’s no longer able to write), that points to its deeper ‘message’. As much as Melmoth is about Wilde, in the wider context of Cerebus it’s about the impossibility of writing a true biography.
While Sim has always used real people in his stories (Mrs Thatcher, Mick ‘n’ Keef, Groucho Marx), Wilde is the only person who has become three separate characters in Cerebus. The character of ‘Oscar’ (no surname) appears in Jaka’s Story and, it’s later revealed, is the narrator of the bulk of the story. At the time of Melmoth‘s publication it was left ambiguous as to whether that Oscar and the one here were one and the same, though they’re physically dissimilar (‘Oscar’ was a baloonish caricature, while the Wilde here is a far more naturalistic drawing) and Wilde (in one of the few bits of original dialogue here) praises “Daughter of Palnu” (the book-within-a-book written by Oscar in Jaka’s Story). That ambiguity was later cleared up by an appearance of ‘Oscar’ in a couple of panels, still alive, but at the time of writing Sim thought the ambiguity an entirely good thing.
A third Wilde, under the name Lord Henry Wooton (to whom many of Wilde’s anecdotes, and Sim’s own pseudo-Wildean epigrams, are attributed), appears several times as well in Cerebus, but Wooton is a creature of text – he’s never drawn, we never see him, he’s just written about and talked about, and we draw our impressions of him from what other people say he said.
And this is the real crucial point about Melmoth, because what it’s really about is only apparent in the context of the wider work of which it’s a part, although some clues are given in the foreword and appendices to the collection, where Sim says:
Each biographer selects those elements of Wilde’s life he finds pertinent and, not incidentally,which reinforce whatever thesis he brings to the story.
It was only when I began drawing the last day, together, of Ross and Oscar Wilde that I became suspicious of his narrative…The fact that Reggie and the nurse had been asked to leave (I asked the nurse not to exist myself) meant that Ross was free to describe their good-bye in any way he saw fit
Sim was very deliberately fictionalising a narrative he already regarded as unreliable. But to understand why, you have to look at Jaka’s Story and Mothers And Daughters, the two longer graphic novels that come either side of this story. In Jaka’s Story, almost everything we think we’re being told in flashback turns out to be a novel written by ‘Oscar’, based on stories told him by Rick, who heard them from Jaka, who may be lying or misremembering herself – the supposedly-omniscient narrator is in fact giving us third- or fourth-hand fictionalised versions of the truth (except that there is no truth, of course, because it’s still a work of fiction). The one character who contradicts Oscar’s version, though, Jaka’s old nurse, is such an obviously-biased person that her word can’t be taken as truth, either.
Meanwhile in the next story, Mothers And Daughters, David Victor Sim introduces three new characters – two of whom are, like Henry Wooton, only known through text. The first is Viktor Reid, who is friends with Wooton and who lives through a very-vaguely fictionalised version of the early-’90s comic scene. The second is Victor Davis, who writes and draws a comic called Cerebus, and whose views on women made the majority of Sim’s readership disappear, and who makes public in the text of the comic the extra-marital affair of at least one prominent then-married comic writer, among other indiscretions. And finally there’s ‘Dave’, a voice from the void who, in the couple of panels at the end of the story where he’s seen, looks like Sim, and who can converse with Cerebus and has complete control over his world (the similarities to Morrison’s Animal Man climax are probably due more than anything to both having seen Duck Amuck).
So Sim is almost using Wilde as a ‘fiction suit’ – both as a foreshadowing of the big scene fifty issues later where ‘Dave’ and Cerebus finally talk, but also as a way of reifying the view Sim took until he got a religious component to his mental illness – that there is no single truth, but a plurality of part-truths, and all we can do is examine everything that’s presented to us and try to see things from as many angles as possible.
Wilde’s death is also, of course, the half-way mark of Cerebus, and Wilde’s death – estranged from his family and most of his friends, his reputation in tatters, incoherent and unable to write – is presumably meant to mirror Cerebus’ death at the end of the full 6000-page story, with Cerebus dying ‘alone, unmourned and unloved’. One can only hope that Sim’s own rejection of nearly all human contact won’t lead to the same fate for him, no matter how much he may appear to wish for it.
Because for all that Sim’s work at its peak argues there is no true truth, there still really was a man called Oscar Wilde, he really did die in a manner something like the drawings in this book, and as the book makes clear, it wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t poetic, it was a lonely man rotting away from the inside. And it’s a tribute to the book’s strength that for all its cleverness, its fictional setting, its deliberate lies and misreported facts, and its larger point, that truth still comes through and makes us care for a man who died more than a hundred years ago, represented by a few ink lines.