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