Cerebus Reviewed 1: Cerebus

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:

Page one of Cerebus #1

Page one of Cerebus #1

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:

Cerebus issue 20, by Dave Sim

Cerebus issue 20, by Dave Sim

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:

The Roach on an Eisnerian background by Dave Sim

The Roach on an Eisnerian background by Dave Sim

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:

In this panel, Cerebus looks like he's been pasted in from a different comic from the rest of the panel.

In this panel, Cerebus looks like he's been pasted in from a different comic from the rest of the panel.

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:

Red Sophia

Red Sophia

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:

Elrod explains the concept of status

Elrod explains the concept of status

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:

Captain Cockroach mourns the death of his assistant Bunky

Captain Cockroach mourns the death of his assistant Bunky

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:

Lord Julius

Lord Julius

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

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14 Responses to Cerebus Reviewed 1: Cerebus

  1. Patchworkearth says:

    One of the most interesting things, when going back to read the first, self-titled volume of Cerebus, is noticing how large Sim’s ambition was from the get-go, including the issues before his breakdown/break-through.

    Even in the first few issues, Sim was consistent in his portrayal of Estarcion as a complete world to be traveled. Using Michael Loubert’s map of the fictional set of kingdoms (a place that would later be revealed as Europe in the time before recorded history), Sim was careful to keep careful notation of where Cerebus was, where he’d come from, and where he was going. In the phonebook collection, this gets broken up a bit, because Sim at the time would treat every story, regardless of where it was published, as the next canon chapter – which led to “lost” chapters such as “Passage,” the story where Cerebus officially trades in his helmet and paints his medallions in the alley Doar Close (a crucial plot point in the later volume “Minds”) not being reprinted for over twenty-five years.

    Many of these blank spots in the narrative would be collected into the “Cerebus World Tour Book” to be sold at conventions, but not all of them. One, “Silverspoon,” got re-added back into later printings of this collection. A few (particularly “Magicking” and “The Name of the Game is Diamondback”) are arguably quite important to the narrative, once the story develops in later, cohesive volumes like “High Society” and onward.

    It was this consistency in what was ostensibly a series of throw-away parody stories that enabled Sim to go back and retroactively use nearly every single story in this collection as a symbol or metaphors of Cerebus’s growth (or failure thereof) in the long, long list of callbacks that constitute most of the climactic “Mothers and Daughters” arc.

    It’s interesting that you note Elrod as one of the first signs of Sim’s growth as a creator, as well – the first Elrod story is arguably the first one (certainly the first one from Sim’s POV) where he finally started to slowly escape the long, long shadow of Barry Windsor-Smith. Certain panels in that story show the earliest signs of what would later become Sim’s own artistic voice, which continues to slowly develop over the length of the volume.

    Each issue in the volume offers a sort of minor milestone in tracking Sim’s growth – the first time a character recurs; the first time a story isn’t a one-issue standalone; the first time that Cerebus solves a problem by talking, rather than fighting (as fighting would of course recede further and further as the comic went on); the first time that a larger story of any kind is hinted (this last, the Pigt statue, was apparently a suggestion of something that Sim had planned from the beginning, long before the “300” plan), or the first hints that Cerebus had a formed backstory (the energy globes of Imesh)… or even the switch to monthly, which enabled Sim to tell longer stories at all.

    The Palnu Trilogy, of course, is the turning point. Not only is Lord Julius a more funny and more interesting supporting character than the others that had been introduced, it was Sim’s first, light swipe at politics, and even after the trilogy had ended, Lord Julius continued to appear even after Cerebus had forgotten about him – hinting towards the major jump that “High Society” would represent.

    “Mind Game,” of course, was brilliant, and beyond what most any other creator was working on at the time.

    Regarding Sim’s thirty years of telling the same story – it’s difficult to talk about without addressing manga at all. It’s an important discussion to have, because for decades we pretended that manga did not exist, or was inconsequential. Some mangaka have worked on the same stories for as long, many have topped Sim (& Gerhard) on page counts, and while many have relied upon assistants (due in large part to having to do their stories WEEKLY), not all of them have. Of course, manga is rarely fully self-published, and that remains one of Sim’s greatest feats. But editorial influence on manga is different than it is here. It’s a subject that requires more study and discussion than will fit in either your series, or my pithy comments. But it’s still worth bringing up.

    Anyway, I ran on so long that I forgot what I was talking about.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      All good points. I’m trying to stick here to only those stories and pieces of information that are in the phonebooks (and for simplicity also only those that are in the Cerebus series itself, as I have scans of the individual issues so can use images from them to illustrate) but of course that consistency across different comics did pay off.

      As for manga, I’m afraid I have so little knowledge of it that I can’t sensibly comment. I was, however, under the impression that the more long-running manga were closer to something like, say, the Asterix books (which have also had a single artist working on them, along with a writer for the early, good ones, and also come close to or surpass the page count of Cerebus) – that they’re more episodic, and there’s, if not a reset button, at least a sense that you don’t have to have read everything previously before you read this week’s installment. I get the impression that Sim is the only creator to have done a single, fully-planned story over that time period. I may well be wrong though.

      • Patchworkearth says:

        You would be wrong, yeah. Most long-running shonen series start with episodic tales, but very quickly progress to long-running sagas, much as Cerebus had. One of the books often used in comparison to Cerebus – Lone Wolf and Cub – had a longer set of “episodes” before the plot took off, but it was still the same.

        Regarding “stories not in Cerebus itself,” I meant to make that note in passing, actually – even when Cerebus appeared in, say, Eastman and Laird’s old TMNT books, footnotes established roughly when and where Cerebus was in relation to the ongoing story, so that even such a superfluous cameo crossover could be slotted in where it “belonged.”

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Weird – looking at the Wiki article for Lone Wolf And Cub, which I know *of* but hadn’t read, it looks like it’s got half as much page count again as Cerebus, but they did it in five years. That’s just an *insane* page rate – presumably Kojima must have had a whole team of assistants?
          I’d argue that that’s a whole different kind of achievement – a spectacular one, of course, but different in kind from the long slog of something like Cerebus. (And that’s without comparing the quality of the two works, of course, which I can’t do having only read one).

          • Prankster says:

            Lone Wolf and Cub is very, very good, and it does have similarities to Cerebus, in that we’re following characters over a long period of time and an extended career. The story is episodic, but the characters are clearly evolving (it’s about a man and his son, and the child grows from a baby over the course of the series), and there’s an overarcing story of revenge.

            It’s actually extremely accessible to western readers–the style is more realistic, without the cartoony stylization that people tend to associate with manga, and the story is essentially a western-gone-samurai in the mode of Kurosawa. I recommend it.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Also, I think there’s one example where Cerebus does appear without a note as to place in the ongoing story – the issue of Spawn Sim wrote…

          • Patchworkearth says:

            You’re right, of course, and there are a few others, all of them crossovers – his one-panel appearance in Flaming Carrot, for instance (which you can’t really tie back into FC’s appearance during the Ascension), the cameo appearances he’s made post-300, etc.

      • ”One of the most interesting things, when going back to read the first, self-titled volume of Cerebus, is noticing how large Sim’s ambition was from the get-go…”

        I shall confess upfront that I haven’t read the first twenty-five issues of Cerebus in a while… quite possibly not since the time of Suenteus Po. But I’m not sure that this doesn’t merely look upon the early issues with hindsight. Having thrown in his later lot with them, Sim had little choice but to weave them into his tapestry. I’m not sure anyone, even Sim himself, saw all those things at the time.

        Oh, sure they had a map. But every fantasy world had to have a map, by rule of Tolkein! As the saying goes, the map is not the territory. Was the map originally anything more than a gaming board, an assembly of place names?

        I tend to think of the later Sim doing to his writing what Gerhard did to his backgrounds, replace some stock and generic backgrounds with the dimensions of fully realised worlds. (Okay, he was already onto that before Gerhard was aboard!)

        …which might be a good place to ask, which of those early issues are the ones worth reading now? (Not meaning to run Patchworkearth out of the discussion or anything, but I’d presume from what he says that his answer would be “all of them and then some!”)

        ”As for manga, I’m afraid I have so little knowledge of it that I can’t sensibly comment. I was, however, under the impression that the more long-running manga were closer to something like, say, the Asterix books… I get the impression that Sim is the only creator to have done a single, fully-planned story over that time period. I may well be wrong though.”

        Though I’m not terribly well-read in manga either, I think here I probably side with Patchworkearth. Check out my mate Martin Skidmore’s retrospective on Tezuka here.

        Though of course manga was so little-known when Sim set himself the 300-issue goal, he still pretty much had the idea in isolation.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Hmm… if you’re talking about reading just a few issues in isolation, as opposed to reading the whole story through, I’d say issue 7 (the return of Elrod and the whole Black Sun farce) is quite well done for a *very* early one, and the Palnu Trilogy (issues 14-16) and issues 21 and 22 (the Weisshaupt/Captain Cockroach/Deadalbino story) are the ones that stand out as being most enjoyable.

  2. Prankster says:

    I really have to take issue with the “little obvious talent” remark–sure, he was obviously just a kid starting out, and yes, he was pastiche-ing/parodying Gerber and Windsor-Smith, but his draftsmanship was obviously very good right from the start, and as early as the second or third issue I’d say he actually shoots past Gerber in terms of humour–I certainly laugh at Sim’s early work a lot more than I do at Howard the Duck, though I suppose that’s a matter of taste. (Which is not to disparage Howard the Duck, though I feel the humour has dated rather more poorly than Sims’ early work.)

    But I really don’t think you can understate how masterful Sims’ comic timing is, even this early on. Sims gets how to pace a gag on a comics page better than just about anyone ever has or ever will, and if there’s any single raw, natural talent he displayed right from the start. The sequence in the second issue (page 38 of the Phonebook) where the chieftain extemporizes about Cerebus’s moral code over a defeated foe is still laugh-out-loud funny, as is the perfect, deadpan pause in issue 3 after “only if game is scarce.” The only Cerebus issue that relies solely on “it’s a Conan story, but see, he’s a cartoon aardvark” for laughs is the first one (and even that, I think, stacks up positively compared to most first-ever issues by writer-artists, and indeed most self-published sword and sorcery comics of the time.)

    I confess: I’m a fan of this first volume, as far removed as it is from what Cerebus eventually became. Sims is just noodling around, but he’s doing so with an incredible level of professionalism, and he found his groove remarkably quickly. The comparison to the early Beatles is inescapable…

    Very minor nitpicks: Red Sonja isn’t, technically, a Robert E. Howard character. Well, she is–he created a medieval Russian (I think) woman warrior named Red SonYa, and the creators of the Conan comic, in need of story ideas, decided to transpose her into Conan’s world. Also, a lot of people don’t realize that Foghorn Leghorn was, himself, modeled on an old-timey radio character named Senator Claghorn; I only mention it because I believe Sims has specified that Claghorn was the inspiration for Elrod, not Foghorn Leghorn. Not that it makes a huge difference, but I don’t remember Leghorn doing the thing where he constantly spouts clarifications. Synonyms, that is.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Rather than compare to early Beatles, I always tend to compare it to early Beach Boys – you can see what he’s *trying* to do, and sometimes he does it amazingly well, but then other times he just misses the ball on it a bit.
      “Little obvious talent” is harsh, I’ll admit, but I worry that anyone starting with this volume will stop before they get a quarter of the way through, and miss Jaka’s Story and Melmoth and Church & State and Ham Earnestway and the Three Wise Fellows and…

  3. S. Barrios says:

    pretty good, pretty neat / .. of the phone-books, i’ve read only Jaka’s Story and High Society. hope to get to th’ Church an’ States soon !

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Church & State is some of the best work in the series, especially once Gerhard comes along, but is much harder going than either of those. It rewards it, though…

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