It actually works. Cerebus
is a single sustained comics narrative about the life and times of a single character, following him through his youth right up to the very end of his days. Some parts work much, much better than others and, in general, the later stuff is rather better than the earlier, but it really does work. Cerebus
is six thousand pages of comics telling a single story that miraculously all comes together clearly in the end to make a single point about the nature of power, gender, and spirit. Whether that point is worth making is somewhat less clear. It is a book born of the brilliance, arrogance, prescience, skill, recklessness, self-indulgence, strong opinions, misogyny (and, yes, it is misogyny), of its creator: David Sim. It is also a book that would have failed without the stabilizing influence of the photo-realistic backgrounds created by Sim's long time partner, Gerhard. Together, these two men, the heart and the head of Cerebus
, were able to create the emotional and physical reality of a world that seems, at times, more real than our own. However much its creators, particularly Mr. Sim, might protest, Cerebus
is, by its very nature, a profoundly emotional book, a work of the heart, summing up the strife of the spirit as it is glorified and terrified by the divine. In time, Cerebus
will be recognized as one of the grandest achievements of comics: a unity of form and void, motion and emotion, depicting the galaxy of ways in which the human race can make itself unhappy. It is a deeply pessimistic work, though it sings its pain gracefully. It seems to look upon the universe as a colossal blunder, all the while depicting it with beauty. Certainly, the book is most successful when it is depicting that terrible beauty and depicting only; when it attempts to spell things out for us, the comic grows terribly tedious. From its early and somewhat incompetent beginnings to the masterful way with which it ends, the book holds itself together, as a wounded man might clutch his sides, pressing in his guts, in a desperate attempt to go on, even though it knows it will only die alone, unmourned, and unloved.
Let us not forget, however, that it is a book about a walking, talking aardvark. Cerebus was originally created as a snappy logo for an advertisement, so it seems hardly a fitting vehicle for an epic that rivals Proust in ambition. Why Sim chose to stick to this funny-animal concept as doggedly as he did is a mystery that this reviewer will not attempt to fathom. Suffice it to say, there's the aardvark, and there's no getting rid of him. I guess it comes first in the phone book.
The first part of Cerebus
, like the very last part, is the most uneven and the least rewarding. Cerebus
begins as a not too terribly sophisticated parody of Barry Windor Smith's version of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. If that sounds like an unlikely premise for a great book, that's because it is. The first dozen issues are probably the least inspired because they remain devoted slavishly to duplicating an art style that only a stylist of Windsor Smith's mastery can pull off without the result looking muddy. Many of the most popular characters in the series are introduced in these early issues: Red Sophia, Elrod the Albino, Jaka, the Cockroach, and so on. Like any Mad Magazine
style parody, they are funny only for a few pages. Unlike a Mad Magazine
style parody, the stories are, sadly, all longer than a few pages. All of these characters turn up later and are used to much better effect in High Society
and other books.
It is sometime after the character Lord Julius, a take on Groucho Marx, is introduced that Sim seems to find his voice as a humorist and as an artist. The influence of Will Eisner begins to supersede that of Windsor Smith, and the dialogue becomes sharper and funnier. The result is that the art looks cleaner, and the stories, greater in length, are better paced and more entertaining. When Elrod and The Cockroach reappear in what at first seems a dull parody of Captain America, Sim digs himself out of a hole by introducing the fascinating (and wholly amoral) political mastermind, Weishaupt. It is in this first exploratory period, shortly after Sim announced that his series would last three hundred issues, that he wrote the "Mind Game" sequence. The entire passage takes place within the unconscious mind of Cerebus, a stylistic innovation that heralded a new level of sophistication in the storytelling techniques employed in the comic.
While this first chapter in the larger story is certainly the weakest, by the time Sim had reached the end of it, he had discovered the tools with which he could make his creation shine.
For many, the High Society
story arc is the best in the series. This appraisal seems based more on nostalgia than critical acumen, but the High Society
story is certainly the first sign that Cerebus
is a book of vast scope told by a genuine innovator. High Society
provides a beautifully rendered portrait of a Great Dictator (a Chaplin movie to which the story owes a great deal) orchestrating his own downfall. Throughout Cerebus' stint as an itinerant mercenary, he is depicted repeatedly as a cutthroat mad for power. In the High Society
storyline, he is finally allowed to get some of that power and, consequently, has no idea what to do with it.
Finally, Sim manages to curb his urge to parody and engages in mature satire – the six crises of Nixon, the rampant inflation of the '70s, inane party politics, all of them are deflated in this delightful novel. The book grows far wordier at this point, and appropriately so. Cerebus has entered a world of bureaucrats, politicians, and red tape; words are their life's blood. It is here that we see Sim's first use of pages that are entirely made up of text. At first the effect is jarring; one is forced to spend far longer reading a page than one is used to with a comic. None of the text is superfluous. He uses this technique of interlarding conventional comics with stretches of prose later to even greater effect in the Jaka's Story
One of the chief engines of this more mature form of satire is the character of Astoria. Astoria is created initially as a sort of light parody of Mary Astor's scheming tramp from the The Maltese Falcon
. She is the quintessential dame that can't be trusted. Over the course of the High Society
book, though, she is developed into something rather more compelling. Beneath her complex skein of scheme and scam, Astoria is actually an idealist committed to the idea of real representative democracy. She is, perhaps, the only truly committed Democratic thinker in the book, or, at least the only one willing to do what must be done to achieve her ends. She is the most cut-throat of the characters in High Society
only because she is playing for the highest and noblest stakes.
Some remnants of parody remain, unfortunately: Sim sees fit to once more play the comics version of Rich Little, by turning his Cockroach character into a version of Moon Knight, copying Bill Sienkiewicz, who was in turn copying Neal Adams. All of Cerebus
is troubled by Sim's trifling with copies of copies of copies. In some ways, however, the inclusion of a goofy egomaniac in a ridiculous costume is not wholly inappropriate in High Society
. Is not the goofy egomaniac in a ridiculous costume the very model of a modern politician? After all, Cerebus is, more or less, the same thing himself; the difference is that the other characters actually take him seriously. The Roach, in whatever guise he adopts, is always the Id Kid reflecting the true nature of the Cerebus character: shallow, remarkably vain, possessed of a rare skill for making other people nervous and disgusted. Graphically, however, Sim does not help himself by aping Sienkiewicz. Sim's own style, when he dares to use it, is more interesting. It is when he resists the urge to engage in this sort of graphic echolalia that the book is at its best.
The sequence near the end of High Society
, in which Cerebus runs for Prime Minister of Iest, are some of the best plotted and paced comics made. Sim manages to swerve between profundity and absurdity with all the genuine chaos of a real political campaign. Cerebus is the ultimate witless Napoleonic statesman: nasty, brutish, and short. Between his crippling drunkenness and frenzied mania for power, the gray runt proves himself to be exactly as bad as we always expected him to be. He is our hero, and – as always – the greater of two evils. However, since we the readers, are as much in the dark about all the political intrigues surrounding him as he is himself, we naturally identify with his witlessness. We are groping blindly at the elephant as much as he is, and are no wiser. The effect, brilliantly depicted, is to give the feeling of real history taking place. No one knows what is exactly going on, except for those wise few who haven't the power to do anything about it, but we all know that it's important.
Church and State:
After Cerebus has lost everything, he becomes the houseguest of one of Sim's greatest and most underused characters — The Countess. The Countess firmly establishes Sim's ability to make convincing, entrancing, and delightful female characters. He also does not seem to know what the hell to do with her. After losing political power, Cerebus ends up in her home for a spell, and the chemistry between the two characters is magical. Then it is gone. It is as if Sim had created a character so sophisticated – an older, wiser Holly Golightly – that it intimidated him. She shows up later once or twice, but only in the weakest parts of this book. Whenever he uses the Countess, he will sooner or later drop in the Cockroach character doing some parody of the latest superhero book, as if he is attempting to relieve the tension she creates. In this case, the Roach is playing the popular Marvel Comics hero, Wolverine, in some of the dullest pages of the Church and State
The Countess, while less obviously mercenary than Astoria, does set the pattern for Cerebus
' best female foils. Whether the woman is Jaka, Astoria, or the Countess, they are all just a little too intelligent for him. Cerebus always wants the cool, aristocratic lady, but generally settles for the buxom dumbbell. Red Sophia or, later, Joanne, are tiresome because they haven't the wits to spar verbally. Also, Sophia and Joanne are used as tools to attempt to prove the author's points about the futility of marriage or long-term relationships, and so are never allowed to develop complex personalities of their own. They are slaves to the author's pet arguments. Jaka, Astoria, and the Countess, though, seem to demand their own room to breathe.
At first, the story of Cerebus' second rise to power proceeds rather like the first. Weishaupt returns, and with him, the wheels within wheels of machination that we, as well as our hero, only dimly understand. Again, Cerebus – as religious leader this time rather than dictator – has no idea what to do with his power except to grab as much money as he can as fast as he can. Again, he doesn't know what to do with it. Again, he loses Jaka because he's not quite bright enough to figure out how to win her. The good thing is that Sim takes more time in showing why Cerebus fails. There are fewer quick laughs, but more and greater insights into the nature of his characters' personalities.
Also, Gerhard begins collaborating with Sim during this part of the story, and the results are amazing. Sim's characters become more expressive as he is allowed to spend more time focusing on capturing just the right arrangement of features and gestures in their figures. As for Gerhard, his ability to shift perspectives in a scene quickly develops to an almost uncanny level of ingenuity. It is difficult to imagine how trying it must have been to read the ‘stage directions' for some of the scenes Sim scripted – particularly during an especially tricky sequence involving Jaka, near the middle of Church and State
– but Gerhard succeeds admirably. The world of Cerebus
becomes far more real after Gerhard enters the mix. It is as though we have walked out of the sound set and are now shooting on location.
Unfortunately, the book fails at the end. It does not fall apart so much as it wraps up wrongly, or too tightly. No longer satisfied with showing us many variations on the theme of the corrupting influence of power, Sim decides to whip up a smart guy to walk in and spell it out for us. Enter the Judge, a thinly veiled take on Jules Feiffer's judge from Little Murders.
Cerebus, as well as the reader, is forced to spend dozens of pages walking around with this windbag as he explains Life, the Universe, and Everything. The scene takes place on the moon, and, appropriately, the effect is similar to having all the air sucked out of the room. We are treated to a history of the cosmos replayed as a kind of awful rape scene acted out between nothingness and being culminating in the big bang. All of creation is the mess left behind. The problem with the story is not that it is depressing, but that it is dull.
After Church and State
is finally over, we, like Cerebus, are a little weary. Our reward is Jaka's Story
, the second-best chapter in all of Cerebus
. The story is a deft mixture of illustrated text and traditional comics woven together to create a portrait of the only lady that Cerebus ever really loves. The remarkable trick is not the way in which the text and the comics come together, but the ways in which they disagree – and the manner in which that disagreement reveals the character of Jaka. The comics show us an everyday woman living in relative poverty, engaged in the business of everyday life in its least thrilling, but most revealing moments. The text is framed as a florid biography of Jaka as royalty written by a character named Oscar, a take on Oscar Wilde.
Sim's mimicry in duplicating Wilde's literary voice is astonishing. Everything is there: the purple gushing over sensual detail, the nigh-autistic psychological self-reflection, the somewhat ridiculous obsession with how wonderful expensive things are. The flaws in the style are almost all those of Mr. Wilde, not Mr. Sim. To argue that the inclusion of these long stretches of text somehow makes Jaka's Story
“not a comic” is a trifle pedantic. One might as well argue that the last chapter of Ulysses is not literature because it isn't a sentence. Whatever it is, it is a stunning achievement.
Gerhard comes into his own during this book. Somewhere during the early part of Jaka's Story
, he seems to become comfortable with a style of densely layered cross-hatching that allows him to create an enormous range of textures and thicknesses, from the bright sheen of glass to the nap of a luxuriantly thick rug. This attention to the myriad of life's textures serves to enhance the attention to sensual detail that is a hallmark of Oscar's style. With only one or two minor mishaps, the backgrounds remain so consistent that we come to know Jaka's street as well as our own. It is in this book that he begins developing the techniques that are perfected in Going Home
One of the most curious aspects of Cerebus
becomes conspicuous in this book by its absence: music. Jaka is a dancer by trade, and we see her practice that trade here. Certainly, the inclusion of a band in the bar where she works would have been intrusive. The extra characters would have ruined the quiet, intimate tone of the story. However, the idea of a dancer who dances without music is bizarre. Comics do not have soundtracks other than the ones we conjure mentally, but it is strange that the mental soundtrack for this book is so very quiet. As a dancer, music must necessarily be important to Jaka. The fact that it is not so to Sim indicates perhaps a certain ignorance on the author's part of his own character. Throughout Cerebus
, one senses that there is something about Jaka that one cannot know, possibly because the cartoonist does not know himself.
is a kind of coda to Jaka's Story
, only we shift our attention from Jaka to her biographer. Jaka's Story
ends violently and Oscar does not fare well. This book takes place after he has been released from prison, a broken and frail shadow of his former self. While many details have been altered to conform to the world of Cerebus
, the basic situation is that of Oscar Wilde after he got out of Reading Gaol, and later died in a hotel in which he was registered under the false name, "Melmoth." This portrait of the artist as an old man, near death, broken by a world that does not care for art, closes the so-called “male” half of Cerebus
. The image of a hard gem-like flame snuffed out by brutal stupidity is Sim's metaphor for the wane of male energy and the wax of female. Somewhat appropriately, Cerebus does virtually nothing in the entire book; he is the nexus point between the two.
Sim's use of wide swaths of black in creating almost photographic likenesses shows up here a few times. The sequences involving Oscar's dwindling circle of friends are often done in this style. The sequences involving any of the characters around Cerebus, though, tend to be done in a style that shows increasingly the influence of Mort Drucker. Both styles grow far more pronounced in Going Home
. Oddly, these trends which reappear so strongly near the end of Cerebus
seem to be suppressed in the next chapter.
Mothers and Daughters:
Mothers and Daughters
seems to function basically as the female version of Church and State
: it is just as messy, just as meandering, and ultimately just as unsatisfying. It is as though Sim realized that he had bigger fish to fry in the last third of the series and now felt the need to wrap up all the loose ends of the story very quickly. The pace is breathless and breakneck, but too packed with event to feel taut. Every few pages another revelation appears that serves to explain away something that happened hundreds of pages before.
The only way to feel much satisfaction in the story is if one has been reading the comic in the periodical format over the course of years. Then, there is some sense of reward, since one finally gets an explanation for certain nagging details that have been nagging for a decade or more. If one is reading the story in the collected format all at once, then the cumulative effect is underwhelming. Just as with the Judge in Church and State
, explanations are always less interesting than events. If Sim had tired of some of the more fantastical elements in his creation, the monsters and magicians and such, he might have simply retired them with no explanation at all. Love and Rockets
didn't suffer just because the rockets went away. All we really cared about was what Maggie and Hopey were going to do next.
Mothers and Daughters
also sees the introduction of two different representations of the author. The first stand-in is Viktor Davis, a writer of "reads,"
the equivalent of comics in Estarcion, the world of Cerebus
. The other is "Dave," who is a depiction of the cartoonist himself, creating the Cerebus
comics. The Viktor figure is the author of the now infamous mysoginistic text near the end of the book. Out of all of Sim's text “voices” the only one less interesting than Viktor is the biblical voice he uses near the end of Cerebus
. Davis, like the Judge, and like the "Dave" character who lectures Cerebus at the end of Mothers and Daughters
is a windbag dead set on explaining Life, the Universe, and Everything.
What all of these characters have in common is that they are not content with presenting a situation and allowing one to form an opinion. They need to stand there, hold one's hand, and explain exactly how they think the situation should be understood. There is no room for interpretation. The effect is not unlike being accosted in a bar by someone who wants to explain at length his byzantine theory of why the moonshot was a fraud. One does not dare argue, because it is perfectly obvious that it will serve only to lengthen the encounter. Sim's satire of a socialist emotion-centered society would have been perfectly intelligible without the cliff notes.
The saving grace of the last sequence in Mothers and Daughters
is that the depiction of the solar system is jaw-droppingly good. Cerebus runs through every emotion imaginable in amazingly expressive ways. Each of the planets is rendered so well that it's sometimes difficult not to simply stop reading for a while and stare at the beauty of the images. Regardless of whether or not we are interested in what the “Dave” character has to say, Sim and Gerhard's cartooning reaches an all new high at this point. Now that they have swept all the left-over plot points out of the way, they can settle down to the business of getting really good.
is Sim's Book of Bloke, a meditation on what it means to be not a boy, but one of the boys. The greatest achievement of the book is Sim's adroit display of Cerebus' progress from an utterly self-centered and overly sensitive little nuisance into something approaching a real person. He's still self-centered and he is still overly sensitive but he is at least a little more aware of it. The character Bear from Church and State
returns as a far more complex personality that acts as the means of this progress.
This book is also Sim's chance to let his instinct for mimicry run wild. Virtually every character featured in an independently published comic in the mid-nineties has a walk-on part. It doesn't do much to serve the story, but it is sort of interesting to see Sim do his version of Eddie Campbell's zipatone, Dan Clowes' lettering, and Rick Veitch's thick blobby brushstrokes. As a result, the book is more or less a collection of anecdotes and visual riffs that don't really go anywhere. Many are them are amusing, a few laugh out loud funny, but, like a lot of jokes, one doesn't remember them for long. Also, unless one has a catholic knowledge of small press comics, a lot of these jokes just won't make sense.
Throughout the comic, Cerebus is always the focus of strange events. He both attracts them and amplifies them by his very presence. In this book, Cerebus meets his match: Rick, the former husband of Jaka. Rick is Cerebus turned up to eleven: more self-centered, more vain, more clueless, more sensitive, more alcoholic, and even crazier. Curiously, Sim decides to make him the bearer of his great monotheistic message. Essentially, Rick is a kind of sainted Christ figure. He is also incredibly annoying, which, one imagines, is probably true of most messiah types. It is difficult not to hate Rick.
This is the most claustrophobic of the Cerebus
books. There are only three characters, Cerebus, Rick, and Joanne and all of them are a little insane, with the exception of Rick who is really insane. Cerebus has begun to talk to himself constantly, often in several different fonts of lettering, one of which is done in a kind of crazy-quilt fashion. What's more, we have been stuck in the same bar since the beginning of Guys
and we're still not out of it yet. All of Jaka's Story
took place on the same street, but at least we got to see the sky sometimes.
In between being insufferable, Rick experiences bizarre religious hallucinations during which he sees people transformed into angels or devils. Sim's rendering of these visions is some of his most impressive and accomplished imagery to date. The eerie, unsettling quality of these drawings shatters the picture plane by using the gutter to schizophrenically divide reality from nightmare vision. Even when the dialogue between the characters is humorous or completely mundane it seems infused with some darker portent by the technique. Everything takes on a phantasmagoric quality of omen seen through the eyes of Rick the Prophet.
In this book, Sim begins using a new text voice, a kind of pseudo King James Bible style, in which Rick writes his gospel. Unfortunately, much of this King James style reads more like Leviticus
than it does Genesis
; it becomes tedious quickly. As if we hadn't already seen the interior of the bar often enough to reproduce the layout from memory, we are now regaled with a biblical description that lays the thing out cubit for cubit. The one saving grace of the biblical style is the amusing contrast between what Rick is writing and what we see actually happening.
It starts inauspiciously, but Going Home
quickly turns into the best of all the Cerebus
books. Sim and Gerhard are at the peak of their abilities and accomplish a number of small miracles, one after the other, to create a genuine tour de force. Cerebus has won Jaka at last and now they are on their way to live happily ever after in his old hometown far up in the north country. This is, at least, the idea. The book is actually about how unhappy couples engineer their own misery. The book is broken into three parts: one featuring Cerebus and Jaka newly in love, one featuring the happy couple observing a man whose marriage has fallen apart, and one featuring the increasingly unnerved Cerebus and Jaka in the company of a couple on the verge of utter ruin. The effect is one of a masterfully orchestrated and truly chilling descent into disaster.
The first part of the story is the weakest. There are a few occasional false notes. A spoof of the mainstream comics industry "action figure" fetish falls flat and seems entirely out of place here. A scene featuring caricatures of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch is also incongruous and hardly to the point. They are minor flaws, but appear larger next to the excellence of the rest of the book.
There are number of moments in this first section intimating the darker things to come. In any other hands, clichéd images of full moons, nightmares, and black cats would seem tired, even laughable. They are rendered so artfully here, however, it feels as though Sim and Gerhard have somehow rediscovered the secret of why these things were so pregnant with doom to our ancestors in the first place. By this point, Sim has mastered a technique of superimposing an irregularly shaped image over a six or nine panel grid in order to create a kind of eerie sense of synchronicity. Like the best parts of Rick's Story
, Going Home
always manages to mean more than it says.
The Second part, while not as strong as the conclusion, has a few breakout moments that may just be the best scenes in all six thousand pages of this comic. Cerebus and Jaka are sailing down the river on a pleasure boat with a character based on F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald character has lost his wife to madness and is sailing alone, while writing a new novel that is a thinly disguised fantasy about him seducing Jaka. The interaction between Fitzgerald and Jaka beautifully reveals precisely why her relationship with Cerebus is doomed. She will always love art first; Cerebus has no idea what the word means.
Three scenes stand out. In one, the Fitzgerald character is dead drunk, talking to himself out on the deck in the middle of the night. The scene is easily the most hallucinatory of any in the entire Cerebus
comic. Lettering turns into scenery, doubling, reversing and everting around him in curlicues and moebius strips. The ruined man talking to himself and his creations captures perfectly the weird world entered by a genius drunk on despair.
In another scene, Sim and Gerhard pull off another dizzying and bizarre juxtaposition of mundanity and holy vision. Cerebus, Jaka, and Fitzgerald are sitting on the deck chatting, but every other panel shows the boat as if it were floating on the planet Pluto as it was depicted at the conclusion of Mothers and Daughters
. Different perspectives on the situation are shown as they are seen by the characters, culminating in a kind of shared vision of reality dissolving into deep space that is so meticulously realized that the images appear to be truly moving before one's eyes. Few other cartoonists have succeeded so well in capturing the rhythm of real movement.
The final standout scene, while not so impressive as the first two is still an amazing display of sheer technique, particularly on the part of Gerhard. The entire scene shows the pleasure boat drifting down the river in what must be the single longest tracking scene in comics history. It is the cartooning equivalent of the opening sequence in Robert Altman's The Player
. An entire fifteen or twenty pages drifts along from left to right without ever dragging. The world of Cerebus
is never so fully realized as in these pages.
The third part of Going Home
has no virtuoso moments quite so stellar as the ones described above, but the general quality of storytelling throughout is altogether higher. This piece features a character based on Ernest Hemingway as he is perched precariously on the brink of suicide. Cerebus and Jaka go on a camping trip with the Hemingway character and a character based on his last wife. The frightening relationship between the sullen writer and the aggressively cheerful woman who seems to feed on his anger, provides an inverted nightmare reflection of what Cerebus and Jaka could become.
The two couples go on an ill-fated camping trip, during which Ernestway's wife relates the story of a safari she experienced with her troubled husband. The long sequence depicting this safari is easily the most powerful sustained narrative in the Cerebus
comic. All of Sim's ranting elsewhere about the ways in which love goes wrong is generally cranky and tiresome, even when he is attempting to be funny. This story of the doomed safari, however, paints a picture of an altogether more chilling sort of permanent midnight of the soul. We are not subjected to any lectures this time around; the story shows us everything we would want to know and then compels us to look a little deeper than we might like into just why it is that misery loves company. Going Home
is a bleak and bitter book, but it is a powerful brew, a poison one must drink neat to appreciate.
Perhaps it is only fitting that the final book of Cerebus
falls down almost as badly as the first. This time, the problem is not that Sim goes for cheap laughs, but that he tries to get ultimately ponderous without being boring. Instead he is ultimately boring without giving us anything to ponder. The book occasionally shines, but in general it is dull as dirt. The best bits come first, and are very good, but then we soon get lost in the cliff notes and, once again, another soporific explanation of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Sim shows inadvertently in this book the difference between good satire and bad by practicing both. The first couple of stories here are hilarious. Cerebus is much older and wandering alone about the country getting odd jobs. In one, he becomes something of a local sports hero, and is sent to represent his province in a national tournament. Every year, he is good enough to beat everyone but the champion. The champion, however, is so much better than every one else that he knocks Cerebus out of the game within the first few minutes of play. Apparently, this is based on some kind of long-running trend in hockey, but it doesn't matter. Like all really good satire, one doesn't need to know the details of what is actually being satirized to get the joke. The folly is universal and can be understood without explanation.
In other parts of the book, Cerebus becomes a religious leader again and gets involved in a tedious satire of cartoonist Todd McFarlane and his comics company, Image. Unless one knows something not only about McFarlane and Image, but about the corporate strategy of the company, and the general financial situation of the comics industry during the nineties, none of the jokes here make the slightest bit of sense. What's more, even if you did know about all these things, the jokes might make sense but they still wouldn't be funny. The sequence drawn in a style so close to Mort Drucker's as to be positively larcenous is simply a failure from beginning to end.
Also, Sim's most savagely misogynistic screed is delivered in this book. One scene depicts thinly veiled parodies of the creations of women cartoonists being shot to death on a big stage. What is strangest and nastiest about this sequence is not that it appears in the context of an aimless and dated spoof of Spawn
, but that it is played broadly for laughs. Then, even more inexplicably, Sim switches gears suddenly from caricature to using his meticulous photo-realistic style to indulge in a long riff on the deaths of the three stooges. This is not only not played for laughs, it is clearly meant to be moving in some way. Why we would shed a tear over chubby old Curly dropping dead after we've just seen Julie Doucet blown to pieces is puzzling.
Finally, the book ends with a seeming interminable exegesis of the book of Genesis
delivered by an aging Cerebus. Speaking personally, this reviewer has never read so dull a religiously themed piece of writing since he was subjected to The Parson's Tale
many years ago, and that, he at least received credit for. In Chaucer's defense, one has to admit that he had the good grace to refrain from the self-indulgence of footnoting his own work. Many of these sentences are unsafe at any speed. It is as though the author earned a nickel for every set of parentheses he used, but was fined a dime for every period. The result is virtually unreadable and no one who makes the mistake of reading it once will ever make that mistake again.
Perhaps the worst thing about this conclusion is that unlike Rick's Book
, there is no amusing discrepancy between the biblical voice of the text and the images. They are supposed to sync up perfectly. This is it; the explanation of Life, the Universe, and Everything. The result is a very tiresome bit of faux gospel with a lot of very pretty pictures. To top it all off, our hero dies exactly as he was told he would die — alone, unmourned and unloved.
As he travels into the afterlife, we are presented with a kind of Sergeant Pepper's display of all the main characters that have appeared in this amazing comic over the last couple of decades. Standing there in the afterlife waiting for him are Jaka, Bear, Ernestway, Astoria, the Countess, and all the rest. It takes a few moments for Cerebus to realize that Rick, the great sainted messiah (and annoying putz), is missing. Cerebus takes it to mean that this is obviously not the stairway to heaven, but some place just south of it. Terrified, he tries to claw his way away from the fiery light, but he is sucked in and disappears.
And there we have it: all these wonderful characters that have made the world of Cerebus
the most consistently enchanting and fascinating place one could ever hope to find between the covers of a comic book for so many years are damned. The message we are left with is that the very act of creation itself, the act of merging simple things into complex shapes to create beautiful patterns, is somehow some kind of colossal mistake. The cartoonist is the god of this wonderful imaginary world and the creator of all the beautiful patterns in it and he has weighed their souls in the balance and he has found them all wanting. This reviewer, and perhaps other readers like him, begs to differ. If the author of the book is really the god of this imaginary world, the quality of his mercy seems a little strained.
Or, as Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, "In Heaven, all the interesting people are missing."