Someone has been asking about Cerebus on another thread and I did say that I was going to talk about it more when it finally ends around March 2004. But I’ll do it now and go on record to say that this is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. That it has been ignored by the literary glitterati for all of its lifetime is one of the greatest injustices done to a work and just goes to show how small and enclosed their world can be.
Massive in scope and length, taking in subjects as varied as politics (High Society), church (Church and State), feminism (Minds), and Oscar Wilde (Melmoth), it never fails to annoy, be funny or have a point to make. All the while confusing people as to just what kind of man its writer/artist Dave Sim can be.
So, who is Cerebus?
Well, he’s short, grey, furry, and very bad-tempered. He’s self-centered and speaks in the third person and oh, he’s an aardvark.
Yep, that’s right. The main character is an aardvark. But not the ant-eating version we have in real life and although he was depicted like that at the beginning (and hilariously returned to it during Church and State Vol 2) it wasn’t before long that we have the version we see now.
Cerebus started out as an affectionate parody of the Barry-Windsor Smith/Roy Thomas Conan the Barbarian from Marvel Comics. Sim wanted to do something in the same vein and make it funny as well. He took an aardvark as his protagonist because it was one of his favorite animals and it was easy to draw. It was obvious that nobody from the two publishing houses of the time was going to print his work, so he took a momentous decision that was to have repercussions for a lot of the industry (though nobody could have guessed at the time) and made him the man to listen to ( if you could ever stop him. Sim is not known for his modesty) about it. That was to self-publish.
When Cerebus the Aardvark (its full title at the time) was being printed, comic-book shops were beginning to become more prominent and books easier to get. But that didn’t mean Cerebus would survive, so to gain a readership the first book is more geared to the sword and sorcery adventures of Conan and the influences that shaped Sims world. The art is capable but crude, the writing very much of the Marvel type and it takes a lot to get through the first volume (Cerebus) and not put to one side as a failed experiment. But even here Sim is laying the foundations of the Cerebus universe. Its here that we see the first appearances Sophia (a Red Sonja look-a-like and Cerebus’ first wife), K’Cor, King of Imesh (important later on), Necross (very important in Church and State), Charles X. Claremont (parody of Charles Xavier from The X-Men), Weisshaupt (a politician and main mover/manipulator in High Society and Church and State),
Jaka (the one true love of Cerebus. That is if Cerebus can love anyone but himself) and three of Sims finest creations:-
The Cockroach. Artemis was a merchant with a Bat-Man origin who would appear throughout Cerebus in different super-hero disguises. The Cockroach reflected a lot of Sims views about the comic book world at various points and led to his battle with Marvel when he used him to parody Wolverine (as Wolveroach) in Church and State.
Lord Julius. This is a wonderful, superb rendition of Groucho Marx, right down to the painted on moustache and sarcastic one-liners. Lord Julius is just as much a clever manipulator as Weisshaupt but uses his Rufus T. Firefly persona to confuse and confound his enemies. It becomes even better when later on in the saga Lord Julius is joined by Duke Leonardi, a Chico Marx parody that means much mayhem and snappy comebacks ensue.
Finally there is Lord Elrod the Albino. For those of you who believe that Terry Prachett was the first to make fun of this kind of thing, think again. Elrod was Sims version of everything that was wrong with Michael Moorcocks Elric. Like Elric, Elrod was the last of his race (until proven different in Reads), told everybody within hearing range about how bad and awful that was, totally full of himself and best of all, spoke and sounded exactly like Foghorn Leghorn. With Elrod, Sim gave Cerebus his perfect comedic foil. Putting him through untold amounts of indignity ( making him dress up as Death when it came time to do a Sandman parody was one, as was putting him in a beetle costume in the Secret Sacred Wars segment of Church and State Vol 2) and death-defying injury but making him smile and remain full of an annoying self-confidence all along.
With Cerebus now more secure Sim started to branch out and flesh his story. He had already stated that Cerebus would last for 300 hundred issues and no more. Even now it’s hard to believe that an artist/writer would be full of cahones to make a statement like that and carry it out. Many other creators have not done as well by their creations, preferring to take the money and run (Spawn anyone?), Erik Larsen and his Savage Dragon story is an honorable exception and although somebody like Neil Gaiman returns to The Sandman now and then he still has his other life as a “proper” novelist to go to. Sim has done nothing but Cerebus for the last twenty-five years. When he has illustrated other comics or drawn art pieces, as with the TMNT and Spawn, it has always featured Cerebus.
With High Society, Sim and Cerebus ventured into the world of politics, political manipulation, media manipulation and how voters can be made to vote for anyone as long as it says the right thing (or not say anything in this case, as Cerebus’ opponent in the election is a goat put up by Lord Julius) and slanders their opponent. It was here that we meet Cerebus’ major manipulator, Astoria. Astoria by degrees became more important in the saga until she becomes one of Sims’ take on feminism and how it can all go badly wrong. The art and writing was coming along in leaps and bounds and Sim now started taking liberties with the comic book format by using text rather than speech balloons or caption boxes and putting the layout horizontally and upside down so that comic has to be read on its side or turned to give a more widescreen and disorientating effect. This was something that Sim copied from John Byrne’s run on the FF but used it for longer and to better (comedic and dramatic) effect. It also benefited from the fact that Cerebus was Sim’s own book and he could do anything he wanted, but other writers and artists were beginning to take note of what he was doing.
To be continued
Cerebus and High Society are written and drawn by Dave Sim and both volumes are available from Aardvark Vanaheim Inc.