Time to return to one of the greatest works in literature written.
Latter Days is the latest volume in the saga of Cerebus (number 15, if you’re interested) and sees Sim returning to the comedic stance of earlier stories.
After the somewhat tortuous preceding volumes (Form and Void, Going Home), this is a welcome relief. Whilst these volumes were full of wit and had incisive, powerful insights into the authors Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, they felt too much like Sim was wandering. Going on a personal journey of his own likes and dislikes and getting away from what was the main premise of his work, the cantankerous aardvark himself (Sim has admitted that much of what he wanted to say about Cerebus he had done so by Volume 10, Minds). It also didn’t help that I myself have no liking for Fitzgerald or Hemingway, finding them slow and ponderous. Something Sim nailed on the head (unintentionally?) by the parodies of their letters in the books.
Anyway, as said, Latter Days is a welcome return to form but Sim still has the ability to surprise. Within the first 44 pages, twenty-five years of previous story-telling goes out the window.
Besides Cerebus himself, Sim kills off all the cast.
Gone, just like that. No mention of how, why or where. Cerebus has entered his wilderness period on the final road to his eventual end (to die alone. Unloved. Unmourned)
To facilitate this, Sim uses fade-ins and outs, slow passage, multiple frames within frames, the effect of time on people and other filmic tricks of the trade that are very difficult to convey in a comic book. That Sim manages to carry it off is both a credit to him and his collaborator Gerhard (Cerebus is what you would call a studio book. Sim writes all the plots, dialogue and draws the main characters. Gerhard does all the backgrounds, major fore-grounds and architecture, plus a lot of the inking).
But, for Cerebus, there’s first the little matter of being a shepherd (excruciatingly funny in the way sheep are accurately depicted), and a five-bar gate (don’t bother. It’s a game Sim thought up in his childhood) loser. Before getting what he’s always wanted, total conquest.
There are two major themes in the book, fascism and religion.
The former is shown in how Cerebus goes about his conquest and how he is looked upon as the “messiah” and thereby aided by a certain trio: – The Three Stooges (or The Three Wise Guys).
To compliment the killing off of Lord Julius (Groucho Marx) and Duke Leonardi (Chico Marx) Sim brings in the three as the latest in a long line of real-life parodies. I’ve never really liked The Three Stooges (too vaudevillian for me) but here Sim makes me want to go back and re-evaluate them. He captures their mannerisms, looks and speech down to a tee and with the thoughtful notes at the back of the book makes them come alive in the head of the reader in a way few artists can do. Sim admits to spending a lot of time watching their shorts to get their look right, to the point where he realized that Curly Joe looked like a fat John Lennon, thus leaving only one remaining Beatle to appear in Cerebus (George and Ringo appeared in Guys, whilst Prince Mick and Prince Keef appeared in Church and State Vol 2). You get to laughing and caring about The Three Wise Guys so much that its a severe comedown when Sim gives a whole chapter detailing the end of their lives (and once again showing how long-lived Cerebus is) by relating how The Three Stooges ended theirs.
Sim is not yet finish with the parody though, along with Garth Ennis’s Preacher comic (here it becomes Cerebus’s favorite read, Rabbi), its now the turn of Todd McFarlane and Spawn. You may think with someone like Sim who is so heavily into self-publishing and the rights of creators would not have gotten along with McFarlane (who with his Spawn comic, operates a work-for-hire policy), but they did and Sim recognized that McFarlane is both a good entrepreneur and leader. This gets shown with his character Todd McSpahn, who nearly takes away Cerebus’s leadership until Cerebus comes up with idea of Spore (Spawn). Spore completes the fascism angle by terrifying all the men into doing as he (Cerebus) commands. First, with the now readily availability of guns, defeating Cirin’s all female army (Cirin is one of the other two aardvarks in Cerebus’s universe. The other is Suenteus Poe). Then murdering all the women the men vote are “vipers and scorpions”, and finally coercing people into thinking that they have everything they want in life (Sim kind of “hammers” the point home by making Spore’s legs look like the hammers from Pink Floyds, The Wall. Intentional?
We also have a cameo by Charlie Brown.
(Boom, and as they say, boom).
And that’s it. Cerebus has the conquest he’s longed for since the beginning of the book and now Sim changes tack.
The last quarter of the book is taken up with Sim taking the piss out of the King James Bible and all its inconsistencies. I’ve got to say that at this point the reader’s eyes will probably start to glaze over. It takes vast reams of text to get the point across and it’s not really helped that Sim now, once again, goes off wandering with an over-view of the work and life of Woody Allen. Fine if you like that sort of thing, but with Cerebus, Allen and Sim sometimes going over the fine detail of sentences and the meaning of words, it gets a bit too much. Even though this section showcases some of Sims finest art and accurate likenesses, its not enough to stop the feeling of a vanity project (even Gerhard nearly threw in the towel at this point. All that black).
At the end Cerebus is now isolated in the Sanctuary (built by the Three Wise Guys) and living the life of Kane in Xanadu. Will Cerebus die the way prophesized? Only two issues to go in the comic, as of the time of writing, to find out.
Cerebus: Latter Days is funny, infuriating, pompous and excellent all in one go. I can see many feminists wanting to tear whole pages out and religious fundamentalists wanting to burn Sim at the stake. Perhaps its better for him that it hasn’t the larger scale readership it deserves but it worse for literature as a whole and that’s a crying shame.
Cerebus: Latter Days by Dave Sim and Gerhard is published by Aardvark/Vanaheim. Priced £19.95 and available from all good comic book shops.