Book shelves series #24, twenty-fourth Sunday of 2012: In which we glance at canonical comics.
So we’ve hit the last shelf in a series of triplets; next week: new room.
This shelf holds graphic novels, including stuff by Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi, David Mazzucchelli, Jeff Smith, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. There’s also most of Dave Sim’s epic series Cerebus here.
I bought issues of Cerebus intermittently for years at a time, usually getting frustrated and then waiting for the “phone book” graphic novel editions of the series. Sim, along with background artist Gerhard, produced 300 issues of Cerebus over 25 years. The issues from the early ’80s to the early ’90s are brilliant; eventually Sim cracked though and went on an insane, reactionary (and arguably deeply misogynistic) bent. He created his own religion, a mix of hardline Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and the later books in the series suffered greatly, as the book detoured to chronicle projects that seemed far outside its original scope (including strange, long satires of Hemingway and Fitzgerald).
These are the phone books I referenced. Looking over them again, I keep reminding myself to try and reread the last two books to see if I missed anything.
Somewhat at random, I opened Reads, the novel that signaled the beginning of Sim’s estrangement from sanity. It opened to this page, part of a climactic scene between Cerebus and Cirin, leader of the matriarchy that will rule Iest (don’t ask):
If you’re at all interested in reading any of Dave Sim’s epic 300-issue comic book Cerebus, a book chronicling the life–and death–of a misanthropic mystical barbarian aardvark, High Society is the best (and possibly only) starting point. High Society tells the story of Cerebus’s political adventures in Iest, the largest cosmopolitan city-state of Estarcion. Guided (or perhaps manipulated) by Machiavellian Astoria, Cerebus undertakes a strange, comic odyssey of political ascendancy, culminating in an election for Prime Minister (against Groucho Marx stand-in Lord Julius’s goat, of all things). Sim has a deft ear for political satire and the volume holds up particularly well to a rereading against the backdrop of the current American electoral process. While High Society conveys a certain cynical contempt for the cronyism, deal-making, and the general nasty malfeasance that underwrites politics, there’s also a reconciling of democracy, liberty, and art here that you could never find from a CNN analyst or a Fox News hack. By this point, the crude art and flubbed pacing that hampered the first few years of Cerebus are nowhere to be found. High Society is tightly-plotted, full of smart gags expressed in Sim’s keen lines, without an over-reliance on bubbles overstuffed with exposition.
The book is funny without ever being light, and rereading it again, I was surprised at how moved–and exhilarated–I was by the conclusion. Although the parody of Marvel’s forgotten Batman ripoff Moon Knight doesn’t hold up very well, and the “sideways” issues at the end are an annoying (but interesting) experiment, High Society continues to deliver both laughs and insight about the political process over twenty years after its single-volume publication. Very good stuff, and highly recommended (read it along with/against the 2008 election).
What follows is a review of the first Cerebus graphic novel, not a review of the series as a whole. I initially contemplated such a feat, but handling Dave Sim’s (and Gerhard’s) 300-issue-long magnum opus in one post would result in either a really, really long post or a really, really inadequate handling of such fine (and troubled) material. Instead, I’ll review the series chronologically, covering one volume a month.
I suppose, also, that a quick primer or introduction may be necessary, so here goes–
Cerebus is a 300 issue black and white comic book, conceived, written, and drawn by Dave Sim (with stunning background art by Gerhard in issues 66-300). Sim published the book himself via his Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint. The book follows the adventures (and non-adventures) of Cerebus the Aardvark, a surly barbarian who, as one of only three existing aardvarks in Estarcion, has a sort of catalytic power to influence major world events. It’s satire, it’s drama, it’s action, it’s art. The series contemplates politics, religion, literature, economics, and just about everything else under the sun. Only this is really not an adequate summary at all, so I’ll stop here, and get to the actual review. You can google “Cerebus” and “Dave Sim,” of course, and read all about Sim’s rise and fall (it gets spectacularly crazy, folks!); or, you can just wait until we get to the Reads book to learn all about Dave Sim, misogynist. But I’ve digressed before I’ve even begun. (The Cerebus Wikipedia page is pretty good; and this 2004 AV Club interview is also insightful).
Let’s start the review with yet another non-start: another disclaimer:
If you’re at all interested in Cerebus, Cerebus, the first graphic novel in the series, collecting issues
1-25, is not the place to start. If you really are interested in Sim’s work, start with the next collection, High Society. It’s much funnier, tighter, and Sim comes into his own as a draftsman by these issues (although there’s no denying that the art only gets better and better as the story progresses). Sim claims that he knew more or less from the beginning that Cerebus would have a scope of 300 issues (taking 27 years to complete), but the first 15 or so issues don’t really reveal anything that promising. Very early Cerebus is a silly funny animal Conan-Red Sophia parody. However, with issue 20, “Mind Games”–a comic Sim composed in interlocking images that when reconstituted created a new image (all right, that’s not a great description)–the book starts to get really interesting. By this point, Sim has already introduced my favorite character, Lord Julius, the anarchic Groucho Marx parody who wreaks havoc throughout the series; Sim further stirs things up by injecting the matriarchialist Cirinists into the chaos. The emerging Cirinists’ political/martial power becomes the conflict that will dominate the first half of the Cerebus series, and the larger issue of female power can rightly be named the Sim’s thematic obsession throughout the entire comic’s run. Before these themes come into their own, issues 1-17 or so of the book are stock fantasy tropes poked at with a stoner’s sense of humor. Like I said before, Cerebus–volume 1 of Cerebus–will be most enjoyed by those who’ve already had a taste of the good stuff–High Society and Church & State. Good stuff. More to come.