The Cerebus Celibate: Issues 1-50
"Cerebus" is unlike anything I've read before in a number of ways, but as I begin the legendary indie series about a warrior aardvark for the first time, the main one is that I don't know when it's going to end, for me. It's hard to undertake "Cerebus" without being warned that, at some point, you're going to want to stop reading. For better or worse, the story is completely intertwined and reflective of Dave Sim's own life and beliefs, and I think everyone knows the broad strokes of the legend: "Dave Sim went crazy and 'Cerebus' got too weird." Although I haven't read far enough to speak about it firsthand, I'm sure the truth is far more complicated.
I started reading "Cerebus" partially at the insistence of Douglas Wolk and partially due to a friend lending me the first collection phonebook, the one that chronicles Dave Sim's transition from an artist drawing funny-animal Conan parodies to a creator of literary ambition. I can't imagine how Cerebus would be initially received in today's comics market; it's remarkable to me that something that would probably be the equivalent of a furry webcomic today, not only able but was allowed to turn into the deep, layered page-turner it was by the end of the second phonebook volume "High Society."
Sim starts off issue #1 competent and ends #50 virtuosic. That an audience realized Sim's talent and stuck with him, through the direct market, through that much artistic progress (and from such a rough starting point!) is astounding to me.The first thing I noticed about "Cerebus" was the depth of its worldbuilding. It's clear that Sim was trying to fully realize Estarcion, in terms of society, warfare and politics, from the very first page, as the reader is quickly overwhelmed with a panoply of fake names, fake gods and fake curses. The Conan link is palpable - while I don't have much experience with that mythos, it also seems motivated by the desire to build a model of an entire interconnecting series of political entities with their own cultures, beliefs and customs.
The thing about "Cerebus", though, is that it never gives up that desire as it switches focus. As the first twenty-five-issue collection progresses, it quickly evolves from a funny-animal parody of barbarian comics to something with loftier political and metaphysical ambitions, keenly adapting and referencing elements from his initial, one-off stories into what becomes a gargantuan task in world-building, defining the politics and traditions of the town of Iest from the bottom up and unloading its unruly protagonist into them to tear them open from the inside out.
"Evolution" might even be too weak a word -- it wasn't a subtle issue-to-issue transition. Sim grew by leaps and bounds with every story, enhancing aspects of his draftsmanship, dialogue, plotting and design sense. I haven't yet gotten to his collaboration with assistant/background artist Gerhard, but Sim is a one-stop shop -- looking up the actual covers online demonstrates a quickly evolving understanding of cover design, moving from Conan homages in faux-Marvel trade dress to bold typeface and bookstore aesthetics within fifty issues.
It's that rapid transition, from a straightforward piss-take humor comic to a personal treatise on life and liberty, that makes "Cerebus" such a fascinating artifact in these early stages. By the end of "High Society," Cerebus is back to being the scheming traveling barbarian he always was, but older and very reluctantly wiser for the experience in statecraft. Simultaneously, the book was starting to delve into trippy metaphysical philosophy, especially anytime the anarchist Suenteus Po was involved. I'm incredibly excited to see how this continues to change throughout "Church & State" and beyond.
Of course, while he's excellent at it, Sim isn't known for his worldbuilding, nor is he particularly famous even for his technical excellent. If there's one thing almost anyone with a passing familiarity with the comics industry will say about Dave Sim, it's that he's a pretty crackpot misogynist. I can't speak to that opinion, since I haven't gotten that far; the infamous Onion AV Club interview doesn't do much to dissuade me from that opinion, though. However, it's worth looking at the way Sim *does* portray women throughout these early issues. There's echoes of the attitude to come, but from a very different viewpoint.
The women in these first two volumes are all, almost without exception, schemers, manipulators, and users except for Jaka -- the only female towards whom Cerebus feels any kind of affection, and a character I'm completely unable to get any kind of read on. She's a dancer! She's royalty! She's a dancer who ran away from royalty! And the church! There's clearly far more going on with her than I'm exposed to at this point in the story, and she could just as easily turn out to be Cerebus's true, devoted love (as she claims herself to be) or just another cold shrew like the politically driven Astoria and the rest of the matriarchal, plotting Cirinists. I'm looking forward to seeing how much of Sim's later viewpoint has its beginnings reflected in these early issues, and I'm excited to go further into "Church & State" and "Jaka's Story" to get the complete background that Sim's been hinting at.
Which brings me, of course, to his main character -- the notoriously surly aardvark barbarian Cerebus. When the book started, much like the comic itself, the main character was a one-note joke -- he was a misanthropic dick who abused basically everyone in his path to get what he wanted, which was usually alcohol, money, or things he could trade for alcohol and money. The only character he seems to show any sympathy towards whatsoever is Jaka, and that largely seems to be because he was drugged into falling in love with her. (Although whether that love was caused by or just exposed by the drug is still up in the air.)
Additionally, another thing Sim started doing around halfway through the first collection - so #13 or #14 or so - was bring back up plot points from earlier issues, seemingly throwaway things (such as the Pigts, who revere a statue shaped like Cerebus) that actually play important roles in the tapestry of Cerebus's role in Estarcion. Badass last-page "Adios, suckers!" screwjobs that Cerebus would pull on unlucky schmucks suddenly come back up to haunt him, and every event in the series truly does feel at this point like a domino falling in a massive series that I can't even begin to predict. The effortlessness with which Sim moves from one-shot seemingly throwaway stories to a full-out political fantasy epic is incredibly impressive.
And as for Cerebus himself, he's an incredibly fascinating protagonist, even though his most defining characteristic is that he's a selfish asshole. What's interesting is watching him evolve -- for reasons that are still largely unexplained, not only the Pigts but also the Cirinists and Anarchists and god/Tarim knows who else are watching, guiding and trying to prepare him for some kind of prophesied conqueror-philosopher role. There are moments when it seems like cracks of idealism are showing in his hedonistic, nihilistic veneer, but they're fleeting; it's borderline physically painful for Cerebus to consider other people for long, it seems.
Finally, I just want to touch on the art, maybe the most immediately recognizable area that Sim shows improvement in over the course of these 50 issues. While his draftsmanship improves as you'd expect over that period of time - the characters becoming better-defined, his storytelling is the most dramatic change, as he quickly gets more and more adventurous, trying new narrative tricks for both the Suenteus Po trip-out, astral-plane metaphysical sequences and, perhaps most impressively, the sequence near the end of "High Society" where Cerebus is attempting to recover from a particularly awful hangover. The book reflects this by repeatedly forcing you to rotate the actual physical object to properly follow the story since the panel layouts almost spiral around, like the sort of dehydration-related dizziness we all feel after a particularly boisterous night on the town. It's clever and effective without being annoying.
In short, these first fifty issues of "Cerebus" make it pretty clear why it's considered such a big deal to the industry. It's only the first sixth of the series, but the artistic growth on display in that timeframe is absolutely stupendous; I'd be excited about the ride all the way through to the end if it wasn't common knowledge that, at some point -- which seems to be different for everybody -- this book is going to fall completely off the rails. While I'm sure I'll continue to find it interesting and enlightening from a formalist viewpoint, I can't imagine I'll be able to continue my investment in the characters when the book, if my expectations are correct, devolves into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about women being black holes that suck in effort or whatever. That said, I'm very curious as to how he gets there -- and how long I'll be able to last at that point, as well.