Tuesday, January 05, 2021


Everyone agreed that the first twenty-five issues of Cerebus were clever and funny: a skit on Conan the Barbarian, incorporating pastiches of Batman, Elric, Prince Valiant and Swamp Thing, full of one-liners and farcical situations; but with a core of lightly worn but convincing world-building. 

A small number of readers drifted away during the second and third storylines, High Society (#26-#50) and Church & State (#52-#111). “We like Cerebus, especially the earlier, funny episodes”, they said. “Cerebus should go back to being a barbarian”, they opined. 

It would be very hard to find someone taking that line today. The received wisdom is now that issues #1-#25 were essentially disposable—the work of a talented amateur, teaching himself to draw in full view of the audience. On this view, the comic only came into its own during the two long political sagas, and the exquisitely personal Jaka’s Story (#114-#138) which followed them. A few people pretend not to be able to see what all the fuss is about: but there is pretty widespread agreement that Cerebus #26-#138 represent one of the all-time pinnacles of the comic book medium. 

In between Jaka’s Story and the monumentally epic Mothers & Daughters came a strange, twelve issue interlude called Melmoth. Very many people who had followed the Short Grey Guy’s adventures for more than a decade abandoned the comic at this point and never went back to it. They are apt to tell you that, for the better part of a year (issues #139-#150), Cerebus was unceremoniously kicked out of his own comic and replaced with a meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated, but entirely irrelevant graphic novel about—of all things—the death of Oscar Wilde. 

Like everything else about Cerebus the Aardvark, the truth is rather more complicated. 

It was never true that Oscar replaced Cerebus in his own comic. The Melmoth “phone book” runs to two hundred and fifty pages, of which only about a hundred deal with Sebastian Melmoth’s last days. The Oscar Wilde material is interleaved with the ongoing story of Cerebus. 

In which, admittedly, absolutely nothing happens. 

This doesn’t make the comic less odd. If anything, it makes it odder. Sim doesn’t just make us jump between two different stories: he makes us move between two different forms of storytelling. The Cerebus material is presented as tight, decompressed sequences of panels, often wordless. The Oscar material consists mainly of prose narration, illustrated with single, full page drawings. 

Cerebus sits, stunned almost to the point of being catatonic, in a bar, grasping the rag doll which is his only link with Jaka, his one true love, who he believes to be dead. Oscar lies in an hotel bedroom, watched by his friend Reginald Turner, and gradually slips away. From graphic novel to illustrated prose work; from storyboard to picture book. From wordless sequences of images (from which we have to infer movement and action) to long prose descriptions (from which we have to infer images). I wonder if the two modes of reading utilise different portions of our brains? 

If you read Cerebus because you liked the Short Grey Fellow—and if you regard the Short Grey Fellow primarily as a wise-crack delivery system—then I can see why Melmoth pissed you off. But we are not looking at two different books which happen to have been bound together in one volume. Melmoth is a carefully constructed literary work.

Have a look at Cerebus issue #144: Melmoth chapter 5. 

It starts with Cerebus sitting outside the tavern. He has changed in the fourteen years since we first met him. His snout is shorter and his colouring no longer makes him stand out from the rest of the world. He doesn’t look like a cartoon character dropped into a live action movie: but he still looks incongruous—like a stuffed toy. His eyes still meet in the middle: a visor with two black dots. 

The pages stick closely to a 3 x 2 grid. Even when a single image is spread over two panels, Sim leaves the heavy black panel border in place. The first five pages have no dialogue at all. A pigeon flies past Cerebus: Cerebus watches it eat some crumbs. There are two panels of the bird looking at Cerebus, and one panel in which we are looking at Cerebus looking at the bird. Weirdly, we see a woman in the road: and then we see, in consecutive panels, a woman in a nun’s habit—a Cirinist—and another Aardvark; whose identity neither we nor Cerebus yet understand. We infer that Cerebus is thinking back to the events of the previous book. A waitress brings him back to reality: she asks him if he wants anything. He says no. And weirdly, the panel goes blank; as if a mist is covering the page.

Seven pages. Forty two panels. It represents a second or two of time, and it takes us barely a minute to read. Nothing has happened. Yet we feel that we are in the presence of a character: a person. Cerebus’s consciousness dominates the text even when he is completely passive. Sim’s use of pantomime and body language is astonishing: look at the way Cerebus hugs the doll and cringes as he remembers Astoria. His single line “.…Nay.…” is very expressive and very, very Cerebus. Note, once again, how the lettering conveys the character’s voice. A big, irregular, wobbly speech-bubble with a tiny single word in it, surrounded by white space. A weak voice: a whisper…

And then, we flip the page, and are looking at two big line drawings; a man writing on an old fashioned desk; a man lying in an old fashioned bed; a large amount of text. Reggie Turner is writing a letter to Robbie Ross about Oscar’s condition. He hopes that he may recover; but is resigned to his probable death. He is writing with a quill pen, but the text is printed as typescript, making us process it as a page of a novel rather than sub-vocalising it as dialogue. It is not written in a conventional caption box or speech bubble but in a large cloudy white space at the top of the page. It is almost as if the mist which blanked out Cerebus has become Reg’s speech bubble. The text is drawn from Turner’s real letters, but with the names changed to locate them in Cerebus’s world: Oscar is in Iest rather than Paris, and (later on) receives the last rites from the Tarimites, rather than Catholic Priests. 

And then we are back with Cerebus: first in another dream sequence, and then outside the bar, where, over five pages, the barmaid asks him what he wants for breakfast. Cerebus asks for a potato. It’s a running gag that this is the main thing he eats. 

“That’s ONE raw potato, NO butter, NO salt and pepper, NOT cut into sections, NOT on a plate. Do you want anything to drink with that?”

Cerebus does not want juice, tonic water, or mineral water. Finally the barmaid offers ale. For two panels he says nothing; and he seems to brighten up. He doesn’t do anything as obvious as smile: I think the dots of eyes move closer together. Or is it just that the girl smiles slightly because she has brought him ever-so-slightly out of himself? 

And then we are back in Oscar’s room, Oscar in bed, heavily shaded in black, his hair merging with the pillow. Reg finishes his letter. 

Two blocks of narrative about Oscar have interrupted a tiny moment in Cerebus’s life. Everything depends on the formal structure: the slow, almost musical rhythm as we cast our eyes across the quickening panel grid. Cerebus’s life broken up into tiny fractions of a second; Oscar’s last days sweeping past in big summaries. Sim could have given us a five page, forty five panel break down of Reggie giving Oscar a mouthful of water; and then a block of text saying “Cerebus sat in the pub, in shock, for some days, but gradually the barmaid drew him out of himself.” He decided not to. And while the two stories are unrelated, their moods bleed into each other. Cerebus smiles and agrees to drink some ale just as we cut back to Reggie saying that Oscar is too far gone to really want anything. 

A large chunk of the next novel, Mothers & Daughters, is going to be about writers and story tellers and publishers and “reads”. We need Oscar to lay the ground work for Viktor Reid; we need Viktor Reid to lay the ground work for Viktor Davies. The structure is labyrinthine and discursive, but it is not arbitrary.

Issue #144 contains seventeen pages of Cerebus; and only three of Oscar: by issue #148 the poet outnumbers the Aardvark by a ratio of nineteen to one. The final issue doesn’t have any Cerebus material at all. #149 would not have been (in the modern jargon) a good jumping on point. Sim increasingly thought beyond the single issue format: issues #147 - #150 demand to be looked at as a single eighty page construction. 

Issue #147 concludes with a six page sequence in which the chatty barmaid tells Cerebus how she split up with her boyfriend. This, of course, reminds Cerebus of Jaka. The text doesn’t tell us this in so many words: we just see a full page image of Jaka, and infer that Cerebus is thinking of her. (If you haven’t been following the comic, you would have no way of knowing who the woman in the illustration is or why she is significant to Cerebus. The comic no longer makes any concession to the casual reader.) The next issue depicts Oscar’s death in remorseless detail. The comic book form is almost abandoned: instead we have a checkerboard of black panels containing white text, alternating with exquisite, shocking line drawings of the dying man. All the text is taken from contemporary letters: Sim’s own voice has almost vanished. There is only one conventional comic book section: when the Catholic—Tarimite—clergyman comes to administer the last rites, we are allowed to be present in the moment, as opposed to hearing Reggie describe it after the event. Oscar’s death is reported on the penultimate page: and suddenly, for one page of a twenty page comic, we are back in the bar. Cerebus and the barmaid are holding hands, for mutual comfort, looking slightly stunned. 

It is a strange piece of art, certainly. Cerebus remembers his true love; a famous artist dies; Cerebus is sad because he thinks his true love is dead. The artist’s friend’s are sad. It makes one think of the Waste Land: fragments which the reader has to piece together. But it is a formal masterpiece.

Cerebus is almost completely absent from the final issue, which depicts Oscar’s funeral. And Cerebus’s almost complete absence is almost the point of the graphic novel. Is it a moment of great significance? Or just the final line of a shaggy dog story? Robbie Ross describes Oscar’s funeral cort├Ęge. In a series of pictures we follow the hearse through the city. And, in a double page spread, the coffin goes past Cerebus’s bar. We see the Short Grey Bastard through the glass in the hearse. Cerebus has appeared in Oscar’s story. The two stories were connected, after all. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

“The King died and then the Queen died” is a sequence of events. 

“The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a story. 

“No-one knew why the Queen was sick, until the doctor realised it was due to her grief at the death of the King” is a plot. 

There is a kind of fan who demands story: who reads texts and watches movies only to know what happens next; for whom suspense and tension and artistry and form are irritants. If you are such a reader then reading a summary of a movie on Wikipedia is as good as seeing it in a cinema. In some respects, better. 

Much of the Harry Potter series; and quite a lot of modern Doctor Who, is directed at this kind of reader. It is great fun to try and work out the solution to the narrative puzzles, but once you know what is in the Pandorica and whose side Snape is on, there isn’t much point in going back and experiencing the story a second time. The Crimes of Grindelwald is largely an exercise in withholding important information from the viewer. We stay in the cinema because we want to know what J.K. Rowling isn’t telling us. To give her her due, the withheld fact, revealed literally in the final second, is worth waiting for. 

There is another kind of reader who doesn’t care very much about stories; who reads books for the subjective experience of reading them and will read the same book over and over again to recreate the experience on a deeper and deeper level. One kind is breathlessly waiting for the final Game of Thrones doorstop; the other re-reads To The Lighthouse every few years. 

Most people are somewhere in between. 

I suspect that your position on the continuum determines your orientation to the most recent Star Wars movie. Those of us who were looking to recreate or relive the experience of watching a rip-roaring Flash Gordon adventure fantasy for the first time at the age of twelve were rather pleased with Rise of Skywalker. Those who cared about the story itself were understandably annoyed by perfunctory references to Sith magic and Palpatine’s grandchildren.

Jaka’s Story ended with Jaka being taken prisoner by the Cirinists; and Cerebus has now spent ten issues sitting in a bar, more or less catatonic. We have been through two hundred pages and nearly a year of nothing happening. But in the final issue of Melmoth—marked as “epilogue” Cerebus overhears two Cirinist guards talking about beating up a woman called Jaka in prison. And suddenly the comic explodes. Arguably—again—compared with a Stan Lee Spider-Man story, or an episode of Saga—nothing much happens. The whole issue represents maybe five seconds of time. 

Sitting in the bar, Cerebus looked like a cuddly toy. Scaled up to the size of a page, swinging a sword, he looks like a terrifying muscle bound barbarian. Who happens to be an aardvark. 

Nine issues of nothing happening: one issue of everything happening. 

We wait; we wait; we wait—and Cerebus explodes. The Oscar material is exquisite: it stands in its own right. But it has to be considered as part of the whole. Like a comedian digressing before a punch line. The energy of Cerebus lies in the experience of reading it.


Like two doomed ships that pass in storm 
They crossed each other’s way.  
They made no sign, they said no word
They had no word to say. 

The Ballad of Reading Gaol


Aonghus Fallon said...

‘It is great fun to try and work out the solution to the narrative puzzles, but once you know what is in the Pandorica and whose side Snape is on, there isn’t much point in going back and experiencing the story a second time.’

I guess one could argue that there are two different kinds of books as much as two different kinds of readers? By extension, that most stories exist on a sliding scale somewhere between the two. That said, how much you like the Father Brown stories (and how likely you are to re-read them) would, I think, depend on the kind of reader you are.

Thomas said...

"For two panels he says nothing; and he seems to brighten up. He doesn’t do anything as obvious as smile: I think the dots of eyes move closer together."

What happens is that Cerebus raises his brow. The upper line of his eyes becomes slightly curved. One ear pricks up, presumably at the suggestion of alcohol. Also, the proportions of his face vary slightly. All this results in a cuter, more wistful expression.

"Once you know [...] whose side Snape is on, there isn’t much point in going back and experiencing the story a second time."

Maybe not, but I *did* feel the need to re-watch Alan Rickman's performances, once I realized how cleverly he balances between being unpleasant and actually doing the right thing without giving the trick away.

Steve B. said...

Re: the previous comments - yes, I think most well-written books (and I would count the Potter books in that class) provide at least SOMETHING for both kinds of readers, but certainly there are books that aim more for one than the other, and rereading Potter books seem to me more an exercise in nostalgia or wanting to ride a particular favorite roller coaster again than something once expects will reveal new depths of meanings previously unrecognized. Watching the performances of an actor AFTER knowing that he knew (partially) the ending is in a slightly different class, and comes closer to what inveterate rereaders are seeking when they reread.

What I came here to say before reading the previous comments -

Wow. This is a masterful essay that does a very good job of "summing up" (without actually DOING much summing up per se, and what actually summing up there is is confined mostly to one small volume, the smallest of 16, the one Sim archly calls a "short story" despite the fact it is more pages than 90% of the "graphic novels" published, and indeed, just one small portion of that small story, one issue of the original comics magazine) exactly WHY Cerebus is worth reading, and discussing, and arguing about. Bravo!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thank you!