The 20th century fizzled out and reading Cerebus ceased to be a pleasure and became a chore. I have said in the past that Going Home was the point at which Cerebus became entirely unreadable. Having just re-read the 700 page phonebook collection I am sorry to say that I was utterly and completely wrong.
The penultimate novel is, in fact, a massive return to form. Sim is firing on all cylinders: character study, farce, and virtuoso composition that pushes the comic book form to its very limit. And also a lot of extremely dodgy sexual politics. If you want to see just how good Dave Sim was at the tail end of his great project, you need to have a look at Cerebus #260 and #261: Going Home chapters 29 and 30.
A man an a woman are trapped in a tent in a terrible snowstorm. The man has a dream-vision; that there is a settlement over the next ridge and they will find it if they leave everything behind in the tent and strike out right now. The woman thinks this is crazy. The man persuades her. They stumble through the storm—and sure enough, they do find a settlement. The woman was right (it was a crazy thing to do) but the man was also right (the vision was authentic).
This is only a small part of Going Home. It is recognisably a story; a story which has been told before but a story which is worth telling again. And it is a story which forces the two main characters to lock horns in a very dramatic way. I am sure that Sim intends it to embody a universal truth about the Rightness of men and the Wrongness of women. Yet I found it very easy to read it as being about Cerebus and Jaka.
Cerebus has taken Jaka on a protracted journey to meet his parents. On the way they argue, and fight, and make up, and argue, and fight, and make up again. It has been obvious to the reader for a long while that Cerebus is in love with his idea of Jaka and Jaka is in love with her idea of Cerebus but that they don’t really know each other very well, and are obviously temperamentally unsuitable for each other. Mothers & Daughters ended with “Dave” the writer demonstrating to Cerebus the character that there was no way of writing the story such that Cerebus and Jaka would live happily ever after.
During the journey, the two of them encounter a writer named F. Stop Kennedy (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and another writer named Ham Ernestway (work it out for yourself). As issue #260 opens they have left their hunting lodge, because Cerebus believes that Mary Ernestway has abetted Ham’s suicide. (Don’t ask.) It is snowing; the food is running out. Cerebus is engaged in an internal dialogue with himself; trying to avoid losing consciousness; trying to calculate how long the supplies will last; wondering if the tent can withstand the storm, and trying to convince himself that he was in tighter spots during his barbarian days.
Simply as an exercise in form—a piece of abstract art, a visual tone poem—the episode takes one’s breath away. A large amount of the story is told in solid white panels and solid black panels. It starts out on a five by five grid—which you would think is about as small as comic panels can go. By page 8, it has shrunk further to forty panels a page; by the end of the issue we are down to a ten by ten grid: a hundred postage stamp size panels. But the issue ends on a single, big, full page illustration—an abstract sound effect of a loud noise which awakens Cerebus from his dream. In the following issue, time starts to flow more normally, with a much more sensible three by two panel layout.
What is a comic book? If it is any combination of words and picture on a page, then Cerebus #260 is a comic book; and so is Viktor Reid’s autobiography; and so are the political debate transcripts in High Society; and so is Mog the Forgetful Cat. Stan Lee said that if Michelangelo and Shakespeare had collaborated, they would have produced a very good comic book. But if a comic book is an animated cartoon frozen in space; a series of still images from which we infer motion and narrative and the passage of time; then Cerebus #260 barely counts as a comic book at all. It is almost entirely about subjectivity and internal states: how the experience of freezing or starving presents itself to Cerebus’s consciousness. It’s the consummation of the Mind Games issues, which took place entirely inside the main character’s head. There are blank panels; panels full of text; extreme close ups of Cerebus’s face; fragmented images of Cerebus. When the lantern goes out and Cerebus realises they have no matches, we have seventeen black panels followed by two tiny images of Cerebus and a distraught looking Jaka. We have two entire pages of Cerebus looking at his hands. And finally a dream sequence, in the tiniest panels yet; black space; text; tiny faces. The sense of panic, of fear and desperation in the teeny-tiny panels is incredibly powerful. The sense of release when the strip turns into something more like a comic book is visceral.
However avant garde the illustration, and whatever religious and political rabbit holes Sim may have descended into, I was never in any doubt that the guy freezing to death with his lover was the same card player and treasure hunter we first encountered two thousand pages and twenty years ago.
“The storm isn’t going to lift because it’s called winter and it isn’t going to stop for six months.”
Cerebus’s instincts as an outdoorsman tell him to preserve the last match to light a fire when they go outside; but he uses it to briefly light a lantern because he thinks that if they are going to die anyway Jaka might as well have a few seconds of comfort. On the other hand has threatens to hit her if she becomes hysterical. He says that he is going to shoot himself rather than die of starvation, and wants Jaka to promise to eat his body when that happens. She won’t talk about it.
In the dream, Rick—who still believes, at some level, that Cerebus is Most Holy and the embodiment of the living Tarim—tells Cerebus that the storm is going to stop, and that Cerebus is to leave everything in the tent and follow the line of trees. He also tells him—and this is almost the most important plot point in the whole sub-novel—that at some time in the future, someone will give Cerebus a book and this book will tell him “everything”.
Issue # 261 is a pure character piece: Cerebus persuades Jaka to leave the tent, as Rick told him in the dream; Cerebus and Jaka battle their way through the snow; Cerebus starts to doubt his own vision; but at the final moment, they do indeed find shelter over the ridge.
In the tent, there is real vitriol and anger between the two characters; and it is quite shocking to see Jaka the beautiful dancer transformed into a frightened, starving, middle-aged woman. There are fewer structural fireworks than in the previous issue; but Sim is still restlessly pushing the form in unexpected directions. We are in a life and death situation in which the main characters are talking openly of cannibalism; Sim is setting up the theological crux of his epic: but Cerebus himself was never more a cartoon aardvark than he is on pages 3 and 4. He jumps up and down: he waves his arms in the air. His pinprick eyes expand; they become spirals and asymmetrical shapes. Cerebus speaks in huge, black letters; Jaka in small text in dripping speech bubbles.
“You’re not coming?”
“Oddly enough. No.”
In the end, it is Cerebus who is the manipulative one: he says that if Jaka comes with him, she can eat the remaining rations.
“Of course Cerebus trusts you because Cerebus loves you, mwah, but just to humour silly, ha-ha-ha silly, silly Cerebus we’ll bring the biscuits with us...”
There really is a shelter; and the issue ends with Jaka yelling “I want my biscuits” and Cerebus wryly handing them over.
Jaka can be childish but Cerebus can be a bastard. Was that the message I was supposed to take from these episodes?
It is true that Going Home also contains a multi-issue digression about Ernest Hemingway.
It is true that the ending of the novel (when Jaka and Cerebus finally reach Cerebus’s old home) depends on some assumptions about fathers, sons and wives that most readers will find it difficult to accept.
It is true that at seven hundred pages, it is a challenging read.
But its high points are as good as anything Dave Sim, or anyone else, ever did. And the Hemingway digression is a damn impressive piece of graphic story-telling on it’s own terms.
I am very glad I overcame my prejudices and re-read it and I hope you will too.
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