Friday, January 22, 2021


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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021



The sixth Cerebus sub-novel, Mothers & Daughters, ran from issues #151-#200. It was collected in four relatively portable volumes: Flight, Women, Reads and Minds. The fact that the spines say Women/Read/Minds is presumably sheer coincidence. 

Very many readers who survived Melmoth quit during Mothers & Daughters. Specifically, they quit during Reads. Even more specifically, they quit after the final chapter of Reads, Cerebus #186: perhaps the most infamous comic ever published. 

Before issue #186 Cerebus was a funny and sometimes challenging comic about an Aardvark barbarian in over his head in real world politics. Everyone read it. After issue #186 it was a weird ass philosophical screed: those of us who continued to read it became very defensive and apologetic. Before #186 Dave Sim had been an opinionated son-of-a-bitch who believed in self-publishing and hated the mainstream comic book trade; after #186 he was evil, mad, misogynist Dave Sim and even buying his comic book was seen as condoning or enabling him. 

I don’t think he was ever evil; but then I don’t think anyone is ever evil. Mad is a nasty word, but I don’t think there is any question that Sim has suffered from mental illnesses. We can quibble about the word misogynist, in the same way we can quibble about words like racism and Islamaphobia. (“Well ACTUALLY I don’t have an irrational fear of Muslims, I merely said they shouldn’t be allowed to vote in elections, so who’s the bigot now?”) You can say “sexist” or “hostile to women” or “anti-feminist” if you prefer. 

Cerebus #186 is toxic. Mothers & Daughters taken as a whole is an astonishing work of literature. Toxicity can be a component of an astonishing work of literature: in the same way that noise and dissonance can be a component of a piece of music and ugliness can be a component of a painting. 

I am not saying that Mothers & Daughters is a great graphic novel if you ignore the sexism, any more than I am saying that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a great novel if you ignore the sex or that Tony Harrison’s V is a great poem if you ignore the swearing. Sex, swearing and misogyny are part of what make up the work of art. 

It used to be said, quite seriously, that Shakespeare was the greatest English poet because he was the greatest English man— his words were the outpourings of his great soul. The dirty bits and the silly bits were forced on him by commercial concerns and should be ignored. The plays were too vulgar to perform: it was better to just read the great speeches. If you really had to put these great speeches on the stage, then the person playing the clown should speak the dirty jokes very quietly and not try to get laughs out of them. 

I recall a columnist in the Daily Mail, many years ago, saying that you could tell that civilisation was about to end and that political correctness had gone mad because the poetry of Sylvia Plath was on the A Level literature syllabus. But Sylvia Plath’s poetry is about madness and decadence and depression and suicide: why on earth would you study that when there is so much poetry about skylarks and Grecian urns and the west wind available? Shouldn’t English literature mean putting the Best and the Greatest before students—Great Men like Shakespeare and Wordsworth; not crazy mixed up kids like Sylvia Plath? 

The Right say that Steinbeck cannot be great literature because he has liberal (and therefore Wrong) beliefs about the Depression. The Left have at times come very close to saying that Rudyard Kipling cannot be great literature because he has conservative (and therefore Wrong) views about colonialism. 

William Blake. I love William Blake. I love The Little Black Boy. The last lines honestly make me weep. But the racism of the opening stanza honestly bring me out in a cold sweat. (1) 

In Cerebus #174, the four main political players in the story—Cerebus, Cirin, Suenteus Po and Astoria — are finally in the same place at the same time. Cerebus was Pope; Suenteus Po is an Illusionist; Cirin represents the Cirinists and Astoria the Kevilists. So we have gathered together the representatives of the four main philosophical positions in the story: patriarchy, anarchy, extreme feminism and, er, even more extreme feminism. If we are reading Cerebus for the plot, this is the climax of the entire saga. We desperately want to know what happens next. 

Quite a lot happens. Suenteus Po embarks on a long expository narrative during which we learn a great deal of history and back story. Po finishes talking in issue #178 and Cerebus says he is going to kill everyone. In fact #179 consists mainly of Astoria talking. She too leaves and in issue #180 Cerebus and Cirin finally start trying to kill each other. Their fight goes on right through to issues #186 and ends with them being lifted up into space where they eventually meet God (again) (kind of). 

This comic book narrative takes up a hundred and twenty pages, or a bit over half the graphic novel. Anyone who tells you that Cerebus ceased to be a comic book, or that Reads consists entirely of prose essays is not telling the truth. 

However, it is definitely true that the comic book narrative is repeatedly interrupted by a novelistic text about an entirely new character, Viktor Reid. The first issue (#175) consists of fourteen pages of Viktor Reid, and only six of Cerebus. (Seven spreads: seven pages of double column text and seven full page illustrations.) We then go back to Cerebus and Cirin and Po; and return to Viktor for the first twelve pages of #176. We continue switching between the two modes of discourse, as we did in Melmoth, until the Big Reveal at the end of issue #181. 

Viktor Reid writes novels. (They are referred to as Reads and act as comic-book analogues in Cerebus’s world.) Viktor’s story is told in the third person, in a voice rather like that of Oscar narrating Jaka’s Story. A sub-novel about a novelist writing a novel: you would think that things couldn’t get much more meta than that. You would be wrong. 

Viktor has a plan for what he believes will be a genuinely great and significant work. He breaks with one publisher; takes a big advance from a new one; and is briefly popular and rich. However, because of the advance, he never quite gets around to writing the great book, and ends up having to write hack-work that he doesn’t believe in to pay the bills. In the final excerpt from his story, we see Reid, married to a wife who does not appreciate his art, demanding that he make more money to take care of the baby and buy new curtains. He reads a review of one of his books, lamenting how his early, excellent writing has given way to pot-boilers. 

It isn’t an original insight, but it remains true, from a certain point of view. There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall. 

“Once I am financially secure” says Viktor “I can write exactly what I want to write about without having to worry if it sells or not.” 

It pretty much goes without saying that this is the antithesis of everything Sim believes; and Viktor Reid is pretty much the writer Sim is terrified of becoming. 

There is nothing in the world worse than a sell-out. Sim’s weird contribution to Todd McFarlane’s silly Spawn comic depicted the first generation of comic superhero creators as having sold themselves and their characters into life-long slavery to the demonic publishing houses. Marvel and DC offered Dave Sim huge amounts of money for Cerebus: this was the era of the Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum, when Alan Moore and Grant Morrison carried all before them. Sim refused to sign the devil’s bargain. While Eastman and Laird became multi-trillionaires on the back of the Turtles, Sim continued to labour, issue by issue, producing the comic which he wanted to produce in the way he wanted to produce it. And fewer and fewer people wanted to read it. 

The Viktor Reid material is unquestionably heartfelt, and it is rather well-written. Yes, it is undoubtedly the work of a bitter divorcee; but unhappy marriages and bitter divorces are part of life and I can think of no particular reason why they shouldn’t be depicted in art. The final image is of Viktor reading the terrible review of his latest book and finding that the second page has baby-food smeared over it. The revulsion is palpable. His wife asks him to help with the baby: 

The sentence was a song, each word a note enhancing, emphasising its predecessor. It was a concise melody, edged with imminent consequence. Confrontational, accusatory...motherly, in a word. 

Dave Sim is NOT a misogynist.

A great deal of the novel-within-a-novel is rather dated comic-book industry gossip and satire. It is hardly possible at this stage to remember who Vertigo Horse and Mike Posserman represent, and why Dave Sim was so annoyed with them. 

But the message is clear: publishers are the enemies of creative artists; marriage — and therefore women— are the allies of publishers. Rejecting feminism and rejecting Disney are part of the same political move. 

Viktor Reid’s story is interleaved with the big political confrontation between the three aardvarks and Astoria. Po talks, and talks, and talks. The final section of his narrative is carried out in extreme close up, so we are only seeing his eyes. And then slowly, over twelve panels, he walks away. And Cerebus—the same Cerebus who chopped off the man’s hand in the bar, a hundred and eighty issues ago, turns to Astoria and Cirin and says “Right: who wants to die first”. 

And we are back with Viktor Reid; going to his publisher and hearing that he can’t write his great work and is going to have to be a hack to earn money instead. 

And back to Cerebus and Astoria: Astoria now talks to Cerebus. She leaves too. And then it is just Cerebus and Cirin, and he pulls out his sword — and for nearly two solid issues, they fight. We are back in the visual language of the end of Melmoth, perhaps Dave’s most characteristic construction — long panels, spread across double pages. It would be inaccurate to call these pages “manga style” — but there is definitely a line to be drawn from Lone Wolf and Cub, through Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns and into Cerebus action scenes. 

And then it happens: one of the genuine “what the fuck?” moments in the history of comics. Issue #181; Mothers and Daughters chapter 31. The first panel of page 16 is the same as the top panel of page 15, unshaded. The point of view pulls back. We are looking at a panel within a panel. We see a lamp and a writing table and finally the back of the artist’s head. There are five panels: but the sixth panel is blank. The whole of the following page is blank, but for a single, displaced panel. It has been flipped over. 

Dave Sim is looking out of the page at us. 

The Viktor Reid story was a novel within a novel about a novelist writing a novel: suddenly, Cerebus has become a comic within a comic. A comic about a comic. A comic about a comic book writer writing a comic. 

Comic book writers have deconstructed their own work before. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were occasionally members of the supporting cast of the Fantastic Four; although it is generally agreed that this was a fictional Stan and Jack who existed inside the fictional Marvel Universe and chronicled the adventures of the fictional Fantastic Four there. Mark Waid wrote a story in which Reed Richards travelled into the afterlife to ask God for the return of his son Franklin. (God is, of course, a grey-streaked cigar-chomping New Yorker named Jack.) A demiurge with a distinct resemblance to Alan Moore appears in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Grant Morrison performed a rather laboured tortured artist routine in Animal Man. And in grown up fiction the authors of Lanark and the Canterbury Tales both appear as characters in their own works. 

The most obvious precursor, however, is Steve Gerber’s meeting with his most famous creation. The legendary sixteenth issue of Howard the Duck consisted of an all-text dialogue between Steve the author and Howard the character. (It came about because the artwork for the issue had literally got lost in the post.) Howard was portrayed partly as the nagging voice of Steve’s neurosis; and partly as his sensible, better self. (2) 

But still: it is audacious. We are not expecting it. We are used to different scenes interrupting each other; but the last thing we were expecting was for Dave to pop the stack at this moment. 

The next chunk of text is in a voice rather similar to Viktor Reid’s: but we are now talking about a character called Viktor Davis, who is pretty much unapologetically Dave Sim. 

What follows is some very dense, very interesting writing in which “Viktor Davis” and “the reader” are treated as characters; the reader having somehow passed through a veil into the author’s world. 

“Yes. It’s leading up to something” he was saying as he stepped further out of the reader’s field of vision. “Everything is getting much closer together now. You, me, the story.” 

The reader could feel the light caress of Viktor Davis’ breath tickling the inside of the reader’s right ear. The stench of cigarette smoke at such close proximity was nearly overpowering. Viktor Davis was quiet for several seconds and when he spoke it was in a voice which was barely a whisper... 

And then he hits us with another “What the hell?” moment. 

It could only be done once. I slightly fear that I am spoiling the book by revealing it; but on the other hand, the existence of the subsequent volumes has already spoiled it. 

It will be remembered that, almost from the beginning, Dave Sim had conceived Cerebus as a 300 issue novel — an idea that seemed overwhelmingly hubristic in 1977. But Viktor Davis now talks directly to the reader about a decision he made on December 8, 1980 — the night John Lennon died: 

He decided that Cerebus would not run for 300 issues. He decided that Cerebus would run for 200 issues. He would not announce it until issue #183, a year and five months before the end: November 1995. 

This is a genuine shock. I can only think of one other occasion when a comic book pulled the rug from under me so successfully. (3) And Sim is aware what he has done: that is the game. He is messing with the reader’s head; demonstrating that he can play them like a fiddle, control their emotions.... 

The reader felt the ground become unstable, felt it wobble uncertainly like a table with four legs of different lengths... 

...and so on, for a paragraph. The reader falling down. The reader lying prone: 

It seemed like an eternity until the reader’s breathing subsided 

...and then: 

The figure of Viktor Davis emerged from the darkness.... “I was just kidding” he said “Cerebus goes to issue 300. Just like I’ve always said.. "

Sim is still playing with the comic book form. There is no cinematic or televisual equivalent to the word “STAB” in a blank panel; there is no theatrical equivalent of interrupting a comic book with some prose. And there is no novelistic equivalent of making the readers believe that the book is going to end ten years sooner than they were expecting. 

Five issues later, Viktor Davis tells The Reader his opinions about men and women. 

And what he says is pretty rancid. The male principle represents light and creativity; the female principle is a void which sucks creativity from males. The male principle represents intellect (“I think”); the female principle represents emotion (“I feel”). Life is female and death is male; but because the void and the emotional now rules the world, life is hopelessly and unsustainably outperforming death. 

Here is a sample. 

In contemplating the full weight of popular culture, television, movies, magazines and newspapers, I see the completely unopposed advocacy of Merged Permanence and I think that a definite brutality is called for. The Male Light is jeopardized on all fronts, in my view. The Devouring Rapacious Female Void is not a thing to be taken lightly, to be explained away, to be rationalised into neutrality. I’m not here to make you feel good. I am here to make you think. And to make you think, I have to make you see. 

Emotion, whatever the Female Void would have you believe, is not a more Exalted State than is Thought. In point of fact, I think Emotion is animalistic, serpent-brain stuff. Animals do not Think, but I am reasonably certain that they have Emotions. “Eating this makes me Happy.” “When my fur is all wet and I am cold, it makes me Sad.” “Ooo! Puppies!” “It makes me Excited to Chase the Ball!” Reason, as any husband can tell you, doesn’t stand a chance in an argument with Emotion. There are no rules to Emotional Argument. You simply wander around in rhetorical circles until you feel Happy again, and then the argument is over. This was the fundamental reason, I believe, that women were (rightly) denied the vote for so long. In order to move a civilisation forward, an overview is required. You have to be able to step back and examine the structure of a problem. This is what Thinking, Reasoning, is. Every political campaign waged in the G-7 countries has as its centrepiece Job Creation. Polls give the politicians a list of voter concerns. Job Creation is at the top of the list. Ergo, the politicians promise Jobs. Because the Female Void dominates proceedings (simply because the Female Void dominates everything), a candidate is elected based on how he or she makes the electorate Feel. We Feel we can Trust this candidate. No effort is made to step back and ask, “Isn’t the whole point of technology to eliminate work?” Reason would tell you that you can either eliminate (or limit) technology or you can eliminate (or limit) jobs. It is not possible to have it both ways. The Female Void Emotional response is that we have to have it both ways. And so we do. And so the problem gets worse instead of better. 

Dave Sim is NOT a misogynist. The UK Comic Laureate says so. 

The interleaving of Viktor Reid and Viktor Davis with the ongoing Cerebus narrative has a complex architectonic effect which Sim clearly plans and intends. Anyone who tells you that Sim just said “sod it can’t be bothered to write a comic book this month I’ll just editorialise instead” has not read or engaged with the text. But since the text goes out of its way to make itself hard to read and engage with, this is entirely understandable. You could say very much the same thing about James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon. (4) 

Yes, there is a problem with population; no, I don’t think we can usefully say that this is because Death is Male and Birth is Female. Yes, there is a problem with emotionalism in the media and politics; no I don’t think that’s because women have too much power and men have been feminized. Yes, I think that there are people like Dave Sim and Viktor Reid and myself who are too selfish to ever be happily married. No, I don’t think that females are Voids who suck the Light out of men. 

But this all comes in the context of a fantastically interesting two hundred and fifty page structural experiment and virtuoso textual mind-fuck. While a male and a female aardvark, embodying the male and the female divinity, are beating hell out of each other. Viktor Davis is pouring out page after page of theories about masculinity and femininity. I am prepared to look at that as a piece of artifice. A piece of construction. A component of a novel. Reading a book is an emotional roller coaster in which the writer does something to us; and my God did Dave Sim do something to me over those pages. 

“So: you are saying that the cleverness of the construction and the total work of art justifies the toxicity of one of the text sections?” 

No. I am saying that the toxicity of one of the text sections does not overwrite the cleverness of the construction and the value of the total work of art. 

And the one might just be a component of the other. 

In addition, as he’s going to be teaching politics, I’ve told him he’s welcome to teach any of the great socialist thinkers, provided he makes it clear that they were wrong. 

Monty Python 

1: My mother bore me in the southern wilds; and I am black, but oh my soul is white. White as an angel is the English child; but I am black, as if bereaved of light.

2: Steve Gerber did everything Dave Sim did, earlier but not so well. Discuss.

3: The Dead Man was Judge Dredd all the time.

4: I have never read Thomas Pynchon.

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

Thursday, December 24, 2020


I thought I knew how this essay was going to start.

I thought I was going to say “The problem with Cerebus does not come where I expected it to come. The problem with Cerebus is not Dave Sim’s sexual politics: the problem with Cerebus is Dave Sim’s chronic inability to stick to the point.”

And indeed: the problem with Cerebus—what makes it a difficult, and for many people, an unreadable book—is Dave Sim’s chronic inability to stick to the point.

Put another way: it’s the form, not the content, that defeats people.

But every time I typed my opening sentence, I found myself needing to qualify it. I could hear the voice of the Reader.

“Oh—so you think Dave Sim’s sexual politics are PERFECTLY OKAY? You don’t have a problem with him saying that women shouldn’t have the vote, or that men need to be taught how to spank their wives and children without injuring them; or that the female demiurge gave men cocks so that women could control them?”

He really says all of this, and that’s only the very beginning of it.

So let me qualify my opening sentence.

The biggest problem with reading Cerebus is not Dave Sim’s sexual politics—even though they are obviously toxic.

The biggest problem with reading Cerebus is Sim’s chronic inability to stick to the point. When he gets the narrative bit between his teeth, he cannot let it go. Or perhaps what The Author thinks the story is about and what The Reader thinks the story is about are at odds. Perhaps what we see as digressions are really the core of the narrative, and the core of the narrative is really a digression. There is no clear path through the text. You get long, static passages followed by exhilarating bursts of action. You struggle your way through twenty pages of dense text and then find that you have consumed fifty pages of wordless visual narrative without noticing.

It is hard to know if this is intentional. Did Sim consciously decide to have passages where Cerebus’s life-story moved forwards; interrupted by passages of farce and passages of exposition? Or did he sketch in a basic structure—fifty issues of Cerebus as Pope, twenty issues of Cerebus running a bar, forty issues of Cerebus and Jaka on a journey—and embark on a twenty-six year NaNoWriMo exercise in filling space?

I don’t accuse him of padding. But I kept thinking of the moment in Waiting for Godot when Pozzo and Lucky interrupt the tramps’ ruminations. “Reinforcements!” cries Vladimir “Now we’ll be able to see the evening through”.

If the Grand Plot calls for three Rabbis to argue about theology, and it occurs to Dave that the three Wise Fellows might look like the Three Stooges, then Dave will riff on Three Stooges routines for pages and months and years. How funny you find it depends on how well you remember the Three Stooges. My heart sinks whenever the Fleagle Brothers or Princes Mik and Keef come into the story.

After becoming Pope and meeting God (kind of) Cerebus becomes a bartender, and after several years, meets up with Rick, who was formerly married to Cerebus’s one true love, Jaka. Unexpectedly, they get on really well. Due to a plot device I may not entirely have understood, Rick still believes that Cerebus is the True Pope and therefore a kind of Avatar or Incarnation of Tarim (which is to say God, kind of). As a result, Cerebus’s most trivial remarks are interpreted by Rick as having divine significance. This is represented by a series of full page, double column, black letter pastiches of the King James Bible (with seventeenth century spelling) and stained glass window style tableaux.

This is not unfunny. Sim can do funny. Sim can do pastiche. Sim has studied the Bible closely, and the clash between form and content works pretty well:

“And Cerebvs grew wroth and spake angrily, inquiring of mee, Art thou a foole who following Cerebvs, knowest not where Cerebva doth go?

If Cerebvs shouldst peraduenture walke off a talle cliffe, wouldst though follow Cerebvs in walking off that same talle cliffe?

And I answered unto Cerebus saying Yea; even of a truth; it is the desire of Rickes heart to follow Cerebvs euen off the tallest of tall cliffes…”

But Sim keeps this joke going: not for one page, not for three pages, but for twenty pages. Twenty pages of Biblical pastiche.

Are we even intended to read it? He would hardly be the first person to incorporate a page of text into a piece of visual art. On pages 9 and 10 of issue #225, Rick starts to describe Cerebus’s very ordinary bar as if it were a temple or sanctuary

“and there were two chairs over against the windows of the west wall. To the north side going northward of the table of the west wall was one chair…”

This is obviously a joke at the expense of the notoriously unreadable book of Leviticus. (Is there something faintly anti-Semitic about poking fun at Jewish scripture without showing much sign of having asked an actual Jew what the temple passages are all about? * ) On pages 11 and 12 of the same issue, the Biblical text is substantially obscured by comic book art; which means (obviously) that you couldn’t read it even if you wanted to.

An unreadable text followed by an unreadable text? Dave Sim likes to mess with our heads.

Three volumes further down the line, Rick’s account of his time spent shooting the breeze with Cerebus in a bar has literally become the sacred scripture of a new Cerebite church. Indeed, it is one of the texts which the Three Wise Fellows endlessly argue about. The joke isn’t that far from Monty Python’s Life of Brian—very ordinary words appear to have massive significance if listened to with the ear of faith.

Rick’s Story represents a formal high point in Sim’s development as an artist. It contains some of the very best individual pages in the history of American comic book. The Bible passages are part of the collage. But they make the volume very hard to get through. 

It is not possible to talk about Cerebus without talking about Dave Sim’s sexual politics. Of course it isn’t. And he wouldn’t want us to. By the end, he talked about Cerebus as if it were an argument, or a thesis, rather than a work of art. He said that he said what he wanted to say in the way that he wanted to say it.

And this is an irreducible problem. As a work of art, Cerebus is worthy of our very close attention. It’s as serious and complex as Ulysses or Les Miserables. But as an argument, it is not even worth considering. Women like lovely little houses with pretty curtains; men like to get drunk in the pub with their male friends. Men like building houses; women like living in houses. Men talk about facts; women talk about feelings. Men like sex more than they like babies; women like babies more than they like sex. Men are inclined to think with their cocks and women know how to exploit this. A happy marriage—“merged permanence” between two different beings—is an impossibility.

As the basis for a slightly reactionary romantic comedy—as something for a slightly bitter divorced man to ramble about in his cups—it’s relatively harmless. But as the book goes on, it becomes a theory. Women are purely emotional beings. Women are “female voids” who suck energy from “male lights”. This is all revealed to be the literal truth in the book of Genesis (which Sim is the first person ever to have understood) and by physics and the big bang (the theoretical problems of which Sim has definitively resolved).

As the novel proceeds, the narrative gets nastier and narrower. Jaka goes from being the one truly good person in the story to being a spoiled harlot princess. Cerebus’s city is invaded by fanatical matriarchal fascists. By the final volume, the Cirinists have been eclipsed by a new even more extreme cult which permits abortion. Legalised paedophilia and bestiality follow as a matter of course.

Some Jews won’t listen to Wagner: I get that. Wagner was strongly anti-Semitic, and he was idolised by the most anti-Semitic person in history. (**) The question is not “Is the Ring Cycle anti-Semitic?” Of course the Ring Cycle is anti-Semitic. The question is: is the Ring Cycle reducible to anti-Semitism; is anti-Semitism the only thing we can talk about when we talk about the Ring?

Do we have to say Dave Sim’s bizarre—let’s be honest here, Dave Sim’s completely fucking deranged—theories exhaust what it is possible to say about Cerebus the Aardvark? Or can form be separated from content?

I remember a long time ago the late, great Jeremy Hardy saying  “People tell me that the Daily Telegraph is a pretty good newspaper provided you ignore its politics. I don’t agree: I think it is an excellent newspaper, provided you keep its politics in mind at all times.”

James Franco’s very good film about Alan Ginsberg showed an essentially circular argument being hammered out in an American court room. Howl! can’t be obscene, because it has redeeming artistic value. Howl! cannot have redeeming artistic value, because it is obscene. A great poem is permitted to contain the word “fuck”. A poem which contains the word “fuck” can’t be a great.

How many times have we been round this circle? Talons of Weng Chiang can’t be a great Doctor Who story. It’s racist. Talons of Weng Chiang can’t be racist; it’s a great Doctor Who story. Othello can’t be racist, it’s part of English literature. Othello shouldn’t be part of English literature, it’s racist.

Or, worst of all: since Othello is part of English literature, it doesn’t matter whether it is racist or not

I think Dave Sim is wrong. I do not think that being wrong is the worst sin an artist can commit. I think that we can forgive a writer for being insane or absurd or even evil. The only unforgivable crime a writer can commit is to be boring.

A Merchant of Venice is a blatantly, shamelessly, intentionally, offensively anti-Semitic story. It is also a bloody good play. (***) Both these things are true. Move along.

It is possible to exaggerate the extent to which Sim’s theories impinge on the novel (as opposed to the critical apparatus which is mercifully omitted from the compiled volumes). Certainly, from Church & State onwards, Cerebus’s major antagonists are an extreme matriarchal cult. But during Jaka’s Story and Mothers & Daughters, it is pretty hard to read the Cirinists as a parody or critique of real-world feminism. They are pretty much generic religious fanatics: indeed, it wouldn’t be too hard to read them as an all-girl Al Qaeda tribute act. (This was before September 11th.) In the final volumes Cerebus becomes the inspiration for an equal and opposite masculinist cult, which is presented as equally dystopian and ludicrous.

There is, from the beginning, a strong streak of boy versus girl comedy. But the men are just as silly as the women. Often more so. That’s the joke. One of my favourite one-liners comes while Cerebus is hiding out in a girls’ school—in a story which starts out as a parody of the Beguiled (sort of) and ends up as a parody of the X-Men (kind of). It also incorporates a parody of Man-Thing, called, inevitably, Woman-Thing. Cerebus, in the Clint Eastwood/Colin Farrell role, is making small talk with the schoolgirls.

“He’s probably rescued simply thousands of women from death—haven’t you?”

“Actually, no. Cerebus did use one as a shield once.”

“Surely you jest?”

“She was the only item at hand.”

“Have you never heard of the code of honour? It plainly states that women are not to be harmed in any way!”

“That is why they make the best shields.”

And later:

“You didn’t really use a woman as a shield, did you?”

“No. Cerebus was just making a point about the code of honour.” [And Cerebus didn’t have the nerve to tell you about the one he used as a battering ram].

This is definitely a joke about male violence towards women; and it is definitely “sexist”, in the sense that it contrasts the cynical, battle hardened male barbarian with the naive school girl. The central joke is Cerebus’s frank admission that he is a dishonourable fighter. Humour frequently comes from the processing of contradictory signals: I think that our reaction to Cerebus’s flawlessly logical “that is why they make the best shields” is to think “What a dude!” and “That’s a terrible thing to say!” at the same moment.

And then there is Red Sophia.

Red Sonja was a female counterpart to Conan the Barbarian: if you can visualise Conan, you probably picture him with a red-haired warrior woman at his side. She wasn’t part of Bob Howard’s mythos, but was incorporated into the saga by Roy Thomas. It’s Thomas’s comic-book Conan that provided Dave Sim with his template in the early days. So Sim’s Conan analogue met a Red Sonja analogue in issue three.

Pretty much the entire joke is that Red Sophia looks like the Roy Thomas swords woman, but talks like a stereotypical all-American bimbo. To a tiny degree, Sim may actually be pushing back against the dubious notion that the original Sonja would only have sex with a man who has bested her in battle. Cerebus is quite capable of besting anyone in battle, but he is relatively uninterested in sex. Sophia is on the other hand, a nymphomaniac. So when Sophia tells Cerebus that she is his to command, Cerebus orders her to carry his baggage. Eventually, she simply exposes herself to him:

"Enough talk, you short, grey celibate—what do you think of THESE?”

“They’d probably heal if you’d stop wearing that chainmail bikini.”

“Chainmail bikini” was already in use as a fan-expression to make fun of the implausible and impractical armour that Barry Smith and Frank Frazetta were inclined to dress female heroes in: Cerebus is very aware of the genre he is inhabiting.

It is subsequently ret-conned that Cerebus does, in fact, like sex very much indeed, but as an orthodox Tarimite doesn’t believe in doing it with anyone he isn’t married to. This makes a lot of sense but spoils the joke.

Some issues later, Cerebus wakes up after a particularly drunken night and finds that he has married Sophia. This occurs in the same issue that Sim announces that he and his wife Deni are getting divorced. While there is some low comedy involving Cerebus discovering a copper breast plate in his bed, any idea that Sophia is Sonja rapidly falls away. Her father may be a wizard, but her mother is the scary Granny out of the Giles cartoons. Cerebus has long-since ceased to be Conan. The joke is simply one of character: a cynical, taciturn, soldier unwisely married to a trivially minded chatterbox.

It’s a bit sexist, and quite funny.

This is, in fact, how most of Sim’s early comedy works. Elrod the Albino comes on the scene in the issue after Sophia’s first appearance, and for the same reason: Michael Moorcock’s hero implausibly guest-starred in an early episode of Marvel’s Conan. Where Sophia looks like Sonja and talks like a schoolgirl, Elrod looks like Elric but talks with a Texas accent. You don’t need to have read Elric to understand the character: Dave Sim hadn’t. You don’t—I say, you don’t—need to have seen a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon to understand his dialogue. I never have. The joke is that Elrod turns up at inopportune moments and irritates the hell out of Cerebus.

Cerebus and Sophia; Cerebus and the schoolgirls; Cerebus and Jaka: there is a hell of a lot of comedically exaggerated gender essentialism. You might well call it “not very PC” or “a bit sexist” or “unreconstructed” or “problematic”. But there is not much sense of all-out anti-feminist misogyny in the text itself.

There are some overtly toxic passages, which we will come to eventually.

One of the running gags is that bars are all-male environments. The Cirinists allow men to continue to go to bars; and oblige landlords to provide free food; with the proviso that men are not allowed to go home drunk: they have to sober up before they leave. If a man remains in a bar for three consecutive nights, he is automatically divorced from his wife. Men get to drink and women get protected from drunkards.

Two entire volumes of the comic—Guys and Rick’s Story—are set in a bar room. Quite a lot of men are fairly happy with the Cirinist arrangement, and Sim seems to think that this is how you would expect “real men" to feel: sport and alcohol and the company of other men is much better than domesticity.

Guys drink too much. Cerebus consumes whiskey by the bucket. They make jokes about pissing. They get into fights. The flick nuts into buckets and obsess about a violent squash/baseball hybrid called Five Bar Gate. (Sim describes the rules in rather more detail than the reader can probably take in.) Certainly, some of the female characters are clever to the point of being cunning and manipulative; and certainly, some of the female characters are chatty, flighty and over-concerned with nice clothes. But the male characters—including the ones we are meant to like and approve of—are characterised by straightforward macho vacuity. Cerebus himself is strong and brave, but also rude, vulgar, ignorant and dishonourable.

“Women are sneaky but men are idiots” may be sexist, but it doesn’t quite amount to full on men’s rights misogyny. I don’t even think that “…and that’s why all married men are miserable” is quite extreme enough to deserve the opprobrium which has been heaped on Dave Sim. But in the latter volumes—in two or three specific passages—Sim raises “Jaka and Cerebus can never be happy together” to a universal cosmic principal from which can be deduced the true meaning of the universe.

Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex
And I honour them every bit as much as the next

Jake Thackray

(*) I am no longer a member of the Labour Party

(**) Apart from Jeremy Corbyn

(***) I am no longer a member of the Labour Party

Friday, December 18, 2020


In 1982, Andrew bought three copies of Cerebus the Aardvark from Forbidden Planet. Andrew couldn’t understand them. Andrew liked the idea of a comic with such a ridiculous title, possibly because Andrew had seen the John Cleese /Marty Feldman bookshop sketch. Andrew had bought Howard the Duck from the import spinner at the Sugar and Spice sweetshop on East Barnet Road, along with the Human Fly and the Eternals: but Andrew didn’t really understand that either. 

A bit later, Andrew tracked down copies of Swords of Cerebus (reprinting the earlier, funnier issues) and the High Society graphic novel. Andrew understood those and found them very funny indeed. 

Andrew bought every monthly issue from #80 onwards. 

At college, everyone Andrew knew read Cerebus. They wore t-shirts and had photocopies of their favourite pages on their walls; they referred to each other as Most Holy. Andrew’s flatmate Eddie made Andrew a life sized Cerebus stuffed toy for his birthday. 

Andrew even took to referring to himself in the third person. 

Some people feel that Cerebus the Aardvark was never as funny after it stopped being a parody of Conan the Barbarian and became a political satire. 

Some people stopped reading during the two hundred page digression about the death of Oscar Wilde. 

Very many people stopped reading after #186, when writer/artist Dave Sim explained his interesting theories about feminism. (SPOILER: He’s against it.) 

Andrew’s own attention wavered during Cerebus’s extended journey back to his home town, during which he is distracted by thinly veiled caricatures of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway. 

The final volumes of the three hundred issue graphic novel involve ex-barbarian-turned-messiah Cerebus explaining the true meaning of the Torah to Woody Allen, in very small print. Dave Sim once claimed that only seventeen people had read that volume right the way through. Andrew knows at least three of them personally. 

When Cerebus came to an end in 2003, Andrew wrote a very detailed appreciation of the final issue. It really did seem, at that point, that Andrew was the only person who had stayed faithful to the Short Grey Fellow; and that Andrew was reading it in the same spirit that Andrew might visit a once-beloved uncle who had been jailed for sex-offences. 

Andrew always intended to re-read the entire three hundred issue, six thousand page novel to see how it stood up, but Andrew never quite got around to it. 

During lockdown, Andrew re-read the entire three hundred issue, six thousand page novel. 

This is Andrew telling you how well Andrew thinks it stands up. 

It is not a commentary or an exegesis. It is just Andrew’s thoughts. It is long, rambling, unstructured, and frequently wanders from the point. And so does Andrew’s essay. 

Cerebus is not a comic book. 

Cerebus is not a graphic novel. 

I am not even sure if Cerebus is a novel. 

Cerebus is a montage. 

Cerebus is a mixed media work of art. 

Cerebus is a multi-media narrative 

Cerebus is a vast, audacious, formal experiment. 

Reading Cerebus is like being assaulted from different directions by different kinds of text. 

Found objects. Literary pastiche. Diagetic text. Film and play scripts. Essays. Prose novellas. Biblical exposition. Comic strips. Traditional American comic books. Manga style cinematic decompression. 

There are pages of text with illustrations on the facing page. There are surreal wordless dream sequences. Decades may shoot past in a single page; or it may take Cerebus several issues to get out of bed. One issue demands to be cut up and pasted together so it forms a single huge figure. There are realistic characters who talk like cartoons and cartoon characters who talk like real people. The central figure is a funny animal who is treated as a fully rounded character with a complicated interior life. Movie actors and pop stars and political figures and famous writers and friends of the author keep appearing in pastiche. The fourth wall is frequently smashed into tiny little pieces. But there are maps and floor-plans and a very detailed pseudo-history. 

The comic never settles down into a single style. In the final volume, Woody Allen appears (presumably because he is a well known Jewish celebrity) to discuss the Old Testament with the central figure. Of course he does. When he first appears, he is a photo-realistic representation of the film actor: but as the story (or, as we are compelled to say, the “story”) proceeds, he morphs into a Hunt Emerson style caricature of himself. He ends up wearing a mask; transforming himself into one of the Jews from Maus. 

If you are incredibly irritated by this kind of thing, you will find that this is the kind of thing which irritates you incredibly. 

You meet people who think that John Steinbeck intended to write a melodrama about the Joad family’s ill-fated journey to California; and due to a catastrophic editorial blunder, accidentally put a series of essays about the dust-bowl migrants in alternate chapters. You meet people who think that Moby-Dick is a collection of witty and informative essays about the whaling trade which got hijacked by an irrelevant melodrama about a crazy sea captain and a verbose harpooner. 

On a first reading of Les Miserables it is easy to be shocked at how little of the novel is about Jean Valjean and how much of it is about the Battle of Waterloo, or the slang used by Paris thieves, or the philosophical idea of a nunnery. It is tempting to imagine that Victor really wanted to get to the last reprise of Do You Hear The People Sing and due to a terrible fault as a writer kept wandering off the point to talk about Fontain’s daughter’s foster brother. But the text of Les Miserables exists and the digressions are part of it. A Les Miserables which stuck to the point would be a different book. 

For all I know, a better book. But it is always better to read a flawed book which exists than a flawless one that doesn’t. 

You are entitled to be puzzled when a romantic comedy about a barbarian mercenary and a princess-turned-dancer is interrupted by a memoir of a hunting expedition in Africa. Particularly if the story is taking place in a fantasy world where Africa doesn’t exist. But you are not entitled to say that if you ignore or skip the embedded narratives you will arrive at some truer or better or preferred version of the text. 

We have to read the book Dave wrote: not the one we wish he had written. 

Books are not “what happened”. They are a set of choices the author has made about how he wants to tell us what happened. What matters, in the end, if the cumulative emotional effect those choices have on the reader. 

Books sometimes have irrelevant passages. My copy of Don Quixote has an introduction which very sensibly advises me to skip all the sentimental shepherds in the first half. 

Cerebus is very long. It ran to three hundred issues all but three of which are gathered together in a series of seventeen graphic novels. Back in the eighties we used to call them Phone Books. The idea of publishing a collection of back-issues in a single volume was rather a whacky innovation. It may not literally be the longest sustained narrative in human history (as Dave Sim likes to claim) but it does have an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the most consecutive issues of a comic book created by the same writer/artist. (Dave Sim wrote and pencilled all three hundred issues: Gerhard supplied phenomenally detailed backgrounds for every issue after #65.) The record was previously held by two little known superhero creators named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It is believed that Eric Larsen may usurp the crown some time in 2023. 

Sometimes, a long book is the same as a short book, only with more chapters added on. If fifty pages of D’Artagnan getting into sword fights and preserving the Queen’s honour is fun, then five hundred pages are ten times as fun. If you like that kind of thing, you would be happy for the story to carry on more or less indefinitely. But if you found the first fifty pages a drag, then there is very little point in persevering. 

But some very long books have to be very long because they have a complex structure that can’t be done in less than a trillion words. You can’t possibly know what kind of a book you are reading until you get to the end of it, any more than you can possibly know what kind of a painting you are looking at if only the bottom left hand corner is poking out of the brown paper wrapper. 

And thus everything gets terribly polarised. 

Those of us who got to the end of Knausgaard’s My Struggle or Don Quixote or The Silmarillion are by definition, the kinds of people who can be bothered to get to the end of those kinds of books. If you aren’t disposed to like them you won’t read them and therefore won’t be able to find out if they are the kinds of books you would have liked if you had finished them. 

The world is not divided into people who have read the Lord of the Rings and people who are going to read it some day. The world is divided into people who have read it and think it is the bee’s knees, and people who are offended by its very existence without having got past Tom Bombadil. 

Not reading things you don’t think you’d like is a perfectly valid choice. 

The Guardian does a little feature called “Books that made me” in which people who deal in words respond to a questionnaire about their reading. What’s the first book you remember reading? What was the last book which made you laugh? What book couldn’t you finish? 

You could probably form a support group for the famous writers who say they have never got to the end of Moby Dick. On the whole, they are defiant, even proud of not having done so. “Life is too short! Four hundred pages in and we are still nowhere near the bloody whale!” People who haven’t read Middlemarch are much more apologetic and really want to get around to it one of these days. Ulysses is more like a mountain to be conquered. Knausgaard seems to elicit anger and resentment from people outside the cult. They are especially angry about his ethnicity. (“Why should I want to hear about the life of a straight white guy?”) 

I have read Moby Dick: several times: I understand it more each time. I have read Middlemarch—only once, but it blew my mind, in an appropriately provincial way. I raced through Knausgaard in one go, knowing within ten pages that I had discovered my new favourite book. I even got right to the end of Proust. I didn’t love it but I didn’t feel I had wasted my time. 

But I don’t love Jane Austen quite enough to have quite got around to the three I haven’t read. (Persuasion and Sensibility, I think? I started Emma once. But the Mr Darcy one made me laugh out loud in a cafe.) I will probably go to my grave without having done the full Dickens canon. I got right through Malory (while I was still at school) and Spencer (on my own time, in the days when Borders bookshops still had Starbucks in them) so I really ought to give Walter Scott another go. I don’t feel guilty that I have never got passed page 50 of Tristan Shandy, but it does make me feel a bit sad, because everything I know about the book makes me think it is the kind of thing I ought to like. I am within fifty pages of having read Ulysses. Indeed, this afternoon, it is a toss-up between Molly’s soliloquy and the last couple of volumes of 1980s Teen Titans. 

When I said during lockdown that I was going to try and tackle James Joyce at the rate of, say, five pages a day, one of my Fanbase asked if I was actually enjoying it. “It’s a great work of literature”, I said: “You aren’t supposed to enjoy it.” I was only half joking. When it comes to Herman and Karl Ove and Marcel you just have to throw yourself at them and let them take you wherever they are going: today it might be fifty pages of bloody French landscape, Catholics talking about being Catholics in a brothel, or another trip to the supermarket to buy prawns: but tomorrow it might be an aphorism or a piece of description or a conversation that you will carry around with you for the rest of your life. 

Perhaps it comes down to whether you are a book-addict or a story-addict. If what you want is story, narrative, fiction, stuff happening, then you obviously aren’t going to survive Proust. Or Moby Dick. If you read Cerebus to find out what happens next, you would go insane with frustration. These massive huge books have a gradual, cumulative, impact: they need five hundred or a thousand pages to do what they are trying to do you. 

The designs of My Struggle on us—with Boyhood Island as its most vivid example so far—are much less rhetorical than they are cognitive. The question that ensues, and that readers of Knausgaard in English will have to wait for subsequent volumes to fully answer for themselves, is whether hypnotic immersion on such undiluted terms is as genuinely nourishing as it sometimes can feel.

Nicholas Dames