I haven’t read Dave Sim’s Cerebus in years. At least ten, probably more like twenty. I fell off the horse sometime before the big ending — Cerebus famously was a self-published series whose creator declared he would do three hundred issues, monthly, and by gum he did it — during what I think of as the Sour Years.
(As far as I can tell, Cerebus ended as planned in 2004, but the Sour Years did not. There’s a lesson for all of us, as we get older.)
Before that, though, Cerebus was one of my favorite comics. More importantly, it was an exemplar of what comics could do, one of the first comics I picked up at Iron Vic Comics in Poughkeepsie sometime in the fall of 1986, when Young Andy went to see what these “new comics for adults” were all about.
I must have come in with a list of some kind, at least a mental one — I almost always have lists — because I know I didn’t ask for anyone’s advice. Or maybe I just grabbed what looked the most different on the racks. It was 1986; there was a lot of different available, especially in a comics shop near a college.
In any case, I know I got Flaming Carrot and Nexus that first trip. Maybe Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, but I don’t think so: I think it was all indies, that first time out.
Other comics had different things going for them: Flaming Carrot was the most bizarre, with a beating heart of pure dada. Nexus was smart SF of a kind I didn’t yet realize was vanishingly rare in comics. But Cerebus was easily the most impressive. Sim was a great artist, a masterful letterer — the least-appreciated of the comics arts — and a master of fizzy, funny dialogue. He also clearly had a master plan and knew how to pace a story. (Even then, I was looking for storytellers who knew how to do endings. Sim has his flaws — they are huge and un-ignorable — but he always knew how to close a story.)
Sim eventually fell into the Autodidact’s Curse: swallowed whole by his own self-inflicted cranky explanation of everything in the universe, which of course also took over Cerebus, because that’s what happens with autodidacts who live and work alone: their work is the way to reach the world, so it fills up with everything in their heads. And what was in Sim’s head, starting in the mid-90s, got pretty vile.
But I’m not in the mid-90s today. Cerebus , the book, is the first of sixteen big fat “phone books” — Sim pioneered the complete book-format reprint series, the way he pioneered self-publishing, by just doing it damn well and inspiring others to follow. It starts with the very first issue, from the end of 1977, and collects that along with the next twenty-four issues, up to just before the beginning of his first really long story, High Society, in the spring of 1981.
The Cerebus book has four years and about 550 pages of comics, starting with a cartoon aardvark (the title character) in a fantasy story that sits uneasily somewhere between parody and homage of the Roy Thomas/Barry (Windsor-) Smith Conan but rapidly turns into its own distinctive blend of comics-industry parody, comics versions of various old comedians (and some others), sword-swinging realpolitik, every cultural influence that hit Sim in nearly real-time, convoluted scheming among various strains of serious and silly fanatics, and just plain gleeful joy in overcomplication.
At the center of it all is Cerebus: an aardvark in a world of men (this will be explained, sort of, much later, and not necessarily in a way anyone will be satisfied with), and a person who relentlessly hides his depths, and any trace of nuance, in pursuit of being the bluntest of blunt objects. Cerebus primarily is a force of need and demand — mostly, in these early stories, trying to get as large a pile of gold coins as he possibly can, and generally losing what he has in his greed for more. He’ll come to want bigger things later, but that essential nature remains: he’s smart, but not thoughtful, and insightful about the weaknesses and exploitable flaws of others, but never introspective for a second. Those traits lead him to fail, over and over, in interesting and frequently funny ways.
As I said above, the story will all go sour, in various ways, later on, as Sim’s hobby-horses and the bludgeon of Cerebus’s personality combine badly into histrionic misogynistic stories and endlessly tedious text features. But that’s a long way in the future from these stories. These stories see Sim expanding from single-issue stories to first two and then three-issue plots, and threading background details into launching points for the next ideas. By the end of this book, Cerebus has changed from a comic about a cartoon aardvark who has a somewhat humorous fantasy adventure each issue into a comic about a big, quirky world, full of conflict and modernizing in a vaguely late-medieval way, across which travels a deeply flawed but very interesting grey-skinned fellow.
This is the rising curve of Cerebus: Sim got noticeably better with every issue, and was doing entertaining and intriguing fantasy adventure from the first page. He got very funny very quickly; his drawing improved immensely from what was already a nice Windsor-Smith follower; and his plots and dialogue filled with amusing and fascinating complications as he built out that complex world.
There are hints of the later attitudes towards women here — women do not come off well in any era of Cerebus, except maybe the Jaka storyline. There are two major female characters in this book: Jaka, a dancer that Cerebus falls in love with when drugged and abandons immediately afterward, and the Red Sonja parody Red Sophia. Jaka does eventually get more emotional depth than the standard beautiful, loving, loyal girlfriend role she gets here, but that’s still far in the future. And Red Sophia is very funny, but no deeper than any of the other parodies, like the Cockroach or Elrod of Melvinbone.
(Though I have to say that I was reminded again, reading this, just how amazingly funny Elrod is. It’s a bizarre combination that shouldn’t work for any logical reason — an incompetent, self-important version of Moorcock’s Elric who speaks in the tones of Foghorn Leghorn — but it kills, and every time Elrod appears again it’s a high point of the book.)
I don’t think any of this is “you had to be there.” It definitely will work better if you are of the male persuasion, and doubly so if you don’t know where it all ends up. But there’s well over two thousand pages of really good Cerebus comics, and they start here. You can always jump off the ride before it crashes. You’ll have plenty of time and warning. Comics has few enough geniuses: we can’t afford to ignore the crazy ones.