The Short and Episodic Origins of Apocalyptic Aardvarks

Cerebus the Aardvark, or simply Cerebus for short, is without a doubt one of the most ambitious and important works in the field of comics – especially independent comics. It began as a simple, funny parody of sword & sorcery comics, made funny in part by casting as its central hero a diminutive, grumpy aardvark (“the Earth-Pig born!”, as the narration in early issues was fond of proclaiming).

With the passage of time, it increasingly took on more serious themes, with artist-author Dave Sim shifting gear from telling short stories over the course of a single issue to telling two-to-three-part stories to, eventually, producing enormous novel-length series of dozens of issues. Sim declared his intention that the series would run for 300 issues, culminating with Cerebus’ death. Following on from its debut in 1977, the series ultimately put out its 300th issue and bowed out with issue 300 in early 2004, at the end of which Cerebus did indeed die.

In the intervening 27 years, the series managed to spearhead a major shift in comics publishing; not only was this the first time anyone had attempted a work of this scope within indie comics (or, for that matter, within comics in general), but Sim kicked all this off in a time when reprints of individual comic book issues or collecting comics into trade paperbacks was not the industry norm; the rise of the trade paperback can, in fact, be linked in part to the early commercial success of the so-called “Cerebus phonebooks”, compilations of the aforementioned novel-length storylines which ended up being literally phonebook-thick.

 

By the early 1990s, you could make a very reasonable claim that the series had played a crucial role all by itself in reshaping the comics market. Certainly, the notion of “graphic novels” is more tenable when you consider the Cerebus phonebooks, and the model of the series consisting of a sequence of long-form storylines would be adopted by Neil Gaiman (a confessed Sim fan) for Sandman. However, things changed, and changed surprisingly suddenly.

Issue #186 came out in 1994, towards the end of Reads – the third part of the monster four-novella storyline Mothers & Daughters, a plotline Sim regarded as so important that he later said that issue #200 – the end of Mothers & Daughters – was pretty much the end of the main Cerebus story, with the final 100 issues of the comic essentially being an extremely long denouement. And much of issue #186 was taken up with a long essay in which Sim essentially argued that women represented a negative force in the world out to destroy men.

To make matters worse, much of Minds – the final quarter of the Mothers & Daughters storyline – is taken up with a long conversation between Cerebus and… Dave Sim himself, who chose to undertake a massive act of self-insertion so as to address Cerebus directly. This was cheesy as all hell taken by itself, but also poses a major problem in relation both to what was yet to come and in terms of what had come before. In terms of what would follow in the series, the comic would eventually become a platform for Dave Sim’s personal theories on religion and gender and society and whatnot, with Cerebus frequently acting as Sim’s mouthpiece, but Sim not self-inserting into the book again, which means that when Cerebus is talking about God in the late run of the comic he probably isn’t talking about Dave Sim, even though Dave Sim depicts himself as the God of Cerebus’ cosmos in Minds.

The problem in relation to what preceded Minds, which is perhaps the thornier one, is that through this act of self-insertion Sim made it near-impossible for anyone to seriously maintain the position that the essay in Reads didn’t reflect his real feelings. As well as the essay itself being explicitly, in its own terms, being structured as Sim addressing the reader – an even bigger shattering of the fourth wall than happens in Minds – Sim had written himself into his own creation. The notion that we must keep the artist and their art separate in our minds has always been a weak one; art is a reflection of its creator, and in a very real sense if the artist were different, the artwork would be different too.

In the case of Cerebus, however, separating the art and the artist is effectively impossible, precisely because the artist has gone so far out of his way to entangle his art with his real life views. And that’s a big problem when those real life views became increasingly steeped in loud, obnoxious misogyny, to be joined a little later by similarly obnoxious homophobia, and with those and other unappealing personality traits baked in with a thick helping of unwavering religious absolutism, as Sim became increasingly convinced that he’d come up with the One True Correct interpretation of the Abrahamic religions.

Part of what was so upsetting about this was that this wasn’t the Sim readers had come to know. Whilst his handling of female characters was dodgy in the earliest issues of the comic, Sim had actually turned that around by this point. Moreover, the Mothers & Daughters storyline came hot on the heels of storylines such as Jaka’s Story, a deep look at one of the more interesting women in the cast which, if it wasn’t intended as a feminist narrative, does a damn good job of looking like one, and Melmoth, in which Sim breaks from the action of Cerebus to offer an extended and deeply moving and sympathetic retelling of the last days of Oscar Wilde. If you compared some of Sim’s later writing to these arcs, it is almost impossible to imagine them coming from the same hand; the values expressed therein are more or less diametrically opposed to each other.

If you want to skip substantially ahead and see where Sim ended up, and why that’s not simply distressing on the face of it but extra-double-plus distressing in the light of the work he produced before he had his great turnabout, John Roberson did a superb essay on the subject here, and makes a persuasive case that substantial portions of Cerebus were written from a much kinder and more sympathetic and well-supported worldview than the one Sim ended up at, and that no matter how much Sim insists that he intended all of this all along, that just isn’t a plausible reading of earlier sections of the story.

Indeed, Roberson actually pulls out some interesting examples of stuff from much later in the series than I’ve ever read where Sim’s intended interpretation seems to be less plausible or well-supported than an alternate interpretation not based on Sim’s noxious new worldview. As Roberson notes, Sim seems to be a good enough author that he can’t quite just abandon everything he’s established so far about the characters’ personalities, which means that Cerebus remains kind of an asshole even when he’s meant to be Dave’s mouthpiece for his view of the cosmos and Jaka retains sympathetic traits even when she’s meant to be yet another vapid female.

I originally started reading Cerebus in the early 2000s, back when the monthly issues were still coming out and the phonebooks were still to be found in every worthwhile comic shop. Collecting the phonebooks one by one, I wasn’t aware of the controversy at first. I eventually stopped collecting them and gave up on the series after Minds, though I’d have probably stopped after Reads had I not bought the Mothers & Daughters books as a set. Ever since I started doing the Reading Canary thing back in Ferretbrain, I’ve been meaning to give the treatment to Cerebus, since it’s a series that changes so much over its run that revisiting it to consider where you might usefully jump off before things turn to utter shit.

Let’s start at the beginning, then. As I mentioned, before Sim shifted the series to focus on longform storytelling, Cerebus was a much more episodic affair. The first twenty-five issues, which build up to the first full novel (High Society), were initially compiled in the Swords of Cerebus collections, but once the phonebooks took off Sim decided to retire Swords of Cerebus and just put out a phonebook of the first stories, entitled simply Cerebus.

The first story of Cerebus, simply titled The Flame Jewel, is a straightforward sword and sorcery tale, minus the racism and sexism such stories are usually thick with and plus a cute cartoon aardvark as the main character. A simple, unambitious work for sure, but Sim had to start somewhere and the market for self-published indie comics back then wasn’t what it is today. That said, even before the end of the story, we’ve hints that there’s something more to Cerebus than meets the eye – the way he seems to have specialised knowledge of how the wizard’s magic works being a major example.

Captive In Boreala is another straight-ahead story which adds further hints that there’s something unusual about Cerebus – in this case, a “succubus” (a not-actually-sexualised-at-all take on the concept) attempts to drain his soul but comes undone when it can’t find it, which suggests that either his soul isn’t in his body or his soul has an unusual nature which renders it immune to being tampered with by demons.

In Song of Red Sophia, the third story, the process of evolving the comic from these early sword & sorcery efforts into the more distinctive style that would dominate for much of the comic’s run begins. The narration takes on less of the work and more of the heavy lifting is done by dialogue, and Cerebus’ dialogue starts to take on the irascible character that we’ll start to become used to. In addition, the story kicks off what would become a long-standing tradition of the series: ripping the piss out of other comic characters.

Red Sophia, as if you hadn’t guessed, is a spoof of Red Sonja as she was depicted in comics at the time – complete with chainmail bikini and her infamous fetish where she’ll only succumb to the affections of someone who can beat her in combat. The basic joke is that Cerebus, who’s a bit too quick to be violent towards her for this to be all that funny, ends up beating her in a fight and then becomes profoundly irritated by her attempts to lavish him with affection. The story is marred somewhat by the fact that, unlike the Red Sonja being spoofed, Sophia is depicted as a shallow, vapid, stereotypical “bimbo” type in the story – and when your spoof of a misogynistic character ends up more of a misogynistic caricature than the original, something has gone wrong.

Somewhat more successful is Death’s Dark Tread. As Sim starts lavishing more attention on the art (and especially the backgrounds), and Cerebus first wears the jolly little black waistcoat-jerkin thing which, after a brief absence in the next issue, will end up becoming part of his signature look, we’re introduced to Elrod the Albino – Sim’s spoof of Elric, and more specifically Elric as he was depicted in the Conan comic book. (He even has the silly little pointed hat they gave Elric in those crossovers.)

Sim derives comedy from the albino by substituting out Elric’s gloomy, pessimistic, depressed personality for the vocal mannerisms and personality of, I shit you not, Foghorn Leghorn. It’s a completely bizarre combination which somehow works: Elrod, like Foghorn, is entirely wrapped up in his patter and pays very little attention to the world around him, and shares Foghorn’s overblown estimation of his own competence. The end result is a sword & sorcery “hero” with a near-fatal dose of the Dunning-Kruger effect, capable of getting into all sorts of jams and entirely incapable of getting out of them. Sim’s knack for getting across Foghorn’s distinctive schtick is so well-observed that, unless you’re entirely unfamiliar with the cartoons, you’ll likely pick up on the joke within a few panels of Elrod showing up, and the results are funny enough to make it the best episode yet.

The Idol introduces us to yet a further Robert E. Howard parody – Bran Mak Mufin, King of the Pigts – but is otherwise forgettable save for the mysterious giant aardvark idol and the associated prophecy that Cerebus’ arrival seems to have been the fulfilment of – a destiny Cerebus violently rejects (but which hints at the crucial role he will play in coming religious conflicts). A much more important story is The Secret, in the course of which Cerebus meets and falls in love with the dancer Jaka – but he’s drugged when it happens, so as soon as the drug wears off he forgets all about her. Whilst she just plays a bit part in this story, she’d eventually become a major character in the series, with Sim’s last major feminist-themed narrative (Jaka’s Story) focusing on her. (In his later slide into misogyny her character would be subject to hideous distortion and demonisation, along with every other previously-sympathetic woman in the series.)

Black Sun Rising! finds Sim injecting more continuity into the comic in preparation for making it more of an ongoing serial instead of a sequence of episodic adventures; Elrod becomes the first supporting character to appear in an issue after the one they were introduced in, and themes like Cerebus resembling the gods of old cults and Cerebus’ soul either being missing or somehow dangerous to things that eat souls rear their heads again.

The tale leads into the series’ first multi-part story; whereas these would take up truly epic lengths later on, Sim starts out modestly with the two-parter Day of the Earth-Pig and Swords Against Imesh, in which Cerebus is convinced to take up a post as leader of the Conniptin invaders. With just a sniff of the themes of politics, power, and the compromises that come when you gain the latter through the former which will be explored more deeply later in the series, it’s about as close as you can get to pinpointing the moment when Cerebus really starts to take on its unique style – the dialogue’s sharper, the backgrounds are richer, and Sim has a better handle on the self-serving greed that lives in the earth-pig’s belly.

In the second part of the story, in fact, Cerebus is daydreaming about his megalomaniac plans in the middle of a duel with the despotic, paranoid king of Imesh, only to find that he’s been checkmated by events unfolding offstage and the king’s just been wasting his time in order to prevent him from discovering the problem before it is too late. This, and the curious society of Imesh, is an early flickering of Sim’s yen for using the comic to construct weird little metaphors about society.

The Merchant of Unshib kicks off the next plot arc, with Cerebus rejoining Red Sophia, now displaying a much more overtly manipulative set of personality traits which render her an even more misogynistic stereotype, which is a bad look considering she’s the only recurring female character in the series at this point. Cerebus, however, proves to be more manipulative still, and manages to accomplish a scam which lets him get away with the intended target – the unique Black Lotus gemstone, a legendary magical charm – all by himself.

This sets up the action of The Merchant and the Cockroach, in which Cerebus sells the Black Lotus to the titular merchant only to discover that the individual in question has a dual identity – though a rich businessman by day, by night he becomes a dark avenger, fighting crime on the streets to avenge his dead parents. To strike terror into the hearts of criminals, he has taken on a form intended to inspire fear and revulsion in them – the form of… the Cockroach!

This is the introduction of the Roach – blatantly a Batman spoof here, but destined to become one of the most memorable recurring characters of the series. The joke here is that the Roach and the merchant aren’t aware of each other – like if Bruce Wayne wasn’t aware he was also Batman. Whenever the merchant goes to sleep, the Roach comes out to play, and vice versa. Cerebus becomes aware of this, but also becomes aware that the Roach isn’t actually as heroic as he makes himself out to be – as he gigglingly beats criminals to death to avenge his parents he takes their money for “revenge”, and because the merchant isn’t aware of the Roach’s secret money stash and the Roach never checks on the money himself (he’s too busy mugging strangers for “revenge”) he’s amassed a substantial fortune, which Cerebus plots to steal.

Being kind of a shithead, Cerebus cynically exploits the Roach’s condition – manipulating the Roach personality since he’s frankly kind of a dimwit compared to the merchant. (He takes a religious angle here and muses to himself that if he’s not careful he’ll end up starting his own religion – a really startlingly early foreshadowing of how the series would end up.) As a result of a horrible head injury sustained towards the end of this episode, the Roach’s already loose grasp of his identity becomes entirely unreliable – which means that for the rest of his appearances in the comic, he’d keep cropping up here and there with his Roach persona tweaked to be a parody of some other currently-popular square-jawed lunkhead of the comics world, often as the result of one character or another messing with his head to bring out some other expression of the Roach persona. By the end of Beduin By Night, the next episode, Cerebus’ bid to reclaim the Roach’s stashed gold from under the noses of the Beduin city guard leaves Cerebus none the richer, but the Roach unleashed on an unsuspecting world; clearly, Sim found him a useful enough vehicle for turning a parodic eye on the wider world of comics that he couldn’t leave him languishing in prison.

Black Magiking, in which Cerebus witnesses the necromancer Necross transfer his consciousness into Thrunk (a big ol’ stone man who bears more than a little resemblance to the Fantastic Four’s Thing), precedes the most ambitious Cerebus story yet, the trilogy of The Walls of Palnu, A Day In the Pits, and A Night At the Masque. This finds Cerebus acting as bodyguard to Lord Julius, the ruler of Palnu – who’s also Groucho Marx. Literally, Sim draws him with Groucho’s face, mannerisms, and wit, like he’d cast Marx in the role.

This gear shift from spoofing comics characters to casting real people as the basis for characters in the story is simultaneously really bizarre and also kind of clever – it means, for one thing, that the reader has an instant handle on what the character is like. In addition, “Groucho Marx as the leader of a wealthy merchant city-state who gets what he wants largely by chutzpah and wit” is a fun way for Sim to explore his ideas of social organisation and develop the ideas he’s working on in the series – an extension of the plot seed he’d already started teasing out in earlier chapters about how the days of magic are actually fading in his setting and a new merchant class is rising to disrupt the old order. At the close of the trilogy, the audience (but not Cerebus) finds out that Lord Julius is the uncle of none other than Jaka, and that Jaka is trying to track down Cerebus (who, so far as we know, still doesn’t remember her) – another sign that Sim’s shifting gear to focus on substantially longer-term storytelling.

The arc leads directly into a follow-up arc commencing in Champion where Cerebus, having been really quite annoyed by Lord Julius during his stint working for him, signs on to aid an army of barbarians invading Palnu. After pulling off a really masterful con job in Fluroc, Cerebus encounters not one but two dangerous women that he violently disapproves of in She-Devil In the Shadows, and is drugged by the one he underestimates more – which sets up the action of Mind Game.

Mind Game is where Cerebus steps up a notch. It’s an entire issue consisting almost entirely of Cerebus in an altered state of consciousness, floating in darkness and conversing telepathically with various characters. It’s one of the first times that Sim undertakes a really radical experiment in the comics medium as a whole, not only with the “floating in a dark void” angle but also the way the dark void actually turns out to be a giant montage of Cerebus himself.

In addition, the issue introduces us to Suenteus Po and his Illusionism (a sort of Epicurean, hedonistic take on Buddhism as interpreted by 1960s hippies) and, arrayed against him, the Cirinists. The Cirinists and their opponents will be central to much of what is to come – and, being a faction led by women, are particularly relevant to Sim’s later rants about feminism. In future volumes we’ll learn much more about the tension between the Cirinists and the Kevillists – the “Mothers” and “Daughters”, which some have read to be about tensions between second-wave and third-wave feminism, given that the former tend to be a bit sex-negative, the latter tend to be sex-positive, and there’s obviously a generational thing going on.

However, as Sim develops it later on (after the stories in Cerebus, but before his lapse into anti-feminist shrieking), it seems to me less about feminism vs. feminism, and more about feminism vs. matriarchy, with the Cirinists being the matriarchs. (They literally don’t give you full human rights unless and until you give birth to a child, and here one of Cirin’s holy texts is called The New Matriarchy.) Matriarchy, at least as presented here, isn’t feminism. It’s closer to the sort of strawman parody of feminism that anti-feminists have tilted at for decades, and even closer to patriarchy, just with the power dynamics flipped. Matriarchy is about traditionalism, gender essentialism, rigidly enforced gender roles, and so on and so forth; feminism is, as part of its agenda, about giving women (and, as an inevitable outgrowth of that, all other genders) the freedom not to be defined by tradition, and opposes power structures which reinforce essentialist gender roles (which the Cirinists 100% undoubtedly are).

The aftermath of Mind Game finds Cerebus mysteriously transported back to Beduin, where he finds that the Roach has undergone the first of what will be many personality transformations to become the Captain America-spoofing Captain Cockroach, with Elrod serving as his little sidekick Bunky. The duo are working for President Weisshaupt – self-declared leader of the United Feldwar States, with visions of imposing something like modern capitalism on the world and bringing the Feldwar city-states together by convincing them to set aside their petty religious differences in the service of naked racial animosity. Sim here seems to be riffing on the Robert Anton Wilson-devised conspiracy theory that Adam Weisshaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illumonati, and George Washington were actually the same person, and uses this and the Roach as an avenue for a deeply anti-American but also hard to dispute take on American military-industrial complex adventurism.

This sets up The Death of Elrod, which true to most comics deaths doesn’t stick – after apparently being killed, Elrod ends up outside of his body and able to possess others. It’s a weird state of affairs which seems intended to hint at something odd going on with Elrod but gets wrapped up by the end of the issue, as (apparently) does the Weisshaupt storyline, though Weisshaupt turns out to be a useful enough character that Sim would bring him back soon.

Our last bit of business to deal with before Cerebus definitively shifts gear to deal with full-blown novel-length stories comes with the triptych of The BeguilingSwamp Sounds, and This Woman, This Thing. Here we have Sim spoofing both Marvel’s X-Men and the Man-Thing series, in the course of Cerebus stumbling across an isolated school for girls in which a cross-dressing Professor Charles X. Claremont (a mashup of Professor X from X-Men and Chris Claremont, then-current X-Men head writer) has duped his students to lend him their psychic energy, enabling the production of the Woman-Thing – a strange golem-like entity which is part of a sort of class of alchemical creation called an Apocalypse Beast. Claremont meets his end once Woman-Thing meets up with Sump Thing, the original Apocalypse Beast, and the two creatures end up having violent sex, crushing Claremont between them.

There’s a number of things being set up in this arc. Notably, in discussion with the students Cerebus expresses the idea that he doesn’t believe in unselfish heroism; the two counterexamples the girls come up with are clearly distorted versions of his own adventures, misrepresented by some of the supporting characters to make themselves sound cool (Lord Julius and Elrod respectively), which is in keeping with the unheroic, down-to-earth, pragmatic take on fantasy Sim’s been developing over the course of the series and will continue to be a feature of the series (that, and a useful reminder to the reader that Cerebus is not a hero and should not be misconstrued as one).

That said, an asshole can sometimes do good things: the discussion comes mere pages after an incident where Cerebus, who’s been laid up with a broken leg, undertakes a slow and painstaking crawl across the room he’s boarding in to try and take out a soldier attempting to invade the school. This is a preview of Cerebus’ actual last day – in which an elderly Cerebus spends an excruciatingly long time trying to cross his room, only to feel a call to violence which motivates him to get out of bed and try and accomplish one last thing, only to then fall over and expire. Whether it is a conscious preview on Sim’s part or not is another matter, but it’s really hard not to see the parallel there.

Most of all, though, in this mini-arc we’re being told that gender is an Important Thing within the cosmos of Cerebus. The fact that Woman-Thing ended up being female as a result of being born from the psychic will of teenage girls seems to suggest a certain underlying cosmic gender essentialism, which Professor Claremont’s cross-dressing scheme (the revelation of which is preceded by a scheme in which Cerebus is dressed up as a sick schoolgirl in a bid to fool some soldiers) seems to fly in the face of. On the other hand, was it really inevitable that Woman-Thing would be a woman, or is this an upshot of Claremont himself applying his own prejudices to the creature’s creation?

By the end of Cerebus, the comic was pretty unabashedly a vehicle for Dave Sim to express his personal views on religion, which includes an insistence that gender is in some respect fundamentally rooted in the very substance of the cosmos. However, it’s far from clear that this was the case in Cerebus’ early run – indeed, his views on gender and religion have changed substantially over time – and therefore far from clear that by depicting a fictional cosmos with underlying gendered forces here, Sim is necessarily expressing hardline gender essentialism as a metaphysical fact of life in reality – especially towards the end of the mammoth Church & State storyline, it seemed like Sim was instead using the cosmology of Cerebus’ world as a vehicle for examining and exploring the sociology of our world, which is at the end of the day a rather important use of fantasy.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve now hit the point where the small stories collected in Cerebus have more or less put all the chess pieces Sim wants onto the chessboard, allowing him to begin his absurdly ambitious next phase of the story. High Society, the next Cerebus story, would be some 25 issues long – and bear in mind we’re talking about a time before reprints and trade paperbacks of ongoing comic series were routine, and therefore an era where even running a three-issue series was a bit of a stretch. Running a 25 issue story of sufficient complexity that odds are if you missed an issue you’d be totally lost? Unthinkable. Absurd. Ridiculous. So of course, Sim made the attempt.

Should you make the attempt to read this first volume of Cerebus? I’d say the answer is both yes and no. It really hinges on whether you decide you want to get into the run of phonebooks from High Society to, say, Melmoth, which I think most would agree represent the best Cerebus has to offer before Sim decided to declare war on half of humanity. If you do, I’d say it’s worth reading Cerebus as a prologue to them, because it’s where Sim puts the legwork in on establishing a lot of the characters who’ll play major roles in the stories to come, and you’ll have a somewhat smoother time if you’ve got the benefit of the context offered by this.

If you don’t intend to go any further, though, I wouldn’t put Cerebus quite on the same level as the longform novels, which with their far larger canvas are able to offer far greater depth in terms of storytelling, characterisation, and exploration of theme. Taken just by itself, Cerebus is a decent enough parody of sword & sorcery, but is also clearly laying groundwork for something much bigger to come, and if you are flatly disinterested in the something bigger and the stories here don’t sell you on it, there’s not much point in getting into Cerebus at all.

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