Cerebus – Part 5


So, what does a former Prime Minister and Pope do when he’s been conveyed to the frozen surface of Pluto by a voice in his head, telling him that his great and high destiny was forfeit before it even began and his life has been an utter waste? Why, he goes down the pub and gets pissed, of course.

The long aftermath begins with Guys, one of three stories, roughly equal in length, although the final part of Guys is actually dignified with its own name. For many issues it seems aimless and rambling, which is, of course, because it is aimless and rambling. Cerebus gets drunk, men mill about the bar, laughing, drinking, bullshitting, playing games. Some figures are taken from other independent series, as a form of approval, as a commentary, as an exemplar of the various aspects of masculinity that Sim is celebrating, but there is a strong core, based around Cerebus’s old mercenary buddy, Bear, who ground the Aardvark’s existence.

Because Sim’s openly espoused anti-feminist/misogynist theme hasn’t gone away, isn’t ever going to go away. He’s just showing it from a different angle: first men being men, then men talking about men. That they’re all comfortably confined into areas circumscribed by the Cirinists doesn’t matter: these are men in their element – among men. Where women feature they are in their own category, as spoilers who want men to stop doing what they want to do, as creatures who, laughably, expect themselves to be more important to men than, well, than whatever the man happens to feel like doing.

Sim emphasises this by introducing Ziggy, Bear’s old girlfriend. Bear is re-smitten: everybody else relocates south, leaving Cerebus alone. For a brief moment, the Aardvark asserts himself against his ‘keeper’, Mrs Thatcher, to take over as bartender. But being alone is dangerous, as Cerebus’s mind wars against itself. An idea is implanted, of returning to his home, Sand Hills Creek, but resisted by the wavering conviction that Bear will come to his senses and return.

Enter a divisive figure: Joanne. The ‘real’ Joanne, that is but, in almost every respect, identical to the ‘Joanne’ introduced into Cerebus’s head by Dave. Cerebus flip-flops between varying fears of an ultimate fate dictated either by his god, Tarim, or his creator, ‘Dave’, even as the new game plays out according to Sim’s rules. Yes, Joanne and Cerebus are soon shagging each other’s brains out (thankfully not graphically), comfortably agreeing that they’re not in love, and this isn’t a relationship.

But, and stop me if you’ve already guessed this one, whilst the Male Light rests contentedly on his agreement, the Female Void soon wants more, and more, of him. The explosion and breach is both inevitable and timely, coming days before Cerebus’s deadline to leave. But now another figure enters the bar: burly, bearded, middle-aged, and on the surface a self-confident masculine figure. It is Rick, Jaka’s former husband, and his phase of the story is elevated to become Rick’s Story.

For a mere twelve issues, this final phase is remarkably heavy and complex to read, both visually and in dialogue. Too heavy in many ways for the brevity of the story. And the first glimpsing of a new component of Sim’s story is disturbing.

Briefly: Rick is a licensed writer, who cynically puts approved words into the mouths of women who he considers too self-centred and stupid to say them at all. He’s also mad. Cerebus loathes him on sight. Rick relates a story of his courtship of Jaka that is a third hand sucker-punch from Viktor (Davis). Joanne takes up with a smitten Rick to try to punish Cerebus who, though he wants nothing more to do with her, begins a fight for Rick in which he spouts further extensions of Viktor’s ‘philosophy’. The bemused Rick secretly begins another book: The Book of Cerebus. It is a gospel.

In the monthly comic, Sim had abandoned the letters pages in favour of essays expanding on his views in various manners, essays that would grow increasingly extreme, and increasingly filled with references to himself as the evil misogynist: references that read as bitterness to the pariah status he was bringing upon himself, but which would be subsequently excused as subtle satires. What was beginning to show was that Sim had, personally, discovered religion.

Let’s leave that point. The Book of Cerebus is no mere joke, nor is the confused conclusion to Rick’s part of his story, as he leaves, setting a spell that may or may not exist, and may be Confinement or Expulsion. Worryingly, Sim doesn’t seem to know either, concentrating on his re-appearance as Dave, sat at the bar, smoking, drinking, telling Cerebus he’s got to move soon, it’s driving someone (Gerhard) crazy, the lack of change of backgrounds.

And the moment arrives, in fairy-tale fashion: Jaka enters the bar. Cerebus’s resistance, born of accepting Dave’s assertion that he and Jaka simply cannot work, dissolves in an instant. A glow, an almost palpable warmth, spreads through the pages. The Lovers are together, and for the first time not bound by restrictions. They are free to love, gloriously, insanely, in the face of all Reason.

And this is the sublime paradox: that Sim, the defender of Reason, the implacable opponent of Emotion, evokes with joyous fullness the joy of love, the overwhelming delight in existence and the other-who-is-no-other, lifting the series, for several issues, to a height it will never, ever touch again. The fairy-tale element is subliminally emphasised by the fact that Jaka is unchanged, physically, despite the considerable years added to Rick’s life, and no-one cares.

But there’s a final hurdle to cross. Now Bear returns, free of Ziggy, with friends in tow. The old life of the bar is available again: drinks and smokes and cards and stories and who gives a shit? It’s what Cerebus has waited for, and Jaka’s reaction confirms it is a direct choice. Though Sim would characterise it as a mistake, Cerebus has no difficulty rising above the gentle taunts of ‘Puss-puss’ to go with his girl. Back to Sand Hills Creek.

How that fares is the subject of the second aftermath story, Going Home. Put simply, it’s the story of how Cerebus got back to his old home, and of the slow disintegration of his relationship with Jaka – as if you hadn’t anticipated that. It’s a longer story than those words describe, because it’s a long story, but also because Sim takes full opportunity to treat at length two of the Twentieth Century’s Great American Writers.

This is off the menu to begin with, as Cerebus and Jaka head west on foot, basking in the continued glow of each other, sustaining that glow for a few issues. But already cracks are beginning to appear. Jaka’s enjoyment of the journey for itself, her insistence on fresh clothes every day, soon put the pair behind a schedule that only Cerebus, who knows the wild lands, is trying to keep. Already, Jaka’s female unreliability stands revealed. Inevitably, they turn back, head south, to make a river journey north, to make the crossing from another point, next summer.

Thus we come to our first literary excursion. Another passenger on the boat is F. Stop Kennedy, a middle-aged writer, a romantic, a social butterfly, who falls for a Jaka who loathes him but plays a complex social game all down the river. Kennedy, however, is Scott Fitzgerald, and in dialogue, expression and prose, Sim sets out to anatomise Fitzgerald and his work, as detailed in appendices in the back of the book.

Of course, the writer is seen against the background of the Cirinist – no, now Mothers – society that prevails, and is tinged by his treatment of, and by, Fitzgerald’s real wife Zelda, a women writer that Sim admits to having a tiny degree of respect for. But by the end of the voyage, his ‘seduction’ of Jaka, not as a lover but a potential patroness, has diverted her enough from Cerebus to allow the Mothers to gently remove him, without a scene.

But Jaka is as naïve as Cerebus, who suspects none of this, and when she realises she is condemning him to death, she recovers her balance, and insists on their progressing. That progression is by a winter safari led by Sim’s second literary object, Ham Ernestway (you should be able to work that one out for yourself).

All is not, however, well. This is Hemingway near the end of his life, closing in on suicide. And Sim, who had thought him the correct figure to utilise as an object of masculine worship for Cerebus, found that he disliked and disrespected Hemingway’s work immensely – though not as much as he did Papa’s fourth and final wife, Mary.

The bulk of the story is an excoriation of Mary Hemingway, leading to an unveiled accusation of murder for her part in facilitating Hemingway’s suicide, but the circumstances that lead up to this are far clearer in the increasingly hostile appendix than in the story borrowed for the page. At least the art remains good, though it is noticeable that Mary’s story rarely involves any backgrounds: though we don’t yet know this, Gerhard is beginning to find it difficult to keep on his task.

The suicide finally allows the focus of the story to return to Cerebus and Jaka and the completion of the journey home. It is extremely difficult, both physically and emotionally, and Cerebus begins to open up to Jaka as to how she will be expected to live in this god-fearing, masculine-oriented society. Remarkably, between her training in observing social codes and the promise that this will not apply in private, Jaka stays on course, as Cerebus begins to fantasise the big welcome home he will get, not just from his Mum and Dad, but a community proud of a favoured son who did so well.

But it is a disaster. Somehow, the Town does know Cerebus is back, and they close their doors against him. He is shunned, running frantically, with Jaka keeping close to him, until he reaches his parents’ empty home and the one neighbour who, briefly, confirms his fears. Cerebus’s parents are dead. His Dad died alone, unaccompanied by the son whose biggest duty was to be there for him. Delayed, no doubt, by his ‘harlot’. Cerebus is Shunned, to a final extent of cruelty that no-one will tell him where to find his parents’ graves.

And as Jaka tries to comfort him, Cerebus turns on her, rejecting her wholly in anger and hatred, throwing the entirety of the blame onto her, and howling in pain like some animal. As the Mothers take Jaka away, she crumples. She still loves him.

And the ending still misses everything that would make it dramatically convincing, would make it an inevitability that the reader, however much they might wish it otherwise, accept it as the climax to the drama. Because it doesn’t ring true. Because Jaka is not to blame as anything more than a contributory factor, to Cerebus’s greater crimes. Because Cerebus’s ‘crime’ is against a matter of personal honour that the reader knows nothing of, let alone Jaka: a matter of honour that, externally, Sim defends as sacred, but which within the story is only explicable to a reader so in tune with Sim’s mind that he can read not merely between the lines, but into the bark of the wood from which the paper would be made, to divine this point.

Though it may be possible, might even be a cruel irony that, in blaming Jaka, Cerebus is seeking to escape his own liability, to shuck off guilt, the worst of this ending is that the reader sees very clearly that it is not Cerebus who has dumped this load on Jaka, it is Sim.

The story collapses under the weight of the author. The reality of the story cracks. What, now, is left?

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