Even at its peak circulation, of approximately 25,000 copies per month, Cerebus was not a very commercial title. Given that that audience took in America, Canada and the UK, I was lucky to have three friends with whom I could discuss this story, over so many years. What did they think of Cerebus’s last years? Two stopped reading it, and I lost contact with the third.
But the one thing we all agreed upon from early in our reading was the horror of having Dave Sim walk in front of a bus before it was done. To read for years and years, and be denied an answer not due until the next century.
I alone survived to reach issue 300. From which perspective I can only say that if that bus had come along three issues into the last story, Latter Days, it’s timing could not have been bettered. Beyond issue 268 there is nothing in Cerebus that does not undermine and dismantle its greatness, that does not leave a mental bad taste if you re-read it (or as much as you can bear to read). Nor is it possible to read the book when it was good without a repressed shudder at the knowledge of the atrocity that would follow.
What destroyed Cerebus when it should have been capping off its achievements? Personally, I blame God. Not because I am an atheist, though I wouldn’t rule out Sim’s religious fervour as one of the factors in driving me to that conclusion. But God entered Dave Sim’s head, and God screwed it up, and God became a player in the final years of the story, and it fell apart like wet paper.
And it was not even a God that we would recognise, for Sim’s God, and Sim’s religion was, as his continuing notes after each episode made plain, was a special hybrid, of God, Allah and Jehovah, a stitch-and-sew (Sim rejects computers) of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Oh, and Canada is a Marxist country, which is self-evident for its failure to follow Bush Junior into Iraq.
Yet, despite the disturbances in earlier issues, there is initially hope that Sim has retained his skill. Two issues take a traumatised Cerebus into the north in search of death: two issues are enough for him to live in an equivalent of Canada, a perpetual loser, for thirty plus years, outliving everyone else we have known, before deciding that in order to get killed, he needs to return south and piss off the Cirinists.
Which he is about to do, until rescued by the Three Wise Fellows (not men), incarnated in Sim style by the Three Stooges. This ought to be good, thinks the reader, closing the last page of issue 268. But it is not, ever again.
The Three Wise Fellows kidnap Cerebus and confine him to the Sanctuary where, immovable for years, he is expected to say the True Word at the end of having Rick’s 13 Chapter Book of Cerebus read at him, over and again. Eventually, he comes up with a plan to kill all the Cirinists and is released. His plan is tactically inept, but the Cirinists are wiped out by Sim’s last steal from comics, a sweet, pointless and ultimately mean-minded portrayal of artist/writer Todd MacFarlane. By now, Cerebus is himself riddled by madness, having imagined himself as Rabbi, a cross between early Superman and Garth Innes’s renowned Preacher. Having stolen the movement back, and instituted a cull of women by men, who suddenly all think the way Sim does, Cerebus goes nuts to allow another couple of decades to go by.
Once he recovers, it gets worse. You may be attempting to wonder how, but what comes now is a hideous mess. Cerebus begins to analyse the Old Testament, reading into it the unrevealed truth of a creation divided between a male JHWH, or Jehovah, and a female JHWH, a creation of Jehovah that believes itself an equal of Jehovah, who Sim, with what now passes for subtle humour in this once hilarious and pointed series, names Yoohoo.
In parallel to the bible commentary, we get an equally prose-heavy history of Woody Allen’s career and life, focussed upon Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, all of whom are buried under a weight of Rational Thought unparalleled since the caveman days.
And it goes on for month after month. After month. After month. After month. Flawed beyond belief, more tedious even that that, it represents the destruction of the intellect of the creator, a dismantling carried out in excruciating detail, with every leaden thought.
And though Sim, in his notes, protests that he is travelling in an ever-straighter line towards the long foreseen end, the only end, I look at how much this turgid dreck differs from his work before issue 200 – even the infamous misogyny issues – and as a reader of over twenty years standing, I simply cannot believe in these final thirty-odd issues as being Sim’s original intention.
There’s a twist, at the end, though hardly anyone cares by now. All those issues have been narrated by Cerebus and, when everyone has finally ceased to remember, Sim unveils the listener and it is Jaka. No, it’s not, she’s long dead, it’s a teenager identical to her, ready to submit to Cerebus, as long as he swears it’s not because she reminds him of Joanne…
As the story goes into its final year, into the long-drawn out final day of Cerebus’s existence, even Gerhard has had enough and can’t go on. Gerhard, who has worked at home for years, coming in only once a week, Gerhard who has his Rose and his sailboat, Gerhard, the only person under the sun who believes that his work is inadequate and can no longer stand the stomach pains he gets from the crap he thinks he draws: Gerhard can’t go on.
But Sim persuaded him to stay, rearranging his work to place the least possible burden on his buddy.
The Bible Study is over, but for two issues we still get Sim sounding off, drawing together a kind of creation document that he has the cheek to suggest is the actual Grand Unified Theory. And then there is nothing but an incredibly aged Aardvark, forgetful an flatulent.
The world has rolled on. Cerebus still reigns, but feminism has returned, in even more hideous and ludicrous form. After years of extrapolating where feminism MUST go, Sim has lost all restraint. It’s nearly over, he need longer restrain himself to the plausible, because, naturally, women are wholly implausible and completely unreasonable. In this vein, we limp to the last crucial moment, to when Cerebus is allowed to meet with his sun, Shep-Shep – or rather Sheshep.
Sheshep and his mother have defied nature and begun to crossbreed animals. Sheshep plans to rule in a hybrid form: he will be what, centuries later, we will see as the Sphinx of Egypt. With his last energies, Cerebus rises from his bed, with his sword, to kill his son… but the steps slip, he falls, and breaks his neck. But he still manages to get in one last good fart.
As he dies, he sees visions of those he has known, all hailing him, welcoming him, towards the Light. But the presence of Rick alerts him. The Light is a trap, it is not Vanaheim, it is eternal damnation… It is over.
And I’m sorry, after having invested so many years into the enthusiastic pursuit of Cerebus, I was glad to see it go. Given how regularly I reread it during the years I was collecting the series, it is telling that it was eight years after the series ended that I read it again, at long last. And equally telling that the Bible Study issues alone took more physical time to read than the other 290+ issues combined.
I still call Cerebus a great graphic. Just to complete a 300 issues series, 26 years of unbroken work, is a phenomenon beyond anything else in comics. And to have so much of it work at so high a level, of writing, of art, of thought. Even in the gradual decline, before the series fell off the edge of a cliff in its final three years, Sim still showed a mastery of what he was doing at a level higher than almost anyone else about.
But it cracked, and was shattered. And no-one could put humpty together again.