Cerebus – Part 6


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.

 

15 thoughts on “Cerebus – Part 6

  1. The first line is wrong. Peak was around 36000 copies….besides when is 25 000/month not a very commercial title -have you looked what the sales figures for most mainstream Superhero, Star Wars titles are?

    1. Thanks for the correction on peak circulation. As for your second point, for most of Cerebus‘s run, mainstream commercial titles were selling around or over six figures monthly, not the increasingly small circulations of today. Even at 36,000 per month, Cerebus wouldn’t have paid the bills at DC or Marvel. It would have been a competitor now, but that’s not what I was talking about.

      1. I would argue that even back then that was considered huge. Dave Sim at conventions was quite the rock star -and he even strong armed Diamond into changing their percentage points. Not to mention how he inspired the indie self-publishing market…not to mention Image, by proving it was commercially viable.

      2. I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with you on that. Sim was very influential on self-publishing, during the period he was promoting the form, and it was significant that, when he got into dispute with Diamond, it was Puma Blues they attacked, not Cerebus itself. But one of Sim’s selling points for self-publishing was that, by eliminating the publisher, he made much more money that writers and artists with much greater sales records (this was before royalties first came in). My point was, however, that Cerebus‘s circulation then was only viable because of self-publishing.

        And I do think that Image is something of a red herring in this argument – certainly not the type of anti-mainstream work self-publishing envisaged.

      3. Also you’ve got to remember that Sim didn’t have a whole building of employees to pay, so I would think 25 000 to 36 000 copies per month is pretty financially viable for a self-publisher who essentially was paying one other guy (Gerhard)

      4. Point completely taken, but again the point I was making was related to the number of readers. Even at 36,000, spread over three countries, I still reckon I was lucky to wind up with three mates to discuss goings on in Estarcion. There were tons more Batman fans, or X-Men faithful, around. And of the four of us, I was the only one who got to issue 300.

  2. They attacked Cerebus for not using Diamond Distribution and selling directly to fans -they threatened to drop distributing Puma Blues in retaliation, as they were printed by Cerebus’ publishing company. The sales were so high for Cerebus that it actually called the shots and changed the percentage points of the industry’s biggest distributor for all comics. For an alternative comic that started the alternative market -and your friends hadn’t heard of it…says more about your friends than it does Cerebus. We can agree it was an alternative comic, so hence by it’s very nature it’s not mainstream. But speaking of letting go of restraint as you do in your article you yourself overstep in characterizing the commercial appeal of the book in it’s heyday. Here’s a black and white book that against all odds appealed across all borders in a color superhero comicbook world….it’s remarkable how mainstream it became in this light. I lived in Norway and had heard of Cerebus. Many animators who are not comicbook people on our film (based on Cerebus:)) have heard of him.

    1. Thank you for your history lesson, although you may wish to reconsider it’s neccesity if I remind you that I read Cerebus monthly from issue 31 (and first starting reading American comics almost fifty years ago). I was there at the time, and I remember. For instance, I remember that Elfquest preceded Cerebus as an independent and alternate comic, and sold three times as many copies than did Sim. (And that Jack Katz’s First Kingdom preceded both). I stand by my characterisation, and refer you to my reply to Matthew Ingraham: in sheer monthly numbers, any mainstream comic was more ‘commercial’ than Cerebus because it sold at least three times as many copies. And I am talking about during publication, not now.

      1. You are clouding the issue. I stand by that you are wrong:) First off “First Kingdom” and “Elfquest”, as great as they are, were never called “The Godfather of Self-publishing”. So it’s really beside the point -whatever point you are making. And Cerebus actually did preceed Elfquest. 1977 and 1978 respectively. And they stopped selfpublishing. And “First Kingdom” wasn’t selfpublished and only had 2 very expensive issues come out a year -so not sure how you can compare and how you figured it outsold Cerebus. The fact that the creator of Cerebus had rock star status, inspired and cultivated a brand new market and changed the percentage points for all comics due to it’s strong sales says that it was indeed because of the circulation stats of Cerebus. At least the comicbook world of fans and distributors thought so -everyone except your 3 friends.

      2. Oliver, this is getting tedious. I have explained the basis for my assessment of Cerebus as not commercial, and not only have you failed to respond to that, you are growing increasingly hostile, and lecturing me as if I did not understand the first thing about anything about the series. You are giving the same impression as a teenage girl reacting to criticism of Justin Beiber. If you wish to prolong this exchange, would you do me the courtesy of stating how old you are, when you first encountered Cerebus, and, giving that you’ve referred to yourself as being from Norway, or at least living there, the level of involvement you’ve had in any kind of oreganised comics fandom? Because I read Cerebus on a month by month basis for 23 years and I lived through the happening of all these events, and Dave Sim will testify that Elfquest came out before Cerebus (I used to have the pre-WaRP comic it first appeared in: trust me on this). I was there: were you?

  3. Who sounds like a teenage girl reacting to criticism of Justin Beiber? You are asking me for a contest on who has been a fan the longest? You must be kidding.
    And who started first: Elfquest or Cerebus? Really?
    And yes i understand you have explained your assessment -because of your 3 friends…your other points i disproved:)
    Anyway, I’m 43. I’ve moved back and forth quite a bit between here and Norway. I bought the first issue in a New Age shop in Norway. I didn’t at first because i hadn’t heard of it and the price was steep. But it stayed with me -and then i heard of Cerebus and put two and two together an bit the bullit on the price. This was late 70s, maybe 80, 81. I would later find they sold Cerebus at the University -I went there to get books in English. And i would order them via a Danish catalog called Runepress. Denmark btw had a great comicbook culture and selection. There were people in Norway trying to get that level going there.
    If I’m wrong on who was first of Cerebus or Elfquest blame Wickepedia.
    As for your view on comicbook sales past and present…I’d say 5000-10 000 is a hit today.

    1. I said this was getting tedious. You are not only ignoring the definition I put forward, you are now resorting to distortion to belabour a point of complete irrelevance. You have corrected me on a point of information about Cerebus‘s peak circulation (which I have accepted on trust, despite your revelation that your source is Wikipedia) but you have disproved nothing. Whether comics sales of 5-10,000 are a hit in 2012 I neither know nor care, since that has no bearing upon the situation two decades ago when Cerebus had an audience of 36,000, a point you seem incapable of understanding.

      However, don’t let me stop you responding, and make the most of it to have The Last Word, as I will not make any further reply to you.

    2. Actually, given that by your own account you could only have been 11 or 12 when you first discovered Cerebus in a New Age shop, I can only admire your precocity, especially on getting them to let you into the University shop so regularly.

  4. There was no age limit to go the University Book store. I’m pretty sure that’s the same here, too. Wether it’s UCLA or whatever.
    However, I will thank you for the compliment all the same:)
    I pointed out the sales of past and present because I could only get my hands on current data -hard to come by for sales from the 80s except the very top sellers. But for those not in the know you said if Cerebus sold 36 000 today it would be a hit, but quite clearly it would be a hit with a lot less. I got the figure from Jeff Tundis who was the right hand man of Dave Sim for quite a while,. I’m sure Martgaret Liss, Cerebus Girl, will correct us when she get’s off work if it’s incorrect.
    From Wickepedia i got the info on Cerebus being before Elfquest. Though I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that before as well -not that it matters.

  5. btw yes the none-Cerebus story Dave Sim did in “Fantasy Quarterly” featured Elfquest for the first time, and he did this before drawing Cerebus. However, Cerebus #1 saw print before “Fantasy Quarterly”.
    I actually have the issue and have never read it. It’s even signed by one or more creators. I was in the US in the early 80s and my friend’s friend becoming a teenager decided to stop comics and gave me his collection.
    Some real gems. Signed by Kirby and others Destroyer Duck. Signed Frank Miller Daredevil.
    Not sure why I’ve never read it. I mean i knew it was special and wanted to keep it in mint condition. But still…Will have to find it. I’m in the midst of moving and everything is in boxes. So manymany boxes lol. Moved to Tarzana -how appropriate with John Carter coming out, eh?
    Anyway, nice chatting with you. Always love talking, discussing, arguing lol comics. Live for this stuff. And thank you for the great blog!

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