It’s a long story, in both senses of the phrase. Forgive me if you’ve heard some of this before, but it needs to be put together. This is the story of the Last Cerebus I shall ever buy.
For those who don’t know, Cerebus was a 300 issue comics series, written, pencilled, inked, edited and published by Canadian Dave Sim, published between 1977 and 2004. Discounting newspaper strips, there is nothing comparable in comics for a long-running series by the same creator or team of creators. Furthermore, Sim’s efforts build into a single, comprehensive, overwhelming story that ends with Cerebus’s death in extreme old age. Leaving aside considerations of artistic merit, this is still an astonishing piece of work.
And whilst the early issues of Cerebus are effectively a public apprenticeship by Sim, the vast majority of the work shows him to be a creative genius, and a genuinely innovative artist who extended the visual vocabulary of the medium in many subtle fashions.
Let’s leave it there, for the moment.
My story is that, like many others, I first learned of Cerebus from the highly complimentary review of issue 12 by the late Kim Thompson in The Comics Journal. Alerted, the first copy of the comic I saw, in Dave Britten’s long-gone comics shop on Peter Street, just past the Free Trade Hall, was puzzling and off-putting. This was issue 20, an ultra-experimental issue that confused me deeply. I left it on the rack.
In October that year, 1981, I stayed with some friends in Nottingham for a weekend. The comic book shop there was generous with trades, and had a more impressive range of stock. The stuff I took down netted me £20 in trade value, and I gathered £19 of purchases with relative ease. But I was stuck on what to buy with my last £1, especially as it would be months before I would next be in town.
The guy behind the counter suggested Cerebus, issue 25 as it happened. It was worth trying, he said, and as I had nothing else I wanted, I should experiment. So I agreed, my purchases were rung up, and I had a good, long, lazy read, culminating in Cerebus.
In a way, I was lucky in my choice. This was the last issue of the ‘Barbarian’ phase, and it was out-and-out gloriously funny, an extended parody of Marvel’s Man-Thing and DC’s Swamp Thing, sharp, precise black-and-white art springing out of the page, endlessly cynical, flip, hilarious lines. I was hooked.
Back in Manchester, I checked out my comics shop, picked up issue 31, the latest issue. In Nottingham again, for a pre-Christmas visit, I was able to grab issues 26-30 and 32. From that point on, except for the six month period (issues 69 – 74) when the distribution deal from Canada broke down, I read Cerebus month-in, month-out, unwaveringly.
Having started as a regular, I had twenty four issues of story to catch up on. Sim’s decision to republish those issues in a series of six square-bound Swords of Cerebus collections, with witty, informative, fascinating introductions to each issue, and the odd rarity also reprinted, was invaluable, but within a couple of years, I had managed to collect a full set, including the exceedingly rare no. 1, of which only 2,000 were ever printed. Oddly enough, this wasn’t my last one: I closed out with issue 3.
And along the way, I gained a new friend, a part-time comics dealer who took stalls at several of the regular Northern Marts, including Manchester, who I met over a treasure trove of five issues, sold me two more early ones through the post, and who then asked if I would assist him at the Manchester Marts. And it was he who, when those missing six issues arrived in one go, the week I was away on holiday, grabbed me a set: one of those six rapidly became very scarce.
I was hooked on Cerebus. Each time a new one appeared, it was the first thing I read. The crisp clarity of the art, Sim’s masterful development of each page, the fantastically cynical and funny dialogue, the growing story…
I’d begun with issue 25, just when the series was on the cusp of change. Sim was growing ever more ambitious in his work. From single issue tales, concentrating on an antic wit based heavily in a broad range of parodies, Sim was slowing his stories, extending their length, moving deeper into socio-political concerns, making stories flow more easily, one into another, and with issue 26 he was ready for an incredibly ambitious leap. ‘High Society’ turned out to be a single, twenty-five issue story, concluding in issue 50. A comic book story that took two full years to read.
It was only the start. Sim had outlines his plans for his series: that it would cover Cerebus’s life until his death, that it would last 300 issues, and that it would be one coherent story in the way that 300 consecutive issues of, e.g., Superman or Spider-Man wasn’t. And, as you couldn’t re-publish a 25 part story as a series of square-bound volumes each collecting four issues, when it came to ‘High Society’, Sim published it as a single phonebook-sized collection, available direct from Aardvark-Vanaheim by Mail Order.
And the next story, ‘Church and State’, would last an amazing sixty issues, five years from start to finish.
If only as a publishing enterprise, Cerebus was a phenomenon, a groundbreaking exercise, and Sim the poster-boy for self-publishing, removing the Publisher from the equation, ensuring complete creative control, and keeping all the income after production and distribution costs. Sim, and his collaborator and junior partner Gerhard, were making far more money off an independent B&W comic whose circulation never extended much above 36,000, than any writer or artist drawing an industry favourite with hefty six-figure monthly sales.
(Gerhard, who, after all these years, still has no first or last name, depending on whether Gerhard is his last or first name, joined Sim on issue 65, drawing backgrounds for Sim’s figures. He is an astonishingly accomplished artist, producing highly-detailed, brilliantly realistic backgrounds that never distract from the foreground story, who had no interest in narrative. Theirs was a brilliant partnership. Judge Gerhard for yourself here).
I met Sim a couple of times during this period. He attended the 1986 Westminster based UK Comics Art Convention, where I played a tiny part in interviewing him for the fanzine Arkensword, bought the original art of page 3 of the shortly-forthcoming issue 77 – which I still own – and had him sign the first five issues. “Hey, a Number One. How much do you want for this? Two hundred? Three Hundred? Four Hundred? Five Hundred?” Seriously. I never knew if he meant Pounds or Canadian Dollars, but he was up to Five Hundred before I could get my comic back out of his hands.
The same year, he and Gerhard did a signing session at my mate John’s comics shop in Liverpool, talking and signing. Instead of doing quick pen and ink sketches, he and Gerhard would collaborate on full inked and coloured drawings, which would then be auctioned to the highest bidder: I won the second of four. We went for dinner at a hotel after the shop shut, though it was John at one table with Sim and Gerhard, and me, Dave and Steve at another.
Cerebus fascinated me. I developed a sixth sense for when it was due, would wake up on a Monday thinking ‘this is a Cerebus week’. The importance the story had for me can be summed up by another UKCAC. The latest Alan Moore Swamp Thing, a double-sized special,had come out and I stuffed it (carefully) into my bag for lunch. Then I saw someone reading the new Cerebus and went racing round the stalls until I found out who had it, bought it, looked around carefully, took two steps backwards to plant myself up against a pillar, and read it on the spot.
‘Church and State’ came out as two thirty-issue ‘phonebook’ volumes. With the second, Sim started offering limited numbered and signed early editions at an additional cost, and I started ordering these. By phone, from Aardvark-Vanaheim’s offices in Kitchener, Toronto, Canada. One time, Sim himself took the order.
Why was I so fascinated? Simply because Cerebus was that bloody good. Every twenty page instalment just made you hungry for the next twenty page instalment. I had been reading this now for over a hundred issues, a hundred and twenty issues, ten years. Ten years. Just think about that for a moment, and ask yourself, what artistic or cultural things of any form that you turn to now that you were following with the same fervour ten years ago? In terms of longevity, I have only four passions that sustained me for long periods: Manchester United, R.E.M., Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Cerebus.
Did I say I followed Cerebus unwaveringly? I did, very much so, for one hundred and fifty six issues, on a (mostly) monthly basis, thirteen years. Until…
It’s the one that stops you in your tracks with Cerebus. Whoever you are, whatever your opinions, it’s the sleeper rail across the train track, that brings the train to a crashing halt, derailing everything. That’s right, issue 186.
To set the context: Sim had declared Cerebus 1 – 150 as ‘the Male Half’. He had started ‘the Female Half’ with ‘the other long one’, “Mothers and Daughters”, which was broken down into four books, three of twelve issues, the last of fourteen. As early as issue 111, he had had Iest invaded and conquered by the Cirinists, a matriarchal society, which had had depicted as adopting a fascistic approach, based solely upon safety for women and, especially, children.
“Mothers and Daughters” was based on conversations Sim had had over several years, leading him to classify women into those two categories. Simplified, his theory was that become a mother changed a woman, turning her into an inherently fascistic creature whose sole motive, for which she would sacrifice anything, was the safety and preservation of the children. It was notable that, in passing, Sim mentioned that it was the first time he had ever had conversations with women without wondering how he could get to sleep with them. Yes, right.
The third book of this ‘long one’ was subtitled ‘Reads’. Reads were the Iestan equivalent of comic cooks, cheap, lurid, often highly sexualised, serialised booklets. Sim divided the comic into two radically different parts: one was a silent fight between Cerebus and Cirin herself, in the throne room of Iest, the other a prose story. Over the course of these twelve issues, he told two stories.
The first, in the third person, was a satire on the comic book industry, with specific reference to companies like Dark Horse, and Vertigo. ‘Reads’ writer Victor Reed comes up with and sells an idea that enthuses him, is creatively original and fresh, but finds himself tied down by his publishing contract to perverting his vision to commercial requirements.
This was replaced by a first person narrative by Viktor Davis, an obvious Sim stand-in (his middle name is Victor). Slowly, the art scenes grew fewer in pages and the text more. Until it all came to a head in issue 186.
186 was Sim’s manifesto, through the voice of Viktor Davis. It’s the statement of his thesis that the world is in a state of war between reason and emotion, between Light and the Void. Nobody thinks any more. Everybody feels. Rationality has been overwhelmed in favour of what fuzzy-feelings make you feel better.
Parts of Sim’s argument hold water. It’s an interesting theory, for which there is a high degree of evidence around to support its terms. Unfortunately, Sim assigns his sides on strict gender lines. The Male Light. The Female Void.
Early on, he tells his audience that he has complete power over them, that they cannot turn away and stop reading. He demonstrates his control. He says that years before, he decided to make Cerebus a 200 issue series, not 300, but only reveal this until issue 186. I can’t begin to describe the jolt that gave me, to suddenly think I had just over a year more of this, not the nine and a half still ahead.
And he goes on to lay out that the underlying theme of Cerebus what it had been about all along, was anti-feminism. And, for someone supposedly dedicated to rationalism and thought, he went on to describe women in vile and hateful terms as leeches directly stripping a man’s brain with rough tongues.
Until I, who had followed the series unwaveringly for thirteen years to this point, stood there wondering, if this was what it was about, did I actually want to read issue 187?
Obviously, I did. I would go on to the end, by which time I now understand that circulation was so far down that Sim was making a loss on every issue. For a very long time, despite the underlying theme, Sim was still producing works of genius. And there is an underlying secret to writing that Neil Gaiman once whispered: that there is room for things to mean other than they say, and my own wrinkle on that is that a lot of the time those things are not what the author intends.
I could not accept Sim’s viewpoint. It was cleverly expressed, but also maliciously designed, in that the argument was hermetic: disagreement with it was ipso facto confirmation of it, or so Sim intended. I still can’t agree with it except in the abstract term of an opposition between Thought and Feeling, without gender attachment.
The series went on, past issue 200. I still read it, though not with the same avidity. “Mothers and Daughters” end was an end of a sort, the final 100 issues an extended aftermath, the series by then a metafiction. Another element found its way into Sim’s approach, God. He became the devout pursuant of a personalised, hybridised religion, combining Christianity, Judaism and Muslim, and pieces of each. Needless to say, this was a male God with a specifically anti-Female belief.
Sim’s creed in 186 became widely known as a Misogynist manifesto. He was pilloried for it, and became an outcast in the industry. For a long time, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but instead of letters’ pages in the monthly comic, Sim wrote essays and other manifestos, the cumulative effect of which being to make the misogyny undeniable to anyone with any intelligence.
Still I read. The storyline had become deliberately disjointed. Much of “Rick’s Story” was framed as a Gospel text, deliberately difficult to read, but it was succeeded by the reappearance of Cerebus’s long-term love, Jaka, and for all that he was for Thought against Feeling, Man against Woman, Sim could still catch the magic of love, the rush of feelings and the ecstatic joy of just being together.
And in the end he crushed it, viciously, citing terms and beliefs that he regarded as a natural matter of male honour, that did not need to be stated to be understood by any ‘true’ male but which came over as cooking a straw man to those of us who are obviously not ‘true’ men.
By now, Sim was a virtual recluse, withdrawn from the industry, withdrawn from his peers, withdrawn from anyone except those who would parrot his beliefs. I’d met him, interviewed him spoken on the phone, but I knew I would never repeat any of that because Sim now demanded a ‘loyalty oath’, a written statement that you didn’t think he was a misogynist, before he would have contact with you, and there’s no way I could sign that. Cerebus, for all its flaws, was still good. Still very good. Jaka was rudely removed from the storyline, Cerebus went north into the equivalent of Canada, stayed there forty years, until everybody else in the story had died off, then came back south intending to get himself killed by the Cirinists.
And it all went wrong, and the story went off a cliff, with long, unfunny sequences based in religion and Sim’s anti-woman rantings. A sense of disorder set in, as if Sim, so close to the finish-line, had lost mental control, was swinging wildly between his obsessions. The Men won back out, in vile fashion, Cerebus became a religious leader, indulged in months and months and months of Scriptural analysis, dividing the gospels into the words of a male JHWH or Jehovah and a female JHWH, or YooHoo, which gives you some idea of the intellectual level we were operating on by now. It was deadly dull at the very best of times.
But I had lasted this long, I was not going to be denied issue 300. And after 23 years, I wanted to make an event of this. So I bought issue 300 on the Saturday and started reading on the Sunday, with issue 1. I intended to read the whole series, end to end, and only read 300 after all 299.
It took a bit longer than I expected. By nighttime on Sunday, I had only reached issue 150. So on Monday, I phoned in sick, with a headache, and read 151 to 300. And I only managed to read it in the day by skipping all that bleeding Bible commentary.
And then it was over. Curiously enough, and most welcome, the car crash last three years, of which the last twelve months had proven to be exceptionally sick-making, as Sim threw all sense of anti-feminism restraint to the winds, ensured that the transition from 269 consecutive months of Cerebus to nothing was completely pain-free.
In the thirteen years that have followed, I have re-read Cerebus only once. It was a painful experience: all those books following books where Sim displays what makes him such a brilliant writer/artist, knowing even as I read what sort of end it all comes to, and then that ending to negotiate. This time, I re-read all the bible stuff determinedly: it took as long to get through as the rest of the entire series, or so it felt.
Sim remains a self-appointed outcast. If he didn’t hold himself aloof from everybody else, he would undoubtedly be outcast anyway. His opinions have not changed: if anything, in isolation he has become more self-righteous about them.
He holds a grudge against the world for allowing him to be treated like this, for not standing up and defending him. He imagines a world, that he acknowledges he will never live to see, where his self-evident truths are once again accepted as the pure truth they are to him.
For several years, I followed the independent A Moment of Cerebus web-site. There was something new every day and so many times it was art by Sim that I had never seen before, and which I enjoyed. There was news and commentary and Sim’s whingeing, for I cannot put it in any other way.
Things have not gone well for him. His post-Cerebus comicbook, Glamourpuss, was not a success, though it’s chosen subject wasn’t exactly commercial. Nevertheless, it did frame an ongoing story that demonstrated that Sim the artist and Sim the analytical mind were still operating at a high level, and once Glamourpuss was cancelled, plans were put into operation to publish The Strange Death of Alex Raymond as an independent series.
It would be good. Even after all these year, with his faculties beginning to slide slightly, with age, would have been good. But Sim can no longer draw at all. His drawing arm is disabled, his wrist damaged by what appears to be Repetitive Strain Injury. Unpleasant though the thought is, I cannot help but wonder if his God has finally had enough of the shit being put out in his name, and taken steps to punish his lonely disciple.
Sim has even revived Cerebus, as the mini-series, Cerebus in Hell, in which one page stories are created using paste down Cerebus figures against Gustave Dore backgrounds, with witty exchanges. Some people hail these as wonderful but I cannot understand why: there is no trace left of Sim’s ability to make me laugh.
In the end, I gave up. The new art just isn’t worth the constant self-pitying whining from Sim who, when all is said and done, is only six months younger than me and is too old to still be going on with all this shit.
What, then, brings on this blogpost, and why is it titled ‘The Last Cerebus’? Last year, after lengthy preparation, saw the publication of a large-scale hardback book, The Cerebus Cover Art Treasury. Every cover from all 300 issues, with as much of the original art as could be sourced, plus a number of sketches and commentary by Dave and Gerhard.
It was an expensive item, and I’m not easy for expensive items, but just recently, on the back of some effective eBay sales, I found myself with enough disposable cash to purchase a reduced price copy. It arrived, I’ve read it, I’ll keep it. But it’s the last Cerebus I shall ever buy.
It’s interesting, it’s frequently informative, it’s a high class production. And it’s full of the same old whining about how Sim is an outcast with its underlying tone of how he is the only man who is correct and all the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket because they refuse to see what is so obviously SENSE! And I won’t put up with that anymore.
I have, effectively, two sets of Cerebus. I have a complete set of issues 1 – 300, many of them signed by Sim and, where relevant, Gerhard. I have the phone books, all of them First Editions and many of them in the middle the Limited Numbered Signed editions. Between the phone books and the cover treasury, I think it’s time to cash in.
But Cerebus was a constant presence in my ‘cultural’ life for nearly a quarter century. I invested a lot of time in it. This is a memorial to that time.