Cerebus – Part 1

He’s three feet tall, has grey fur, a big snout, and long tail, and a sword. And he was my constant companion for more than twenty years, during which time the only other cultural constant in my life was Manchester United. His name is Cerebus, he’s an Aardvark, he comes from Canada, and for all his flaws he’s an artistic phenomenon.

And yes, he would rather have your gold than your love.

Cerebus is the almost-accidental creation of Canadian writer/artist Dave Sim, and he appeared in a self-published B&W series running for 300 issues, published between December 1977 and February 2004, all of which was drawn and written by Sim, with the assistance, from issue 65 onwards, of fellow-Canadian artist Gerhard drawing backgrounds. In comic books, it’s by far and away the longest continuous run of any single creator or team (eclipsing it’s nearest rival, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four issues 1-105), and made even more of a phenomenon by the fact that Sim also ran the business side of publishing from issue 57 onwards, after separating from his wife Denise.

Though there were times when the schedule slipped, Sim spent twenty-six years working on a cohesive and coherent story, six issues a year for the first two years, then a full monthly schedule after that.

That’s all well and good, and very admirable, but we don’t read things out of admiration for achievement. Just what, then, is a comic about a cartoon aardvark with a sword about, and do we really want to read 300 issues of it?

For those who have some knowledge of Cerebus already, let me begin with a qualifier: there is an overriding and serious issue about this title, which is enough to cast a long shadow over the entire work. I also believe that the series went disastrously off the rails in its final three years, making it one of the biggest disappointments I have had in fiction.

But I am not one of those who believes that Sim’s revealed views invalidate the brilliant work he did when he was not so blatantly a religious maniac and misogynist, nor that they make him any less of a brilliant and original cartoonist.

Let me explain.

There’s a well-worn cover story about Cerebus’s creation whereby Sim designs a title for his girl-friend’s fanzine Cerberus but misspells it, adds a cartoon aardvark in honour of the publishing name Aardvark – Vanaheim, and claims Cerebus is the aardvark’s name: later, when deciding to publish his own comic, it beats coming up with another character.

The underlying story is more complex, and is composed of an artist who is heavily influenced by Londoner Barry Windsor-Smith on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, a writer who wants to work against the longstanding trends in comic book humour and a creator who has recognised that he’s temperamentally incapable of working under the instructions of anyone, least of all an editor: all three are, of course, Sim.

So he plans to put out three issues of his own title and see how it goes. Despite numerous problems, printing and financial disasters, it hangs on. It’s circulation grows. In the face of a nervous breakdown brought on by a combination of overwork and too much acid, he takes the title monthly. His own artistic style emerges through that of Smith. His stories start to stretch and grow. The humour grows more subtle. There is an overall story behind everything. Finally, after three years of an apprenticeship being carried out in the public eye, with a stable circulation of 16,000 copies per month, which is starting to give him an income far higher than that of creators of mainstream titles selling in six figures, he launches out on something bigger than anyone in comics has done before a 25 issue story. A story that will take his audience two full years to reach the end.

High Society began as an apparent comedy of manners (to crib my own description of almost thirty years ago) but grew into a political satire, as Cerebus began to stumble upwards into ever more powerful roles, to which his unvarying response was to create armies to gather in all the gold. And, at the long end of the story an already recognisable outcome showed that, for all the Aardvark’s charismatic ability to summon up forces, his naïve inability to understand them would always result in the ladder being kicked out from under him, in a way he would never even try to foresee.

Artistically, though Sim was still learning the art of pacing, on a much larger scale than before, his craft was growing in leaps and bounds. He had begun to break through the shell of Barry Smith as early as issue 7, when the story demanded techniques Smith didn’t use, and his discovery of his own style rapidly reached a peak of ornamentation between issues 17 and 25. But, as the story element grew ever more complicated, Sim began to look for ways to cut down on his drawing time: simplifying and eliminating backgrounds, relying on ‘offstage’ evocation of things and the creative use of photocopies. Controversial though this latter was, the repetition of images over changing dialogue – another area in which Sim was becoming a master – was frequently very funny.

And that aptitude for dialect and accent gave Sim a priceless advantage over other creators in his endless range of parodies. He had drawn in variations on other R E Howard characters in his early issues, and in the Cockroach he would create a merciless parody of Batman that was so flexible that it could be transferred around a dozen other prominent superheroes as the series progressed, each time atomising the character to perfection.

But perhaps the biggest example of Sim’s skill as a parodist was Lord Julius, Grandlord of Palnu. Lord Julius actually entered the story via a short-lived series of single pages done for a prominent fanzine as combination entertainment and promo. The series – which occurred between issues 13 and 14 of Cerebus – were drawn Hal Foster/Prince Valiant style, with the pampered aristocratic hero Prince Silverspoon having to be rescued by Daddy: head of the largest and most successful Southern City-State and master of a bureaucracy that no-one inside or outside the City understood.

Of course, what made it such fun was that Lord Julius was ‘played’ by Julius Marx – better known to us all as Groucho.

And Sim knew how to write for Groucho. Better than anyone since Julius Marx had passed on.

Lord Julius played a key role in High Society, both on and off the page, and perhaps his most memorable appearance was in a tri-partite summit meeting with himself, the newly-elected Prime Minister of Iest, Cerebus, and Duke Leonardi of New Seprea – the latter, of course, being Leonard ‘Chico’ Marx.

High Society ended with issue 50, but its impact was not yet over. Determined to ensure the story would remain available for latecomers, Sim had collected the first 25 issues into a series of six books, each with four, or five, issues, completed with essays about the series’ history and background. That format was not going to work for High Society, nor the long run so, when the novel was finished, Sim simply published it as one: the first 504 page comic book, in a size and shape that immediately had the compilation nick-named a ‘telephone book’.

Some of Sim’s audience had protested the length, and indeed the depth, of High Society, wanting a return to the series’ earlier, simpler, more belly-laugh oriented days. A one-off story featuring Cerebus, Lord Julius and Elrod the Albino escaping downriver in a cargohold (with Duke Leonardi, the Roach and the Dirty Fleegle Brothers to boot) was a riotous sop to those demands – Sim’s skill with dialogue enabled him to catch almost any voice he wanted, so this was like having two Marx Brothers, Foghorn Leghorn and Yosemite Sam on top of one another.

But there was no going back to mere humour. There were, literally, bigger things on the way, in the form of the first 60 issue story.