By: Dave Sim
Publisher: Aardvark-Vanheim; Reissue edition (November 1994)
Softcover 500 pages
Many often say that this is the best arc in the series. I disagree, my vote goes to the next two volumes Church and State I and II. The tone of the series shifts into a well written, highly intelligent story of power and greed, marked by humorous and bizarre elements to keep in touch with the original rhythm. It is an artful tale, expertly told. The art continues to grow, the author experimenting with different styles and presentation of material to create a new effect at the time. It is much copied, but seldom beaten.
There used to be a debate among creators and collectors on the place of the trade paperback of collected issues of comics, on how the graphic novel would affect sequential storytelling. Purists claimed that they would disrupt the flow of the stories, that the individual issues were not meant to be read immediately one after the other, and that a space between readings was needed to build anticipation. They also claimed that if the industry changed its writing style with the trade paperback in mind, it would make individual issues difficult to attract new readers who may not like entering into a story mid stream, like watching a film from the mid. Still another concern was that people would only purchase the trades, driving down sales of the single issues (at the time the bread-and-butter of the industry) and threaten the entire future of the medium.
Cerebus, as always, was ahead of the curve and with this volume the series abandoned its single, double, and triple issue arcs. Here the author devoted twenty five issues to a single arc, “High Society”. Thus once again scoring a new first for the series. This story also proved that the trade paperback could be viable and not significantly affect individual issue sales. The author began bundling the stories into large trade paperbacks, selling them direct market, even having a 1-800 number for orders. When the numbers came through, the big boys in marvel and DC cautiously followed suit. Now it is expected that a series will be collected into a graphic novel. This was called “the Cerebus effect”.
Cerebus evolves from the life of a barbarian and mercenary to accidently enter the realm of politics in the city-state of Inest - a near-bankrupt, corrupt theocracy on the verge of collapse. While the action on the series has changed, Cerebus hasn’t. If anything the change of scenery emphasizes his more dislikable traits. Without the threat of violence against him he appears arrogant, evil-tempered, selfish, and a world-class alcoholic. He is in fact an anti-hero in many ways. He struggles day by day to succeed in a political system that he has no respect for and cares little about.
It’s interesting that because of his inflexibility Cerebus becomes the least interesting character in his own series. Being so single minded, he is a pawn to the mighty and the graspers. His bid to become prime minister is a power play instigated by others, which he takes advantage of and eventually destroys. Power to him is an excuse to carve out an empire that he is incapable of managing.
Joining the cast, we have the character of Astoria (named for actress Mary Astor) and a revamped Jaka. While Jaka was in the first volume, her character is essentially different here. Before she was a tavern dancer who referred to herself in the third person. In this volume (the character does evolve) she’s the true love/perfect woman character for the protagonist. Their encounters are awkward, Jaka trying to bring Cerebus back to his roots, while our hero brags to her about how rich and important he is, blissfully unaware of her wealthy upbringing. She returns his sword as a remembrance of why she fell in love with him and warns him of his danger. It’s interesting that true love characters often only have two characteristics, being beautiful and supportive. Jaka, like Agnes in David Copperfield, is nearly a manikin that speaks.
Her foil is Astoria. Capable, ruthless, power hungry, she is a Hillary Clinton character, a political mover that props up men in order to rule behind the scenes. First she uses the Roach character (here lampooning Moon Knight) to wipe out some political and religious enemies, then latches onto Cerebus’s rising star. While she is a capable power player, she doesn’t have the charisma to get there on her own. Without her Cerebus would have been back to killing people for beer money. We will see more of her soon and, like Laura Palmer, she’s filled with secrets.
|Author Dave Sim|
In the backdrop of the political climate lurks the religious element, the true masters of the civilized world here, though largely unseen in this arc. We are given hints on the Cirinist movement waiting in the wings, who are taking a special interest in Cerebus, and the Church of Tarim, which for most of the arc has sequestered itself in an “inward exodus” due to a religious prophecy and the murder of its Grand Inquisitor. Both will emerge in the next few books to reveal their nature. For this story the religious aspect is mostly shown in the character of Bran Mak Mufin (the one mocking Bran Mac Morn by Robert AE. Howard), who reappears minus tribal regalia to serve the “Earth Pig born”. He is convinced that Cerebus is a return prophet messianic figure and convinces our hero to run for office, then to declare a war which leads to Cerebus’s ruin.
And always lurking in the background is the insidious figure of Suenteus Po (some have mused that his name is a take on the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus whose work Robert Graves I, Claudius was based on). Not seen yet in his full form, we encounter his disembodied voice in Ming Game II, where Cerebus and Po trade insults and interrogate each other. In this world the name is a common one, so there is deliberate ambiguity here as to where the important character is actually interacting in the story. But as he is creator of the Illusionist Tradition (more on that in later posts) it seems fitting. I always found Po to be the most interesting character in the series. He knows much, but cares little.
For more readings, try my collection of books.