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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Cerebus (Graphic Novel)

By: Dave Sim

Publisher: Aardvark-Vanheim (January 1991)

Softcover 534 pages

Finished 7/3/2017

Amazon Listing

“He came to our city in the early dawn… thought later we would be called the finest warrior to enter our gates, at the time he was but a curiosity… you see he stood only five hands high, had a lengthy snout, a long tail, and was covered with short grey fur. He was, in short, Cerebus the Aardvark.”

Thus begins the epic 6000 page long graphic novel Cerebus, broken up into 16 ½ graphic novels, which ran 27 years, from 1977 to 2004. It is a single unique achievement in the history of comics, the longest run ever done with the same author and illustrator. Though for some reason the author is not lauded more.

My New Year’s resolution for 2017 was to read the whole of Cerebus straight through from beginning to end. People have either expressed their doubts that I will finish it or have claimed that I am a masochist. Whichever way, a mere six months later I have cleared enough of my previously scheduled reading to begin volume one, collecting the first 25 issues.
Cover for issue 1

We see in these issues the beginnings of what will be the mythology of the Cerebus world. It is established early on that the world he inhabits is Earth, presumably in some forgotten past, in part of the 97% of human history lost to the sands of time. Originally the comic was intended as a parody of swords and sorcery Robert E. Howard characters, which were very popular in 1977 when the book was first published. Cerebus is the counter to Conan, and we see alternates of Red Sonja (Red Sophia) and Bran Mac Morn (Bran Mak Muffin), as well as others such as Elrod of Melvinbone (Moorcock’s Elric) and the Roach (which is used to mock various comic characters - this collection it is Batman and Captain America). And for those with questions about the name Cerebus, yes it was initially supposed to be Cerberus- the three headed dog warder of Hades, but the author, being young and in a rush, misspelled it. Talk about a mistake following you your entire life.

Sidenote: I just misspelled the word as well above, but the author did not have to luxury of a spellchecker
Eventually the series became its own unique self, but it started as parody. The term “Cerebus Syndrome” was coined to mark this type of evolution, when a series initially comedic or superficial, gradually becomes more serious, complex and dramatic. Debate ranges about when it happens. Most claim that it makes the switch around issue 20 "mind Game", but my opinion is that it occurs in issue 14 "The Walls of Palnu". But if you want to read the comic from the beginning, you must wade through the tongue-in-cheek material.
Not that it is much of a chore, as parodies go it is above average. The material has an odd tone to it, a sense of deadly seriousness mixed with some insanity. It never presents itself as being above the material it is caricaturing, mostly stemming from the presentation of Cerebus. In bad parodies, the protagonist doesn’t take his situation seriously, breaks the 4th wall to make a dumb joke or a remark about how silly it all is. Cerebus is deadly serious at all times. His killing and looting is very important to him.
Cover for issue 3
The early issues also flow very well with the serious storyline, believe it or not. The only real inconsistency I can notice is in the early issues Cerebus makes several comment on how “humans are” as if he isn’t familiar with them. Later on it is established that his parents were human and that the Aardvark, or Earth Pig, is a great celestial herald of change, a weird chosen one condition, like Christopher Lambert’s character at the end of the first Highlander film. I imagine the author, when first starting, had envisioned the Aardvark as a barbarian race hidden in the North, but eventually changed his mind after his LSD overdose.
The chosen one, or great influencer, angle is actually foreshadowed in an early issue “The Idol” where we see a primitive tribe worshiping a statue of an Earth Pig that is several thousand years old. But more importantly, we see the themes that will become more prevalent as the series develops.
Author Dave Sim
First is the theme of Cerebus as pawn. Herald that he is, Cerebus is never in charge of his own fate and never desires much beyond gratification of his base desires: booze, war, the occasional woman, and enough gold to keep doing the previous three. He is thrust into positions of power, but only when others plan to use him and manipulate him. To his credit, Cerebus always recognizes the manipulation and usually goes along only to see what he can get from it. While he is the catalyst, a magnifier of events, he is hampered by his own lack of imagination and scope of vision. And we will see, later on when he is no longer useful to those in power or seeking power, then Cerebus accomplishes nothing.  
Second is the theme of the struggle between masculine and feminine ideals, or “form and void” as it is coined. Form being the masculine (symbolized by the phallus) and void as feminine (as envisioned in the vagina). The form is the builder, while void is the destroyer. Masculine is the concrete, real elements, and feminine the perfumed nothing, the illusion of completeness, yet essentially hollow.  Cerebus (SPOILERS, this will not be discovered for a while yet) being a hermaphrodite, embodies both elements but seems to lead closer to the destruction and womanish element.
Cover for issue 17
However, the greatest development here is watching the evolution of the art over issues. Take a look at the first page, then take a gander at the last. You would swear it was not done by the same person. Initially the protagonist sticks out like a sore thumb, drawn in thick bigfoot lines, severely contrasting the realistic style of the rest of the page. Issue by issue, Cerebus become more defined and in step with the rest of the art. More specifically his nose and ears become shorter and shorter, until he is the irascible earth pig we all know today. The greatest jumps occurring between issues 4 and 5 (“Deaths Dark Tread” & “The Idol”), where the author really begins to use shadow to set mood and moral ambiguity; and issues 10 and 11 (“Merchant of Unshib” & “Merchant and the Cockroach”) in which the author pays more attention to background detail, making the cities now feel like real cities, giving a sense of culture and individualism to his world.
    For those who are interested in purchasing this book, I have to recommend the 11th edition above all else, as it is the first one to include the “Silver Spoons” strips. Without the flow of the comic, which until then had a decent pace, takes a jarring jump in action between issues 13 and 14, where Cerebus enters Palnu for the first time and becomes employed by Lord Julius- destined to become a major character and based on Groucho Marx. 
         Again I have had debates with people who state that you can easily skip the first book and dive headlong into the the second. That may be true for some, but this novels sets up many essential characters to the story and for a deep understanding of the material, my opinion is to begin at the beginning.

       For more readings, try my collection of books. 


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