Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah
Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah: Essays on the Epic Graphic Satire of Dave Sim and Gerhard is exactly what the book’s title promises. It’s a collection of essays by different authors, attempting to take a serious, scholarly look at various aspects of Cerebus, Dave Sim & Gerhard’s 300-issue independent comic book masterpiece. I found myself occasionally rolling my eyes at some of the overly verbose scholar-speak in the essays, but mostly I was delighted by this serious look at an important (albeit controversial) comic book work, and I found it a thrill to dive back into the deep, crazy waters of Cerebus.
For the uninitiated, Cerebus is a 300-issue-long black-and-white self-published comic book. At first the series was written and drawn by Dave Sim by himself, but eventually he was joined by Gerhard as his partner on the art. What began as a silly parody of Marvel Comics’ Conan series (illustrated at the time by Barry Windsor-Smith) evolved into an incredibly complex saga that dealt with politics and religion and male-female relationships. If one were to sit down to read 300 consecutive issues of, say, Spider-Man or Batman or Superman, it would become quickly obvious that the stories, while having some continuity, couldn’t possibly represent events that could actually happen to a real character. There might be the illusion of change, but ultimately all of these characters have to remain in a perpetual status quo. Sim set out to do something completely different, to tell the story of the life a character — the titular Cerebus — in 300 issues, with the 300th issue chronicling the character’s death. Over the course of twenty-six years, Sim and Gerhard did exactly that.
That alone would make Cerebus a jaw-dropping achievement. I am hard-pressed to think of any example of long-form story-telling that can come close to matching this sisyphian effort of telling the story of Cerebus in monthly twenty-page installments over twenty-six years. But there’s far more to Cerebus than just Sim and Gerhard’s endurance. The story is at points hilarious and thrilling and infuriating. It can shift from juvenile humor (when Cerebus is funny, it is VERY VERY funny) to incredible action-adventure to painfully sharp observations of marital discord. The series features a wealth of fascinating characters and settings. Cerebus is one of the most complex, fascinating examples of fantasy world-building ever made, rivaling J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimon’s Foundation, and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
The series also pushed the boundaries of comic book art farther than any other series I can think of. Sim and Gerhard experimented gloriously with page-layout, with different approaches to the combination of words and pictures and the use of large blocks of prose (sometimes without any accompanying illustrations at all). Mr. Sim’s sharp ear for dialect and accent resulted in extraordinarily wonderful, distinct dialogue for his different characters. And I stand firm in my assessment that the lettering in Cerebus — particularly in the final hundred-or-so issues — is the finest achievement in comic book lettering ever created. Mr. Sim’s extraordinarily expressive word-balloons and lettering brought his characters’ subtlest inflections and inner thoughts to gorgeously realized life.
Cerebus is also a profoundly frustrating, confounding piece of work in that, in the series’ final third, the tone and focus of the story shifted dramatically into areas many readers found unsettling and/or disappointing. I have read the experience of reading Cerebus in its entirety described as an opportunity to watch its creator Dave Sim go slowly insane, and I think there is much evidence in support of that theory. In the three decades of producing the comic, Dave Sim came to possess some extraordinarily unusual opinions about women and religion that earned him the label of misogynist in the pages of The Comics Journal and that lost him a great many readers. (I am not sure that misygonist label is fair, but there’s no question that I find many of the opinions Sim came to possess about women to be deeply distasteful.) I tend to be able to separate an artist’s personal life and beliefs from his/her work, but there’s no question that Sim’s weird ideas crept into the Cerebus narrative in a way that unfavorably, for me, color its concluding volumes. The infamous text-only issue #186 consists almost entirely of an anti-woman rant that is difficult to stomach, and the six issues spent late in the series in a bizarre, loony analysis of the first several chapters of the Torah (a sequence nicknamed “Cerebexegesis” by readers) is — while funny at times and fascinating at others — such a far cry from what fans like me used to know and love about the series as to be difficult to fathom. (Dave Sim has stated that those six issues represent his actual thinking about the Torah, which makes the experience of reading them like staring deeply into the mind of a very crazy person.)
Sim also held firmly to his desire to make Cerebus like real life in that, in real life, there isn’t usually a big dramatic climax right before one’s death. An influential person might have several years of being able to effect events on the world stage, but then in old age they gradually fade away. Sim held firmly to that conviction, and so while there are many joys to be found in Cerebus’ final hundred issues, there is also a lot of frustration as readers clamored for resolution to many of the characters and story-arcs that had once been so central to the series. That resolution would never come. This is a fascinating approach to take, and one that I respect intellectually while feeling an emotional frustration at the absence of the sort of resolution I would generally expect from this sort of long-form story-telling.
Because of the general dissatisfaction with the final third of the Cerebus epic, I find that the series does not generally receive the acclaim it deserves. It’s been over ten years since the conclusion of Cerebus, and in some ways the series has been forgotten, something I consider to be absolutely crazy. Though deeply flawed, Cerebus remains a remarkable achievement in comic book story-telling, and one worthy of great praise and critical analysis.
Clearly Eric Hoffman agrees, as he has edited together this book, Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah, in an attempt to bring Sim and Gerhard’s lengthy work back into the spotlight. This book is not a gushing praise-fest. Many of the essays deal directly with some of the series’ most controversial aspects. But what the essays have in common is a great respect for the achievement of the work, and I found that invigorating.
The essays cover many different aspects of the Cerebus narrative. Several deal head-on with the series’ approach to issues of gender and feminism/anti-feminism. The essay “Seeing Sound” is a terrific and well-deserved look at Dave Sim’s incredible achievements in lettering (that I mentioned earlier). I particularly enjoyed the book’s closing essay: “YHWH’s Story, or, How to Laugh While Reading ‘Chasing YHWH’ and Still Have Enough Stamina for The Last Day.” (“Chasing YHWH” is the afore-mentioned six issues of “Cerebexigesis,” while The Last Day is the title of the comic’s final story-line, chronicling the day of Cerebus’ death.) The essay is an admirable attempt to defend the digression into Cerebus (and Sim)’s loopy analysis of Genesis as a story-line that can indeed connect to and feel of a piece with the series’ previous story-lines. I’m not sure I agree, but I love this line of thinking.
Probably my favorite aspect of the book is actually the lengthy introduction, by Mr. Hoffman, that provides a detailed summary of the comic book’s creation and its successes and challenges over the course of almost thirty years of monthly publication. It’s a fascinating look back at the incredible trials that Dave Sim had to overcome to bring Cerebus to life and to bring the story to its conclusion with issue #300. There is a reason no one else in the comic book world has even come close to matching this feat. Whatever one might think of Mr. Sim himself or of the effectiveness of the series’ latter issues, that Mr. Sim succeeded in self-publishing his 300-issue story all the way to its planned conclusion is a singular achievement.
Reading this book, I felt renewed appreciation for Mr. Sim’s accomplishment, and for the Cerebus series as a whole. I find myself filled with a renewed desire to go back and re-read the series from the beginning. I have several other planned comic-book re-reading projects to occupy my next several months, but I have no doubt that I will return to the Cerebus story many times in the future. While I share in the dissatisfaction that many readers felt with the series’ final third — and I agree that the weaknesses of those issues ultimately weakens the over-all power and success of the story as a whole — that does not diminish all that the series achieved, or all that I still love it for. Would that there were lots more comic books like Cerebus being published today, and lots more creators with the creativity, ingenuity, and long-term drive of Dave Sim.
For readers curious to give Cerebus a try, skip the first collection of the series’ early stand-along issues, and start reading with the second installment, “High Society.” It’s a brilliant political satire and extremely funny. I guarantee you’ll quickly be sucked into the world of Cerebus.