The Cerebus Re-Read Challenge
Cerebus can be purchased in its entirety from
even better, Volumes 1 and 2 are free!
I am writing these under the assumption that anyone interested in reading such a lengthy response to Cerebus has already read the book and therefore spoilers will not be an issue. If you have not read the book but want an idea of what is so special about it, then by all means, I don’t plan on spending too much time on the story, so maybe it won’t be a problem. If you have not read the books and do not want spoilers these essays are not for you.
I Remember Now
In the weeks since I wrote my Pre-Re-Read essay I thought a little bit harder about why I started thinking about re-reading Cerebus in the first place. The thing that really put Cerebus back in my mind was the feminist brouhaha over the 2016 Angoulême Grand Prix short list. My first response to the uproar was a half serious/ half joking, “Well, they should just give the damn thing to Dave Sim and really piss everyone off.” It would have been a nice statement about the amount of work it takes to legitimately lay claim to a lifetime achievement award. My less vicious side considered what women could lay claim to a similar achievement, and quickly Lynn Johnston and For Better or For Worse came to mind. That is why I was reading FBOFW which I falsely credited my Cerebus re-read to last time around.
Being near the end of my entire re-read as I type this I can now state for sure what interests me when looking back over the work as a whole. As I said last time Cory Foster does a great job of providing synopses and analyses of the story. I am primarily interested in Dave Sim’s development as a formal master of the comics medium. I intend to track that development over the course of the books, with lots and lots of pictures.
The other thing that interests me to no end is the development of Dave Sim as a thinker. I refuse to treat the book like an autobiography, or to pin any one character as being a manifestation of Dave Sim. Cerebus the Aardvark is not Dave Sim, but Cerebus the book, from what I can tell, is one of the most open, honest, and vulnerable portrayals of the development of an artist/thinker we have on record.
If you read the book with all of the original back-matter in place there are very interesting correlations between the themes of each volume and how Sim portrays himself and his activities in the back-matter. It often appears as if he is trying on different selves and different ways of engaging with the world that he feels will help him gain a better understanding of whatever topic he is writing about at the time. He says things to this effect much later on in the run, which I will point out when we get there.
This approach to life and art is one I hold in the highest regard. It is brave, selfish, and totally fascinating to see on fully display. This aspect of Cerebus is why I consider it the greatest work in comics, even if some of the parts of that whole are damn near impossible to consume.
I am trying to use an image heavy-format, and so am doing most of my commentary from here on out in captions over top of the art (Sim is obviously infecting me at this point). I will try to do a better job of proofreading the captions next time around. Some of those that follow are embarrassing. I will also size the art to fit the height next time around. I thought the images were smaller than they are.
Let’s Talk Volume 1. Finally.
At first there does not appear to be a thematic core to the first volume. It is mostly world building and parody. However behind all of the disparate elements I do see a pretty direct and obvious correlation between Cerebus as a wanderer, always coming upon and losing gold and the journey Sim appears to take as a developing artist, with all of the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back of growing your personal voice in front of a live audience.
With that said, my assessment of Volume 1 is almost entirely about the development of Dave Sim The Comic Artist. Just as almost all of the major players in the Cerebus mythology are introduced story-wise so to are almost all of Dave Sim’s artistic bags of tricks. It is a hell of a lot of fun to watch and document this growth.
So, finally, off we go.
I found the following commentary on issue five interesting as the issue is the first of many trial and error attempts to do as little work as possible in areas of the story that do not need it so that maximum effort can be expended when the story calls for it. Sim resorts to so many “cheats” throughout the years. Many succeed, many fail, but more often than not these tactics lead to the innovation of techniques for producing comics (the legendary working relationship with Gerhard and the infamous prose-heavy approach being prime examples) that were highly original and gave the book its many signature looks.
While issue 6 is the most important of the early issues story-wise for most readers it does not show much in terms of artistic, flourish, I suspect due to the fact that Sim was self-admittedly focusing on the writing, as he explains here.
The most interesting thing to me about the art is that in Jaka I start to see hints of the Berni Wrightson School of influence that comes to replace the Barry Windsor –Smith influence for many years. This final panel of Jaka is a good example of this influence creeping in.
Sim does not acknowledge that the change in style happens until issue 7. In writing about issue 7 in retrospect he comments
In commentary later on he acknowledges the impact of this issue on later developments.
Regarding issue #19, Sim says
In issue 24 Sim applies his interest in mimicry to fonts as well as images.