RETURN to CEREBUS, cried the Earth-Pig Born! A Cerebus Retrospective

Part the First

Dave Sim is not dead.

I just thought I’d get that out of the way. Dave Sim, creator of the astounding 300-issue Cerebus the Aardvark comic book series hasn’t really done much of critically lauded note since the last issue of Cerebus hit the stands, so it’s understandable to assume he’s simply passed on to a better life. Additionally, many of the people Dave Sim has been compared to in the past (Adolf Hitler, Freidrich Nietzsche, and Socrates, to name a few) most certainly are dead, though in fairness he’s also been compared to Louis Farrakhan and Mel Gibson, both of whom are still very much amongst the living. And it is perhaps Sim’s rather unique standing among comic book creators that he gets these comparisons; few if any living scribes or artists in the comic book field have garnered so much attention for radical views expressed outside of their chosen medium as he has.

But yes, Dave Sim is alive and well and still living in Kitchener Ontario, Canada. He is unmarried. He recently launched Cerebus TV after a short and widely panned comic series called Glamourpuss.

But of course, Glamourpuss is not why we’re here. This is about Cerebus, man, love ’im or hate ’im, and about Dave Sim, the controversial man who created the Earth-Pig Born.

For diehard fans of Cerebus, there will likely be an initial number of eye-rolls and moribund sighs given to any article immediately brings up the “Sim Personal Life” topic. “Why do we always have to do this?” some ask. Others throw their hands in the air, assuming the piece will either be a diatribe against Sim and his controversial views, or even, as in some rare cases, a defense.

Let me say that this is neither. It’s certainly not going to be another Sim beatdown. To me, the charges of misogyny, of homophobia, of religious radicalism … that stuff’s just gossip. Substantiated or not, proven in copied-and-pasted internet links across the worldwidewonderfulweb or not, it’s garbage. What a man or woman thinks beyond the creative product they place out on the market is immaterial when the subject at hand is the material itself.

This is about Cerebus the Aardvark; Earth-Pig Born; Kitchen Staff Supervisor to Lord Julius of Palnu; Most Holy Pope of the Church of Tarim… the list of titles goes on and on. It’s about great writing: the 300 issue arc of Cerebus has a strong central character who is both veracious parody and utterly unique. The story is told in many different, changing artistic formats, from minimalistic white-word-balloons-on-a-black-background to grand scale operatic (usually with the help of trusty Gerhard doing the backgrounds). Like Sim it holds some very complex and sometimes devastating emotions. Cerebus is the only comic book that ever made me bawl like a baby. The source material stands on it’s own and will outlive its creator. It’s brilliant, in my mind, else I would not be writing this.

That said …

The argument that Sim’s views were most certainly expressed within his chosen medium—and in fact influenced it on numerous occasions—is a valid one, and it is something I will touch on from time to time. You can’t escape the fact that two very personal and life-changing experiences (his four-day stay in a psychiatric ward following an acid binge, and his later conversion to Abrahamic faith) occurred to Sim during his epically long run of Cerebus comics. If ever there was an argument that a creator’s personal life so strongly influenced his work, it’s here.

Discussion of the “counterculture to the counterculture” he has (unwittingly, some say; deviously, others insist) created has no place here, however; at least not from me. Feel free to rant all you want in the comments section. I personally take no offense at anything the man has ever said, but then I’m probably not the best judge; I never take offense at anything spoken or written. Words are wind.

I’ll put it more succinctly: anyone who says “attacked” in the same sentence as “verbally” or “in print” is, in my long-in-the-tooth wise worldview, a pussy. I grew up a nerd in some pretty nerd-unfriendly environs, and was called some pretty harsh things back in the day—back before being a nerd was actually considered kind of cool. I was soundly beaten on more than one occasion. I know what the word “attacked” means.

(Memo to Dan Hardy in the 8th grade: you and your thuggish friends and your pre-moustaches can call me “geek” all you want, just please put down the bicycle chain. Thank you.)

Dave Sim, for all the accusations thrown at him, has never harmed a soul. He did not beat his wife to anyone’s knowledge, nor has he advocated the harm of any living person (unless you count the time he challenged Bone creator Jeff Smith to a boxing match, or you take exception to the fact that he supports the spanking of children). The chickens and the hens that squawk their indignant squawks regarding whether or not he hates women (he probably does dislike quite a few of them—vehemently) only do so because, in some odd way, their feelings were hurt by Sim’s personal views. I think in many ways it would be easier for his critics if he sucked. They feel a connection to his story, to his art, and their “emotional core” feels betrayed when they realize his views do not exactly jive with theirs.

He doesn’t offend me. He wouldn’t offend me if I were female or gay. I’m an avowed agnostic, and his religious beliefs don’t bother me in the least. I actually find them a little funny.

Anyway.

Cerebus ran for a staggering 300 issues, produced bi-monthly in the early days and monthly after the first 2 years saw some semblance of success. It took in total 26 years and 3 months to complete, a career’s work for many people. Sim garnered one of every major comic award there is to win, including a CBG Fan Award, a Harvey, an Eisner, an Ignatz, a Gemmie, a Wizard Fan award, an Inkpot, and a Defender of Liberty award (never heard of that one). He also won the Kirby Award twice.

Cerebus has appeared in many other comic book titles, “on loan” from Sim, including Spawn, X-Men comics (as the demon S’ym) and in multiple John Byrne-titled comics (Byrne is a fellow Canuck), among others. California graffiti artist Thorin did a Cerebus mural on the Berlin Wall before it was torn down. Multiple postcards of the Berlin wall feature Cerebus on them.

In 1997, Dave Sim released The Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing, which has been credited with helping other comic book hopefuls get a leg up in the business. Suffice to say, professionally, he has been extremely influential.

But let’s go to the beginning, shall we?

Cerebus the Aardvark sprung from a fanzine idea Dave Sim concocted with his then-girlfriend Deni back in 1976. One of Deni’s brothers suggested “Vanaheim” for the publishing name, and the other brother suggested “Aardvark,” so (apparently) wanting to please them both, Aardvark-Vanaheim was born. The fanzine itself was called Cerebus—a misspelling of Cerberus—and it featured as its mascot a sword-wielding, horned helmet-wearing bipedal aardvark.

The fanzine went nowhere, but Sim quickly launched Cerebus the Aardvark as an independent comic (one of the very first moderately successful ones) after being turned down for publication by Mike Friedrich and his “Quack” comic line. It’s possible Friedrich simply didn’t see the parody in it, or thought Sim was himself a quack; people did not plot, write, pencil, shade, ink, and letter their own comics. The anomaly could have scared anyone off, quite frankly.

So Sim had to do all of it himself, adding “publisher” to the list. At issue 26, he added background artist Gerhard to the series, and the two worked hand-in-hand on Cerebus until its final issue.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The issue breakdowns that follow in his (and subsequent) articles are the result of my recend re-reads of the entire series, as well as old notes I’d taken over the years. I freaking love this comic. If you appreciate Cerebus as much as I have over the years, this trip down memory lane will be enjoyable. And hey, maybe we’ll make a few new friends (or converts) along the way.

(Enemies? Sure. Those too. This is a Sim retrospective.)

A note on maps:

One day back in 1998, like the total nerdmonkey I am, I attempted a re-read of the series for the explicit purpose of mapping the world. At the time there were no maps of Cerebus’ world on the interwebs, and though some were rumored to have been included in some of the single issues of Cerebus, all I currently owned were the large “telephone book” collections. I’ve always been a little fascinated with maps, so I figured I’d give it a go. I wanted to picture, in my head, all these wonderful lands Dave wrote about. Iest, Palnu, Boreala… (I mean, certain things were obvious: Boreala was in the north, because it had lots of snow. Duh!) I knew I wouldn’t get too many specifics, like roads, or exacting border lines, but I thought I could assemble a reasonable facsimile of my very own World of the Earth-Pig map.

And this, ladies and gents, was my very own first brush with the Dave Sim May Be Crazy theory. At first I thought he was contradicting himself by way of skewed POV; like he knew the true map—probably had one hanging above his mantle in Kitchiner Ontario—and was purposefully leading us astray through the eyes of various characters who may or may not be right.

To say my “map” was a hot mess is taking the word “mess” and giving it a respect it does not deserve. It was literally all over the place, a cacophony of contradiction. I finally gave up after the third “telephone book” and decided that my continued enjoyment of the series would have to rely on me being completely lost.

For newer readers (those who are now interested in purchasing old issues of the completed series), I am happy to say there are there are indeed official maps.

From here on out I will be dedicating one article per issue of Cerebus. As my Gestalt Mash articles generally come out on a monthly basis (give or take a week or three), this means my review of Cerebus in its entirety, in honor of Sim’s dogged singlemindedness, will finish in approximately 25 years.

I’m just kidding, Jay.

(And they say he has no sense of humor. The fact that he published this says he does!)

Actually, I will cover a large chunk of Cerebus per article. Hell, by the time I’m done, you all won’t even need to go out and buy them.

(See, I’m kidding again. Because how else will you get all that cool Cerebus artwork?)

Oh, that’s on the internet too?

Tarim.

Here’s the roundabout way I will be covering each issue:

Issue (#):  Title

Setting: Name of city, town, or country in which story takes place.

Introduces: A list of first-time introductions.

Mentions: A list of first-time mentions or references. This could be mentions of gods, people, places, things.

Featured: Characters featured in the story (# of appearances).

Skews: Various targets lampooned or referenced.

Best line: Self-explanatory.

Best WTF: Best moment that isn’t a line.

Notes: How stupid are you if you need to know what notes are? We don’t want your kind. Go on, get out of here.

Grade: A, B, C, D, or … I’m not sure there are any F’s. There may be                 one. Possibly two.

Part the Second: Cerebus the Aardvark, Issues 1-3

Issue 1:  Cerebus the Aardvark (alt: The Flame Jewel)

Setting: unnamed city in the south

Introduces: Cerebus, shadow beasts, animated skeletons, Nama lotus (vertigo-inducing flower), a nameless wizard (possibly an Illusionist; killed by Cerebus)

Mentions: Tarim (god), Terim (god), Clovis (probably a god), Grim Reaper

Featured: Cerebus (1)

Skewers: Conan comic books; sword-and-sorcery stories in general

Best line: Cerebus: “I admire your cowardice, obese one…”

Best WTF: Tavern dude grabs Cerebus’ tail and gets his hand gruesomely hacked off. This probably lets you know right away it’s an indie comic. Eff the comics code!

Notes: Basic intro of Cerebus. He begins with a long nose (much like an aardvark should), but as the series progresses, his nose shortens and thickens. This is the first of many early Cerebus comics to feature some sort of magical or priceless jewel or gem as a plot device, much like early Conan. Art is very rough, but you can already tell Sim has a gift for panels.

Grade: C

Issue 2:  Captive in Boreala

Setting: Boreala (country)

Introduces: Borealan marauders, a nameless Borealan chieftain, Klog (killed by Cerebus), the Eye of Terim (artifact; most precious of the Five Spheres of the Gods), succubus (soul-stealing energy demon)

Mentions: Tansubal (province), Gurann (Borealan town), the Blood War (northern conflicts), Paranian (language), Khem (demon)

Featured: Cerebus (2)

Skewers: More Conan

Best line: Borealan Chieftain: “As a southlander, you doubtless have a moral code which prohibits your killing an unconscious foe. The being the case, sacred tradition demands…”
(Cerebus stabs his unconscious foe to death.)
Borealan Chieftain: “… Oh.”

Best WTF: Unarmed, Cerebus introduces and unleashes the dreaded Earth-Pig Snout Punch!

Notes: Two comics into the series, this is still basically a parody of Conan.  There’s at least one panel that’s nearly identical to one of Frank Frazetta’s Conan the Barbarian paintings. With, you know, an aardvark instead of a Cimmerian. We learn that Cerebus possibly has no soul—or at least a soul that’s difficult to find.

Grade: C+

Issue 3:  Song of Red Sophia

Setting: Tansubal and Branpur (northern towns)

Introduces: Henrot (wizard), Red Sophia (Henrot’s daughter), Thugg the Unseemly, Tanes Feras (foppish nobleman)

Mentions: Temza (northern coastal town), Panrovian Duel (a two-handed fighting style), Ashtoth (god), Set (god), Gurannian tonsil kissing (a specific kind of tonsil kissing, one assumes)

Featured: Cerebus (3), Henrot (1), Red Sophia (1), Tanes Feras (1)

Skewers: Conan, Red Sonja

Best line: Sophia: “I am yours to command! Let me do your bidding, oh short grey master… My body is yours!”
Cerebus: “Cerebus is most pleased. You can carry the supplies.”

Best WTF: Sophia, a near-perfect replica of Red Sonja, keeps throwing herself at Cerebus. Cerebus keeps putting her off.

Notes: Red Sophia is the “What If” answer to “What if Red Sonja was actually  really horny and Cerebus actually beat her?” Easily one of the most colorful characters in the series. She offers him a tail massage, offers to sew sequins on his helmet, offers to make him a monogrammed handkerchief set; she claims to know a lot of “good tricks” (says they won’t even have to lie down if he doesn’t want to) but she’s mostly “into hand-holding.” Cerebus is so annoyed by her that he makes her vow to wed the man Cerebus is paid to torture. (Cerebus can’t imagine a greater torture than to be married to her.) Classic.

Grade: B+

Many more of these to come. Sound off, ye Cerebus fans!

Tobias is a writer and a ranger and a young boy bearing arms. He thinks Game of Thrones will be the Best Thing Ever, and may throw himself (or an enemy) off a building if it proves no better than Legend of the Seeker. His past body of employment includes dog-walking, lawn-mowing, private investigating, script reading, coffee-fetching, cold-calling, and a stint in the United States Air Force which included even more dog-walking and an “interesting” encounter with a three-toed sloth. He was once paid to be a dungeon master and readily adds that to his résumé. He has lived in more places than your mother would approve, is a serial monogamist, pro-death advocate, prog-rock nerd, and ASoIaF enthusiast. He currently lives in southern California and says “Dude” preceding any statement he sees as even moderately important. He considers World of Warcraft a disease, not a cure.