After what seemed two clunky beginning issues, Cerebus hit its early stride with the introduction of Red Sophia, and it built from there. Over the course of the next ten issues, Sim’s ability to see to the heart of whatever subject he was skewering served him well. And it was a skewer, make no mistake; the Cerebus Syndrome trope had not been invented yet.
Hell, it was still the late 1970’s. A lot of things hadn’t been invented yet.
In my revisitation of these early issues (Cerebus issues 4 – 13) Sim gleefully assails various Conan storytelling devices, but also widens his net to include Michael Moorcock with the introduction of the Elric-meets-Foghorn Leghorn buffoon, Elrod of Melvinbone. For the most part the storytelling is rife with the usual Conan the Barbarian tropes, with iron-walled cities and dark temples ripe for plunder, evil wizards and overzealous priests to outfox, kings and duelists to outfight, and dark gods to avoid at all costs.
And an aardvark at the center of it all. Never forget that. In many places Cerebus is the wrench tossed with chaotic glee into the proverbial machine.
Not to be overlooked is the seemingly benign introduction of Jaka in issue 6; the Jaka, Cerebus’ eventual love interest. Though Jaka’s first Borealan-accented incarnation as a lithe and wily tavern dancer has very little in common with the Jaka Tavers she became. This Jaka can hardly hold a candle to the eventual complicated woman we grew to love in Sim’s seminal and brilliant Jaka’s Story, which he wrote almost ten years after this.
But we’re pushing ahead. Too far ahead. There is still brilliance to wade through in getting there. Oh, man, is there.
At the end of Sim’s first ten issues, its already obvious he’s reaching for something bigger; a commentary that will cross more boundaries. Sim had found a groove, was on a roll, and he needed a better-ranged gun with which to hit these juicy targets that kept just popping up before him. Really, there was only so much Conan could do anyway. So he broadened again with a Batman parody—the Cockroach!—and introduced us to the rooftops of that Gotham-meets-Charles Dickens’ Nightmare, a winter-bound and morally bankrupt metropolis called Beduin.
It was in Beduin, I believe, that Sim had one of many epiphanies. This place was untapped yet bursting with stories, and more than a fair share of aardvark-out-of-water tales; ’twas an aardvark in a strange land! It was rich and ripe for the taking. And I believe Sim recognized this early, had already plotted past issue 13 (Black Magiking)—an issue many felt to be his “last Conan story,” at least for a while. Further hints toward this theory is the fact that Cerebus did no fighting himself while trapped in the tower of Necross the Mad, simply watching and observing as two foes duked it out. This was a wilier Cerebus, as it was a wilier Dave Sim.
From that point on…
Well, after these tales come Palnu. Lord Julius. And all the bureaucratic targets set up before his eyes. Really, it’s like shooting at the side of a very large, very red barn.
And Sim does so gleefully.
But that’s Palnu, and that’s just not quite yet. Today we see it through, this path. This precursor. And see how much even the dawning days influenced his eventual works.
Let’s continue, shall we?
Issue 4: Death’s Dark Tread
Setting: Serrea, capital of the Sepran Empire
Introduces: the thirteenth gem (also called the “chaos gem,” a glowing bauble found by Cerebus; sought after by Death, who possesses the other twelve), the Crawler (a tentacled creature made of sorcery, reputed to be from the dawn of time), Death (a mysterious being on an unknown plane; sitting a throne and cloaked in shadow with an hourglass dangling from his/her neck), Elrod the Albino (the self-styled last true king of Melvinbone),
Mentions: the Sofim River, apricot brandy (a drink favored by Cerebus), diamondback (a stakes game), the Five Spheres (an oath muttered by Death), the Southgate Prison (a dungeon in Serrea),
Featured: Cerebus (4), Death (1), Elrod the Albino (1)
Skews: Barry Windsor Smith, Conan, Dr. Fate, Elric of Melnibone, Foghorn Leghorn
Nutshell: Cerebus has a magic gem (a trinket desired by Death itself) fall into his possession. A rivalry with Elrod ends up with them both chained in a dungeon; Cerebus breaks free, leaving the albino behind… and Death frustrated.
Best line: “Who would believe a sword could get rusty enough to turn black?” (Cerebus to himself upon facing Elrod’s “legendary” sword, Seersucker; Cerebus then shatters the “legendary” sword with one blow)
Best WTF: Cerebus is manacled to a dungeon wall next to Elrod. He uses his aardvarkian strength to rip the manacles from the stone wall as Elrod natters on about how such actions are futile. A caption at the bottom of the page states: Cerebus did have some dialogue on this page… it’s just than none of it was printable. –Dave
Notes: This one begins as many Cerebus tales begin: with some form of trinket falling into Cerebus’ hands via a dying man. (It really does happen often—a lampoon in and of itself.) Elrod is another character that gets revisited often, iconic for his bizarre Foghorn Leghorn speech: “I’m an outcast from my race. My sword is black! Rune-carved, that is. Mind your manners, son! I’ve got a tall, pointy hat! Status, boy! You can argue with me but you can’t argue with status.” Less noted but just as important to the mythology is Death, an increasingly frustrated Dr. Fate-like mystery figure. Cerebus, irritated with his luck, eventually just tosses the chaos gem into a well and leaves the city. Death is left to mope: “Some days… some days… it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed.”
Issue 5: (Untitled)
Setting: the Red Marches
Introduces: Partha Qua Non (a Pigt), Cromag Macs Milc (a Pigt), Fret Mak Mury (a Pigt), Bran Mak Mufin (the Pigt king)
Mentions: Turan Genn (mercenary captain in the Red Marches), Ishtar (the goddess?), the Conniptin dialect (a language), the Redeemer Dynasty (empire toppled by the Pigts), the Eastern Monoliths (empire toppled by the Pigts), the Black Tower Empire (empire toppled by the Pigts) the Dehrsion Monarchy (scheduled to be toppled by the Pigts sometimes in the foreseeable future), “Crazy as a Panrovian Monk” (the aardvarkian substitute for “paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur”),
Featured: Cerebus (5), Bran Mak Mufin (1)
Skews: Conan, Leave It To Beaver, the picts
Nutshell: Cerebus encounters the semi-primitive Pigts in the wild Red Marches, who believe he is a representation of their god. Pigt leader Bran Mak Mufin spews wise words that mean little to an earth-pig born. Cerebus notices the statue of the Pigt deity; he destroys it and escapes, wanting nothing to do with the Pigts.
Best line: (After Bran Mak Mufin brags his Pigts exist only to topple empires, Cerebus asks how many men he commands:) “Fifty armed warriors. A lot of them are armed with swords too.”
Best WTF: Bran Mak Mufin mysteriously (and correctly) guesses Cerebus’ age (26); we later learn the Pigts worship a fifteen-foot tall idol made of some compost material (or possibly clay or dung) that looks nearly identical to Cerebus, whom they have named “The Redeemer.” Stranger still is the reason Cerebus destroys the statue: he refuses to believe he is not completely unique, and hates the idea that he might be associated with the Pigts.
Notes: This issue introduces the “nothing smells worse than wet aardvark fur” premise, which pops up consistently from time to time. (“The plains dwellers must be burning their ceremonial skunks again,” “The smell of a thousand dung worms mating in the noon sun,” “The stinging in my nostrils is barely noticeable.”) Bran Mak Muffin, king of the Pigts, is a parody of Robert E. Howard’s Bran Mak Morn, king of the picts; his superlatives even outdo the original, as Mak Mufin is styled, “a tactician without peer, the penultimate swordsman, known to emasculate flies in mid-air; a slayer of kings and the king of kings himself; he can repair a broken limb with but a glance; he makes the blind sighted, the weak strong, and also makes the finest Borealan cole slaw west of the Sofim.” Fret Mak Mury is a parody of Fred MacMurray, who starred as the Beaver’s dad in Leave It To Beaver. For those in the “Sim hates gays” camp, Cerebus’ discomfort at a mostly-naked man standing behind him is emblematic.
Issue 6: The Secret
Setting: Iest (a southern city)
Introduces: E’Lass (a slight and slightly-wily street rogue), Turg the Unduly Tall (E’Lass’s moronic muscle), Jaka (a tavern dancer, and “the most beautiful woman east of the Sofim; her hair is like white silk, her movements are cat-like”), the Brothers of the Black Sun (cult priests)
Mentions: the Wall of Tsi, Smina, the Tcapmin Kingdoms, the Temple of the Black Sun (a temple not far from Iest), the freckle on Jaka’s elbow
Featured: Cerebus (6), E’Lass (1), Turg (1), Jaka (1)
Skews: Conan, Thor, professional wrestling
Nutshell: Yet another dying man falls into Cerebus’ hands. Two thugs think Cerebus knows the man’s dying words, and they drug Cerebus, making him temporarily fall in love with Jaka, a tavern dancer, which begets a bare-knuckle barfight of epic proportions.
Best line: E’Lass informs Turg that someone needs to “talk” to Cerebus. Turg gets on one knee and pleads, “Aww—No, E’Lass—Please! Turg is still sore from his last talk with the Killer-Who-Looks-Like-A-Bunny…!”
Best WTF: E’Lass slips a drug into Cerebus’ drink, which makes him besotted with Jaka. Unfortunately for E’Lass, he cannot then pry Cerebus away from the stage. Cerebus punches E’Lass in the groin with his tail without taking his eyes off of Jaka once. And really that’s just the beginning of the chaos: “I am moved to ask, friend, just prior to rearranging your face, why did you smash my ale mug?” “Looks like a herd of gray teddy bears are beating up on that Borealan mercenary.” “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone swallow his own arm up to the elbow.” “Shut up and help me pry my fingers out of my nose.”
Notes: Yes, yet another adventure is brought to Cerebus’ three-toed feet by a dying man. It never gets old if its a running joke. This issue is momentous because of the introduction of Cerebus’ eventual true love, Jaka Tavers. I don’t think Sim had her really fleshed out in his head at this point, as she speaks with what seems to be an odd (Borealan?) accent, referring to herself in the third person, etc. I doubt he had her pegged as Lord Julius’s niece at this point, though the fact that the very last panel is Jaka swearing to wait for Cerebus (“even if it takes the rest of her life”).
Issue 7: Black Sun Rising
Setting: Temple of the Black Sun (in the heart of the Hsifan Khanate)
Introduces: Mit the Feeble (4′ tall Black Sun priest), Lyran the Death Dealer (hooded Black Sun executioner), the Beast of the Black Sun (a gigantic spider), the Dark Majesty (leader of the Black Sun religion)
Mentions: The Book of Stoth, a Black Sun (an alcoholic beverage that mixes dark ale, apricot brandy, and Borealan whiskey), the Five Sacrifices (Black Sun holy rite), the Nameless Ones (ancient Black Sun deities),
Featured: Cerebus (7), Elrod (2)
Skews: Conan, Elric of Melnibone, Foghorn Leghorn, Charlie Brown
Nutshell: Cerebus is joined against his will by Elrod as they attempt to rob the Temple of the Black Sun. A rogue Black Sun priest chooses that exact day to dress up in a Cerebus-like costume. Hijinks ensue. In the end Cerebus is bitten by a giant spider and barely escapes with his life.
Best line: Cerebus: “Damned albino confused Cerebus so badly I forgot to dismember him.”
Best WTF: Cerebus needs to hide, so he climbs down just beneath the lip of a dark pit, holding onto the ledge and thinking, “Mayhap Cerebus can climb down a few feet and escape then the priests have—” The whole ledge breaks off and he plummets into darkness.
Notes: Poor little Mit has the uncanny bad luck to plot his impersonation of a Nameless One dressed in a costume that looks suspiciously like Cerebus. Though the eye-holes are crooked, like Charlie Brown at Halloween. Cerebus is captured by the giant spider Beast and almost devoured, but for whatever reason the Dark Majesty decides to begin an incantation that brings down the walls of the pit, depositing Cerebus (somehow) safely outside the temple.
Issue 8: Day of the Earth-Pig
Setting: a Conniptin camp somewhere north of Imesh
Introduces: the Conniptin Prince (unnamed son of King Hezzreth), Captain Turl, Doctor (unnamed)
Mentions: King Hezzreth (king of the Conniptins), the “Fight fight fight!” Conniptin war chant
Featured: Cerebus (8)
Skews: Conan, Star Trek, cheerleading, and (possibly) Kull the Conquerer
Nutshell: A poisoned and hallucinating Cerebus is captured by the warlike Conniptins, who, led by an ineffective Prince, soon make him their leader. Cerebus almost leaves but ultimately decides to stay, taking the Conniptins and marching toward the city of Imesh.
Best line: The Prince says, “I am the son of a god in-car-nate! My personal mystic declared me a god as well…” He snorts a big honking chunk of white powder from a bag he carries. “…And gave me a large bag of white ‘Powder of the Gods’ to aid me. Thank you for this little talk, Captain. It was so boring it was probably good for me.”
Best WTF: Caption: He [Cerebus] had been unable to find his way to the coast as he had planned. Though the Commander tries to explain “doctor,” “infection,” and “fever,” Cerebus attributes them to one of the new degenerative sorcery disciplines and listens no further.
Notes: The Doctor and Captain Turl discuss their plans. The Doctor could very well be Bones McCoy: “The beast’s wound is far too serious for withstanding stress. I’m a doctor, not a magician!” And, “I’m a doctor, not a general. The welfare of my…” And, “I’m a doctor, not a time-keeper!” Turl finally threatens to cut his tongue out, and he replies, “I’m a doctor, not a martyr! We’ll be ready at dawn.” Sort of a ridiculous issue. But it does show us our first example of Cerebus’ desire to lead. After a rousing speech to the Conniptin army, he screams at them, “Don’t screw it up or Cerebus will have you all flayed alive!” Cerebus almost leaves, but decides to return and truly take command. He goes to bed thinking, “If Cerebus is supposed to lead these loonies, someone is going to have to explain all that gibberish to him.”
Issue 9: Swords Against Imesh
Setting: the Hsifan city of Imesh
Introduces: King K’Cor (king of Imesh), Sedra (K’Cor’s lover), Buz (an addictive food source and drug manufactured by King K’Cor), the Energy Globes of Imesh (defensive balls of light), Lord Koghem (Panrovian duelist)
Mentions: The Ram and Peacock (a tavern that once existed in Imesh), Panrovy (meant as an insult), Gilash’s Third Eye (an oath uttered by K’Cor), Venusians (alien race King K’Cor thinks he is protecting his city from), ammonia mines of Venus (uh huh!),
Featured: Cerebus (9), King K’Cor (1)
Skews: Conan, cheerleading, space invaders, Venus-worshippers, and uh … fair fights
Nutshell: Cerebus enters Imesh by himself, leaving his Conniptin army alone. He is captured by King K’Cor (who is readying his city for an alien invasion) and made to pass feats of skill and combat, including fighting the king himself. Cerebus succeeds in them all, but his victory is hollow; K’Cor poisoned all the wells outside the city and Cerebus’ Conniptin army is no more.
Best line: As the Conniptins chant, Cerebus thinks, “Cerebus should have chosen a school for the deaf as his first conquest!”
Best WTF: Possibly the best insults ever in a Cerebus comic; Cerebus duels Lord Koghem, a Panrovian, and drives him to distraction: “Is it true that Panrovians derive sexual satisfaction from small woodland animals? Cerebus has heard that Panrovian men are built so small that anything larger than a titmouse is quite beyond their abilities. Cerebus heard the Panrovian ‘March of Virgins’ had to be cancelled; your daughter got pregnant, and your wife refused to march alone.” Lord Koghem is reduced to a shaking mess, screaming, “You’re… EVIL…!!!” before Cerebus stabs him in the stomach and kills him.
Notes: Cerebus defeats King K’Cor, but all for naught; K’Cor poisoned all the nearby wells, decimating the Conniptins and leaving Cerebus without an army.
Issue 10: Merchant of Unshib
Setting: the Hsifan Khanates
Introduces: Meirgen (Red Sophia’s partner), Throgo (an experienced T’Capmin guard), the merchant of Unshib (we only see his hand)
Mentions: the T’Capmin (a northern people), Khaidoge the Unmovable (former invader of the T’Capmin), the Khaiven (a race of people Cerebus is mistaken for), Khaiven Sorcerers (practicers of dark polymorphing magic), the Black Blossom Lotus (a magic artifact long thought to have been separated into pieces), the council head in Palnu (unnamed)
Featured: Cerebus (10), Red Sophia (2)
Skews: Conan, Red Sonja
Nutshell: In the snowy lands north of Iest, Cerebus teams with Red Sophia and others in order to steal a legendary magical jewel from a traveling merchant. Cerebus turns the tables on his “partners” and makes off with the Black Blossom Lotus himself.
Best line: Red Sophia explains what happened to her late husband, Tanes Faras: “I married Feras like you told me to… but he forgot that Sophia will only give herself to one who has defeated her in battle! On our first anniversary he died of eight compound fractures, twelve stab wounds, and an ulcer. I punched him in the jaw one last time and he passed from this world.”
Best WTF: Sophia of course does her best to seduce Cerebus. She licks his ear, squooshes him between her boobs… even resorts to stripping her chain-mail top off, asking, “What do you think of… these?!”. Cerebus remains uninterested and replies, “They’d probably heal if you stopped wearing that chain-mail bikini.” Aside from Cerebus’ short-lived (and drug-induced) fascination with Jaka, he literally has no interest in women at all up to this point.
Notes: Cerebus wins the day by outsmarting not only the T’Capmin guards, but Red Sophia and her partners as well. All Cerebus has to do in order to attain the Black Blossom Lotus is stick his sword into the tent and hold his hand out; the merchant of Unshib hands the Lotus right over.
Issue 11: The Merchant and the Cockroach
Setting: the city of Beduin, in Lower Felda
Introduces: a nobleman (currently unnamed; later known as Artemis Strong) who’s alter-ego is the Cockroach, the Feld River (a river that passes through Lower Felda and Beduin)
Mentions: the Red Claw Cult (worshippers of the red-clawed demon Khem), condominiums and aluminum siding (?),
Featured: Cerebus (11), the Cockroach (1)
Skews: Batman, Charles Dickens, cultural racism
Nutshell: Cerebus sells the Black Blossom Lotus to an unnamed merchant in the city of Beduin—a merchant who turns out to be the vigilante Cockroach, who fights (and robs) criminals at night. Cerebus learns the merchant has a stash of treasure and from that point on obsesses over it and eventually is able to steal seven sacks of gold. Cerebus is forced to flee the city with Beduin guards hot on his tale; he ultimately escapes with only three bags.
Best line: Cerebus, convincing the merchant to help him transport gold by impersonating the ghost of his dead father: “But Tarim needs gold for his good works, and condominiums! Lots of it! Barrels of it! Walls full of it! Aluminum siding doesn’t grow on trees! Will you give your gold to Tarim today?” (Condominiums, eh? Anachronisms live here!)
Best WTF: Cerebus discovers the merchant does not even realize he is the Cockroach, meaning the gold taken from his Cockroach victims is also unknown to the merchant. Cerebus locates a secret shaft built into the merchant’s house and discovers eight feet of piled gold and treasure. Somewhere between the beginning of his search and the discovery of gold, Cerebus has convinced himself that it is rightfully his treasure. There’s no turning back for him at that point; on his mind it’s his gold, and he will get all of it.”
Notes: This is a landmark issue in many cases; Cerebus eschews the barbarian motif for a more civil sort of mercenary appearance, and we see a desire for gold come across more heavily as a result. Sim’s replication of a more modern architecture is also evident, as Beduin seems more Victorian Era in look and feel than the quasi-medieval places Cerebus had found himself in prior to this. In no way did this feel like a Conan parody.
Issue 12: Beduin by Night
Setting: the city of Beduin, in Lower Felda
Mentions: Darnier Prison (a dungeon in Beduin), French (the apparent language the Lower Feldan aristocracy uses)
Featured: Cerebus (12), the Cockroach (2), Elrod (3)
Skews: Batman, Robin, Spider-Man, greed
Nutshell: Cerebus’ greed forces him to return once more to Beduin in order to try and steal the rest of the Cockroach’s treasure. An encounter with Elrod ruins nearly every plan, of course, and the gold he’d once again amassed is (again) lost when the bottom of the boat he was escaping in collapses under the treasure’s weight.
Best line: Cerebus explains his “secret origin” to the Cockroach: “Mom and dad were circus performers. Acrobats. The Red Claw Cult cut through their trapeze ropes… the ropes snapped in mid-air and they fell. Then, one of the Red Claw climbed up to the safety net and beat them to death with a club.” (Cockroach responds, “Tragic, just tragic.” Cerebus thinks, “I know, but it was the best Cerebus could do on the spur-of-the-moment.”)
Best WTF: Cerebus used Elrod as a scape-goat to motivate the Cockroach, and who should appear but Elrod himself. The Cockroach tries to beat the pulp out of Elrod, but luck is on the albino’s side, and he accidentally blinds the Cockroach, then accidentally trips him, sending him tumbling into the Feld River.
Notes: This meeting between the Cockroach and Elrod is destined to become a thorn in Cerebus’ side for years to come. Cerebus escapes with the gold, but it’s so heavy it bursts a hole in Cerebus’ boat, sending the weighted bags to the bottom of the Feld River. He loses his sword as well. Cerebus never has any luck in Beduin.
Issue 13: Black Magiking
Setting: Lower Felda
Introduces: Pieureu (a Feldan villager), Despuiss (a Feldan villager), Tarimite Priest (unnamed), Theyr (small town in Lower Felda), Necross the Mad (evil sorcerer), Thrunk (Necross’s giant stone golem)
Mentions: Church of the Living Tarim (cultish Tarimite sect), the Black Death (allegedly caused by Necross), the Avalanche at San Tremain (allegedly caused by Necross), the Great Fire of Beduin (allegedly caused by Necross), the Pregnancy of Alanne the Milk Maid who didn’t relish the idea of being forced to marry Gums the village idiot (also allegedly caused by Necross)
Featured: Cerebus (13), Necross (1), Thrunk (1)
Skews: Conan, Weird Tales
Nutshell: Cerebus is captured by zealous Tarimites, who force Cerebus to enter the castle of the evil wizard Necross the Mad in order to defeat him. Cerebus instead just stands aside and watches a war of attrition play out between Necross and the Priest of Tarim; Necross is killed, and his spirit enters a giant golem, whereupon he proceeds to stomp and squash the Tarimites, killing the Priest. Cerebus leaves, uninjured.
Best line: the villager Despuess accompanies Cerebus into the tower of Necross the Mad. When confronted, Necross says none may enter save that they are evil. Despuiss stands tall and responds, “Evil? Yes! I’m evil! Yahahaha! I try to look down womens’ dresses! I take Tarim’s name in vain! I shirk my chores! I take more then my share at dinner! I play diamond back for money! Evil?! Nyahahaha! I’m positively Satanic! I’ve also, dare I say it, have had impure thoughts about farm animals!” (Necross disintegrates him, saying, “Evil, yes, but also incredibly boring!”)
Best WTF: Necross the Mad teleports up to the top of his tower to look down on the priest—and is promptly shot in the chest with a crossbow. “An arrow,” Necross the Mad mutters as he lays dying, “He always used incantations before! What a time to start operating on a physical plane!” Necross dies… and his soul is then transferred to the massive form of Thrunk, he stone golem. Thrunk squishes the priest and all the other villagers who enter his tower, but then realizes he is trapped in a tower of his own making and can never leave. Poor Thrunk!
Notes: Cerebus is arraigned: “The prisoner is accused of consorting with dark demons, high crimes against natural law, making the crops mouldy, not looking like the rest of us, and anything the Church of Tarim can think of in the course of the trial.” Cerebus replies, “Cerebus demands that you release him or he’ll call upon his dark masters to turn you into a flock of pious pink toads.” Whispers one jury member to the other, “That’s not a half-bad defense.”