If the 300-issue, 6,000-page magnum opus that is CEREBUS remains one of the most inventive comics this medium has ever produced, with narrative innovations cascading from its pages at such an astonishing rate as to make Niagara Falls look like a domestic, dripping tap - and it does - then its covers were no less ingenious, iconic and iconoclastic, all at the same time.
What makes this luxurious, full-colour treasury even more of a thirstily devoured "Yes, please!" is that so many of these illustrations don't just set the tone but actively inform the story within, which most modern readers have had access to only in the form of those whopping, black and white CEREBUS phonebook collections. They never reprinted the colour covers to keep their costs down, but some seen in sequence form comicbook narratives in their own right (#153 & #154) and they are bursting with clues.
The diversity of their approaches and angles - geometric or otherwise - was jaw-dropping, especially when one considers the relative, relentless homogeneity of the corporations' covers competing for space on retailers' shelves back then, and even more so to this day.
You never knew what you'd be startled by next: stark silhouettes, spot-lit close-ups, balletic action shots, quiet reveries, dream-sequence deliria, architecture only, lunar photography, William Morris wallpaper either hung with framed portraits or used to frame pithy, telling snap-shots; typography only (ever so brave and oh so effective), images rotated sideways to reflect what lay within, woodland landscapes, a funereal flower arrangement, glistening bottles of booze placed in the foreground of drunken misdemeanours, film-poster parodies, cosmic chess matches, or Dave / David Sim drawing the divine Mick / Michael Jagger in precisely the same pose as Michelangelo once sculpted David.
No, I wasn't perceptive enough to spot that little joke - and, trust me, I studied these long and hard as I acquired each treasured gem. The good news is that, thanks to the conversational back-and-forth between Dave Sim and Gerhard's annotations on almost every page, you'll be privy to even more process notes and private self-indulgences. Take the cover to #77. Here's Gerhard:
"Dream covers are always fun. When I was drawing the water pouring from the statue, I thought it might be fun to have the water fill the letters M and T... as in 'MT is full'. Say it fast, and you'll get the joke... or not."
Dave was joined by landscape artist Gerhard in CEREBUS #65, though not on its cover which was the typography-only effort bearing the truism (which has stuck with me ever since), that "Anything done for the first time unleashes a demon". There were some very, very fine titles: some portentous, some ripping the piss - out of themselves, readers' expectations or Marvel's melodrama - some simply playful yet salient, like "Sane As It Ever Was".
From #65 onwards Dave continued to write and draw all the characters while Gerhard would render the backgrounds in meticulous detail, providing both textures and colour. The cover to #66 is a ripped-open version of #65, exposing Gerhard's first cover and colour contribution.
"It was interesting watching Gerhard tearing art paper carefully so it LOOKED like torn art paper."
That's what I mean by meticulous.
"It took me years to figure out that Gerhard LIKED doing precise measurements / vanishing point stuff: that it was his favourite part," observes Dave of the phenomenal window on #68.
Of #162's extraordinary spectacle: "Vanishing point and applied geometry. It was there in front of me the whole time." And once again of #164's delicious, crystal-clear, blue-sky winter panorama with its single shattered skylight because we'd been there before.
Neither of the artists is here merely to pat themselves or each on the back, though. They're both commendably candid about their mistakes, shortcomings and where things didn't work out the way they had planned. But it was a monthly comic which only once fell behind schedule (towards the end of CHURCH & STATE) so at the end of the day, a) they had to go to print and simply strive to do better next time b) you simply don't know what it will look like until the printed article appears right in front of you.
Sometimes I found myself shaking my head, bewildered by what one or the other considers a failure. The library cover to #151 with its tumbling book and exceptional sense of space has always struck me as one of the ten best covers ever to grace a comic, but Gerhard was so frustated by its colours that when he hung it on its clip on completion, he did so facing the wall.
"In these situations," writes Dave, "you take the hint and just hope it's still on its hook, face to the wall, when you come in tomorrow. It's HIS cover."
Hilariously, however, Dave confesses that during much earlier days - the beginning to HIGH SOCIETY - he tried his hand at watercolours for the covers without comprehending that you were supposed to dilute them. You know, add water. So he used them as you would oil and acrylics, virtually smearing them onto the board. Such is the way of the self-taught artist. I actually liked those covers, but you can't un-see something once you've been shown.
Successful experimentations are equally well documented, like Gerhard's discovery that using a toothbrush to flick white or red ink onto the boards was far more effective for snow, stars and blood than an airbrush. There are lots and lots of different space and star effects in evidence. Also, in one instance, a book bearing bloody finger prints. They're Gerhard's, if that ever proves forensically relevant.
You may have noticed by now that the covers are presented in different ways. The majority are shot from the originals before some or all of the lettering and extra effects have been added which, with attendant notes, gives extra insight into the process behind them. I find it fascinating to peer behind the curtains to see bits pasted on here and there, and what was entrusted to the printers instead.
Others are reproductions of the covers as we encountered them complete with the ever-evolving CEREBUS logo and other typography. I learned a new word: "majuscule". Sim has long been hailed as one of the medium's all-time greatest letterers, sliding sentences up and down, giving them an extra lilt or cadence (when Thatcher is speaking, for example), and deploying the visual equivalent of onomatopoeia in places. At least one is the result of Sim and Gerhard revisiting a cover, recreating it for a commission.
They're reproductions or recreations because some of the originals have been sold, and so many more have been stolen. I'll leave the introduction to fill you in on that aspect.
So yes, there are practical and commercial considerations as well as artistic ones assessed. From time to time, Dave's Inner Business Manager retrospectively smacks himself upside the head to much comedic effect when either carelessly or wilfully making design decisions which ran the risk of thwarting his own sales.
When getting it right on #52 he writes: "Cerebus breaking a chair over the head of a barbarian. Yes, Dave, BRANDING. What is it you're not 'getting' about what you're trying to sell here?" In addition both Cerebus and the logo are found at the top, so easily seen even in shops with semi-tiered shelves which obscure some comics' bottom halves. Everything is a learning curve including copyright infringement, though Dave did get away with it on satirical grounds.
"The three 'Wolveroach' covers which I really just did to show Frank Miller and Joe Rubenstein how the WOLVERINE mini-series covers SHOULD have been done - more like Neal Adams. Thus overshooting the 'Branding' runway and smashing through Marvel's intellectual property fence and leaving this mixed metaphor jackknifed into their swimming pool with its tail in the air."
Of the second in the series, #55: "Now that you mention it, it DID look sort of familiar".
From the ridiculous to the sublime, we finish where Dave Sim and Gerhard concluded, with the final ten issues sub-titled CEREBUS: THE LAST DAY. For this Gerhard supplied a detailed 360-degree view of the room divided into nine covers which conjoin seamlessly with each other and at each end. This in itself constitutes sequential art when considering that time passes ever so slowly inside, but the pan is paused with #298 for a halting juxtaposition.
That's what I meant when I wrote at the start that the exterior art informs what lies within and - at times - creates a narrative all of its own.
This is a gallery we never thought we'd see because of those aforementioned colour costs which would have jeopardised the self-publisher's finances, so bravo to IDW for enabling this miracle.
I'd only add that to close this book immediately after the final cover is to feel almost as bereft as Mark and I did after reading the very last panel on the final page of CEREBUS itself twelve years ago.
Although: lo and behold, here comes the brand-new CEREBUS IN HELL? #0, on Page 45's shelves this very week!