Page 45 Review by Stephen
Reviewing books twenty years old is somewhat different to new arrivals, and a series like this - 6,000 pages of peerless comicbook innovation with a beginning, a middle and a heart-stopping end - deserves at least a thorough overview. Unfortunately Jonathan has just informed me that we don't have one, nor any contemporary reviews for the first thirteen individual volumes. Only one week until the website launches, so as fast as I can, here goes!
CEREBUS was written and drawn by Canadian Dave Sim from start to finish over the course of 23 years. He was joined halfway through CHURCH & STATE on backgrounds and colour covers by landscape artist Gerhard, a man whose meticulous crosshatching puts him right up there with Bernie Wrightson (FRANKENSTEIN), Franklin Booth and even Gustav Doré, and whose architecture is as extraordinary in its own way as Schuiten's.
"What's CEREBUS about?" is the usual question.
It's about 6,000 pages, 300 issues and 16 graphic novels long, plus extras.
It's about life, death and the bits in between: war, greed, faith and religion, exchange rates, politics, love, freedom of artistic expression, the repression of artistic expression, the war of the sexes, sickness, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, idolatry, adultery, delusion and old age. On reflection I guess it's also about the bits before and after. On one notable instance it was about the often illusory relationship between the reader, the creator and the printed page, especially in a periodical comic with a letters column (see CEREBUS: READS).
It's also a parody, caricature and satire. At one point it parodies SANDMAN (Neil Gaiman is an enormous fan), it parodies SPAWN (Todd McFarlane is an enormous fan - though that's less than a ringing endorsement, I grant you), it incorporates Bacchus (Eddie Campbell loves JAKA's STORY), it caricatures Margaret Thatcher (who has never even heard of it), and it caricatures Oscar Wilde (who is dead). But that doesn't mean it's comedic from start to finish. Rarely have I seen old age and death being addressed at length and so profoundly in comics outside of CEREBUS. Old age in particular seems almost taboo.
As I've said, it contains page after page of comicbook innovation: new devices invented by Dave unique to the medium of comics. The lettering itself, once he really gets going, becomes the visual equivalent of onomatopoeia.
But this is the first book and there's little of that happening here. Around the 10th issue in this reprint of #1-25 - and certainly with the introduction of Lord Julius (Groucho Marx) - the wit really kicks in, but I've known this volume's first few issues put people off the series for life. Understandably so: it starts off as little more than a parody of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the artwork is comparatively primitive with nods to Barry Windsor-Smith, but you will see the artist in him grow on the printed page.
Instead we recommend you begin either with CEREBUS ZERO which contains the three short stories not included in the books, CEREBUS VOL 2: HIGH SOCIETY if you enjoy riotously funny satire or CEREBUS VOL 5: JAKA'S STORY, if you prefer profoundly moving straight fiction.
Which is odd when you consider that the trappings of CEREBUS are far from straight fiction. For a start its star is an anthropomorphic aardvark in a world full of humans. He is, if you like, the ultimate outsider; a nuisance to some, a deity to others. Also, the world they all inhabit is an anachronistic mix of rifles, swords, sorcery, old Tudor houses and Georgian hotels. There are rocking horses in genteel park playgrounds, and there's a thriving publishing industry for prose at the same time that barbarians are running amok in loin cloths. The extraordinary thing is that it's seamless: that it works.
So anyway, CEREBUS VOLUME ONE.
Cerebus is a greedy, belligerent and bellicose barbarian. He's a nomad. He wanders around from tavern to tavern, drinking whatever he can and pocketing whatever he can lay his four-fingered hands on. Drugged one evening, he falls in love with a dancer called Jaka then barely remembers he met her. Later, without realising it, he starts work as a bodyguard for her uncle Lord Julius (Groucho Marx) whose stranglehold over the local economy is maintained by baffling the opposition. Cerebus also discovers an enormous statue of himself, worshipped by a tribe called the Picts, and in a fit of rage he destroys it. There will be
In addition there's the first of his out-of-body experiences called Mind Games: if you take all the pages apart and past them together they form a single image which you can view Dave holding aloft in our photo gallery of the Cerebus UK Tour '93.