Page 45 Review by Stephen
Almost all of our CEREBUS reviews were written from memory in a single sweep, immediately prior to the launch of Page 45's website in 2010, because the collections had come out long before we'd been writing reviews but I wasn't going to let such an innovative (albeit occasionally problematic) body of work like this (300 issues plus attendant extras) sit there in a void. But the "single sweep" is important because - even though I've embellished this for 2019 - each review relied to some extent for context upon what I'd written of the series so far, while omitting certain elements to avoid repetition.
You might, therefore, want to start reading the reviews from the very first book, but this volume is where I'd recommend you start buying unless you'd prefer something more sensationally satirical in the vein of Black Adder or Yes, Prime Minister, in which case you can hop all the way back to the second book, HIGH SOCIETY.
A complete change of place after the social, political, religious and even cosmic cataclysm of CEREBUS: CHURCH & STATE, and a completely self-contained read recommended as anyone's starting point so long as it's not your first-ever comic. By now Sim is experimenting in so many ways with storytelling in this particular medium that novices may find the devices disorientating. But it's where I started to read CEREBUS, I was hooked in the space of two or three pages, and for the next twenty years until the arrival of ASTERIOS POLYP, THE NAO OF BROWN and the ALEC OMNIBUS et al, I considered the series to be the finest work in comics.
Half the book focuses on the tensions of quiet domesticity, the dancer Jaka living with her new husband Rick halfway up a mountain next to a few other domiciles and a tavern. The other half is about freedom of artistic expression and a woman's right to choose. But it's not as straightforward as you might think.
Cerebus has been away.
As an anthropomorphic aardvark in a pre-industrial world otherwise populated by humans Cerebus is the ultimate outsider, but his seemingly unique physiology (on top of the odd prophecy) has also made him a source of speculation and a magnet for power. He's already been Prime Minister and Pope.
But in his male papal absence he's been dethroned, and the matriarchal Cirinists have taken over. Their religious belief in motherhood is absolute, but don't imagine they're feminists. A woman only has the right to choose so long as her choice is to become a mother. Dancing, for example, is illegal. Men are regarded as second-class citizens and Cerebus as the former religious leader of men is very much on the run. Having materialised by 'coincidence' on Rick and Jaka's doorstep, Cerebus is offered sanctuary there, but given that Cerebus was, is, or perceives himself to be in love with Jaka, it's hilariously awkward.
In the meantime Oscar Wilde turns up. He's writing a story - the story within this story about Jaka's childhood. He's also eyeing up Rick, but he's open and honest about it, even if Rick's too dim to understand those tentative advances.
Far, far more ominous are the constantly revised conversations which tavern owner Pud is having with Jaka in his head. Dancing is illegal and his patrons are few, yet in spite of his poor remuneration Pud still pays her to dance in very revealing outfits. One of the ways I sell JAKA'S STORY on the shop floor goes like this: do you ever try to anticipate conversations in advance? You know, if I say this, they may come back to me with that, so I'll counter with
Hmmm. But what if I said that instead, how would it steer things? Throughout JAKA'S STORY Pud is secretly and silently obsessing over Jaka, stopping and restarting his premeditated, seemingly innocent overtures, but each new strand of calculated conversation in Pud's head grows increasingly worrying
Three-quarters of the way through the rug is pulled out from under everyone's feet and the rest is even darker. How could it not be? Margaret Thatcher materialises. Her speech is reproduced phonetically, its rhythm and cadence as perfectly rendered as the words are chilling.
Before even commencing this story, landscape artist Gerhard built a three-dimensional model of Jaka's house so that he could envisage exactly how each character moved through it, how to 'shoot' exterior sequences with consistency, and then how to represent each time of day's subsequent shadows. Some superhero artists can't even spell the word 'background' let alone draw it. They replace it instead with nominal silhouettes or speed lines: it's not an artistic decision like Kojima's in some sequences of LONE WOLF & CUB, but sheer laziness instead. Conversely, the very concept of laziness is an anathema to Gerhard, and his intricate, cross-hatched textures I rate right up there with Gustav Dore.
Our product pages can't reproduce accents, sorry.
2019's Stephen Says: Hello! Were I reading then writing about this today then you'd receive a relative epic. But I can't. I just can't. There are so many new books every week which demand our full concentration. And with that, I redact twenty-two more imaginary paragraphs of unequivocal praise, but also a couple of qualms involving authorial intention versus actual execution and so readers' reception, very much in the vein of Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited' which was supposed to represent Catholicism in a positive light but which [snip, for which we're all very grateful - ed.]