Cerebus,David Sim's Barbarian Aardvark


AARDVARK: The first real word in most of our dictionaries. Also: A large burrowing mammal of Africa, feeding on ants and termites.

CONAN: Large mammal of Cimmeria. Created by Robert E. Howard. Gets really important break and is promoted into comic books by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith in 1970. Drinks lots of beer.

CEREBUS: In this case not the three-headed canine that guards Hades, but rather a happy combination of the above two, combining one's grace, and the other's charm. A young Canadian, Dave Sim created Cerebus, back in the seventies when, thanks to Conan, barbarians were all the vogue in comic books. Sim decided to parody the trend and the Cimmerian with a self-published black and white comic book. With the help of his wife, Deni Loubert, Cerebus #1 hit the comic book stores in December 1977.

Almost twenty two years later, against grim odds, the series still continues to be published and is well on its way to meet Sim's goal of 300 issues. As of this writing ((1999)), he has collected the published Cerebus stories into fourteen anthology volumes, many over 500 pages. It's an impressive feat, especially considering the sad fact that most often self-publishing is the quickest road to bankruptcy.

About the time that Sim was getting into comics, his contemporaries, people like Bernie Wrightson, Jeff Jones, Mike Kaluta, and Barry Windsor Smith, were part of a whole new generation who were getting into mainstream comics and infusing the field with new energy. Many would later burn out and some top talent would leave the field entirely.

There's good reason for art-serfs to leave the plantation. As Sim has said at a 1993 convention for comic book professionals, Pro/Con,"All [comics] companies are pyramid schemes, pure and simple. The people at the bottom of the pyramid, the creators, labor on behalf of the people at the top, the publishers. Money, like hot air, rises."

By avoiding working for the Big Two comic companies, Sim has managed to write and draw for himself and his audience, with the only compromises the dictates of his own judgment. He also gets all the money. Sim decided to do it all himself (with the help of his assistant, the background whiz known as Gerhard) creating a project that will span 6,000 pages when finished.

Barring accident, Cerebus should be completed sometime in 2002. It hasn't been easy and when the artist first started, he often had to hawk his books at conventions, take them personally to retailers, and sell his originals at a fraction of the cost they are now worth, until he eventually achieved a comfortable circulation of 16,000-17,000 copies.

What about Cerebus himself? The moody, hot-tempered little aardvark started out his life in the panels as a Marvel parody but soon evolved (along with the artwork, which initially was crude) into a personality of his own. Parody, however, has not been discarded; throughout Cerebus' adventures Wolverine, Elfquest characters, Prince Valiant, Maggie Thatcher, Oscar Wilde, Red Sonja, the Marx brothers, Popeye, and numerous other public figures have popped up in hilarious, sometimes affectionate, cameos. (Cerebus has also battled and triumphed against Will Eisner's The Spirit.)

To boil down his storylines in a very condensed form: Cerebus was a wandering warrior, then a kitchen staff supervisor, then a Prime Minister, then a house guest, a husband, a Prime Minister again, then a Pope, and back to being a house guest again-- well, that's the bare bones of it. Scarcely thorough, but accurate. All those pages are rather intimidating, after all. The series has explored such weighty topics as love, death, loneliness, power, organized religion, and state politics. The material may sound ponderous but is handled with great comic timing. Sim's brilliant narrative and dialogue is capably served by his finely rendered cinematic art style.

There are currently 14 Cerebus volumes in print, ranging from $17.00 to 30.00 in price. In Cerebus Book 1 (issues 1-25, December 1971-February 1981), the aardvark meets a number of characters who will play prominent parts in future storylines: Jaka (the human women he loves), Lord Julius, Red Sophia, The Roach, and Bran Mac Muffin. Unlike later volumes, this first book in the series is a collection of one, two, and three part stories, with some continuity between story arcs but no overall theme. At this early stage of Cerebus' career, the emphasis is on swash buckling, he-aardvark adventuring.

With the second volume, High Society (26 to 50, May 1981-May 1983), the emphasis switches to power politics and outlines his gradual rise to Prime Minister. The Roach becomes Moon Roach (a pastiche of Batman), and Cerebus meets Sergeant Preston of the Royal Mounted Police. The third and forth volumes, Church and State I & II (52 to 111, July 1983 to June 1988), constitute the longest storyline in comic book history. In it, Cerebus loses his position as Prime Minister but retains a place in high society, unaware that he's still being politically manipulated, eventually becoming Pope.

Other, continuing, volumes in the series are Jaka's Story (Book 5), Melmoth (Book 6), Flight (Book 7), Women (Book 8), Reads (Book 9), Minds (Book 10), Guys (Book 11), Rick's Story (Book 12), Going Home (Book 13), and Form and Void (Book 14).

It's about five years later since I first wrote most of the above for ChannelSpace, and Sim has met his goal of 300 issues of Cerebusas of December 2003, so I guess that's *it* for his aardvark, but where Sim intends to go from here as a creator is anyone's guess. In the meantime, Sim has managed to alienate a significant proportion of his fan base, first with an article in #186 on gender-roles ("Reads"), and then with an essay in #265 which infuriated many as being anti-feminist/anti-women, or, as The Comics Journal puts it, "as nutty and loathesome - or moreso - as some of the more extreme Jack Chick tracts."

Whew! If you want to check the matter out and judge for yourself, both articles are posted on MisogynyUnilimited as The Merged Void.

For those who aren't pissed off by the above and are still interested in acquiring examples of Dave Sim's work, Cerebus is available as a comic or in book format at barnesandnoble.com and eBay, and can also be found in many comic book stores (I'd recommend High Societyas a start; itís the most accessible while still providing an indication of what the rest of the series is like.).

But collectors should be careful if they come across a copy of the comic Cerebus #1; the first issue only had a print run of 2000 and is worth $250 dollars, but evidently counterfeit copies are in circulation. If you're thinking of buying that issue, look for bronze staples and poor printing: the counterfeiters used silver staples and did a better print job than Sims was able to afford at the time.
 

--Steve Stiles