EDIT: It’s a complete happy accident that both Andy and I reviewed Cerebus here, and this was not planned at all. We both wrote and posted our reviews, and then he caught it and told me we should move them back-to-back. So here they are. Mine is better!
Sorry, obviously I did not read all, what, 300-some issues of this series (Oh, 300 exactly, okay. That’s a nice round number). I merely dipped my toes into the beginning of the series by reading the first ten issues and then pulling through some random issues of the later runs to see how it progressed between gaps. Cerebus is another book that has always been on my radar, I just never quite found the motivation to go digging into a 300 issue series. I remember his guest-starring in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story from the late 80’s (and boy was, like, eight year-old me shocked when he read an actual TMNT comic after a year or two of the cartoon!), another guest appearance in Spawn in the 90’s, and Erik Larson bringing up wanting to match Dave Sim’s run on Cerebus as an uninterrupted writer and author for a single series, but… nope. Never read Cerebus till this week.
So, initial thoughts of this early going? Holy crap, Cerebus is Dungeons and Dragons! That’s exactly what it is! It starts out at an inn, where the main character is drafted by others to go on a quest for a rare treasure. From there, he continues his adventures as he journeys from town to town, fighting the likes of evil sorcerers, giant spiders, or enchanted skeletons. Cerebus is a single-player D&D campaign! But instead of a wizard elf or a paladin dwarf, we have a barbarian… aardvark. Close enough. Anyway, once I made that connection (so, five or six pages into issue #1), I couldn’t shake it. Sacks of gold, shady quest-givers, it’s all in there.
The early books of Cerebus are all basically set-up for the long haul, of course. A lot of it is there to give the reader a feel for Cerebus as a protagonist (foul-tempered, asexual [though that apparently changes as the series goes on], and an indignantly proud warrior), though several characters who would go on to prominence as the series moves on are also introduced (some of the most notable are the dancer Jaka and the Foghorn Leghorn reminiscent Elrod The Albino). There are several references to the pagan gods that seem to be worshipped in the era (Clovis and Tarim are both prominently name-checked by everyone’s exclamations, a la “Clovis’ beard!” or “By Tarim!”. Think of the way Conan the Barbarian was always calling out about Crom). It’s all a lot of world-building to start.
The series is also humorous, as I’d imagine a story about an adventuring aardvark in a realm full of humans would be; though when I did some Wiki digging on the series as whole, it all appears to turn frightfully dark somewhere along the way—right down to an ending that is positively dispiriting. Also, more surprises from my research: it is something of a coincidence that I reviewed Cerebus and Bone so close together, because apparently Sim and Jeff Smith did not much care for on another, to the point of, hahaha, Sim challenging Smith to a boxing match after Jeff had written that he wanted to give Dave a fat lip. Their differences stem from Smith viewing Sim as a woman-hating misogynist, and Sim thinking of Smith as a feminist controlled by his wife. Well this is clearly a topic that can always be discussed with the utmost civility and rationality online! How about that Ghostbusters flick from a few years back, everyone? MOVING ON…
Things move fat across the first several issues of Cerebus (it’s about 25 issues into the series before Sim starts writing extended story-arcs rather than self-contained adventures; the first one, “High Society”, begins with #26), and the titular character bops all over the place. For one whole issue-and-a-half, he actually has his own army and kingdom overly enthusiastic warriors who can’t help but repeat a mantra (“Might makes right! Might for right! Might for might! Right for might! Fight fight fight!”) that convinces the aardvark that they are better cheerleaders than soldiers. By the end of an issue’s run with them, though, they are all dead, having been poisoned while collecting water outside of a secluded kingdom. Unattached as Cerebus is, no tears are shed, and he simply moves on to his next adventure. There’s really no looking back or introspection here while Sim finds his footing as a creator. Once he gets there, however, the series becomes one extended arc after another until its conclusion.
+I like the idea that the protagonist is this walking, talking aardvark in a world full of humans, and everyone finds this only mildly curious. At worst, most other characters comment on his height moreso than his species. I mean, it’s a swords and sorcery world, but everyone else introduced to this point is really just a person. So… why an aardvark? The series never really asks that question, but it also never really makes you think it needs to be answered. It just… is. That’s a testament to Sim’s ability to create an engrossing tale.
+Cerebus is a properly legendary series, and rightfully so. Sim is a chameleon of a writer who effectively alters the series as time goes on, and sometimes through radical methods. He refuses to let himself get married to routine. There are some books that transcend their genre and become pure labors of love. Cerebus is such a work.
-The art early on in the series is quite uneven. Cerebus has almost a firehose of a snout, and everything looks to be very slap-dash. It does, of course, even out as the series goes on (and we end up getting the Cerebus look that has become so iconic), but for a while, it is pedestrian at best.
-Another knock on the early run is that the stakes all seem so minimal. Cerebus moves from story to story with no attachments and few repercussions as he does so. While the stories are enjoyable, they don’t ultimately don’t feel important due to this.
-A common thread throughout Cerebus from beginning to end is that Sim likes to parody everything from fictional characters to colleagues to world leaders. The problem here is that these parodies are often a bit too on-the-nose and direct. Sim isn’t exactly a master of subtlety in this regard. And these spoofs can come across as sour grapes, at times. It’s a shame that these portrayals sometimes get in the way of telling a good story.
Cerebus’ early run is not quite indicative of where the run goes as a whole, but it is pleasant enough in its own right. And given what I know of where its storylines take it, the evolution seems amazing. It’s a commitment to delve into a 300 issue run that continually finds ways to reinvent itself, but it’s worth it