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The Most Important Non-Superhero Comic You’ve Never Heard Of

Dave Sim’s Cerebus, published 40 years ago, has had an enduring, complex influence.

Cover to Cerebus #49. The skewing of the title conveys the character’s (drunk) point of view.

Cerebus the Aardvark turns 40 years old this month. He is not among the ranks of widely known comic book characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or any other superhero you can think of. He doesn’t even have the mainstream crossover appeal of characters from successful non-superhero comics like the works of Alan Moore, The Sandman, or Saga. Yet his namesake series is as important to the medium of comics as those of any characters from the former category, and the characters from the latter would not exist without him. The influence of Cerebus runs deep through comic book art, business, and fandom, though it’s mainly dedicated fans of the medium who are familiar with it, and relatively few of them have actually read it.

This is because getting into Cerebus is an intimidating prospect. The series, written and drawn by Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim, ran exactly 300 issues, from December 1977 to March 2004. It is the longest single work from the same author in the history of the form, amounting at 6,000 pages, subsequently collected in 16 trade editions (which have appropriately been called “phonebooks”).

And this was accomplished without the aid of any publisher, major or minor. Sim blazed a trail for independent publishing in comics. Over the course of the 1980s, he and other creators’ rights advocates like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman helped break the mold established by the “Big Two,” DC and Marvel. An evolution of the underground comix movement of the ‘60s, this in turn led to the boom in self-published and independently run comic series and graphic novels we see today. Sim is a strident opponent of the often draconian vagaries of copyright law, which are supported by major media companies zealously clinging to popular characters. He’s arranged for Cerebus to enter the public domain upon his death.

Cerebus — a three-foot-tall, gray-furred aardvark — arose from a slapdash Canadian zine Sim worked on, designed as its logo character and given his name from a misspelling of “Cerberus,” the three-headed canine guardian of the underworld in Greek mythology. For its first few years, the book was nothing but a series of disconnected stories parodying the sword-and-sorcery genre, particularly Conan the Barbarian. It was part of a tradition of similar “funny animal” comics of the time, like Howard the Duck and Usagi Yojimbo. In 1979, however, Sim decided to broaden his ambitions and create a “Russian novel in comic book form.” Starting with issue 26 and continuing all the way through #300, Cerebus featured a single ongoing storyline — another staple of today’s comics  that was almost unheard of at the time.

That story sees Cerebus, originally a hard-drinking, hard-brawling, vagrant barbarian, embarking on a journey which takes him through all the spheres of political and religious power within his fantasy world, and then onward into higher realms of consciousness and reality. Outside forces manipulate events to make Cerebus the prime minister of a country, and then later a pope — both times, his own venality and disinterest in anyone beside himself cause him to fall from power. He twice undergoes a spiritual ascension during which he meets an omniscient higher being. He makes enemies of the Cirinists, a group of matriarchal fanatics. He eventually attempts to settle down with the object of his romantic obsession, the human dancer Jaka, only to ultimately reject her. He eventually obtains the conquest he’s long desired, but can glean no pleasure from it. Cerebus is a longform study in dissatisfaction born from spiritual emptiness.

Sim’s unconventional panel work and evocative lettering aren’t reserved for big set pieces. Here he animates the gesticulations of a mundane conversation in an unshowy but brilliant way.

This hardly scratches the surface of the wealth of characters in the series, or the myriad strange twists it takes. In keeping with the turn from its initial parodic purpose, it consistently shapeshifts through genres and tones. At various times, it is a political, religious, and/or social satire, a domestic drama, broad Looney Tunes-esque slapstick, a philosophical treatise, scriptural exegesis, and more. One story arc barely includes Cerebus himself, instead following a fictional analogue of Oscar Wilde in the last days before his death. Caricatures of many other real-life figures also appear in important roles, including Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Thatcher, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woody Allen, and Groucho Marx. A devoted marijuana and LSD user for many years, Sim sought to stretch comics storytelling to its breaking point, and then past it.

That experimentation manifests most prominently in the artwork. Even in the comic’s early days of simple swords and sorcery, Sim would do things like warp the edges of a panel and Cerebus’s outline to represent disorientation. In one issue which takes place entirely within Cerebus’s head, seemingly random elements of the backgrounds of the pages turn out to each be a part of a larger mosaic of Cerebus himself. Sim’s greatest asset as a creator is his intuitive grasp that the relationships between the images that make up a comic are what set it apart as an art form; that this, more than mere drawing prowess, is how an artist creates the most impactful emotion and sense of tone. He becomes more assured as the series goes on, evolving from shaky character designs in the beginning to beautifully rendered models.

In this regard, Sims received great help  from fellow artist Gerhard, who took on the task of doing backgrounds for the series beginning with issue 65 and remaining with it until the end. Gerhard’s extraordinarily detailed environments make for a fascinating contrast with Sim’s more caricatured way of drawing people, a visual extension of the way the comic grounds fantastical material with serious emotion. A cartoon aardvark living and fighting and scheming amongst human beings seems an impossible premise to sustain, but this makes it work.

This splash page from one of Cerebus’s spiritual ascensions demonstrates the detail and imagination of Gerhard’s environment design.

Gerhard taking over the backgrounds allowed Sim to continue to play with the medium, especially with panel layouts and lettering. There is perhaps no one who can match him in conveying the way a character moves through a few well-chosen “shots,” or in going beyond the standard grammar of how readers expect comic books to work. In particular, Sim incorporates “sound” unlike any other comic artist, using sound effects not merely to describe scenes but to illustrate motion, both on a panel and off it, and to unify a character’s action and mood. He also loves to work around traditional notions of dialogue delivery. For example, he’ll use one or a few panels and an accompanying script on a sidebar to depict a long conversation which might otherwise consume multiple pages.

Where most comics use speech bubbles purely functionally, Sim makes them part of the action.

For all Sim’s genius as an artist, he remains a sadly marginal figure. A multitude of factors over the 26-plus year of making Cerebus, including failed romantic relationships, heavy psychedelic use, and an idiosyncratic religious awakening, manifested what many believe to have been a major mental breakdown. Misogynistic sentiments become steadily more prominent as the story goes on, with the Cirinists (uniformly drawn as fat, ugly, shawl-clad women) becoming the vector for escalating vicious attacks against feminism. The comic increasingly would act as Sim’s tracts, with lengthy text segments accompanying each issue, sometimes pushing out the visual elements almost entirely.

The most infamous example of this is issue 186, which is devoted to an in-universe essay written by a fictional version of Sim which describes the conflict between the “male light” (representing reason and creativity) and the “female void” (representing emotion and irrationality) in society. Cerebus’s personal issues are tied to his inability to get over attachments to women who care nothing for him and manipulate him — including, ultimately, his great love, Jaka. Sim gradually develops his own religious convictions around this philosophy, which in turn become the focus of the comic in its final stretch. This reaches its apotheosis in an arc which is almost entirely text-based, and has Cerebus develop an intricate exegesis of the Torah in which YHWY is identified as “Yoohwhoo,” a malevolent female aspect of the true God.

To explain Sim’s religion further is impossible to do succinctly. The essays which lay it out are both leaden and nearly incomprehensible, and since he cultivated it over time, it’s contradictory as well — the “genders” the light and the void are identified with change multiple times. Many readers found themselves utterly alienated by Cerebus as it collapsed deeper into this singularity; by the time the series finally ended, it was met with more shrugs than celebrations. Writing in general is not Sim’s strength. His idea of parodying the iconic fantasy character Elric is having him talk and act like Foghorn Leghorn. His dialog is often blandly functional, too easily taken over by expositional speeches and exchanges. And there is, quite frankly, not enough story to fill 300 issues, with many pointless diversions and episodes that can’t even justify themselves as entertaining. Sim’s visual genius could easily compensate for this, if not for the harrowing ugliness that rots through the themes as it progresses.

Cerebus confronts an annoyance inside his own head. Sim uses mindscapes as a canvas to let loose artistically.

Still, even its misfires serve to make Cerebus more distinct as a work. It’s a massive, brutally complicated, hideously problematic epic. It’s equally revolutionary and regressive, an artistic triumph and storytelling failure. It is one of the rare pieces of entertainment that can legitimately be called unique, and despite its shortcomings, it helped open up comic books for further maturation as an art.

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