Ah, April begins, you know it can only mean one thing: time for the third installment of 365 Days of Cerebus, my column where I read all 300 issues of “Cerebus” over the year and take time out each month to write my thoughts down to share with you. Maybe I’ll say something insightful. Maybe I’ll just ramble. Either way, it’s an endeavor.
And no, before you ask, at no point during any of this do I joke.
When you’re done raising your hands in praise of Cerebus, look down below for some thoughts on “Church and State I.”
There’s a lot to talk about with this volume of “Cerebus,” but one thing seems important to discuss first: the issue that isn’t in the phone book, featuring the return of most of the comedians/satiric characters Sim has introduced in the series. The lack of inclusion of it in the phone book is actually somewhat bewildering, considering how crucial the issue seems to be; picking up where the finale of ‘High Society’ left us, this shows exactly what happens with Cerebus to take him to the next book, and is absolutely hilarious. Honestly, after how dense all of “High Society” became, this issue was like a palette cleanser before the next big meal, and remains one of my absolute favorite issues of the series so far. If you’ve only collected the phone books, it’s really worthwhile to track down the “zero” issue of “Cerebus” so you can have this and more in your collection.
Also, how I never picked up that Lord Rodney was Rodney Dangerfield is beyond me. I’m sad I missed that one originally.
So, right off the bat, I think it’s perhaps easy to say that this may just be the best “Cerebus” story. It’s early in the series, I realize – not even 100 issues in yet – but this is easily the most engrossing that “Cerebus” has been since it began. Take into consideration the following: the first 25 issues of the book are essentially one-off satirical pieces that poke fun at various different aspects of comics and little more. A real fluid storyline isn’t introduced until the next 25 issues, but then it becomes a bit stuffy after a while where Sim clearly tries to do too much at once within the confines of the book, balancing the comedy with not-too-subtle political commentary that results in a story that is incredibly mixed with highs and lows. But what if you could get the best of both worlds, something where the commentary isn’t too abrasive, where the humor and both work together? That’s “Church and State I.”
In fact, it’s easiest to tell how well the book works as a multi-faceted piece by looking at the Marvel “crossover.” An old comic legend you may be familiar with was that there were plans for Chris Claremont and Dave Sim to do an X-Men/Cerebus crossover, and while that never actually happened Sim did take some time to have some fun with the X-Men in this volume of the book. The Roach returns, now as Wolveroach, an incredibly unsubtle parody of Wolverine down to every last detail imaginable, and features the return Professor Charles X Claremont back from the dead (having previously been in the series in the first phone book and also acting as a Claremont-based joke) in a three-part storyline featuring Neal Adams-esque artwork as Sim lampoons the characters heartily. “Cerebus” has always featured quite a few laughs, but the Wolveroach stories are probably some of the funniest that this book gets; the Roach is a weird character since its only story purpose is to parody, but having that take the forefront for a while is a real boon on the comedic qualities of this volume. In fact, as far as all the parodies Roach has encompassed goes, this is easily the best.
Not only that, but something that Sim does differently with this volume than others is he opens the book with a series of shorts. An issue will feature multiple stories in one, sometimes just as a single-page punchline and other times lasting a few pages. The main point here is that, as larger storylines overlap and characters return or are introduced, Sim can give all these characters good screen time in order to develop their roles: we get the return of Red Sophia and Weisshaupt amongst others, who now take on very different roles than they had originally had, but since they didn’t have real roles in the last story they need to be “fit” into this book — and the short stories are a great way to do so. It’s also an interesting opportunity for Sim to once again play with the perceived notions we have of comic book storytelling, as the book essentially becomes an anthology for a few issues while still remaining steadfast in the “Church and State” storyline. Or, well, acting as a prelude to it, anyway.Continued below
There’s also some more “Mind Game” in this book, as #63 acts as both the third and fourth entry into the “Mind Game” series. It’s a continuation of Cerebus’ exploration of the mindscape, and although Sim will play more vividly with the dream aspect of the book later in this volume, this fourth piece allows for some interesting foreshadowing and teasing for the entire volume – specifically the “Mind Game III” part. That’s the trick of this mind game, as it combines the large-scale image of the first one and the exploratory exposition of the second, inevitably giving Sim a clever way of foreshadowing the Pope storyline (which we’ll get to next). Readers are given small bits and portions of a larger image showing Cerebus as pope (seen in total above), making the issue both a story and a puzzle at the same time in what seems to be Sims’ nod to Burroughs, dadaism and cut-up technique (I assume — I didn’t find anything in my research indicating this, though Sim’s did discuss the puzzle aspect). It’s perhaps one of the more interesting and complex entries into this particular book, all executed in a very interesting fashion.
The main focus of this book is Cerebus becoming Pope. If you thought Cerebus’ foray into politics had a pretty adverse effect on his ego, think again – it can only get worse once he has an excuse to call himself Most Holy. The humorous thing about this, though, is that this isn’t done with as pointed commentary as the last book. Political Cerebus is full of subtle and not-so subtle remarks regarding political corruption, but Sim seems to be pretty tame in comparison. Sure, the usual mud-slinging against religion is present, but nothing that you won’t get from any kid in Sunday school who just wants to go home. Really, this is perhaps some of the most focused storytelling that Sim has done on the book since it began; there seems to be less ulterior motives here than you’d assume, and with most of the parody characters gone, this focus on the larger narration is one of the main reasons that this is by far the best (in my opinion) “Cerebus” book so far.
And, really, it was pretty funny to have read this book while an actual pope was being elected.
However, as humorous as the book is overall, there is one element that adds a certain emotional levity to it. During this run (issue #56 is where it’s first mentioned, I believe), Sim and his wife Deni separate; while they remain friends and continue to work together while these issues are being put out, you can tell right away that these events had a large impact on Sim. The issues with focus to Cerebus’ marriage to Red Sophia instantly becomes less humorous as great strain is introduced to their relationship (with issue #57 mentioning the prohibition of dissolution of marriage after Cerebus accidentally marries Red Sophia) and you can really tell how uncomfortable Sim is at this time. The humor is much more scarce, Cerebus himself becomes much darker and angrier and Sophia changes from a Red Sonja parody to a darkened individual, something reflecting all of Sim’s frustration.
It only gets even more sad, though, as Jaka return. Jaka’s a curious character within the “Cerebus” mythos, because Cerebus spent an issue with her drunk and enamored and suddenly she becomes his big love interest throughout the course of the book. Yet, despite that, these issues become some of the most melancholy that Sim writes, all very clearly reflecting the issues happening outside the book. In fact, that’s when Sim seems to be the least subtle, actively expressing his discontent and dissolution in the pages of the book as Cerebus and Jaka discuss their relationship, and Sim’s pain seems to be the books gain. These issues and those surrounding them are some of the most depth-filled “Cerebus” issues to date, and it stands worth noting that all of the scenes with Jaka — despite her essentially being a fairly minor character — still have clear emotional resonance.
So as the book draws to a close it starts to steer towards a darker side of the series. However, make no mistake: the last chunk of the book, starting around issue #76, are some of the best comics I’ve ever read. Period. #76 and the death of Weisshaupt is one of the best stories Sim has told as a writer, flipping a lot of “Cerebus” on its head as Weisshaupt gives Cerebus some hard truths, and the follow-up ‘Odd Transformations’ (featuring Cerebus having a lucid dream amidst his depression post-Jaka sequence) is some of the best visual storytelling Sim has done yet, a definitive mark for the series and Sim as a creator. A lot of storytelling aspects we appreciate today have been present in “Cerebus” long before (as we discussed last time, with the drunk issue for example), but these stories really push the barrier for Sim as a creator in a different way, one that makes him a definitive artist, someone whose work needs to be studied and emulated in a mandatory fashion. Here is a creator whose talent at the beginning of the series didn’t compare to where it is eighty issues in, someone who just drew and drew and worked at it everyday who at this point is using the medium in ways a lot of modern artists aren’t even bothering to try, and it’s absolutely colossal.Continued below
It’s a combination of all of this, though, that makes “Church and State I” such a great entry into the overall “Cerebus” series. It’s got pretty much everything you could want from an average comic book series, let alone from Sim; the mix of humor, storytelling, commentary and darker subject matter is what will ultimately come to define “Cerebus” as a series, and it’s all present in this book. It’s only really visible in hindsight, but both “Cerebus” (the first book) and “High Society” rely on crutches for Sim, where there are great moments and some bits of artistic brilliance, but it’s an uneven mix of the two. Now, past the fifty issue mark, Sim really seems to be hitting his stride as he learns to balance various elements of storytelling here to create one incredibly solid volume, and I can only hope the next one keeps its pace.
So it’s probably a bit early in the series overall to declare “Church and State” the best storyline, especially since I haven’t read the second half before (“High Society” was as far as I got my first attempt at a read-through), but it’s certainly the most exciting. If I’d be allowed to break the journalistic wall for a moment here, I’ll note that “Church and State I” was the book I couldn’t put down. With “Cerebus” and “High Society” I had a system to keep me on track to make sure I’d have the book done by the end of the month, but “Church and State I” didn’t present the same “issue” since I just about finished it over the course of a non-stop read over a weekend. It’s completely engrossing and is the exact kind of comic I would’ve expected from a series that is spoken of with such reverence and acclaim as “Cerebus.”
To say that I’m excited to see how it all wraps up is probably putting it a bit lightly.
If you’d like to join me in reading the series throughout the year, here is the breakdown I plan to (try and) follow for the rest of the year in order to give me both time to read, digest and write about each volume. We can make a Book Club thing out of it.
- January – CEREBUS (1-25)
- February – HIGH SOCIETY (26-50)
- March – CHURCH AND STATE I and part of Cerebus Number Zero (51 – 80)
- April – CHURCH AND STATE II (81-111)
- May – JAKA’S STORY and part of Cerebus Number Zero (112-138)
- June – MELMOTH and FLIGHT and WOMEN (139-174)
- July – READS and MINDS (175-200)
- August – GUYS and RICK’s STORY (201-231)
- September – GOING HOME (232-250)
- October – FORM AND VOID (251 – 265)
- November – LATTER DAYS (266-288)
- December – THE LAST DAY (289-300)
If you read at least a single issue/chapter of the book every day during the next month, you should be able to keep up the pace with no trouble at all.
I welcome all discussion in the comment section, but please keep it to the book in question.