We’re in May and we’re a little late, but it’s back: the fourth 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.
When you get back from the moon, look down below for some thoughts on “Church and State II.”
Oof. Where to even begin.
These are perhaps the glory days of “Cerebus.” Here, contained within a 1200 page graphic novel, is an epic tale of religion, identity and soul searching wrapped in a somewhat disarming facade starring a cartoon aardvark. The entirety of “Church and State,” including the previously discussed first half, contain some of the most visceral and emotional comics I’ve ever read in entire my comic reading career, and for anyone who stuck with “Cerebus” for the first 50 issues to get to this point, it is impossible to not get absolutely lost in the vivid world that Sim and Gerhard put together with this storyline, truly arguably their masterpiece.
There’s a few reasons that this story stands above and beyond the rest. First off, this is perhaps the most in-depth we get in terms of our relationship to Cerebus himself. Cerebus is often an aloof central figure, and since the main purpose of the series is to document his life, his personality can often get lost in the mix. He’s such a selfish character that he’s perhaps one of the least likable leads for a good portion of the book, especially in the latter half and the rape of Astoria. However, even though we’re given some of our darkest moments in this volume, this is where Cerebus is truly on display, and the truly complex and deep character is finally revealed. Formerly just a barbarian on an epic quest for gold, Cerebus is put on a true road of self discovery throughout this storyline, learning that he’s not alone as he once thought and that his history is much deeper and intense than he had originally expect with a series of unexpected flashbacks to another life. When it’s tied together with the creation of the universe? That’s when tears start to flow.
Cerebus has always been fairly likable in the way that all main protagonists inherently are, but here, as we get close to the end of the first half of the book, is where we truly see Cerebus as anything more than a comical character ostensibly out of place mixing it up with a litany of personalities. And wow, is it an intense ride. I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am that I’m reading this in trade, as opposed to single issues.
Secondly, this book is just an absolute triumph of artistic expression, both figuratively and literally. On the one hand, the book is beautiful and dark in the same way that Moore and Williams III’s “Promethea” was, an exploration of religion that shines a greater light towards the negative and uses the central idea as a device in which to discover a person’s capabilities. Cerebus’ actions, and those around him, are so fueled by religious doctrine that Cerebus is ultimately forced to embrace it in a rather unexpected way, and it inherently backfires on him, all to Sim’s plan. Here Sim uses Cerebus as a figurehead for some of his thoughts on religious organizations and entities, but he never strays too far into a place where he’s inherently bashing the reader over the head with his own beliefs. Instead, he mixes it up by both showing the inherently negative aspect to organized religion while also offering up a brand new set of mythology, a brand new religious ideology within the Cerebus universe. It’s beautiful but crushing in its mix of optimism and pessimism, drawing the reader in but ultimately knocking them down along with Cerebus who, due to his selfish nature, ends this story on such a low point that the epilogue story contained within Cerebus Zero is essentially a silent issue of Cerebus debating suicide. So that’s fun.Continued below
On a more literal note, though, Sim and Gerhard are using the medium to its absolute fullest within these pages. Gerhard’s backgrounds bring the book truly to another level, allowing Sim to focus on his increasingly more realistic facial foibles. This dynamic creates some absolutely beautiful sequential work; Gerhard provides rich and vibrant environments for the characters to exist in, and Sim makes sure that the characters are all as human as possible. There’s still some cartoonish qualities to “Cerebus” at this point, but you’ll never notice that anything is out of place because of how much detail Sim puts into each character’s essence. Cerebus himself becomes a much more realized character throughout this series, which is entirely appropriate due to the amount of growth the character experiences. And if there was ever any doubt between the positive relationship between two artists can provide fruitful and beautiful, I believe the following splash puts any doubts to rest:
The distribution of panels and the way events are framed also become an increasingly interesting use of space throughout. Due to being able to focus his attention elsewhere, Sim seems to gain an uncanny knowledge of just what he needs in order to truly tell the story he’s aiming to tell. Some pages allow large gutters and negative space, each panel a horizontal moment captured in time to the exact second. Others are wider, more flowing as we’d become used to in Cerebus, allowing for a strictly sequential focus in the storytelling. It’s interesting to see how many risks are taken throughout the narrative in terms of storytelling decisions, because whether we’re looking at the issue told from first-person perspective or that of Cerebus’ climb in which tall and thin horizontal panels are placed next to one another to show off moments in rapid-fire succession, Sim continues to be an incredibly intuitive and creative storyteller in a way that many modern comic creators don’t seem to be able to match.
All of that said, I imagine that reading it in single issues was at times mind bogglingly frustrating. Sim mentions this in his notes on the issues, but he takes particular issue with Heidi MacDonald’s review of the ending that describes it as “too cosmic,” calling it a moronic assessment (though, as a note, I don’t think it was meant in a particular rude fashion based on these comments from Heidi), and as a regular comic reader I can see where Heidi is coming from easily. The book is meant as a 1200 page graphic novel, and with that there’s an implication that to really appreciate “Church and State” you should be able to read it at your own pace once collected, something that an issue-to-issue read can not provide. And while this is perhaps true for all Cerebus stories from here on out, it’s worth noting that being able to read this book while it’s done is perhaps the easiest way to appreciate the story aspect of it, if not necessarily the evolution of craft (something that’s easily seen when reading as a whole, but perhaps better appreciated when reading during original release) or any of the more time-sensitive references (something that is certainly effected by time passing).
Still. Sitting down and reading it in a few afternoons was probably one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in comics since I started reading comics.
I said it in the last post of this column, but it stands worth saying again now that I’ve read the whole thing: “Church and State” is undeniably the best Cerebus story of the series. Sure, I haven’t read the whole 300-issue book through yet, but the sheer scope and drama of the entire storyline is unbelievable. It’s beautiful, crushing and insanely impressive works of literature within the comic medium; sixty issues of storytelling so brave and poignant that it sets a rather high bar that most other comics can’t even hope to reach, which is notable particularly due to 60 issues being a good frame in which long-running Vertigo issues tend to cap-off around.
That it has taken me so long to read it is my own failing. That it isn’t more widely recognized as a staple read for any fan of the medium is an even greater one.Continued below
If you’d like to join me in reading the series throughout the year, here is the updated 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 and part of Cerebus Number Zero (81-113)
- May – JAKA’S STORY, MELMOTH and part of Cerebus Number Zero (114-150)
- June – FLIGHT and WOMEN (151-174)
- 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.