Cerebus the Aardvark
Cerebus the Aardvark (or simply Cerebus) was an ambitious monthly independent comic book begun by Canadian artist Dave Sim in 1977, and running for 300 issues and 6,000 pages, through March 2004. Now complete, it marks the longest-running English-language comic book series ever by a single writer/artist. It leads its closest challenger (Erik Larsen's second volume of The Savage Dragon) by over 170 issues. (Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub, in Japanese, ran over 9,000 pages.)
History of the book
Cerebus was, for almost its entire run, self-published by Sim under his Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc. publishing banner (for the first few years Aardvark-Vanaheim's publisher was Deni Loubert, Sim's then-wife). Sim's position as a pioneering self-publisher in comics inspired numerous writer/artists after him, most notably Jeff Smith (Bone), Terry Moore (Strangers In Paradise), and Martin Wagner (Hepcats).
The title character is a misanthropic three-foot tall bipedal gray aardvark ("We're all funny animals in a world of humans," says Sim) who has, at various points in his life, been a mercenary, Prime Minister of the fictional city-state of Iest, Pope (in the mammoth Church and State saga), and renegade. He is an extremely morally ambiguous character, at times sympathetic, at others almost unpalatably callous (the Church and State storyline contains a notorious scene in which Cerebus hurls a baby after the mother begged for it to be blessed and later on, an ederly family from the rooftop of his residence all to teach his followers warped lessons on following the Pope's commands).
Inspired in some ways by the Steve Gerber character Howard the Duck, the earliest issues of Cerebus took the form of a parody of Conan the Barbarian and its genre. (Howard had even appeared on the cover of the first issue of his own comic (January 1976) as a parodic barbarian character.) The series developed artistic sophistication and originality very quickly. Citing as his self-originated commandment, "Thou shall break every law in the book", Sim has done everything from flipping the page from horizontal to vertical and all stages in between to alternating comics with prose narrative, to including real dead or living people (himself included) in the storyline, all in an effort to explode the conventions of the North American comic book in almost every conceivable way.
In 1979, Sim, who was at the time a frequent marijuana user, experimented with LSD, taking the drug with such frequency that he was eventually hospitalized. It was this incident that Sim claims led to the inspiration to produce Cerebus for 300 monthly issues. The episodic adventures strayed further and further from heroic fantasy, and the twenty five-issue graphic novel High Society segued the narrative into a complex political satire and drama. Sim was joined by Gerhard, who gave the series impressively rendered backgrounds that became a visual hallmark, after issue #65.
When Sim published the first Cerebus "phone book", a paperback collection of the High Society graphic novel, he angered retailers — who felt that their support had been instrumental in his series' success in an industry generally indifferent to small publishers — by offering the first printing via mail order only. The decision was a financial windfall for Sim, however, racking up over $150,000 in sales. Not long after, Sim became known for traveling to conventions and store signings in limousines (he spent $25,000 in limo service during his 1992 signing tour), and renting lavish suites at conventions at which he'd throw huge parties.
In the 1990s, Sim became an outspoken advocate of creators' rights in comics, and used the editorial pages of Cerebus to promote self-publishing and greater artist activism. Sim was also the biggest individual supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; when he guest-wrote the 10th issue of Todd McFarlane's best-selling Spawn, Sim donated his entire fee — over $100,000 — to the fund. During this same period he started publishing his and others' experiments with 24-hour comics in the back of his issues, which created greater awareness of this challenge, now the subject of an annual event for creating them.
It is generally agreed that the graphic novel Jaka's Story, a tragic character study dealing with gender roles and the political suppression of art, is perhaps the series' pinnacle of narrative achievement. However, later issues of the series became almost inaccessibly personal and began to alienate many long-time fans, his female readers especially — though the series' visual innovation remained unparalleled. Issue #186 (collected in Reads) contained a lengthy prose section that was roundly attacked by both readers and critics for what was seen as overt misogyny, but which Sim describes as "anti-feminism". Influenced by writers such as Norman Mailer, Sim rejects what he believes are the basic principles of feminism and extols traditional values which he sees as being exclusively "male". He characterizes the genders as polar opposites; the "creative male light" and the "emotional female void." To Sim, Western society has capitulated to the feminist viewpoint and as such, has rejected the very values upon which Sim believes society was built. By examining contemporary marriage, reproductive rights, alimony and similar gender issues, Sim claims to find a complete obedience to feminist theory and a submission to the concept of equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. This was followed by an even harsher essay in issue #265 called "Tangent," in which Sim identified a "feminist/homosexualist axis" that opposed traditional male values. He also argues that husbands should have the legal right to spank their wives and states outright that women are "inferior beings". This material appeared as Sim was retreating from public life and becoming more marginalized by his peers in the industry.
Sim himself has appeared as a character in Cerebus, most notably to berate his creation in the graphic novel Minds. A writer entering his own fictional universe is not an idea which Sim can claim to have invented (see Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and Grant Morrison's comic Animal Man), although he claims to have planned the encounter as early as 1979 — more than a decade before it actually took place.
He reportedly cut all ties with his family and virtually all of his industry colleagues apart from Gerhard in order to finish the work. He has had very public fallings-out with both Terry Moore and Jeff Smith, the latter of whom Sim challenged to a boxing match in an editorial published in the comic. Sim claimed Smith lied about an argument the two had had over the infamous essay in issue #186, during which he allegedly threatened to give Sim a "fat lip." Sim also developed an adversarial relationship with Gary Groth, the confrontational publisher of The Comics Journal, an independently published comics magazine known for punishing criticisms and a decidedly non-mainstream editorial slant.
Sim has stated (in an editorial contained in issue #297) that he regards the production of Cerebus as of secondary importance to his religious practice. A 2003 magazine interview describes Sim as reciting a prayer of his own devising five times a day, and having sold much of his furniture to donate the money to charity as an act of religious asceticism. This prayer was published in the back of issue #300.
Sim, once a very public figure in the comics industry, now rarely leaves his native Kitchener, Ontario home. The publication in March 2004 of issue #300 was met with a muted, rather than celebratory, response from the comics industry. Though Sim reports the print run for #300 was doubled from that of recent issues, that would still only come to around 16,000 copies, a far cry from the series' high of over 35,000 copies around issues #100-125.
A new quarterly publication Following Cerebus followed in August 2004, feature correspondence, essays and previously unpublished artwork from Sim.
Sim was once quoted as saying that, had he died or otherwise chosen not to complete Cerebus prior to issue 300, that however many remaining issues there were left were to either consist of blank pages, or Gerhard was to have drawn his backgrounds only, leaving Sim's contribution blank. It is not known if this plan was ever serious, and it was obviously never put into effect. He has also confirmed that once he and Gerhard die, Cerebus will fall into the public domain. In the meantime, he has granted a general license for other creators to use the character of Cerebus in their own works.
Titles of the book collection in which given story elements occur are marked in bold.
Cerebus. This first volume, uniquely in the series, consists of one to three-issue storylines with only occasional back-references. We first see Cerebus as an amoral barbarian mercenary, fighting (and betraying) for money and drinking it away. In one issue he meets and falls in love with the tavern dancer Jaka. The stories in this volume are primarily parodies of sword and sorcery fantasy, especially Conan, with comic appearances by parodies of Red Sonya, Elric/Foghorn Leghorn, Groucho Marx, and The Cockroach, a Batman parody who would be followed, in costume and personality, by The Tick, and others. The series takes a sharp change in direction with issue 20 which is the first of the "Mind Games" issues that are a feature of the comic and introduces the Cirinists.
High Society. Sim's first venture into long-form comics, this is a continuous storyline made up of 25 issues of the original magazine. In the wealthy city-state of Iest, Cerebus finds himself being manipulated into the fast-paced world of business and politics, especially at the hands of the mysterious Astoria, who takes him under her wing for unclear reasons of her own. Comic tension is built through Cerebus's simple barbarian ignorance of the "high society" machinations going on around him. Eventually Cerebus finds himself elected Prime Minister of Iest, and launches a war that causes him to lose everything.
Church and State I. First half of a two-part storyline. After some travels, Cerebus returns to Iest as Prime Minster, now under the thumb of Adam Weisshaupt, who is promoting a federation of states as a bulwark against the Cirinists. Weisshaupt over-reaches himself when he has Cerebus appointed Pope of the Eastern Church of Tarim. Finally out from under anyone else's control, Cerebus lets absolute power go to his head, until he is ejected from the Upper City by the sudden invasion of the giant stone Thrunk, a character previously seen in the "Cerebus" volume.
Church and State II. Cerebus returns to Iest's Upper City amidst portents and magical signs. He is forced to try Astoria for the assassination of the Western Pope, a trial that has echoes of events long past. The trial is interrupted when Cerebus makes the predicted Ascension to the Moon, where he meets the Judge, a timeless, godlike being who has watched over history from the very beginning. The Judge explains his version of the Creation Myth of Cerebus's Universe, before warning Cerebus that he will die "Alone, unmourned and unloved". Cerebus then falls back to earth, where he discovers that the Cirinists have invaded, and his empire has collapsed.
Jaka's Story. Under a brutal Cirinist dictatorship (which lasts until half-way through 'Latter Days', most of the remainder of the comic's run), the fallen Cerebus runs into his love Jaka again and discovers that she has married. Cerebus lives as houseguest of Jaka and her husband Rick while Jaka works illegally as a dancer for a sexually repressed tavern keeper who secretly lusts after her. That story is interwoven with unreliable tales of Jaka's childhood told by a writer, representing Oscar Wilde, watching Jaka. In the end Jaka and Rick are captured and jailed by the Cirinists.
Melmoth. Believing Jaka to be dead, a catatonic Cerebus spends his days mourning on the patio of a café. Meanwhile a fictionalized telling of the death of Oscar Wilde is given. At the end, Cerebus overhears a conversation by two Cirinist jailers rudely discussing Jaka. In a fit of anger, he violently murders one of them.
Flight. Cerebus's slaughter of Cirinsts leads to a very brief failed revolution. Cerebus ascends into darkness and speaks with Suenteus Po. Meanwhile Cirin works to manage her sect and arrange her own ascension.
Women. Cerebus crashes back to earth. He is assisted by two women who send him to a bar to hide. This series includes a parody of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, with The Roach playing Swoon, a parody of Dream. Astoria and Cirin symbolically duel in a dream realm. The book includes excepts from books written by Astoria and Cirin that describe their differing beliefs. Cerebus flies across the city to slay Astoria, but is interrupted by the physical arrival of Suentus Po.
Reads. A key background plot is that of an author of "reads", heavily illustrated books in Cerebus's world. There is a strong thread about the dangers of commercial success and "selling out". It is generally viewed to be Sim's treatise on why independent comic publishing is preferable to publishing houses. The series includes a long essay attributed to Viktor Davis, a fictional read author. This essay puts forth a theory on the nature of the female and the male, describing "the Female Void" focused on feeling, and "the Male Light" focused on reason.
Minds. Cerebus and Cirin ascend, then are separated by a mysterious force. As Cerebus flies through space, he is shown images from his past and is forced to reconsider his past and his faith. He is then shown Cirin's history, including her original identity as Serna, an assassin. Serna replaced Cirin's sect. Cerebus is shown visions of possible futures between himself and Jaka; none go well for Cerebus.
Guys. Cerebus hangs out in and eventually becomes bartender in one of the Cirinist's bars. Various characters come and go while Cerebus remains stationary. Enjoyed by a number of fans as a return to the "earlier, funnier" Cerebus.
Rick's Story. Eventually Jaka's ex-husband Rick arrives at the bar. He has significantly aged and become a bit addled. Rick is working on a book, which gradually becomes a religious work in which Cerebus is a holy person and Rick his follower.
Going Home. Jaka arrives at the bar and Cerebus leaves with her. They travel across land, then on a river boat. Along the way they encounter veiled hostility from the Cirinists, and Jaka is almost tempted away by F. Stop Kennedy (a fictionalised F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Form and Void. Cerebus and Jaka continue their journey towards Sand Hills Creek, in the company of Ham and Mary Earnestway, characters based upon Ernest Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary. They arrive to find Cerebus's parents are dead. Cerebus drives Jaka away, blaming her for keeping him away too long.
Latter Days. After a prodigious leap in time over two issues, Cerebus returns from the north intent on provoking the Cirinists into killing him. Instead, he is captured by a trio of characters based on the Three Stooges, who await a religious revelation from him. While Cerebus was in the north, a religious movement developed out of the teachings of Rick and his writings about Cerebus. Once Cerebus supplies the required revelation, he inspires a successful anti-Cirinist rebellion and a subsequent reordering of society. Much of the second half of this chapter consists of Cerebus giving a highly idiosyncratic analysis of the Torah. Lasting nearly a year (in publishing terms), this section, called "Chasing YHWH" (presumably a reference to the Kevin Smith film, Chasing Amy) threatened to alienate even more of Sim's followers. This section was presented almost entirely in text format, with minimal art.
The Last Day. The conclusion of the series. In the first 40 pages Cerebus has a dream or vision in which cosmology is seen as a reflection of theology, complete with explanatory footnotes by Sim. Upon waking Cerebus — now incredibly aged, decrepit and pain-ridden — makes the laborious trek to his writing desk to write down his new revelation. He then hides the manuscript, and it is implied that nobody will find it for two thousand years (a possible homage to I, Claudius in which the dying Claudius does the same thing).
Cerebus spends most of the rest of the book trying to persuade his chief of security, Walter O'Reilly (named after Corporal Walter (Radar) O'Reilly from M A S H) to admit his son, Shep-Shep, with whom he remembers sharing an idyllic father-son relationship. But the Sanctuary is under lockdown due to opposition from a new and even more rabidly "feminist-homosexualist" group — ironically led by Shep-Shep's mother "New Joanne", who actually resembles Jaka in appearance — which favors such "rights" as pedophilia, zoophilia, juvenile recreational drug use and lesbian motherhood. As a result, social values have undergone a complete breakdown.
Cerebus finally goes to bed despairing of seeing his son again, and feeling as if he should say "Rosebud" (an obvious reference to Citizen Kane.) But Shep-Shep — or more correctly, Sheshep — sneaks into Cerebus' room late that night.
As he leaves Cerebus grabs a knife, intending to kill him, but falls out of bed and dies of a broken neck — alone, unmourned and unloved, just as the Judge had predicted. His life flashes before his eyes in a series of flashback panels and his ghost sees many of his old friends (and enemies) waiting for him in "the Light". At first he eagerly rushes to join them, thinking they are in Heaven, but then realises that the Light may in fact be Hell. He calls God for help, but is dragged into the Light anyway.
- A beautiful political manipulator and the main driving force behind Cerebus' campaign to become Prime Minister in High Society. Leader of the Kevillists, a feminist sect which opposes Cirin. The Kevillists mirror the Cirinists philosophy, but would prefer power in the hands of daughters instead of mothers. Lord Julius' ex-wife. Named for actress Mary Astor, inspired in some ways by Sim's ex-wife Deni Loubert.
- Cerebus' best friend from his mercenary days and main drinking buddy. In Guys there are hints Cerebus has a homoerotic attraction to him.
- Leader of the Cirinists, a matriarchal fascist sect who conquers Estarcion at the conclusion of the Church and State storyline. Originally named Serna, she took the name and effectively exchanged identities with the real Cirin. The sect honors mothers primarily, also giving high honors to daughters (potential mothers) and children. Men are tolerated. Like Cerebus, she is an Aardvark.
- Elrod the Albino
- Essentially Michael Moorcock's Elric with the voice of Senator Claghorn (or Foghorn Leghorn). Pretty much a purely comic character, his main purpose is to frustrate and enrage Cerebus. In 'Reads' it is reveled that he was created by Cerebus' proximity to a magic gem, and after learning this he vanishes from existence.
- Lord Julius
- Grandlord of the city-state of Palnu, who exercises control by making the bureaucracy incredibly dense and incomprehensible. Julius is crafty and intelligent, but often plays the fool to confuse and baffle opponents. His character design and behavior is based on Groucho Marx portrayed perfectly with snappy insults, a constant cigar, the chicken walk and a painted on mustache.
- Bran Mac Mufin
- Originally a barbarian warlord whose people worshipped an idol who looked remarkably like Cerebus (and which the aardvark destroyed). He later turns up quite unexpectedly, in civilized clothing, to act as an advisor to Cerebus in two seperate occasions, first in Cerebus' campaign and first reign as Prime Minister of Iest and then arriving after Cerebus is Pope to observe the miracles (though he still drops excellent advice through his humble speech), though he seems to have a hidden agenda. Just as unexpectedly, he commits suicide. This character is a parody of Robert E. Howard's celtic barbarian Bran Mak Morn.
- Rick Nash
- First introduced as Jaka's husband in Jaka's Story. Later, the prophet of a religion centred around Cerebus.
- Suentus Po
- Estarcion's third Aardvark that has lived several life times and has shaped the history of the land. It is also a very common name and more than one Suentus Po appear appear in the story in various fashions, one as an enigmatic illusionist and another as historian that narrarates a sizable portion of Cerebus' first reign as Prime Minister of Iest.
- The Regency Elf
- Childlike, playful little spirit being who inhabits Cerebus' rooms at the Regency Hotel in High Society, whom only Cerebus can (at first) see. She helps Cerebus with some of his political scheming, though, as innocent as she seems, it's all just a game to her.
- The Roach
- An incompetent superhero character. Sim used the Roach to satirise popular mainstream comic characters or industry publishing trends, beginning with Batman. His other guises have included Captain Cockroach (Captain America), Moonroach (Moon Knight), Wolveroach (Wolverine), the Secret Sacred Wars Roach (Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars series), Punisherroach (Punisher), Swoon (Sandman), and Sergeant Preston of the Royal Mounted Iestan police.
- Jaka Tavers
- The love of Cerebus' life. A dancer by profession, she is the niece of Lord Julius.
- Adam Weisshaupt
- Ruthless political opponent of Cerebus' throughout the Church & State storyline. Named after the historical Adam Weishaupt but drawn to look like George Washington (a connection well known to Illuminati conspiracy theorists).
Various other characters in the series were designed to resemble famous actors, politicians, and other personalities and comic in jokes, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Professor X (with a bit of Chris Claremont thrown in), Canadian Member of Parliament Sheila Copps, director Woody Allen, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Chico Marx.
(Known by fans as "phone books" for their size)
- Book 2 was actually published before Book 1.
- Much of the material in Book 1, the original Conan-style parody, was reprinted in smaller collections called Swords of Cerebus before Sim decided on the phone book format.
- Unlike some glossy graphic novels, the Cerebus collections use the same newsprint paper as the original comics.
- Beginning with Going Home, the first storyline begun after Sim's religious conversion, the covers of each collected volume are printed in full color, with "Going Home" and "Form and Void" using Gerhards scenic nature photography as covers, rather than the drawings used on past books.
- Cerebus (ISBN 0919359086) Collects issues 1-25
- High Society (ISBN 0919359078) Collects issues 26-50
- Church and State I (ISBN 0919359094) Collects isses 52-80
- Church and State II (ISBN 0919359116) Collects issues 80-113
- Jaka's Story (ISBN 0919359124) Collects issues 114-136
- Melmoth (ISBN 0919359108) Collects issues 139-150
- Flight (Mothers and Daughters vol. 1) (ISBN 0919359132) Collects issues 151-162
- Women (Mothers and Daughters vol. 2) (ISBN 0919359140) Collects issues 163-174
- Reads (Mothers and Daughters vol. 3) (ISBN 0919359159) Collects issues 175-186
- Minds (Mothers and Daughters vol. 4) (ISBN 0919359167) Collects issues 187-200
- Guys (ISBN 0919359175) Collects issues 201-219
- Rick's Story (ISBN 0919359183) Collects issues 220-231
- Going Home (Going Home vol. 1) (ISBN 0919359191) Collects issues 232-250
- Form and Void (Going Home vol. 2) (ISBN 0919359205) Collects issues 251-265
- Latter Days (Latter Days vol. 1) (ISBN 0919359221) Collects issues 266-288
- The Last Day (Latter Days vol. 2) (ISBN 0919359213) Collects issues 289-300
Not a collection of Cerebus comics per se, "Collected Letters" (ISBN 091935923X) collects Sim's correspondence with readers after the publication of Cerebus #300.
Miscellaneous stories not appearing in the above collections have been reprinted in the short collections Cerebus Number Zero and Cerebus World Tour Book. A few standalone, uncollected stories have appeared in various collections and magazines over the years, and Cerebus has made cameo appearances on the covers of magazines such as Comics Revue. Sim also marketed a set of "Diamondback" cards (based upon a game seen in early issues) in the 1980s.
In Marvel Comics, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum created a demonic character named S'ym, whose name apparently derives from Sim's, looks similar to a gigantic version of Cerebus, smokes a cigar, and refers to himself by name instead of the "I" pronoun, just like Cerebus.
In Exhibit A Press's Supernatural Law #33, a demon called Huberis the Dybbuk discovers religion and retains the legal services of Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre to sue for the right to pray in a house of worship. The misogynistic demon runs afoul of female attorney Alanna Wolff as she and her partner Jeff Byrd prepare his case. Story and Art by Batton Lash (and proving they're good sports, Dave Sim and Gerhard contributed to the cover art, which spoofs a Cerebus style cover).
- Cerebus Art Site This is Dave and Gerhard's site for selling original Cerebus art, prints, limited edition issues, etc.
- Cerebus Fangirl Has a summary of the single issues (the Cerebus Rex), has a multitude of essays by Sim including the Notes From the President, has a large links collection, a Cerebus encyclopedia (Cerebus Concordance), et al.
- Andrew Rilstone: Arts, which contains several critical articles on Cerebus. Search in this page for Aardvarks.
- The Cerebus Companion, in compressed PostScript format. A thorough summary of Cerebus through Jaka's Story.
- Neil Gaiman's Blog details Sim's offer of a free issue which includes part of his Sandman parody (in which The Roach decides that he is "Swoon").
- The Dave Sim Misogyny Page is the full essay by "Victor Davis" that appeared in the Reads trade paperback.