“If Cerebus isn’t careful, he’s going to start a whole new religion”: Leigh on #11

They Live

It’s true! In the words of the Protoss Dragoon, “I have returned.” Humblest apologies for the long radio silence. Since you last saw us humble Cerebloggers, Laura got a new job, I moved to a new apartment, Laura moved to a new house, and Dave Sim launched a new series. And the second issue of that series (Cerebus Archive), comes out today, it’s as good a time as any to leap back into the fray. So here we go!


Cerebus #11
“The Merchant & the Cockroach”
August-September 1979

Interesting Publisher’s Note from Deni here, which I’ll excerpt for those of you following along in the phonebooks:

Issue number eleven has been a landmark issue for us. Reaction to Cerebus is really starting to flow in, as you can see by the expanded letters page. People at conventions are also starting to react to Cerebus with more familiarity… The art in this issue is a bit of a change for Dave. He spent more time and effort on pencils, layouts and inks than he has before, and in different directions. I feel that it shows, and that you’ll be seeing more of this kind of effort in future issues of Cerebus.

This feels funny in retrospect — surely Dave was already spending tons of time on the book? But as always, we have to keep fighting off the hindsight that makes Dave Sim synonymous with Cerebus. Maybe during the production of the previous issues, he didn’t dedicate every waking second to making comics. Who knows, maybe he actually had hobbies. On the other hand, apparently this is the issue after which he had a nervous breakdown and four-day psychiatric hospital stay (damn the timing! If I’d been one issue later that would almost be a decent excuse for our impromptu three-week ten-week hiatus from this blog). I’m pretty sure there was some LSD involved, and possibly some religious experiences as well, but apparently armchair psychology is tiring, so let’s quickly plow onward before we lose our nerve.

Issue #11 features the debut of The Cockroach, who (according to Dave’s 1981 intro from Swords) was inspired by conversations with Batman artist Marshall Rogers. Rogers’ conception of Batman — that “the Batman” is a personality distinct from Bruce Wayne, a voice that tells him to go fight crime, and indeed possibly a real dissociative identity — has proven deeply influential, anticipating the Batman stories of Frank Miller from the 80s and Darwyn Cooke’s underrated Batman: Ego from 2000, among many others. It’s crept into the Batman films too. I suppose Rogers and his collaborator Steve Englehart worked these ideas out during their Detective Comics run in 1977-1978, which would have ended not long before the production of this issue. Dave also identifies Jules Feiffer’s “Hostileman” strips from Playboy as the source of the Cockroach’s “hsss.”

Continuing through the Swords intro, more helpful self-analysis follows: in this issue Cerebus “runs his first scam of any great proportion, realizing that you can get anyone to do anything if you just push the right buttons. … It takes a very strong and secure personality to say no to Cerebus when he’s in top form.” I like this idea of Cerebus growing into himself, stumbling into talents he didn’t know he had. Of course, he was presented as a trickster in the very first issue, but here the spoils are on a different order of magnitude. We’ve gone from a pouch of gold to enough gold to buy a small country. Pretty soon the scams will involve actual ownership of countries.

I’m also curious to see how Cerebus evolves as both a trickster (supernatural, animal-like, itinerant, small, triumphant) and a pícaro (revealing the flaws of his society, disrupting the social order). Though his direct antecedents are apparently 20th-century figures like Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers, Cerebus seems to be part of a long tradition including Sun Wukong, Coyote, Anansi, Loki, Hermes, etc. These early issues are full of tonal shifts as Cerebus vacillates between trickster, straightforward hero, and hapless pawn, but only time will tell whether he’ll settle down into a single role.

In the visual category, issue 11 features the debut of a new type of screen-tone, which Dave experiments with and will shortly abandon. But for a brief moment we have a speckled gray pattern pop up here and there, during the night-time scenes with the Cockroach (notably, forming the shadow that falls on him during his first appearance in character):


It’s also great fun to see Sim play with the diagonal compositions and extreme layouts that come with rooftop skulking and nocturnal thuggery.

On narrative terms, I think this one works well. It’s nicely paced and structured, revolving entirely around Cerebus and the Roach, and that tight focus makes it feel clean and coherent. The Roach is a pretty over-the-top character, about on the scale of Elrod, so it makes sense to spend the whole issue on him rather than making him compete with another idea. I like how competent and witty he is in his merchant persona — he actually stands out as unusually sophisticated in his first scene — although Sim gradually drops hints that he is a little nuts (throwing out the lotus, explaining his quest, asking for wrinkle cream).

It even carries over from the previous issue, although all that buildup of the Black Lotus is rather amusingly deflated when the Bug literally chucks it out a window. The Black Lotus, by the way, is apparently another Conan reference; nerds of my generation may remember it as the most rare and valuable card from Magic: The Gathering.

The “condominiums” / “aluminum siding” bit is interesting — the humor in Cerebus has relied on modern references since the beginning, but this is a rare case where the anachronism is explicit and unjustifiable. Apparently once Cerebus is on a roll, this stuff just comes to him.

Two character bits to notice:

  • “Cerebus is just going to walk away. What is going on is of no concern to Cerebus. Cerebus has his gold and Cerebus is not going to fall for any stupid tricks…” But then of course he has to investigate. Is it pure curiosity, or has he picked up on the possibility of getting more cash out of this guy? The latter would be believeable, but it seems that Sim is going for the former.
  • After discovering the obscenely large gold stash, we get this delightful panel:
    issue-11-15-get-the-goldHe has spent an entire hour just wallowing in this ocean of gold coins, Uncle Scrooge style. And there are no half-measures. He can’t bear the thought of even a single coin escaping him.
    scrooge-mcduckYet by the story’s end, he’s at least two bags up on where he started. Not bad for a day’s work, if you ask me…

on covers

I want to make a quick observation about the development of Dave’s covers across the last 10 issues. In a period of about 18 months, he’s gone through a wide variety of styles and experiments, to varying success:

Issue #10 strikes me as a step forward. Maybe it’s the palette of secondary and tertiary colors, or the seemingly-difficult gradients of green and brown in the right-hand wall… It also helps that Dave has chosen a pose for Sophia where he can draw her confidently, without the awkward renderings that still plague his human characters in the interior.


As you can see from the cover “matrix” up top, Dave was playing with “design-y” covers since almost the very beginning, although at the moment he seems to have settled into a more conventional “complex action pose” motif.

Considering these covers are a rare opportunity to see Dave work in color, and they’re largely lost to the world that now encounters Cerebus in the phone books (which even have B&W covers until halfway through the series), I hope we can continue to address them as we go, watching the evolution of Dave’s design instincts as well as the growth of printing technology.

Please! Kill him but let me go: Laura on #10

Cerebus #10: Merchant of Unshib!
June 1979- July 1979

issue-10-05-swirlyCerebus begins this issue suddenly lost in the middle a snowstorm; after the loss of his army and position in the previous issue, he decided to head towards Iest despite a week-long blizzard that has killed over 500, and here we are. If yet another abrupt shift into a Totally Different Situation from where we saw him last seems a bit regressive — particularly after multiple issues of connected plots — that’s because it is. Two steps forward, one step back.

issue-10-05-sophiaWe are treated to several pages of trudging as the aardvark’s steely resolve and “piston-like” legs push ever forward after the tracks of delicious animals that might sustain him. Tired, wounded from previous battles, and hungry, Cerebus is skirting the edge of desperation when he finds that the tracks of his prey end suddenly in a smattering of blood…

…because Red Sophia got it first! Cerebus’ least favorite warrior woman shows up looking hale and hearty, and still wearing her trademark chain-mail bikini even in the middle of the blizzard. It’s pretty ridiculous, but then scantily-clad heroines almost always are, though arctic climes tend to exaggerate the effect as artists still refuse to cover them up, even if (in real life) exposure would probably kill them.

There has been debate in the realm of superhero comics, particularly among female fans, about the costumes that heroines wear, and whether they are unnecessarily provocative (yup!) and whether that undermines the characters, which is more debatable. My main objection has always been a more utilitarian one: They look really freaking cold. I have terrible blood circulation and staying warm is a constant issue for me, so when I see a character like Psylocke get dropped into the Siberia in a glorified swimsuit (see: X-Men Vol. 2 #16-18) it is not unlike watching someone get kicked in the crotch.

(For the love of God, wear pants!)

But there the bare-legged, bare-armed, bare-bellied Sophia stands, seemingly impervious to the snow whipping around her while Cerebus teeters on the verge of collapsing. She offers him food and shelter, but since her mere presence still makes Cerebus revert to the emotional age of five, he basically stamps his feet and crosses his arms and refuses everything she offers despite barely being able to stand. He’s essentially reacting the same as he did when she offered him sex in previous issues, which makes me wonder whether he secretly wanted that too, but refused to acknowledge it with anything besides pigtail-pulling and cootie accusations.

issue-10-06-bunnySophia finally manages to get his attention by mentioning a valuable magical doodad called the Black Lotus Blossom that she plans to steal, but first we need to pause because: Is she shoving the rabbit into her loincloth here? Because it really looks like she is. Maybe her hoo-hoo is a pocket dimension and/or functions like the inventory used to in old adventure games like Space Quest where you could pick up a ladder and shove it into your pocket. Either way, seeing those ears disappear into her undies is easily the most disturbing image in the series so far.

Sim then treats us to a quick Wikipedia-esque panel about the backstory of Black Lotus Blossom, which is basically that it once was lost, but has now been found. Red Sophia makes another pass at Cerebus, who acts unbearably put-upon, declaring when Sophia begs for the touch of man that “Cerebus isn’t a man… Cerebus is an aardvark!” We the readers still don’t know quite what that means – and Sim doesn’t seem to either – so it’s hard to blame Sophia for miscategorizing.

issue-10-16-thoughtThere’s some more texty exposition about how the Black Lotus Blossom, which Sophia narrates while hugging and licking Cerebus, but it boils down to the fact that a merchant has it, and they’re going to take it from him. Sophia’s ineffective seduction is interrupted by Meirgen, a jeweller’s son who sold the Lotus without realizing its value and is now giving Sophia intel in return for theoretical sexual favors. He’s yet another run-of-the-mill idiot who is almost totally inconsequential, except that he sets up several jokes and exposes the more calculating side of Red Sophia, who manipulates him very openly with her feminine wiles.

When the three head out to hijack their prize, they find that the merchant holding the Lotus has hired some very formidable Tcapmin border guards to protect him. So formidable, in fact, that when one guard named Throgo stumbles onto the group, even Cerebus thinks it wiser to give him a cut than try to take him down, and so Throgo signs on with the party.

Red Sophia (who thought bubbled “Please! Kill [Cerebus] but let me go! Oh please please!” when her life was in danger) quickly shifts her favor over to Throgo, compelling evidence that her “love” of Cerebus was probably opportunism all along. Her affections seem to belong to whoever the strongest man in the room is, no matter who it is – or whether it’s a man at all.issue-10-23-they-changed-me

Cerebus ends up having the last laugh and out-manipulating Sophia and everyone else, something he likes to do to dullards on a regular basis. He borrows Throgo’s furs, rushes into the camp of the other Tcapmin guards shouting that a sorcerers have transformed him (Throgo!) into an animal, and sabotaged the bridge they were about to cross. He sends the mercenaries to attack the rest of his party, takes the Lotus from the now-defenseless merchant and strolls off into the blizzard again.

Because Cerebus is kind of a jerk, and he loves money and valuable magical knick-knacks, and other well-established truisms of this series, because right now we’re just killing time. Like most filler, this issue is vaguely unsatisfying and utterly forgettable, telling us things we already know in unremarkable ways, and leaving us at the end in almost the exact same place where we started.

“Put a few kinks in their pseudopods”: Leigh on Cerebus #9

Cerebus #9
“Swords Against Imesh”
April-May 1979


With the first page of this one, we’re seeing exactly the sort of politically-themed humor that will dominate future issues. The lieutenant wants to talk economics, but “Cerebus doesn’t care.” When pressed, he resorts to the classic “Don’t worry about that now[;] Cerebus has an important job for you…” oh gosh, even more important than economics? A real pressing emergency that the boss has specially delegated to me! what an honor! “sir?” “tell the troops to shut up.” We’ll see plenty of this, as Cerebus attempts to flee/ignore his responsibilities — both manipulating others and being manipulated himself. It’s an interesting exchange, because it positions him simultaneously as an idiot (desperate to avoid at all costs the actual hard work of administration, to the long-term detriment of his people and probably himself) and as extremely clever — the short-term “winner” of the conversation at hand. I admit I’m contaminated by future issues, but nevertheless the “witty idiot” character strikes me as very Marxian.

So we’re attacking Imesh, a name I have a hard time taking seriously since it’s also an old P2P client that hosted my first-ever encounter with file-sharing piracy at a friend’s house back in high school. It’s the “port city” Cerebus mentioned in his battle plan last issue — the issue-to-issue continuity continues to grow. It’s also, according to Dave’s Swords notes from 1981, “the city of Cerebus’ adolescent years, the place where he studied magic under Magus Doran and first learned to drink, gamble, and raise hell.”


Considering how ambiguous some of Dave’s letterforms are (D/P and G/S being the most troublesome pairs), it’s unfortunate to have a character named “Sedra” when we’ve already had the “Sepran Empire”… I honestly thought she said “Sepra has the information you seek” for a minute. Also, can we please stop referring to ourselves in the third person?

King K’Cor explains the Clever Evil Racket by which he rules the city of Imesh, and for a moment we’re in an awkward anti-drug allegory. Well, not an allegory, because they really are using drugs. But K’Cor helpfully anticipates the standard way this story would go — the visiting barbarian rouses the slaves into a rebellion — giving Cerebus an opportunity to deflate those expectations and admit he has no interest in recruiting or liberating such lame followers. In response, K’Cor leaps into another cliché: he will allow Cerebus to challenge him, king to king, winner takes all. And he has stacked the deck.

Jumping to conclusions like this, K’Cor is really just a slightly more articulate version of Elrod, blended with a bit of the religious fanaticism of the Pigts. And the recycling doesn’t stop there — I’m actually kind of stunned that Dave is pulling out the Ball of Wite-Out monster again, calling it something different, and acting as though this isn’t identical to the “Eye of Terim” from issue #2. He even has Cerebus recall an encounter with these creatures “in his youth,” pointedly implying that our hero hasn’t seen these things in a while… which is just weird.


Of course, Dave has improved in the year since issue #2. This battle is more visually engaging than the previous one — we get to see some fun “strobing” effects, with Sim going beyond the panellessness of prior fight scenes to literally having multiple Cerebuses in a single spread, captured in several moments like an animator’s model sheet or a Marey chronophotograph. Also, Dave is simply drawing more confidently. Most of the backup characters are still iffy, but he’s drawn Cerebus enough times that he’s starting to get a solid feel for how he looks and moves.

More interesting than Dave’s artistic growth is the narration during this fight, which appears to be self-aware: “Though his coordination is better, though he is faster than he was in those days long gone…” might apply just as much to the creator as to the creation. “He curses the fates for his slow-healing back wound, reopened by the globe… he is past the globes, exhaustion feeding on every fibre of his being! Blinking the sweat from his eyes, he scans the corridor before him…” And with that, a page turn, and we are past the globes. I wonder whether Dave’s back felt sore drawing that sequence, and whether he finished it in exhaustion and turned with sweaty gratitude to the next page. Possibly not, as apparently Deni spotted the blacks on that entire sequence all by herself, which suggests it was actually one of the least labor-intensive scenes for Dave (again from the 1981 Swords intro). Still, it jumped out at me, as reluctant as I am to read everything through the autobiographical lens (he makes it so tempting!).


Onto the Panrovian fight, which is yet another installment of Cerebus has a comically easy time overcoming an overzealous opponent. The Bugs-Bunny-style moment where he pops around behind the guy is pretty funny, and it’s an interesting variation on the fish-out-of-water theme: Cerebus’ supercompetence is, in this case, so absolute that he’s operating by a different set of laws, not only behaviorally but also physically “breaking the rules” of high fantasy. But he ends the fight far more bloodily than Bugs Bunny ever could.

A bit of tonal whiplash, then, as we go from solemn globe fight to goofy Panrovian fight to solemn king fight. Somehow the mix works; I’m never sure whether to expect silly or serious from any given page, but the transitions seem surprisingly natural, and I could accept either at any time.

The 5-page fight with King K’Cor is pretty involving. Sim’s captions are over the top, but he’s built up Cerebus’ exhaustion enough (and drawn the armored K’Cor scary enough) that I accept there’s some serious danger here.


Why are the panels symmetrical in this spread? Why not?

Finally, after a gripping battle narrative, in which Cerebus overcomes adversity and is just about to triumph — K’Cor calls it off and tells Cerebus he doesn’t want to play anymore. “You are no longer of interest to me” — now who’s irrelevant? And to top it off, he’s got an Adrian-Veidt-style announcement that completely takes the wind out of Cerebus’ sails. Just when you thought it was safe to assume Cerebus was moving up in the world… I’m not sure I buy our hero breaking into a “a protracted, piercing cry” — maybe it’s less a “sob” and more an “aargh” — but it’s a neat little ending.

Leigh’s follow-up on #8

Welcome back, Laura! It’s great to hear that you’re feeling at least semi-functional.

I just have a couple addenda I want to mention about #8 before moving on to issue #9. As Laura said earlier, we’ll occasionally both post on the same issue, if we find ourselves with enough to say.

I found the facial hair in this issue entertaining:

  • the coked-up prince and the idiot soldier at the end are clean-shaven.
  • the two Conniptin officers who actually know what’s going on are well-decked out, one with a hefty beard and the other sporting some truly impressive, near-VanBurenian sideburns.
  • Cerebus, of course, is furry all over. If facial hair is proportional to competence, this makes perfect sense.

I’ll thank you not to bring up the counterexample of old Harvey Keitel from issue 3. I have my theories, and I’ll not let facts get in the way!

I love this spread below — Sim is starting to think about the pacing and structure of his stories, and how he can use the strengths of the comics medium to support more adventurous forms. Immediately before this spread, Sim has been alternating between Cerebus’ feverish hallucinations (drawn with loopy, organic panelling and dark tones) and the Conniptins in the outside world discussing his fate (drawn with clean rectangular panels, full of white space). Now, he inserts a moment from the hallucination in between two external scenes, sprawling across two pages:


We’re never confused about which is which because each setting has its own distinctive visual flavor.

It’s similar to what Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins do throughout Watchmen, a visual crutch that enables Moore’s hypercompressed storytelling to succeed. Without the color cues of Gibbons and Higgins, the relentless nine-panel grid would dissolve into a blur, and the rush of rapid changes would simply overwhelm.

watchmen-313Watchmen #3, p. 13, by Moore, Gibbons and Higgins (DC, Nov 1986)

I found this next sequence even more interesting:


Again, I love the thought of Sim taping up two art boards side-by-side, then grasping his pencil and slinging a bold curve across the entire spread. “This shall be my panel border!” It creates the effect of a strip peeled off of one layer of comics, revealing another layer beneath. For story purposes, it also clearly implies that Cerebus is in a different world than the other characters right now.

Let’s take a closer look at that right-hand page:


Even here, where the rectilinear panelling comes back, alternating panels are inked black to represent Cerebus’ feverish perception. Notice that his enemies are drawn as hallucinations in black panels, and as themselves in white panels. Incidentally, there’s also a pleasing symmetry created by the alternation of light and dark (again, found also in Watchmen), and the darkness creates a loose inverted triangle on the page.

Lastly, I wanted to continue my occasional practice of pointing out thematic echoes in other works. In this case, the “character, driven by illness/madness, hallucinates that everyone in sight is a version of some other character he hates” scenario is used memorably in Frank Miller’s Daredevil #169:

daredevil-169-optimizedDaredevil #169 p. 2-3 by Miller, Janson, et al (Marvel, Mar 1981)

Again, Dave Sim didn’t invent this idea, but it’s a fun similarity — and makes me wonder how influential Sim was on other comic creators, and how soon that influence began to exert itself.

Also, isn’t it interesting how willing Cerebus is to kill “Elrod” and “Red Sophia”?

Cerebus #8: A liberating effect

Cerebus #8: “Day of the Earth-Pig!”

February 1979 – March 1979

First, a mea culpa for my extended absence, and an explanation: Despite no longer being in high school, I managed to get mono. It put me on the floor for the last month with a 104 degree fever and at one point I threw up all over Walgreens, and it was bad. I’m still pretty sick, but I can at least connect words in meaningful and grammatical ways again, so I’m back.

issue-08-00_coverThis issue begins with Cerebus reliving his escape from the spider-pit of the last issue, except that the situation is somehow “familiar, thought subtlely different.” That screams dream sequence, and it is! It’s also the second issue in a row that connects directly to the one before it, which is a big step towards a narrative that actually builds on itself instead of hitting the reset button at the end of every story!

In his introduction, Sim says that the difference is much more significant than that — that between #7 and #8 he experienced an artistic shift so profound that when he looks at this issue he can “almost see the pages sighing with relief as I thumb through it.” I’m not sure I see such a dramatic change between #7 and #8, but that doesn’t mean Sim didn’t experience an internal revelation, something that is only starting to make its way onto the page.

Cerebus started as a Barry Windsor-Smith parody with a funny animal interposed in the middle of it, which is a fun idea with a very limited range, especially if you happen to be enormously talented and destined for much greater things than imitating somebody else:

“No longer restricted to seeing the world through Barry Smith-coloured glasses, I started seeing each panel as a link in a chain. My priority was no longer to copy Smith’s pen-lines, but to use each drawing as a connecting fragment. It was like a dormant time-sense had leaped into my head from nowhere. It had been there all along, of course, but it had been overruled most times by the part of me that was determined to be Barry Smith.”

issue-08-02-layoutIt is a scary leap to take at first, from mimicking someone else’s work to making something personal and original, particularly when you are still just Some Guy and no one is attaching “critically-acclaimed” to the front of your name, and Sim feels the fear. He talks about the curved, distended panels in this issue as  Cerebus hallucinates his way through fever dreams, and the more even ambitious paneling ideas that Sim had but “chickened out” on executing – at least till issue #20, when he finally found the confidence to let loose.

Watching Sim struggle with his insecurities is kind of fascinating, and also heartening – the idea that even great artists begin in uncertainty, that you have to earn your way to greatness not just with talent and hard work but also the personal bravery required to lay it all on the table without holding anything back, with no guarantee that people won’t see everything you have to offer and still laugh you off the stage.  It is a terrifying, but critically important leap.  “Doing something you don’t have the guts to do really has a liberating effect,” according to Sim.

Meanwhile, back in the story: Cerebus has been picked up in his fever-addled state by the Conniptins, a conquering army ruled by an effete cocaine-addicted princeling who is roughly as in touch with reality as, say, the late 18th century French monarchy. Which is to say that he has delusions of godhood and infallibility and control over vast armies of men despite barely being able to dress himself, and so it is only a matter of time before the lives of everyone he commands are forfeit.

One of the prince’s military advisers, Captain Turl, is all too aware of this, and actively looking for a way to overthrow him.  So when they find Cerebus frothing on the road, Turl immediately recognizes the innate valor of the earth-pig, rather than just viewing him as a rabid beast. Frankly, I don’t know why. If you came across a gorilla in a berserker rage swinging a sword around very capably and foaming at the mouth, I’m pretty sure priority one would be shooting it dead, not waxing poetic about proper respect for its noble warrior spirit.

So here’s the brilliant plan that Turl concocts to overthrow the prince: Although he has never seen Cerebus speak, or any other indication of human-level intelligence, he thinks the best course of action is to wait until the extraordinarily strong, violent, visibly crazy animal regains consciousness, give it a sword and tell it (in words!) that its illness is all fault of those dudes over there, send it to kill them, then tell everyone exaggerated stories of its murderous aptitude and prop it up AS THEIR NEW LEADER.

And the plan succeeds! Mostly because Cerebus is in fact a high-functioning warrior with exceptional fighting skills. We, the audience, are not surprised, because we have been beaten over and over and OVER with the information that Cerebus is special, but I don’t know how the characters just now joining our story deduce this at a glance. Maybe when he’s off-panel he belches rainbows and poops butterflies and his every glance is like getting punched by pure sunshine, but I don’t get why people act like they’ve seen Jesus in a tortilla every time he enters a room.

issue-08-21-ponderSo the Conniptins offer him the role of military leader, and after some hijinks and initial misgivings, Cerebus is persuaded by promise of wealth and power to accept, despite violently rejecting a very similar proposal from the Pigts just a few issues earlier. Although the Conniptins don’t specifically want to worship Cerebus – and they do make some death threats – I would argue that what’s really different here isn’t the people who are looking for a leader, but Cerebus himself.

In the closing lines of the last issue, Cerebus seemed as ready for a fundamental change as Sim probably was: “[Cerebus] is tired and sore and broke! Mayhap it is time to settle in one place… Anything is better than his present hand-to-mouth existence. There just isn’t any reward in it.”

True to form, Cerebus does try to slip away the night before the first Conniptin battle under his command, as his “instinct demands that he escape from any prison.” But after living for so long like a lone wolf with no idea where his next meal or job or place to sleep would come from, what makes stability so much more of a prison than poverty? And so Cerebus thinks of warm food and warm beds and the regular comforts of a life with a little more continuity, and he returns to the camp to see if he can find a new way of living.

Meta-post: she’s still sick


Everybody send get-well wishes to Laura! Just yesterday I saw her huddled in a blanket with soup and vitamins and pizza, still plague-ridden, but nevertheless poring over the Cerebus phonebook! So there’ll be more as soon as we can manage, rest assured.

Meta-post: I’m so sick

I’m trying hard to get up the next post before Saturday, but I’ve been sick non-stop for the last three weeks, and am currently rocking a fever of 104.

I’ll do my best.

“He neither knows nor cares”: Leigh on #7

Cerebus #7: “Black Sun Rising”
Dec 1978 / Jan 1979


That’s the goofiest cover so far, in a series that’s included several goofy covers. No mistaking the tone of this issue, that’s for sure. The yellow color scheme is especially striking.

One gets the sense that this issue is overly goofy to compensate for the sappy plot of issue 6. In fact there’s a teaser page for it on the inside back cover of issue 6, “NEXT: The RETURN I say the RETURN of ELROD.” It reminds me of the Achewood strip where (spoiler warning) Roast Beef and Molly get engaged after weeks of anticipation, and when it finally happens, the alt text says “TOMORROW – Lyle pukes so hard it makes a football go three feet.” And then, sure enough, he does.

Maybe the newly-married Dave feels like he has to prove he’s still got it. What is it about marriage that makes hip young comic writers so anxious about their masculinity/irony/fanbase?

While we’re on the cover, take a second look and notice it’s not by Dave Sim — it’s by Frank Thorne, artist of Red Sonja, and both verbal and visual basis for Red Sophia’s wizard father Henrot. I wonder how many other guest cover artists we’ll see. Not many, I suspect.

Sim (in 1981’s Swords) has described this issue as a watershed moment for his artistic development, “my first radical departure from my intention to be a major Barry Smith sequel.” He used a shading technique on the first page that Smith wouldn’t have used, and “suddenly I was free. Why — I bet I could do anything I wanted!”

And thank God. Dave’s visual experimentation is one of the great joys of Cerebus, and it’s about time that kicked into high gear. It’s also quite touching to read Dave’s first-person account of what that moment of liberation felt like. So let’s look at that first page:


Visually striking, to be sure, but not really for the reasons Dave suggests. In fact, the shaded area under the spider’s right mandible looks oddly unfinished. What impresses me most, aside from the overall composition (gotta love how the white lines direct our eyes toward the hero, while his gaze confronts the monster), is the title lettering. “BLACK SUN RISING!” contains an actual black sun rising within it, a fact I missed the first couple times. Something about the arc of the sun complements the shape of the spider’s head, as well as the arc of the web that lies behind the spider. That same arc kind of bends around and joins the spider’s leg, effectively visually trapping Cerebus.

It’s another Silver Age Splash Page, previewing a visually exciting scene to come with zero context. On to page 2, and a completely different scene!

Wait a minute… “Temple of the Black Sun … and the Black Sun Treasure contained therein!” This is a sequel to last issue! I’m actually somewhat surprised. It doesn’t just refer to something mentioned last issue, it’s actually picking up a significant plot thread that was left open and continuing it. I think that’s a first.


I do love the running joke that Cerebus rides a horse by bouncing up and down on its back, so every time we see him on horseback, he’s floating in midair — just as on the first page of issue 1. He’s even doing it in silhouette, in this lovely minimalist panel:


Meanwhile, this one doesn’t work as well for me:


It’s supposed to be Cerebus dismounting from the horse, but took a while to decode.

“The air is rich with the smell of sorcery” — this is an interesting idea, that magic has a smell. Dave used this idea in the short story “Passage,” drawn in 1978 to go between issues #3-4, and published in Cerebus the Newsletter #2.

Aaand here comes Elrod, continuing to pay tribute to old WB cartoons with his opening song (”I’m here! I’m here! Let the bells ring out and the banners fly– feast your eyes on me! It’s too good to be true, but – I’mHereI-I’M HERE!“), which apparently dates back to 1948’s A-Lad-In His Lamp, featuring Jim Backus as the Genie. The song does seem to be a minor meme among folks of a certain generation, though after watching the scene I can’t tell you why. It doesn’t strike me as catchy or funny.

Apricot brandy makes its second appearance, just one issue after the memorable scene with Jaka’s navel. Apparently it’s one of the ingredients of a Black Sun Cocktail.

Yikes, Dave wasn’t kidding when he said he was experiementing with the art here. In tonight’s panel, the part of Cerebus will be played by Ziggy.


On to the action! For this is at heart an action story, a full-on Scooby Doo / Benny Hill chase scene full of mistaken identities, disguises, cultists, and maze-like temples.


We’re introduced to the saggy-sacked Mit the Feeble (click above to embiggen), who makes me uncomfortable just looking at him. I’m not quite sure what my objection is. I get that Mit’s costume here is supposed to be a poor imitation of Cerebus, cobbled together from vague descriptions in centuries-old religious texts. But are there… 3 pairs of eye-holes (left side, front, and right side)? And what’s up with that smiley-face thing? Is that a corruption of Cerebus’ snout-end? Or his eyes? Sim didn’t wait long (after introducing his talking aardvark character) before introducing takeoffs on that concept, ideas that require his audience to think of “Cerebus the warrior aardvark” as the normal one, the template.

Elrod, of course, has thought Cerebus to be a kid in a bunny suit since day one, so he naturally confuses Mit for Cerebus. Yet I actually think I would have preferred if it were a bunny suit, or something along those lines, rather than a creepy mutated Cerebus costume. That would make Elrod’s conflation of the two more absurd and funnier, rather than eerily appropriate.

Hang on… okay, it’s much less creepy if I think of that circle thing as the costume’s eyes. So I’ll calm down about that aspect. This is like the fifth time I’ve read the issue, though. (I guess the unnerving part is the way Sim keeps drawing Mit’s eyes through the eye-holes in the costume. Does anyone else find that creepy? Or do I just have issues with fursuits stemming from my childhood trauma at Disney World?)

There are a couple instances of creative panelling. Sim eliminates some of the gutters, for no clear reason that I can see — why does this first transition need only a black line, while the next two get full gutters?


This is a cute trick — Mit’s hand grabs the side of the panel as he passes through a doorway:


He’s also gazing down from a rocky outcropping in a way that reminds me of Two-Edge in Wendy Pini’s ElfQuest… although the issue in question wouldn’t come out until 1984.

This is also well done:


Elrod says “y’all” at least twice when he’s addressing a single person, which is intensely irritating to me and anyone else who grew up where they actually say “y’all.” Writers tend to think “y’all” is just the dumb Southern way of saying “you,” I guess, but I promise you, it’s plural. Using it as a singular pronoun is just inaccurate.

On a less regional but still pedantic note, Cerebus uses some uncharacteristic pronouns at several points in this issue, calling himself “I” and so forth instead of “Cerebus.” As I think we mentioned earlier, Dave has admitted that this was a mistake “I had trouble bearing in mind that Cerebus was supposed to refer to himself in the third person and would later cover for it by saying that he referred to himself as ‘I’ when he had been around the civilized areas too long.”

One more panelling note: this segment works, with Cerebus swallowed in the blackness of the pit, and therefore Dave depriving the page even the slight lightening that gutters would provide:


But I wish he’d been able to do that for the whole page — the super-bright chiaroscuro panels of the bottom half end up blunting the effect. I know a more confident attempt at this is coming in issue #20’s “Mind Game.”

There’s some kind of plot stuff going on here at the end, with the pit and the spider and the dark ritual, which somehow goes wrong because Cerebus lacks a soul? Again? But Cerebus emerges pretty much unharmed and walks off, so I’m disinclined to worry too much about it. I’m more interested in the suggestion that Cerebus is about to turn over a new leaf:


“Mayhap it is time to settle in one place,” indeed.*

*Incidentally, I like the idea that Dave could hint at future plot directions like this, floating them as trial balloons, and then see how the fans responded. He hasn’t necessarily committed to settling Cerebus down, but he’s raised the possibility, and if letters pour in saying “yes! keep him in one place!” he may pursue the idea.

More or less a cautionary tale: Laura on #6

Cerebus #6: “The Secret!”

November-October 1978

Deni announces in her letter from the publisher that she and Dave are getting married, and she is all caps multiple exclamation point excited about it, and it’s kind of sad. “I had a romantic thing about artists at the time period, as a lot of women do,” Loubert would say later (19:25). “It’s your dream to say you’ve been the right hand person of an artist. I always said I wanted to be his Yoko. That’s what we always used to talk about…”  She says, trailing off into the great ellipsis that is What Comes Later.

But now it is still 1978, she and Sim have been going to conventions and are starting to realize that Cerebus has developed a following, sales are growing, and this might actually be going somewhere. She is in love and anything is possible – it is all sky and no ceilings.

Deni says in her letter that “this issue is special to me because it’s my wedding present from Dave,” which is maybe the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, but we’ll get back to that later.

The primary plot revolves around a large, stupid man named Turg the Unduly-Tall, and a shorter, less stupid man named E’Lass trying to coerce Cerebus into revealing the location of a treasure that a dying man whispered to him and blah blah blah.  I don’t care, and you probably won’t either, but they do manage to use the power of beer to coerce Cerebus (or “the-killer-who-looks-like-a-bunny” as Turg calls him) into visiting a tavern where he meets a dancing girl named Jaka.

Yes, Jaka. If you have even a passing familiarity with Cerebus, you’ll know that Jaka becomes a very important character in the series, if only because you’ve been to the comic book store too and seen that the fifth volume is named Jaka’s Story.

(Also, just because I’m a pedant: issue-06-04-excellant)


The series, up to this point, has been a series of done-in-one stories that leap wildly between locales and casts of disposable characters, with Cerebus as the only constant. Was Jaka originally intended to be yet another disposable character, a dancing girl that could have been any dancing girl in any bar? Except that love makes her something different, because that is what love does.

Up until this point,, “Cerebus has [had] no time for such foolishness” as love, treating women and sex as little more than distractions from gold, beer, and action in the most literal and least suggestive sense. When he first meets Jaka – both times – his initial reaction is equally dismissive, because she is just another girl, and there are millions of those.

Cerebus’ attitude towards her changes markedly when E’Lass slips a drug into his drink to “make him more suggestible” as they ply him for information. Cerebus becomes more suggestible, all right – not to revealing the location of the gold, but to the charms of Jaka, who is dancing on stage.

Ever see that episode of the Simpsons where Bart scans frame by frame on a videotape to pinpoint the exact moment when Ralph Wiggum’s heart breaks? It’s kind of like that, but in reverse. And because it’s comics, of course, everything is frame by frame.



issue-06-05-faceless-jakaInterestingly, we don’t see Jaka’s face until four pages after her appearance – we see her body, her back, and hair, as Cerebus gazes at her, but not her face. It effectively introduces Jaka as more of a love object than a person in her own right, and Sim admits as much in his Swords of Cerebus introduction, when he talks about his difficulty coming up with an ending: “It was at that point that I realized the essence of the problem. I had been thinking of Cerebus’ point of view of the situation, but I hadn’t stopped to considered how Jaka was reacting to him.”

Cerebus’ point of view is that he “hasn’t been this happy since he beheaded his first Borealian.” His first reaction is to describe joy in terms of violence because that’s what gives him joy, and because falling for Jaka hasn’t made him a different, less violent person. Love doesn’t change us — it just makes us more vulnerable, like finding a soft spot on your body that makes you fall to the ground when someone touches it. Which can be a wonderful or a terrible thing, depending on how much you need to be in control and who’s doing the touching.


Another note about Cerebus’ reaction: I thought he was kicking his foot backwards here to make E’Lass back off, but at Leigh’s insistence I looked closer, and yeah – that’s not his foot. It’s his tail, which suddenly goes… well, I guess erect (?) while he’s watching Jaka. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but don’t write any slash trying to figure it out, ok? Seriously, don’t write any slash.

Sim describes Jaka as “the personification of all those long distance romances,” the unrequited and unspoken crushes he had on many girls as a young man. “In my heart of hearts, of course, I knew that if I just worked up the courage to talk to them, that they would fall madly in love with me and we would live happily ever after.”

Of course, that rarely happens in real life. But this is Sim’s story to write, and so in this version the beautiful girl falls in love with the short homely guy, they decide to run away together and live happily ever after — until the ending, which he apparently wrote for Deni, where Jaka ends up carrying a tragic torch for Cerebus indefinitely after he transforms into a cold, dismissive person who suddenly treats her like just another wench.

issue-06-19-disappearsTheir great and mutual love is thwarted by the familiar cheap trick of amnesia, but with a bit of twist. As Leigh pointed out to me, Sim makes the interesting choice not to use the drugs to remove their relationship, but rather to induce it. When his feelings disappear, it is not because something unnatural has intervened to erase them, but because something unnatural has been removed, returning him to his sober and “normal” state. The first question really shouldn’t be “Will Cerebus ever remember his feelings for Jaka?” but rather, “Did he ever really have feelings for her at all?” There’s no clear answer right now, but I’m sure future issues will have more to say.

Oh, and the whole plot with E’Lass and Turg escalates when three members of a cult called the Brothers of the Black Sun show up, named Tchens, Trebu, and Lohi. Their names are anagrams, derived from Deni’s last name (Loubert), and Hitchens, the last name of Sim’s mistress at the time. In fact, Sim later revealed that the entire issue was “more or less a cautionary tale trying to inform [Loubert] obliquely (if not opaquely) of strong emotional ties I still felt for the woman Jaka was based on (blank) who became an exotic dancer (read stripper) shortly after Jaka first appeared. The emotions depicted in the drugged Cerebus reflected the feelings I had toward the mistress I had at the time Deni and I got married.”

Wedding present, remember? Incidentally, Sim’s intro also tells all the Jaka fans who “want to know what issue the wedding takes place” to “lay off, or I’ll drop her out of a tall building.”

Sim, who would later refer to divorce as “the excision of a five-to-six- foot leech from the surface of a human body.”

Like I said, maybe the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.

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