Archive for February, 2009

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

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

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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:

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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.

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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:

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

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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.

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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.

issue-07-09-mit

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?

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

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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:

issue-07-12-ring

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:

issue-07-19-darkness

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:

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“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)

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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.

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i_love_lisa

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.

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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.

Meta-post: Because you demanded it

A number of you have flatteringly asked us to post more on the Cereblog– or rather, faster– and Leigh and I have listened!  We’re now going to be alternating issues, meaning that we’ll be covering to be at least two issues of Cerebus per week.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t weigh in on every issue, just that it won’t be mandatory.  And that we’ll be moving twice as fast for your reading enjoyment.  See how you like the change, and feel free to weigh in if you have any thoughts.

He has seen enough of religious fanaticism: Leigh on #5

Cerebus #5
August 1978
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For a cover with about three colors on it, this is pretty impressive.

And “Bran Mak Mufin”! The referential humor rolls on! Pity us poor youthful Cerebloggers, who must check Wikipedia to confirm that yes, the Egg McMuffin was invented in 1972, so that is indeed what Dave is referring to. I wouldn’t have gotten the other half — Robert E. Howard’s character Bran Mak Morn — without electronic help at all.

Deni’s intro note is cute: “…there are times, for Cerebus, that being an aardvark can mean more than just looking funny. If that sounds like a lead into the story, you bet your booties it is. So read on…” As Top Shelf 2.0 editor, I sympathize with the challenge of writing something brief and attention-getting without giving the story away — and there are plenty of times when I can’t manage much better than Deni does here.

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Cerebus begins the issue wearing a helmet that makes him look like an extra from Beetle Bailey. It fortunately disappears after page two.

And we’re still firmly in “barbarian region of the month” territory, here as Cerebus leaves Serrea and “drifts west into the Red Marches where he enters the employ of Turan Genn, a mercenary captain!” …If you say so, man. It’s like the technobabble on Star Trek. Thank God he was including Michael Loubert’s map in the back of each issue.

Also, he’s apparently on a “border patrol”… a border patrol of one. Not exactly airtight security, but I guess if your mercenary captain is desperate enough to hire an aardvark, you’ve probably got a staffing shortage already.

The central joke of the first half is that aardvark fur smells bad when it gets wet (”the plains dwellers must be burning their ceremonial skunks again…” “the smell of a thousand dung worms mating in the noon sun…”). As a running joke, it’s actually pretty funny, especially from what I remember of the High Society issues where it comes up in more highbrow circumstances, but it’s not funny enough to sustain the six or eight pages that focus on it here. And the visual gag of Cerebus swatting a fly and thereby — what, exposing his armpit? waving air at the guy? — is clumsy and doesn’t work:

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Fortunately, these guys have funny names.

  • “Partha Qua Non” is I guess Dave’s hybrid of two arbitrary Greco-Roman terms, Parthenon and sine qua non.
  • “Cromag Macs Milc” would appear to be a hybrid of Cro-Magnon and 1970s Canadian convenience store chain Mac’s Milk.
  • “Fret Mac Mury” would be actor Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity and My Three Sons.

Yes, I had to look up a couple of those. At least I was a Classics major.

A new installment of “jokes that probably aren’t as funny as I think” arrives with this sequence, which looks a little like a butt-groping joke but is probably just Cerebus freaking out that there’s a guy behind him. (But then why the startled eyes in panel 2?):

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I found this page pretty out-of-character… and surprisingly touching, actually (click to embiggen):

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If this were any other book, how sad would this be? Cerebus smells so bad that he can’t even walk beside the others — and he knows it, and he can’t help it, and he volunteers to get far enough away that they can stand it (although he can never escape it himself). And look at his pathetic little Charlie Brown eyes!

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You’re a good man, Charliebus. Maybe next time she’ll let you kick the football.

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After years of disappointment reading comics whose covers promise wacky scenes that never actually occur within, I’m positively delighted to see the scene from the cover reproduced on the page above, from slightly different angles. In fact, the cover ends up being a hybrid of visual elements from several panels on this page.

‘Am I the redeemer?’ He decides he is not.” Well, that was easy. Existential crisis averted!

But seriously, I agree with Laura that second half of this issue is absolutely fascinating. Cerebus considers, then rejects, the idea of

  1. becoming a religious leader and
  2. manipulating a nation of gullible humans to do his bidding while
  3. acquiring huge amounts of military/political power and wealth.

Isn’t that, like, precisely the plot of the next 100 issues of Cerebus?

What makes this choice unacceptable? Sim frames it as a Faustian bargain that would require Cerebus to surrender some fundamental truth about himself. He would have to “acknowledge a kinship to the Pigt god … Mayhap there is a kinship! Mayhap Cerebus is just one of the Pigt race…” And that’s what seems to decide it. “Cerebus will not be a Pigt. He will acknowledge no kinship with the soft grey travesty before him… Cerebus is unique! He is the earth-pig born!”

This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It seems to me that the position offered — an aardvark god — is a pretty unique thing to be. They’re not expecting him to join their cult, they expect him to rule it — and doesn’t Cerebus like ruling? I would understand if he were reluctant to ally himself with these idiots just because then he’d have to be around them all day and they’re annoying, but I don’t really buy this notion that the choice is between being “unique” and being “just one of the Pigt race.” Maybe I’m operating with a different understanding of “race” than Dave is, but I don’t see any possibility of him becoming one of them.

What really seems to be at work, underneath Cerebus’ stated reasoning, is his desire to define his own identity, rather than stepping into a predefined identity created by others. The old “no, Dad, I won’t take over the family business, I’m going to art school” thing.

There’s also a hint of fear of blasphemy: Cerebus acknowledges Tarim and Ashtoth as genuine gods who “[kill] without reason or apology,” suggesting that godhood is serious business and not something to be mocked.

The idol-destroying scene is nicely imagined — the relic appears invulnerable from a distance but is actually “composed of the flimsiest material,” preserved for a thousand years only because the church forbade “even the most casual touch.” As Laura suggested, it’s a nice concrete (or, uh, clay) metaphor for a more abstract process that often happens with religion. Craig Thompson’s Blankets visualizes it thus:

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Lastly, I’m glad Laura caught the note of defensiveness from Dave’s Swords retrospective: “So you didn’t get it? So who said you were supposed to?” I suspect that’s an aspect of Cerebus that is totally invisible to us latter-day readers: the particulars may be a bit problematic for me, but the theme comes across clearly. Was it really still bizarre to encounter any level of sophistication in a 1978 comic book?

But then, to be fair, the ending comes after four-and-a-half issues of barbarian silliness. Even if readers were comfortable with the idea of serious comic books, Cerebus hadn’t yet established itself as one of them. Again, easy for us to take for granted.

Further reading: similar “character discovers ancient religious sculpture of himself which long predates his own existence” stories occur in Orson Scott Card’s 1995 novel Earthfall and Joss Whedon’s recent Astonishing X-Men: Unstoppable. I’m sure there are dozens of others.

A special and unique snowflake: Laura on #5

Sim refers to this as issue as one that “pulls sideways instead of forwards” in his introductory note, or alternately, as “a kind of 22-page shrug.” Which is not to say that it’s bad, but that like many of the preceding issues, it is a familiar mixture of feat and filler as he conducts experiments with varying levels of success. He does add that “after I finished the fifth issue, I embarked on an extremely lengthy period of applying adult sensibilities to each issue of Cerebus,” so we may be getting towards the good stuff at last.

issue-05-01-pretty-rainThe series has had a bit of an Adventure of the Week! feel to it thus far, with little attempt made to sustain or even connect the story from issue to issue. Issue 5 is no exception, opening yet again in completely a different place than Issue 4 ended, with the narrative gap bridged by a single panel of exposition. We are informed that Cerebus is now a mercenary on border patrol in a subtropical clime of some sort, framed by a gorgeously effective image of our aardvark protagonist trudging through the rain.

The intro also gives a window into Sim’s efforts to innovate as he runs down a laundry list of his four or five attempts to draw rain in exactly the right way. And like all experiments, some work and some don’t; the sweeping horizonal lines broken by white space in the opening pages, for example, are far more effective than the pages and pages and pages where the rain drops literally ruler-straight to the ground. Trudging through foul weather can be a laborious experience, but experiencing it through a comic doesn’t have to be.issue-05-06-rain

Also, you have to applaud the boldness of naming one of your characters Bran Mak Muffin, and his followers the Pigts, even in a parody. Like most effective puns, they are so brazenly, terribly bad that they cannot help but be funny. The Pigts, by the by, are a group of would-be conquerers who just happen have an ancient prophesy concerning Cerebus, i.e. that he is a hero/savior destined to lead them to greatness, a plot point that is telegraphed long before the reveal with all the delicate grace of a mallet to the face via dialogue like, “You must come with us… You’re the—” etc etc.

issue-05-03-creatureSim still hasn’t figured out quite how the men and women who populate these stories see Cerebus, as they still seem to oscillate between treating him as both an animal and a man depending on what’s convenient for the plot. The Pigts initially try to hunt and kill Cerebus as an animal, and then immediately switch to speaking and interacting with him like a person. At the very least Cerebus does not regard himself as human, observing that there is “no way to understand how these creatures [humans] think” after watching them beatifically worship a enormous stone idol that looks just like him.

After everyone has left the chamber, Cerebus regards the giant earth-pig statue, asking himself if he really might be the promised Redeemer to lead them into glorious conquering battle, where “there would be more loot than a King could imagine. He had only to acknowledge a kinship to the Pigt god. There would be gold and gems by the ton. Mayhap there is a kinship. Mayhap Cerebus is just one of the Pigt race. Mayhap he is only one of… only a…”

issue-05-21-smashAnd that, dear readers, is when Cerebus loses his shit, propelled by the thought into a seemingly inexplicable fury as he attacks the statue, tearing clumps of the soft stone away with his fists, proclaiming “Cerebus is unique — he is the earth-pig born!”

What is most interesting is the shift we see in Cerebus’ motivations, which in the past were singular: greed. He has shown himself more than willing to kill, torture, and perform all manner of mercenary deeds for money, but here we see something else trump his desire for gold: his desire to be unique. Cerebus’ uniqueness is quickly becoming his defining characteristic, taking precedence over all other traits both in the constant thematic focus on how Different and Special he is, not to mention the fact that he’s a walking, talking battle aardvark, which is weird and inexplicable even in a world where fantastical beings are often the rule.

Cerebus also thought-bubbles as he exits that “he has had enough of religious fanaticism” (an interesting statement, given Sim’s later U-turn into a self-made faith based on Abrahamic belief systems, complete with celibacy, fasting, and prayer clothes). Could this be another contributing impetus behind Cerebus’ anger, the same kind of betrayed, pitying rage that Moses felt when he came down the mountain to find Aaron with a golden calf? Idols betray us, always, because we make them — we exalt earthly things as gods or saviors or deus ex machinas, and then hate them for the ways they cannot measure up. They are by their nature false, and so is any kind of faith that is too soft and fragile to live in the world of ideas, faith that cannot hold up to the battering of our questions and our doubts, that crumbles to dust when we try.

Curiously, Sim says in his forward that the issue ends on a “completely self-indulgent note” and offers a sort of preemptively standoffish retort: “So you didn’t get it? So who said you were supposed to?” I’m not sure where this defensiveness comes from, although it is one of the first times he has done something this sophisticated in terms of the emotional development of the character, which requires stepping out onto a slightly longer limb than simple sword and sorcery parody. No worries — it worked. And I’m looking forward to more of this more than anything else.