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.
The 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.
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.
Sim 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…”
And 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.