Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Cerebus the Aardvark

What’s this then?:
Cerebus the Aardvark is a very long-running comic series by artist and noted crazy person Dave Sim.  It ran for 300 issues from 1977 to 2004.  As you could imagine various phases of the comic differ greatly as the title character becomes Prime Minister, then Pope, then loses it all.  Then there’s a story about Oscar Wilde, and then it gets really crazy.  Here, I’ll discuss only the first volume (which is titled simply Cerebus).  I might return to future volumes in later reviews.  The first volume is more or less a take off on Robert E Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories with the main character being not a mighty thewed barbarian, but an anthropomorphic Aardvark.  Cerebus acts as a mercenary and adventurer, meets a sect that seems to worship Aardvarks, meets a wizard who commands a swamp monster and has a weird head trip.

Well, is it any good?:
Yes.  This hits the mark that any good parody should hit — it is a good example of what it is parodying.  These are good Sword and Sorcery stories.  The sense of a realized world is there as Cerebus shifts his geographical place and alliances among different tribes and factions, and that sense of mystery is there when Cerebus meets the aardvark-worshipping Pigts or the constantly chanting and ever violent Conniptins.  The plots themselves are fairly standard sword and sorcery fair: Cerebus leads an army against a walled city which turns out to be ruled by a cult leader.  There’s nothing really to dig into here, just a good fun romp, which is really quite enough.

The humor ranges from clever to groan-worthy (although I must admit I have a soft spot for groan-worthy humor).  There are some good jabs at Sword and Sorcery tropes, like Red Sophia, a Red Sonja take-off who emphasizes the S&M fantasy elements of the woman who will only give herself to the man who can defeat her in combat (which happens to be Cerebus, who unlike Conan has no interest in sex.  and also is an aardvark).  Most of the humor is very broad consisting of jabs at comics contemporary to the series (Cerebus as a series actually constitutes an interesting historical document in terms of what the popular trends in comics were).  A short plot arc at the end of this volume spoofs DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man Thing with Sim’s delightfully cheesy Sump Thing and Woman Thing.  This free wheeling, highly referential, and ultimately silly humor actually makes me think of Tiny Toon Adventures more than anything else.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

I think most Cerebus fans are in it for the art.  Sim’s drawing is extremely polished.  Human characters are drawn in a detailed realistic style, which marks a broad contrast with Cerebus who is drawn fairly cartoonishly.  Interestingly, for the first couple of issues, Cerebus looks pretty wonky, for lack of a better word even though Sim is already solid at drawing human characters.  As Sim begins drawing Cerebus more confidently and with just slightly higher detail he becomes a strangely charismatic character.  The amount and variety of emotion carried by changes of his eyebrows snout and left and right mouths (its a long story best left to another time), compells one to empathize with Cerbus even though he’s a right bastard.  The panel layout is where Sim really gets to show off.  Throughout the series, Sim pushes the comics medium as far as it will go, with odd-shaped panels, big blocks of text, splash pages, sections that force the reader to physically turn the book around and so on.

What’s the best bit?:
I was just getting to that.  I’m going to take the obvious answer and say “Mind Games.”  In this issue, Cerebus has a weird head trip where he floats through a black and grey panel-less space.  One page is puts the view nearly up Cerebus’ snout, while another sees him sinking into blackness of the page.  Decades later this remains one of the strangest pieces of comic art produced (although that list could be rather long, as comics artists love to play with stuff like that).  This is the harbringer of all the weirdness to come.  This is where, to borrow a term from LSD users (which Sim briefly was), Cerebus starts to come up.

Any closing thoughts?:
Well. You’re not really allowed to talk about Dave Sim without addressing the little matter of a screed he wrote in issue 186 (sometime in the nineties, I believe) where he claimed that men are creative lights whose energy is sapped by female voids (Sim has, by his own admission, been diagnosed as schizophrenic, if that softens the blow any).  In the seventies and eighties, though, Cerebus was one of very few comics whose female readership was equal to or greater than its male readership.  Knowing what we know now, Sim’s treatment of female characters can seem suspect in light of his professed views, but then again, there is no character I can think of in Cerebus (or what I’ve read of it anyway) who is not completely stupid, totally amoral, or actually evil.  If you are uncomfortable in giving money to Sim, then don’t buy the book.  On the other hand if you’re willing to seperate the author and the work and are interested in the visual possibilities of comics as an art form, then I highly recommend checking out Cerebus.

Published in: on June 28, 2011 at 5:48 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Where do you find these things? Sounds pretty amazing. (The schizophrenic author thing reminds me of one of the Sandman stories, which I can’t remember the name of but I do recall that it was very nicely drawn.)

    • Mainly I think I hear about things from a message board I read. It’s like a nerd hivemind.

      I’m not sure I know which Sandman story you’re thinking of (is it the muse one?) but there are a couple of throwaway references to Cerebus in Sandman. the city of Aurelia in one of the Worlds’ End stories has a ruler/religious leader which is probably a play on Cerebus being Prime Minister and Pope and Delirium blows a Cerebus shaped bubble in one panel, somewhere.. So there.

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