Reading Cerebus - Volume 1 (Cerebus)
I finished reading the first of the Cerebus “phone books” a week or so ago.
Based on what I know of the rest of the series, this book is nearly a stand-alone volume, comprised largely of independent 1-3 issue arcs, rather than a large-scale story built upon previous content. Near the end of this volume, the series takes a fairly clear turn towards a longer, more purposeful narrative, which is what will drive the remaining 250 or so issues of the series.
What follows will not be censored for spoilers and such, so please only move past the cut if you’ve already read these issues and/or don’t mind having plot points discussed.
The first thing that struck me about these issues was how well they held up over the thirty years since they were first published. I’ve often read suggestions that new readers simply skip the first book and start off with High Society, but I think that’s an unfair take on these initial efforts. Sure, they’re less ambitious than the rest of the series, but let’s be honest - what ISN’T less ambitious than the rest of Sim’s lifelong project? Compared to the vast majority of books being published at the time, these are nuanced, funny stories that trust that the reader is savvy enough to keep up with the in-jokes and commentary. A lot of the humor is slap-stick, but it works more often than not. I will admit that some of the jokes won’t resonate with people who aren’t fans of (mostly Marvel) comics, but people with even a passing familiarity with the super-hero genre will be entertained.
The very earliest issues were a bit flat (though this may be partially due to my relative lack of familiarity with the works of Robert E. Howard, whose characters are routinely referenced in Cerebus), but by the time Sim settles into the snub-nosed version of the earth pig, I found the stories to be uniformly enjoyable.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I really dig the satirical elements that are aimed at the mainstream comics medium. I loved reading Ben Edlund’s Tick comics as a kid (and watching the various Tick TV shows later on) and it’s pretty damn clear that he all but totally lifted the gag from Sim. Watching the Roach cycle through superheroic personalities is a hoot. The Claremont/Professor X gag at the end of the book was surprising, but also very amusing.
To be honest, there isn’t much else to say about the basic stories in this volume. They’re pretty straight-forward, generally one-off and humorous and not particularly substantive (which isn’t necessarily bad). Still, I did find myself reading them with an almost psycho-analytical mindset. I couldn’t help trying to see if there were hints of the Dave Sim of today in these works from his youth, some thirty years ago.
As a result, I’m a bit worried that my foreknowledge of Sim’s views on certain issues and of the general opinion of his mental state may color my ability to read the rest of the series with an unbiased set of eyes. For example, even in these early stories, I feel that you can see the early rumblings of Sim’s later (infamous) opinions on women. Cerebus is presented as a character who is effectively amoral and profoundly anti-sexual. Except under extreme duress (or intoxication), he seems to channel Sim’s own relative distaste for the fairer sex. But it’s also possible that (at least at this point in the series) Cerebus is just a grumpy, scheming character who’s driven by self-interest and simply has no time for love.
I feel I should also mention the artwork, at least in brief. Without a doubt, the first few issues are a far cry from where the series eventually winds up visually. Cerebus is awkward and gangly and the supporting characters are rendered in a fashion that can be - at best - described as “sloppy” from time to time. Still, by issue 10 or so, Sim’s style has started to tighten up significantly and by the end of this first book Cerebus has settled into a far more polished form, the supporting cast has started to look more characterful and he really starts to push into truly compelling composition. I’ve always admired Sim’s eye for page layout and lettering, so it was interesting to see just how quickly he evolved as an illustrator.
So that’s it for this first volume of Cerebus. Overall, I found it to be a good read, even if it was a bit simplistic through the first 20 or so issues. The art gets good quickly and the jokes hit far more often than they miss. For $20 (based on Amazon pricing), it’s absolutely worth picking up. As a note, I can tell I’m getting into the book because it’s triggered the part of my brain that compels me to start poking around on eBay and various other places hoping to pick up an original piece of artwork from the series.
I’ve already started in on High Society and will comment on that once I finish.