Reading Cerebus - Volume 2 (High Society)

Cerebus Volume 2 - 'High Society'I just finished the second Cerebus “phone book” and, in short, it was great. I can absolutely understand why so many people recommend starting with this book instead of the first volume. It’s more directed, more refined, more polished, better-looking, better-written. Everything in it is, well, better. I still think the first volume is worth reading, but if you only have the time/money to buy one, for now, start with High Society.

In terms of form, High Society represents the point at which Dave Sim decided to abandon the one-off humorous stories he’d presented during the first 25 issues. Instead, he developed an ambitious graphic novel and presented it over the course of the second 25 issues of Cerebus. It works magnificently well. High Society is a story of political, social and economic intrigue, but don’t let that confuse you - it’s a funny story. And a moving story. And a savage satire. And a gripping drama.

I read the first 2/3 of the book at a relatively leisurely pace. The story was interesting and funny and was obviously heading towards a definite conclusion, but it had enough comfortable stopping points that I was able to consume it in two or three issue chunks. That was, of course, until I got to the back third of the book. At that point, it grabbed me by the eyeballs and just dragged me straight through to the end.

Spoilers begin after the jump, so be forewarned.

I’ll start with the characters.

As before, I love the Roach. As a fan of the old Bill Sienkiewicz Moon Knight, it was a (welcome) surprise to see a parody of the character appear - especially on the heals of Batman and Captain America, who had been lampooned previously via the Roach. Sim has made him a more accessible character over the course of this volume, separating him - by and large - from any specific details that only make sense to hardcore comic fans (though the Roach’s multiple personality gag meshes perfectly with Moon Knight for obvious reasons).

When Sim writes Lord Julius, perfect satirical moments pour out onto the page. The Groucho Marx impression is funny, but it’s the calm, half-interested conniving of this most accomplished of bureaucrats that really sells the character.

Astoria is an interesting piece of work. Strong and smart and competent, but clearly a villain of some sort. It’s fairly obvious that we’ll be seeing more of her later and probably in a less supportive manner.

Jaka and the Regency Elf are both surprising elements of the story as they seem to actually “get through” to Cerebus at times. His nihilistic, self-centered façade seems to break down around them in some places, but in others they bring out the worst in him (such as his striking of Jaka late in the story). Cerebus’ tearful final scene with the elf was unexpected and quite moving.

Cerebus himself is a bit confusing. His prowess as a warrior and a tactician seem to be utterly variable throughout the story. At times, he’s three steps ahead of everyone who is plotting and scheming around him. At other times, he’s tricked or caught off guard by things that are completely obvious. His motivations are similarly obscure. He’s a “little guy” fighting against a corrupt system, but immediately abuses his authority upon ascending to power. In the end, he claims to have only wanted to “make a difference,” despite having done nothing but play within the mad rules of the bureaucratic society he sought to control AND having earlier explicitly claimed to only be interested in personal wealth. Certainly, some of this confusion is deliberate and intended to accentuate the rising and falling of Cerebus’ fortune and also to illustrate the corrupting nature of power, but it does make the character somewhat difficult to penetrate.

Cerebus Volume 2 - 'High Society'The dense narrative asks a lot of the reader. Old characters reappear without much explanation (and no background), a vast territory is referenced constantly without giving the reader any reasonable means of knowing where various cities and far-off lands happen to be in relation to one another, major organizations are referred to without providing any real detail. As I’m reading the phone book collections, I’m not entirely certain of what is missing from the original comics, but I found myself wishing I had things maps and plot summaries and character references to glance at. Some of the confusion is probably an attempt at foreshadowing. I assume the frequently referenced cults and religious organizations will factor in heavily in Church and State, but it can be a bit frustrating to have something foreshadowed THOUSANDS of pages in advance.

Then of course, there’s the bird statue thing. I honestly have no clue what was going on there. At first, I assumed I must’ve missed something, but subsequent review of previous issues offered no real help. It’s a statue of a bird and it’s important. Maybe. To a Pope. But Cerebus is also a Pope. Or something. And Cerebus has it, but doesn’t remember. And then he finds it, but then Cerebus destroys it.

Very confusing.

With all of that said, the story of Cerebus’ rise to and fall from Ministerial power was absolutely gripping. “Smoke-filled-room” politicking and electoral college tallying aren’t USUALLY the sort of thing you’d expect to make decent fodder for a graphic novel, but Sim pulls it off in spades. The duelling newspaper headlines interspersed throughout were great and often told the story just as effectively as longer, more verbose passages.

But it was the tension that builds as Cerebus’ young administration begins to crumble that kept me riveted for the back third of the book. I got started late last night and figured I’d put away another couple of issues before turning in, but as the story progressed it built a sort of narrative momentum I couldn’t pull away from. It was nearly 3:00 AM by the time I turned the final page. A page, of course, that made me want to run into the other room and grab the next volume.

Cerebus Volume 2 - 'High Society'A lot of credit for this obviously goes to the story itself, but an equal - and perhaps GREATER - amount goes to the ever-improving visual style that Sim is using. Pages spin in and out of standard form and time, tense frames seem vibrate with outlines look like crackling, black electricity, shadows erupt and swallow characters only to throw them back out into the light moments later. And there are some moments in the story that are positively cinematic.

Sim literally changes our view of things throughout this portion of the story, twisting the pages sideways, upside-down, backwards and then back again. The palpable sense of uncertain but impending doom was magnified by the constantly shifting presentation. By the time it is reported that enemy troops have entered the city and Cerebus marches out to face them, I was having to force myself to read slowly, rather than tearing the pages aside and devouring the story as quickly as possible.

So, yeah. You could say it’s a good book.

Comments (1) to “Reading Cerebus - Volume 2 (High Society)”

  1. Good luck on your Cerebus reading project! I wish I acould read it again for *first* time!

    A little help for you concerning the Albatross:

    -Jeff

    Q2c: Why can an Albatross be used to reunite the Eastern and Western churches?

    DAVE: Because it is the most formidable power object in the known universe: a wildly improbable plot device. Like the Maltese Falcon only more politically formidable. In a Real World context,, I called my notebooks my Albatrosses because I was as saddled with them much like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. So I was declaring in a way—by making the albatross statue that significant in High Society—that I was ambitious enough to want to do something of remarkable significance with all the half-witted notions and half-baked philosophies I was sketching out and jotting down in my own “albatrosses”. “Invoke often,” is the first rule of the sort of mysticism that one finds in used paperbacks in 5 for a dollar bins. Unless one is in a New Age bookstore, in which case one can pay 50 dollars to be told the same thing between hemp-derived hard covers.

    Check out the full FAQ at www.CerebusTheAardvark.com, www.CerebusFangirl.com or on the Yahoo Cerebus group - groups.yahoo.com/group/cerebus/