Cerebus is a 300-issue, independent comic book by Dave Sim and Gerhard, published from 1977 to 2004. It tells the story of Cerebus the Aardvark, who starts out as a parody of Conan the Barbarian. Through the course of the story, Cerebus becomes many things, including a prime minister and the Pope, and the massive 300-issue run comprises a single, complete story.
Gerhard started doing his immaculate backgrounds with #65. Dave Sim wrote the book, drew the characters, did the mechanical tones, the layout, the balloons, and the lettering. Both artists inked their own stuff.
I first heard about Cerebus in Spawn #10–I know, I know–and I started reading the phone book-sized reprint volumes in high school. Like so many other, I was blown away by Dave Sim’s growth as an artist in the first twenty-five issues. I read and reread that first volume, laughing out loud at the brilliant humor each time.
Over the years, I slowly acquired new volumes in the series. High Society, Church & State, Jaka’s Story, Melmoth. Each one was special in its own way. I read up through Rick’s Story (issues 220-231) before taking a long break. This was about the time the series ended at issue 300. For years, with a mixture of excitement and hesitation, I’d looked forward to reading the entire series. You see, I have this weird thing about finishing a series I love. When I know it will be the end–that there will never be any more, not ever–I don’t want to finish it. There are several dead authors that I love, and I usually leave one of their books unread.
I know, it’s crazy.
So I decided to reread Cerebus and to finish it. I’d somehow avoided having the ending spoiled for ten years, but I knew, eventually, someone would give it away (don’t worry–I won’t spoil anything here). I’d never met anyone else that read the book (without my having introduced them to it), and I’d steered clear of any news about Cerebus since I started reading it in the late ’90s. I had no idea where the book was going in the final stretch.
Some of you, however, might see where this is going.
The first volumes were as amazing as I remember them. High Society and Church & State still floored me. Jaka’s Story was just as gripping, Melmoth just as unusual and interesting. The text pieces on creators’ rights and self-publishing, which I had never read before, were inspiring.
I’m not sure where I realized what was really going on. I’d heard it said “Dave Sim is a Misogynist,” but I assumed that was a reaction to the male light and female void symbolism. Alexander Adrock, a great guy I follow on Twitter, said he wasn’t planning to read the book because of Sim’s opinions on women. Folks are just oversensitive, I thought. I even signed the “I don’t believe Dave Sim in a misogynist” petition.
In the full read-through, Sim started making remarks about feminism in the letters pages, but they weren’t that offensive. There are a small minority of feminists that believe men are a waste of genetics, and he may have been sick of hearing about it. I could see a guy in the 1980s feeling that way.
Then he says in the letters page of #171 that “women and government don’t mix.” On the next page, he mentions the Feminist/Matriarchist agenda. Uh-oh, I thought.
Issue 186 is a watershed issue. In a lengthy text piece, Sim inserts himself into his work as Viktor Davis and says things you would have to read to believe. The fact that I did not catch it when I read through Reads in my early 20s shows how much I was willing to overlook. I must have thought that it wasn’t what Sim really believed, that this author surrogate was a parody of people’s perceptions.
But Sim defended those beliefs as his own, and it was all downhill from there. The comic and accompanying text pieces now exist to showcase his increasingly worrying views:
His fear of the feminist/homosexualist axis and the Marxist/feminist axis. Wishes he could just date teenagers. Men should spank their wives if they misbehave (and I don’t mean in a fun way). When SARS was a big thing, he claims it is God’s judgement on Canada. He mentions that, before doing interviews for Mothers & Daughters, he had never bothered to interact with women he didn’t want to sleep with. Near the end, he blames his mother’s poor health on her being an atheist.
Maybe it would be different if it stayed out of the story itself. But there’s the #186 text piece. And one of Sim’s strongest female characters–one he used to respect–is turned into “a spoiled, myopic, insensitive, self-absorbed and self-important harlot princess.” In #281, Cerebus states that the Jews bring the Holocaust on themselves. Cerebus parades women in front of a roomful of men in #277, and they vote if she is “a devil, a viper, or a scorpion.” If she’s found guilty, she gets her head blown off.
Sim’s opinion of “Mr. Mom” makes it clear what he would think of me. Despite being a creator and a self-publisher, my stay-at-home dad status marks me as a victim of the feminist/homosexualist conspiracy.
The sad thing is, I really believe Dave Sim is the genius he wants to be remembered as. Tim Callahan puts him up there with Will Eisner, and I agree. I’m still glad I got to read the book. The experience was a valuable one.
I respect Sim for his art and for self-publishing when it seemed impossible, and it breaks my heart that his opinions overshadow his brilliant body of work. We all know H.P. Lovecraft was a racist and those opinions color his work, but his stories aren’t about the benefits of lynchings.
You see Sim in the old convention photographs, and you read his stories about Colleen Doran, Chester Brown, Jeff Smith, and all the others. Many have apparently severed ties. Diana Schutz, an acclaimed editor who served as his proofreader, was willing to overlook Sim’s opinions, but she resigned when Sim challenged Jeff Smith to a boxing match. Even Sim’s family, who I don’t think we hear about until his Mama’s Boy essay, seems to be estranged (going by the Chester Brown interview in #297).
Does Dave Sim have the right to voice his opinions? Of course he does. And if he wants to put them in a comic book, he has the right to do that, too. But that doesn’t shield him from the public’s reaction to those opinions. I sincerely hope Dave Sim isn’t forgotten and Cerebus isn’t totally dismissed by history as a consequence of his views.
So I recant my signature on the “I don’t believe Dave Sim is a misogynist” petition. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t have all the facts.
(For those interested in Dave Sim and Cerebus, the best blog on the subject is A Moment of Cerebus. Tim Callahan of Comic Book Resources also recorded his reaction to reading all 300 issues [part 1, part 2, part 3]).
2 thoughts on “So I Finally Finished Reading Cerebus”
Thanks for sharing. I always wanted to know if it was worth reading. I remember thumbing through the last several issues from the rack (in 2002-2004) and noticing that there was a ton of text, and not much art. This still turns me off, especially when Gerhard’s backgrounds are so gorgeous. Would you recommend reading the entire series or drawing a line somewhere and saying don’t read after volume 12 or something (kind of like telling people not to watch The Godfather part 3)?
Tim, it’s hard, as there are moments of brilliance right up to the end. Most agree that Jaka’s Story (volume 5) is a good place to stop. If I was going to recommend a single volume, it would be volume 2, High Society, although you’d be lacking context for the characters. If you can get the phone books (plus Cerebus Zero) for cheap, it might be worth it for you to read the whole thing, but it’s not a hard book to recommend. It’s one of the greatest achievements in comics, but it could cost a considerable amount to buy it all.