When I first recommended Dave Sim’s magnum opus Cerebus for a Graphixia theme, I have to admit that I had forgotten how unwieldy a tome the series was – I had first read it over the course of two decades as each individual issue came out and become an immediate fan, following the series in great detail and even commissioning a sketch of Cerebus from Sim himself (I don’t have much reason or opportunity to show it off, so I’ve included it to the right) . Spanning three hundred issues over the course of nearly thirty years, Cerebus is comics’ longest running maxi-series and has inspired a legion of fans from across the globe; there are many fan websites devoted to the character, a secondary series exploring nuances and themes in the comic titled “Following Cerebus,” as well as a Cerebus wiki in which users contribute analysis of the many (often ambiguous) themes that parallel the central narrative. The series is also comics’ longest running and most successful independent title, having been produced in-house at Sim’s own Aardvark Vanaheim publishing company. The series began in 1977 as a straightforward parody of Conan the Barbarian in which the protagonist was replaced by a diminutive (but deadly) talking aardvark, but Cerebus quickly became the outlet for many of Sims’ lofty and often highly contentious ideas. There is also arguably no other series in popular comics that is so self-consciously literary, to the degree that by the midpoint of the series, in what has now been collected in the graphic novel “Reads,” Sim forewent regular comic panels altogether and replaced them with full pages of tiny-font text in which he took on the alias Viktor Davis to espouse his philosophies on gender. Cerebus has been wildly experimental in terms of content, style and form over its lengthy run, and many of comics’ more mainstream creators and artists, such as Todd McFarlane, point to Sim’s epic as being an inspiration for their own processes. It will undoubtedly be under continued study for decades to come, underappreciated in its time as many of the great literary works tend to be.
It would be impossible to offer a summation of the series in a single posting (as I’ve vainly tried to do with much, much shorter runs on Graphixia), and any attempt at doing so would likely come off as unapproachable as someone attempting to get a friend on board with the intricacies of “Lost” near the end of its run. Cerebus is many things over the course of the eponymous title: an aardvark, an hermaphrodite, a Prime Minister, a Pope, a living voice of God (or Tarim) on Earth, a simple mendicant who finds himself in impossible situations, a barbarian, a jealous lover, a self-aware yet still fictional construct, and so on. We watch him progress throughout his life with bemusement as he falls prey equally to slapstick comedy as well as the machinations of politics, thoughtful reveries, existential crises and religious epiphanies. The story of Cerebus, as intricately woven as it is, however, is interspersed with Sim’s own philosophies that ultimately supplant the narrative. After weaving a highly complex story of Cerebus’ quest to meet with God, finding that each civilization (and there have been many before his own) have attempted the same goal, Cerebus finds himself encountering Sim himself. This volume, Minds, which will be the focus of my post, arguably marks the end of the Cerebus story, with the title afterwards becoming almost entirely a vehicle for Sim’s exploration of the then-current changes in his personal life (most notably in his religious studies of the Torah), delving into literature (through parodic characters in F. Stop Fitzgerald and Ham Ernestway) and sociological commentary in the form of open attacks on what he believes to be the rise of Marxist-Feminism and the subsequent downfall of modern society. “Minds” is a turning point for Cerebus both as a character and as a series, because it is in this chapter that Cerebus literally meets his maker, as Sim injects himself into the story, breaking the fourth wall in such an elaborate way as comics, and perhaps even literature in general, has never seen before.
At this point in the overall narrative, Cerebus is attempting to rival one of the other Aardvarks, Cirin, to meet with his creator and find out, most importantly, whether or not the divine Creator is male or female (some have argued that this correlates directly with misogynic statements that run throughout the title). Flying through space on a throne (see what I mean about tough to explain?), Cerebus begins to hear a voice in his head that identifies itself as “Dave.” As the dialogue between the two progresses in Cerebus’ thought balloons, Sim clears up some minor mysteries for his readers by openly resolving some dangling narrative threads: Cerebus was stabbed in the uterus when he was a child so he can’t bear children, he misplaced some important idols in his past which was the reason that he never attained the level of conquest he dreamed of in the series’ early issues. Sim explains to a bewildered Cerebus that he is his creator, in essence the God that the protagonist has been looking for, and Cerebus attempts to rationalize being a character in a densely wrought universe that exists on an entirely different plane from that of Sim himself. Interestingly, when juxtaposed with the earlier volumes of the Cerebus storyline, this is really what all civilizations make an attempt at – reaching a transcendental plane in which we can see beyond the narratives of our own lives.
Sim, however, implies that Cerebus’ actual actions in the story are not entirely in Dave’s own hands. In direct dialogue with his creation, he explains to Cerebus that “I introduce a situation into your life, you react to it. I neither approve or disapprove of your reaction, I don’t punish or reward you. I note your reaction and provide the consequences – in the form of the next situation. Your reaction implies the next situation … and so on” (133). In a sense, Sim is explaining what characterization in a long running serial truly is: Cerebus, because of his detailed history as a character, is expected to behave in particular ways. He is no longer under his creators’ control and, in a sense, has transcended fiction because of this. This is not to say that Cerebus is a predictable character – far from it – but it’s that even any unpredictability becomes part of his character itself. Sim is left with little more recourse than providing the next element of the story to which his creation, now in a sense under his own control, must react. He extends this idea further as Cerebus asks him to make his long-lost love, Jaka, fall for him again for the duration of the three hundred issue storyline. Sim shows Cerebus the ultimate folly of this through narrating and visualizing what the story would be like: Sim could create the situation of a loving relationship, but Cerebus would, in the end, remain Cerebus despite Dave’s best efforts to the contrary. Run to its conclusion, Cerebus would remain aggressive, abusive and unsatisfied with her because that is the nature of his established character. Though it may seem paradoxical that a creator cannot reshape his creation, Sim shows us that this is truly the case; in a way, because of readers’ expectations and because of the nature of character development, Cerebus’ actions are mandated by a reality that exists beyond Sim’s control.
Frustrated with explaining himself to his creation and what he has become, Sim beats Cerebus and explains how much his actions have hurt others. Sim also interestingly explains how Cerebus’ actions have hurt him over the many years he has spent writing him – Sim has suffered himself, having had to make other characters suffer because of how Cerebus’ character has naturally evolved. As a result, Sim openly provides the next “situation” for Cerebus, giving him a stye that must be lanced, a very traumatic surgical process that he explains to his character (and readers) that he went through himself as a youth. Sim explains the “injury to eye” motif and how it arose in early 1950’s pulp, then proceeds to take a scalpel to his creation’s eye, hauntingly stating “let me show you what you have done unto others … let me show you all at once” (243). As a storyteller, then, Sim is left with at least some power – though he can’t compel his character to act in a particular way, he can in fact make him suffer through tragic and fearful situations.
After making Cerebus endure the surgery, Sim seems at a loss as to what to do with him. He tells his creation that his life and situational contexts, from at least this point in the narrative forward, are his own: “you are the baker, and your life is the bread” (127), offering Cerebus a choice as to where the narrative will go next. Given the unlimited possibility of any situational context in which to act out his final hundred issues, Cerebus ultimately decides on none – he merely wants his creator to go away. Sim, surprised at this, actually draws himself into the story; hunched over his desk, he suppresses a laugh, and wishes Cerebus a happy epilogue.
Cerebus does, however, finally decide to return to a narrative life, refusing to be stranded out of his creators’ eye on the distant planet on which Sim has deposited him. Cerebus makes a phone call in his own head to the offices of Aardvark Vanaheim, begging “Dave” to pay attention to him again and take him back. He finally decides that he’d like to spend his final days at an inn, playing sports and drinking the remainder of his life away with his friends, a decision that prompts the next arc in the series, “Guys.” At the last, the reader is left with the sense that, perhaps, Sim has finished the telling of the surface Cerebus story of fantasy and political intrigue. The ostensibly benevolent act of giving his creation complete control over his own situational context, as previously mentioned, descends over the next hundred issues into a personal journey of Sim’s own interests and bugbears in modern life, with Cerebus as both character and narrative taking a backseat to this fundamental focus. This is not to say that the remainder of the text is not worthy of study – far from it – but Sim seems content that his creation has come to his ultimate fruition, existing in a reality that ironically surpasses Sim’s own. I’m reminded of Grant Morrison’s own reflection regarding his run on Animal Man in the early 1990’s here, in that he acknowledged that the character will long outlive him and, in doing so, is in a sense more real than he as the author could ever hope to be.
With “Minds,” as elsewhere in Cerebus, Sim explores what it means to be an artist and the creator of an intricate universe coupled with the complex nature of free will – as rich and dense a history as he concocts throughout the first two hundred issues of his story, he ultimately acquiesces to the power that his creation has over him. One could argue that he loses himself in the task and, faced with being superseded by his creation, falls prey to his own interests that become the brunt of the story in the final third of the series while openly and regularly publishing opinionated essays in the endnotes of the individual issues. This said, “Minds” is an ideal and fascinating examination of the necessary duality inherent in the creative process, showcasing the mindset of a creator who has had complete control over his comic character longer than any other writer in comics’ history. Though even the surface story of Cerebus is one of comics’ most intricate and self-consciously philosophical sagas, punctuated with slapstick and running the gamut of the disciplines in its varying themes, it is also an intensely wrought exploration of the artistic process on the whole.
Sim, Dave and Gerhard. Minds. Windsor: Aardvark Vanaheim, 1996.