The Spartans believed that there was neither right nor wrong, only greatness. The murderer, then, is as much a hero as the philanthropist, because both are motivated by a wellspring of passion. The fascination for greatness, even in postmodern times, persists. There are comics so passionately beautiful and whose characters are so humanly real that we readers cannot help but become emotionally involved, only to be led to a philosophy which is ridiculously wrong. Yet they?re impossible to resist. The fascination is too strong. We?re obliged to drive our outrage to maximum intensity, because the intensity is its own reward. Cerebus the Aardvark is one such comic. Cerebus is neither bad, nor ugly, nor unintelligent, but great.
In 1977, with the help of his girlfriend, David Sim began self-publishing Cerebus, a comic about an intelligent-by-half aardvark trapped in the world of men. It began as a low-brow parody of ?70s fantasy comics. On the eve of the comic?s second anniversary, however, Sim declared that Cerebus the Aardvark would run for exactly 300 issues. This marked Cerebus?s literary reinvention that drove it to epic, and later mythic, proportions. The story focused on the inherently existential and alienated life of the ?earth-born pig? Cerebus, and his repeated failure to ascend beyond it. Sim explored whole unseen topologies of comics? relationship to history, religion, metaphysics, and literature, and grew exponentially in both popular and cult following. After an enormously successful decade, however, Sim invited controversy by digressing frequently from the story to lambast and insult women. The whole second half of Cerebus?s run came in the wake of a debate over Sim?s misogynist motivation and views. True to his prophecy, the series ended last march with the eagerly-awaited issue 300, which promised to tie the expansive, evolutionary story into one unified whole, but instead left many questions unanswered. This past week Sim?s privately-owned publisher, Aardval-Vamejo, began to sell collections of interviews with David Sim and critical essays about his complete 300 issues in a monthly called Following Cerebus.
My favorite elements of Cerebus, however, are the beautifully rendered backgrounds by Sim?s partner, Gerhard. In Following Cerebus, Sim writes, ?Sometimes I felt less than satisfied with an issue, but I always knew that the backgrounds would at least be really, really good, and usually a lot better than that.? The story itself is highly concerned with the dualities like light/darkness and male/female; the structure of the plot neatly itself divides into two equal halves: first the high Modern ?male? half and the second Postmodern ?female? half.
The 150 ?male? issues begin with Cerebus?s obsession with acquiring gold. This central obsession propels him into a violence-laden roller-coaster ride from lowly wanderer to the ranks of mercenary, general, speculator, prime minister, and finally pope. Important moments of the ascension are punctuated by people and objects falling down, foreshadowing Cerebus?s own eventual fall back to square one (from the moon!).
This fall comes after Cerebus receives a revelation that his remaining life will be short and full of suffering, and that his death will go unnoticed and unmourned. Additionally, he meets another aardvark, Suenteus Po, who surpasses him in both intellect and spirit. Accordingly, Cerebus begins to seek inner ascension, but is tumbled by his obsession with one woman, Jaka. It is here that Sim invited the wrath of many readers. In this part of the story Sim wrote himself in as a character or a God of the universe, who revealed to Cerebus that he cannot ?ascend above the world of men if he?s mired from below by the world of women,? amongst other less than innocuous comments. The implication is that men represent conceptualization, ideas, and rising above the material world, whereas women represent emotion, physical beauty, and personification of the lowly material world itself.
Sim?s argument, in Following Cerebus, is simply that he?s establishing a duality between high and low using men and women symbolically, with the whole story being a metaphor for his own existence. Sim writes, ?I created Suenteus Po to be a character in Cerebus?s world with the same powers over that universe that I, the creator, had. The true wisdom of Suenteus is that although he?s on my level, he refuses to ascend to my world, that of reality, because what on earth would a black-and-white, two-dimensional aardvark do here?... Cerebus, by contrast, is a failure, and the metaphor is that Cerebus is to Seunteus as I am to God.... Using women as a symbol for the lowest levels of one?s reality is just another element of that broader metaphor.? In this sense, he resembles other writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, who were also accused of hatred towards women.
Sim?s perspective is utopian and modernist, and reeks of a metaphysical system that attempts to impose a one-dimensional continuum of order on the universe. The act is conceptually tight and beautifully presented, but inherently wrong. In the final issue an aged Cerebus falls dead from a barstool, but after a page of animated tottering Sim shows the barstool still standing up. What follows I leave for you to read for yourself some day, but I can assure you....