By Scott Cederlund
Cerebus is sitting in an old, abandoned building, wearing some woman’s chainmail underwear over his head.
That may be the first time I ever really understood what Cerebus was and what Dave Sim was doing in that book. I didn’t actually read Cerebus #112/113 (a single issue with combined numbering) until sometime in 1992, pulling it out of one of Argos Books back issue bins, as I was determined to get into this book. I don’t even remember why I was so determined to do that. Maybe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman had softened me up to look at something besides superhero fare and at the time Dave Sim seemed like the closest thing. Dave Sim wasn’t crazy then, not like we would get to think he was crazy just a few years later. He was only “300 issues” crazy back then, not “women are the void and everything wrong with all of creation” crazy.
Cerebus #112/113 is the epilogue to his whole “Church & State” story. Essentially Cerebus became Prime Minister for a second time, then he became pope. He wasn’t a very good pope but then he achieved a transcendental experience that no one before him had as he got to talk to the Man on the Moon (with a bit of help from the Flaming Carrot) on the actual moon before being sent back to earth only to find that while he was gone, his city was invaded and he lost everything. At the time, I didn’t realize that those were the plot points of “Church & State” because I had only picked up a handful of those issues and hadn’t even read all of them. I really only liked the issues done with Gerhard or featuring Mick and Keef.
When you take away all of the craziness of Cerebus as pope, take away all the characters that surround him as they try to manipulate and use him and finally take away all of Cerebus’ delusions of grandeur, Sim shows us a (literally and figuratively) naked portrait of Cerebus in this comic book. Walking through the remains of a battlefield that he created but was absent from for the actual battle, Sim draws his way through the futility that is Cerebus’ life. Looking back, you have to wonder what Cerebus had really accomplished in the previous 111 issue. He gained and lost positions of power. He was married. Twice. And both marriages only brought out the ugliness of his personality. He managed to talk to a higher being only to be told that he would “die alone... unmourned and unloved...”
Sim takes all of those elements that make a long running series like Cerebus seem so daunting and pushes them aside for a moment with this issue. He strips his main character of all of the baggage that’s accumulated around him and gives us an issue where Cerebus is trapped between moments, a spot he will pretty much remain in for almost the next 40 issues. He’s lost everything so what is he going to do next? He’s going to do what most of us do and mope around for 20+ pages. He’s going to avoid the ghosts and dead bodies that haunt the hotel that he had been living in. He’s going to try to walk away and maybe even try to kill himself. And then he’s just going to go to bed and wake up because tomorrow is only just another day. Maybe tomorrow he’ll be able to escape being trapped in the person he’s always been.
The beauty of Cerebus #112/113 is that Sim does this mostly wordlessly. Using a fairly rigid 6-panel layout, Sim carefully takes us through this issue and shows us everything that’s going through Cerebus’ mind through his body language and through his expressions. One thing that’s maybe been forgotten in the past 20 years as Sim’s own peculiar brand of craziness became more apparent in his comics is just how fantastic of a cartoonist and storyteller Sim is. With Gerhard providing this amazingly detailed set pieces for Cerebus to act against, Sim created this wonderful character that is so human and so flawed. He may look like an animal but Cerebus is probably much closer to being you or me than we would care to admit.
So that’s when Cerebus and Dave Sim’s story clicked into place for me. That’s when Cerebus became more than just a cartoon character or a pawn in everyone’s schemes. Looking at all of the issues that came before #112/113, I can see Cerebus being manipulate and pushed around but I could also see his character forming, fighting against everyone even as he had no idea what he really wanted other than money. After that issue, you can see Cerebus struggling with everything that’s happened and how everyone has abandoned him.
The way that Dave Sim wrote Cerebus from this issue on, Cerebus became real to me. Here wasn’t just a bunch of pen drawings on a page that I read because I liked the adventures. Sim caught that essence of being in his character that made him more real than he actually was. Cerebus became one of those characters in literature that you look at and see yourself in. It’s an uglier portrait than I’d like but in this lost creature who would spend the next few years living with the only woman he truly loved and her husband or sitting in a tavern in an almost fugue state, Sim pulled me into the character where he and I were merged. I felt the loss that he did. I felt the numbness that Cerebus did. I still do when I read these issues. Unlike so many other comics, Sim opens up the emotional and spiritual wounds of Cerebus so wide that you just can’t help but getting lost in them.
You can read more of Scott Cederlund's work at Wednesday's Haul.