GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "C" page 1-B
 

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cover by Dave SimCerebus: Church & State, Vol. 1 1987 (SC TPB) 592 pages
a.k.a. Church and State, vol. 1

Written and Illustrated by Dave Sim. Additional art by Gerhard.
Black and White

Reprinting: Cerebus #52-80

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc.

Cerebus was the staggeringly audacious independent comic by Canadian Dave Sim that ran a whopping 300 issues! (Sim's promising the 300 issues almost from the beginning may have inspired later creators who would launch a series vowing it as being some epic arc...except most of them, after a few years rambling about with a vague story and erratic publishing schedule, would leave it unfinished and revealing the disingenuousnous of their claim).

Chronicling the adventures of a surly, misanthropic, talking aardvark-like creature in a pre-industrial human civilization, Cerebus veered from comedy to drama, from sweeping plots to intimate character exploration -- from parodies of comic books and Conan the Barbarian fantasy to social and political satire...eventually alienating some its own fanbase as Sim's publicly stated views (particularly about women) turned off some readers (for a comic that had had a large female readership compared to most men-in-tights comics).

At this point in the series, such controversies are still in the future. Although gender issues crop up, there isn't much to raise any ire (and, to be fair, some have suggested later controversies were blown out of proportion, that Sim was being a deliberate provocateur, or that people were confusing Sim's publicly stated views with the fictional world of Cerebus). Whatever... As I say: it's not really an issue here.

Cerebus was a series not really designed for the casual reader, hence why not only was it at the forefront of the TPB collection trend...but the volumes tended to be massive. Church & State is the longest of the first three volumes...and, as the title indicates, it's only one half of the epic arc defined as Church & State!

I had read the previous volume -- High Society (reviewed below) -- and was duly impressed, both as entertainment, in the mix of slapstick, wry satire, and character drama, but also its technical execution, Sim's deft use of dialogue and pictures. I then went back to the first volume (reviewed on the previous page) -- and was surprised at how good that was. Surprised because the early issues were Sim clearly finding his way, and the social and political ambitions less overt than they would be in High Society.

So eventually I came upon volume 1 of Church & State and decided to dive into that.

Now one thing to say is that I often try and review TPBs from the point of view of saying: "If you were a casual fan, or unfamiliar with a series entirely, how well does it read?" Though High Society was drawing upon past events, and recurring characters, it nonetheless told a lengthy arc that basically could be read for itself -- a few confusing bits here and there notwithstanding. Unfortunately, by the time we get to Church & State, the series seems to have descended quite deep into its own fictional universe. Characters appear with little explanation, allusions are made to past incidents without much clarity, and the whole thing just kind of assumes you already know what's going on. I've read all the previous issues (but some a couple of years before) and even I wasn't always sure of the significance of this or that, or remembered who a certain character was.

The collection opens well, with a surprisingly low-key arc of issues ("Aprés State") wherein Cerebus -- recently deposed as the prime minister of a neighbouring state of Iest (as chronicled in High Society) -- ends up staying at the house of a wealthy woman. It's funny, it's affecting, it's interesting -- Sim subtly creating an unrequited romantic tension without doing so overtly. Yes -- characters crop up who we are supposed to know (some I did -- some I didn't remember), but it still holds up.

Then we move into the next section ("Back to Iest"), as Cerebus returns to Iest, is perfunctorily returned to the prime minister's office -- but now as simply a puppet of higher authorities -- and then through a kind of random twist, is made pope of the national religion (the story becoming officially "Church and State"). And Cerebus being, at heart, a barbarian mercenary, quickly proves the adage about power corrupting, as no sooner has he donned papal robes then he is using his authority to bleed gold from his followers by vowing the world will end if they don't pay up.

And I found it all kind of disappointing.

Part of the problem is the religious satire itself -- the scathing wit Sim turned on politics and economics in High Society here just seems dull and heavy handed. There's no depth, little subtlety, no build up to anything. The series constantly oscillates between broad comedy, sly whimsy, and genuine drama and pathos...but it can make for an awkward mix, the different aspects clashing, as if the comic itself is suffering from bi-polar disorder. For the first part Cerebus is our protagonist -- a voice of reason in the madness around him, or the underdog -- then, abruptly, as soon as he becomes pope, he reverts to his nihilistic barbarian origins, even killing people (for black comedy effect)! He becomes the object of satire...not the sardonic observer.

And the reality itself just remains very hard to get a grip on. I assume Sim has it all worked out in his head -- the various city states, their borders, and their religious affiliations. But even though I'd read (off and on) the previous issues, I still wasn't really sure what all the different denominations were or signified (Cirinist, Kevillist, the Church of Tarim) which given it's a political and religious satire...is kind of important.

There's lots of backroom deals, and scowling figures having meetings, as characters move around each other like chess pieces, seeking to manipulate and to avoid being manipulated. Yet I'll admit -- I'm not really sure how much of it really made logical sense...and how much Sim just needed to push the story in a new direction. And he figured -- hey, it's a comedy, so who cares? The whole decision to install Cerebus as pope just seemed a bit willnilly -- almost as if Sim wanted Cerebus to be pope for the next run of issues, and decided it didn't matter how he got him there.

And yet, once he is pope...the plot -- such as it is -- lacks the sense of clever plotting and machinations that marked High Society (though it too suffered from the "don't examine it too closely" thing). One almost gets the sense that Sim is now starting to embrace the fact that he promised his fans 300 issues...and so there was no need to rush. Scenes just seem to drag on, events, plot turns, creak to a halt, or at least a slow crawl. Every time the plot starts to re-emerge, Sim then just derails the thing with some extended slapstick, or a dream sequence, or other bits of indulgence (four pages -- four! -- of Cerebus taking a leak!) At one point Cerebus gets a cold, causing his dialogue to be written in idiosyncratic phonetics...which Sim stretches over a number of issues to diminishing comedic returns. After a long sojourn into a dreamscape surrealism, an issue ends promising "Next: Meanwhile, Back at the Story-line..." Except the next issue is more of the same.

At times, whenever he was stalled creatively, he'd just drop back in a character from some past story. It got to the point where even characters I had once found amusing I began to dread seeing reappear!

You begin to realize how Sim was able to stretch this arc over two massive TPB volumes! (And as an aside, the comic here starts to nudge more in a slight "mature readers" direction, with occasional profanity and innuendo).

A lot depends on faith -- whether you really think it means anything or is going anywhere. There's an extended dream sequence, presumably rife with symbolism, but you don't know if it'll be anything relevant to the story at hand...or somewhere down the line in Sim's 300 issue epic! Or at all! Likewise there'll be conversations where characters act as though they are about to impart some profound information, or explain what's been happening, or what it's all been for -- only to have them get interrupted, or Cerebus ignore them, or otherwise just petering out into nothing.

I've said before about other stories: where a story is headed doesn't matter if you aren't enjoying where it is!

I still admire Sim's artistic talent -- he has a mastery (and understanding) of the medium many creators don't. His storytelling, his use of composition and angles, is impressive. And is the variety of tones -- from blatant slapstick to dark drama. On these run of issues he's joined by a co-artist, Gerhard, who starts providing detailed and intricate backgrounds against which Sim can place his characters.

But for all the strengths, and parts I enjoyed...I also found myself reading issues, even batches of issues, just to get through them. The plot seemed stalled, the machinations not very clever and lacking verisimilitude, and the characters exhausting whatever emotional depth they might have had. I had read a later, thinner, collection -- Melmoth (reviewed further down). And in it I had found Sim's seemed to have become self-indulgent, stretching a thin story and characters out with too many long sequences detailing every minutia of a gesture or a reaction, so a simple moment consumed multiple pages.

The brutal truth is -- as much as I loved the first two Cerebus volumes, and enjoyed aspects of this collection, and even though Church & State ends in mid-story...I'm honestly not sure if I have the interest in tracking down volume 2!

Cover price: __


cover by Dave SimCerebus: High Society 1986 (SC TPB) 512 pages
a.k.a. High Society

Written and Illustrated by Dave Sim.
Black and White

Reprinting: Cerebus #26-50

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc.

Cerebus the Aardvark has emerged as one of the most significant publications in independent comics. It began in the 1970s as a satirical series, probably inspired more than a little by Howard the Duck, although Cerebus was a parody of barbarian-fantasy stories. Like Howard the Duck, Cerebus was an anthropomorphic animal in a world of mostly humans. But early on, Cerebus creator Dave Sim announced that the series was really a saga planned to run a whopping 300 issues. At the time, it probably seemed like a lot of hyperbole -- but decades later, the series ended after three hundred issues, and grew in scope, with epic-size story arcs, more serious and character-driven aspects, and expanding to satirize not just the vagaries of pop culture and comics, but social and political matters as well. It's also engendered some controversy.

Not bad for a little Canadian comic about a talking earth-pig.

I deliberately started with the second volume because, though it would mean I'd have to catch up with the characters and their relationships, most commentators claimed the High Society epic was where the series first started showing its scope and ambition (though having subsequently read the first volume -- reviewed on the previous page here -- I can say it was pretty good, pretty early).

The story begins with the sullen, misanthropic Cerebus -- part Conan, part Howard the Duck -- trying to gain a bed for the night at the only place with a vacancy in the city-state of Iest...the impossibly posh Regency Hotel. To his surprise, Cerebus is given the red carpet treatment because, having briefly been employed in the government of the powerful kingdom of Palnu (as seen in the previous TPB collection), Cerebus is viewed as a kind of ambassador from Palnu -- and everyone wants to court his favour.

What ensues is Cerebus becoming embroiled in various matters of politics and finance and shadowy machinations. His fortunes rise and fall as he is manipulated -- and tries to do some manipulating himself -- caught up in others' grand schemes even as, ever the mercenary at heart, Cerebus' main personal goal is, as he succinctly puts it, "to have more money than anyone else". Eventually he becomes a candidate for the prime ministership of Iest.

Along the way, Dave Sim's humour varies from, literally, the sublime to the ridiculous. The scenes can be cleverly droll at times, with the humour stemming from just a subtle turn of phrase, or a sly reaction shot. Other times, the jokes are broader and blacker. Pouncing through the story is the Moon Roach, a demented super hero parodying the comic book hero Moon Knight. Other targets are decidedly less parochial...or, at least, multi- headed. At one point Cerebus attends a political convention...but Sim's has modelled it on comic book conventions. By merging the two targets in one parody, it becomes its own, cleverly unique sequence. Likewise, another odd conglomeration is found in a regular character, the master politician of Palnu, Lord Julius, who is modelled after Groucho Marx, right down to his cigars and one liners.

More serious threads also emerge. Verbose discussions of international financing are intended to be satirical, but are grounded in reality. In fact, some of the discussions are very much on target. There are also character scenes. The chapter titled "The Night Before" -- Cerebus #36 -- (a title that has nothing to with that issue, but to the larger story arc) features Cerebus reuniting with an ex-girlfriend, Jakka. Sim, the supposed satirist, shows a deft hand at human drama, crafting a sequence that is almost achingly poignant as Cerebus obtusely swaggers his way through the scene, oblivious to what he's really doing. It's a stand out piece of work.

Sim's art is also impressive. His people -- constantly straddling the line between realism and caricature -- are serviceable, but not extraordinary. But his Cerebus is highly effective and, frankly, just adorable, despite being an, at times, bad tempered nihilist. It's part of the many layers of humour that Sim indulges in that Cerebus doesn't just look like an aaradvark among people...but a teddy bear version of an aardvark or, as one character mis- identifies him, a "kid in a bunny suit". Sim milks a lot of nuance from his little earth pig, able to convey shifting emotions. Sim frequently plays around with composition -- putting a little figure against a vast background or detailing an elaborate cityscape, or drenching a scene in brooding shadows. Sim experiments but in ways that aren't self indulgent, as if he is trying to find the best way to tell the scene (though a run of issues printed vertically are hard to read in the thick spined TPB). It adds to the humour, precisely because the art can look too ambitious to be just a funny animal comic -- and, of course, that's because it is. At the same time, Sim, who was writer-artist-letterer-etc. clearly was getting overwhelmed by the whole thing, his art becoming slightly less impressive as the issues progress and there are a lot of scenes where he provides almost no background at all, choosing to fill in the scene with black ink. The use of black as opposed to white backgrounds adds a touch of sobriety to the silliness.

Yet, for all the strengths of the series, there are weaknesses, too. It is, at times, a little hard to follow. Already Sim has begun laying out his epic story, so recurring characters constantly pop up who you're supposed to know from earlier stories, with very little attempt to explain them for the new reader. Worse, Sim is clearly laying things out for latter stories, so there are a lot of cryptic lines and hints of bigger things, allusions to religious and political structures that, ultimately, go unexplained within these pages. In a story so embroiled in the politics of Cerebus' fictional world, it might have been nice to include an introduction explaining how things work. Or even a map.

There's a definite sense the series was made for TPB collections, with many issues seeming more like chapters of a larger work than issues intended to be read on their own. And with that said: High Society does satisfy as a graphic novel, beginning with Cerebus arriving in Iest and ending with him leaving, to form a definitive arc.

Some of the confusion is intentional. You can go for a few issues, thinking you must've missed something...only to have it explained a few issues later, and you realize you were supposed to be confused. At the same time, there were things that are confusing, period, as new elements are tossed in willy-nilly and suggest -- dare I say it -- a weakness on Sim's part. A recurring thread involving a bird statue is poorly explained to begin with, crops up occasionally in equally oblique ways, and then finally climaxes...in a revelation that doesn't make any sense when flipping back through the book!

Or, to be fair, maybe these things do make sense, but the volume of material is so large, it's hard to keep track if maybe there was a cryptic clue a dozen issues before it becomes pertinent!

Characters, too, will abruptly change personality, seemingly for a joke, or because Sim is trying to move the story in a new direction. Astoria is introduced as a minor character, then becomes a master manipulator...and you're not sure if that was her purpose all along, or whether Sim was refashioning her as he went. Cerebus himself is, at times, slow-witted, confused by what's going on around him, at other times, he is canny, manipulating others. At times he is the butt of the joke, at other times he is the voice-of-reason. Sometimes he is cute in his befuddlement, and other times we are reminded that he is, after all, modelled after a brawling barbarian. Still, it's to Sim's credit that he can pull off these variances in the character and not seem as though he's completely lost the core of the personality.

A Canadian writer-artist weaving a tale set in a fictional world, one wonders how much Sim lets his "Canadianess" seep through (Canadians being notorious for not wanting to admit they're Canadian in their fiction). The dialogue is mainly modelled after British and American accents, but the flag of Iest looks not unlike the Canadian flag. Most of the pop references are American or British, though there are some mountie jokes thrown in later. Set in a country feeling the victim of a more powerful country's economy certainly seems the product of a writer from a middle power nation, rather than an American or even British writer.

Still, I quite enjoyed the book, whatever its shortcomings. It was funny, it was atmospheric, it was thought-provoking and involving, it was unusual, and it really did seem grand and ambitious, drawing you into this other world. The High Society epic itself could be seen as comprising three or four smaller story arcs that segue into each other.

As the series has progressed, opinion has become more divided. Some feel Sim has become more self-indulgent, getting further away from the core ideas, with Cerebus himself being relegated to the sidelines for some story arcs. A much later sequence, wherein Sim ruminates on gender issues, has led some fans to accuse him of being a misogynist (an accusation that makes one re-think a last act revelation in this TPB) -- but others have argued that such critics are confusing the work with the author (writers frequently express views in their work that aren't necessarily meant to be their own). But despite such criticisms, the series remains critically regarded with a multitude of advocates.

For my part, High Society is quite entertaining and I've subsequently tried more volumes in the series.

Cover price: __


cover by Dave SimCerebus: Melmoth 1991 (SC TPB) 250 pages
a.k.a. Melmoth

Written and illustrated by Dave Sim. Background art by Gerhard.
black & white

Reprinting: Cerebus #139-150

Additional notes: intro and afterward by Sim; background notes on Wilde.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for mature readers

Published by Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc.

In Melmoth, the sixth TPB volume collecting Cerebus, the ground breaking comic about a talking aardvark barbarian in a faux 19th Century kingdom of humans, there are essentially two parallel threads that don't really connect to each other. One focuses on Cerebus himself -- in a state of almost catatonic shock after (mistakenly) believing the love of his life, Jaka, has died -- hanging out on the patio of a diner. The other, set apparently just a few doors down the street, faithfully recreates the last days of Oscar Wilde, though changing the place names to relocate this biographical narrative so that it occurs in Cerebus' fictional world. It's an odd sidetrip in the series, and reflects creator Sim's increasing experimentation with his series.

Now, as I've probably mentioned before, my intent in reviewing graphic novels and tpbs on my site is to, basically, review things as they are, and as I read them. That is: the Cerebus series was a massive, 300 issue epic, that though it told story arcs within the greater whole, nonetheless such story arcs still tend to be built upon what went before. Now though I've read an earlier Cerebus TPB -- High Society (which I really liked) -- I hadn't read all Cerebus volumes (though I've read a couple of others since). So when I picked up Melmoth, it was just what happened to be on the store's shelf.

And read on its own, it's rather problematic. There's no effort made to set things up for the new reader, to explain what went before, or what things mean -- just reading this story, we'd have no idea why Cerebus is in a state of shock or anything. (Ironically, at the back of the book there's an add for the various Cerebus collections, including Melmoth, which does a better job of setting up the narrative). Now to Cerebus fans, they might see this as an irrelevant observation, but as I said, I'm reviewing this from the point of view of saying: you go to the store, see this on the shelf, and wonder if it'd be worth reading.

And, of course, the whole thing is really, astoundingly thin. I've commented about the whole "decompression" movement in modern comics, where too many writers and artists try to break down a scene (and stretch it out) into as many pages and panels as they can, devoting whole pages to someone walking down the street, for instance. Sim was very much at the forefront of that movement and, to be fair, he does it better than most. In fact, I'll say that as a craftsman, Sim is almost astoundingly brilliant in his handling and understanding of the medium of comics. So even though he'll stretch the most inconsequential moment out over a number of pages, he does it with a style and finesse that most of the other "decompressionists" lack. They're just padding. Sim really is milking little nuances from his scenes, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.

As an artist, Sim has become extraordinarily expressive by this point in his career, and nothing demonstrates that better than this tale that is veering from the cartooniness of a humanoid aardvark to the realism of depicting real historical figures like Wilde, where the tone shifts from comic exaggeration and caricature, to brooding seriousness. His choice of composition, his use of shadows, is all highly effective. And he's aided immeasurably by background artist Gerhard who presents a beautifully detailed and moody world in which the characters can act out their drama.

With all that being said, it still means you have a 250 page story where almost nothing happens (and was originally serialized over a year's worth of comics) as we just keep cutting back and forth from Wilde's deathbed to Cerebus looking shocked and speaking in monosyllables (though even Sim seems to lose a bit of his direction, as there's suddenly a scene where Cerebus acts a bit more feisty...then we're right back to him acting semi-comatose). Sim uses these scenes for varying effect, sometimes milking them for comedy, sometimes pathos, sometimes something inbetween.

Eventually something happens to shake Cerebus out of his stupor, and further demonstrating the variety inherent in this series that began long ago as simple satire, the audience is shaken a bit too as the final chapter explodes into brutal violence that is a shocking contrast with the sedate body of the volume. And that violence, as well as some profanity, is worth noting and suggesting the volume is best viewed as for "mature readers".

But if the Cerebus part of the story seems kind of thin and protracted, one could argue that's because it's more just cutaways from the real intent of this arc, which is the Oscar Wilde story. But here too, it seems a bit unsatisfying and indulgent. In recreating Wilde's last days, dying of a lingering (but undefined) illness, with Sim literally lifting passages and quotes from the journals and letters of Wilde's friends, that's really all it is: a recreation of Wilde's last days, depicted in their sad and unvarnished reality. Sim does effectively recreate the reality of a protracted and lingering death, but it's not really a "story" per se. Nothing develops or unfolds as a narrative. More, by focusing, literally, on the events, this doesn't really provide much insight into Wilde, the man, the artist, nor into the scandals that plagued him. Just as the Cerebus part of the story doesn't really explain things for those unfamiliar with events in Cerebus' life, so the Wilde part of the story seems aimed primarily at Wilde aficionados, rather than those who might only be vaguely aware of the man.

Again, I say, Sim is, at times, astoundingly brilliant in his grasp of the medium of comics, and on that level Melmoth can be interesting, in the (slow moving) scenes themselves, and in Sim's sliding from comedy to pathos and more. There are some memorable scenes that linger (such as the waitress telling Cerebus about the boyfriend who jilted her or, strangely, an anecdote about shoes!). But as a book -- as a story to plop down on the couch and read -- it leaves you unsatisfied, with little narrative arc to be developed. It remains primarily what, no doubt, Sim himself and his regular readers would agree, is basically an interlude, an extended vignette, rather than a story.

As a final aside, at one point near the beginning, the Wilde character goes on a long diatribe that I'm guessing is original to Sim, rather than lifted from anything Wilde actually said, as it addresses itself more directly to the fictional world in which Sim's has placed the story. And at one point Wilde seems to be making thinly veiled comments about comic books themselves, referring to stories of "mindless vigilantes" read by "myopic...spotted face" readers. It's an old argument made by comics writers working out side the super hero genre, dismissing the genre, and its readership, as arrested adolescents obsessed with juvenile power fantasies. But Sim is an ironic one to lead the attack. Sim became an increasingly controversial figure in comics for his personal views, views that seeped into the comic itself (you can detect a hint of a misogynist subtext in that the society is supposed to be under the sway of a kind of fascist, arch-feminist religion) -- and which you can read about on the web. And my point is: is Sim really in a position to criticize others for losing themselves in delusional power fantasies?

Cover price: ___

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