DAVE SIM’S 6,000-PLUS-PAGE CEREBUS IS A DEEPLY MISOGYNISTIC GRAPHIC NOVEL ABOUT AN ANTHROPOMORPHIC, HERMAPHRODITIC AARDVARK. AND IT’S AN ABSOLUTE MASTERPIECE.
In March of last year, the Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim published the final twenty-page installment of Cerebus, the 6,000-plus-page comic-book epic he’d been writing and drawing since 1977. (Virtually all of it is collected in sixteen volumes published by Sim’s company Aardvark-Vanaheim.) It is an absolute masterpiece—one of the most ambitious and fully realized narratives of the past century. And its flaws are plentiful, wide, and maddening, and penetrate straight to its core.
For one thing, if you want to start at the beginning, you’ll have to wade through a few hundred pages of Sim’s juvenilia. When he started Cerebus at the age of twenty-one, he had no idea that it was going to be more than a short-lived parody of Conan the Barbarian—not even Robert E. Howard’s original stories, but the early-’70s Marvel comics drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, whose style is ineptly imitated by the early Sim. He didn’t work out the project’s scope—300 issues, one every month for its final twenty-four years, concerning several centuries’ worth of politics and religion in a fictional continent rather like medieval Europe—until a nervous breakdown a couple of years into it.
There’s a lot of Cerebus that’s deliberately derivative, too. Dozens of characters are modeled on real-world celebrities, cartoon characters, and comics artists, and a handful of Sim’s jokes will be lost on anyone without an intimate knowledge of the comics scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Most of the Melmoth volume of Cerebus deals with the death of Oscar Wilde; the core of Going Home is a series of parodies, pastiches, and paraphrases of F. Scott Fitzgerald (as “F. Stop Kennedy”); Form and Void includes a long section adapted from Mary Hemingway’s (excuse me, “Mary Ernestway’s”—her husband is “Ham Ernestway”) African diaries, mostly to set up the argument that Mary actually murdered Ernest, because women are by nature soul-sucking voids.
Oh right. About two-thirds of the way into Cerebus, something in its tone abruptly cracks, and the misogynist pus that bubbles up never fully abates after that. (Sim has insisted that he’s not a misogynist, just “not a feminist,” but he’s become rather a single-issue candidate about it; he also claims, for instance, that using s’s rather than s’ for the possessive form of names that end in s is a Marxist-feminist plot. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) It becomes rather tough-going if you like your art to be compatible with your politics, unless you’re one of the eighty-five people on the planet whose gender politics are as far right as Sim’s.
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