| Cerebus vol. 2: High Society
By Dave Sim
Aardvark Vanaheim – softcover, $30
SEEMS LIKE DAVE SIM’S EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS, and his online comics press ubiquity surrounding the release of Glamourpuss and Judenhass has underlined the hole in my comics reading that is Cerebus. Taking the advice of previous readers, I began with book 2, as the first volume consists mostly of Cerebus’ early incarnation as an anthropomorphic Conan parody, and has apparently dated very badly.
Not that this isn’t still early Sim. In the introduction he writes that High Society was begun “shortly before my twenty-fifth birthday” and completed “shortly after my twenty-seventh birthday,” and it is clearly the work of a young man, excited to be making some of his first comics and throwing everything he can at the page. Both story and art feature a broad range of approaches, some serious and others more whimsical, though the overwhelming flavor is satire.
The story is sprawling, and its focus shifts several times, beginning with Cerebus’ early surprise at his grand reception in the fictional city-state of Iest and the bribery to which his minor role in Lord Julius’ government of neighboring Palnu entitles him. From there he faces reelection to that post and loses, then runs against Lord Julius’s goat to instead become Iest’s Prime Minister, this time winning. In both cases, he is working to ensure Iest’s continuing independence from Palnu, but upon becoming Prime Minister, his own thirst for power leads to a series of blunders and his eventual downfall. Along the way, there are a number of digressions, such as Cerebus’ “kidnapping” by a pair of incompetents, and Petuniacon, in which Cerebus appears in a number of panel discussions and spends days doing sketches for fans. I was unclear on a few details, having not read vol. 1, but most of what I needed was filled in along the way.
The satire largely comes through the open and ever-present government corruption, which every voter is aware of and finds unremarkable. There is only the barest pretense that either candidate wishes to improve the lives of Iest’s citizens and most of them seem to consider participating at all an unpleasant obligation. The election is actually stretched out when a district leader doesn’t bother assigning all of his delegates, hoping that no one will notice. It’s biting stuff and often very funny.
More hit and miss are Sim’s assorted asides and references, of which there are several, notably Cerebus’ first political opponent, Elrod, who talks like Foghorn Leghorn, Lord Julius, who is modeled in appearance and demeanor on Groucho Marx (whose real name was Julius Henry Marx), and Moon Roach, a parody of Marvel’s Moon Knight and tropes of several other superheroes. Sim’s use of Groucho Marx and Foghorn Leghorn are enhanced if readers know who they are, but they also work as eccentrics not entirely out of place in the world Sim’s created, and could still be funny with no knowledge of their sources. Elrod overstays his welcome and Lord Julius’ gags never manage to rise above middling Marx Bros., but both have their moments. Moon Roach, on the other hand, is an overt parody of his source material rather than an homage to it, so whether or not he is funny depends on the reader’s familiarity with and attitude toward superhero comics.
As of High Society, background artist Gerhard hasn’t come on board yet, so the only appearance of his exhaustively rendered architecture is the magnificent cover image of the Regency Hotel, the setting of most of High Society’s intrigue. Sim’s own backgrounds are sparer, his focus on facial expressions and body language. As is to be expected, it’s wobblier than his later work, but still alternately bawdy and evocative. Sim’s attention to detail is impressive, from the textures he creates to each character’s unique style of dress to the observations of his references, as in the way he perfectly captures Groucho Marx’s strangely determined slouch.
Sim’s linework sets the character of Cerebus apart from the rest of the world, drawing him with cartoon simplicity and thick outlines, while human characters are more detailed, approaching photo-realism in some closeups. The mixture of styles extends further, depicting an elf through very thin lines that don’t close entirely to suggest the light radiating from her, while the Moon Roach is a Neal Adams pastiche in his musculature and exaggerated perspective. Some parts are more effective than others. Occasional forays into high contrast black and white are quite successful. Sim draws textures and shadows wonderfully, but when he tries to depict faces without crosshatching, he sometimes loses their shape unless he has an element like Lord Julius’ Groucho mustache to anchor them (he has more trouble with, for instance, Duke Leonardi, modeled on Chico Marx).
Layouts vary widely depending on the effect Sim is going for. Most scenes are traditional comics, mostly two or three tiers, but some feature longer conversations in which the dialogue is separated from the images. An early chapter, “Mind Game II,” consists of a type-set dialogue between Cerebus and a philosopher named Suenteus Po, set against panels of Cerebus traveling an ever-changing landscape. Once Cerebus becomes Prime Minister, the book turns sideways for nearly all of the remaining 140 pages, except for a bravura sequence in which a drunken Cerebus stumbles blindly through the scene and the pages lose all ballast, turning in every direction until someone throws water on him. On some of those pages, reading direction is impossible to follow and it’s a brave move allowing readers to get lost like that, one probably only workable so many pages deep into a book, after the author has gained their trust.
|Page 480 of High Society. After 100 sideways pages, a drunken Cerebus throws the page into chaos. Note the page number on the left, meaning most of these panels are actually upside down. Click for larger image.|
That Sim has the time to build that trust is a product of the sheer scope of both High Society and Cerebus as a whole. Reading High Society, it felt so much fuller and denser than the average graphic novel, which is partly because of how much Sim crams into each page, but also the simple fact that it is 500 pages––and that’s just one book out of sixteen. The space lets Sim fill his world with detail and history––one entire page is spent explaining the rules of a card game Sim invents for the story.
Those 500 pages are a tour de force, with Sim trying out a staggering number of narrative and artistic devices. A lot of it isn’t successful, so many jokes falling flat and so many digressions going nowhere, but much of it is. The artistic growth is there in every chapter and the content slowly becomes more sophisticated. By the end, it feels very far from its Conan parody roots and I’m fascinated to see where it will go next.