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One of the most ambitious literary projects of the last 25 years came to an end this March and you probably don’t even know its name: Cerebus. It’s a comic-book series about a talking aardvark, whose creator seems to have slowly gone insane somewhere over the course of its 6,000 pages. But it is also something of a masterpiece.
In 1979, Dave Sim (then just 23) made the improbable announcement that his black-and-white comic book, Cerebus, would run for 300 issues and that he would write, draw, and publish the books himself (although it was initially put out by his then wife, Deni Loubert). All of the comic books that have previously reached 300 issues (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man) are corporate franchises produced over decades by dozens of writers, pencilers, and inkers; no one has ever self-published more than a few dozen issues, especially not while writing and drawing every single page. Writing and publishing from his home in Kitchener, Ontario, Sim has achieved his goal, turning out one of the longest narratives in human history. Cerebus‘s dizzying whirl of high concepts, low humor, narrative gusto, and exquisite draftsmanship attracted critical praise and a devoted following almost from the start.
Initially a parody of fantasy kitsch, it soon mutated into one of the more complex works of modern fiction. Sim is fascinated with how things work, and when Cerebus ran for prime minister (“High Society”) the book oozed with the kind of election-year talk that hypnotizes CNN junkies. The technobabble was balanced by the cringe-inducing time Sim spent inside the disillusioned headspaces of his creations. A one-dimensional character suddenly given three, Cerebus tried desperately to avoid failing, without ever realizing that consistent failure would be his only success.
Cerebus drove his country into temporary ruin, wrote his memoirs, got married, became a hateful pope in an attack on organized religion, got divorced, sat catatonic for hundreds of pages, fought the law, and traveled through the solar system. Kept in print as 16 hefty anthologies, the series juggled multiple plotlines and interwove real-life and fictional figures (Oscar Wilde and Keith Richards rubbed elbows with Cerebus and Co.). Within this vast, decompressed narrative, even one-note characters were given room to grow, and the book dwelled on their failures and occasional triumphs in excruciating detail. But its scope (300 issues, dead or alive) was both its greatest strength and its biggest liability.
At the close of issue 200, Cerebus ended his traumatic encounter with a fascist matriarchy in a schizo tour de force as he and Sim fell out (“Why are you such an unappealing character?” “Why do you write me that way?”). In a postmodern finish, the two parted ways, leaving an emotionally crippled Cerebus face down in the slowly settling dust.
But over the course of this story arc (“Mothers & Daughters”)—both in the book itself and in the book’s editorial pages—Sim made it clear that he believes we live in a feminist totalitarian state. Readers left in droves. The last 2,000 pages have been driven by their creator’s deeply personal preoccupations (“Latter Days,” the penultimate story line, devoted 144 pages to commentaries on the first 38 chapters of Genesis) and his religious faith (a homemade blend of fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, and Judaism).
Sim found his religion while writing Cerebus, and his uncompromising beliefs have become a whip driving his readers away and his fictional creations through increasingly convoluted antics intended to make theological points. Vexingly, the last 100 issues have also seen Sim and his collaborator (the mysterious Gerhard, who does the backgrounds) hone their visual technique to unparalleled expressive heights. With its dense layers of lettering, literary allusion, and internal logic, one page of Cerebus requires—and rewards—migraine-inducing concentration.
Cerebus‘s enormous contradictions have alienated it from the comic-book market. To Sim’s readers, Cerebus was the satirical story of a talking aardvark in a realpolitik world. To Sim, Cerebus was a soapbox from which to proclaim his beliefs. And, like a true monomaniac, Sim painted himself into a corner, denouncing the Marxist-feminist axis to an increasingly hostile audience.
But despite Sim’s anti-feminist crusade, Cerebus stands on its own as a ferocious critique of power. Sim believes that freedom is an absolute, and to this end he has self-published Cerebus, advocated for artists’ rights, and bucked intellectual-property laws wherever possible (after his and Gerhard’s deaths, Cerebus will become public domain). In an era when selling out is considered synonymous with success, Sim’s resistance is bracing. But independence comes at a cost, and the price of Sim’s is that his 26-year project, his life’s work, is ending largely in silence. Tired of his grandstanding, most people long ago tuned him out. But for the scale of its ambition, the intricacy of its characters, the beauty of its artwork, and its commitment to mapping the at times objectionable mind of its creator without ever blinking or looking away, Cerebus remains a staggering declaration of independence.