This is the 14th of my blog posts about Cerebus The Aardvark. As usual, the posts contain very heavy spoilers for the individual volume under discussion and the series as a whole.

Previously: Cerebus lover Jaka resisted the temptations of an F Scott Fitzgerald analogue to abandon the aardvark and return to her life of privilege. Now the pair resume their abortive journey north to Cerebus’ home town. Meanwhile, Dave Sim has begun to fill the back pages of Cerebus with extensive notes from his literary research…

Dave Sim is sometimes compared to HP Lovecraft, as a creator whose bigotry and art are inseparable. It’s a useful comparison in some ways – yes, both men made their prejudices central to their fiction in ways that demand you reckon with the hatred alongside the work – but useful partly because of the many ways Lovecraft and Sim are different. Some are obvious: Lovecraft was never as technically proficient or innovative as Sim, but there’s no single idea or character of Sim’s that can transcend his work in the way Cthulhu and cosmic horror have for Lovecraft.

But there’s a deeper difference too. Lovecraft’s most famous work draws its emotional force directly from Lovecraft’s racism: the growing repulsion and atmosphere of doom in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” gives me the sense of what being a paranoid bigot, full of visceral fear of the Other, and the Other-in-oneself, must be like, and that magnifies the horror in the story. Sim’s fear and loathing of women and attachment rarely affects me like this: it often feels more like a tumour in the work, growing and spreading until it overtakes Cerebus entirely. 

The way both authors use their prejudices as a lens on the action is different, too. In Lovecraft, the bigot’s metaphorical fear of corruption and infection from outside is turned monstrously literal. In later Sim, he’s often documenting what seem to be quite ordinary, well-observed, tensions and affections between men and women, and it’s generally only when you read Sim’s interviews and notes that you fully realise how much Sim interprets them through a private lens of woman-dread. Lovecraft’s prejudices suffuse his stories; Sim’s erupt into them, usually in the form of revealed texts.

All of which is to introduce Form & Void as Dave Sim’s one genuinely Lovecraftian book, the point at which his hatred of women finally overwhelms his story, but at which the part of him that still cares about making a good comic hasn’t quite given up the fight. And so as in Lovecraft, the fear and disgust suffuses the story, gives it force: from its opening campfire sequences full of stark outlines, to its denouement in an eerily deserted logging town, Form & Void has the thick, ominous texture of a nightmare. If Going Home was Dave Sim’s attempt to write a romance story, this is his horror book.

Some of the nightmarish quality comes from how Cerebus’ situation in the book could be played for comedy – and to some extent Sim does play it that way, but there’s a curdled quality to it which makes those scenes as harsh and unpleasant as the ones where the dread feels burned onto the page. The basic set-up of Form & Void is that Cerebus and Jaka have resumed their trip north to Sand Hills Creek, and are staying in a series of Cirinist-run hunting lodges. (Or rather, camping outside them, since the lodges are for married couples only). They have picked up travelling companions, met at one of these lodges – the writer Ham Ernestway and his wife Mary. For Cerebus, this is a thrill – Ernestway is not just his favourite writer, he’s a man Cerebus looks up to as a personal hero.

If you’re going to ‘do’ Fitzgerald in a comic, then it follows you have to ‘do’ Ernest Hemingway – this at least seems to have been Dave Sim’s concept for Form & Void. As I mentioned in the post on Going Home, it’s a choice with a thematic resonance – just as Fitzgerald had represented the privileged life Jaka, “Princess Of Palnu”, could never truly leave, Hemingway stands for the ideal of masculinity Cerebus has been struggling desperately to reach ever since Astoria revealed he was born with male and female genitals. 

But there was a snag. Dave Sim had never actually read Hemingway, or done any research into the man’s life. As with Fitzgerald, Sim wanted a Hemingway at the end of his career, and so his research came to focus on Mary Welsh Hemingway, the writer’s fourth and last wife. The more he read about the couple, the greater his disgust and horror. Sim picked up, as some other biographers and critics have, on what seemed to be Hemingway’s sublimated confusion over sexuality. But Sim took their conclusions considerably further, deciding Hemingway was a “transexual” and taking his and Mary’s sexual play as evidence of a fluid and (in Sim’s eyes) perverse nature. The Man’s Man Sim was hoping to find stood revealed as a terrible fraud.

Sim digs into these feelings in the extensive notes to Form & Void. As with Going Home, I haven’t read those notes in full – just enough to confirm they’re packed with Sim’s usual obsessive loathing of women (and now gay people) with a particular focus on Mary Hemingway. In any case, Sim’s a bad, fussy annotator of his own work: the comic stands by itself and it’s the comic I’m reviewing. But the shock of Sim’s disillusionment with Hemingway resonated through later interviews, and plays a major role in the comic itself, where it’s echoed by Cerebus’ own stunned horror at Mary’s revelations about Ham. In Sim’s ever-spiralling personal version of history, the deception he imagined Ernest Hemingway perpetrating on the world (himself included) was a watershed wrong turn in 20th Century culture, a cynical maneouvre that helped kill the idea an ‘alpha dog’ male could even exist.

Sim’s bitterness at his ‘discoveries’ helps explain that harsh, discomforting tone in even the early, more comical parts of Form & Void. There’s a wrongness to the action that feels driven partly by Sim’s designs and choices but also partly by his visceral revulsion at the Hemingways, Mary in particular. It’s obvious from the beginning that something has gone terribly wrong with Ham Ernestway. He’s sunk in the depths of a profound depression, his speech represented by stark black type in bubbles too large for it. Cerebus is – unsurprisingly – unable to recognise this. And in any case the aardvark is too addled by hero worship to understand how irksome his idol finds his company, interpreting Ham’s terse commands to shut the fuck up as simple banter.

Occasionally this is funny, but Sim writes his lead character as genuinely pathetic here, in a way not even his treatment by the fellow tavern regulars in Guys gets close to. Almost throughout Form & Void Cerebus is at his least likeable, both in his sycophancy to Ham – including being outraged that Jaka slaps the guy for groping her – and his growing attempts to make Jaka accept that her life in Sand Hills Creek will be an utterly servile one. In his mind, Sim is still writing Jaka as a spoiled brat, but here’s where the lens of his prejudice applies – what he surely sees as self-evidently absurd feminist cant reads to me, and I expect most readers, as common sense. If Jaka is a spoiled brat, she’s one who makes a hell of a lot of good points about how unreasonable Cerebus is being.

While Sim’s character work remains a minefield, his grasp of atmosphere has rarely been better. Even in the early parts of Form & Void, there’s a vibe closer to the kind of clammy, suffocating dread you find in Charles Burns’ teenage body-horror comic Black Hole or some Dan Clowes stories. The art shifts gears too, in a direction that also recalls Burns: the blacks becoming starker and heavier, dominating the page and making the art feel colder and more abstract: Mary Earnestway’s beak-like features drawn angular, half in darkness, making her into an almost demonic figure.

Black Hole was midway through its run when Form & Void began serialisation – Burns’ publisher Kitchen Sink folded, and the story eventually finished at Fantagraphics. So if Burns was an influence on the heavy blacks and morbid atmosphere, it’s one of the final examples of Sim drawing on his contemporaries for inspiration. You can also point to the scenes later in the book, in a blizzard, where the story breaks down into tiny, fragmentary panels, in similar ways to how Chris Ware of Acme Novelty Library uses small-panel storytelling to mix space and time on the page and create new shapes for the flow of action. Both experiments work extremely well.

I’ll focus on the blizzard sequence later – most critics who’ve got this far into Cerebus name it as a genuine high point of the series, and I’d agree. The section it follows, Mary Hemingway’s lion hunt, is more divisive. As part of his researches, Sim got access to the Mary Welsh Hemingway papers held at Yale, and several issues of Form & Void are an illustrated adaptation of her unpublished journals of the Hemingways’ ill-fated African safari of 1953-4, during which two plane crashes and a bushfire wrecked Ernest’s health and sent him down the road to his electro-shock therapy and suicide.

There is a parallel world, perhaps the one in which Sim ended Cerebus The Aardvark at #200, where the Hemingway diary adaptation is a standalone work, a personal project of a cranky creator like Sim’s post-Cerebus works. Its division from the Cerebus universe is almost absolute – it’s set in, very obviously, 20th Century Africa, down to the names and languages. It necessitates Sim introducing airships and guns into the storyline so he can include the lion hunting and plane crashes (the guns are important later, and in any case follow logically from Weisshaupt’s cannons in Church And State, but the airships are awkward enough that Sim has to lampshade how much they break the entire plot of Going Home). Aside from a couple of reaction shots of the appalled Cerebus, the entire safari diversion disconnects totally from the Cerebus story.

But so did the adaptation of Robbie Ross’ letters in Melmoth, and like those, Mary Ernestway’s narrative justifies its inclusion for the most basic of reasons: it’s good. Better than good, in fact – if you can cut it loose from the sheer bile Sim levels against Mary Hemingway in the notes, it’s a remarkable extended sequence of comics. Like Melmoth, the secret of its quality is fairly obvious: very few people can make comics pages work like Dave Sim, but almost anyone can write better prose than him. 

Mary Hemingway, like Robbie Ross but unlike almost all of Sim’s sockpuppet narrators, has a voice on the page, cadences and rhythms to her writing which push the way Sim is illustrating her words (There’s an irony in the way that one of the best sections of later Cerebus is a de facto collaboration with a woman writer). Ross was ornate and baffled by grief, and Sim and Gerhard responded with panels so solemn they could be carved from marble. Hemingway has a journalist’s eye for incident and stacatto rhythm, and Sim’s art becomes quick, sketchy even, sequences of small panels on a 25-panel grid, alternating words and images.

Though the safari episodes seem like a digression, they match the increasingly paranoid and horrific tone of the storyline. The fact the story is clearly set in our own world and close to our own time makes it feel unreal and dreamlike in the context of Cerebus, its stories of brutality and death happening on a less fantastic, more symbolic plane. The first thing the Ernestways do in Africa is eat lion meat, a taboo for coloniser and colonised alike, and one which seems to place a curse on their trip. Mary Ernestway tries and fails to hunt a lion, and endures the supposedly good natured condescension of the rest of the party, while the beast begins to haunt her dreams. 

After ‘her’ lion is finally shot, images of rot and death proliferate – worms feasting on flowers, a waterbuck head swarming with maggots, and a stomach-churning sequence in which a rhino is eaten alive by hyenas. Ultimately the trip ends in fire and catastrophic injury for Ham, and even when the Ernestways return home they are shunned for the eating of lion. Transgressing the boundary between lion and man will be a major part of Cerebus’ downfall in The Last Day, another symbolic link between the safari story and the wider novel. Mary’s revelations bring on the violent climax of the hunting lodge sequence, as a gun goes off and Ham is found dead. Cerebus is in total shock, the pages fade to white –

And the comic suddenly jumps forward and shifts location, in one of the most effective transitions Sim ever pulls off. Suddenly Cerebus and Jaka are in a blizzard, trapped in a tent, out of fuel and low on food. In the teeth of starvation the narrative breaks down even further, and in a series of tiny panels across mostly white pages we gradually piece together why they fled the lodge, the gravity of their situation, and Cerebus’ attempts to salvage it. It’s unclear how desperate the couple’s plight actually is, but neither are thinking straight in any case – Cerebus is breaking down from finding his idol dead, and Jaka has never been in remotely this situation before. 

But this is the crisis the book has been building up to for Cerebus, just as the climax of Going Home was a moment of truth for Jaka. In the blizzard, Cerebus finds himself in the kind of do-or-die wilderness situation that a Ham Ernestway hero is presumably meant to cope with. Like Jaka in the previous book, he is the one who has – unintentionally or not – got them into this mess, and it’s his decisive action that ultimately pulls them out of it. The blizzard sequence is perhaps the last truly exceptional bit of comics-making in Cerebus – after this Sim will continue to use comics pages in a way nobody else has, but not in a way anybody else would or should. But for me it gets a lot of its power following on from the rest of Form & Void – a different kind of horror, but also the payoff to the wider dread that’s been building all through the book. 

The blizzard is the climax of Form & Void, but it’s not the resolution of the wider Going Home storyline. The fever dream plotting and experimentation of the rest of Form & Void falls away, and we’re back to just Cerebus and Jaka as they finally reach their destination. What awaits them is a grim, unhappy, ending – how could it not be? But it fits the themes of the book: Cerebus’ agony mounts as his ideals of a life of manly simplicity fail to take reality into account, and it becomes increasingly obvious, even to him, that Jaka simply isn’t going to fit into the constricted, chauvinist world of Sand Hills Creek. When they arrive, to Cerebus’ horror, the village appears deserted – it turns out that Cerebus’ parents have died while he was away, and the villagers have closed their doors to him in disgust at his lack of honour in not being present. Cerebus turns on Jaka and she is driven away, in tears, in a Cirinist carriage, while Cerebus rends his garments and howls.

It’s powerful storytelling. But while it works thematically – it’s been obvious for a long time that Cerebus’ expectations of Jaka are completely incompatible with her actual personality, and something was going to be the breaking point – the ending is still jarring. Criticisms of Going Home as a two-volume whole generally focus on how Sim breaks Jaka’s character to fit his new conception of her as a “harlot”. They have a point. But it’s also worth pointing out how much Sim has to distort Cerebus’ character here too, by giving him a dimension of extreme filial piety we’ve genuinely never seen before. Sim implies Jaka’s vanity – and Cerebus’ indulgence of it – is wholly to blame for him missing his father’s death by delaying their trip North, which rather overlooks the fact that the guy has just spent an indeterminate number of years sitting in a pub. If Cerebus has known all along that his father is dying, why hasn’t he mentioned that? Scenes that Sim seems to want to carry intense emotional and moral weight come across as sudden and unearned.

Sim’s own spiritual journey offers some clues. Form & Void ended in 2001, by which point Sim’s religious conversion was complete, and he’d more or less adopted the hermetic lifestyle he still leads – taking up straight-edge, ascetic habits with the same righteousness he’d once used to wield the cudgel of creators’ rights. Cerebus’ grief at the end of the book isn’t just inchoate fury and sorrow – the rending of clothes and rubbing his face with earth are a reference to the Old Testament “sackcloth and ashes” rituals of mourning and self-debasement. (The extent of Sim’s Old Testament kick will become very apparent in Latter Days)

At the back of Cerebus #265, the final episode of Form & Void, Sim published “Tangent”, after Cerebus #186 the most notorious of his various essays on feminism, morality and the world as he saw it. “Tangent” lays out Sim’s ideas on the wrong turn Western society has taken thanks to feminism – if you’ve paid any attention to the subsequent decades of “manosphere” grievances you’ll find nothing new or interesting there. “Tangent” is not part of the comic – a quite large mercy – but Form And Void’s visceral terror at a world where women have choices and autonomy, and where those choices sometimes affect men’s lives, makes sense as a product of the same mind.

Form & Void is a difficult, depressing, often ugly comic – backed up with vastly more unpleasant notes – and it ends with a howl of pain as much from creator as character. But I have to admit that its best parts are the artistic peak of late Cerebus, the point where, as with Lovecraft, the hatred and the artistic impulse are working in a kind of demonic tandem, pushing Sim to create something that lingers. It’s also Dave Sim’s last work where those forces share the reins. Maybe “Tangent” felt at the time like more shock tactics from a creator of declining relevance. With hindsight it feels like Sim detonating the last walls between his obsession and his work.