As I said in the intro post, I’ll be posting expanded – in this case vastly expanded – versions of my Cerebus reviews on here. These aren’t really meant to advertise the comic, so I’m keeping actual images to a minimum, and they will readily spoil elements of it.

Back in those long-ago days when a liking for Cerebus didn’t come with a side order of clarifications about Dave Sim, there was one caveat most people still made: the comic doesn’t get good until Volume 2. Critical consensus had it that the first 25 issues of Cerebus – the early funny stuff, if you like – introduced a lot of recurring characters but were a chore to read, Sim working through his Barry Windsor Smith debt while writing a not very good fantasy parody. They had their moments but were, in the eyes of Cerebus fans wanting to make more Cerebus fans, a regrettable stumbling block to Cerebus being recognised as the Great Work it was.

It’s a testament to how well Sim set his own terms and how weird comics culture is that nobody back then and few since have said, wait, why is it all the same work? In most narrative fields – and frankly in comics too – the idea that someone’s mature work should be intimately part of the same story as their juvenilia would be really bizarre. The fact of Cerebus being a single 300-issue novel which is also its creator’s first work is held up as extremely impressive, and on some levels it is, but it’s also very weird.

In comics, I can think of two comparable creators, and the way they differ from Dave Sim illuminates why people read Cerebus, and why people stop. The first is his contemporary Jaime Hernandez, who’s spent a lot, probably most, of his career drawing the life of one character, Maggie Chascarillo, and her friends and family. Locas – the broad collective title for his Maggie stories – is like Cerebus in that its original opening story, almost his first published work, is very much the early work of a creator learning as he goes: “Mechanics” is a sci-fi piece with a lot of clumsy techniques Hernandez wouldn’t use again and characters he’d rapidly de-emphasise within his wider conception. It doesn’t fit, but he moved on from it, and the result is you can read Locas without ever reading the “Mechanics” stuff: Hernandez has neatly avoided the problem Sim created for himself by insisting on his early stuff being part of his bigger plan.

The other is Eiichiro Oda, creator of the most successful manga of all time, One Piece. Oda had published one manga before he started on the adventures of Monkey D Luffy in 1997, and he’s been writing and drawing them now for as long as Sim did Cerebus – a continuous narrative at least 3 times as long, thanks to the Stakhanovite practices of the manga industry (Oda’s health is the source of constant worry among his fans). One Piece has made him staggeringly rich. One Piece is also nothing like Cerebus. But if you had asked a Cerebus fan in 1979, when Dave Sim was still writing Conan-esque fantasy and first declared that his aardvark comic would run to 300 issues, what they expected that 300 issue novel would be like, their best reasonable prediction might have been something like One Piece. 300 issues of richer worldbuilding, more intricate plotting, and a steady stream of funny characters, but never straying too far outside the genre template those early issues laid down.

Sim didn’t do that, obviously. He didn’t opt to tell the story without changing its style and content, like Oda did later. He didn’t opt to change genre and content and characters and discreetly refit the story around it, like Hernandez has done. He wanted to have his 300-issue cake and change it into steak or salad or raw liver. 

Having announced he would write a 300 issue story, he started breaking down the genre and stylistic boxes he’d put himself in, working out on the fly how to bring politics, religion, literary pastiche, domestic drama, and more into his comic and how to plot longer stories. Much – most – of Cerebus is unrecognisable from these early issues, but still part of the same story.

The insistence that Cerebus is one complete novel of which this is the first chapter puts a burden on these early comics which they can’t sustain after the comic starts radically changing its form and content. And yet as late as the #190s, mere issues after Sim has declared the comic to be explicitly a frame for his ideas about gender politics, you’re still getting attempts to tie the story back to its original material, to make the stuff from Vol 1 about the Pigts and Cerebus’ Helmet matter. It’s just a really, really unusual way to approach creative work.

It’s as if Steve Ditko – another man with opinions as unyielding (if more comprehensible) than Sim’s – had made every comic he created about Spider-Man: 35 issues of fighting Doc Ock, then 100 more of preaching objectivism, Mr A style. It would radically change how we saw the character, just as Sim’s philosophical journey to his personal extremes changes how we see Cerebus.

But in that comparison is why, I think, Sim did it this way. Steve Ditko couldn’t have done that because Ditko didn’t own Spider-Man. Someone would have stopped him. Cerebus isn’t just a novel, it’s a proof of the idea that self-publishing means total creative freedom. Even back in these very early issues, buying into Cerebus means buying into the ideal of self-publishing and individual, unfettered creativity. Sim’s unwritten promise to the reader is that Cerebus will always be about exactly what Dave Sim wants it to be about. It’s a promise he keeps.

That implies something else, though. It implies that right from the beginning Cerebus is about Dave Sim. Not in the explicit way it’s eventually going to be. But to produce his 300 issues, Sim is going to push himself, and learn new styles and new ways of approaching comics. He starts on it right away, in this first book. Volume 1 of Cerebus matters not just in a plot sense – because it introduces Elrod and Jaka and the Moon Roach – but because it’s teaching you how to read Cerebus. You read Cerebus to see the development of Dave Sim. A plot development is interesting, but Sim learning a new way to pace a page, or to use blacks and greys, is also interesting.

(But doesn’t this involvement with Sim’s progress make it even more difficult when he, you know…? Yes, it does.)

Something that is helpful to reading Cerebus Vol 1 is that Sim starts off pretty good. He’s trying to do Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics, and those are a good model for an artist in 1977, when the high tide of relative mainstream quality Smith represented had definitely gone out. He’s also inspired by the long tradition of “funny animal” comics, with Steve Gerber’s Howard The Duck the most obvious model. There’s a lot of rough edges in the art but Sim became a great visual storyteller remarkably quickly – there are strong examples on Issue 1, Page 1 and he keeps getting enjoyably better. It’s not true to say that each early issue of Cerebus is better than the last, but there’s no long dips, and a detectable upward curve which makes this volume less of a slog than it might be.

He didn’t become a great non-visual storyteller quite so fast, and even when he learned how to plot and pace a story beyond the page-by-page, issue-by-issue level it was knowledge he’d happily let go of to follow an urge. The comics collected here which hold up best now as narrative are exactly those early Windsor-Smith Conan pastiches, because Conan stories have a really solid structure that can withstand plenty of messing around and playing with tropes. The basic story here is repetitive but robust – Cerebus wants gold or loot, Cerebus gets involved with some scheme to get it, but loses it in such a way to seed the next instalment and move him to another location on his fantasy world map. Sim fills out the episodes with action, jokes, and increasingly parodies.

Longer-term readers will cheer when a soon-to-be-familiar face like Elrod shows up, but for me Cerebus Vol 1 gets significantly weaker once the focus of Sim’s satirical intent stops being structure and starts being character, especially as a lot of the characters referenced are pop or comics culture flotsam whose presence in the culture has waned over time, and the effect is a bit like a stoner trying to insist that a bunch of MAD Magazine parodies are really a coherent storyline. Sim’s drawing is improving fast – the positive effect of the parodies is that they push him away from Smith and towards Will Eisner and Jules Feiffer as influences, a cartooning style Sim turns out to be fantastic at. 

So Cerebus looks better and better but the jokes and observations are typical of the kind of cynical 20-something Sim surely was, and much of this book is a painful read now. The final storyline in the book is typical of its virtues and vices – a multi-part riff on Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled with Cerebus stuck in a girls’ finishing school and gags based on Swamp Thing, Man-Thing and the X-Men. The references are confusing or era-bound, the jokes weak, but the atmosphere, Sim’s page-by-page pacing, and his ability to draw people are massively far ahead of where he started.

Cerebus Vol 1 is a turgid read for the most part, but there are three big exceptions in the second half. Two are formal – the side-story “Silverspoon” is a joyful step into Prince Valiant style storytelling, Sim having immense fun with Hal Foster’s rich but stiff strip about rich stiffs. He takes to prose-and-illustration with gusto, prefiguring his intense use of it later on, most of it far less charming. Also mixing prose – in this case dialogue – and illustration is the “Mind Games” experiment with ink, greyscale, and lettering styles, which still feels like a remarkable creative leap. 

Third and most important is the three part story introducing Lord Julius, Sim’s first and best recreation of a real historical or cultural figure. The story, about a secret society plotting the overthrow of a city’s ruler, is the usual nothing, but making the ruler into Groucho Marx, and then thinking through how the Groucho Marx persona might operate in a fantasy setting, is the first of Sim’s truly inspired ideas, and the one that unlocks the next hundred issues of the comic. Lord Julius – “Groucho as fantasy bureaucrat” – is a better idea than the rest of this hefty volume combined has, and it’s no wonder that his invention was the springboard for better things.