(The second part of a series reconsidering Dave Sim’s Cerebus The Aardvark on the occasion of me actually finishing it. As before, I’m not worrying too much about spoilers or trying to draw attention to particular moments or bits of art: this is just me writing about it.)

Previously: Dave Sim’s Cerebus, a planned 300-issue comics series, launches with a series of Conan The Barbarian pastiches, which rapidly spin out into a comic fantasy series taking in parodies of comics characters and wider pop culture. The most successful of these, a take on Groucho Marx, points the way to Sim’s first lengthy “novel”…

Re-reading Cerebus as an adult makes me focus on the question – “what was Dave Sim good at?”. It feels like an important question because the answer puts the wider project – actually finishing Cerebus – in a different light. If I’m enjoying Cerebus for its ideas about society, or for the way Sim writes sympathetic relationships, that’s likely to make what’s coming considerably tougher than if I’m enjoying it because Sim draws a cool aardvark.

When I first read High Society, at age 14 or so, I probably did like it for the ideas and the relationships and all the awesome characters, but I mainly liked it because it blew open any ideas I might have had about the scope of what comics could do. It wasn’t my first encounter with Cerebus – more on that next entry – but High Society made me a Cerebus fan. 

I was at boarding school at the time, living in resentment and dread of the older boys who were, at a day to day level, in charge of me. My part of the school was subdivided into little common-room style fiefdoms of a dozen or so boys, run by individual prefects. One, an older boy called Nick, liked comics, and he let – or tolerated – me hang out in his common-room area reading them while he played his Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind records. Nick’s comics were almost the first indies I ever saw: he owned the Swords Of Cerebus collections, he owned a set of Sim-inspired British comic Redfox, and he owned High Society.

Nick was affable and kind, but within the narrow bounds of schoolboy taste there was something exotic and risky about the things he liked. Spiritually, if not materially, he was a stoner, and by 1988 his hippyish tendencies felt intuitively like a remnant of some vanished era, even if I couldn’t have articulated that. But the stuff he liked – the indie comics, the space rock, the Moorcock – blended with what I already knew, like D&D and Doctor Who and 70s Bowie, into a nerdish milieu that made up my cultural world.

Cerebus and High Society fitted right in. Like everything else I liked, they were little subcreations you could hide in, freighted with lore and oddity, full of doorways to other esoteric discoveries. Probably something which appealed to me about Cerebus was the sense of looking into someone else’s wunderkammer full of bits and bobs which had caught Dave Sim’s eye or ear: Conan, sure, but also Foghorn Leghorn, Moon Knight, Yosemite Sam, The Marx Brothers, Swamp Thing, Clint Eastwood. You didn’t have to share the exact reference points to catch in Cerebus’ use of them hints of a kindred spirit, or so it then seemed.

But even within my own range of teenage interests there was nothing like High Society, a comic that was constantly shifting its own terms of engagement, wriggling with discontent at the very idea of genre. The topline summary of High Society is “Cerebus does politics” or “Cerebus becomes Prime Minister”, but that doesn’t really capture the wild fractality of reading it. High Society is a comic about tavern fights and interest rates and old hotels and gambling and elections and romance and military strategy and comics conventions and economic terrorism. And on the meta level, it’s a comic about Dave Sim learning how to tell a 25-issue, 500-page story, and you watching him do it on the page. 

From this point there are occasional standalone stories between the larger Cerebus sagas, but Sim’s conception of a comics novel becomes the core structure the series is built on. High Society is the first of nine such, and at 25 issues it’s around the median in terms of length. Later on, the novels will feel a lot more tightly planned and individual issues much more diffuse – written for the trade to use a later phrase. Through most of High Society, though, the individual issue is still king, even as the overall narrative asserts itself more and more strongly.

So though High Society doesn’t overtly show any of Sim’s later obsessions it would be wrong to say there’s no connection in craft terms. Once he settles on the ‘novel’ as his way of writing, Cerebus is always a balance between Sim’s higher-level plan for this stretch of comic and what he wants to do with these specific twenty pages this specific month. How enjoyable (or bearable) it is comes down to both how much you’re down with his wider aim and how inspired he is to do great on-page work. 

There are stretches where the wider purpose crushes monthly spontaneity and bits where the opposite happens and everything stops for Dave to chase an urge. High Society is a rare sweet spot where the wider aim is one readers can get behind – tell a satirical story of Cerebus’ rise and fall as a political leader – but Sim’s given himself enough month by month room to chase those ideas and improvise the details, especially early on.

The result on the page is that this is Cerebus’ most playful volume, full of unexpected caricatures, one- or two-page joke sequences and storytelling riffs. Not all of these work – it’s where Sim’s love of text really starts ticking, and there are plenty of bits (like an army officer based on John Cleese) where Sim’s delight at capturing a vocal rhythm wasn’t shared by me. But nothing lasts for more than a few pages – there’s always a new idea on the way. Even at the end, as the overall plot plays itself out, whole issues are structured largely like a newspaper strip’s Sunday pages, a full-page mini-story with a punchline at the end.

The opening issues of High Society aren’t a huge shift from the stories in Cerebus Vol.1. The setting is new: the city-state of Iest, where most of the next 160-ish issues are going to happen, though the extensive city-building here barely matters later on. But the rhythm of the story is familiar – Cerebus finds himself in a situation, resolves it, only for a new twist in his fortunes to surface at issue’s end. Sim at this stage is working with full issues as his basic units of story rather than single pages, but the overall vibe isn’t dissimilar to early Tintin. Herge is another cartoonist who you can watch learning on the page how to structure a longer story, and in the early ones like Tintin In America, the plot is simply a sequence of dramatic cliffhangers whose purpose is to shunt the hero into the next episode’s situation. 

As High Society continues, though, this patchwork of encounters settles into a more clearly stable plot, and as with Tintin the marker of this stability is that Cerebus has acquired, for the first time, a supporting cast.

Most comics with a sole protagonist have regular supporting casts – Conan was an exception, which is probably why Cerebus didn’t acquire one until he started to leave the Conan model firmly behind. Supporting casts are useful because they generate stories outside whatever the standard M.O. for your character is – fight a villain, solve a mystery, etc – and because they complicate the character’s life in productive ways. (Aunt May getting ill makes Spider-Man feel bad about his lifestyle; Captain Haddock being a drunken idiot makes Tintin’s life harder, etc.) 

In most cases the character has a basic objective and the supporting cast either help or hinder them. But Sim does something unusual – in Cerebus, the supporting cast work to subvert the character’s basic objective. Cerebus’ basic motivation is greed and, when he’s in a position to get it, power (but power is usually a means to the end of greed). All through High Society, this fairly simple motive is being exploited by various parties, who ally themselves with Cerebus for their own ends (Astoria wants to advance her political cause; Bran Mak Muffin wants to encourage Cerebus to fulfil assorted prophecies). Cerebus himself has no particular desire for political office or reason to seek it, and Sim brings back Jaka, a love interest from one early issue, to act as a kind of conscience – pointing out that Cerebus isn’t happy and should just walk out of the story.

But the story has other ideas. Something Sim is very good at doing in High Society is getting the reader invested in a succession of tense situations – can Cerebus stay in his diplomatic position? Can he get enough votes to become Prime Minister? Can his military plans possibly succeed? – while disguising the fact that Cerebus might in each case be better off if the answer is “no”. He subtly encourages us to want Cerebus to ‘win’ even though the rules of engagement are being set by other characters and Cerebus’ own aims are, as usual, entirely selfish. And the upshot of this is that High Society is a comic where it feels like Cerebus has a goal and is surrounded by allies, even though that isn’t what’s happening in the book at all.

Building the supporting cast takes up High Society’s first act, Sim complicating Cerebus’ changed circumstances by bouncing old characters off him while introducing new ones. One of Sim’s great discoveries as a plotter is that there’s no difference between comic relief and moving the dramatic story forward – the same characters can do both jobs. This is something else Herge understood, and became very good at – his late masterpiece, The Castafiore Emerald, is a dazzling construction of a comic in which large numbers of his regular cast are smoothly rotated to create the illusion of a story. But even before that, characters like Professor Calculus regularly perform double duty as farcical stock character and serious plot motor.

In High Society and its sequel, Church And State, Sim uses this trick all the time. The Moon Roach, for instance, is a pisstake of Marvel’s multiple-personality character Moon Knight, and of mainstream comics’ then-growing love of melodramatic internal narration. But he’s also an assassin whose predations on the business class of Iest help Astoria move Cerebus into place for the second act, the aardvark’s rise to power in the city-state.

By this point the issue-by-issue pacing of the early parts of High Society has been subtly replaced by something often just as episodic (Sim enjoys, and is good at, cliffhangers) but more clearly plotted. The antagonist of the book comes into view, and appropriately it’s Sim’s most emblematic comic/dramatic character, Lord Julius, who runs Palnu, the country holding most of Iest’s debt. Lord Julius embodies the “comic relief is deadly serious” approach – it’s the modus operandi of his character, a ruler who uses obfuscation and confusion to achieve his aims. Or make people think whatever just happened were his aims in the first place, which works just as well. He does this by, obviously, being Groucho Marx, and his appearances are giddy tributes to classic gag comedy, especially when Chico Marx shows up as his fellow ruler Duke Leonardi.

When Lord Julius shows up on page, it’s a moment to take stock of how rapidly Dave Sim is developing as a cartoonist. While Sim gets a full page cliffhanger out of many returning characters, Julius glides discreetly into a scene in the lower background of multiple panels, an effect like the villain walking across the back of the set during a pantomime, and triggering similar delight in the audience. Sim’s panel transitions, his caricatures, and his sense of pacing are all getting better by the issue at this stage, and Lord Julius is a perfect showcase for all those skills.

Sim’s style, also, is fully shaking free of the early Windsor-Smith and Neal Adams influence – while those detail-rich artists are inspirations he’ll return to when he needs, across High Society he adopts what becomes his mature style. It’s a cleaner, simpler line which owes more to Will Eisner’s beautiful, flowing cartooning and Jules Feiffer’s looser, highly expressive caricatures. Both men were superb at capturing bodies in expressive motion, and Sim’s storytelling starts to centre more on movement across a fixed background.

At this stage not all the influences are fully integrated – some characters, like comedy hicks the McGrews, feel more purely Eisner to me; some, like Lord Stormsend and Filgate, could have walked out of a Feiffer strip. Others, like Astoria, have looks that don’t quite settle – Sim isn’t great yet at drawing womens’ faces, though the manipulative Astoria is one of the most compelling characters from almost her first appearance, so it didn’t put many readers off.

The second and especially the third act – Cerebus once he’s achieved power – create an impressive momentum: it’s the first part of Cerebus I wanted to binge-read, even if the internal politics of Iest are presented just earnestly enough to be boring and just frivolously enough to not feel important. (Sim, a deep cynic, is fascinated by politics, which appears to be full of people just as cynical). Those who are following along with the plotting and manoeuvring may still be wrong-footed, as Sim hides critical bits of plot (like what the Exodus Inward is) in chunks of text or side conversations, a way of hiding information in plain sight that he’ll use relentlessly in Church And State. It doesn’t work quite as well here as it will later, and Sim’s favourite technique of using comedy to move the actual drama along can help obscure important plot transitions.

But he pulls it all off in the end. The last 9-10 issues of High Society are dazzlingly paced, a chaotic mess of dread, triumph, hubris, disaster, plans and counter-plans, the desperation of seeing a situation slip away from you and a final bathos-soaked denouement (in an issue called “Denouement”). It genuinely feels like a payoff to the whole 600 page saga, one of the graphic novels that “sticks the landing” most gloriously.

So to go back to the original question – what was Dave Sim good at? Ultimately, pacing. Pacing at the level of a page, an issue, a storyline – all requiring very different skills. The individual moments that stick with me are little triumphs of one or two page storytelling, like the sequence with Lord Stormsend and the beacons. Those moments are all over High Society, threaded into a larger story which earns its payoff.

In some ways it’s a payoff to the whole of the comic so far. Cerebus gets the money and power he wants, he pursues his own agenda, and being Cerebus he fucks it up. One of the things I think late Sim and early Sim are quite consistent on is that Cerebus is not at all effective. He’s a success in the very short term arena of capers, fights and thinking on his feet. He’s smart enough to spot when someone’s trying to put one over on him (which is often) and good at thwarting them. But he is horrifically unsuited to any of the power he actually gets. The sections in the wider Cerebus story where he is acting decisively with a plan are often the sections where things end up going worst for him. They also tend to be the most compulsively readable parts. 

One tricky question this starts to raise is whether Cerebus the aardvark is the ‘hero’ of Cerebus the comic. I think one of the reasons High Society is so fondly thought of within the Cerebus corpus is that it’s one of the rare novels where, if you squint, he sort of is. For most of the series after High Society Cerebus is either active, or sympathetic, but not both at once – the big exception is the start of Mothers & Daughters, and Mothers & Daughters has its own issues far removed from anything the “little gray guy” is doing. 

Cerebus is – mostly – our protagonist, and Sim makes it clear early on he isn’t a conventionally heroic figure: he’s greedy, often ignorant and sometimes cruel. But while he’s not a hero, he is in the place a hero goes in the narrative – the sympathy character for the audience. (The main exception in High Society is the Jaka issue) He’s venal and selfish, but the forces he’s working with and against are all also venal and selfish. And besides, that’s his name on the comic.

This is where the bigger story of High Society, and Dave Sim’s broader insight about politics, come into play. The humour and drama of High Society both come from Sim playing on the trope of the outsider crashing the political system. But rather than our hero as a well meaning idealist manipulated by powerful forces, here our hero is a greedy and self-interested pragmatist who’s *still* manipulated by them. “Everybody’s on the make” is a cynical view of politics, and often a lazy one, but there’s also enough truth in it that it leaves me feeling High Society is genuinely ‘about’ politics rather than using it as a setting.

One of the things it’s been proven shrewd about is the role of outsiders in a political system. Cerebus is elected Prime Minister as, essentially, a populist. But he governs as a Napoleonic dictator – ignoring his promises, purging the system and using his power to launch a military war of conquest. The people and groups that elevated Cerebus prove utterly incapable of actually controlling him, despite his apparent uncouthness and ignorance. To unleash a populist outsider on politics is to risk politics itself. What it means to have such a figure in the hero’s place in a narrative would soon become more fully clear.