(This is the third part of a series about Dave Sim’s Cerebus The Aardvark. As before, I’m not trying to get you to read this comic, just scratching a discursive itch, so it’s spoiler-heavy and artwork-light. Church And State, the third Cerebus “novel”, is one story published for size reasons in two parts. My write-up mirrors this arrangement.)

Previously: With a planned 300 issues to run, Dave Sim shifts the storytelling in Cerebus from one-offs to longer “novels”. The first of these, High Society, details the aardvark hero’s career as Prime Minister of the fantasy city-state of Iest. It is commercially and creatively a great success…



When I first read Church And State I thought it was “the one about religion” in the way High Society is “the one about politics”. And it kind of is, but not in the way I would have meant then. Cerebus’ antics as Pope are a satire of religion in the way Princes Mick and Keef are a satire of rock stars, a comic bit based on already existing stereotypes the readers have about “fundamentalists” and “rock stars” so Sim can turn that stuff up to 11. That’s already a difference from High Society, which for much of its story turns politics into other things – like Marx Brothers routines or comics conventions – in order to capture the vibe of the political without getting into the detail. So even though it bears little relation to ‘real’ politics it provides quite a subtle portrait of what it’s like to get caught up in it.


A better way of comparing High Society and Church And State is that beyond just being “about” politics and religion, the two novels obey the logic of politics and the logic of religion. So in High Society the drama and plot partly comes from the fact that politics has rules. We as readers can intuit at least some of those rules (and get some more explained to us), and we get to understand the extent to which Cerebus can and can’t break them. In Church And State, the supernatural or divine also has rules, but Cerebus doesn’t know what they are, and we don’t either, and the characters who think they do (like Weisshaupt or Fred/Ethel) tend to be proved fatally wrong. We have no way of telling which set of characters, caricatures, weird happenings, strange encounters, dreams, and so on is important, and nobody in the comic has a reliably better handle on that stuff.


Cerebus may have been written by (at the time) an atheist, but it’s a comic and a world in which supernatural agency clearly exists but is not necessarily comprehensible. As readers we’re forced to read the story from a position of faith (that this stuff will make sense). We’re like a soothsayer with a set of entrails, looking for patterns among the chaos. The most obvious pattern we latch onto is tone – the serious stuff must matter more and be truer because it’s serious. Which turns out, as in High Society, to be somewhat treacherous.


Church And State doesn’t really begin in the conventional sense. It’s unusual in this. High Society opens with an episode called “High Society”. Jaka’s Story gets a title page. Mothers & Daughters even has an epigraph! There is no story called “Church And State”, no title page; people even disagree on its first issue. For our purposes it starts with Cerebus in a pub, writing his memoirs, and getting into a fight. Right after that, the comic seems to be spinning its wheels, doing a reprise of the original Astoria-and-the-Roach issue with a new character, Michelle. A few issues after that, Cerebus is Prime Minister again. A few issues after that, he’s the Pope, and all Heaven breaks loose.


The first year or so of Church And State must have been odd to follow as a monthly reader. It’s good, it’s funny, but it’s also a conscious mirror to the story that’s just finished. Seven months after his dreams of power ended, Cerebus is back in office. This is our first look at one of Sim’s big structural techniques: he likes to repeat and reconsider situations and story set-ups. Mothers & Daughters starts by remixing the barbarian stories of Volume 1; the F Stop Kennedy section of Going Home is a refinement of the Jaka’s Story set-up; and so on. So before the main action of Church And State can start, we have to speedrun High Society again. Which recasts High Society – plotwise – as a sort of failed Church And State, which in turn mirrors how the action of Church And State is a failed version of what ends up happening successfully in Mothers & Daughters. Important events ripple and echo (“Something fell!”); nothing is coincidental. Before Dave Sim believed in anything else, he believed in that. 


Is Church And State any good, though? It’s the heart of the Cerebus narrative. Ascensions, Cirinism v Kevillism, Tarim and Terim, Cerebus’ grab for power and its long fallout, Jaka’s marriage – this is what the rest of the comic is ‘about’ from a plot perspective, even if it’s rarely this direct again. As such it doesn’t really stand alone in the way the first two volumes did: it reads, ironically more so than Vol 1, as an episode in a wider fantasy series. It’s the first Cerebus volume where the details of the – forgive the jargon – world-building feel like they really matter. You can pinpoint the moment the comic enters the realm of the Fantasy Epic, too – Weisshaupt’s dying croak of “There are THREE aardvarks”, a development that is only interesting or significant if you buy into the tropes of high fantasy storytelling. But readers who enjoy Church And State as part of such an epic should also be aware that the rest of the story takes great pains not to be one.


Sim talked later in interviews about how a large chunk – even most – of his readership saw the barbarian stories as “the real Cerebus” and everything else as increasingly baroque deviations. Any reader coming to it now, knowing what Cerebus is as a whole, will have an almost opposite view. Inasmuch as Cerebus himself has a point of view on his own stories, you suspect he’d agree with the old school readers. And the comic continually flirts with giving those readers what they want, all the way up to the cliffhanger of issue #299. But the beginning of Church And State is the last time the comic actually could have gone in that direction – Cerebus on the road again, sword in hand. With hindsight I think Sim protested too much, and many Cerebus readers were staggeringly tolerant. Still, from now on every volume will find new ways to drive some away.


Even though Church And State is the centre of the Cerebus story, if you had to sit down and describe what happens you’d rapidly have to admit that it doesn’t make a lot of linear sense – actions and outcomes are evident but causal mechanisms aren’t: that’s religion for ya! What you’re left with is an experience – a sense that something meaningful has occurred.


One area the chaos of Church And State is reflected is its issue covers. Later Cerebus novels mostly take a far more controlled approach to cover design – they announce the title on the cover, for a start, but they also tend to impose a unified scheme on each novel’s individual issues, reflecting the reality that the monthly issues were simply becoming less important than the ‘phonebooks’. But during Church And State the issues were still king, which partly explains why the storyline is so freewheeling. Cerebus 100 is Cerebus 100, not also “Church And State: 49”, and its cover is a montage of previous Cerebus art. Elsewhere the cover styles flip around continually – three Miller Wolverine pastiches in a row (which Marvel rapped Sim’s knuckles for); a run of the panel-on-wallpaper effect he’d use more consistently in Reads; a trio of what are apparently Bill Sienkiewicz imitations; and finally the group of photorealistic images of the moon and lunar landscapes. 


When I first read Church And State, I thought the issue titles were particularly badass – another accoutrement of mainstream comics Sim soon dropped. For much of Church And State they’re draped on the covers too, oblique little phrases which feel like Rush or Pink Floyd album tracks as often as they mark points in the story itself. For every “Talking To Tarim” there’s a “Hovering Above The Fray” or “Varying Reasons Of Assorted Depths”. (“Anything Done For The First Time Unleashes A Demon”: oh yeah, that’s on the Nick Wright side of Ummagumma right?) Fair dos – Church And State is the prog rock triple LP of 80s comics: heavy themes, technical virtuosity, and life-alteringly cool or irredeemably embarrassing according to where in the culture you find yourself. No wonder punk rockers like Los Bros Hernandez didn’t like Cerebus.


Behind the scenes Church And State is marked by a departure and an arrival. The arrival is of Gerhard, who draws backgrounds from issue #65 and makes an instant impact on the comic. The departure, a little before, is of publisher Deni Loubert, formerly Deni Sim, whose divorce from Dave Sim is often cited as the reason Sim – and Cerebus – took the anti-feminist turns they did. Even now when Sim is mentioned casually it’s often in terms of his being “one of the most divorced men of all time”, up there with Elon Musk and Scott Adams. Loubert herself, though, in an interview given after Sim published his anti-feminist manifesto in Cerebus #186 at the end of Reads, said its views reflected what her ex had always been like, painting a picture – which Reads honestly does nothing to dispel – of a man terrified of his emotions and of the loss of control over them that women represent.


Cerebus the character is not Dave Sim, but the story of Cerebus the comic is also the story of Dave Sim, and real people from Sim’s own personal and professional life show up in it, only sometimes disguised. If you’re to take Cerebus seriously, you have to take the hard biographical interpretation of Dave Sim seriously – the idea that his divorce and other failed relationships pushed him into the positions (some might say corners) he ended up in. You also have to take seriously the possibility that mental illness – the “borderline schizophrenia” he writes about, or something else – is behind some of his obsessions. But it seems to me that both are true but also limited. Every creator is shaped by their personal experiences – their upbringing, health, love, background, identity. To assume that some of those experiences are a kind of skeleton key to their work feels reductive, even when the ideas in the work are as extreme as Dave Sim’s became.


One reason the biographical read of Cerebus is limiting is that it disguises a two way process. Very obviously, just as Dave Sim’s life changed Cerebus, the act of doing Cerebus changed Dave Sim’s life. Sim’s religious conversion while researching Rick’s Story is the most clear-cut example, but his divorce gives us another. Assuming Deni Loubert is right, and Sim’s bubbling gynophobia was the cause, not a symptom, of his divorce, the biggest change to come about because of it is that Sim suddenly becomes the sole publisher as well as sole creator of Cerebus, which raises his profile as a businessman as well as an artist. During the time publishing Church And State he’s also having public fights with distributors and refining his hardline view of the rights, duties and supremacy of the creative artist in comics.


Sim’s main vehicle in Cerebus for commenting on the publishing business and commercial art is his concept of “reads”. Once we’re past the comic’s barbarian phase, where everything looks like a D&D module, the level of technology and culture in Estarcion (Cerebus’ home continent) draws on anything from the early modern to the Victorian eras, and reads are the Cerebus version of 18th century pamphlets or 19th century penny dreadfuls – cheap entertainment for the growing literate population. Later on, the reads industry more explicitly becomes the comics industry, but in Church And State it’s a propaganda tool ruthlessly exploited by Weisshaupt, the ally-manipulator-antagonist for the first half of the novel.


Weisshaupt is a great idea for a character. His basic deal is that he’s an Enlightenment man – his clothes are a dead giveaway – in a pre-Enlightenment world, and to get what he wants he uses the tools of the Enlightenment: statecraft, rationality, propaganda and gunpowder. A ruthless, rapacious Thomas Jefferson or George Washington let loose in a fantasy kingdom – naturally he’s terribly successful. Most of the characters in Church And State, and none more so than him, are on the “political logic” side of the story, assuming they’re in a narrative about deals and plots and self-interest. This is why they end up losing. Weisshaupt’s realisation of the kind of story he’s actually in, in the moments before his death, is one of the most terrifying and effective in the Cerebus run.


Cerebus’ 300 issues is – or was at the time – the record stretch of comic book issues by a single creator. For 236 of those, from Gerhard’s arrival with #65, it was also one of the longest collaborations in comics history, a 15-year stretch which started magnificently and ended with Gerhard apparently counting the months until he could be free of the work. If Gerhard’s work on those later books isn’t up to the standards of his run from Church And State through Guys – and some of it is still extraordinary – it’s partly because Sim simply stopped caring about giving his artistic partner interesting things to draw. But in Church And State, that’s not an issue, and his arrival is a creative levelling-up that it’s hard to find comics parallels for. Looking at the issues just before Gerhard, Sim doing the rest of the run as a solo joint is almost inconceivable: for all the hard work before, #65 is the moment completing the 300-issue project became possible.


Read those issues immediately before Gerhard joins the title and you see immediately why he was needed. In several sequences Sim has essentially given up on backgrounds – like his great influence Jules Feiffer, his characters are often interacting in blank space. We can imagine the Regency Hotel or the gardens of Iest – we’ve seen them recently enough – but Sim is barely drawing any of it. And while parts of the comic are as good as ever, it’s starting to affect the storytelling. When Lord Julius and Duke Leonardi show up to bamboozle Weisshaupt, Julius glides into the scene as he did in High Society, but without a background it’s not nearly as visually effective.


If you want to see what Gerhard brought to Cerebus, the cover of Church And State I shows the two artists at their best. A wraparound picture, it shows a two storey brick hotel with a long extension and a mansard roof on the main building. The hotel faces onto a square with more houses in the same style – which look less elaborate and elegantly built, with more wood against the brick. Behind them rears up a black mountain, oddly arranged in curtain-like folds – at the point nearest to us we see that the rock is made up of monstrous, gargoyle-like faces. All this is drawn by Gerhard, with his exquisite eye for providing detail and weight to architecture without having it overwhelm the composition or distract from the action.


Gerhard draws the scenery on the cover of Church And State I; Sim draws the characters. That’s the division of labour throughout their run together. And on that cover, Sim goes wild. The square is full of a crowd, hollering, cheering, begging as they raise their skinny arms and gawp at a tiny figure standing pontificating on the hotel chimney stack: Cerebus. The crowd are all different, rapturous grotesques – men, women, the young and the old, many infirm or injured, jammed into the picture to get a glimpse of their Pope. Sim’s face- and figure-work is way ahead of anything he was doing even during the High Society era – cartoon people as expressive and vivid as the Gerhard-drawn world they inhabit is tangible and detailed.


Gerhard is a background artist, a rarity in western comics where the comic-making process tends to separate artistic duties between penciller, inker, colourists and letterers. But it’s not a rarity in animation, as I understand it, and it’s certainly a technique used in manga production. In many Naoki Urasawa comics, for instance, there’s a similar division of labour – Urasawa, like Sim fascinated by the face and its expressions, is free to draw his motley cast while a number of assistants place them in the evocative surroundings of 90s East Germany or early 70s Japan. But these comparisons do no justice to Gerhard: he’s not an anonymous assistant learning his trade, but a master craftsman in his own right, a man who’s refined one particular aspect of comics-making to a near-perfect level. Sim’s luck in finding Gerhard can’t be overstated, and he knew it – he gave his new partner free rein, and a share in ownership of the comic. 


The pre-Gerhard issues are Sim visibly straining himself to carry the burden of creating and publishing a monthly comic. But they also have a couple of absolutely wonderful uses of lettering – the skill that really comes to define the middle stretch of Cerebus. There’s the scene where the recently enpontiffed Cerebus bullies the timorous Bishop Posey, his blocky, rectangular, thick-bordered word balloons coming in from off-panel and literally pinning Posey against the panel borders. There’s also the scene where Weisshaupt takes Cerebus up to the roof in a rainstorm, and the word balloons themselves, slanted and full of big grey letters, feel battered by the storm – they convey exactly what shouting to someone through a storm is like.


Recruiting Gerhard was a masterstroke because it liberated Sim to do the things he was already experimenting with better. He could work out his slight weakness in faces and figures, and continue to try out ways of making conversation – the basic unit of a Cerebus story – feel dynamic on the page. In High Society he’d developed the technique of moving figures across a static background and found it could work brilliantly – Gerhard let him concentrate on that animation-style feel to his paneling. But Gerhard’s painstaking creation of the houses and rooms Cerebus moved through opened up other options too – allowing Sim to start concentrating on the dynamics of groups of people in small, clearly-defined spaces.


The high point of Sim as a monthly storyteller was also – not by coincidence – his high point as a seller of monthly comics. At some point during Church And State Cerebus’ sales peaked at somewhere above 30,000 per month. In today’s market this would make a creator-owned book a major hit, able to run as long as its authors wanted. In an interview with The Comics Journal Sim waved aside allegations of success, pointing out how tiny his sales were compared to market leader X-Men, which shifted 400k a month for Marvel, and mentioning Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an indie comic which far outsold his. Still, if he wasn’t quite as high selling as Elfquest or quite as acclaimed as Love And Rockets, 30,000 sales as a self-published title was remarkable. Sim found himself as de facto leader of a creator’s rights movement in indie comics, a position he took very seriously.

24 ’86

While Dave Sim was clearly ahead of most of his peers in acceleration and development, the gap was narrowing: Church And State coincides with 1986, the annus mirabilis of ‘mature comics’ as a mainstream force, the year of Maus and The Dark Knight Returns’ breakout successes in bookstores, of the first issues of Watchmen, of the emergence of the golden generation of early 90s alternative cartoonists (Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, et al). Oh, and the rise of Love And Rockets, whose creators had little time for Cerebus – and Sim made sure to mention he felt their work was lacking too, though it was strong enough to get Sim thinking about his next novel. Meanwhile, in comic shops, the black and white boom (and bust) in self-published or small-publisher indie comics turned Sim into a figurehead for a wave of self-publishers. Cerebus showed up as an honoured guest of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the book which launched this armada. 


The 1986 perfect storm of media attention and indie product glut should have been a triumphant moment for Cerebus – by almost any standards one of the best regular comics on the market. But for Sim it was a double-edged sword. He was lashed to the mast of a thick-continuity, monthly series sold only in comic shops, in the middle of a 60 part storyline about an Aardvark who becomes Pope. Sure, it was brilliant, but a very different sort of brilliant to the comics grabbing media attention. The cognoscenti knew that Cerebus The Aardvark was doing things closer in ambition to Maus than to Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters. This would not have been obvious to the press. Or, for that matter, to kids walking into comic shops looking for Turtles books.


Dave Sim’s sense of allegiance to the indie comics scene is most obvious in Church And State near the end, when Bob Burden’s surreal post-superhero Flaming Carrot shows up for an issue, as a chance encounter inside the ascending Black Tower. It’s a jarring sequence, shattering the epic pretensions of the Ascension storyline and setting up a set of issues massively removed in tone from anything you might have expected. The sudden intrusion of an entirely different art style to Sim’s makes the issue doubly strange – a genuine irruption of the uncanny even in the anything-goes universe of Cerebus


Is, I say, is Church And State any good? It’s the end of the ‘early funny ones’. There’s a pretty definitive moment they end, too, in Astoria’s prison cell, after which the polarity of Cerebus switches. After Church And State we see a lot less of Sim’s old favourite trick, of the comic relief advancing the plot, and a lot more cosmology, philosophising, and slow-paced domestic drama. The jokes never quite leave Cerebus (there’s a whole book where Sim is at least trying to be funny) but Church And State is their peak. Nothing dulls funny moments more than repeating them, but when I think of the things that make me laugh most in Cerebus – Scorz, Most Holy getting robed, what Prince Keef would do with his gold – they’re generally from Church And State. It’s not the last time Cerebus is innovative or impressive or moving. But it’s the last time it’s fun.


One of the funniest things in Church And State isn’t Dave Sim’s invention at all. A reviewer in The Comics Journal praised Mrs Henrot-Gutch, Cerebus’ mother-in-law, as a great comic creation. And she is! Just not Dave Sim’s. My own Gran used to love Giles’ cartoons for the Daily Express, and had piles of his collections around her house, so I immediately recognised his most famous character “Grandma”, who Sim had basically sampled. Grandma’s unlicensed cameo is a snapshot of the good and bad in Sim’s sense of humour. In Giles she’s a force of immobile but unstoppable malignancy, a creature no busybody or do-gooder could withstand. For Sim she’s a mother-in-law joke, but Sim gets his best laughs from cracking the mask of immobility, making her sudden motion into the punchline. The best jokes in Cerebus may be remembered by one-liners, but the laughter is always from the cartooning too.


Church And State is structurally looser than Cerebus ever would be again. Sim talked about how valuable High Society had been in letting him realise what he could actually do in 500 pages (less than he imagined, was the gist). Jumping to 1200 didn’t, it seems to me, greatly increase the thematic complexity or depth of the novel. Instead it offered a different way of resolving the “wider story vs chasing-an-urge” dilemma I outlined in the High Society piece – build a structure big enough to do both at liberty. Church And State is a patchwork of styles, shifting focuses, tonalities; a shaggy god story in which what an issue contributes in terms of vibe is as important as what it contributes in terms of plot.


So it’s fitting that this is the only Cerebus storyline to be split into two volumes of the same title. Church And State is too much – in the hippie-descriptive, not judgemental, sense. An overload, a story that refuses a shape, a whole that is not more than the sum of its parts because it breaks down into those parts as soon as you try and contemplate it.

NEXT: In the second half of this post, I look more at the actual story of Church And State – the Ascension, the Judge’s monologue, and the Astoria scenes, with thoughts on Sim’s pacing, Sim’s women characters, and how the whole story holds up today.