This is the fourth in a series of posts on Cerebus The Aardvark, a comic I suggest you approach with caution if at all. As usual I’m including spoilers for the whole series, and not including much if any art. Church And State is one story published in two halves for size reasons, an arrangement my post mirrors.

Previously: In the first half of this 2-part post, Dave Sim started the longest Cerebus novel, Church And State. He recruited background artist Gerhard, who had an immediate effect on the look and quality of the comic. He also got divorced.



There are no great jumping on points for new readers in Cerebus (and a lot of great jumping off points for old ones), but every issue might be someone’s first and my first was the episode, a little over halfway through Church And State, where Cerebus meets Prince Mick and Prince Keef. It was not love at first read. I was 13, I only dimly understood who the Rolling Stones were, I had no idea why Cerebus was talking to them, and Dave Sim’s attempt at a British accent was indecipherable. Sheer bad luck – if my friend who bought it had been an issue earlier we’d have got the Secret Wars/Dark Knight parody, and that would have hooked us.


This read of Church And State might be the first time I’ve enjoyed the Mick n Keef stuff. It’s ultra-broad drug humour but the rhythms of Mick’s speech are a delight and the elegance of how Sim draws him, a languid swan of a creature like a Jules Feiffer dancer, is beautiful. It’s Sim having fun, and not really at anyone else’s expense, which is relaxing in a story in which mothers in law, fat women, skinny men, feminists, babies, peasants, artists and anyone else Sim likes are the butt of the broad, vengeful and (yes) often funny jokes, adding to the long established targets of politicians, bureaucrats, snobs, girlfriends, ex girlfriends, comics creators, characters and fans.


We aren’t yet at the stage at which Sim starts to grab the reader by the collar and yell that some of his basic jokes and barroom observations are actually a philosophy of life (and one of Sim’s recurring ideas, effectively used in Church And State, is that offhand comments turn into philosophies and accidents into traditions an awful lot). Church And State is a collection of comic or psychedelic or action riffs, like the Mick and Keef sequence, from a few pages to a few issues long, interspersed by moments of sudden seriousness. The seriousness of these moments in the rush of riffs makes them extremely effective – “Go to hell”; “Boom”; “It is”; Something fell”; “Alone unmourned and unloved” – as does the way the frequency of these beats increases until the final sequence (mostly a four issue monologue) gets an uncanny narrative weight from the rising momentum that’s led up to it.


Liberated from handling backgrounds, Sim’s art becomes more fluid, and his willingness to take up pages with wordless or decompressed action grows. He’s still calling the most formally adventurous issues “Mind Game” but the techniques he’s developing there start to bleed out into the rest of the story. Towards the end of Church And State I, there’s a sequence where the aardvark wakes from a particularly ominous dream and spends a few pages taking a piss, an early example of the deliberately mundane storytelling he’d return to again and again.


For the most part, Sim’s interest in decompressed action works to speed the comic up, not slow it down. Church And State is a story in which events outpace everyone who thinks they have a handle on what’s happening – first Weisshaupt, then Bishop Powers, then Astoria, and ultimately Cerebus himself. The storytelling is constantly accelerating, too – there are longeurs and dialogue-heavy issues but you can binge-read Church And State in a way that wasn’t so easy for High Society. Back then issues would often end with a punchline, a satisfying way to say “here’s a month’s break”, and Sim’s storytelling often used that to its advantage, using the gap between issues to shift the story dramatically – the jump before the final episode being the ultimate example. But in Church And State Sim exploits cliffhangers as ruthlessly as a Netflix series. From roughly when Cerebus becomes Pope, the story seems to hurtle forward, faster and faster, daring you to try and put it down. 


Sim’s cliffhanger game is excellent through most of Church And State. It’s the last time he’s revelling in the episodic nature of what he’s doing. “What’s going to happen next?” is the oldest hook in comics, and this is the point where Sim is using it better than he ever would again. It means he can gladden an old school comic geek’s heart by making sure his 100th issue has a major turning point, a genuine game-changing revelation on the final page. But Sim’s skill with cliffhangers creates an illusion that Church And State is a coherent story in the conventional, three-act way High Society was. And it’s not, or at least it doesn’t work that way for me. The serious moments aren’t the spine of plot, they’re just a different kind of riff in the ever crescendoing tumble of events.


A lot of the important bits and pieces around the Ascension storyline are given to minor characters and comic relief – the same technique Sim used in High Society: you get to be funny and advance the story at the same time by simply having the funny characters advance the story. Take the Roach: his ‘Secret Sacred Wars’ routines and the pursuit of Cerebus up the tower are solid parodies of mid-80s superhero melodrama in general and Frank Miller in particular. He’s probably never funnier. But Sim plays the pursuit simultaneously for laughs and not for laughs – it’s where he slips in the critical information that the Tower is growing, and we’re cued up by the desperate reaction of Astoria (one of the reliably serious characters) that what’s going on is properly important.


The Roach is a more interesting character than he looks. He’s a series of parodies, some good, some less good, but more than that he’s a character that’s always in dialogue with the story and mood of the comic: from High Society on he’s usually an exaggerated answer to the question “how would a normal (read: mainstream) comics character react to this stuff?”. He’s a piece of another comic transported into this one and forced to adapt, and his adaptations reveal the story as well as reflect it. That gets even clearer later, but the Secret Wars Roach, it seems to me, is a response to the fact that the action of the wider Cerebus plot really is approaching a moment of crisis – even beyond the fact there’s a 50 foot golem stomping around.


So is Church And State any good? For all the exhilaration of Dave Sim finding his mature style once Gerhard is there to complete the ‘look’ of Cerebus, for all the sprawl and scale of the story, for all the moment-to-moment, issue-to-issue brilliance, I’m not actually sure there’s much to it. High Society is deeply cynical about politics, but politics is a topic which feeds on cynicism and Sim ends up finding something interesting and true to say about it. But religion? Sim goes straight for the limit case, the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preaching the end of the world while lining his own pockets. In the 80s, this was almost a stock character, and while the sheer gall of Pope Cerebus pushes the satire into a zone of black farce, there’s something lazy about it too: you never get the impression Sim has thought about religion in the way he obviously had about politics.


Is it more interesting to read Church And State knowing where Dave Sim’s own religious journey ended up? Knowing about Sim’s politics doesn’t help a read of High Society – it probably clouds it. But Church And State is shallower on the surface about its intended topic, so reading it for clues that Sim was of God’s party without knowing it might help. Now, I’m writing this as an atheist myself, and I hope I stay one, but I think Church And State is rather good on the “moving in mysterious ways” side of the divine experience. The Ascension has rules (that nobody properly understands) but it doesn’t have an explanation for those rules, and scenes like the coins tearing out of the bags and Cerebus’ visions in the throne room retain a sense of the uncanny. Sim refuses to flatten the supernatural into a system, and leaves room for mystery – this is actually something he gets a lot worse at post-conversion.


It’s said of science fiction writer Gene Wolfe that his novels are built for the re-read: he tends to conceal or withhold information in ways that mean the second reading is where the book actually makes sense. This is overstating the case a little – the books are generally very rewarding on a first read too – but it’s certainly true that Wolfe is happy to leave a lot of work to the readers. Church And State is Dave Sim’s most Wolfeian novel: important pieces of plotwork and information are revealed in asides or comic scenes, and the motivation of almost everyone who isn’t Cerebus is only really clear quite late in the book, which changes your understanding of what’s been happening.


Understanding what’s going on in Church And State becomes a lot easier when you know that the story is heading towards the Ascension, because this is what every character in the book already knows – except the one who actually gets to Ascend. When you first read the conversation between Cerebus and the soon-to-be-previous Pope, it’s obviously freighted with meaning, but it seems mostly metaphorical – Weisshaupt is aiming for power, he’s arranging forces to achieve this, he’s dangerous, etc, and the Pope is using the card game Diamondback as a way to make Cerebus understand this. On a reread what the Pope is probably thinking is “Weisshaupt is trying to ascend into heaven and the attempt will most likely destroy the city”, and we realise Diamondback itself may be a metaphor for what people think happens in an Ascension.


The storyline of Church And State is based on a misunderstanding that comes true. Cerebus starts collecting all the gold and declares that the world is going to end. Every other main character – from Astoria to Thrunk – sees this as an attempt at an Ascension, this once-in-a-generation magical quest to go meet God, and reacts accordingly. But Cerebus doesn’t know that, and just wants the gold because he’s Cerebus and that’s what he does. In a story obeying the logic of politics, this would be a bit of ironic misdirection, like the Hsiffies turning out to be Conniptins in High Society. But Church And State obeys the logic of religion, so everyone who isn’t Cerebus is in fact right: doing the things which let you go up to heaven and meet God will, in fact, lead to you going up to heaven and meeting God.

44 WHAT?

“The Black Tower begins to rotate” – and after 40-plus issues of ratcheting momentum, the story reaches escape velocity and just… floats, into a climax that’s a four issue monologue by a character we’ve never seen before. What the hell, you might well ask, is going on? There are weirder things in Cerebus than the end of Church And State, but they’re almost all strange because they’re Dave Sim derailing his own comic. They aren’t what a whole novel has been leading up to. The only comparably audacious thing in Cerebus is the lurch into metafiction in Mothers & Daughters, and honestly, the finale of Church And State beats it. 


“Walking On The Moon” and the Judge’s monologue aren’t the last time Sim will collapse a story with something entirely unexpected, but it’s probably the last time he’ll carry a big part of his readers with him. Sim later on walked back most of what the Judge says, and took the negative reaction of readers as evidence they preferred the COMFORTING LIES of feminism to the HARD TRUTHS he was offering. But it’s hard to imagine many readers took the Judge’s cosmology seriously as a creation myth or even were wedded to it because it echoed their beliefs. It worked because it’s magnificently illustrated by Gerhard, beautifully paced by Sim, and puts a final, harsh capstone on Cerebus’ arc in the story. Making the big bang an act of cosmic violation makes the semi-divine judgement on Cerebus’ fate land harder, reminding us just who we’ve been reading about and what he’s recently done. People responded to it, I’d guess, as a literary success not a philosophical one.


Did Dave Sim intend the Judge to be wrong when he wrote the moon monologue? Like most “Did Dave Sim intend…?” questions it’s of limited use – the work is the work. But after Mothers & Daughters undoes a lot of the ending here, it’s a question many readers would ask. I’ve read a theory which claims Sim wrote Astoria’s rape, was shocked by the backlash he got, and came up with the Judge’s scenes a year later as a clumsy correction to persuade angry readers he (Sim) wasn’t the bad guy. I don’t believe this for a second – it seems so out of whack with the way Sim generally operated vis a vis reader feedback. But it’s also the case that Sim genuinely did persuade some readers into thinking Cerebus was a feminist comic. (My own guesses – and they are only guesses – on what Sim believed when can wait until Reads.)


Cerebus is not the only rapist-protagonist in 80s fantasy fiction. Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant is a rapist: it’s almost the first action he takes. Gene Wolfe’s Severian, from The Book Of The New Sun, is one too. Sexual violence had become a nasty trope, a way to differentiate a new breed of lead characters from the noble heroes of post-Tolkien quest fantasy, to signal to readers that even as they followed these men through the story, they should not expect to like their actions. But like and dislike, approval and disapproval, identification and non-identification aren’t switches to be flicked on and off at the gift of the author. In Watchmen, Alan Moore ran into the problem that there was no degradation he could visit on Rorshach that would not make him seem a badass. (Rape is crucial to that story, too, though The Comedian is never a protagonist. But he is the guy whose badge you can buy.) To give Sim some credit, he had no intention of using sexual violence as part of a hero’s redemption arc, a la Donaldson. To withdraw that credit right away, where he ended up with Astoria’s rape was even worse.


Only Dave Sim knows whether response to the rape scene surprised him, but the event itself is obviously a pivotal one in Cerebus, and he returned to it three times. Once in the Judge’s monologue, and once in Astoria’s own recollections of it in Reads, where she claims she manipulated Cerebus into doing it. And then finally in Latter Days, where Cerebus does the “instant marriage” gambit again, this time consensually, and it works out dreadfully for him again. This final revisiting underlines textually what Sim had said in interviews all along – that for him the important element was the misuse of papal power, not the issue of sexual consent. (So maybe he was wrong-footed by the uproar)


Cerebus raping Astoria is the end – you would think (or perhaps hope) of Cerebus as hero – or, as I hedged in the High Society piece, of Cerebus as character-in-the-place-a-hero-goes. But this is the same character who, 25 or so issues earlier, threw a baby off a roof, an incident Astoria actually reminds us of in her conversation with Cerebus. How was he still a hero-shaped-character after that? This is an example of where the tonal shifts between comedy and drama in Church And State are treacherous – the terrible things Cerebus does that you laugh at are, to the other characters, still very terrible. But Sim can’t actually evade those shifts completely – tone does still matter, and Astoria’s rape is part of a sequence which plays out mostly as drama, which is why it’s not hypocritical for an imagined reader to read it as horrific and the baby scene as jet-black satire.


The most powerful sequence of covers in Church And State is the run from #94-#98, Astoria’s interrogation and the opening part of her trial, which includes the scene where Cerebus rapes her. This is the most claustrophobic, emotional, and dramatically intense part of the entire novel, and the covers reflect that, but in an unusual way: snapshots of moments of action (Cerebus pulling at Astoria’s chains; Cerebus unfurling a scroll), so zoomed-in you see every cross-hatched line, like beads of sweat in a movie close-up. This is a moment of crisis in these characters’ lives and in the wider plot: every action is appallingly consequential. While time seems to stop on the covers, inside Sim is slicing it up, using thin vertical panels to carve the page and the characters’ dialogue into staccato beats, showing slivers of scenes in a way that completely upends any usual panel-to-panel flow but keeps driving the action inexorably forward, however much we might prefer to look away from it.


Wherever in the book you think it happens, by the closing act of Church And State Cerebus is a more monstrous figure than he’s ever been. He’s still the protagonist though, the narrative is still about his un-knotting his problems – and while those problems are the ridiculous Fred and Ethel monster, or the anonymous power of the Sepran Empire, the narrative pushes the reader onto his side. But in an important sense by the time he meets the Judge readers are ready for that Judgement not to go his way.


“You will die alone, unmourned and unloved” is a prophecy that hangs over the remaining 189 issues of Cerebus like a curse. If as readers we’ve been primed to feel that Cerebus has earned retribution, as comic readers we understand how powerful this particular retribution is. The character we’ve followed for over a hundred issues, and whose life we’re ready to follow for almost 200 more, has had the possibilities of that life brutally cut down. The Judge has issued the ultimate sanction, and for a fictional character the ultimate sanction is also the ultimate spoiler.


I said that Sim persuaded some readers Cerebus was a feminist comic; on reflection I’m not sure he actually did. What it had a reputation as, and not just among men, was a comic with good, rounded, interesting women characters. Astoria in High Society, Michelle in Church & State, Jaka throughout. Set against this there are the caricatures – Sophia and her Mother, the fat chambermaid in the Regency, and so on. But there are a host of male stereotypes and caricatures as well, though the situations Boobah or Posey find themselves in aren’t as stock as the mother-in-law joke. Sim was not – or not until much later – the kind of misogynist who was uninterested in women or ignorant of them. Like most great caricaturists he was a keen observer of speech and behaviour, even if his understanding of women grew increasingly bizarre, so later on there’s often a mask of observation over a core of misogynist ideology. But it’s only once the Cirinists make their presence fully felt that he can start writing them as creatures of undifferentiated malice.


So I don’t think Cerebus’ rep for good women characters was unjust – Astoria and Michelle are interesting to read about and given depth by the script in ways none of the men in Church And State are bar Weisshaupt and Cerebus himself (inasmuch as he’s ever given depth). But there are caveats. One is that in 70s and early 80s comics we are very much grading on a curve. With most of Cerebus’ finer qualities you have to put Sim’s work in the context of a mainstream that was mostly hackwork and an nascent indie scene struggling to make headway after the decline of the undergrounds in the 70s. Put Sim’s writing of Astoria up against a random supporting character from a well-regarded mainstream writer from ‘82-’83 – an Englehart or Moench, say – and it’ll stand out. But it wouldn’t necessarily come off as anything special to a new reader now. And next to a contemporary like, say, Lynda Barry – an observer of people who actually likes them – his women characters seem jejune.


The two sections of Church And State featuring the Countess, Michelle – found at the beginning of Volumes I and II of the story – are another opportunity to see how Sim’s synergy with Gerhard took the comic up a level. Both chunks of story are very similar: Cerebus is licking his wounds after a catastrophic defeat, and links up with the Countess, a mysterious but knowledgeable woman. The Countess comes with an entourage of dimwits – including the Roach – and both times the basic action of the story involves her trying to explain something important to Cerebus while a Roach-driven farce happens in the background. In her first appearance Michelle lives in a mansion, but what we see of it is suggestion – a staircase here, an entrance there, a few couches or chairs. In her second, she’s keeping house for her idiot sidekicks in a small urban cottage, and with Gerhard drawing interiors it feels like a real place, with the physical comedy using the layout of the house – stairs and cellars – to great effect.


The Countess is a cryptic character, one of two women Cerebus lands (literally) in the house of who seem considerably more clued-up than almost anyone else in the comic. Like Serna later, I’m drawn to her as a reader, I want to know and see more. Both turn out to have a similar back story – formerly major political players who are now, by choice or by force, removed from the action, no longer intervening or manipulating things. (Or at least, until their chance encounter with Cerebus). Both busy themselves with things which are stereotypically the preserve of women – cooking, cleaning, knitting, making tea, reading romance novels, looking after dumbass men. These are good characters, but knowing what we later know about Dave Sim’s idea of women, it’s hard for me not to see them as his ideal of a woman – one who gives up her vampiric powers and retires to the quiet life.


With most artists who fall from grace because of their views, you can see a number of critical lines develop, most defensible on some level but all, I think, ultimately springing from the same, highly sympathetic impulse: I would rather not be reading stuff by a person who thinks these things. The two extremes of opinion – “they were never any good in the first place” and “their towering genius leaves me no choice” – in fact share this basic urge. The cry of the moderate – “separate the art from the artist” – is impossible in Sim’s case; more honest to say, as many do, that Sim’s views make his art intolerable even if it’s brilliant and refuse to read it entirely. The question of Sim’s politics and life and their effect on how we see his work is really one for the final post in this series. But Church And State is where the gravity of that question first starts to drag on the reader, especially if they’re trying to ask a more pertinent one: is Church And State any good?


Is Church And State any good? What I’ve been trying to obliquely argue in these posts is that to get the most out of this novel you have to come at it in a frame of mind that accepts the comic on its own terms – chaotic, fractured, storytelling; constant digressions; marrow-deep cynicism; and a quickening pace that ultimately asks you to simply have faith that what’s happening makes sense on some wider level. Literary comparisons to comics were in vogue in the 1980s, so here’s one – I get something of the same dizziness and acceleration from Church And State as I did when I read Gravity’s Rainbow; it’s the most Pynchonian part of comics’ most Pynchonian work. Which makes it the best part? I guess so.


Was Church And State any good? When it finished it must have felt like a masterpiece – a strange, cultish one, to be sure, already drifting out from the centre of the comics conversation, following its own weird elliptical. But in its ambition, scope, variety, and Sim’s technical development, it was an extraordinary achievement. And it still is, but – even if you can sidestep the shadow of later Cerebus – time has done funny things to it. It’s not a question of feeling dated. The comics industry in-jokes have, god help us, aged well: events are still events, Wolverine is still Wolverine. But the whole style of cartooning Sim drew on has slipped further into the past. He was always an old soul – the Exile-era Stones about the most recent reference point he uses outside whatever the Roach is parodying – and his cartooning blends 30s, 40s and 50s newspaper strips and comics with the mainstream realism of the early 70s. A genuine pioneer in a business sense, artistically Sim feels more and more like a culmination, not a trailblazer.


“Alone, unmourned and unloved” is also a promise and a warning to the reader. We have read Cerebus at his peak. The good times have rolled. Cerebus The Aardvark is not going to be anything like it used to be from now on. The issue after Church And State – not in the collections, which I think was a mistake – is called “Square One”. A devastated Cerebus returns to a devastated, conquered Iest and the ruins of his base. He has lost almost everything. There is a very good punchline which I won’t spoil. “Square One”, though, is a lie of a title. It implies Cerebus has gone back to his beginning, that he can start up again. This, you might think, is a breathing space before the next adventure begins. It isn’t. The tone of “Square One” – Cerebus as a passive wreck of a creature – sustains itself for the next three years.