So. I’ve finished Cerebus The Aardvark. Twenty years after it ended, as promised, with its 300th issue, thirty years (roughly) after I gave up reading it, thirty-seven years (I think) since I saw my first issue of it.

At the time I stopped reading it I imagined I would pick it up again – my plan was to switch from monthly issues to the collected “phone books”. Whatever my personal beef with the comic and with Dave Sim, its writer and half of its art team, it seemed obvious that it was a major work which people would be reading for years to come.

About a year after I quit*, the comic became extremely controversial, and now, in 2024, it’s hardly read at all. The reason for this is Dave Sim (according to almost everybody who isn’t Dave Sim), and the marxist-feminist-homosexualist axis which controls modern culture (according to Dave Sim). That should also give you a flavour of why I never quite got round to finishing it.

The right has, to some extent, caught up with Dave Sim on this stuff. It’s no longer shocking to see phrases like that, in fact it’s exhaustingly familiar. Not that Sim is held up as a conservative prophet – he would probably have been a hero to the alt-right, but for the fact none of them want to wade through a 300 issue comic about a talking aardvark.

So why did I wade through it? Good question. Hopefully I’ll get around to answering it. Some of it’s nostalgia for a moment – brief as it feels now – when Cerebus was important to me. Some of it’s the fact that Dave Sim was a technically dazzling cartoonist and comics maker, restless in his pursuit of new things that could be done with the comics page. Until quite near the end he’s doing extraordinary things with layouts and lettering, and even at the end when the innovation has largely dried up he has bags of tricks that serve him extremely well. You can never entirely separate form and content (and Sim would be disgusted at the attempt, if resigned – he knows perfectly well the marxist-feminist-et-cetera has its claws in almost everyone) – but in comics maybe you can get closer than many things.

I’ve been reviewing the 16 individual volumes of Cerebus over on Goodreads. I’ll be posting those reviews here – tweaked in some cases now I’ve read the whole thing. This introductory post is a way of answering a very basic question: if you WERE going to read Cerebus The Aardvark, where should you start?

“In the beginning” is one answer, and probably the one if you are committed from the outset to tackling the entire 300-issue, 16-graphic-novel work. But Cerebus as a unitary work is problematic, even leaving out the later parts after Sim’s coming-out-party as an ‘anti-feminist’. For instance, the first volume is Sim learning on the job via a series of pastiches of Marvel’s Conan comic. These issues are pretty good Conan pastiches and get more interesting fairly quickly, but they aren’t Sim at his best. And in general, the stylistic and thematic variance in Cerebus is so great you’re probably better off being a bit more targeted.

So here’s a way of thinking about the comic aside from as a 300-issue story. It’s not really one overarching narrative, it’s three overlapping long narratives, which share some of the same material. Pick the one which holds most interest for you.

The first Cerebus is an epic satirical fantasy, which runs from Vol.1: Cerebus to Vol.10: Minds, though you can leave out the text material in Vol.9: Reads (and optionally in Vol.6: Melmoth). This version includes all the stuff people still say is good, like Church & State and Jaka’s Story. The best way of reading this is to start with Vol. 2: High Society, read a few issues, and if you like the way the story’s being told and are interested in the plot, put it down and then go back to Vol.1 to find out who everyone is. Read like this, Cerebus is a fairly coherent story with lots of excitement, great storytelling, good jokes, a couple of major digressions and a strange, probably unsatisfying but complete ending.

The second Cerebus is a domestic drama about a man and a woman who are unable to be happy apart or together (well, the man is an aardvark, but that’s less relevant in this version – you can think of it like Inio Asano’s Goodnight Punpun, with a non-human hero who is in any meaningful sense human). This one is the trickiest in terms of reading. The core parts are Vols 5-6 (Jaka’s Story and Melmoth) and Vols 11-14 (Guys to Form And Void), but it’s worth reading the handful of “Jaka” issues before that and the “what if?” sequence in Vol.10: Minds. Reading it this way gets you a complete if tragic story, Sim’s most mature writing and experimental designs, and also the best of his series-long love of characters based on real-world actors and authors. If you want to read this you should start with Vol 5: Jaka’s Story.

The third Cerebus is a highly experimental philosophical novel about the political, moral and theological journey of a writer, Dave Sim, and his creation, Cerebus, as they first explore relationships between men and women and later come to comprehend the divine implications of this initial understanding. It starts with the text sections of Vol.9: Reads and continues until Vol 16: The Last Day. The novel consists of a series of didactic dramas designed to illustrate the futility of marriage and romantic love, a set of utopian and dystopian outlines sketching possible societies arranged around this understanding, and climaxes with a close reading of the Torah and the revelation of a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, both centred on the natural incapacity of women to reason or create anything important. This is the stuff most people who read Cerebus got mad at, and they’re right, but if you do want to read this start with the “Viktor Davis” parts in Vol.9: Reads, and if you can stomach that good luck to you.

Or read the whole thing from Vol.1 (I warned you, though). Or ignore it entirely, like I didn’t.

*So incendiary was the issue where Sim published his ‘masculinist’ tract that I’d completely retconned my own quitting the book – I was off it well before.