This is the 10th in a series of posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, a 300-issue comic series of some notoriety. As usual, lots of story spoilers, particularly in these later volumes where a lot of people quit reading.

Previously: The epic Mothers & Daughters storyline took a surprising turn as Dave Sim inserted himself into the comic, in the persona of ‘Viktor Davis’, to present a philosophy of men as rational lights and women as emotional voids, disgusting many readers. Meanwhile, Cerebus and Cirin fought before being blasted into space…

Minds is the first ending of Cerebus – if you were reading the comic for the fantasy elements, for the story of Cerebus’ rise, fall and comeback that began in earnest with High Society and climaxed with his brutal one-on-one fight with Cirin in Reads, that finishes here.

Except, honestly, it sort of doesn’t. Parts of those things – the disposition of power in Dave Sim’s fantasy world; how Cerebus deals with authority and success – do recur in future books. The broad arc of Cirin’s matriarchy and Cerebus’ part in its downfall is left for later. We’ll see many characters of note again at least once, even if Mothers & Daughters is the end for most of the fan favourites. I think what people mean when they say that Cerebus finishes with #200 – the end of Minds – is that Mothers & Daughters is the last time the book regularly feels like it did in its heyday, the commercial peak of Church And State. Cerebus has already proved it can break that template: this is the final time it returns to it.

From Cerebus Vol 1, to High Society, to Church And State, to Mothers & Daughters, the ever expanding fantasy sweep of Cerebus reaches its furthest limits in Minds. Cerebus will never go as far as he does in this book, will never encounter a higher power than the one he talks to here. Of the six books that remain, the next four are intimate and domestic: a transition just as total as the gear-shift from Church And State into Jaka’s Story.

Also there’s a practical issue. For a lot of readers, Cerebus ends at #200 because with Reads Dave Sim has taken the comic and his artistry into areas they aren’t willing to fund. Anecdotally you hear about a lot of people who quit during or after Reads, and another chunk who stuck it out until the end of Minds before dropping the comic. The remaining readers certainly don’t all agree with Dave Sim, but they’re invested enough in his and Gerhard’s artistry to want to see where he takes it. For the rest, Minds is the end of Cerebus whether Sim says it is or not.

Let’s take it on those terms, then. Is it a good ending, does it fulfil the promise of High Society and Church And State II? Yes. No. It depends. First the good news: Minds is a considerably friendlier book than Reads. Sim isn’t exactly working to regain readers’ trust (as will become even clearer, he doesn’t care, and I don’t think he could have made the good parts of Cerebus if he did.) But he’s not trying to actively alienate them either. The action of Minds is extremely strange, but it’s linear and legible: there’s no fractured storytelling or parallel text narratives.

Minds is also a beautifully told story, the Sim/Gerhard pairing on peak form. As Cerebus (and Cirin) voyage through the solar system, the sheer scale of the cosmic journey is spectacular thanks to Gerhard’s environmental storytelling. Comics’ gain was Krautrock LP sleeves’ loss. Thanks to him we feel the monstrous regard of Jupiter’s eye; the utter desolation of ravaged Pluto. Sim is drawing his heart out too, from the desperate aardvarks clinging to what’s left of their throne to the “what if” sequences exploring alternative futures for Cerebus if he married Jaka. There’s a page near the end which uses a silhouette in a way that’s devastating, unforgettable, and one of the artistic high points of the whole series.

There’s much less formal visual experimentation in Minds, but what there is works superbly. In the flashbacks to Cerebus’ boyhood and his mutilation with a kitchen knife, Sim really starts to work out how to use overlaid panels to suggest linked moments or passages of action, a trick he’ll use regularly from now on. The section in which the force of Cirin’s telepathic denial literally breaks all other thought and speech bubbles is wonderful. And the “injury to the eye” section is a highly disturbing, highly effective mix of point-of-view cartooning and expressive lettering, even if the payoff is a Pink Floyd lyric.

So it’s possible to enjoy reading Minds in a way it wasn’t possible to enjoy reading the deliberately gruelling, alienating Reads. There’s no text lumps, no whiplash shifts in pace, no brain-curdling gynophobia. And yet Reads happened. Viktor Davis may no longer be in the room with us right now, but his opinions linger, and he is, in some sense, writing this comic.

The promise of Cerebus has always been that when you turn a page you might see something you’ve never seen done in comics before. But after Reads, you also know that when you turn a page you might see Sim trying to persuade you that you or your partner or your friend is a brain leech. It creates, shall we say, a barrier. Sim is on his best behaviour in Minds – he has a job to finish, and it’s not until later books that the ideas presented in Reads bubble noxiously back up to the surface of Cerebus. But this isn’t a comic you can read innocent of what Sim thinks any more: there is no separation of art from artist after Reads, and that’s the way he wanted it.

So it looks very good, and it feels somewhat bad, but how is it as an ending to the story? Minds starts with Cerebus and Cirin, accelerating through space on the remains of their throne, arguing telepathically about whose ascension this actually is. The two aardvarks are still willing to kill one another, but a strange force prevents them touching, and splits their platform in two to continue their voyagings apart. Cerebus, terrified as he approaches Jupiter, begs and bargains for salvation with his god, Tarim. A very different creator answers – “Dave”, aka Dave Sim, who has dropped his Reads “Viktor Davis” persona now he’s addressing his creation directly. 

The second half of Minds is a lengthy conversation between Cerebus and “Dave”. He doesn’t wander up and shake Cerebus’ paw: it’s handled more elegantly, via thought bubbles intruding on Cerebus’ own consciousness (a meeting of Minds, if you like). Dave reveals a few cogent background details to Cerebus, tries to show him what’ll happen if he gets what he thinks he wants, and comes close to abandoning him before dropping him back into the final third of the comic.

Your feelings about Minds as a satisfying ending – to Mothers & Daughters, to Cerebus so far, or even just to itself – are going to depend on how you view this kind of metafictional self-insert. Sim claimed in interviews and in the comic itself that this meeting was always planned, and while I’m never sure how much he revises his own backstory I can absolutely imagine “Cerebus talks to his creator” as part of the initial “300 issues” revelation in 1979, especially as that revelation was linked to Sim’s prodigious consumption of acid.

More to the point, it’s the kind of thing smart writers of big postmodern novels liked doing. There was a minor fashion for characters meeting the author in successful literary fiction of the 70s and 80s – John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Martin Amis’ Money; Alasdair Gray’s Lanark; Paul Auster’s City Of Glass. This kind of thing certainly inspired Grant Morrison in the 1990 ending of their Animal Man run at DC Comics – Morrison’s meeting with Buddy Baker felt very like “Nastler”’s meeting with Lanark in Gray’s novel, a writer both aloof and apologetic to their character for the shit they’ve gone through.

So Dave Sim was slightly ahead of the curve in 1979 when he decided Cerebus and Dave would meet, but by the time they actually did the concept felt a little corny. Certainly I, a lapsed Cerebus fan but very keen at the time on Grant Morrison, heavily rolled my eyes when I heard about it. The Animal Man story had been only two years in the making and tied off all Morrison’s thematic work on the book, from our relationship to childhood experiences through the internal continuity of DC Comics to the way we relate to the creatures we make dependent on us. Dave Sim showing up in his own book after 190 issues seemed far more arbitrary. (This is why he does it twice, though – after Viktor, Dave at least comes less out of the blue)

Structurally, though, it works. Having just comprehensively undermined The Judge, his in-story omniscient figure, Sim can’t just introduce another, better Judge for a bigger Ascension. Cerebus has to actually either meet God, or meet someone who can credibly serve that function. But Tarim, Cerebus’ God, has become sort-of-ridiculous in the context of being a part of so many narrative jokes at this point anyway. Before meeting Dave, Cerebus switches between cowering from and defying Tarim, including a very uncomfortable sequence where he tries and fails to repress his worst possible thoughts. It underlines that Tarim’s function in Cerebus’ life is as a concept he’s terrified of, not a divinity he has any real relationship with. Meeting God, in other words, would be less impressive than meeting “Dave” (and not meeting him will turn out to be very useful for Sim later on, after the religious conversion that puts God right back on the narrative agenda).

Having Dave turn up also links back to both the text pieces in Reads, not just the metafictional one. Sim is a credible divine stand-in because – unlike Morrison or Steve Gerber or any other comics writer who’d played the metafictional card before – he truly does have sole control over Cerebus and his universe. Meaningfully meeting your creation is the prerogative of the true creator, the self-publisher.

So Sim wasn’t – as I unkindly assumed back in 1995 – ripping off Grant Morrison. In fact, while Sim’s friendships with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are well documented, there’s no evidence I can easily find of Sim ever even mentioning Morrison, or vice versa. And when asked about the story similarity, Sim apparently laughed it off and pointed out that Morrison had got it all from Chuck Jones anyway.

That’s probably referring more to a different Morrison Animal Man story, but it’s also a nod to where Sim did draw his inspiration. The final scene of Minds, Sim chomping a carrot at his drawing board, is a wink to Jones’ 1953’ Merrie Melodies classic, Duck Amuck, where Daffy Duck is tormented by a mischievous animator who turns out to be Bugs Bunny. Duck Amuck is a masterpiece of animation and of pacing, as the viewer at first laughs at the conceit before beginning to feel genuinely sorry for Daffy, helpless to act in a way that’s close to cosmic horror. Minds borrows a lot from this mix of comedy and hidden terror, with Dave gradually moving from slapstick (a pie in Cerebus’ face when he asks for a “sign”) to more calculated violence as he tries to find ways to make Cerebus face up to himself and change.

One of Chuck Jones’ creative lessons in Duck Amuck is that animators had the freedom to play with every element of reality in pursuit of story and entertainment; they had no reason to confine themselves to representing a narrative. It’s something Sim had fully absorbed from the beginning in Cerebus, constantly experimenting with storytelling, narrative shapes, and how the techniques of comics could push and twist those. Yes, from a plot and theme perspective Cerebus meeting Dave comes out of almost nowhere. But as I said about the first volume, the story of Cerebus is the story of Dave Sim’s evolution as an artist and, less happily, a thinker. From that angle, breaking the fourth wall like this was as inevitable as experimenting with zip-a-tone was in Volume 1.

Bugs and Daffy never converse in Duck Amuck; for that part of Minds’ DNA you have to look elsewhere, to the Cerebus story’s most direct ancestor, Steve Gerber’s Howard The Duck #16. While Cerebus meeting his maker was a long-term plan, Gerber’s was a panic response to a looming deadline – a one off way of avoiding the title having to run a reprint story. So the issue is a set of pinch-hit double page spreads by assorted artists, illustrating an all-text Gerber essay/story: it wasn’t just the authorial intrusion that made an obvious impression on the young Dave Sim.

Howard #16 is a lot of fun, but it’s not a high concept classic, more an example of the stuff a Marvel creator could get away with in the wild mid-70s before Jim Shooter’s creative and business clampdown. Howard takes his meeting with his creator in his stride – he’s the one dishing out no-nonsense advice to help the hapless Steve get his act together: at the end of the issue, he critiques a bizarre short story Gerber’s inserted. Sim flips these roles for the climax of Minds – Dave is making an intervention in a medical sense as well as a narrative one: a planned confrontation to help Cerebus help himself and, maybe, put his life back on track. Of all the metafictional inserts I’ve read, Dave and Cerebus feels most like a genuine conversation, an attempt by a creator to reckon with the character he’s made.

All that said, a very big part of Dave’s narrative function in the story is to deliver a huge amount of exposition, and big lumpy exposition in the closing chapters of your epic is an inelegant way of telling a story, whatever metafictional razzle-dazzle you surround it with. Dave gives readers the real skinny on Cerebus’ early years and the secret origin of Cirin, before digging in to the broader question of what Cerebus actually wants from life. 

For me, the best parts were the Cirin material, because they serve as a sort of epilogue to the parts of Mothers & Daughters that are about the women characters rather than about ‘women’. Cirin didn’t found her matriarchal movement, she stole it from the original Cirin – the old lady Cerebus had tea with back in Women, which partly explains why she’s so fearful about Astoria taking it away from her in turn. The Cirin sequence here is the last time Sim writes something which actually feels cogent and thoughtful about politics: in this case, the way revolutionary movements can be corrupted by their most brutal or paranoid elements. 

But there’s also a supposedly big revelation about Cerebus, and why he didn’t become a great conqueror, and it really feels unnecessary – answering questions that feel unimportant relative to the comic we’ve actually been reading all these years and change nothing much on a re-read. Like the parade of old faces in Flight, there’s something a bit finicky about it, a fussy tying up of loose ends, to persuade us all that old material really was important. Ultimately, as readers we already know why Cerebus didn’t conquer the known world: he’s a stubborn, greedy, drunken arsehole who’s incapable of understanding himself or changing his mind.

Or is he? One of the ways Minds genuinely is a payoff to the story of Cerebus so far is that it’s a sustained character study of Cerebus himself, something we’ve never actually seen before. Cerebus has not been an especially complex aardvark – he’s the motor of the book’s action, even when he’s being manipulated by another character. He’s single-minded enough that those manipulators get more than they bargained for. But when the action comes to a stop, in the quieter moments of Cerebus, so far it’s been others – Jaka, Rick, Oscar – that Sim’s focused on as characters. Now, in Minds, we get looks at the youth of Cerebus – his fear of his mother and his belief in his own destiny; we see his conflicted relationship with his God; we see his chronic inability to take in any information that isn’t directly related to his ambition. And we see that what he wants, more than gold or conquest, is for Jaka to love him.

This leads into the real conclusion of the novel – Dave’s attempt to show Cerebus why, no matter what happens, his relationship with Jaka won’t work out. The Jaka sequences offer an emotional ending for Mothers & Daughters as a whole, a novel that began with Cerebus spurred into murderous action by his obsession with Jaka, and ends with Cerebus given the chance to show growth as a person and choose not to pursue it. And pursuing it, according to Dave, is disastrous. He can’t just walk back into her life; she’s returned to her aristocratic roots and is seeing someone else. If Dave forces them together, it’ll be a miserable and loveless marriage. If Dave makes Jaka love Cerebus unconditionally, his own worst instincts will lead to him abusing her. And if Dave removes Cerebus’ violent nature, they’ll be happy until Cerebus gets bored and cheats on her, and then she’ll kill herself. 

These sequences are painful – the depiction of domestic violence is stomach-churning. What’s perhaps surprising after Reads is that the blame for the failure of the relationship, in every version, is squarely on Cerebus. After reading what actually does happen later with Cerebus and Jaka, it’s easy to see this as “Dave” stacking the narrative deck, trying to prove to his stubborn character that he needs to give up on Jaka or change on a deep level. Or Sim trying to prove to his readers that he doesn’t blame everything on women, for that matter. As we’ll see in Guys, Sim’s practical philosophy of how men relate to women really doesn’t get much beyond can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em – he’s not making any great claims for men’s virtue, or even their ability to resist the culture they’re living in. Beyond visionaries like him, of course.

There’s one craft element of the Jaka sections that’s new. Previously Sim has presented illustrated dialogue simply as dialogue – a consistent approach all the way from “Mind Game” in Issue #20 to Astoria’s conversations with her hairstylist in Women. Here he switches to a style which gives you not only the dialogue but stage directions and details of what characters are thinking and why. The scenes where he does this are all about seduction, or potential seduction – Jaka with her new beau; Cerebus with his young neighbour Joanne in Dave’s possible-future vision.

I want to single this technique out because for me it’s a (fairly rare even at this point) example of Sim trying something which doesn’t work well, but it’s also an ominous indication of where he’s going as a creator. He’s laying out dialogue so as to strip it of any ambiguity, giving us a forensic look at the steps and motivations which lead to or away from seduction. It’s exhausting to go through, and for me as a reader it feels smothering, particularly as Sim was genuinely good at writing dialogue with subtext and weight: what is really added by holding my hand in this way? 

As we’ll see in Guys and Rick’s Story, Sim is entering a particularly baroque phase as a creator, where the sheer amount of detail and variation he’s putting in makes each issue – each page – extremely dense. Artistically, it often works very well. But the risk is stuff like the Joanne scenes in Minds: not only does it remind me uncomfortably that I’m dealing with Dave Sim, Gender Knower, it over-elaborates on something Sim already knew how to do very well. The flipside of constantly pushing yourself artistically is knowing when to stop.

Maybe that’s the lesson for Cerebus as a whole – certainly the people who stop at #200 would agree. Mothers & Daughters ends with a conversation between a symbolic ‘father’ and ‘son’, and the reader who wants to walk no further with “Dave” or Viktor Davis or any of his ideas can lay the series down and forget the rest exists and think, wow, Cerebus, that was a weird comic, but when it was good it was REALLY good. Technically, that’s still true of the rest, but it will never be good in the same way again.