This is the 11th in a series of posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, a 300-issue comic by a troubled Canadian. As usual, contains intensive spoilers and no actual artwork.

Previously: Minds ended the “main storyline” of Cerebus with a conversation between the aardvark and his creator ‘Dave’. After almost abandoning his creation on Pluto, Dave offered Cerebus a free choice of where to go. Cerebus, in one of his more relatable acts, has picked the pub.

So Mick Jagger, Marty Feldman, Ringo Starr, and Norman Mailer walk into a bar…

Guys is one of the hardest books in the Cerebus series to get a grip on. It’s the apotheosis of three of Dave Sim’s greatest loves as a creator – innovative uses of lettering, phonetic speech, and caricatures of living people. But it’s also the first of several books which are more-or-less explicitly workings out of Dave Sim’s extreme ideas on gender relations, laid out in theory in Reads and here applied in practice to the lives of his characters. And all this is wrapped up in something very unusual in Western comics, though there’s no formal reason it should be – a situation comedy.

The plot of Guys is the simplest of all the Cerebus books. “Dave” has returned Cerebus to Earth where he requested, in a remote tavern he once hung out at. He spends the book there with a bunch of old and new friends and acquaintances, who come and go. Time passes – a long time; years in fact. And Cerebus grows as a character, in a way. When the book opens, Cerebus is a lonely drunk sitting in the corner. When it ends, he’s the bartender. 

So, Cerebus is shellshocked, and sitting around, and nothing much happens. We’ve been here before, right? In one way we certainly have: Guys takes inspiration from Dave Sim’s own “lost weekend”, his months spent between relationships as a barfly at a joint called Peter’s Place. This was the same period he drew on for Melmoth. But Guys has a very different tone from Melmoth, or from Jaka’s Story, the other “Cerebus does nothing” storyline we’ve had. In those books, Cerebus was doing nothing because he was no longer the active protagonist – Jaka and then Oscar were carrying the narrative weight of the comic. In Guys, there is no narrative weight to carry. The storyline is over.

Things happen all the time in this book – Sim blows bubbles of narrative tension around a minor incident, like a game of the invented hockey-shootout sport Five Bar Gate. But the bubbles pop, and little changes. You can read the book and trace gradual, subtle shifts in the world and the characters, but implicit in Guys is that as soon as things start happening, the story will begin to wind up.

But on this flimsiest of structures, Dave Sim builds some of his most elaborate, dense, visually striking storytelling yet. Cerebus has used lettering in innovative ways from very early on, and from Church And State it’s borne a greater and greater load of tone and meaning. Guys (and its direct sequel Rick’s Story) is the rococo peak of Sim’s lettering experiments. In this book, almost every main character has a different speaking voice, established through phonetic speech and emphasis. Then their state of mind – and of intoxication – is shown via letter style and speech bubble shape and word spacing, which can shift around wildly across a single page. Sim has also largely abandoned panel borders, so sequential action and speech happens in a more fluid, blurred way, especially when characters are drunk, or dreaming, or both. Oh, and mixed in with all this are characters based on other cartoonists’ creations, like Eddie Campbell’s Alec and Bacchus, whose lettering is taken from their ‘native’ strips and blends in with what Sim is doing.

It’s a tour de force – not for the first time in Cerebus it’s hard to think of anyone who’s done anything like it, certainly not with this much control and consistency. And it’s a feat of cartooning skill which actually serves the storytelling, it’s not just showing off. An awful lot of the story in Guys requires paying attention to things like lettering and background details, to track the level of inebriation of characters (variance in which drives the action of some scenes) and also the passing of the seasons outside the pub all this happens in: Cerebus spends years drinking here, something it’s easy not to notice if you’re reading inattentively.

The gentle passing of time is also a way of serving notice that things have changed structurally. Now the main story of Cerebus has finished, the timeline moves on years: Guys is a break point with some of the same characters but none of the momentum. We hear bits and pieces of wider-world developments; we see how the world has settled down following the Cirinist revolution, becoming a kind of agrarian barter economy, but for now those things aren’t the focus of the comic. There’s no background plot ready to leap into the foreground, like the Cirinist clampdown in Jaka’s Story. Guys is what it claims to be: 19 issues of Cerebus in a pub.

What’s he doing in the pub? Existing, which is what gives the story its sitcom texture. Men, in the Cirinists’ new world, are allowed to spend their time undisturbed in taverns and provided with free drink and food, but they aren’t allowed to leave unless they’re sober. If a married man fails to leave the pub for three days, he’s automatically divorced. By the time Cerebus arrives in his particular boozer, several years after this “Alcohol Sanction” was put in place, a lot of men have drunk or brawled themselves to death, and the pub population is a motley group of misfits. Some of them can’t fit in anywhere, some of them have chosen an itinerant life, and some of them are in between relationships. Not every character is honest with themselves about which category they fall into.

Guys as a sitcom is a series of comic episodes – Cerebus shows up and is ragged on by the tavern regulars; Prince Mick (the Mick Jagger caricature) gets laid to the disgruntlement of everyone else; Marty Feldman is duped into believing there’s a mongoose in a box; Cerebus and his friend Bear fall out over a game; and so on. At one point Norman Mailer arrives and brings the unwelcome attention of authority to the pub – Mrs Thatcher, from Jaka’s Story, shows up repeatedly in Guys to fill the stock sitcom role of the busybody outsider, a Cirinist version of Blakey from On The Buses. In what would be the season finale, Bear’s ex Zig appears, threatening to end the masculine idyll.

It’s all well-crafted, relaxed, low-stakes stuff and Sim doubtless had a lot of fun kicking back after the fireworks (on-and off-page) of Mothers & Daughters. That goofier vibe carries over to the reader, at least for a while – Guys seems quite fondly remembered even by people who generally have nothing good to say about the final stretch of Cerebus. But Sim also had a higher concept for the storyline. During his Peter’s Place days, he’d come to an appreciation of how men talked and acted when they were on their own, away from female influence, shootin’ the shit, followin’ the bro code, doing (as Bear puts it) “guy shit” instead of “chick shit”. Nobody, Sim hinted in interviews, had ever told the truth about what guys doing guy shit are like, and so Guys was meant in part as a celebration of masculinity and male friendship.

And I ended it thinking, maybe Dave Sim should have gone to a better boozer?

I must declare my interest here as a reader. I love pubs. I love conversations in pubs. I think a gently tipsy pub chat among mates – usually not all men, but sure, sometimes just ‘guys’ – is a beautiful thing. I would in fact agree with Sim that it’s genuinely hard to capture the rhythms and jokes and streams of associations, the inexplicable jokes and miniature tensions, you get in a good session down the pub. Maybe it’s different in North America, maybe I don’t know the right sort of manly men, but the action in Guys is unrecognisable to me. It’s hard to enjoy the book in the bros-forever sense Sim apparently wants because not one interesting conversation happens, not one good joke is told. Mostly what we get is issue after issue of guys being dickheads to one another and laughing about it afterwards. He should have called it BANTZ.

Behind its genuinely spectacular craft, Guys feels oddly craven. It comes over as Dave Sim writing for a desired audience of real bros who dig “guy shit” and will feel sad when a chick comes in to break up the band and bring the curtain down. For all that I enjoyed reading those issues, it’s safe to say I didn’t think that. Being stuck in Harrison Starkey’s tavern sounds like an absolute nightmare. Sim’s conception of guys and their shit is cramped and tedious: his reduction of women means he’s reduced men too.

On a second reading of Guys, though, I picked up more on the other thread buried in the novel. Dave Sim, after all – an obsessive artist whose day job involved drawing an aardvark comic – can’t have been an especially typical regular at Peter’s Place. Sim’s actual friends seem largely to have been, as you’d expect, fellow comics professionals. Perhaps the Peter’s Place sojourn was, for Sim, also a glimpse at an idealised, mysterious world where guys could be guys in some to-him platonic form, not overthinking shit all the time, albeit dragged hither and yon by the constant urge to get laid. A world Sim could observe and think about but not truly fit into.

This is all my projection, of course. Maybe Sim was a real bro, maybe he could slip into this demi-monde of dudes without a hint of awkwardness. But it certainly seems to tally with his protagonist’s experience in Guys, a novel where the one true narrative thread is Cerebus’ desperation to fit in, to be accepted as one of the guys.

The book starts, after all, with Cerebus being left out of the joke – drinking in the corner, talked about by Mick and Harrison, who crease up when he naively repeats Mrs Thatcher’s observation about “tavern tramps and whores”. That actually starts Cerebus on his path to acceptance, though when the same men collapse with mirth at Cerebus’ ‘graphic read’ (aka comic) later it prompts more angry humiliation. There’s a pecking order in Guys, with Cerebus and Marty on a lower rung, wanting to ascend but constantly coming off slightly worse to Harrison, Mick and Bear.

Ah, Bear. The emotional heart of Guys is Cerebus’ relationship with Bear, his mercenary buddy from way back, who showed up in Church And State as one of the few people Cerebus felt he could trust. Bear is the reason Cerebus is here – given the choice by Dave of where to go, and eventually persuaded that the answer shouldn’t be “with Jaka”, he opts instead to go to where Bear is. A few issues before, Cerebus has suppressed a memory of getting aroused by seeing Bear bathing. A few issues before that, Astoria has told him that he is, in fact, intersex, which Cerebus interprets solely to mean “gay”. 

In Guys, the crux of the novel comes when Cerebus and Bear are playing a game of Five Bar Gate, which Cerebus is losing badly. The pair are interrupted by a vendor of ‘graphic reads’, which Cerebus is fascinated by – in Bear’s eyes, as a blatant distraction from losing the game. It ends up with Bear blowing his top at Cerebus about the aardvark’s mood swings, sulks, unmanly habits – “It’s like yer part chick or something”. At the end of that issue, the two have made up and we get the most idyllic scene of the novel – Bear and Cerebus sunbathing while fishing by a nearby lake. “Hey” says Bear. A page later Cerebus says “What” – and the issue ends. (“Remember ‘jobs’?” is Bear’s answer, next issue, and the two fall about laughing, but Sim’s choice to end an issue mid-conversation, creating a point of tension in the scene, is an interesting one).

When Bear’s ex-girlfriend, Zig, shows up, Bear immediately falls back in lust and heads off with her. The rest of the gang, who can’t stand Zig, take this as a reason to pack up – even Harrison, the barman, shuts up shop and joins them heading south. Except Cerebus stays, unwilling to let go. He goes and sunbathes by the river himself. He debates to himself whether Bear will come back. He even creates a tally in chalk of the number of days he’ll allow himself to wait for Bear before leaving.

There is, obviously, a lot going on here. Cerebus is homophobic – in Minds, he’s in paroxysms of self-loathing over the idea that Astoria has revealed that he’s a “f….t” (Sim, obviously, leaves the slur intact). Dave Sim is also homophobic, though probably not as virulently as he is by the end of the series. Sim is a gender essentialist to an extreme degree, with increasingly strange and fixed ideas about what men and women are inherently like. If a homophobic gender essentialist were to write a story about unrequited queer desire, perhaps it would look like a homophobic protagonist discovering he’s intersex and then wrestling with his unspoken attraction to a big, muscular, bearded guy called Bear.

I don’t remotely think this is what Sim intended as the primary reading of Guys. I suspect the story Dave Sim is writing is one of an idealised friendship – Cerebus overcomes his chick side by finishing the game of Five Bar Gate, and finally earns the respect of Bear, before Bear’s own weakness ends their beautiful friendship. But it’s a somewhat glaring possible reading nonetheless, and definitely helps explain why it’s so important to Sim that Cerebus is intersex (a plot point he claims he was certain of very early).

Bear has his own moral code, expressed most clearly in the scene where an old friend, Greggo, appears at the tavern and the two get into a disagreement which requires “taking it outside”. Bear clocks Greggo one and the two combatants reappear in the bar, bloodied but friends once again. This is how manly men settle their disagreements, it’s implied. Sim’s attempt to put this code into some kind of practice in his own life led to the bizarre incident when he publically challenged Jeff Smith, creator of Bone, to a boxing match. 

Smith had given an interview in which he questioned Sim’s account in Reads of an evening at Smith’s house, during which Sim explained his views on women, Birth vs Death, and other favourite topics to Smith and his wife. In Sim’s version, this stunned Smith and he insisted they end the discussion. In Smith’s version, Sim ranted until Smith threatened to give him a fat lip. The upshot of this was the public challenge to a fight, issued in the editorial pages of Cerebus some years later: Sim went so far as to bring two pairs of boxing gloves to a convention. The fight, obviously, never happened: Sim established to his own satisfaction that Smith was a coward for not agreeing, and that the support from peers for Smith having to put up with this nonsense was a further sign that the comics industry was irredeemably Marxist-Feminist.

I mention this farce not just to show how difficult it was for Sim to put the ideals of Guys into practice, but also to illustrate the decomposition of Sim’s place in the world of independent comics. During Minds, Sim and Gerhard had organised a “Spirits Of Independence” tour of Cerebus’ North American markets, the veterans of self-publishing teaming up with local independent creators – he even gave their comics billing on Cerebus’ covers. In 1997, towards the end of Guys, Sim put out the Cerebus Guide To Self-Publishing, a lessons-learned manual for people who wanted to follow him down this road. Guys itself is full of Sim’s fellow cartoonists and their creations – and we see them crop up over the next couple of books, but by the late 90s Sim was backing heavily away from this creative brotherhood. Some of this was down to lifestyle changes – he was rethinking a lot of things in the wake of his 1996 religious conversion and moving towards the more ascetic lifestyle he still lives today.

But the separation was also mutual. Some time after Reads, The Comics Journal ran a piece focusing on industry reaction to Cerebus #186 and the “female voids” rant. Nobody interviewed precisely agreed with Sim, though (disappointingly but predictably) it was left mostly to women cartoonists to actually condemn Sim’s ideas. The men interviewed largely saw the issue as a deliberate provocation, or an exaggeration, or pointed out that Sim was free to write and draw what he liked. All of which were true to an extent, but were also ways for these guys to avoid facing up to the fact that yes, this is what Sim actually thought.

Outside the somewhat blokey indie comics establishment, Sim got a rougher reception, as women critics and creators ridiculed him and pointed out that most of the ‘hard facts’ he’d marshalled were urban myths at best. As Sim doubled down on his misogyny, the provisional agree-to-disagree support he’d enjoyed after #186 started to ebb away: the reaction to the absurd Jeff Smith fight showed how diminished his reputation was.

(Gerhard, of course, kept his head down and kept on drawing barstools and cornfields)

On the page as in life, the old gang drifted away. But the departure of Bear, Mick and the rest isn’t the end of Guys. The story picks up on a thread from Minds, and Cerebus faces the first of his own temptations vis-a-vis women, a relationship with Joanne, an older version of the young neighbour he had an affair with in Dave’s future vision. 

While the “guy shit” phase of Guys is a fluid, easy-going read, Sim intentionally makes this final “chick shit” act a lot more awkward: those tiresome thick dialogue descriptions are back, and Cerebus and Joanne have miserable times interspersed with good sex. Now Sim’s given us the cheat codes for his philosophy, it’s impossible to see this section as anything other than didactic. Cerebus as a character thinks with his crotch and is led into unhappy situations because of it – fair enough, that’s what people (not just men) do sometimes. People have been telling good stories about such characters for centuries and will do so as long as there are stories to tell. But Sim has made it impossible to read his handling of it as ‘just’ two characters, because he’s told you – at length! – that he thinks this is the universal male condition which only a tiny proportion of “male lights” can escape to reach true self-actualisation. Cerebus and Joanne can’t communicate not just because of things inherent in their characters, but because not communicating and having incompatible goals is the natural state of man and womankind.

The result is that we’re still in a sitcom, but it’s not Cheers, it’s the kind of corny, sexist, 70s-era comedy in which all men are horndogs and all women are trying to trap them into domesticity. Except that stuff was put together by professional comedy writers, and Sim’s idea of a joke is that Joanne wants to put new curtains on the tavern. The scene where Cerebus and Joanne visit the new tavern run by Marty and his domineering wife is a ten page distillation of every cliche about henpecked husbands Sim could think of. It’s painful, and not just in the way it’s meant to be.

Guys, and this is also true of the next few books, would be a lot more enjoyable to someone who hasn’t read the Viktor Davis parts of Reads and its objectivism-of-the-boudoir philosophy. When you’ve drawn a line in the sand between you and anyone who believes long-term relationships can be happy, and then make the next few books domestic dramas about relationships, a certain amount of dramatic tension is going to be lost. Cerebus for the rest of its run is going to be about the tension between Sim’s formal experiments and his curiosity about his craft, and his desire to make his books prove a point. Eventually, there’s a winner.