This is the 12th of my posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, a 16-book graphic novel by a guy with serious issues. As usual, contains full spoilers for what happens.

Previously: Cerebus spent several years in a pub, enjoying a bromance with his old friend Bear and a fling with local woman Joanne. Meanwhile, Dave Sim’s anti-feminist opinions were beginning to impact his professional reputation, and his wider worldview was changing in some startling ways…

Some people will tell you that nothing happens in the final third of Cerebus, or that the last 100 issues are “all epilogue”. They are wrong, I think. Thematically, the final third of the comic seems fairly clear to me. Cerebus takes up a number of roles: a friend, a lover, a son, a leader, a messiah, and a father. Ultimately he fails at all of them, often because he’s distracted by or blind to the faults of (you guessed it) women. 

There’s also a story – two in fact, both of them explicitly paying off plot threads from the first 200 issues. There’s the story of Cerebus and Jaka trying to make their relationship work on a journey back to Cerebus’ home town – that one’s straightforward enough and takes up the two books after Rick’s Story. It’s the other one that’s the problem – the story of how Rick becomes the prophet of a religion based around Cerebus, and the political and social consequences of that for Cirinism and for Cerebus’ world. It’s told in a mostly unsatisfying way, piecemeal across several books, sometimes very obliquely, and with multiple compressions and time jumps. It also, as detailed below, gets derailed before it’s even begun by Sim’s own religious conversion.

I know why people are keen to separate off the final third from the first two, salvaging a version of Cerebus that could be enjoyed with relatively little stress or guilt. Those later books are tainted, first implicitly and then very much explicitly, by Sim’s extremist viewpoints on gender. There’s also a big stylistic shift – most of the last six books are slowly paced and very low on any sort of conventional action. Sim by this point has a limited number of issues left, knows what he can or can’t do in a block of them, and is perfectly happy to move plotstuff to the background to make room for small domestic scenes, philosophical digressions or artistic experiments. It’s easy to see why people find the final third boring or frustrating or just plain bad. As I said in the Minds review, you definitely can stop at #200. But Cerebus is, in the end, a 300 issue story, like Dave Sim always said it was.

Within this big structure, Rick’s Story is a load-bearing wall. It’s the third act of Guys – the end of the tavern years, which finishes off the Joanne and Bear plots. At the end, it reintroduces Jaka via a deus ex machina (Dave-us ex machina in this case) twist to set up the upcoming “Can Cerebus and Jaka be happy?” storyline. But as the title suggests, the most important thread of this volume deals with Rick, his religious awakening and the “Booke Of Ricke” that he writes while staying in Cerebus’ pub, laying the groundwork for Latter Days, the concluding Cerebus arc.

So there’s a lot happening, and it doesn’t all make a lot of sense, but I’ll attempt a summary. Jaka’s ex-husband Rick arrives at the pub – since we last saw him he’s become a writer, obsessed with seeking Truth and working on a book about it. He’s also an alcoholic and somewhat insane, his perception of Cerebus flipping from demonic to divine. Cerebus’ recent ex Joanne reappears and flirts with Rick, agreeing to meet him at a bacchanalia, but stands him up and Rick returns with a head wound, which tips him further into madness: he begins writing the story of his experiences in the tavern as a Gospel. As he nears completion of his book Rick has a genuine religious encounter with a burning bush. That night he sleeps with Joanne, who tells him that Cerebus claimed to have been married to Jaka. Rick damns both Joanne and Cerebus before leaving, binding Cerebus magically to the tavern. Dave reappears, in person, and breaks the spell, leaving a package for Cerebus containing Missy, Jaka’s doll. Jaka shows up as soon as he opens it, reuniting Cerebus with the love of his life. The two decide to head north to Cerebus’ home town. Before they leave, a much older Bear and Cerebus’ other former bar friends finally return: Cerebus makes his choice, and leaves with Jaka.

Sim calling this chunk of the wider novel Rick’s Story invites obvious comparison to Jaka’s Story, but that actually was a story: the most successfully self-contained of any Cerebus book so far. As that summary suggests, Rick’s Story is deeply incoherent – an odd interregnum between two bigger arcs, with direct intervention from the author to jump from the Rick to Jaka parts. Stories that are mostly set-up are often unsatisfying, and even though Rick’s Story disguises this part of its nature well, that’s true here too. It’s the odd book out in later Cerebus – it doesn’t the high concept of Guys or the literary focus of the Jaka books, but it’s not a complete trainwreck like Latter Days.

That’s not the only reason Rick’s Story is tricky to parse. With Cerebus the constant temptation is to ask “how much of this stuff did Dave Sim know he was going to be doing?” – it’s inevitable when someone claims they’re going to tell a coherent 300 issue novel in monthly instalments. Sim has always been very cagey about giving definitive answers to this, and rightly so I think: while people disappointed in the work are always going to dream about what might have been, in the end the work is the work.

But Rick’s Story is one of the few parts of Cerebus where we know that Sim’s outlook changed while working on it. The story was intended as – and is – a satire of religious writing and revelation. Rick begins to interpret Cerebus’ every utterance as sacred and his writings become “the Booke Of Ricke”: monastic script, King James Bible language, stained glass windows and all. It’s Sim setting up a joke he’s always liked making – the ripple effects and unintended consequences of actions, and the way the mundane and the meaningful flip over and change places in time. We’ve seen in the Pigts characters living their lives according to their understanding of a prophecy; now we’re going to see an absurdist take on how that sausage is made.

Except that while researching Rick’s Story by reading the Bible, Sim realised what he was reading was, in his eyes, the Actual Truth, and was born again to a syncretic and highly individual monotheism which we’ll all learn more about in later books. But this, obviously, coloured Rick’s Story – it’s no longer a self-styled atheist parodying religious texts, but a devout new believer in those texts parodying them.

And this adds even more layers to what Sim is doing here. “The Booke Of Ricke” is a religious text written by a delusional, half-insane character which will, in future novels, be picked up on as literal Gospel by a cult of Cerebus. But now both Rick and Cerebus are being written by someone coming to the belief that not only is God real, but He has been using the actual story of Cerebus to lead its creator to certain cosmic truths (which we will get to at hideous length later on). Cerebus itself is going to become the vehicle for these truths at the same time as it’s sticking to its original absurdist-religion plot. It’s no wonder Rick’s Story feels overstuffed and confusing, and things are only going to get worse.

It’s difficult to unpick what, if anything, an unconverted Sim might have done differently in Rick’s Story, but it seems likely that at least the “burning bush” scene might be an addition to the plan (later on, Sim decides plants are the domain of the false female demiurge YooWhoo, and looks at this scene differently, but let’s leave that firmly to one side). Rick is already an onion of a character – he shows up as an old pal who seems to have his shit fairly well together, then you gradually realise how damaged he is, then he goes off the deep end and starts on his Gospel. But near the end of the book, after his burning bush encounter, he’s a suddenly more serious character, someone whose words have actual magical weight. Rick is both the comic vehicle for turning Cerebus into a Messiah (as opposed to a mere Pope!) and the first character in the story to have – it’s implied – some genuine contact with the divine. 

It’s all layered, dizzying, elaborate, stuff which – like most of the layered, dizzying, elaborate stuff in the back half of Cerebus – feels faintly hermetic, a magic trick which is plainly difficult but whose reveal is less scrutable than you’d hope. Appropriately for a book about mysticism and warped perceptions, the art is more dense and dazzling than ever – we see a lot of it through Rick’s eyes, with the world he sees of angels and demons constantly intruding on reality. Sim is producing some extraordinary, complex, unsettling pages here. Visually, Rick’s Story is the queasiest, most overripe of the Cerebus books, a picture of the world seen through the eyes of a profoundly unwell man, drawn by someone going through their own spiritual upheavals. Everything in Cerebus is always ferociously overthought, but by this point the level of technical ability is well out of ratio to the clarity of the ideas it’s communicating.

If Rick’s Story as a whole is odd and awkward, individual moments still work very well – it’s a curate’s egg (how appropriate). Sim does have archaic religious language down pat and there are some amusing context-switching gags as mooncalf Rick interprets Cerebus’ attempts to get rid of him as divine instruction. The stained-glass-window art is lovely and funny. There’s one very good meta-joke about poor Gerhard, stuck with a third year of tavern interiors. And the “binding spell” sequence is such a lurch in tone and so well paced that it has a genuine eerie power. 

But for what’s basically a one-joke idea there is a whole lot of “The Booke Of Ricke” and it feels like there’s even more than that: Sim really hammers at the concept. There’s a fundamental problem caused by the double duty it has to pull in the plot of the series – it has to both be an entertaining parody in this storyline and a semi-convincing holy text for upcoming ones. That’s an extremely tough circle to square and I don’t think Sim comes close to managing it – there’s both too much Booke Of Ricke here and too little to justify what it becomes later, even before you have to start untangling Ricke’s version of revealed truth from Dave Sim’s.

And speaking of Dave Sim’s revealed truth, Rick’s Story has the usual potential minefield of late Cerebus: at what point is this comic going to become a tract about the iniquities of women? The book is full of conversational scenes full of unspoken tension, and as Sim becomes better and better at drawing these, you trust his ideas of how characters behave less and less. Just to put us further on our guard, Rick’s been taking love lessons from Sim alter ego Viktor Davis himself, and passes on his advice to Cerebus about how the only way to make a relationship last is to never show a woman you’re unhappy.

This particular bad advice will be a central theme of the next books, Going Home and Form And Void, when Cerebus actually tries to do that. But with Joanne, the central female character in Rick’s Story and Guys, that’s not his issue. Deceitful, manipulative and self-centered, Joanne is the female character so far who most incarnates Sim’s feelings – sorry, observations – about how women behave in relationships. In particular, she’s the embodiment of one of Sim’s hobby-horses, ensnaring men with sex before trying to lock them into a longer commitment. (Not for the first time, a daringly unsayable Sim insight into women is a hackneyed chauvinist commonplace)

Joanne is a necessary creation because all of Sim’s previously established female characters are too nice, too smart, or too Cirinist to be properly leech-y and light-draining. So Joanne can be properly awful. Which is fine, some people are pretty awful – and Sim just about manages to keep her on the believable side of the ledger, unlike the stock Cirinist battleaxes Going Home is full of. But she’s also clearly being used as an archetype: Sim has tainted his own work, and whatever Joanne does you feel Viktor Davis is tapping you on the shoulder saying, “See? This is what they’re like!”

What’s irksome with Joanne’s characterisation will become more of an issue when it’s a character readers already care about. But Jaka’s personality – and how it has or hasn’t changed – is a question for the next two books. When she arrives here, embracing Cerebus, it’s like sunlight’s been let into the increasingly stuffy room of the Cerebus storyline. All of late Cerebus is a series of potential stopping points – this is the one you choose if you want the aardvark to have a happy ending.

Before Cerebus and Jaka skip hand in hand down the road, he has a choice to make, in the scenes which end the whole tavern leg of the book. Bear, Marty and Richard George show up, free of their wives, and picking up exactly where they left off with a game of Diamondback. But they’ve changed – they’re visibly older, fatter, sadder figures; their banter worn out and unattractive, particularly to Jaka. Cerebus spent a dozen issues desperate to really be part of their gang – now he finds it easy to leave them behind and take a shot at his heart’s desire. Sim the sexist may believe it’s a trap; Sim the artist makes Cerebus’ choice look obvious.

Guys and Rick’s Story haven’t always been an easy or enjoyable read, but with these scenes they end well, and their ending introduces another of the big themes of the final third: age. The final books of Cerebus are full of sad, vain old men trapped by their former glories: Bear and the guys, F Stop Kennedy and Ham Earnestway, and finally Cerebus himself. Bear and company here have visibly, dramatically aged in ways Jaka or Rick hadn’t. Sim in interviews has offered bullshit non-explanations for this along the lines of Cerebus’ aardvark magnifier effect creating time distortions, but that’s a lot less satisfying than what it looks like on the page. Cerebus once saw these men through beer-tinted glasses, at their swashbuckling bar-room best. Now, with his focus on romance, he sees them at the other extreme: pathetic old slobs. In a novel about how states of mind distort perceptions, it’s the final and most poignant example.