This is the 13th of my posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, a notorious comic book published between 1977 and 2004. Includes, as always, heavy spoilers for both this volume and the whole series.

Previously: Cerebus has finally left the pub. Reunited with his true love Jaka he heads north for his remote home village. Meanwhile, while researching religious texts in order to parody them, Dave Sim has undergone a religious conversion which will make its presence increasingly felt in his comic…

At one point during the long afterlife of Cerebus, Dave Sim got into one of his fights with Fantagraphics, publishers of The Comics Journal. Cerebus was drifting out of print: Fantagraphics made an open offer to republish the series, in deluxe editions, the same way they publish their acclaimed Peanuts or Popeye collections. Sim conducted a bizarre “public negotiation” in what the publisher rightly saw as bad faith, making a series of very specific demands. One of these was that the first Cerebus books to be republished should be Vols. 13 and 14, Going Home and Form And Void, the two parts of the story in which Cerebus and Jaka travel to Cerebus’ hometown. Sim’s rationale was that this would be the novel most likely to get Cerebus reviewed in the New York Times (not that Sim, you understand, cared about such worldly recognition, but he thought Fantagraphics probably did).

Many of Sim’s latter-day pronouncements are, putting it politely, very strange; sometimes though you can see roughly what he’s getting at. Going Home and Form And Void are Sim returning to the mode that won him his greatest acclaim, the self-contained, intimate character drama of Jaka’s Story. They are the Cerebus equivalent of Oscar bait – more serious and literary than the comic has been for almost a hundred issues. From Sim’s perspective if no-one else’s, Going Home has a distinct advantage over Jaka’s Story, in that it was written after Sim’s religious awakening (and believe me, this time nobody’s going to be fooled into thinking it’s created by a feminist). 

We may never know what the New York Times would have made of any of it, but it’s true that Jaka’s Story was one of the high points of the series, showing a more measured and controlled side to Sim’s creativity and a real talent for crafting slow, small-scale, domestic scenes, rich in tension and unspoken content. After the baroque showmanship of the tavern stories, let alone the breakneck chaos of Mothers & Daughters, Going Home is exactly what Cerebus needed.

The casual Cerebus reader – a fiction at this point; most of the ones remaining were glum lifers – will know Going Home as “the one with F Scott Fitzgerald”. And this is another likely reason Sim thought it might attract literary attention – it’s his character study of one of America’s most famous and well-regarded writers, who shows up, lightly disguised as F. Stop Kennedy, in the same way Oscar Wilde had a starring role in Jaka’s Story. A slightly less casual Cerebus reader might know it as “the one where F Scott Fitzgerald tries to steal Cerebus’ girlfriend”.


The river journey where Cerebus, Jaka and Kennedy play out their sad triangle of mutual misunderstanding is the second part of the novel, “Fall And The River”. The first part, “Sudden Moves”, sees Cerebus and Jaka head north on foot, stopping at taverns and seeing sights. The pair are sweetly in love. We spend lots of time on their private jokes, flirty games, and generally get to enjoy their enjoyment of one another. But there’s a tension – Jaka’s shopping and sightseeing means the couple aren’t making good enough time, and risk being trapped in the mountains in Winter. Eventually Cerebus compromises – the pair will make a river journey back south and winter in a hunting lodge before heading to Sand Hills Creek, their ultimate destination, in the spring.

Here’s where many Cerebus readers’ big problem with Going Home rears its aristocratic head. Cerebus and Jaka’s first big falling out is over their halted northward progress, and that progress is halted mostly because Jaka can’t bear the thought of wearing the same clothes each day, so doesn’t want to take a route with no ‘clothing huts’. Many people get to this and instead of thinking “right again Dave, how very like a woman to be paralysed by her lack of a new outfit”, they think “what the hell has Dave done to Jaka?”

For some old school Cerebus readers, the Jaka in Going Home and Form And Void is an outright perversion of the character they knew and liked from Jaka’s Story and her earlier appearances. For them, Sim here takes a wrecking ball to one of the great women characters because she no longer fits his image of what a woman should, or even can, do. Sim, as you’d expect, had no time for that criticism: from his perspective, or at least his perspective now, at heart Jaka had always been the spoiled aristocrat she is in Going Home. Back when readers first saw her, she was rebelling against her “Princess Of Palnu” status; by the time of Going Home, she’s uncomfortable with it but resigned, if not happy, about the trappings it provides.

Clearly, as criticism there’s a difference between “I don’t like how this character has developed” and “How this character has developed makes no sense”. We’ve already seen one uncomfortable ending for a great woman character in Cerebus: Astoria’s realisation in Reads that her political intrigues bring her no satisfaction and that her movement is a sham. She gives up her ambitions and walks out of the narrative. I don’t think it’s a good ending for a great character, but it’s one Sim has carefully built up to across the entire action of Women. I don’t like it, but it makes sense.

Jaka is a trickier case. In her early appearances I don’t think she’s much of a character at all – she’s Cerebus’ doomed love and the keeper of his conscience, who drops into the story to show how off track he’s getting. But Jaka’s Story is something different entirely. It establishes Jaka’s girlhood as a lonely, neglected child of privilege, and her present as a woman who lives for her chosen art, dancing. Her breaking by the Cirinists, and her return to Palnu, is understood by readers as a tragedy.

Her creator had come to understand it as something else. Jaka’s Story was built for multiple interpretations – that’s a reason it’s good. How selfish is Jaka being in pursuit of her art? What is she even doing with Rick? Sim gave us plenty of scenes where you can see Jaka as unsympathetic and self-centred if you want to – where she has a go at Rick and Oscar for caring about old books, for instance, or her preoccupation with ageing and her looks, or the way she allows Pud to gradually bankrupt himself. But she’s also grateful, kind, and responsible in a way none of the men in the story are. Besides, all the characters in Jaka’s Story are selfish in their way, and they all project things onto other people that they can’t truly live up to. Jaka’s narcissistic tendencies don’t come out of the blue, but in Jaka’s Story they’re not presented as a consequence of privilege, but as something very much linked to her artistic drive: Sim knew as well as anyone the selfishness that entailed.

By the time of Going Home, though, Sim’s opinion of Jaka had hardened. The most important shift in Jaka in the ten years since he drew Jaka’s Story is the fact she’s not a dancer. In fact, she barely mentions dancing – only that she stopped after realising she was getting too old to be doing it. Even when Kennedy tempts her with the promise of becoming the patroness of an artist’s colony, it’s only in the context of her being a wealthy and cultured woman – it’s never linked back to her own artistic expression, when that was once the most important thing about her.

So Sim and his critics both have a point. Jaka was always privileged, and to some degree always self-absorbed – he’s not pulled these traits from nowhere. But that was never all she was. Still, if the Jaka of Jaka’s Story was not wholly the shallow, selfish creature Sim later claimed, the Jaka of Going Home isn’t quite the airheaded “harlot” Sim thinks he’s writing either. It’s actually quite easy to construct a ‘redemptive reading’ for the Going Home Jaka. Is it believable that the trauma of Jaka’s Story would have made her not just abandon her dancing but almost entirely deny that aspect of herself? I think so. Is a lot of her frivolity in Going Home the fact that she’s free of Palnu again and finally with the man (er, aardvark) she loves? Sure, and it’s Cerebus who isn’t fully open about his frustrations around it. And while Jaka’s story ended with her shattered, the Cirinists weaponising her own choices to destroy her marriage and art, the ending of Going Home is a repudiation of that – here it’s Jaka’s choice that saves Cerebus’ life and defies the Cirinists.


The problem with all this is that it requires at least some deliberate defiance of authorial intent. Reading later Cerebus makes you realise how much you take for granted as a reader the basic good faith of an author. With post-Reads Dave Sim, because I know his wild, paranoid ideas about gender, I’m constantly waiting for his characters to fall in line with his theories. Sometimes, as with Jaka’s outfit obsession, they do. That makes it hard to trust him even when he seems to be writing nuanced, well-observed character drama about flawed but believable people. Which Jaka’s Story was, and which Going Home, at its best, also is.

At this point it’s like there are two Dave Sims making the comic. There’s the Dave who knows his characters and his craft, and trusts the reader enough to keep motive and action ambiguous. He may believe that Jaka is simply a moral test Cerebus fails, but in the end he’s too good a creator to be explicit about that. But the other Dave, howling around the edges of the story, clawing to get in, wants to be clear and didactic about the truths revealed to him. In Going Home this Dave shows up mostly in the commentaries and the accompanying essays – Sim around this point begins to add extensive notes to every issue of Cerebus.

Sim’s voluminous commentaries were for him the definitive and exclusive interpretation of the work – in the fake Fantagraphics ‘negotiaton’ he was resistant to the idea of any external critic introducing it. But they aren’t just meant to hem readers in to the points Sim’s making; they’re also a way of showing off how much work and research he’s putting in. Two hundred and thirty issues into a monthly comic, Sim’s work ethic was surely beyond doubt, but the commentaries betray an increasing urge to prove it again, especially now he’s back in his Melmoth literary biography mode. Going Home, Form And Void and Latter Days aren’t just episodes in the life of Cerebus, they’re a sequence of studies of famous writers and comedians, and Sim was determined everyone understood how much effort had gone into making them.

(I have to be honest, though. For the purposes of these posts, I’m going to almost completely ignore the commentaries. I’ve not read most of them, and those I have are occasionally interesting but more often prolix and spiteful like most of Sim’s later writing. As with Jaka’s character, the work – at least in Going Home and Form And Void – is usually better than his intentions for it.)

Which brings us back to F. Stop Kennedy, and the big question any reader is likely to have about him: why on earth is F Scott Fitzgerald in this comic?

Back at Melmoth I floated the idea that Sim puts Oscar Wilde into the comic for a thematic reason – he’s writing a story about Art for Art’s Sake in a repressive society – but also for a meta reason: he’s anticipating his own future condemnation. I think something similar is happening in the broader Going Home storyline – Sim is reaching the end of the comic, and beginning to think about his legacy as (by his lights) almost the first true graphic novelist. Going Home is his most self-consciously literary story, so it makes sense to include Fitzgerald and Hemingway, two writers high in the 20th Century American pantheon. As his reputation among his own community began to sour, Sim was looking to the longer-term.

As for the thematic reason to include him, Going Home and Form And Void are linked stories about class and masculinity. If you wanted to pitch these 35 issues to that putative New York Times reader, “a doomed love story between a Fitzgerald woman and a Hemingway man” would be a fair stab. Jaka feels above that conception of her; Cerebus wants to embrace that side of him. In each half of the story, their meetings with the writers themselves create a crisis of identity that becomes a crisis of action. Jaka is almost seduced by the sun-drenched life of a patrician patroness before realising her dreams have put Cerebus’ life at terrible risk; Cerebus is horrified by the reality of Ham and Mary Earnestway and almost causes his and Jaka’s death in his desperation to escape it.

Put like that, Going Home sounds like it could be rather good. And here’s the thing: in a lot of places, it is. In all but one major aspect, which we’ll get to, F. Stop Kennedy is Sim’s best “drawn from life” character after Lord Julius. One of the things about Sim’s misogyny is that, the lads’ fantasia of Guys aside, he’s not the kind of woman-hater who idealises men. He’s a clear-eyed observer of masculine folly, he just blames a lot of it on ‘marxist-feminist’ society and/or men’s pursuit of fornication (Going Home is the first Cerebus book completed by a proudly celibate Dave Sim). It’s not that Sim doesn’t have ideals of what a man should be – Cerebus’ failure to meet them is a big part of Form And Void and the later books in general – but they’re impossibly remote from the characters he’s actually writing about.

The result is that Kennedy is a brutal portrait: a vain, drunken wreck of a middle-aged man, gradually persuading himself over the course of the story that he has a chance with the younger Jaka, who he’s convinced he understands far better than Cerebus. On one level he’s right about understanding her – his upper-class background, and Jaka’s own frankly reasonable doubts about whether she wants a life as a peasant wife in a remote log cabin, give him the leverage to get under her skin with his offer of a more amenable future. But ultimately his gin-sodden vanity means he doesn’t understand himself, let alone his fellow travellers.

The Kennedy scenes are more examples of the triangular character drama Sim loves to set up – a refinement of the Jaka’s Story set up, with the roles of Oscar the writer and Pud the infatuated loser combined into Kennedy, and Cerebus absorbing Rick’s role as Jaka’s self-deluding partner. After the claustrophobic ‘stage direction’ style prose dialogue Sim’s been using for two-hander scenes since Minds, it’s such a relief for him to be doing conversations largely as comics again, actually using his considerable talent for creating meaning via pauses and expressions. Kennedy’s relationship to Cerebus, one where gradually growing respect can never quite break out from under smothering condescension, is particularly well done.

The only problem is that conversation isn’t all F. Stop Kennedy gets up to. Going Home, again like Jaka’s Story, is studded with pages from its featured writer’s work in progress, which I guess is intended as a Cerebus-world equivalent of Tender Is The Night or The Last Tycoon. The good news is that, unlike the extracts from Oscar’s “Daughter Of Palnu”, these aren’t terribly important to the plot: they’re a Kennedy-eye view of Jaka and Cerebus which reveals nothing the rest of the comic isn’t telling us more entertainingly. 

The bad news is that they’re awful. Sim’s natural tendency to wordiness just about fitted a ponderous Wilde pastiche, but he doesn’t have the chops to carry off Fitzgerald’s finely worked, deceptively casual prose. Nor do many people, but most don’t put great chunks of it in the way of what they’re genuinely good at. There are a lot of scenes in Going Home of Kennedy in his cabin, chain-smoking his way through another page or two of painful writing; several more where everyone else on the boat is enraptured by it. Like the crasser moments in Jaka’s characterisation, it’s a reminder of how Sim’s talent, which remains startling in places, is fraying as his judgement over what makes an entertaining comic gets spottier.


As for the final point on the triangle, Cerebus himself, this is – after his stints as Prime Minister and Pope – another story where he gets what he wants and finds it doesn’t make him happy (though for much of Going Home he really is as happy as we ever see him). He’s determinedly optimistic about his and Jaka’s future, even as he’s plagued by dreams, visions and memories of Rick’s advice which make him realise how difficult things might really be. And the grit in the gears – in this book at least – isn’t just Sim’s gender politics, it’s something Cerebus has never really touched on: class. Reduced to its essence, Going Home is about a mismatched love affair – a rough-hewn country boy and a posh girl who yearns for freedom. Can he offer her what she needs? Does she really understand what she’s getting into? What happens when an older man of letters offers her something more sophisticated?

This is fairly basic romance genre territory – the kind of bare-bones triangular plot you’ll see to this day in potboilers or Hallmark movies. And this is part of what stops Going Home really soaring – while Jaka and Cerebus and Kennedy are more shaded, vivid characters than we’ve seen in the comic for years, and the scenes between them are as good as any in late Cerebus, the situations they’re in are banal. Jaka’s choice at the end works as drama because of its resonance with other choices and her history with Cerebus, not as a trite decision between two suitors. Going Home is Sim’s best try at writing a love story, albeit one which is loading its dice for things to go wrong next time. But even before his declaration of Anti-Feminism in Reads, romance wasn’t Sim’s strongest suit: I realised that Jaka’s Story is so effective partly because he never actually has to bring any of the story’s frustrated infatuations to a head before the Cirinists crash into the plot.

The flaws in Going Home are too many and too glaring for it to be an uncomplicated ‘return to form’, but for almost the last time, there are genuine high points here too. Sim backs off from the overripe lettering and fluid, unstable layouts of Rick’s Story, and when he does break into more experimental forms it works better. He and Gerhard do a fantastic job on the pages where F. Stop Kennedy sits on the roof of his cabin in an alcoholic haze, the text of his thoughts breaking and inverting, smearing letters across nighttime landscapes as he drowns himself in gin. After an entire book of noisy drunks, Sim finds a way to use his skill to capture quiet, sad drunkenness just as well.

Finally out of the tavern, Gerhard’s background and environmental work sings again, with some spectacular vistas along Cerebus and Jaka’s journey. The penultimate episode of the storyline, with the boat sailing through the flooded remnants of what used to be Iest, is some of Gerhard’s greatest work on the series, his melancholy landscapes matching Sim’s first, and probably best, excursion into more serious religious language. It sensitively catches the bland, serene, but still sincere character of memorial spaces: maybe my favourite issue of the final 100, and a welcome reminder that Cerebus could still surprise in a positive way.

And the finale works too. Again a Jaka’s Story parallel – the Cirinists have been a background presence throughout, shaping the reality Jaka exists in. This time though, they’re more obsequious than menacing, stage-managing her and Cerebus’ journey so the Princess Of Palnu encounters no hint of the issues troubling the regime. But they are still spying on her throughout, and pick up on her unhappiness about the future Cerebus plans for the pair. The Cirinists discreetly offer to remove Cerebus from the equation once the boat docks, and Sim leaves it ambiguous whether Jaka tacitly approves or not. But once the boat does arrive, and Jaka sees a full Cirinist troop, she realises they’re planning a more permanent “removal”, and rushes onto the dock to link arms with Cerebus and stop the Cirinist plan.

For all the ways Sim has chipped at Jaka’s character in the book, it’s her most unabashedly heroic and decisive moment, where she gets to defy the Cirinists and close the circle on Jaka’s Story, though like Jaka’s Story it leaves the reader to decide how much blame to put on her for the situation arising in the first place. But it’s a less relatable, less complex, less horrific situation, fitting a novel that doesn’t really get near to matching its model in the series, while comfortably outstripping most of the books since. And as the first part of a two-book sequence, the finale is not the resolution. The central problem of Cerebus and Jaka’s relationship – whether Jaka can possibly live the life Cerebus wants her to lead – is left open for Form And Void, the beginning of the comic’s final descent into Dave Sim’s visions, doctrines and nightmares.