This is the fifth in a series of posts on Cerebus The Aardvark, an often technically brilliant comic. As usual, it contains spoilers for both this novel and the series as a whole. In fact, this is a particularly spoiler-heavy post.

Previously: Dave Sim ended the epic Church And State with the downbeat revelation that his aardvark protagonist had lost everything and would die “alone, unmourned and unloved”. The comic, meanwhile, had reached its circulation peak amid the 1980s black and white boom, making Sim a public champion of self-publishing and creative freedom in comics.


There used to be a T-Shirt with the slogan, “I Survived Jaka’s Story“, a tongue in cheek reference to the idea that this Cerebus novel was particularly slow, or boring, or difficult to read. Knowing what’s still ahead of us, you might stifle a hollow laugh at the idea. But Jaka’s Story is boring. Intentionally, radically boring. It’s a 23 chapter novel in which almost nothing happens for 16 of them. Here’s the story: Cerebus arrives at Jaka’s house and becomes her guest. He meets her jobless husband Rick and their landlord, Pud Withers. Jaka and Rick quarrel sometimes and have sex sometimes. Cerebus does nothing. Withers fantasises about Jaka, who dances in his tavern to no customers, and these fantasies start to become violent. Rick idolises Withers’ other tenant, a writer named Oscar, who is painting the stone head outside the tavern. Cerebus goes to find some more paint. Pud finally gets another customer. Congratulations, you’re now two-thirds of the way through the book and almost a year and a half in. 

It’s quite a contrast from the last novel. As a feat of cartooning, Church And State was all about creating a sense of unstoppable momentum, Dave Sim taking advantage of his new partnership with Gerhard to produce some of his most fluid, gorgeously readable work yet, and integrating all his techniques – from caricature to wordless dream sequences to comic relief – in the service of a baroque fantasy epic that accelerates across 1100 pages before coming to a dead stop with an audacious five-issue monologue set on the moon.

Jaka’s Story flips the script. It, and its companion-stroke-epilogue Melmoth, swap acceleration for stasis, showcasing two more of Sim’s favoured techniques: the ‘decompressed’ telling of small actions (applying makeup, doing housework, playing games) across extended sequences, and the use of blocks of text alongside illustrations. Once these two storytelling modes are introduced in the first chapter, they barely vary. Jaka’s Story is the most consistent Cerebus has ever been; one of the most restless and unpredictable comics on the market has been tamed. One of the people who survives Jaka’s Story is Dave Sim himself, testing whether he can manage an extended period of suppressing monthly variety in favour of story discipline.

(He can, though you could argue he never really does it again – even the most extreme stretches of monthly invariance after this only last 6-12 issues, though some of them feel a lot longer.)

Whatever the longueurs endured by monthly readers, Jaka’s Story as a whole is seen as a peak of the series. For a lot of people it’s the peak, the one moment between the early fantasy stories and the later, more didactic ones that Sim achieved his potential. Few Cerebus novels can truly work as a standalone, satisfying experience. Jaka’s Story comes closer than anything else, partly because Cerebus’ own presence is so minimal in it. So it’s worth asking why Sim wanted to do it.

From a structural perspective that’s easy enough. Cerebus is the story of a life. Jaka is one of the most important people in that life, Cerebus’ great love interest. “Could Cerebus and Jaka be happy together?” is one of the questions the series keeps cycling back to. It’s important that readers get to know her better, and with Cerebus himself a wreck after Church And State and his lunar judgement, now is the right time.

But there’s another, rather interesting, external reason Sim wanted to try this kind of smaller-scale, human-stakes storytelling: it’s one of the few times Sim admitted to being influenced by a peer, in this case Love And Rockets’ Jaime Hernandez. The influence wasn’t entirely friendly – Los Bros Hernandez had made no secret of being uninterested in Cerebus, even though the two comics were constantly packaged together in the late 80s as brilliant independent alternatives. Sim in turn hinted that he didn’t much like the brothers’ comics, finding Jaime’s work artistically repetitive. But while Cerebus had been locked into a baroque fantasy epic, the acclaim for Love & Rockets grew and grew. In a later interview Sim copped to at least feeling some need to prove he could do the things Jaime did in his Locas strips – which he saw as realistic, domestic dramas.

Hence Jaka’s Story, which, to everyone’s credit, reads absolutely nothing like a Locas story, and isn’t obviously trying to. Jaime Hernandez’ comics take place in a version of the real world, and their realism springs from how we see the characters behaving in that world; Cerebus does not, and Sim’s built his world to be full of incongruity and absurdity, so ‘realism’ in Cerebus means stripping out a lot of the extraneous detail, zooming in on characters and their relationships, which is why Jaka’s Story is so tightly focused. 

This suits Sim’s developing storytelling style, too. Both Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez were developing dramatically as storytellers around this time, focusing not so much on panel-to-panel storytelling but on manipulating the transition between panels to shift scenes in place and time and communicate story by what’s not shown as much as what is. (Beto’s difficult, non-linear masterpiece Poison River is a contemporary of Jaka’s Story, for instance). Sim wasn’t at this point interested in that kind of experimentation, and pushed his storytelling in the other direction – close observation of movement and action, slow development of scenes, and teaching the reader to pay attention to small shifts in expression or detail. 

In a way it’s an evolution of his earlier technique – characters moving through panels across a static background – and like that it’s helped immeasurably by the solidity of the environments Gerhard builds (literally – he was making models for recurring locations like Jaka’s house). Except here often the characters are almost static too, and tiny shifts of posture or expression are where the storytelling happens.

This remorseless, slow attention to detail is also a feature of the text portions of Jaka’s Story, with long, descriptive passages about riding a wooden horse, or opening a door. But of the two overlapping modes of storytelling in Jaka’s Story, the text-and-illustration one is far less successful. 


Jaka’s Story is a split narrative: the two modes tell two stories. Alongside the ‘present day’ story of a shellshocked Cerebus taking refuge with Jaka and her husband, we get excerpts from a book – which turns out to be written by Oscar based on his conversations with Rick – about Jaka’s girlhood as a child of privilege, the niece of regular character Lord Julius, ending with her leaving his city-state Palnu after her Uncle uses her to humiliate his wife, Astoria. Mixing text and illustration like this was a fascination of Sim’s as far back as the “Silverspoon” Prince Valiant pastiches in Vol.1, but it becomes an increasingly important part of his practice as a creator from this volume on. 

Compared to some of Sim’s later forays into illustrated (and increasingly non-illustrated) text, the “Daughter Of Palnu” sections of Jaka’s Story are uncontroversial. But they’re still by a distance the weakest parts of the book, even though Gerhard in particular does a tremendous job on detailing the palace interiors of Jaka’s girlhood (his work on the covers of Cerebus in this phase is exquisite, too). Like many comics writers who switch to prose, the writing is prolix and overdone, a chore to wade through especially when the comics pages are paced with such care and precision. If you’re feeling generous to Sim, you can of course blame the overwriting on Oscar, but Sim’s later prose is often just as meandering and pompous.

(Oscar, of course, is Oscar Wilde, in the same way Lord Julius is Groucho Marx, but I’ll hold wider discussion of that over till next time, when Sim tries his hand at literary biography)

After the first couple of chapters, where they synchronise well with the rhythm of the story, I came to resent the labour of working through the prose sections – especially as the comic scenes became more tautly horrifying in the final third of the book. They do add something to our understanding of Jaka – we know why she fled her life in Palnu; we see how she gets her greatest joy from physical motion; we get a sense of her taste for luxury, which will be a rather sour plot point much later. But we get far more sense of her, far more efficiently, from the comics sections. Jaka’s Story is an unintentional showcase of how much better good comics can be than mediocre prose at characterisation.

Jaka has up to this point been one of the weaker aspects of Cerebus – the lead character’s love interest, who shows up at important moments in the plot to engage in an issue or two of shameless melodrama, much beloved of the early Cerebus fandom. As the one serious recurring character, she played a useful role as a kind of yardstick for how low Cerebus had sunk (or how high he’d risen), but the lip-trembling mawkishness of the Jaka issues was an early alarm bell that writing relationships between men and women would not be a Dave Sim strong point. You might think an entire two-year sequence devoted to her wouldn’t work. But the comics section of Jaka’s story is a tour de force, where the novel earns its reputation as one of the indie comics greats. 

Sim is betting at this point that he’s a good enough cartoonist that he can use a page on almost any mundane action and make it sing. In Jaka’s Story he wins that bet. For instance, there’s a lot of dressing and undressing in this book, and it’s mostly presented as the entirely everyday thing it is, but Sim’s cartooning is so good that Jaka getting out of bed and stretching, and Rick pulling on his shirt over his lanky body, feel fluid and vivid, well worth spending pages at a time on. Later on, when Jaka is dressing to dance, Sim’s storytelling captures her more considered, careful movements. The detail in the cartooning, and the low-intensity, steady, six-panel-per-page pace of the comic is telling us something important: these are real people, not the caricature figures of Church And State, and we should get used to them, because we’ll be spending a lot of time together.

There’s always been a lot of talk about how comics are cinematic, but cinema is hardly the only way of combining words and images. Jaka’s Story is a rare example of a comic which is theatrical. It mostly limits itself to a small cast – Cerebus, Jaka, Rick, Pud Withers, and Oscar – and a handful of locations: Withers’ tavern, Jaka and Rick’s house, and the roadside between them. It even has an explicit three-act structure, though the third act introduces two new characters and locations.

Doing comics as theatre lets Sim concentrate on the cadences and rhythms of his dialogue – which he excels at – and the relationships between the characters, all of which are based to some extent on thwarted desire. Rick and Jaka are together, but Cerebus and Withers both want Jaka and Oscar wants Rick: Jaka’s Story is a farce which takes a sharp right turn into tragedy. For all the similarities to a stage production, though, Sim is able to use techniques unique to comics to create drama of a kind you can’t easily get in the theatre – Cerebus’ overhearing Rick and Jaka having sex, for instance, expressed as a duet of converging speech bubbles and licquescent lettering. Or the increasingly chilling scenes where Withers rehearses conversations he intends to have with Jaka.

(I say “unique to comics”, but the fact is they’re unique to this comic: nobody else is using alternating bold and italic dialogue in a text block alongside a single character image to show that character imagining a conversation. On the page, though, it feels entirely natural as a technique – you immediately get what Sim’s depicting and quickly learn what to pay attention to: the minor variations and additions in the dialogue as Withers’ obsession darkens.)

Jaka’s Story is built around a series of misdirections – the story you’re expecting is never quite the story you get. In the first act, the conflict you imagine is coming – between Cerebus and Rick for Jaka’s affections – largely doesn’t happen: Cerebus issues ultimatums to both and is quickly defused. In the second, all the tension in the comic is around Pud’s increasing obsession with Jaka and his premeditated plan to rape her, a storyline which comes to a head with a sudden switch back into farce as Pud (and the threat he poses) is rendered suddenly ridiculous. And in the third act, after another sudden and shocking reversal, we might be hoping Cerebus will return to the storyline to confront the Cirinists: he doesn’t. The novel’s title never lied: this was Jaka’s story all along.

In fact, after 113 issues with Cerebus at the centre, he’s barely involved in Jaka’s Story. He puts nothing in motion, he’s offstage well before the denouement, and reappears too late to make any difference. His only real role is as a distraction – readers, used to focusing on him, may be tempted to relegate or glaze over scenes without him, like Rick’s crucial conversations with Oscar about wanting a son, or Oscar’s stories about the Guffin. But these, more than anything Cerebus does or says, are what make the closing stages of the book make sense. 

Even though they turn out to be important to the plot, these scenes also feel like filler, because almost everything in the first sixteen episodes of Jaka’s Story feels like filler. It’s a comic which revels in its intimate, repetitive, domesticity, gradually cranking the tension underneath the daily events, but also letting it dissipate sometimes too. It all has one important effect – the reader is meant to forget the Cirinists exist until the moment they come crashing through the tavern door. And it works: the scenes in which everything falls apart are genuinely shocking and painful even when you know they’re coming: the remaining issues, of imprisonment and interrogation for members of the cast, are brutally powerful.

They also bring into focus a major element of the middle chunk of Cerebus – life under a fascist system. The Cirinist occupation of Iest is totalitarian and has impoverished much of the population, but Jaka’s Story keeps the occupiers offstage until the final act. Until that point it’s a story about everyday life in a time of shortages, state controls, and offstage gestapo justice. Jaka’s Story is uneventful not just because Cerebus himself is at the mother of all loose ends at this point, but because the Cromwellian social orders imposed by Cirin have leeched opportunity and joy from the comic’s world. Nothing is happening because nothing can happen. For the next books to work, we as readers have to hate the Cirinists at least somewhat, and Jaka’s Story certainly accomplishes that.


For most of the book, the actual nature of the Cirinists isn’t as important as the recognisably oppressive ways their presence distorts the story. Dave Sim will have increasingly strong and strange ideas about what a fascist matriarchy would entail, but in Jaka’s Story they don’t really affect the comic until very near the end, where Jaka finds herself imprisoned by the Cirinists, then interrogated by one, Mrs Thatcher.

Yes, that Mrs Thatcher, though Sim’s version of her is more based on the Gerald Scarfe caricature than on real life, and as a British reader I’ve never found her speech patterns that recognisable – the character’s cadences read better to me if you drop any memory you might have of the actual politician. Still, she’s in there for a reason – she’s the first post-occupation Cirinist we see in a major role, and Sim looked around for a real life equivalent to trigger the responses he wanted in the reader. 

(Which is odd, as Thatcher’s actual politics don’t map onto Cirinism, as seen so far, very well: her legacy rests not on her social conservatism but her economic radicalism. It’s not that she wasn’t censorious, or closed-minded, and she was never afraid to pay lip service to the family as the fount of morality, but those are the shibboleths of most conservative politicians. It doesn’t matter for her role in the plot, but it’s an early example of how Cirinism is a slippery element in Cerebus – sometimes it’s an invented but fairly coherent politics of radical motherhood, sometimes it’s a catch-all for bossy women Sim doesn’t think are hot (the hot ones get to be Kevilists)) 

One thing the comics Thatcher does share with her real-world inspiration is a callous dogmatism. Thatcher’s role in the story is a dark mirror of The Judge in Church And State – the higher authority who gets to have the last word on what’s been happening in the novel. Both characters end up having their in-story authority brutally undermined later on, but in the moment their verdict is final. Of course, there’s a difference: the sheer strangeness of the Judge’s appearance on the moon gives him a kind of cosmic authority, whereas Mrs Thatcher is introduced as a villain, the tormentor of the woman whose story this is. The Judge’s verdict is a tragedy because we can look at the novel and see how he’s right. Thatcher’s is a tragedy because we can do the same and see how she isn’t.

Or can we? Sim in interviews has revisited the closing issues of Jaka’s Story in the light of his later religious and personal convictions and said, basically, he thinks Mrs Thatcher is in fact right. Dancing, he now agrees, is fundamentally wrong; it does unavoidably arouse men and lead them off the righteous path; and abortion is murder. I don’t think it’s controversial to say this really isn’t how the novel actually reads, even knowing what Sim thought later. For all I suspect Sim is more sympathetic to Rick at the end than Jaka, Thatcher is not just introduced as a villain, she’s played as a manipulative monster, using Jaka’s horror at the execution of Pud and her terror of prison to guilt her into accepting responsibility for his death. Her treatment of Jaka is another brutal removal of agency from a character defined by her lack of it and desperation to have it.

Or that’s how I see it. But some of the possible greatness of Jaka’s Story lies in how open the book is to letting the reader decide for themselves on the morality of the characters and their choices. Thatcher is a devil, but her reading of events is still the final word. In fact, I’d guess that’s the point of the novel – I’ve said throughout this post that Jaka’s Story reads as a theatrical work, a play, but the kind of play Sim is writing isn’t really apparent until this last act. Jaka’s Story is in the tradition of plays about social and ethical questions – ones designed to provoke precisely because their characters’ choices and actions are morally debatable.

(I very vaguely associate this tradition with Ibsen, but the near-contemporary theatrical artefact closest to Jaka’s Story might be 1992’s Oleanna, by David Mamet, a play about college sexual harassment which supposedly led to screaming arguments between men and women in theatre foyers. Jaka’s Story predates that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sim envied the impact it had)

Here’s a reading of Jaka’s Story which puts her choices in a wholly sympathetic light: Dancing is what she loves, it’s her means of self-expression and Rick wants her to do it. He is a lazy daydreamer who can’t find work, so having a baby would cut off their only source of income, and she ends her pregnancy. With dancing illegal after the Cirinist takeover, she’s forced to leave the Lower City and dance at Pud’s tavern, understanding that this is risky, but also realising that Pud is a black marketeer. She hates her upbringing, but when the Cirinists bust the Tavern she’s forced to claim diplomatic immunity to protect herself and Rick in the face of women who’ve just murdered two people in front of her.

And here’s the Thatcher interpretation: Jaka is fundamentally selfish, concerned only about her dancing, which is in any case pornography under the figleaf of art. She aborts their baby without telling Rick, lures Pud into letting her dance at the risk of his life and livelihood, and ultimately knows that if the shit does hit the fan she has a get out of jail free card in the form of her Uncle.

Cerebus meant a lot to a lot of people – me included – who now vehemently disagree with Dave Sim’s stated positions on almost everything, and there’s an understandable desire to stress the liberal, or feminist readings of his earlier work, to salvage the ‘good bits’ from the spectacular heel turn that’s now only a few years away. In some ways stressing those readings is easy, because they’re in the book. But other readings are in there too. 

Sim in 1990, writing the end of Jaka’s story, may not have agreed Thatcher was right at the time. But he’s writing a highly theatrical “issue” novel to be a litmus test for readers’ views: he definitely wants us to try and figure out whether and why she’s wrong, and whether Jaka or Rick are, and why. And honestly, the choice of abortion as the ultimate ethical pivot of an issue novel by a male creator is a telling one – there’s an air of “just asking questions” around it which makes it still harder to straightforwardly claim Jaka’s Story as a work written from a ‘liberal’ point of view.

And it doesn’t have to be. For a start, the craft in the comics sections is so remarkable that you can marvel at half the pages without the slightest thought to context. But beyond that, it’s a truism on the left that conservatives can’t make good art, but I’d say it’s a facile one. The reality is rather trickier. Political art made by someone whose politics you don’t share is often a hard sell, partly because you might disagree with its conclusions, but partly because the ways in which authors move their pieces around to reach those conclusions feel more visible, less natural. 

And yes, I do experience this as a flaw in Jaka’s Story – on re-reading it feels like 16-20 issues of beautifully observed, wonderfully crafted, slow paced human drama engineered to set up a cruel little thought experiment. But despite this the characters are rich enough, flawed and sympathetic and vivid enough, and the experiment open enough, that even I can’t wholly resent Dave Sim for pushing me into it.

Sim describes Jaka’s Story as his book about love. It feels more like a book about that most conservative of bugbears, responsibility. All the five lead characters in Jaka’s Story are in some way irresponsible, foolhardy, led by vanity, unable to resist doing things which threaten themselves or others. Sometimes – as with Pud – this leads them to the brink of doing something atrocious. More often the irresponsibility is imposed from without, by the arbitrary rules of tyranny, which considers any self-expression a danger, and whose monstrosity makes self-expression more virtuous by default. Thatcher dismisses Jaka’s claim that Pud letting her dance was an act of “civil disobedience”, but his swinish motives don’t actually change that her dancing is exactly that.

And how these characters are punished for it! One dies, the others are broken by the experience. Cerebus most immediately, as we see next volume, but Jaka most sadly. The next time we get an extended look at her, she’s a character much closer to the privileged, naive girl in Oscar’s book than the free-spirited, complex dancer we’ve been reading about. Whether that change feels real or cruel or both is a question for a much later post. But that T-Shirt told a lie. Nobody survives Jaka’s Story.