This is the seventh in a series of posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, a comic I used to read. Spoilers, as ever, abound.

Previously: Dave Sim ended the first half of his 300-issue Cerebus comic with a meditation on death, specifically the death of Oscar Wilde. In the epilogue to that, Cerebus is galvanised into action and starts fighting the matriarchal theocrat Cirinists.

Flight is the first part of Mothers & Daughters, and Mothers & Daughters is a lot of things: the conclusion of the ‘main’ Cerebus storyline; a speedrun remix and retcon of the first 150 issues of that storyline; a gigantic rugpull for the faithful readers of those 150 issues; a 50-chapter postmodern metatextual graphic novel about feminism and its discontents; the point where Dave Sim irrevocably announces himself as one of said discontents; the point where a lot of readers (me included) quit; a smorgasbord of astonishing cartooning; a right fucking mess.

Mothers & Daughters is divided into four books, which Dave Sim issued as separate collections, partly for economic reasons I’m sure, but also partly so the Cerebus Fan’s bookshelf would forever bear Sim’s dread warning: WOMEN READS MINDS. I’ll be talking about the books separately, but first let’s have a quick overview of the structure of Mothers & Daughters and what each of the books do.

Mothers & Daughters is a shattered mirror of all previous Cerebus books, but in particular Church And State. Like that novel, it’s a story of political upheaval which culminates in an Ascension, which resets Cerebus’ understanding of his life for the next phase of the comic. In Flight, matriarchal tyrant Cirin is planning her own Ascension, while fellow aardvark Cerebus sparks a revolt in Iest against her rule and is then swept on a journey of cosmic self-discovery where he meets Suenteus Po, the third aardvark. In Women, Cerebus returns, disaster strikes Iest, and the conflict between Cirin and Astoria’s Kevillists comes to a head. In Reads, Po, Cerebus, Cirin and Astoria converge and converse, and ultimately Cirin and Cerebus fight. And in Minds, Cirin and Cerebus both ascend, talk separately to their maker, and Cerebus gets a tour of the solar system and of several possible futures before spending a couple of years abandoned on a moon of Pluto.

Put like that this is a somewhat baroque but legible fantasy story: it’s no more difficult to follow than, say, the average Avengers or X-Men event, and probably about as hermetic. But it doesn’t read that way at all. For a start I’ve left out the fact that in Reads the narrative bifurcates to include two long text stories, one of which is a memoir/manifesto by “Viktor Davis”, a Dave Sim analogue. This is where the controversy over Sim’s political views exploded. But even if you leave that to one side – and god knows many readers did – the storytelling in the first two books of Mothers & Daughters is deliberately fractured, a kaleidoscope of dimly connected events in which cause and effect is radically unclear. The moment at which Cerebus, after three years of slow, beautifully-crafted comics, finally starts moving its wider story forward is the moment Sim chooses to unleash his most chaotic, formally difficult storytelling mode.

And that’s the point. If there’s a theme to Mothers & Daughters – and in fact there are dozens – it’s escaping the tyranny of expectation. You expect certain things – from life, from a story, from a marriage, from the world, from a £1.25 a month comic – and your expectations, from a particular point of view, are themselves a compromise, a set of unexamined assumptions that are also traps. Mothers & Daughters is, among all the things mentioned above, an attempt to overturn those expectations and assumptions. So on the most basic level: you expected the story of Cerebus The Aardvark to continue along certain lines; you expected its creator to think and behave in certain ways; you expected that all the bits you liked already will continue to mean largely what you thought they meant. And this is the point in the Cerebus experience where Dave leans down and whispers “no”.

(OK, let’s be accurate, that’s two books after Flight.)

I don’t think thumbing your nose at expectations is a bad thing to do. I don’t think writing things that shift the meaning of what has happened before is a bad thing to do either. In fact if you’re undertaking a project as monumental and long-term as Dave Sim’s, you’re likely to end up doing that whether you want to or not. Cerebus itself has already worked like this: Church And State becomes more comprehensible when you know a) what an Ascension is and b) that almost every character in the story is interpreting Cerebus’ actions as trying to achieve one. In the third and fourth books of Mothers & Daughters, information on Cerebus’ nature is revealed which potentially shifts everything about the previous books – whether it does that well or not is a question for later. But this is all stuff Sim is consistently playing with – he wants you to always keep in mind the relativist, unreliable nature of almost every written or verbal account you get in Cerebus.

On the formal level and on the story level, the kaleidoscopic chaos of Flight’s storytelling is part of this rewriting of expectations. You thought you were going to get straightforward explanations: you aren’t. What you actually get, at first, is a linear set of action sequences – Cerebus killing Cirinists; the Cirinists trying desperately to get Cirin to take it seriously – surrounded by a whole handful of other mini-stories, switching in and out of the main narrative like subplots on speed, and most of them are wholly cryptic. Menaces from the earliest days of Cerebus are logicked out of existence by the Judge. The mountain of Iest grows a dick, horrifying Mrs Thatcher. A nude model posing for the artist from Church And State sees a tiny Cerebus hovering in front of her. The Pigts are on the march.

For the first few issues of Flight, this all feels terribly confusing but also terribly exciting. Stuff is happening! And at an astonishing pace! Also, you can intuit a basic idea of why – Cerebus’ actions are somehow having ripple effects all through the world of the comic, but the throughline of the story is in what he’s doing, not what’s happening around him. And then suddenly, Cerebus vanishes, and what he’s doing becomes another part of the chaos.

In one way, it’s a brilliant move: everything in the comic since the end of Jaka’s Story has been deferring gratification for the moment Cerebus springs into action and takes on the Cirinists. Flight is where it happens, and it’s very quickly apparent that Cerebus’ direct approach is absolutely no match for the situation he’s put himself into and is going to get a lot of people killed. The thing readers have been wanting for at least 12 months – and for over 3 years, in some cases – goes spinning off in a different direction. You thought Cerebus was going to get stuff done: he isn’t.

The rest of Flight isn’t trying to match the adrenaline rush of that opening, and it doesn’t. The helter-skelter scene-switching and staccato storytelling continues, though. So does the tour of moments from the first half of Cerebus, revisiting concepts and characters from as far back as the late 70s: Sim’s juvenilia. K’Cor and the Pigts get a lot of page time. The Roach and Elrod are a meaningful part of the action for the first time in 60 issues. And the main story becomes a cosmic chess game between Cerebus and Suenteus Po, in which the stakes are utterly obscure. 

Sim returns to older art and lettering styles, too – Cerebus’ journey to Po’s Eighth Sphere is told with the familar “omniscient narrator” font and with plenty of visual references to the original Mind Game story from Issue #20. The Pigts material reaches even further back to the Windsor-Smith Conan pastiche of the very first issues. It’s impressive – of course it is – that Sim can slip into those old styles like a vest. But…

On reading this stuff at the time a little voice spoke up – OK, what’s actually the point of all this? Those old stories weren’t exactly the greatest: they were a young cartoonist working through some heavy influences and discovering more of what he wanted to do and be. Returning to them smacked of an attempt to force-fit significance: Cerebus is a complete 300 issue work, ergo what happened in those first dozen comics must be made relevant to the wider conception. Cerebus had been self-indulgent before – as a reader, you knew to expect that. But it hadn’t ever seemed pedantic.

We know a lot about what Sim is aiming for in Flight, because he took more pains than usual to tell people in interviews, and (unusually for later Sim) his explanations are directly about the story, not about its underlying gender philosophies. A rough but hopefully honest paraphrase: Flight is an attempt to demonstrate the structure of Reality as Dave Sim understands it. However, there is no visible pattern, because it’s not possible to step back enough and discern the visible pattern in real events (the disorientation of Flight is akin to making sense of the ‘big picture’ of world affairs by reading a newspaper). In general, what’s happening is that Cerebus’ inaction has caused his peculiar ability to influence events to seep out into the world around him, so that now he’s doing something the environment is responding chaotically. Po’s chess game is meant to demonstrate to Cerebus that action in itself is a bad idea for someone with this unconscious ability.

This is all interesting stuff and some of it can even be deduced from reading the comic. Some parts you can work out after reading the rest of Mothers & Daughters – Po’s belief that staying out of events is the only moral thing for an aardvark to do, for instance, because he flat-out states it later. (Though it doesn’t make a re-read of the chess sequence feel any less arbitrary) But even if you did manage to entirely grok what Dave Sim is up to, “there’s a pattern to events but we can never get far enough away to see it” is such a shrug of an idea. It may well be how Sim honestly saw reality at the time he was creating Flight, but as a creative choice on the page, it’s hardly satisfying.

And that’s fine – satisfying his readers has never been Sim’s goal; most of what is good about Cerebus (and much of what is awful) wouldn’t exist if it was. In general, though, there’s been a balance of trust up to now – Sim has a reason for presenting the story how he does, and the payoff tends to be worth it. Flight – even when you know the thinking behind it – is for me the first real time that Sim’s ambitions and his abilities don’t match. There may simply be no way to represent ideas this abstract in an action comic. But it surely doesn’t help that he chooses to demonstrate the workings of Reality by returning to dead-and-buried story elements only the Cerebus hardcore will even remember.

Thinking about it in terms of the full conception of Mothers & Daughters – as the beginning of an acceleration to a conclusion, and a way to serve notice that much in those earlier issues is unreliable, and a last look at What Cerebus Used To Be Like before the inflection point we now know was coming – yes, all the nostalgic sequences make more sense. Individual pages and sequences are, as you might take for granted by now, brilliantly done. But they still add up to a comic which suddenly feels like it’s fussily going over old ground. Flight is the least essential part of Mothers & Daughters.

Which also makes it the least obnoxious. That says something about what’s coming up, given that Flight is also showing us something we’ve never really seen before – Cerebus as a genuinely violent comic. There’s a brutality in Flight that we’ve only seen in the Cirinist raid on the Tavern in Jaka’s Story, and that was a terrifying eruption of violence from nowhere. In Flight, the savagery is immediate and sustained. Cerebus’ fights with the Cirinists are horrifically bloody; later, a minor comic character from the earlier books gets whipped and burned to death. The Cirinists execute hundreds just because they saw Cerebus, and the Pigts slaughter each other: the violence isn’t always on-panel, but the book is soaked through with it. One of Sim’s most effective artistic touches here is pages of Beckettian mouths and eyes against blackness, as the citizens of Iest whisper together and try to imagine how they might survive the chaos of the storyline and the Cirinist’s fascist government.

Even the comic elements are pitch-black and raw-edged. The Roach turns into Punisherroach, gunning down Cirinists by the dozen. Shortly before, in one of the best sequences in the book, a mob of fired-up citizens attack the Cirinists and are slaughtered: Sim renders the “fight” as simply a full page of lavishly violent sound effects, including trailing intestines from the word “GUT!”. It’s inventive, repulsive, and horribly funny.

In the schema of Mothers & Daughters, each of the four parts is a response to one of the earlier novels. Flight is violent partly because Cerebus began as a pastiche of the sword-and-sorcery mainstream comics of the 70s, in which combat and implied brutality played a major part. That was 1977. By 1991, the mainstream had changed. Cerebus #151 – the opening chapter of Flight – came out in October, the same month as the best-selling comic of all time, Claremont & Lee’s X-Men #1, ending a run which predated Cerebus itself. While not an especially violent comic itself, it surfed to its 7 million sales on a new wave of slick, militarised, action-oriented, superhero stories. The sequence in which normalroach becomes the Punisherroach has a strange real-world echo: normalman’s creator, Jim Valentino, published at one point by Dave and Deni Sim, resurfaced at Image in 1992 with the antihero Shadowhawk, whose gimmick was breaking criminals’ spines. Such were the times, and the violence in Flight exists in that context.

From a story perspective, though, the most obviously important thing Flight does is give readers their first proper look at the patroness of Cirinist violence, Cirin herself. She’s been the explicit antagonist of the comic for 40 issues, and a source of reader fascination since her appearance in #100 as the second of the ‘three aardvarks’. It would be wrong to say she’s a particularly well-developed character, but in some ways nor is Cerebus. Cirin is ruthless, utterly focused, spiteful, impatient and overconfident – again, not unlike the protagonist. And visually, she dominates almost any page she’s on, a cross between a walking elephant and Frank Miller’s Kingpin. 

Cirin rarely comes up in conversations about Sim’s women characters, because the books she’s actually in get so notoriously derailed, and because she’s a fascist leader who’s turned herself into a symbol of her movement, and most characters react to her as such. But even though she’s not as strong or interesting a character as Astoria, Cirin is one of the great comics villains, in the one Cerebus novel that’s grand and operatic enough to require one.

One of the things that makes Cerebus fascinating to me as a comic is that the ways in which it’s bad, when it is bad, are so unusual. It has, obviously, several potential failure modes. A reader can find a book’s underlying philosophy repugnant. They can find its formal experimentation pointless or self-indulgent. They can judge that it hits all its intended artistic and philosophical goals and is simply a bust at the simple level of being entertaining and interesting. But then there’s one of the most common reactions I have to a comic – I can see what the idea was, but the execution falls short. (Comics are difficult to do well!) 

I’ve rarely had this response to Cerebus so far – even when I have, it’s confined to overwrought text sections or a failed attempt to catch an accent. Dave Sim is generally so technically good at what he does that he finds a way to pull off almost everything he attempts. So Flight is the first time I’ve thought “this doesn’t quite work” at the book scale. That doesn’t make it bad – as its name suggests, it’s a propulsive, exciting comic even when nothing much about it makes sense (another way in which it chimed with the early 90s times). But it’s the least satisfying to me of any of the Cerebus books so far.