This is the 8th of my posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, a controversial and long-running comic. This post includes detailed spoilers for Women, for the series as a whole, and for its writer’s philosophy.

Previously: The 50-issue Mothers & Daughters storyline got underway with Cerebus taking the fight to the matriarchal Cirinists, a fight interrupted when he’s whisked away on a cosmic journey to talk to fellow aardvark Suenteus Po. Dave Sim’s storytelling grows more staccato and experimental as he tries to convey the nature of reality to his readers…

The second book of Mothers & Daughters starts with Cerebus crashing through a skylight and finding himself in a room with two ladies. One is an elderly woman who likes tea. The other is her Cirinist guard and stenographer, assigned to write down anything she says. This is clearly a significant encounter. The old woman seems to know important things. The first episode of Women ends, portentously, with her about to reveal them: “And now here you are. Here you are.”

And next issue she tells Cerebus this: “Women rape men’s minds, just as men rape women’s bodies”

If you know Cerebus by reputation, you know that at a certain point Dave Sim turns the story into a soapbox for his ideas about men and women. That moment is not quite here. But as you’d expect from a book called Women, some ideas turn up here first. For a start, it’s a book in which the story is continuously interrupted by pages from the philosophical writings of Cirin and Astoria, two established characters who are the leaders of opposing matriarchal movements. So already a sizeable bit of the novel is Dave Sim writing prose extracts from female supremacist philosophies he invented.

And then there’s this mysterious third character, a kindly old lady under house arrest, who tells Cerebus and the reader that women read minds, and more, that they absorb and consume men’s minds, and that the ultimate result of the Cirinist takeover will be disaster, as by consuming all the male rational minds they replace strong male leaders with weak, inconsistent women.

Now, Cerebus is a fantasy comic. These are fantasy concepts. We’ve already seen that the Cirinists operate as a telepathic group mind in combat situations. This is a new character speaking, who may be an unreliable one. “Women eat minds” could be a fantasy conceit like Robert Jordan’s “male magic is tainted”.

But if you know what’s coming up, you also know that in roughly 2 years’ publication time, Dave Sim is going to show up, thinly disguised, in his own comic, and say essentially that yes! women are in fact brain-draining leeches. This fantasy stuff is a very thin metaphor for the real world. Which means that before we talk about Women we have to talk about…women. And what Dave Sim thinks about them.

And now here we are.

Dave Sim is not a typical misogynist any more than Cerebus is a typical comic. But Cerebus is a comic, and the unusual things it does are rooted in the grammar and ideas of comics. Similarly, the way in which Sim expresses his ideas about women is certainly odd, but a lot of the ideas themselves seem to me straightforward, if hardline, conservatism in their conception of women as fundamentally unequal and – whatever weasel words he uses to get around the point – lesser. Women were happier as homemakers. Women are too emotional to make decisions. Feminism has wrecked Western society. Conservative speech about these obvious truths is being suppressed.

These are very basic reactionary ideas, the kind you might pick up on many a right-wing talk show or Men’s Rights YouTube channel, expressed by men with a hundredth of Dave Sim’s talent but very similar opinions. There’s a danger that in focusing on Sim’s weirder expressions of his misogyny – the stuff about women’s bums being evolved to spank, or the idea that music promotes the feminist illusion of collective decision-making – we lose sight of the fact that the core of Sim’s thinking on gender is bog-standard saloon bar conservative talking points, jacked up to emphasise the immense threat women pose to male creative or decisive energy.

And yet while Sim’s central philosophy isn’t as ground-breaking as he might think, parts of it are strange, and it gets stranger as he goes on. It’s a braid of three interlacing strands, of which his troubles with women are only part. Even if, like me, you’re trying to write only about the stuff he’s actually putting in the comic, it’s worth having a broad mental model of what Dave Sim believes and how it develops over time. So permit me an unwelcome break to describe the Three Pillars of Dave Sim Thought, as far as I can summarise them:

THE GENDER STUFF: There wasn’t a lot about men vs women in the first parts of Cerebus. The Cirinists appear quite early, but they’re basically nuns. Astoria in High Society is a woman who can’t openly operate as a politician, but is working towards broadly feminist ends. Sim didn’t seem to have many personal issues either: he happily portrayed himself in interviews and editorially as a horndog, and during the initial success of Cerebus Sim and wife Deni were an independent comics power couple. His marriage ended in the mid 80s, and around this time he started either drifting towards conservative positions on gender or feeling more free to express those positions – by the 90s he was happy to describe himself as anti-feminist in the letters pages. 

Sim’s big stated issue with feminism was that men and women are inherently, hugely different, wanting completely different things from life and love, and that feminism has restructured society since the 70s to deny this and to unfairly advantage women, with terrible effects. He explained this position at length through an alter ego in the notorious Cerebus #186, at the climax of Reads. The reaction to that, and his changing religious views entrenched and hardened his ideas, and from 1998 on he was celibate by choice. At some point he started making people who want to work with him sign a statement that he isn’t a misogynist, which raises a lot of questions already answered by the statement (and the 300-issue comic).

THE CREATIVE FREEDOM STUFF: Before his emergence as an anti-feminist, Sim was already a political activist – a firebrand by the timid standards of the comics industry. His position as one of the most consistent and successful self-publishers gave him a lot of authority in the independent comics scene in the 80s, and along with several other creators he thrashed out a “Creative Bill Of Rights” circa 1986 proposing complete artistic freedom for creators. 

This was a hot topic in mid-80s comics, as it became clear that some of the most legendary figures in the mainstream – Jack Kirby, for instance – had signed iniquitous contracts and were being shafted by the companies they made millions for. True creative freedom, for Sim, involved working independent of a publisher and having the maximum possible control over printing and distribution. These stances were more hardline than most independent artists, who might own their work but had contracted with hopefully sympathetic and honest publishers to get it on the market. But whatever the policy differences, Sim’s views won him a lot of industry respect (as did his work, and his personal generosity to other indie cartoonists). Working conditions in comics have changed at least somewhat since the 80s, and Sim is one of the people who deserves credit.

I’m not sure whether Sim ever embraced libertarianism explicitly, but the philosophy with its distrust of government and of rent-seeking middlemen certainly seemed to appeal, and I’m happy to use it as shorthand for this part of his thinking. Sim’s credo of total creative freedom at the individual level dovetails with his gender thinking in Reads. This is the part of Sim’s beliefs that has shifted least over the decades, though in the late 90s he publically backed away from the idea that he was a leader of any movement (he objected to the word “godfather” in particular).

THE GOD STUFF: Sim characterised himself before his conversion as an atheist. I think that doesn’t quite capture it – post-conversion he often calls his earlier self a “pagan”, which fits better. I might use that corny phrase “spiritual but not religious”. Sim certainly was no skeptic: he had a belief in hidden patterns and synchronicity and a dissatisfaction with pure materialism but, before 1998, no need to attribute those patterns to a higher being. While researching Rick’s Story, which involved reading the Bible in order to parody its language, Sim had a religious conversion. 

This wasn’t an overnight change – in a discussion about magic with Alan Moore printed in Cerebus around the beginning of Rick’s Story, Sim is a lot more open-minded about Moore’s beliefs than he would be later, when he described his sometime friend as possessed by demons (he still liked Moore enough to want them cast out). Sim’s religious researches led to some significant lifestyle changes, and ultimately to his developing a personal faith syncretising Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He has no time for the organised versions of any of these religions and his interpretations of their texts are, as we’ll see, unorthodox. Sim’s newly religious sensibilities sharpened both his gender politics and his sense of individual separation from society – his life now is essentially monastic – and figure heavily in the final two books of Cerebus.

All three parts of Dave Sim Thought are important – I don’t think you can get why he does what he does in Cerebus by just isolating one of them. He’s a misogynist. He’s a libertarian. He’s a convert. He’s also an artist, dedicated to improving his craft and telling his story in the best way he can. Sometimes for him that means putting that other stuff on the page. But sometimes that means leaving it out.

I would say the gender and creative freedom elements develop together from early on. The religious element comes more out of left-field. And it has a major impact on trying to actually understand what’s going on in the comic, because after the conversion Sim becomes even crankier, in the sense of derailing and ignoring questions about story points and wanting to talk a whole lot more about his beliefs and the marxist-feminist society that’s cancelled him. It explains some of the peculiar tone of the later books of Cerebus, but also makes any glosses he offers on the earlier books a lot less useful.

This is a problem for Women, as it’s a particularly hallucinatory, oblique part of the Cerebus story. After his chat with the mysterious old lady, Cerebus spends much of it back in the pub. But this time he’s asleep, though continuing to affect the world in the same chaotic way he did in Flight. A lot of other people are asleep, too – much of the action of Women happens in dreams, often shared dreams, but dreams which have a physical impact on reality. And somehow the catalyst for this is the Roach, who has taken on his final major incarnation as Swoon, king of dreams – a parody of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, comics’ critical sensation at the time. (Gaiman loved the parody, which is extremely broad but certainly nails Morpheus’ core identity as a sad horny goth)

Meanwhile the rapid-fire scene-switching of Flight continues, particularly towards the end of the book, with dream-states and waking states shuffling as the three aardvarks and Astoria start to converge for their confrontation in Reads. The tone is constantly, unpredictably shifting, and so is the cast – you turn the page from philosophy extracts to a daytime talk-show parody with Red Sophia and her Mother; Astoria fights for control of her besieged followers and a few pages later the Regency Elf is trying to seduce Cerebus. Like a dream, it feels chaotic and semi-random. On my first read of Women, it was probably the single most difficult Cerebus book to understand – on a “what is happening?” level, not a “why is Dave Sim doing this?” one. 

With hindsight, there’s a clear story throughline in Women – it’s where the extremely long-bubbling “Cirinists v Kevillists” subplot comes into the foreground, which is why it’s studded with those bits from philosophical tracts. And the chaos has more of a purpose, too. This is – though we don’t know it at the time – the last time we’ll see most of these characters. Remember that back in Church And State and High Society, the main way Dave Sim set up stories was by a shuffled series of encounters with comic relief characters – Elrod, The Roach, Sophia et al – which gradually built up to something wider, as those comedy characters subtly advanced the plot. With Jaka’s Story, Sim switched to his other main storytelling mode, a theatrical one following the drama of a small group of characters. After Women, that becomes the dominant way he tells the story: he returns to the “let’s see who shows up this issue” model with Guys, but he’s using it in a very different way, with a mostly new cast.

So a lot of Women is a farewell tour, and a rather bitter one at that – Sim is keen to overturn expectations and knock down characters he’s built up. The debunking of minor adversaries in Flight (like the demon Khem or Death) becomes a set of revelations about more significant figures. Elrod was never real. Nor was any version of the Regency Elf we’ve ever seen on-page. The Judge tearfully apologises for being wrong. At every turn in Women, Dave Sim is the guy in the astronauts meme, pulling a gun behind the shocked reader. “Elrod is a creation of the Chaos Gems?” “Always was.”

But this stuff is happening around the edges of the main story: Cirinism v Kevillism, and the return of Astoria to centre-stage after 70 or so issues in prison. Cirin is freaking out about Cerebus’ reappearance, and turns to the imprisoned Astoria, who she always assumed was running the Cerebus show anyway. Astoria realises the leverage she has and demands an in-person meeting, which will lead either to her death or an alliance. Before it can happen, disaster strikes as part of the mountain above Iest collapses onto the city – Sim handles the chaos of this brilliantly. In the disorder, Cirin is briefly believed dead and Astoria’s Kevillist followers are desperate for her to take action. The two women finally do meet, in a shared dream, but ultimately Cirin rejects any compromise with her former protege.

Like Flight paralleled Volume 1 of Cerebus, Women parallels High Society, in the sense that Astoria is very much its star turn. Astoria is one of those characters Dave Sim can’t quite bring himself to ruin, even when he obviously detests what she stands for. He’ll trash-talk her endlessly in interviews but keeps writing scenes where she absolutely steals the show, like her explanation of why, in the midst of catastrophe, she’s going back to sleep. Her character journey in Women – towards the realisation that the political movement she’s led sees her mostly as an alternative leader to Cirin, not an inspiration to set and achieve one’s own goals – is one of the most nuanced in the comics, perhaps because it parallels Sim’s own eventual disenchantment with his status as a self-publishing guru.

Astoria remains fascinating. The ideological battle she’s caught in is a lot less digestible. Cirinism vs Kevillism has been a background element of Cerebus for ages, the secret conflict behind much of the series’ intrigue, and both Astoria and Cirin tend to see the world in its terms. The Cirinists are absolutely vexed by their failure to understand why Cerebus is clutching the rag doll Missy, for instance – is he secretly making a pro-Mothers gesture?

(The observation here is shrewd – dogmatic thinkers tend to interpret all information in the light of their chosen beliefs, however little it actually fits. Dave Sim himself will become a case in point.) 

It’s true that as of Mothers & Daughters we haven’t had a full explanation of what Cirinism and Kevillism actually are, but it’s unlikely any readers would feel shortchanged. By their works shall ye know them, and we’ve seen enough to get a solid grounding in the two ideologies. Any reader will have picked up that Cirinism is an expansionist military matriarchy in which only mothers have full citizenship, men have almost no rights, and infertile women form an inferior caste. They should also have figured out that Kevillism is an offshoot started by Astoria that extends rights to “daughters”, i.e. all women, and believes in working within the system to achieve their ultimate goals, which include women’s suffrage, abortion on demand and “ownership of men”.

If readers have worked this stuff out already, why does Sim keep interrupting Women to give us more detail on the two philosophies? It’s not to entertain us: when the text blocks show up in Women it’s like a bad RPG sourcebook gatecrashing the comic. Strangely though, it’s not because the battle between Cirinism and Kevillism is vital to the plot either – in fact it’s something of a red herring. The whole of Women is setting up a conflict between Cirin and Astoria which barely happens – Cirin meets Astoria in a dream, has the chance to change things, and doesn’t. None of the philosophical disagreement ends up actually mattering very much.

So what’s going on? For me the answer comes back – not surprisingly – to the beliefs of Dave Sim, and his wholesale rejection of feminism.

One of the themes of Mothers & Daughters is how political movements go wrong. In Flight, the Cirinists are rife with internal rivalry and disobedience, and in Women, the Kevillists are revealed to have learned almost none of the lessons Astoria wanted to impart. The Cirinist mother cult is also hypocritical – their leadership barely see their own children – and the great schism between Cirin and Astoria turns out to be based on Cirin’s petty spite as much as any action Astoria took. For all the words we see spilt by the two women, it’s clear there aren’t many fundamental differences, and the main ones are rooted in age or personal enmity. (The Cirinist and Kevillist symbols are the same on those text pages – an ankh – it’s just the amount of ivy growing on it that differs).  

And when we see the Cirinists in future books, they’ve absorbed some minor elements of Kevillism (women are allowed in pubs!) but Astoria is gone and the disagreement is barely relevant any more. In other words, the great divide operating behind the scenes of Cerebus was largely an illusion – the differences between Cirinism and Kevillism, between Mothers and Daughters, were just not that important.

Dave Sim has made them seem important because he’s presented the Cirinists in a violently negative light and the only major Kevillist we’ve seen – Astoria – in a mostly positive one. And Astoria’s political wishlist is mostly a broad mix of real past and present feminist demands, whereas Cirin’s matriarchy feels alien and brutal, a totalitarian state in burlap habits. But this is another Mothers & Daughters expectation reversal: to Sim, the differences are cosmetic, which is presumably why he chucks the “ownership of men” grenade into Astoria’s list. 

To someone who’s issues away from telling us that the most basic of Astoria’s demands – women’s suffrage – was a bad idea, the vaguely-recognisable-as-feminism Kevillism and the full fascist matriarchy of Cirinism are two sides of a female supremacist coin. He’s ultimately no more interested in the differences between them than he is in the differences between first, second and third wave feminism. So the main plot of Women is a blind alley, which partly accounts for why, even by Cerebus standards, it’s an awkward, elusive book.

If Cirinism v Kevillism is a false trail, where is Sim really heading? The most telling text page in Women isn’t any of the extracts from The New Matriarchy. It’s the testimony, near the end, of an old woman facing a Cirinist tribunal, talking about how life was better before the revolution, when women stayed at home and men worked. It’s unadorned conservative anti-feminist talking points. The page concludes by noting her execution, as the Cirinists can’t handle the truth. This, not the shadow conflict between Cirin and Astoria, is the fight Dave Sim is about to pick.

Flight ended in a strange, rapid-fire muddle. Women ends with a sense of real momentum – Astoria, Cerberus and a robed figure who turns out to be Po, making their way to the cathedral where Cirin is waiting. The storytelling accelerates even more – cutting panel by panel between the four protagonists. Sim knows how to pace a climax. The first time fans read it, whatever they’d thought of the novel so far, whatever suspicions about Sim’s purposes they might have had, they must have felt excited. Reading it knowing what’s coming, what once was thrilling is now ominous. Here we are.