This is the 9th in a series of posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, a controversial independent comic. This episode has the controversial bit! And also spoilers, as usual, for the actual story both in this book and as a whole.

Previously: Mothers & Daughters, the climax of the main Cerebus narrative, reached its halfway point as four of the most important characters met physically for the first time. The comic’s extensive text material, meanwhile, had turned its attention more and more to its characters’ ideas about gender…

“”Fuck off, Viktor”, thought the reader” – Viktor Davis in Reads


With Melmoth, Dave Sim asked the question “what can Cerebus encompass?” and the answer was “anything I like”. But that turns out not to be the whole truth. The monthly experience of reading Cerebus wasn’t just about the comic, it was about the backmatter: the huge, rambling “Aardvark Comment” letter column, the samples and exclusives of whatever comics or creators Sim was keen his readers knew about, and the essays and commentaries Sim offered.

With the boundary between core story and side project thoroughly dissolved, Sim started testing new boundaries – between the story and the backmatter. Between the thoughts of Dave Sim and the action of Cerebus. Between the comic page and the creator. Even if the text sections were Elrod’s Gardening Tips, Reads would be Cerebus’ most radical book to date for how it shatters these barriers and for how it sets out a relationship between comics and prose which is unlike almost any previous comic – demanding we experience huge chunks of text as part of the comics story. And at the same time as Reads insists on the primacy of text for half its material, the other half is dispensing with it altogether, with a bloody, wordless fight scene occupying the comics pages for issue after remorseless issue.

Reads is one of the most formally challenging graphic novels I’ve ever read. But that’s not why it became probably the most famous, or notorious, section of Cerebus. This is also the point in the story where Dave Sim steps into his own creation at the climax of those text sections and spells out his incendiary views on men, women and creativity. How the world is a battle between creative Lights (almost all male) and devouring Voids (almost all women) and how the Voids’ main tactic for devouring the Lights is luring them with the impossible promise of Merged Permanence (a happy relationship of equals).

As I hinted last time, a re-read in 2024 blunts the impact of those views a bit. Not because time has proved Sim right, but because with hindsight it’s obvious how Sim built up to the bombshell issue #186, and it’s also clear that Sim’s misogynist views aren’t particularly novel. In fact they’re exhaustingly familiar. Even the most scrupulously fair summary of the ideas in Reads is likely to have you saying “Wow, sounds like that guy had some issues”

But Reads still does have an impact, not so much because of what Sim says but the way he says it: the visceral, vicious language of “Viktor Davis” rant in #186 is still brutal in ways that summaries can’t really capture. The stuff about women voting being a mistake comes early on, and it just gets further out from there. Meanwhile the cosmic terminology he drapes over his philosophy – all the lights and voids and merged permanence stuff – make the basic concepts seem stranger, and less tawdry, than they are. Plus, let’s face it, there are no comics parallels to what Sim is doing(1). The closest thing I can think of – almost a decade on from this – is Alan Moore’s tour of the Tree Of Life in Promethea, and that had gorgeous JH Williams pictures to soften the density of ideas. Even Gerhard doesn’t get a look-in here(2).

So Dave Sim’s arguments in #186 overshadow not just the story elements of Reads but the questions you might usefully ask about all the rest of it: do its many formal experiments work? How much text can a comic contain and still be one? What is the first text section of Reads doing? And even the rant poses questions beyond its content: Why is it in the comic and not the backmatter? Why does it have to be so hateful? And what did Sim imagine would happen when he published it?

I’m going to offer an answer to most of these questions, but there’s a caveat: this is the point in this series where all the material was new to me (if not by reputation). I originally quit reading Cerebus at the end of Flight, realising the story would read better in the ‘phonebook’ collections. I continued flicking through the comic in the shop each month, so absorbed enough about Reads to update my plans to “I’ll read it when it’s finished I guess”. Which, 20 years after it finished, I did. So any insights I have on these latter books are based on flimsier ground – I’ve read them more recently and thought about them less.

I’d guess most Cerebus readers haven’t rushed back to this one, though. So first, a quick summary of what else is in Reads.


So far, Mothers & Daughters has been structured around a single story – Cerebus, Cirin and Astoria’s power struggle – told in a complex, chaotic way by the constant interruption of dozens of simultaneous vignettes somehow related to those events. Reads continues that in a much more straightforward way, as the “ripple-effect” stories fall away and we get an uninterrupted story where the three leads and Suenteus Po finally meet in the cathedral of Iest.

The four characters talk – mostly a lecture from the ascetic Po, outlining his philosophy of inaction, as he hopes to persuade the others to basically give up and go home. He leaves, and so does Astoria, who has actually listened, and whose experiences in Women have left her disillusioned about political leadership anyway. Before she goes she drops a bombshell – Cerebus is “a hermaphrodite”(10). This leaves Cerebus and Cirin alone – neither have any intention of taking Po’s advice and they begin a fight to the death.

Giving the volume its title is a short story about Victor Reid, a writer of Reads, mass-market fiction a bit like the old penny dreadfuls or pulps. The Reads industry has been bubbling away for a while now in the background of the comic – Weisshaupt puts Cerebus’ name on some in Church And State, and both Oscars wrote them. It’s often meant to represent the comics industry or some aspect of it. That’s definitely the case here, as Reid’s story is a comics roman-a-clef about a talented young creator swept up by a big publishing house (“Vertigo Horse” DO YOU SEE), who break his creativity on their publishing wheel. He ends up a despairing hack, and the architects of his downfall are women: his demanding, baby-ridden wife; his ball-breaking agent; his fickle, bosomy muse(3).

The Victor Reid section is barely linked to Cerebus’ story – Victor’s great artistic leap forward, whose rejection by his publisher breaks him, is a ‘read’ about Cerebus’ ascension and the events of Church And State. It’s followed by a text section which does tie in directly, in a way we’ve never seen before. At the start of the Cerebus and Cirin fight, the point of view pulls back to show a drawing board with a man drawing the fight, the author of Cerebus. He turns around: this is “Viktor Davis”.

Viktor also demonstrates his control over the events of the comic. “BANG, BANG, BANG” he writes, and three huge bangs demolish the cathedral around the fighting aardvarks, leaving the throne ascending into space with Cirin and Cerebus clinging to it as it flies past the moon. Viktor, meanwhile, ends his role in the book with his lengthy thoughts on men and women and creativity, leaving us with a Pink Floyd quote(4) and a hope that he’s instilled some seed of enlightenment in the male reader. And that’s Reads.

The Viktor Davis sections are very oddly written, a third person description of Viktor talking to the reader about Cerebus. Viktor is, essentially, Dave Sim – he recounts real world anecdotes involving Alan Moore, Jeff Smith, and others. During the story ‘Viktor’ pulls ‘the Reader’ into the comic with him, an experience which reads like a kind of hypnotic ritual, and retells in prose the Judge’s story of the Big Bang from Church And State, except flipping the roles: now the male light is smothered and split by the female void. 

Reads kicks off the second half of Mothers & Daughters, but that isn’t its only function in the overall Cerebus construction. It’s also the start of what I think of as the third overlapping Cerebus novel. The first, which Mothers & Daughters ends, is a genre novel – a satirical, political fantasy saga full of dazzling digressions. The second, which Jaka’s Story opens, is a modernist novel, a comic and tragic story about a man and a woman who are unable to be happy with or without each other: it’ll resume as Mothers & Daughters ends. And the third is an experimental novel, a philosophical enquiry into men, women, God and their relationship to one another, in which the character of Dave Sim is as important as the character of Cerebus.

Depending on which of these novels you think you’re reading, the text elements of Reads play different roles. If you’re reading the first novel, they’re an unwelcome and skippable distraction, and even the metafictional elements which turn up here will be better used in Minds. If you’re reading the second novel, then the Victor Reid half of the text section is tangentially relevant but the “Viktor Davis” half is well worth avoiding: it acts as basically a spoiler (in several senses) for the next several books, in that it removes a lot of tension from future narratives by outlining exactly how Sim thinks men and women always behave.

And if you’re reading the third novel, then the Viktor Davis bits are the kickoff, the moment Dave Sim steps out of the shadow of his creation and reveals what the point of Cerebus was all along. Ouch.


There are several interesting questions about Viktor Davis’ anti-feminist screed, none of which are “is he right?” (He isn’t: for a start all his gender arguments rest on a hard division between ‘reason’ and ’emotion’ which he doesn’t define beyond linguistic pedantry. And that’s the bit even his sympathetic commentators tend to put before the “but…”(5)) One is “why is this in the comic not the backmatter?”. Another: “Is this what Dave Sim actually believes, and if so how long has he believed it?”

A lot of the initial response to Reads, especially from fellow creators and regular readers, leaned heavily on the fact that “Viktor Davis” is a pseudonym, and that his views might not fully reflect Sim’s. A lot of the later response takes for granted that Sim ‘went mad’ or was radicalised somehow and that the screeds of Reads bear no real relation to the humane, even liberal comic Cerebus used to be. 

Both of these responses are anticipated by Reads itself. Reads is painstaking in establishing that yes, Viktor Davis is the writer of Cerebus, Dave Sim. Sim’s own views – explained at infinite length ever since – tally with what he writes here. Viktor Davis writes about how he’s been self-censoring himself for years, and anticipates the horrified reaction to Reads in general and specifically ‘the reader’s’ appalled response to his reversal of the Judge’s monologue. In interviews at the start of Mothers & Daughters he put forward the idea – which he’s stuck to since I think – that the Judge and Viktor Davis represent two extreme points of view and readers can choose for themselves which is right. There’s a worthy liberal tendency to imagine that an author depicting two extreme points of view means they feel the truth must be somewhere in the middle: Dave Sim would not agree(6).


Viktor Davis is certainly Sim framing his beliefs in the starkest, harshest terms he can to get his point across, but it’s a point he’s been building to. In the Women post I went through the three strands to Dave Sim’s philosophy – the gender, creative freedom, and religious parts. Viktor Davis is where the first two of those end up: all the wider political elements feel like window dressing for Sim’s real issue, which is the way the “voids” absorb and drain the creative energy of the “lights”, i.e. the way women, in his view, sap and stymie men’s’ creative impulses.

This directly ties back to the Victor Reid parts of the book – Reid is an object lesson in how this happens. But the important part of the two stories isn’t just the women in them, it’s that Reid is also the victim of an industry which has the exact same goal – diverting and draining his creative light. Sim’s libertarian philosophy of self-publishing – that you simply cannot trust publishers not to force you into compromises, and compromise means artistic death – is the backbone of Reads as much as the gender material is.

In fact, you can see Sim’s philosophy of men and women as the next step of his belief in the importance of self-publishing to artistic greatness. Following your artistic path is hard. You will constantly be expected to compromise or weaken your work by the uncreative forces around you (publishers, distributors, other middlemen) so you have to own it for yourself. So far, so Randian. But Sim goes further, with his “Light does not breed” mantra – by expecting to be an equal partner, women (and later children) are automatically diluting and stealing this creative ownership and control. If publishers are parasites, how much worse are wives and families?(7)

Where Sim’s two big concerns – creative freedom and the iniquities of womankind – have ended up is a kind of Objectivism of the Boudoir, Cyril Connolly’s “pram in the hallway” bon mot on libertarian steroids. I don’t think you can disentangle those two elements of Dave Sim’s philosophy, which is one reason Jeff Smith becomes such a bete noire for Sim. Smith has a cameo here as a pal of Viktor, but is a living refutation of Sim’s ideas: his wife gave up her job to support his self-publishing ambitions, and his comic Bone is visibly Cerebus inspired but also considerably more palatable to a wider comics-agnostic public. Bone ends up in libraries and homes across the world(8) – it replaces Cerebus as the success case for self publishing at exactly the time Cerebus becomes a cautionary tale.


So far I’ve looked at what Sim thinks in Reads and why he thinks it. For the reader of Cerebus, looking aghast as they turn the page to find yet another double page spread of small print, there’s a more urgent question: what is this stuff doing in the comic? It’s clear how they link philosophically, but how do the Victor Reid and Viktor Davis sections work as part of the actual story?

It’s initially very hard to see what the point of the Victor Reid parts in particular is. Artistically it’s the weakest element of the book, without the genuine brilliance of the comics sections or the “what the fuck is happening” rubbernecking of the Viktor Davis part. In its own right it’s just not a great story: Sim’s prose is as fussy as it ever was when pretending to be Oscar, and over time the gossipy elements have faded out to leave a set of stereotypes. It seems mainly addressed to Sim’s fellow creators: Reid is an example of artistry denied and defiled by compromise. 

It’s also a more general comment by Sim on the state of the industry. At the end of Women, the Roach has a crisis, and a horde of alternative identities threaten to burst out of him, all based on short-lived comics or publishers from the early 90s boom. Most are now unfamiliar even if you “were there” – yes, I could spot the Warriors Of Plasm reference, but I wish I couldn’t – but it’s the sheer number and relentlessness of them that’s the joke, a market glut given physical form. The material in Reads is more pointed – the boom was turning to bust, and Victor Reid’s story is a barbed commentary on the ‘mainstream alternative’ companies like Dark Horse and DC’s Vertigo imprint, which offered more varied and critically respectable – but still corporate-owned – output.

All the reads industry sections, though – not just this but the equivalent sections in Jaka’s Story and later books – are making a wider point within the story, which is that popular art is not any kind of bulwark against tyranny: the reads industry is subject to market pressures and tacit censorship under the Cirinists just as it was subject to political pressures before them, and creators are ultimately indentured labourers. Genuine artists can and must work only for themselves.

Artists like Viktor Davis, whose Read exists in our world and is a comic called Cerebus. And this is one answer to that question – why is Viktor Davis’ beef with women part of the actual comic? For Sim, only the genuine, self-publishing artist has the freedom to say the unsayable in modern society, but that freedom is meaningless unless it’s exercised. Sim has to push Cerebus to its most extreme point, in terms of form and content, at least partly because no publisher would let him do it.

Sim knows very well that the Viktor Davis stuff is going to shock and upset readers. Davis prefaces his big mask-off disquisition in #186 with a lot of “aint-I-a-stinker” hints about how controversial the last chunk is going to be. He’s already worked hard to rattle readers(9). And it’s written explicitly to be as offensive and horrible as possible. Nothing else would prove Sim’s point to his own satisfaction. There’s a moment in Victor Reid’s story where his evil aspect, the backmasked Rotsieve, comes out and says hateful things to everyone. Is Viktor Davis – David Victor Sim backwards – Sim’s Rotsieve? I think that probably was the point of that concept – but it was there to explain why Davis is so venomous, not what he was actually saying.

And the other reason it has to be in the comic is that each part of Mothers & Daughters is a reprise and revision of an earlier part of Cerebus, and here we’re redoing Church And State. As I mentioned above, Viktor Davis is the devilish reverse of the Judge: an omniscient being talking us through cosmology and inverting the Judge’s origin of the universe. Not an act of cosmic rape; an act of cosmic smothering and emasculation. If the Judge’s monologue has to be part of Cerebus, so does Viktor Davis’.


So now we’re just left with the question – does it work? This is Sim’s biggest, most notorious, most ambitious and most shocking risk? Does he pull it off?

Reads is obviously the book where a lot of readers noped out. Even if they made it through to the end of Mothers & Daughters in Minds, the decision to quit happens here. Whether or not you respect Sim’s artistic freedom – and despite Sim-as-Davis saying he could be prosecuted for hate speech, nobody has ever tried to ban Cerebus – from this point he’s a guy a lot of people don’t want to give money to.

Some people agreed with Sim, or partially agreed, or thought he had a point but ‘went too far’. Obviously they didn’t stop buying it, though Cerebus has never gained a reputation as a great work of conservative or libertarian art. Others argued for a “separate the art from the artist” principle which seems a little insulting in this case, given how diligently Dave Sim worked to make that impossible.

Many, probably most, readers decided that Dave Sim’s obvious artistic excellence meant putting up with his being an arsehole, and kept reading. The best critical work on Cerebus I’ve read, Andrew Rilstone’s When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus?, roughly takes the line that Cerebus is a big, deliberately complex and difficult book in a similar way to Moby Dick or Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, and that reading it involves reckoning with the parts that are most difficult, Reads included.

I think, though, that you can see Reads as horrible but necessary to Sim’s overall conception, and still see it as an artistic failure.

Bits of it – the bits Sim actually draws – are certainly not a failure. Sim gives us both a philosophical and a physical resolution to the big conflicts of the series. The conversation between the three aardvarks and Po is the kind of thing people now call a “lore dump” but it gives a solid explanation to what an aardvark is and what’s been going on in Mothers & Daughters so far. Aardvarks magnify the traits, people and events around them: the only good course of action, according to Po, is inaction.

As she did in Women, Astoria shines. I’ve seen people say that she gets the best ending in the comic, and in a sense that’s true – her final contributions are a reminder of why we liked her and she leaves on her own terms, the only character with the brains to actually listen to Po. But even if her arc across Mothers & Daughters is complex and complete, her final turn to the domestic here also feels like a shabby ending for the comic’s great intriguer and manipulator(10). Is it growth, or is it just Sim wanting to take her down a peg, show her plans and schemes as futile? Or demonstrating to his women readers the virtuous way to overcome your devouring void-ness? One of the worst things about Reads is that he lets you – encourages you to – read those kind of motives into the action from now on.

The artistic high point of Reads, though, is the Cerebus and Cirin fight – page after page of weighty, savage, thoroughly choreographed and horribly physical combat, the first time in the entire series that Cerebus has fought someone clearly his match as a fighter. Their combat is quick to read, and continually interrupted by the – equally brutal in a different way – Viktor Davis pages, so it feels like it lasts even longer than it actually does.

Fight and action scenes are part of the grammar of American comics, but they are hardly ever this long – sometimes Jack Kirby would draw a big multi-page slugfest in Fantastic Four, which Stan Lee would usually over-dialogue, mistrusting the simple thrill of movement and the pleasure the reader gets from turning images into motion. Sim’s inner Stan Lee – occasionally a presence in the early issues of Cerebus – is silent here.

What the fight sequence feels most like is a manga episode, where higher page counts often allow for more wordless, decompressed storytelling. In Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond, a stellar martial-arts manga, entire volumes are spent on fights in which only a handful of blows are exchanged, including pages of interiority as the combatants size each other up or move around one another looking for an opening. Manga is an influence Sim would have absorbed indirectly via Frank Miller, whose action choreography was the basis for his early stardom, but the level of weight and detail in Sim’s rendering – the blood-slicked fur of the combatants – takes this up a level. Sim disliked drawing fights and action – it was a reason the comic turned away from straightforward fantasy so early – so the Cirin fight in Reads, paired with the Viktor Davis text, is a creator deliberately pushing himself, as well as the reader, well out of his comfort zone.

But it’s those text parts that let Reads down, not just in content but in concept and execution. The Victor Reid sections are a mediocre morality play, a struggle to get through when I don’t know (or have forgotten) who all the characters are meant to be. Reid is a cypher – I don’t believe in his talent, so I don’t care when he abandons it.

The Viktor Davis parts are more readable, because they’re so strange, and because they promise some behind-the-scenes insight into the stuff a reader does actually care about (the Cerebus story). But Davis is insufferable even before he starts talking about women – he’s pompous, long-winded, self-satisfied, and presumptuous. He’s constantly assuming how the reader feels, and usually exaggerating it: as he described the reader’s (my?) horror and grief at his pronoun-switching of the Church And State big bang story, I was in fact flicking back pages to see what I’d apparently missed: in all the verbiage, I’d barely noticed him do it.

The Church And State reversal is – even more than the #186 lecture – the big payoff to Reads, the ultimate rugpull after two books of smaller ones, taking a hammer to one of the fan-favourite parts of Cerebus. It should be as shocking as Davis says it is. It really isn’t. All through the Davis part, Sim quotes Alan Moore talking about how stories work, from a conversation the two of them had. Moore tells Sim that “all stories are true” on some level, and they become true because the hearer gives a kind of permission for them to be true. If you want to defeat a story, you have to tell a better story. And if you told a beautiful illustrated story – like the end of Church And State – you aren’t going to beat it with prose. Especially not Dave Sim’s prose.

Absent Gerhard’s gorgeous lunar and cosmic vistas, absent Sim’s note-perfect Feiffer impersonation, the light/void retcon in Reads is torpid, hard to visualise, unengaging. And, yes, petty. Maybe in Sim’s mind, he was presenting two equally extreme versions to make a point, and when readers in their droves preferred the first one it just proved to him how the feminists had won and only he could see it. But they also preferred the first one because he told it better. 

The formal question Sim is asking in Reads – how much text does it take before a comic stops being a comic – is a genuinely interesting one. Maybe there are comics writers who could answer it well, and it obviously fascinates Sim, as every Cerebus phonebook has text-driven elements to a degree. But the more of the comic’s artistic load he asks them to bear, the worse it gets. Sim is just not a good enough prose writer to do the things he needs to do in Reads: I would call it an artistic failure whatever you think of its morality.


(1) There are Reads parallels further back. In his excellent history of the penny dreadfuls and boys’ story magazines, Boys Will Be Boys, E S Turner gives an example of at least one penny dreadful writer who would regularly stop the ripping yarn for an entire episode to offer digressive essays on economics or prison reform, to the presumed frustration of his thrill-hungry readers.

(2) Which may be another reason for doing it this way. Viktor Davis’ thoughts are Sim’s, and the responsibility for them is Sim’s alone: why make Gerhard an accessory? I think it’s the only section of Cerebus with genuinely no illustration.

(3) These women characters are tiresome cliches or poison-pen caricatures, but for fairness’ sake let’s mention that Reid’s biggest believer, Milieu, is also a woman, who sees Reid’s descent into hackery as a betrayal. It’s not women per se Sim hates, you see, but the innate devouring female essence – he even allows that some rare women may qualify as creative Lights. How gracious of him!

(4) Sim is on record as disliking music, which fascinates me. He doesn’t work to it, he doesn’t make it, he doesn’t play it for pleasure, he thinks jazz is a marxist-feminist psyop, etc. Jaka’s dancing is essentially freeform, silent, non-interpretive. The only music references he makes in Cerebus are comically basic boomer ones – two Pink Floyd quotes, a Beatles quote, and members of the Beatles and the Stones turning up as visual icons.

(5) There are two parts of the Viktor Davis rant which people unsympathetic to the gender elements sometimes give credit to. One is the – I think very muddled – stuff about “Life” and “Death”. Sim thinks (roughly) that there’s too much respect given to individual life and preserving it, which is a factor in overpopulation. Leaving aside the question of whether the planet is overpopulated, one of the most generally agreed on ways to bring population growth down is educating women. The other part of the rant that people seem to like is the stuff on how wretched and uninformative the media environment is and how short-termist and manipulative politicians are. Here the issue isn’t that he’s wrong – people who trust the media or politicians are in a tiny minority. But his explanation for it, that feminism has won and reduced public conversation to arguments about feelings, is poor: politicians have always played on the emotions of the masses (and have always done the Sim trick of clothing unpopular positions in the robes of rationalism, for that matter)

(6) Much later on Sim does change his mind about the cosmology here, and we get a third version (now there’s something to look forward to). But that’s a refinement of his basic idea about the masculine and feminine principles of life, not a reversal. He’s not landing somewhere in the middle, more deciding his previous extreme perspective wasn’t quite extreme enough.

(7) Worth remembering at this point that the only person ever listed as publisher on Cerebus was, er, Dave Sim’s ex-wife.

(8) I’ll get back to Smith in the Guys post. I don’t actually enjoy Bone much, though Smith is a fine cartoonist. But that doesn’t shift his status as a counter-example to Sim’s ideas.

(9) I’ve not mentioned the one thing everyone who read Reads at the time speaks of with awe in the Viktor Davis part – the fake-out section where Davis says he’s going to end Cerebus at #200 not #300. It’s immediately reversed, but people coming to it fresh in issue #183 were genuinely floored. Obviously, that doesn’t work when you know going in it’s a lie, but fair enough – ya got ‘em, Vik.

(10) Of course Astoria has a parting gift – the “Cerebus is a hermaphrodite” thing. It’s hard to parse, and I’m going to park it for a later post – Sim thinks it’s a big deal, Cerebus obviously does too, but his subsequent crisis of masculinity plays out across a bunch of subsequent books. But yes, of course it’s significant that this happens in a comic so rooted in gender essentialism, I’m just not confident yet to say why. Intersex people consider the word to be a slur, so I’m using it in this post because that’s the way Astoria describes Cerebus, but I’ll edit future posts to take that language into account.