This is the 15th of my blog posts about Cerebus, a self-published comic/soapbox by a Canadian recluse. As ever, this post contains spoilers for the story as a whole and the current book, though this particular spoiler warning is probably just a ‘warning’.

Previously: Cerebus’ journey with Jaka reaches a bad end and Cerebus discovers his parents have died in his absence. Meanwhile, Dave Sim has rejected the ‘Marxist-Feminist’ society he lives in and devoted his time to scripture.

What does it mean for a comic to be “unreadable”? Difficult, perhaps? Repetitive or dull? Morally repugnant? Bad on the technical level of the story – nonsensical, poorly crafted, impossible to follow? Or on an even deeper level – physically hard or painful to read: full of tiny text, maybe?

In the purely technical sense, Latter Days is readable. After all, I read it. But if there has ever been a comic which deserved to be called unreadable, on all the above grounds and more, this is it. Latter Days has a fair claim to be the worst comic I’ve ever read. Usually when Cerebus gets hateful or tedious there’s a lot of craft to guiltily admire but the most loathsome parts here are also the weakest artistically – story and art become almost entirely unmoored as the entire comic distorts under the pressure of Dave Sim’s religious obsessions. On Goodreads even the handful of reviewers who were all “yeah Dave you tell those beta cucks” through Reads and Guys come to Latter Days and go “ok actually fuck this”. In fact, I’ve only encountered one blogger with good things to say about Latter Days, and he ended up collaborating with Dave Sim.

In general with this series of posts though I’ve taken the approach that if Sim is doing a thing, he’s doing it for a reason, and it’s worth exploring what that reason is. On one level the reason for Latter Days is crystal clear: Sim is finishing off the outstanding plots in Cerebus – the Cirinist revolution and Rick’s “Cerebite” religion – at the same time as outlining some of his own religious beliefs, centered around his interpretation of the Torah. That isn’t what many, perhaps any, readers hoped he’d be doing with the last stretch of Cerebus, but even before God called Dave to reveal the Truth he didn’t give much of a fuck what the readers hoped for. As I said back at Volume I, Dave Sim following his impulses is part of what we signed up for.

What is more difficult to answer is why Latter Days takes the form it does. A reminder of Sim’s story so far: while doing the Bible parody in Rick’s Story, Dave Sim had a conversion experience and realised the Bible was true, as was the Koran, and devised a religion of his own combining bits of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Sim’s religious journey has so far had only an oblique effect on the comic – Cerebus ending Form & Void by tearing his clothes and smearing his face with dirt in an imitation of Old Testament mourning, for instance. But in Latter Days it comes roaring back into focus – around two-thirds of the way through the book a bespectacled ‘samaritan’ named Konigsberg shows up with a copy of the Torah and Cerebus starts reading it, dictating his commentary to his visitor and an unseen scribe. In practice what this means is page after page of Dave Sim’s Torah exegesis in infinitely small text alongside inscrutable pictures of Woody Allen.

“Chasing YHWH” – as this section is called – is one of the bits of Cerebus that’s become notorious, like the anti-feminist rant in Reads. People who’ve never read the comic and never will read it are dimly aware that at some point it turns into Torah study. But even when you know it’s coming, it’s almost impossible to convey how difficult, tiresome and awful the experience of reading these parts is, the sheer despair you feel as you turn the page to be confronted with another double-size wall of quarter-size text. Sim is apparently convinced it will take 100-200 years for Jewish scholars to catch up with his analysis here and yes, it does feel like that is how long it’s taking to get through it.

As we’ll discuss, the core of Sim’s beliefs about the Torah – including the reason it’s called “Chasing YHWH” – are deeply strange. There is probably no way to have included them in the comic that would not have baffled or alienated readers. Still, to frame his commentaries as these detailed, verse-by-verse exegeses rather than, I don’t know, ‘draw’ some of the incidents as a ‘comic’, is a deliberate choice. Can we find out why he does it this way, beyond the baseline hypothesis of “Dave Sim has gone actually mad”?

I hope so. But first we have to get there. And the rest of Latter Days is also a profoundly miserable – even worse, in some regards – experience.

The first thing Dave Sim wants you to notice about Latter Days is that it’s doing something we’ve never really seen in Cerebus before. The aardvark himself is narrating the story. We only find out who he’s talking to at the end of the book – Sim felt, mistakenly, that this mystery was strong enough to sustain the readers’ interest through sequences which he was well aware would be a slog. It isn’t, though at least for the two prologue episodes of Latter Days – covering decades of the aardvark’s life – it’s a welcome novelty.

Cerebus’ narrative voice is digressive, forgetful, boastful. He’s a successful man in late middle age, telling a life story to an indulgent audience – presumably we’ve already missed his accounts of the first fourteen books. The effect is to make the story seem more remote, as if we’ve somehow missed issues 266-388 of a 400 issue comic and are getting the capsule summary. It’s not that there’s anything in Latter Days you’d much want to see expanded, but it means events have a perfunctory, compressed feel, as if even Dave Sim wants to hurry us to the end now – or at least to the parts he actually cares about.

As I say, at first that’s not a problem. Cerebus has struck north again, into Isshuria, a part of his world that’s an analogue for Canada itself. He’s out in the sticks, waiting to die, but while he waits he spends an issue as a shepherd and an issue as a professional Five Bar Gate player. Five Bar Gate is the Cerebus version of ice hockey, and this issue is very much “Dave Sim Does Sports”. It has its fans: it is apparently full of jokes which Sim painstakingly explains in the notes. It also has one of the very few Black characters in the series, and he’s called Paul “Coffee” Annan, which gives you an idea of how good all the jokes you aren’t getting must be. (In fact the only named Black characters in Cerebus are servants or athletes)

I don’t much enjoy the sheep or sports issues, as it happens, but they’re beacons of approachability compared to Latter Days itself. While they’re self-contained, the longer novel feels like an endless sequence of arbitrary incidents, related in an “and then… and then…” style by Old Cerebus. But step back from it and there’s a structure and a theme to Latter Days as there is with every other Cerebus book. One of Dave Sim’s working methods has always been to fold his digressions and obsessions into the comic: it’s why you got everything from the comics convention parodies to the death of Oscar Wilde. Cerebus is a receiving station for whatever’s going through the mind of Dave. So if Dave has retreated from the world and is devoting his days to scripture, you’re going to get a book built around religious texts.

The most generous possible summary I can make of Latter Days is that it’s a novel about the experience of scriptural revelation – having your reality altered by a text, trying to work out which elements in it mean what, and attempting to reshape your life around the teachings you’re finding in it. This, I think, is the reason for some of the extreme difficulty and obtuseness of the book – Sim isn’t just trying to get across his views on the Torah, he’s conveying how hard and painstaking it is to undertake this struggle for meaning. Or at least, how hard it was for him: Sim seems to view religion a bit like an intense spiritual workout – if it ain’t hurting, it ain’t working.

Latter Days is structured around three religious texts: first Cerebus is the subject of the Booke Of Ricke and held captive by people who expect him to fulfil its prophecies, then he’s the author of the Booke Of Cerebus, which he cynically writes as a way to get the upper hand in a power struggle within his movement. And finally he’s the interpreter of the Torah, which guides him towards true religious feeling. The stories – in the very loosest sense – of his interactions with these three texts are wrapped in a fourth, the account of his life he’s giving to the unknown listener.

And there’s a fifth text winding through the book too – the ‘reads’ series Rabbi, written by ‘Garth Inniscent’. Rabbi tends to be glossed over as a “parody of Preacher”, which is true only on the level of the name and the fact Cerebus likes it because it’s imaginatively violent. Its actual role in the story is considerably weirder. Rabbi is an 150-issue ‘read’ which Cerebus becomes obsessed with during his days herding sheep – while in captivity he starts to hallucinate that he is the super-powered title character, who brutally eliminates foes with an entire grab bag of ‘Rabbi-powers’ (he’s like a cross between the 50s Superman and the 70s Spectre). Cerebus’ attempts to use said powers don’t end well, and he spends an issue stumbling around in pitch darkness – the symbolism in Latter Days is rarely subtle.

Once in happy retirement as leader of the Nation Of Cerebus, prophecies fulfilled, Cerebus turns his attention to Rabbi again, collecting a full set of the read and then setting to work creating a comprehensive guide to all Rabbi’s powers. This effort ruins the texts themselves – I said this wasn’t subtle – and at its end disaster strikes. In an issue of ‘The Reads Journal, Garth Inniscent is interviewed by ‘Gary Growth’ and reveals that he’s disgusted that the most powerful person in the world is into trash he wrote to entertain 12-year-olds, and that the interview itself is a psychic attack designed to reduce Cerebus’ brain to mush. (Which it does, until Woody Allen turns up with the Torah)

On the page all this reads, as you might guess, like dull sequences of bad jokes and score-settling (in the fake Comics Journal interview Sim even gets a dig or three in at old rival Jaime Hernandez). But Rabbi’s role in the Latter Days novel is important – it’s Sim’s warning about the dangers of being waylaid by false texts, and how the same effort that can reveal the secrets of the universe (according to Dave Sim) is pointless and infantile when applied to junk. I doubt the fact that Rabbi is 150 issues long – the same as the first half of Cerebus so loved by Sim’s former fans – is entirely a coincidence.

So there’s a thematic coherence to Latter Days which may not be immediately obvious as you grit your teeth and slog through it. And it’s a coherence which ultimately points you to the Torah sections as a genuine climax to the story – Cerebus’ encounter with a truly revelatory text which deserves deep rabbinical reading. Dave Sim has not, at least at the design level, gone mad.

That’s as much as I can say, positively, about Latter Days. Because beyond the thematic coherence the book is a disaster: Sim is using the story to elevate his misogyny to a theological principle, and his writing is devolving into a foaming, gnashing mess.

The Torah sections are the most prolix in Latter Days, but that’s a closer race than you’d hope. This book is lousy with text. Great gothic-fonted chunks from the Bookes of Ricke and Cerebus. Endless cramped-letter monologues from the old windbag narrating the story. Diary entries from Konigsberg. The prose has always been the worst thing about Cerebus and it reaches new lows in almost every issue as Latter Days drags on. None of the narrative voices Sim adopts – raconteur aardvark, King James pastiche, or neurotic Woody – are entertaining enough to remotely bear the volume of what he’s using them for. Or the content, frankly, since what he’s using them for is rancid.

Themes aside, Latter Days’ main story job is to resolve the “Cerebites” plot started in Rick’s Story. The Booke Of Ricke presented Cerebus as a prophet – now the other shoe drops, and we learn that it also foretold him as a Messiah, who will return to fulfil the prophecies and drive out the Cirinists, whose power is waning in any case. And so Cerebus is abducted by the Three Wise Fellows, adherents to this Cerebite religion, who are convinced he is the one foretold, and tie him up until he can come up with the “Word Of Truth”. 

The Wise Fellows are, as you might expect by now, caricatures of the Three Stooges. Sim has said that of all his real-world borrowings, the Stooges were the hardest to get right, and while I can’t pretend I like them enough to be much entertained by their antics, the Wise Fellow scenes are the only parts of Latter Days where Sim’s love for the craft of cartooning comes through at all – there’s a looseness and flow to them which matches the Stooges’ knockabout physical comedy. It stands as a rebuke to the rest of the book, where moving across the pages makes me feel my eyes have lockjaw.

The Stooges are as balm to what comes next, too, in the sections where the Cirinists are slaughtered by Cerebus’ followers, led by a Todd McFarlane analogue who may also be standing in for the Apostle Paul. ‘Todd McSpahn’ takes over the movement, Cerebus wants it back, and Sim decides the time is right for a Spawn parody, a full decade after the character appeared.

The Torah sections are borderline impossible to read and hateful if you do, but on some fundamental level they aren’t actually comics. I’m not expecting Dave Sim to be a competent rabbinical exegesist. I am expecting him to be a competent cartoonist, and in the middle parts of Latter Days even that falls away. The Spawn parody is inane, the McFarlane character is close to incomprehensible (ironic that Sim’s worst ever phonetic speech is him writing a Canadian!), and the plot is contemptible: the Cirinists are defeated because, being women, none of them can shoot straight.

And – yes, I admit I’m in “the food was terrible – and such small portions!” territory here – it’s all so strangely executed. Let’s take as an example the bit where Cerebus decides to kill all the lawyers. This is not an original joke, and there are a lot of ways Sim might have handled it in the past, from a single panel gag to a comics sequence like the outrageous orders of Most Holy in Church And State. What he actually chooses to do is tell it via two overlaid narratives – one Cerebus reminiscing, one King James pastiche – with non-sequential illustrations, in a way that labours the point and leeches momentum from the story. By this time critical generosity – even curiosity – is starting to break down.

Unsurprisingly, the story also revels in its slaughter of women. A resolution to the ongoing Cirinist strand was always likely to be bloody, but Latter Days takes it much further than you’d imagine, going into some detail around the laws of the new society Cerebus sets up. Every year the men get to vote on whether every individual woman gets executed or not. Only some men, mind you – if you say your wife is your equal you get disenfranchised. (Lest Sim be accused of bias, men can also execute another man if a dozen guys declare him a “complete dick”)

Yeah, yeah, Dave Sim doesn’t ‘actually think’ men should execute any women they don’t like, in the same way he doesn’t ‘actually think’ women are telepathic soul vampires. And this stuff is hidden in the middle of some of the worst comics ever created so almost nobody saw it, and it’s just showing that a male tyranny would be as bad as the female one was, and so on and so on. But… this part of the comic is still toxic, repulsive bullshit; dismal to read. When the execution policy is introduced, the first woman up for a vote is an imitation of Julie Doucet, a Canadian woman cartoonist who self-published a lot and did an award-winning comic called Dirty Plotte. And my reaction, even twenty years on, is just, fuck off with this stuff, Dave Sim. It’s a nasty little in-joke that sums up the petty sadism of the whole story, and the guy doing it has the sheer nerve to expect us to take his “personal prayer” and religious exploration seriously? Go to hell.

Anyway, then we get to the Torah stuff.

For all that the commentaries are an endurance test the central point of them is fairly easy to summarise: Sim has picked up on the (generally accepted I believe) idea that Genesis and other early bits of the Bible are the work of multiple authors, and has refracted this through his gender obsession to decode it as a hostile dialogue between a male God and his female wannabe counterpart Yoohwhoo (aka YHWH), who lives inside the Earth and controls plants and can’t admit he created her.

It’s certainly original. And judging by many, many, interviews since, it’s a sincere reflection of Sim’s actual beliefs, not just some crap Cerebus is coming up with. But even if you were impressed by Sim coming up with a whole new heresy, the way he presents it is monstrously unfriendly to even an imagined sympathetic reader. We never see the text, just Cerebus bantering commentary on it; every pause and aside is ‘faithfully’ documented, and if you do somehow manage to focus past all the obfuscation you’re also rewarded with vomitous little nuggets like the Gay Panic defense invoked to justify Cain killing Abel and Cerebus making coy hints that the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves by sacrificing cattle to Yoohwhoo. It’s as vile as it is grotesque.

At first the Woody Allen pages – extracts from Konigsberg’s diary of his love life and later his analysis – are a merciful break from this swill. They’re not good – the Freud analogue is called Dr Fraud, which indicates the state of Sim’s wit at this stage – but they’re different. Gradually, though, the Allen sections become more abstract as the character switches from Freud to Jung and loses his mind: plenty of opportunity for Sim to indulge his disgust at cross-dressing here, if you’re keeping score. And another dump of text, of course. The Konigsberg sequences are presumably a counterpoint to the religious material, with Konigsberg (like Cerebus before his arrival) reduced to an infant by foolish engagement with a false text, in this case the man-made gods of psychiatry. But they’re utterly unrewarding.

Finally, to my intense relief, the commentaries end. Cerebus’ narration turns flirty, and we discover that he’s been telling this story to a young woman he clearly fancies. He marries himself to her – the same trick he used back when he raped Astoria in Church And State – and we discover, in a last page reveal that serves as the book’s cliffhanger, that she looks exactly like Jaka. After 400 pages of Cerebus warning us of the blandishments of women, he’s fallen for them all over again. It’s meant to be a big, portentious reveal. Maybe if you have a shred of investment left at this point, it is.

I don’t. Because the sad, angry truth is that nothing works in this wretched comic. The comic pastiches feel careless and the celebrity ones empty. The setpieces fall flat – there’s something which I think is a Harvey Kurtzman tribute trying to give some potency to the farcical war scenes as a corpse rises and starts quoting verse, but it’s tawdry. Even the reliable Gerhard is breaking down – he almost quit at several points in the last 30 issues, beset by artistic self-doubt and, later interviews hint, a growing despair at what he was having to be part of. There is only one artistic advance – the beginning of Sim’s experiments with photorealism, but it’s a dead end, static and cold. 

The pacing is abominable. The ideas are demented. The jokes are hate crimes. Everything Dave Sim used to be good at is almost entirely absent here. Unbelievable that it’s come to this, and there’s still a book to go.