This is the 16th of my posts about Cerebus, a 6000-page comic about the life of a barbarian aardvark. It contains spoilers for the final book of the series, and the series as a whole. A 17th, concluding, post is planned.

Previously: The ageing Cerebus has told his life story to a young lady he fancies, including his extensive commentaries on the Torah and his establishment of a wise rule in which men can vote to execute any woman they don’t like. All but the most dogged of readers have abandoned Dave Sim. There are 12 issues to go.

The last years of Cerebus’ publication were fraught ones, even as anticipation built among remaining readers for issue #300’s long-promised finale. Circulation, according to Dave Sim himself, bottomed out at around 7,000 – perilously close to, perhaps even below, break-even. More seriously, co-creator Gerhard reportedly quit. The details of this are murky – he’d long since stopped working side by side with Sim in their shared office, and the strain of producing his background art was causing him health problems and making the comic ship late. Gerhard has referred to Sim “losing him as a reader” by this stage, which certainly won’t have helped motivation.

Sim persuaded Gerhard back for the final year, and while he’s credited on the double issue that kicks off The Last Day – a revelatory dream in which God dictates one final religious book to Cerebus – the issue is a solo Sim piece. Designed to give Gerhard time to catch up, it’s full of abstraction, black panels and Sim’s much-loved gothic lettering.

Sim positioned the double issue as the finale of “Chasing YHWH”, his Torah commentary, but it doesn’t directly follow on from those issues. Instead it’s Sim’s third great attempt at reconciling religion and cosmology: we’ve had the Judge’s version of the Big Bang; then we’ve had Viktor Davis’ version. Now we get God’s version, presented in King James language and taking us all the way from creation to the heat death of the Universe. 

To express this final revelation of the nature of reality, Sim caught up on the latest discoveries in theoretical physics. My understanding is that he viewed Cerebus #289/#290 as a significant, perhaps definitive, step towards a Grand Unified Theory of physics. He also realised the scientific establishment would take a while to catch up with his discoveries; so far he’s been right about this, at least.

I don’t believe, on the whole, questions about Dave Sim’s sanity are critically useful. I think they’re important, of course, to the man and his wellbeing and the story of his personal and professional life. But I’m not Dave Sim’s doctor, and I don’t think insanity explains Cerebus very well: “and then Dave Sim went mad” is often an excuse, a way of separating the Cerebus we want to redeem from the version we want to damn. If we take him at his word, Sim was ‘mad’ from almost the beginning – an untreated borderline schizophrenic, a diagnosis he dismisses the value of. His admission of this in Reads is part of Viktor Davis’ chess game with the reader: you’re going to think I’ve gone mad, but I was just as mad when I made the comics you loved

But I can’t, hand on heart, say that #289/#290 reads like the work of a well man. This isn’t because it’s a religious text. I’m an atheist, and Sim and I would agree that means I’m more likely to look for a materialist explanation when someone has a sudden, transformative religious experience. But that explanation isn’t “madness”: religious experiences and conversions have always been part of the human condition – I’ve no interest in treating them as somehow aberrant or pathologising them. 

What’s more alarming to me is the determination of Sim to fold anything that catches his attention – from world events to the laws of physics – into his already highly individual religious views. He was always a believer in synchronicity, but over time his reliance on pattern recognition heightened to a conspiratorial degree. Sim’s beliefs are totalising: for him, a scientific theory of everything must explain everything, at every scale. Or at least everything he cares about, which is why for Dave Sim stellar decay is the same thing as sagging breasts.

Reading Cerebus #289/#290 reminded me intensely of my own experience caring for someone during a psychotic episode in which, among other things, they decided they’d found a new theory of gravity: I found it sad more than anything. (They, unlike Dave Sim, took medication and recovered). But this is Sim’s big shot at explaining something grand and important to him, so for old times’ sake, let’s take his ideas seriously one last time. What is the nature of reality?

In Church And State, the Judge tells us the Big Bang is the act of a male void desiring and forcibly possessing a female light, an act of cosmic rape which creates a universe of fractional lights and imperfect debris. In Reads, Viktor Davis informs us that no, that’s not what happened. The female void envied the male light and destroyed it by seeking a state of “merged permanence” (marriage) which is impossible to happily achieve, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

God’s version flips things yet again. Now the female principle is the light again, and the male principle is the Spirit of God (not God himself), and both of them follow false goals: the male Spirit desires the light, the female light wants to merge and become equal to God, who is looking on from a cosmic distance as all this plays out. Where things start to get strange is the application of this to physics. The Spirit of God, you see, exists in elementary particles. The heavier an element is, the more merging has gone on to make it, and therefore the more female (and further from God) its atoms are. Helium and hydrogen atoms are closer to God than Oxygen atoms, and water is closer than iron-rich blood, which is more female, which is why when guys succumb to the urge to merge they get blood-filled erections, which… actually, you know what, maybe it’s not worth looking at this stuff in detail.

The interesting thing for me is how hopeless the theology ends up, though. Some spirits (atoms) yearn to be with God, some rebel against him. But when the Sun collapses into a dwarf star all the ‘spirits’ will be crushed into it, no matter which they were. Only neutrinos – Sim is really keen on neutrinos – get to escape gravity’s pull and return to the void beyond the universe, there to exist at the side of God. Nothing anyone does matters. There is no salvation through works or through faith, just a Calvinism of elementary particles.

On the page, the language and the starkness of the layouts gives this a hand-me-down gravitas which is a lot more palatable than the demented detail of Latter Days (and after 288 issues, Dave Sim draws an actual aardvark, which is nice). But even that’s undercut by Sim adding lengthy footnotes explaining his engagements with quantum physics, and while the vibe of grandeur just about survives, the content is just Sim burrowing further down his usual gender-obsessive rabbit hole. Still, #289/#290 is part of this book for a reason: it’s the codex which unlocks what’s happening in #300, where Cerebus dies.

The death of Cerebus is what every reader of The Last Day is waiting for, but it’s almost an epilogue to the story’s action. The nine issues of the storyline proper are, in classic late Cerebus style, extremely dense thematically and frustratingly tedious to actually read, because so much of the on page action consists of an impossibly aged and infirm Cerebus shuffling around the room he’s been confined to. This device is funny for about a page, poignant for maybe an issue, and after that feels like a blatant way to fill in time before the final episodes. It’s drawn throughout with extraordinary detail and care, but it’s fundamentally a fortysomething guy’s one-dimensional idea of what “being very old” must be like.

Age is only one of the things Sim is exploring in The Last Day. Two others are the terrible outcomes of Cerebus’ choices, particularly his decision to marry the girl at the end of Latter Days, and relatedly, his wish to reconcile with ‘Shep-Shep’, the son he’s had with her. But what’s interesting is the setting of all this. We’re still in Cerebus’ “Sanctuarie”, but it’s become a militarised emplacement, ringed by gun turrets and barbed wire, under “Code Red Lockdown” which is confining all inhabitants to their rooms. Some kind of attack is thought to be imminent, and Cerebus’ decision-making is paralysed by the need to run everything by a ‘security council’ of the “United Sanctuaries”, whose permanent members have veto power. The Last Day, in other words, is Dave Sim’s post-9/11 book.

Sim’s religious journey had turned him into an ascetic, but he wasn’t completely cut loose from world events, and readers of the monthly Cerebus were well aware of the keen interest Sim was taking in the wars in Afghanistan and now Iraq. Sim was, it’s fair to say, a hawk. You could not pay me enough to read backmatter essays like “Why Canada Slept” (issues’ worth of arguments why Canada should have joined the US in Afghanistan), but the gravity of the international situation made his editorial tone even more pompous. The liberal presses of the West might be soft on Islamic terrorism but, by God, the letters page of Cerebus The Aardvark would stand firm.

Still, for once in the later Cerebus era, Dave Sim did not find himself entirely out of step with the comics industry. Even if few creators were as gung-ho for war as Sim, the pervasive atmosphere of mainstream comics in the early 00s was twitchy, angry, militarised – it’s the era of Mark Millar’s Ultimates kicking shit out of aliens and foreigners alike, the kind of trend the Sim of old might have got his satirical teeth into.

The Sim of 2003 was more pessimistic. For him, the West had fallen to the Marxist-Feminists long ago, and left itself weak, riddled with internal decay. The Last Day is the Cerebus book most directly engaged with the present-day, real world it’s written in, and Sim despises it. He treats us to several views outside the Sanctuarie, where we see a grotesque parody of liberal thought in a world which is blatantly our own, or at least the version of our own which exists in the right-wing imaginarium. It’s a world in which punks and junkies roam the streets, in which any wall not covered in obscene graffiti is plastered with posters promoting paedophilia and bestiality, in which festival crowds unfold banners saying “MY FETUS, ALIVE OR DEAD”.

Cerebus, in other words, ends as it began, in a world of familiar cliches drawn from the work of fantasy artists. But now those artists are the cartoonists of the reactionary press, and Sim is buying their fantasies wholesale. Sim – and the returned Gerhard – have laboured over these scenes of decadence, but everything in them is hackneyed, missing only a “This Is The Future Liberals Want” or a “Yes…Ha Ha Ha… Yes” to complete the picture. 

Cerebus himself is both the victim of this societal collapse and ultimately its author – sunk in his dotage, he’s let his wife the “New Joanne” take charge of the religion and world he built, and his Church is riven with progressive schism. There’s a ton of bilious loathing of gay people in this book, a strand of Sim’s hatred which doesn’t get as much attention as his contempt for women but which becomes increasingly prominent after the conversion. Most of it shows up in Cerebus’ attempts to negotiate a visit from his estranged son, ‘Shep-Shep’, which is blocked by one “limp-wristed” member of the ‘security council’ – these efforts, conducted in between pages of tedious shuffling across the room, take up most of the story. In a world where “Chasing YHWH” exists, they could never claim to be the most skippable parts of Cerebus, but they’ve a good claim on second.

Shep-Shep’s relationship with Cerebus, and his ultimate visit, stand with issue #300 as the only vaguely successful parts of The Last Day. They’re built on a men’s rights hobby horse – the idea that mothers with custody of sons will poison those sons’ minds against their absent Dads. New Joanne has indeed turned the weans against Cerebus. But Shep-Shep didn’t take a lot of turning: Sim makes it entirely clear that Cerebus really has been a poor Dad, building a rose-tinted memory palace of happy times spent with his son which bears almost no resemblance to the awkward truth. In reality he had little time for Shep-Shep, and less interest in him as a person: Shep-Shep isn’t even his name.

Shep-Shep’s visit, tense and (for Sim at this point) lucid, is the final crushing of Cerebus’ sentimental visions of restoring his empire to its masculine glory via his son. Shep-Shep hates his father – though he, unlike Cerebus himself, visits his Dad on his deathbed – and has his own, madder dreams, revealing a lion-human clone of himself which he intends to rule Egypt as the Sphinx. In his final words to Cerebus, the bad-decisions and absent-father plot crashes into the post-9/11 military paranoia theme: Shep-Shep has a whole army of followers heading for Cerebus’ sanctuary, and – drum roll – they’re “a NEW group of believers, father – called – MUSLIMS!”

It’s a ludicrous moment that sums up The Last Day for me. On the one hand, Sim trying to bring his story to an end with some kind of dramatic denouement. On the other hand, him surrendering one last time to the twitching impulse to get a shot off in whatever battle he’s fighting in his head. And the two hands are clasped. This is just how Dave Sim tells his stories now, and Dave Sim telling stories is what we signed up for.

What happens next? Cerebus grabs his sword, fired up and ready to kill his son, and at the start of Cerebus #300 he trips on the steps next to his bed, falls, and breaks his neck. The last 15 of the comic’s 6000 pages find Cerebus’ life flashing before his eyes, before his spirit is surrounded by a great light, into which almost every main character in the series, from The Roach to Koshie the Wise Fellow, are beckoning him. Cerebus races toward the light, then realises Rick isn’t there. It’s a trap – he calls on God to help him, but the pull of the light is too strong, and Cerebus fades into just sketched lines on paper. We end with a Bible quote.

In later interviews, Sim has hedged a little, trying to cast this ending as more ambiguous than it is – maybe Cerebus is overreacting. I’m not sure why he’d do this, as the ending is clear enough and – given the religious turn of the last quarter of the comic – dramatically appropriate. Cerebus has fucked up all his choices and opportunities – likeable or not, it’s what he does. Why wouldn’t he screw up this one too?

The ending of #300 also chimes with the detail of #289/290 – Sim’s final cosmological revelation. The irresistible pull of the light is the gravitational force, which will ultimately crush all spirits, righteous or not, against it. Rick does not appear because Rick’s spirit is presumably that rare neutrino, on its journey back to God. The nihilistic fatalism of Sim’s cosmology has its echoes in #300, too. In either the notes or interviews, Sim gave a bleak verdict on the widely-reported phenomenon of one’s life flashing before one’s eyes as death approaches: it’s a reminder, for Sim, of how futile and pointless existence has been. Lying on the floor, a sack of wrinkled grey skin, the head of a corrupted religion, abandoned by the son who hates him, Cerebus indeed dies alone, unmourned and unloved.

But thankfully, for one last time, Sim’s work on the page and Sim’s thoughts don’t quite tally. The flashbacks and the throng of old faces may be a cruel joke played on Cerebus by a wicked demiurge, but they’re not a cruel joke played by Dave Sim on his readers. However grim the last 35, or 80, or 120 issues may have been – and they’ve been really grim at times – it’s hard not to look at those pages and feel a little pang. For the people who’d followed the comic every month, it felt like a reward of sorts. Even for a latecomer like me, actually finishing Cerebus feels like an achievement, and Sim – whose own feelings at the end of his 26-year marathon must have been close to indescribable – indulges that thought.

Two final questions. Was it the ending he planned all along? Cerebus is the story of a life, and lives only end one way. So surely, yes. Was the religious ending part of the original plan? Who knows – Sim, as you’d imagine, hasn’t been forthcoming. This is how Cerebus had to end once Sim’s thoughts and beliefs had gone the way they did. The basic shape of the death, though – one final flourish of the sword and then a moment of bathos – that I can imagine being there from the start. 

And was it worth it? The answer to that question needs a final post, an attempt to reckon with Cerebus in its totality as an achievement, a comic, and a novel. As a whole book, The Last Day does not end it well – it’s not as completely alienating as Latter Days, but it’s bitter, hateful, and corny in its bitterness and hate. It’s repetitive and boring, too. For these last two volumes, Sim has seemed burnt out entirely on the story he’s telling; only able to get the juices going when he’s tackling his private spiritual projects under the Aardvark banner. There was to be no great renaissance, no reminding everyone what a marvellous cartoonist he could be. But there is a final issue that was as good an ending as anyone could have realistically expected by this point. The fuselage is on fire, the parachutes long gone, the pilot ranting over the tannoy, the destination marked on no-one’s ticket. But Dave Sim sticks the landing.