This is the last of my posts about Cerebus The Aardvark, the 300-issue comic by Canadian writer/artist Dave Sim and environmental and background artist Gerhard.


Cerebus is a barbarian aardvark. (1) In his adventures he meets political leader Lord Julius, (2) whose supposed patronage gives him clout in the city of Iest. Julius’ ex-wife Astoria manipulates Cerebus into becoming Prime Minister there, but Cerebus’ schemes end badly. (3) Another politician restores his office, and the Church nominates him Pope to control him. Pope Cerebus declares the apocalypse nigh, a ploy to get Iest’s gold. (4) Unexpectedly, his actions trigger an Ascension – he visits the moon meeting an omniscient Judge who prophesies a lonely death. (5) Cerebus returns, finding Iest conquered by the matriarchal Cirinists. He stays with Julius’ niece Jaka, a tavern dancer who fled noble life. Cerebus loves her but she’s married. While Cerebus is out, the Cirinists bust the tavern, capturing Jaka and husband Rick. They reveal Jaka’s abortion, ending her marriage. (6) Cerebus, assuming Jaka dead, sits catatonic for months then wakes, (7) attacking the Cirinists. (8) Leader Cirin, another aardvark, turns to rival Astoria amidst the ensuing chaos. (9) Cirin and Cerebus meet and battle before a second Ascension hurls them into space, destroying Iest. (10) Cerebus meets his creator, Dave, who shows him disastrous futures with Jaka. (11) Dave returns Cerebus to an Earth pub. He spends years boozing with male friends, eventually becoming bartender. (12) An insane Rick arrives, seeing Cerebus as divinely inspired. Dave reunites Cerebus with Jaka: (13) the lovers trek to Cerebus’ hometown. After evading the Cirinists (14) and almost dying in a blizzard, the pair arrive finding Cerebus’ parents dead. Cerebus angrily rejects Jaka (15) and goes north, returning 30 years later, expecting death. Instead he is kidnapped by Cerebites who follow Rick’s religion, becoming their leader and wiping out the Cirinists. In old age, the devout Cerebus is seduced into marriage (16) and fatherhood. His family suborn his empire and after a catastrophic final meeting with his child, he dies.



Cerebus is unreadable.

This is not a qualitative judgement. Technically, it’s true of any monthly, serial comic. I used to work with a younger comics fan and once we talked about Watchmen, and I mentioned the months-long wait for the final issue. She turned to me in amazement: “You read Watchmen in *floppies*?” Yes, and the experience of that shaped my idea of what Watchmen is – not just the wait for the outcome of Adrian Veidt’s squid game, but the gradual crescendo of buzz around the comic, the growing realisation that you were reading not just something cool but something Important. 

That can’t come back. Watchmen-in-floppies is now unreadable. But it’s been replaced by Watchmen, the Greatest Superhero Graphic Novel. And that’s fine – from very early on in the process it was being built as a whole, and a rather remote whole: Watchmen bent its genre around it, demanded to be reckoned with, but it was not in direct, monthly dialogue with the industry.

Cerebus was. Yes, Cerebus was, from early on, intended as a whole, planned (to some extent) as a whole, it now exists as a whole. But it was never made as one. Most of the people who’ve read Cerebus are people who wrestled with it in its original, serial format – a monthly highlight that became an impossible, nightmarish slog. Even someone like me, who read the later books twenty years on as one misanthropic lump, had put in a year or two on the monthly coalface.

Cerebus is a 6000-page graphic novel. Cerebus is 300 issues of comics. One of these statements is simply a lot truer than the other. There has probably never been a comic more monthly, more elbow deep in the muck of regular publishing, than Cerebus. How could it be otherwise? Dave Sim invented the formats he needed to collect the story – anyone who owned a copy of one of his early phonebooks knew how huge it looked on your shelf, when trade paperback collections were barely even a thing. But the money to do it came from steering his tiny ship through the comics direct market, hitting his deadlines, making his numbers, following his impulses, month after month. He claimed he never looked at the earlier work, to check plot points or for any other reason. The only way to 300 was forward.

In writing these posts, I’ve written about Cerebus as it’s legally available now: organised by phonebook collections. I’ve separated the 6000 pages of work from the many extra thousands of backmatter, even ignoring the notes Sim began to add to make sure readers Got The Point about Mary Hemingway being a bitch or whatever. But to a great extent this method is a lie. As I keep saying, the work is the work, but it was monthly work, deep in conversation – and also often shallow in conversation – with the rest of the comics market, with the retailers, distributors and critics who held sway in it, and with the fellow creators making their way through it.

To take one example, because it came to me after I wrote the relevant post – in Reads, Viktor Davis doesn’t start his section by talking about women, or the Big Bang, or even with his drawing the reader into the comic. He introduces his part of the book as his (Sim’s) try at an autobiography, which comes hot on the heels of the semi-biographic Victor Reid section. And this must partly be in response to the wave of autobiographical comics which were among the most talked-about early 90s independent titles: Chester Brown’s various books; Joe Matt’s Peep Show; Ed Brubaker’s Low Life. The acclaim for these autobiographical comics rested on how candidly they exposed the grimiest parts of the writers’ lives and their id – especially their grubby relationships with women, sex and porn. Reads is a response to the trend and a contribution: no wonder Sim thought he’d get away with it. He was always deep in dialogue with the industry, no matter what his aardvark was getting up to.

Tegan O’Neil, one of the three people who’ve written the best things I’ve read on Cerebus, makes the case that it will be read in future mostly by academics, as an invaluable means of understanding the history of that industry. I think she’s right: the history of Cerebus is also the history of comics, and not just independent comics, between 1977 and 2004. And the afterlife of Cerebus is defined not only by Dave Sim or his work’s reputation, but by changes in comics at every level from tastes through technologies that all work to make Cerebus’ moment more and more remote.

Dave Sim’s choice of the 20-page comic book to tell his stories wasn’t a choice at all: in the 70s even the underground comics largely stuck to the format. During Cerebus’ lifetime, the network of speciality stores selling comic books – the direct market – became their dominant means of distribution during the 80s, went through a boom and bust during the 90s, and by the time Cerebus ended had settled into the state of perpetual, but stable insecurity it seems to exist in today. On the surface, the industry in 2004 looked like the comics industry of the mid-late 80s, though now with a solid mid-tier of smaller publishers like Image and Dark Horse who’d survived the churn of the intervening decade. The self-publishing revolution had never really happened, but in his magnanimous farewell letter to the Diamond Previews catalogue in 2003 Sim was able to point to Bone and Strangers In Paradise as genuine successes.

When Cerebus ended, the industry was coming round to his way of thinking on one important topic. Not gender or the nature of God, but the practice of collecting ongoing series into sequential trade paperbacks as a matter of course, which in turn was reshaping how Marvel and DC creators told their stories. “Decompression” – the drawn-out storytelling technique Sim pioneered in Jaka’s Story – was now mainstream. But this wasn’t a reaction to Cerebus, rather to the way manga and later Young Adult graphic novels were reshaping the bookstore market for comics, dwarfing the traditional comics publishers.

The manga boom and increased bookstore visibility created conditions that independent publishers could sometimes take advantage of. The graphic novel sensation of 2003 was Craig Thompson’s Blankets, a comic about the author’s evangelical upbringing. It was as long as a Cerebus phonebook, but had never gone through serial publication, and had a publisher (Top Shelf) who could get it into the hands of bookstores and reviewers as a complete unit. This was a world a self-publisher like Dave Sim, dependent on regular income from the direct market, could not truly compete in.

Alongside changes in the logistics of comics came changes in taste. Sim in interviews sometimes drew a distinction between cartoonists in the traditions of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman – representational storytelling versus more abstract efforts to capture the inner life, which might look more spontaneous or even ugly. The distinction doesn’t entirely hold up, and it’s not an idea Sim clung to, but he certainly saw himself in a tradition of representational, naturalistic comics art, going back to Eisner, and strip artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, then winding through the detail-rich mainstream art of the 60s and 70s – like his initial inspiration Barry Windsor-Smith. 

Sim wasn’t opposed to what he saw as the other tradition – in Latter Days there are pages amidst the general horror where he’s trying out various different styles from both sides of the Eisner/Kurtzman divide. What I think he did believe was that in the wake of Art Spiegelman’s RAW, the 80s anthology Weirdo, and the wave of 90s alternative comics, the Kurtzman side had the critical upper hand. In indie comics, I think he was right. I said in the Church And State post that Sim sat at the culmination of a tradition, and I’d stand by that – not only were monthly comics starting to lose their central place in the comics business in the mid-00s, but the way Sim liked to draw them was falling out of critical fashion.

So the end of Cerebus looks with hindsight not just like the conclusion of a titanic individual effort, or the tragedy of an artist who lost his way morally (found it, Sim would say). It’s also like the passing of some colossal saurian beast, an evolutionary holdover the modern world was losing space for, a magnificent paddleboat in a world of sleek yachts. Nothing of similar scope, in similar format or style, could happen again. 

But at least one change made Cerebus-level projects more likely, not less. The rise of webcomics offered solo artists the chance Sim had carved out for himself, an opportunity to be truly independent and build an audience and a community. One possible heir of the early Cerebus is Homestuck, 8000 pages of multimedia webcomics which, like Sim’s comic, became a cult generational touchstone for people who experienced it as it was happening, and is entirely inscrutable to outsiders – who include me, so I’ll say no more about it.

All these changes in distribution, in formats, in technology led to the realisation of one of comics’ great hopes – a newer, younger, more diverse audience for comics (this audience has not been universally welcomed, to comics’ ongoing shame). This has been a final hammer-blow to Cerebus’ legacy, and one Sim brought wholly on himself. These were people who had not grown up reading, or even knowing about Cerebus The Aardvark, suffering no tortured attachment to it. People who were faced with the question: “knowing what you know about how this ends up and who made it, do you want to read Cerebus?”

They have mostly answered no.


More than any other comic – more than any other work of art, perhaps – Cerebus is best known for its worst parts. And its very worst parts are its least read (Cerebus #186 is so notorious because people actually did read it; there’s plenty worse where that came from). The people who quit Cerebus and never looked back also know why they shouldn’t. The path Sim took his comic down is so baffling, so widely offensive, and in the end so tortuously difficult to get through, that the whole 300-issue run is tainted for almost any new reader. One of the ways in which Cerebus existed monthly, and now can’t, is that the original readers of High Society or Jaka’s Story had no idea what was coming. Many of them felt betrayed and disgusted, but some became Cerebus’ saddest, most critical friends, readers who could see the flashes of the old creative fire even in the ruin of the final books.

Douglas Wolk, the second of the Three Wise Criticks whose great Cerebus analyses I read before starting this, argues that reading later Cerebus is a trade-off: as the story and ideas get more and more horrible, Sim the artist keeps learning, and the visual craft actually gets better. Wolk is right that there are truly fantastic pages in Cerebus until close to the end – the blizzard in Form & Void being the obvious one – but that conclusion is still too optimistic for me. As some parts of Sim’s craft wax, others wane, and it’s often difficult to separate the dazzle of Sim’s technique from the question of whether he’s using it well. 

I’d argue, for instance, that while the lettering work in Guys is radical and beautifully done, when the book is read as a whole it becomes all icing, no cake: a spectacular chore when it comes to extracting actual meaning. Add the mixed-perceptions and borderless paneling of Rick’s Story and you have much too much of an admittedly good thing. 

Meanwhile, one of the things Sim was so good at in High Society and Church And State – panel-to-panel storytelling based around character movement – becomes something he does less and less. The early books are full of gorgeously told, beautifully paced, often very funny sequences – the McGrews fighting over dinner at the Countess’ place in Church And State, or the Roach and Astoria on campaign in High Society, or the languid interior scenes in Jaka’s Story. Later Sim has not lost his knack for this – he couldn’t have pulled off the Cerebus/Cirin fight if he wasn’t still a great storyteller – but it becomes far less central to the comic. In the last third of the story, the movement of the camera around a scene becomes more important than the motion of the characters within it – the boat deck or campfire scenes in Going Home or Form & Void, for instance.

In other words, I think later Cerebus is worse not just on the level of story and ideas but also less engaging on the level of storytelling. As I said about Volume I, you read Cerebus partly to watch Dave Sim develop as a creator. He’s always pushing his craft on, never wanting to rest on what he’s already mastered. It’s admirable, and when what he’s already mastered is fantasy pastiche, moving on makes the comic better. But later, it feels to me like Sim’s bored of even his more refined comics techniques, the fluid storytelling of Will Eisner or Jules Feiffer. One reason the Lion Hunt works so well for me is that its tiny panels seem to force Sim back to the very basics of storytelling, where each panel has one quick job to do.

The one area of craft Sim never masters, or even comes close to, is prose. And yet there’s so much of it in Cerebus. It’s his white whale as a creator – he tries again and again in Cerebus to make prose-heavy comics work, and the only times he comes close are when he surrenders the writing to his sources. Most positive critical responses to Cerebus agree he’s dreadful at it, not even the most generous ones suggest it’s a highlight. But they also gloss over the fact – you can always skip the text parts, after all. And you can (in some cases you pretty much have to), but I think you still have to reconcile a version of Dave Sim as great comics craftsman with the simple fact that one of the things he makes a central part of his craft – the integration of prose and comics – almost never entirely works.

Sim’s fascination with how text and pictures work together gets back to the roots of comics, and of the illustrative, naturalistic tradition he’s part of. Hal Foster, the subject of Sim’s first and honestly best textual imitation, used to separate text and image in Prince Valiant precisely to give the pictures more space. The text sections in Jaka’s Story do work on those lines – the prose itself is arduous, the biggest flaw in one of Cerebus’ best books, but the pictures are sumptuous, the Sim and Gerhard collaboration in their early prime. Gerhard’s arrival brought Cerebus to its artistic peak, but it also gave Sim the artillery he needed to explore text-with-pictures more fully, leading to the hubris and calamity of Reads.

Another reason people might want you to skip the text is that you escape the worst of Dave Sim’s ideas that way. I sat down to finish Cerebus predicting I’d find two things in the books I’d never read. The first was that some parts of them are exceptionally good comics – I did end up feeling this. The second was that Dave Sim’s ideas would be not just hateful but bizarre.

But this is true only of the very last two years or so. Once you get onto YooWHoo and the salvation of neutrinos, yes, you’re not going to find that stuff anywhere else. In the books from Women through Form & Void, though, that isn’t true. Dave Sim’s ideas about women are hateful, but they’re also banal. There’s nothing about his cocktail of resentment, blame, bad statistics, men’s rights and libertarian paranoia that you won’t get elsewhere, echoing in the writings of woman-haters before and since. One of the disconcerting things I found blogging Cerebus in the year 2024 was how often I saw Twitter screenshots of some ‘Tradcath’ poser or alt-right influencer spouting stuff which felt like I’d just read it in one of Dave Sim’s off-panel screeds.

Maybe Sim used to be more extreme, vis-a-vis North American conservatism, than he is now. Maybe at some point before that he used to actually be a liberal, as many of his early readers believed. I think the sketch of his intellectual development I laid out in the Women post is pretty accurate, though I’d reverse the order now. What I’m calling his libertarianism – though it’s more a bone-deep stubbornness – comes before the gender politics. Nobody can tell Dave Sim what to do, and when they can, he resents the hell out of it. That applies to teachers, then publishers and distributors, then his wife, then all women, then his fellow creators. When he converts it applies to churches, teachers and imams. Quite literally, only God can judge him. 

Sim’s other intellectual habit is an extreme empiricism – once he’s had an experience, of marriage or drinking or publishing, that experience is treated as a universal. Within these confines Sim thinks extremely hard and is, obviously, highly creative and skilled at spotting connections. But the confines mean the connections he does make end up as useless to anyone not called Dave Sim.

As with Sim’s love of illustrated prose, there’s a temptation for generous readers to downplay his actual ideas – offering heartfelt expressions of how very little they agree with him before moving on and discussing the good stuff. I’m sure I’ve done that myself at times. In fact, because the ideas and the prose are so bound up, a reader who wants to can dismiss two bad parts of Cerebus for the price of one. But that dismissal is always, at base, a dodge. Just as the prose was a central aspect of Sim’s craft, so the ideas are crucial to the intention behind Cerebus. It may be that the ideas are so bad you’re forced as a reader into cherry picking, but an attempt to rescue a ‘good version’ of Cerebus will always be bowdlerisation. 

Inasmuch as any art is conservative in outlook, Cerebus is. Sim’s own claim is that the core of his views on gender and politics evolved but never really changed; many readers have assumed he’s lying. It’s simply impossible to know for sure. But I’ve tried in these pieces to show that early Cerebus is more consistent with what it became than some think – for one thing, Dave Sim genuinely is a good writer of character, and given how reasonable and sensible his characters can seem when we know he disagrees with them, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe he disagreed with them back when he didn’t tell us.

I don’t think Dave Sim “went bad”. I broadly believe him when he tells us, in Reads, that he’s always thought this way about gender, though I doubt he’d evolved the exact terminology Viktor Davis used. I also believe Dave Sim when he tells us about what he sees as the break in his work – his conversion experience, though it doesn’t really begin to corrode the reading experience until Latter Days, as Truth and accuracy become the yardsticks by which Sim is judging his own work. (A minor but very telling detail: Sim himself thinks Konigsberg’s Woody Allen is a far more successful character than Lord Julius’ Groucho Marx, because he was more difficult to do)

Sim’s unique religiosity probably saved us from his becoming an idol or inspiration to the bigots and fascists of the modern far right. But it’s left Cerebus as something that seems more and more like outsider art. Can it be more than that?


The third of my Three Wise Criticks of Cerebus, Andrew Rilstone, made a strong case that it can. In his essay When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus? Rilstone treats Cerebus as a big, difficult novel, and focuses on the very parts of the novel that are most difficult – Melmoth, Reads, the two final pairs of books. His work helped me realise that “why is Dave Sim doing this?” is often the crucial question to wrestle with – elements that seem like diversions or whims or side projects with an aardvark shoehorned in are usually more integral or interesting than that. And he’s right, I think, that taking Cerebus as a whole – a grand, I would say postmodern, comics novel – can be a worthwhile approach. My “Three Aardvarks” outline at the very start of this project represents a practical way to deal with the book, but it’s not necessarily the right way. I started off this post stressing how Cerebus was defiantly a monthly work, bound to its time. And yet that’s not how it exists now. What happens if we pretend it’s something complete?

If Cerebus is a complete novel, it’s not a very satisfying one on the conventional level of story. When I initially stopped reading Cerebus, it wasn’t because Sim had revealed his full toxicity, it was because I was an impatient 20-year-old and I felt like I’d been sold a bill of goods, narrative-wise. The early part of Mothers & Daughters felt wilful, almost random as a story. It wasn’t really, but reading the whole of Cerebus I realised why I thought that. In a 300 issue, no-looking back, narrative, the first casualty is going to be plot. There’s a lot of impressive foreshadowing of events, the way those events actually happen leans on coincidence to a degree that would have a YouTube plot hole spotter in tears of absolute rage.

Of all Sim’s faults, this is the least important. Early on he turns it into a virtue, having his most entertaining books – High Society and Church And State – include almost random agglomerations of characters who bounce off one another until a story emerges. If you believe in synchronicity, there’s no such thing as coincidence anyway. Still, this tendency means you might not enjoy reading Cerebus if you care about ‘what happens’.

So why do you read it? If Cerebus is a big, complete novel, what are its themes and ideas? Cerebus is the story of a life, and the ways Sim captures the inertia and wrong directions of life as well as its occasional momentum are impressive. The way Sim often played with frustration, his characters’ and his readers’, was genuinely brave given that his livelihood directly relied on keeping people interested.

It’s also a novel about perception, and whether people can really know anyone or anything? Can we trust history? Our holy books? The versions of events we’re told? Cerebus doesn’t generally use unreliable narrators as such, but it’s a deeply unreliable story, where any thing we don’t directly see in the ‘present’ of the comic is highly suspect, and where almost nobody is right about the motivations of anybody else. From Cerebus fooling the thieves in the opening issue, to the devious parade of friends laid on by the Light in #300, nobody is what they seem. It’s a theme that reflects Sim’s own experiences of reality – diagnosed with borderline schizophrenia, he pushed back: who gets to say what reality is?

Sim’s juggling of multiple unreliable perspectives works best in his ‘theatrical’ mode, presenting small-cast, single-setting domestic drama in Jaka’s Story or the two Going Home books (the latter undermined by Sim extensively noting exactly what his characters are thinking). But it’s a big reason his characters are so compelling. The most charismatic of his creations – Lord Julius and Astoria – are compulsive liars and dissemblers. But even in minor figures you feel he’s always thought about layers and motivations, and the way language and movement and expression might hide or betray them, in a way few creators of his generation did.

Cerebus himself is usually the one straightforward man in a world of dissemblers, but he lies to himself all the time. And for Sim, who sees himself as a dedicated seeker of Truth, lying to others is simply what most people do: self-deception is the greater sin. In Reads, he leaves Viktor Sim’s fake encounter with the reader suggesting that the reader will be changed, that their shell of delusion about the nature of women will be cracked. Cerebus’ greatest antagonist, Cirin, is so steeped in self-deception that she’s overwritten her own history, literally sewing its lips shut. Cerebus’ ultimate downfall comes when he’s so desperate to believe he’s a good father that he sells out what’s left of his religion rather than remember the truth.

Lies, failures of perspective, self-delusion, mistakes repeated over the course of a life, then mirrored over the course of dozens of lives, and even across instances of reality: as a whole, Cerebus is not a cheerful or hopeful work. Most strongly religious fantasy authors, from C.S.Lewis to Gene Wolfe, offer hope that at the end humanity might be reconciled to God: Dave Sim does not seem to share that. One difference between early Cerebus and late Cerebus is the difference between cynicism as a source of humour and cynicism as a source of despair. Maybe that’s also the difference between early life and later life.

One thing that does happen when your comic is full of dissemblers and layers of meaning and contradictory versions of reality, and when you go on for 300 issues, is that you’ll have produced a text with enormous discursive potential. Whether that discussion is worthwhile is another matter. I had no idea, starting this project, that it would end up at 60,000 words long. I still feel like there’s more to say, but also that there’s no real way of reaching a conclusion about this extraordinary, accursed, vivid folly of a comic. 

I’ve loved writing about it, I’ve often loved reading it, but I feel shocked that I did write to this extent. I think I like the work more than I did going in, but the artist even less. At one point I planned in this final post to try and work out who the best comparison to Dave Sim might be – Ditko? Morrissey? Lovecraft? Rowling? Kanye? In the end it doesn’t matter: what he shares with them all is that initial fascination and horror turns to exhaustion in the end.

For some people though, and apparently I’m one of them, Cerebus itself exerts an unnerving gravity, even as reading it also feels somehow disgraceful. It’s a fractal text – the more you plunge into it, the more detail you find, the more that detail seems to matter, like Dave Sim’s compulsive apophenia is becoming yours. Stare at it and it seems inexhaustible, like it contains all of comics. Walk away from it, open up almost anything else, and it feels irrelevant.

Is Cerebus good? After 6000 pages and 60,000 words, my answer is, feebly: I don’t know. Do I regret reading it? Would I recommend it? The answer to both is the same: no.