The final issue of Cerebus the Aardvark, Dave Sim's monumental 300 issue, 25 plus year, graphic novel (and the origin of Abu Aardvark's fascination with aardvarks) is almost upon us. I started reading Cerebus a long, long time ago. I stlil remember the first issue I bought new (I filled in the gaps later): number 44, the "wuffa wuffa" issue for those of you who remember the old Cerebus.
I have been promising myself for a long time that I was going to write a serious essay about Cerebus when it came to the end. I'm so busy that it seems unlikely any time soon, but who knows.... this will do for starters.
For now, I'll just say, along with virtually every other fan I know, that if Cerebus had ended with issue 200 it would have been able to claim a place with the very greatest achievements in the history of comic books. The early Palnu stories, High Society, Church and State, Jaka's Story (not Melmoth - ugh), Mothers and Daughters... all brilliant on an epic scale. Cerebus was a quintessentially political book, and Sim showed a remarkable political maturity and subtlety in the first 200 issues which make his latter days that much harder to take.
Dave Sim started showing some problems even then, with a disastrous decision to interrupt an almost unbelievably compelling story with a crudely written prose essay about the awfulness of women. His leap into meta-narrative was as inventive as it was unexpected, and - quite unfortunately - gave Sim a reason to never resolve the tantalizing, intricate puzzles that he had patiently constructed over the preceding two hundred issues. But Sim almost - almost - redeemed that disaster with a sharply observed conclusion which shed bleak light on Cerebus's character.
Then, of course, it all went wrong. An interminable, supposedly funny sequence in a bar redeemed only by the luminous, unexpected, and beautifully done reunion of Cerebus and Jaka. Again, not a bad place for the series ot have ended. Because then, as Cerebus and Jaka set out on the horrific "Going Home" storyline, Sim jumped the elephant, the shark, the tracks, and darn near everything else. Long, pointless Fitzgerald and Hemingway tangents tried our patience. Major characters disappeared without a trace or an explanation, long building storylines were abandoned, and Cerebus himself became unrecognizable. And then the unforgivable and completely arbitrary conclusion, with Cerebus throwing Jaka out for no clear reason other than (see below). And then the final descent into madness, as Sim wasted the final legs of the book on a literally unreadable exposition of some bizarre new religion which might or might not have been serious (if anyone actually read this stuff, let me know).
What happened? There are lots of theories. He clearly had/has problems with women, although that didn't stop him from developing brilliant and sometimes sympathetic characters such as Jaka and Astoria. But towards the end, he distorted Jaka's character to make his own crude points about women and about feminism, doing great violence to the character and to the book. He claims (although god only knows if he is to be believed) to have given up sex, which might have contributed to his mental condition. And September 11 seems to have destroyed what was left of his mind, as he gave large portions of the book to incoherent and ill-informed rants about Islam, Canadian foreign policy, and the evils of the Left (the best part - after devoting a not inconsiderable part of the end of Mothers and Daughters to the proposition that the problem with women was that they were governed by emotion rather than reason, he lashed out at Susan Sontag's New Yorker response to 9/11 on the grounds that she insensitively applied reason to a situation that called for emotional response... without ever suggesting that he might be contradicting his long held personal philosophy with this critique).
I think that Warren Ellis, the author of the Authority and Planetary, sums it up best: "A testament to utter determination and vision. I mean, it pretty clearly drove the guy insane, but it's an astonishing achievement."
Regardless of what happened to him in his latter days, I'll always be grateful for Cerebus, Astoria, Jaka, Elrod, the Roach, Lord Julius, and so many more of the characters which Dave Sim created and once loved.
"Something fell," indeed.