Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Cerebus Book 1: Cerebus (#1-25)

"Power is better than money?" - Cerebus
"Most assuredly... Power is money" - Weishauppt

When I started my Cerebus journey back in the 80's the first comics I bought of it were from the High Society arc and so when I finally picked up the first volume of Cerebus I was somewhat surprised at how crude it was in comparison.  Not just the rather adorably long-nosed Cerebus The Aardvark himself, but the simplistic layouts and thick black undifferentiated linework stand in stark contrast to the finer detailed High Society and beyond work. Then there is the use of a purple prosed omniscient narrator, which is also dropped from High Society onwards. Storywise it was apparently around issue #4 when Dave Sim started introducing elements that would reverberate much later in the storyline, with the introduction of Elrod Of Melvinbone, Foghorn Leghorn speaking albino Ruler Of A Dying Race (a parody of Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone) and the Chaos Emerald, a seemingly throwaway plot item that results in a startling twist many, many issues down the road.

Page One of the very 1st issue
One of the things that stays true of Cerebus right to the end is the parodying of pop culture characters and the appearance of barely disguised real people in the narrative. Red Sophia, who first pops up in issue #2 is a parody of Red Sonia from the Conan stories (and interestingly, considering her modesty is only covered by a chainmail bikini, she isn't drawn in an explotative and sexist manner a pattern that holds for all subsequent female characters in the series).  The most extreme example of comic book pastiche is The Roach, who shifts outfits and personalities to poke fun at various comicbook superheroes for the next couple of hundred issues. For example, later in the first book he imitates Captain America with Elrod as his side kick "Bucky" who gets killed and then repossesess his body in a short plotline that also introduces Weisshaupt and his schemes for greater power in the region.  This looks like a daft throwaway moment that doesn't quite seem in keeping with the world of Cerebus as so far described, but again does pay-off much further down the road.  Also making
appearences are "Sump Thing" and "Woman Thing" and a magician called Charles X Claremont.

Captain Cockroach
There is no overarching theme to these first twenty-five issues, unlike what will come next.  Cerebus is a mercenary for hire, travelling about that part of the world bumping into the various characters that will be part of the storyline for quite some time after.  As well as Elrod and The Roach, there is a small arc of issues where he is appointed Kitchen Staff Supervisor to Lord Julius (Groucho Marx), ruler of Palnu.  Because Lord Julius is extremely eccentric, this means Cerebus is actually Secretary Of State for Defence (because I started reading Cerebus with High Society that was the one thing that confused me, why were people flocking to suck up to the ex-Kitchen Staff Supervisor?).  Because he's based on Groucho Marx, it gave Dave Sim a chance to go wild with the verbal comedy and I have to say he pulled it off very well.  It's also very entertaining seeing the very serious Cerebus being slowly driven out of his mind by Lord Julius daftness, until he quits and moves on again.
Lord Julius
 Jaka (Lord Julius's niece) is the most important character introduced in this volume, although there seems to be nothing all that special about her at first.
Jaka's first appearence
She's an exotic dancer that Cerebus is drugged into being attracted too, when he recovers he pushes her aside and goes on his way.  But the drugged Cerebus love-struck and gooey eyed at her lovely dancing promises to "kill a yak for your supper" and she very quickly falls for him in response, enchanted by the stories of his mercenary adventures. Though it's not implied that they slept together during their first encounter which is most definitely retconned further down the line. But she gradually assumes more importance to Cerebus and to the storyline until the storyline is arguably as much about her as it is about Cerebus. As you can see from the exerpt the dialogue is still a tad clunky, as opposed to the naturalistic style adopted later on as Dave Sim hones his writing as well as his artistic craft. 

Mind Game One
And really that's the main pleasure I got from this first book, it's seeing an artist and writer improve dramatically with each issue.  In fact there is a big jump in the quality of the artwork and layouts from the end of this book and the start of High Society, which suggests to me that he had deliberately kept his style as
more simplistic towards the end to keep the look of the first book coherent.  The fact that he was already thinking of the series as a set of arcs even this early on shows incredible confidence and faith that he'd be able to pull it off.  You only have to compare "Mind Game One" with it's sequel in High Society to see that continual improvement in action.  "Mind Game One" is a mess, with a confusing layout (it's designed so that the grey parts when joined up, make one big Cerebus) and although it shows Cerebus cleverly playing off the Cirinists and Illusionists against each other (and we'll be finding out a lot more about them later in the story) it's very hard to follow who's saying what to whom.  "Mind Game Two" uses elegant panel layouts and transitions, and plain text with no speech bubbles to convey a lot of information without confusion and comes relatively few issues later. Sim is also not afraid to redesign a character he likes to fit in with his current style.  Bran MacMuffin being the main example, going from a barbarian "Pigt" (an underground sect who worship Aardvarks) clad in a loincloth in this volume, to a stylish, suit clad gentleman in High Society.

Cerebus and Red Sophia

If you like fantasy comics, Cerebus is a fine example of a loving send up of the genre.  There are fight scenes, weird cults, monsters, wizards and magic, barbarians and beautiful, scantily clad maidens.  Cerebus's personality is established as well and interestingly he's something of an arsehole.  He's rude, vicious, selfish and covets gold above all else.  Yet somehow you're interested in what happens to the little bastard even if his repeated bad luck leaves you thinking "yeah, he deserved that."  And, again starting from this point, much of his later character development depends on him being a total bastard.  First as a lesson in absolute power corrupting absolutely and then as extreme misfortune forces him to own up and change his behaviour.  The fact that Dave Sim was laying the foundation right from the start is impressive and shows how totally committed he was to having the comic run for three hundred issues this early on.  Nevertheless, at this point in time this collection can be read independently of the rest of the series and you'll still get enjoyment from it even if you don't decide to move on to the less fantastical continuation of the plot.  I recommend that you do of course, because High Society is next and to my mind that's where Dave Sim hit's new heights of scripting and artwork, in fact when Sim decided to start releasing them as collections, he started with High Society first.

However, although Cerebus book one might not have much underlying meat to get your teeth into, unlike later books, it's still very welcoming to the casual reader.  If you are at all interested in the Cerebus series, do start right from the beginning.  Most of the later books are much better, but knowing how Cerebus formed relationships with characters that continue to appear further down the line will increase your pleasure of those plot elements tenfold. I'm not saying the book is only worth it for the continuity, but that was big elemnt of it's appeal for me.  Cerebus book one then, light hearted high fantasy parody and vital groundwork of many of the books to come.

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