Sunday, 27 April 2014

Cerebus Book 2: High Society (#26-50)

"Why the heck do you wanna be Prime Minister then?" - Lord Storm'send

"For the money"
- Cerebus

My interest having been sparked by his guest appearence in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, this is where my Cerebus story starts proper.Back in 1990, even in specialist comics shops, the indie comics that ended up on sale via import tended to be somewhat hit and miss.  With the first twenty-five issues impossible to find, it was in fact the rereleases of High Society that I spent my hard earned pennies on.  These are the only Cerebus comics I own as floppies as well as a trade paperback, and there is something to be said for having them like that.  Not only did you get a letters page, but excerpts from Dave Sims notebook of designs and single page guest comics too.  The painted front covers are nice as well, if Dave Sim ever decides to release a compilation of all the Cerebus covers in one volume, I'd happily part with cash for a copy.  There is strong competition from Jaka's Story and Minds, but I can honestly say that High Society is still my favourite of the whole Cerebus saga and when I was drawing comics for my own amusement back then, it was High Society that was my biggest influence.
Probably the most noticable thing about the book is the dramatic use of plain, all black or white backgrounds, with the characters no longer being rather overpowered by the thickly over detailed backdrops of the first book.  Obviously in retrospect this can be seen as a time saver on the part of Dave Sim, so he could keep cranking out a twenty page book at a monthly rate.  But when Gerhard joins to do the backgrounds later on, lessons have been learned and back and foregrounds work together in harmony.  But while the backdrops have become starker, the layouts start to get more experimental, with splash pages using no dialogue balloons instead there is type written "script" style storytelling as well as issues which need to be read sideways, utilising longer panels on a horizontal plane. And the comic's panel count has gone through the roof, Dave Sim has so much to say with such complex interplay of characters and plot at work that up to twelve panels per page become the norm.  Putting todays "decompressed" storytelling in comics to shame.
Mind Game II: Chatting With Suentus Po

The basic story of High Society is how a barbarian fish-out-of-water like Cerebus manages to navigate his way through the cut-throat world of diplomacy and politics.  The driving force behind his ascendency to the Prime Minstership of the bankrupt city state of Iest being the scheming ex-wife of Lord Julius - Astoria. 
Astoria raking in the cash
They meet, when after some disasterous misuse of cash that wasn't his own by Cerebus gets him almost thrown to the Tarimite Inquisition (the Head Inquisitor gets crushed just in time, by a stone moon thrown by the Moonroach whom she is also manipulating) she pulls his gonads out of the fininacial fire and promises to make him rich. Although it's not revealed until later books that she is in Iest building up a powerbase to take on the Cirinists, she is an excellent female character, a shrewd schemer who takes Cerebus to the top and he only starts to fail when he arrogantly sidelines her during his presidency.  She has her dumb muscle in the form of The Roach, here going by the identity of Moonroach, and she see's Cerebus as easily manipulated into doing as she wants as long as he has enough food, booze and cash to keep him happy.  The twenty-five issues cover the up's and downs of their electioneering, victory and complete failure to hold onto power.  There is so much stuffed into every issue that some focus is necessary here and for me the arc hits it's heights as emotional drama, out-and-out comedy and a somewhat jaundiced view of politics with the three issues - "The Night Before", "Election Night" and "The Deciding Vote."

Cerebus and Jaka
"The Night Before" reunites Cerebus with exotic dancer Jaka.  The entire issue plays out just between the two of them as Cerebus arrogantly assumes she has come to him for a handout now he is wealthy and well connected and will be happy to come and live with him.  This leads to the following, heart breaking exchange:

Cerebus: You made the right decision coming to Cerebus.  Cerebus will see to it that  you never have  to dance again.
Jaka: (tearfully) I like dancing

Cerebus: In Greater Iest dancers are considered..well.. to be perfectly honest.. It would be bad for businesss if people knew Cerebus was living with a dancer.

Jaka: I see.  And would you still kill a yak for my supper?  Or would that also be bad for business

(angry) If you really want a yak.. Cerebus will buy you one.

Jaka:   Thanks.  But it wouldn't be the same somehow.

Which shows beautifully and economically how much Cerebus's exposure to money and power have changed and corrupted him from the somewhat carefree adventurer he used to be.  Jaka refuses his offer, saying she came to give him a gift.  Cerebus sneers at her wasting the last of her money on it, but as she leaves him he begins to unwrap it and the final page is one devstating close up of him holding the gift - the sword he lost during a misadventure in book one - and a single tear falling upon it.

Still, this is early Cerebus when he refuses to learn anything from the setbacks in his life and so he throws himself into campaigning against the goat Lord Julius is putting up for the opposing candidate.  The next few chapters expertly capture the wheeling and dealing of the election trail as they try and muster support in enough ridings to win the election. Two newspaper's front pages are used to help keep us abreast of what is happening, one biased for Cerebus, one for the goat.  When finally election night dawns, we get an issue that superbly illustrates the tension of a close run election, with Cerebus getting madder and madder (when Elrod appears he grabs him, whirls him round his head and flings him into the auditorium) the closer the results get until finally he snaps.

Leading to some humourous panicing on the part of Lord Julius who starts trying to rustle up some protection only to find he's sold pretty much all of it to finance his campaign.. and other things.

Lord Julius: What about those two tall guys with the big spears who were walking in front of  me when we got here?

Servant:  You told me to trade them for a silver and gold bathtub in the shape of a squid.

Lord Julius:  Well that certainly sounds like something I'd do.

Moonroach and Astoria and a lot of booze.
In the event the election turns out to be a tie, and Cerebus, Astoria and Moonroach travel out to the snowy riding of the farmer Lord Storm'send.  Who, after locking Astoria and Moonroach in a shed with all his moonshine (and they manage to get apocalyptically drunk as we cut back to them during the issue) makes Cerebus follow him to where he intends to light one of two torches signalling who gets his deciding vote.  There is much slapstick humour at the expense of Cerebus trying to walk in snowshoes and tripping and falling constantly (with the lovely comic sound effect "whuffa whuffa" as he stumbles along), while Lord Storm'send lectures him on his rather jaded views about democracy.  Making it somewhat satisfying when Cerebus then punches his lights out when the torch has been lit and he refuses to tell Cerebus who it was for. The whole issue is one that needs to be turned on it's side, it uses tall panels for great effect but mainly I believe it was for sake of the "Punching" page, which uses the longer horizontal panel layout beautifully.
And so Cerebus becomes Prime Minister of Iest. Unfortunately once he has a hold on power, all of Cerebus's worst instincts are multiplied, with his desire for money as his main driving force. He sidelines Astoria, and shows litle interest in furthering her causes of republicanism and getting women the vote which she is trying to push for. He treats his bureaucracy with contempt and immediately hires mercenaries to invade a neighbouring country, which turns out to be completely broke as well and Lord Julius whom they owe money to immediately adds that countries debts to Iest's.  Then when Cerebus does finally get a hold of a large amount of cash Lord Julius - the main economic power in the region - revalues the currency so as to render it worthless.  With the return of the Tarim worshipping Papacy to Iest and unable to pay his armies to fend off the invasions from all sides, even after the Hsifans join them (Cerebus became a hero to them in Book 1), Cerebus decides not to follow Astoria's advice to become Prime Minister in exile and walks out on her, with just his vest, medallions and sword to his name. Although not before sharing an emotional farewell with The Regency Elf, perhaps the only time we see Cerebus fully crying.

Along with a colourful cast, including Chico Marx as Duke Leonardi the leader of one of Iest's neighbours, incompetant kidnappers the MacGrew brothers and the Regency Elf - a sprite who only Cerebus can see in the grand hotel he lives in at the start, High Society is packed full of fun, satire and extreme politcking that never gets dry and boring.  Somehow, Sim manages to make things like summits hysterically funny, mainly thanks to his ability to write Marx Brothers style comedy.  The sheer density of the writing means repeat visits to this book are a neccessity and it obvious why, when Dave Sim chose to go the self publishing route (refusing an offer of $100,000 up front from DC in exchange for only ten percent ownership, he decided to keep full ownership and not long after the release got a cool $150,000 from the first lot of sales of the book) he chose High Society to start off with.  With a little background knowledge from the first book needed, this is very self contained coming to a definite conclusion and no cliffhanger into the next one.  High Society is a magnificent book,and will always remain my favourite of the series.


  1. You have made me want to read it one day.

  2. Well, it's the one volume I can whole heartedly recommend as a one off Cerebus book the rest start to tie you into the longer run as a whole. And well, get ideologically more unsound as well :D