Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Cerebus Book 5: Jaka's Story (#114-136)

"Cerebus is on love with your wife" - Cerebus

"I know, she's great isn't she?" - Rick

After the sturm and drang of Chruch and State, the focus moves to a far more intimate tale.  One that, until the very end only has five characters in it, and instead of the wide sweep of religion and politics, we get a story all about love. Dave Sim in the introduction says he was in love when he wrote it and it really shows, the whole book is suffused in it.  The love between Jaka and her husband Rick; the unrequited love of Cerebus for Jaka and also of shopkeeper Pud Withers for Jaka; even Oscar who shows up later could be said to love Rick unrequitedly.  And it is also the start of Cerebus' true suffering.  After losing everything when he returned from the moon (and there was a time jump while he was up there of a few months) he bumps into Jaka and is invited to stay with her and Rick, in the room for the child they were going to have before Jaka miscarried.  And he has to watch her everyday with another man, listening to them argue and make up and worst of all for him, having to listen to them having sex, though truthfully this is Jaka's story, Cerebus probably contributes the least to the storyline. He's just there unable to move on just yet, aimlessly passing time in the vain hope Jaka will leave Rick and come away with him.

One thing that is most notable about the book is Dave Sim has really embraced what is now called "writing for the trade".  The books are no longer from this point onwards divided into chapters matching the original issues.  If there were titles for the issues in the original runs of comics, they have been removed for the trade paperback edtion.  And this has it's advantages and disadvantages.  It does get rid of the somewhat artifical structure of having to come to a cliffhanger climax every twenty pages and allows the book to be structured along a larger scale, starting slow and building gradually to a much bigger overall climax towards the end of the book.  On the other hand it can be frustrating for readers of the month to month comics to feel like nothing is happening for ages as the plot takes time to gather momentum.  This is now called "decompression" and Dave Sim doing all this back in the late eighties, shows just how - for good and for ill - ahead of the curve he was in creating storyline structures that would become the norm for comics twenty or so years later.

"Hi Cerebus! Don't Rape Me Please"
The framing device that runs through most of the book is a "Read" (a pulp novel with pictures) based on Jaka's early life, which we find out later in the story is called "Jaka's Story" by Oscar and "Daughter Of Palnu" by the publisher (and me otherwise it'll be confusing) and is being written by Oscar based on the things Rick has told him that Jaka told Rick.  The format is plain text with a single image per page - no speech balloons and written is a flowery but rather lovely, heartfelt style.  It begins with Jaka, orphaned by age four being looked after by a grim Nurse (whose face we never see).  A loveless existance for a child who is surrounded by the opulence of the Palnu aristocracy yet she hardly interacts with anyone besides her dour guardian, her best friend being a doll called Missy.  Missy becomes somewhat important to the plot post-Jaka's Story, acting as a kind of totem that keeps Cerebus linked to Jaka even when she is not part of the ongoing narrative.  When Jaka turns five and is allowed to keep Missy in her bedroom with her, the doll changes, from friend to protector.

Missy And Jaka In The Present Day.

"Daughter Of Palnu" - Missy was transformed... changed from a beloved confident and cherished off-spring to remote sentry and fearsome talisman, unmoving and unmoveable. For her expression of perpetual amazement was gone next morning, replaced by a new reality of unblinking watchfulness, shoe button eyes fixed firmly on the infinite, back-to-back with her reflected image, the felt mouth home to an angelic choir of one, sustaining a pure singular note of calm and serenity that shielded her mistress from both harm and worry, day-upon-day.. year-upon-year...until the years numbered seven and brought forth the night of Jaka's twelth birthday.. the night she left Palnu.. forever.

Time passes, Jaka sustains a head injury that renders her amnesiac and withdrawn.  She goes through the
The Framing Device.
next few years barely speaking, her teacher and nurse the only people she interacts with regularly. Reaching eleven though and the first stirrings of adulthood occur.  At this point she becomes obssessed with two doors.  The first one leading to a dingy room and the Hidden Door.  She fantasises about what lies behind it, first a treasure trove, then another forgotton, empty room that in her mind is already "hers".  She finally decides to open the door and just finds a normal, scrupulously maintained room.  Crushed by this anti-climax she sadly closes the door, but before she can make it back to the other door, Nurse comes looking for her.  Desperatly she holds the door closed from her side so as not to be discovered where she shouldn't be.  And this small rebellion finally sparks the aristocrat inside of her:

"Daughter Of Palnu" - Without thinking, and in consequence to her very great surprise, she suddenly said her name aloud. 'Jaka Tavers'.  The air grew redolent with the scent of new power and she smiled, briefly, but with great certainty to herself.

Thus emboldened she gives orders to her nurse and begins to grow into her role as an heir of Lord Julius and a beautiful woman, also now free to practice her dancing whenever she pleases.  The whole "door" section is a cleverly designed and compellingly written metaphor for "putting away childish things" and taking the first steps into adulthood.  But Jaka's world is turned upsidedown when Astoria arrives as Lord Julius' new young bride, and then a cruel prank played on Jaka's twelfth birthday (she arrives at what should be her party only to find it's for Astoria), drives her to flee the palace with only Missy and some jewelry she pawns for a ticket out of the city.

The interesting thing about "Daughter Of Palnu" is that you're not one hundred per cent sure how truthful it is, as it's being told to the writer by a second hand source and as a later quote will show, Oscar is not above adding embellishments to the basic facts.  Nevertheless although parts of it may not be literal truth, it feels like it contains a lot of emotional truth.

In the present day part of the tale, three new characters are introduced.  Pud Withers, an overweight and
A Tribute To Comic Fans.  Er... thanks?
repressed man.  Madly in love with Jaka, he runs the grocery and bar that is next door to where Jaka and Rick live.  He hires Jaka to dance at his bar each night, but thanks to the Cirinists controlling Iest now, and
the dangerous mountain path properties he, Oscar, Jaka and Rick occupy he has no customers for Jaka to dance for and no other customers to buy groceries but her.  Yet he pays her the same amount he charges her for her daily shop and furnishes her with extra treats as well, which we find later on has eaten away at the savings he has and he is on the edge of despair about the prospect of her leaving when he can "finance" her no longer.  Rick is Jaka's husband, a decent hearted if feckless individual who's inability to find a job drives Jaka crazy.  He loves her, she loves him, they fight, they make up and while there is a lot of love between them as the book moves along it feels like that love may not be enough.  Finally there is Oscar, the author of "Daughter Of Palnu", based very obviously on Oscar Wilde, Dave Sim has managed to capture his "voice" brilliantly and while he has an ulterior motive for spending time with Rick (gathering material for his book), he seems to be genuinely fond of him and somewhat jealous of his relationship with Jaka.

The first half of the book uses repetition to great effect, from Pud and Jaka's same conversation every morning when she does the shopping, her and Rick's repeated arguments, Pud's mentally repeated converations with Jaka revealing a little more as the book goes on as he tries to pluck up courage to tell her the truth, the same nights spent getting ready to dance for customers that never come, the repeated games of trying to get a ball into a cup between Cerebus and Rick, it all speaks to a mundanity of existence that Jaka seems to be clinging to as an anchor that contrasts with what is revealed about the opulent life in Palnu she ran away from and why she ran away from it. When Cerebus apologises to her for his prior treatment of her (which is a first for him!) she defends her choices with the following speech:

Jaka: "I love my husband.  I don't know how to put it any more plainly than that.  If you stay with us you'll be safe. But I don't love you".

Then one night the routine changes, a visitor comes to the bar and she finally gets to dance for someone.  And interestingly, for what it implies about the "truth" behind Oscar's book, he also sees Jaka dance for the first time and the previous, slightly dismissive paragraph about her dancing, is rewritten to be much more positive and effusive, couching it in terms that make us really see why Jaka is loved and fantasised about by so many men:

"Daughter Of Palnu" - "Her dancing, so perfectly refined, so joyously executed, so fully and completely realised.. brought forth from that same Primal and Fiery origin which illustrates all great Art irrespective of its age or audience... Her dance was Art.  Of that there could be no serious question for it bore within it that characteristic of Invariable Brilliance that so distinguishes True Art from its poorer relations."
Rick And Oscar On The Subject Of "Church And State" and it's author.  Meta Much?
  With the new patron promising to tell more people to come and see her, and Oscar buying expensive drinks, it looks like good things are finally happening.  But the night the first patron returns a Cirinist hit squad turn up as well.  The patron goes to attack them and is cut down immediately.  Oscar is sentenced to two years hard labour for writing without a licence.  For the crime of allowing a dancer to work on the premises Pud is also instantly killed, and the Cirinists are about to kill Jaka and Rick (Cerebus being out shopping for paint) but she claims diplomatic immunity and both are arrested and taken away.

Frightened and locked in a cell, Jaka strikes up a conversation with a woman in another cell who turns out to be her old nurse.  She's awaiting execution for being an illegal immigrant and starts singing a song, then she asks:

Nurse: "Do you remember that dear?"

Jaka: "You *sniff* used to sing that to me every night for hours and hours."

Nurse: "That time you bumped your head.  Dear Oh Dear.  I was frightened near to death.  You lying there, pale as the grave.  Your eyes like saucers.  Didn't even know if you could see me.  But as long as I was singing..."

And it's fitting in a book all about Love, we find out in the end that her nurse really did love and care for Jaka in her own somewhat gruff way.  Jaka is then taken from her cell and interviewed by Mrs Thatcher, based on the thankfully late Margaret Thatcher, ex Prime Minster of Britain.  And every feminist in the UK is rolling their eyes at Thatcher being part of any feminist movement, although their conservative anti-permissiveness would chime with her views, as she accuses Jaka of dancing to arouse men's lascivious urges. Still she is pure evil in this and that also chimes with reality so there we go.  This book was being written during the tail end of the 80's when the culture wars in feminism were getting particularly bloody and bitter.  Many prominent US feminists aligned with the Christian right in America to work to ban pornography and other forms of sexual expression and it is likely that those were the feminists that influenced Dave Sim's invention of the Cirinists.  It's a type of feminism I have no time for, I'm pro-porn and anti censorship and this caused me no end of grief during my MA when I clashed repeatedly with our "Cirinist" course leader on matters of the depiction of female sexuality.

She Gets Everywhere!
But anyway, Rick is brought into the room and Mrs. Thatcher drops the bombshell that Jaka didn't miscarry, she had an abortion, and the child was male.  This causes Rick huge grief as in a conversation with Oscar earlier he had expressed his fondest desire for a son.  He is so upset that he lashes out at Jaka and agrees to let Thatcher instantly divorce them.  The story comes to a close first with a horror struck Cerebus standing in front of the burnt out shell of Pud's shop/bar and then to Jaka, back in Palnu.  Lonely and depressed, having, like Cerebus, lost everything dear to her.

Jaka's Story for me is the emotional high point of the greater storyline.  It uses the book style framing device to great effect, filling in masses of detail of the second most important character in the series.  Jaka is a flawed character in many ways, but flawed characters are interesting ones.  She is not this perfect woman on a pedastal that Cerebus has put her on.  She loves her husband, but also pushes him away, setting up the revelation of what she was really thinking when she made her "I love my husband" speech to Cerebus that occurs in a later book.  Intimate, expertly paced, heartfelt and melancholy, Jaka's Story is Dave Sim's crowning writing achievement.


  1. You've accurately conveyed that that's a very moving book.

  2. "Jaka's Story is Dave Sim's crowning writing achievement."

    You mean, it's all downhill from here? ;)
    I'm not sure if I half remember the Cirinist Mrs Thatcher or not. It's looking likely that I may never have read Cerebus past book 4 after all.

  3. Heh, well I think that at least one book to come matches it in quality, though in an entirely different way. And a couple more get close. But while the slope downhill is gentle at first, I'll be sure to note when that slope turns into a cliff. Having Mrs. Thatcher as a character is pretty funny because Mr. Sim must have just thought Women In Power = Feminist and not investigated her real life persona any further than that.