Thursday, 3 July 2014

Cerebus Book 16: The Last Day (#289-300)

"Thankyou God" - Cerebus

So, well, what do we have here?  I admit by the end of the travesty that was Latter Days, I actively resented having to stump up anymore cash for the series, but the urge to see the end and finish the set got the better of me.  And lawks a lordy, this actually has a lot to recommend it.  I won't go as far as saying it totally redeems the decision to make Cerebus the leader of a religion based on the real Christian faith but there is a desperation and melancholy about Cerebus's lonely plight here that feels really heartfelt and of course it (lolspoilers) finishes with Cerebus's demise, which despite how horrible he is and the atrocities carried out in his name, you can't help finding a little sad along with the more general sadness that accompanies the end of any long running work.  Of course the final chapter manages to piss away most of the goodwill the rest of the book has so skillfully built with a completely asinine plot twist but well that's the Cerebus project in a nutshell.

It doesn't get off to a promising start, first the intro gets somewhat petulant about the lack of interest in the wider media about the end of the Cerebus series.  Possibly no one was interested after the best part of a year was spent padding out the comic with the bible and drawings of Woody Allen.  Just a thought Dave. We also get Dave telling us that he's found the solution to Einsteins Grand Unification Theory in the Bible and that God gave this to him, but his amazing theory presented here wasn't spread around because of feminists (the whole intro is very odd, he seems obssessed with the fact that feminists want him to kill himself, which seems.. unlikely of them, but whatev's). Then the first chapter starts with some amazing artwork of the sun and OH SON OF A WHORE, The Book of Genesis and lots of teeny, tiny footnotes, which I am afraid I simply skimmed because fuck that shit.  A more detailed writer about Cerebus than I, Tim O'Neil of the excellent blog The Hurting has written about and presented talks on Cerebus and even he has some difficulty with late period Cerebus, this excerpt from his blog presents one interpretation of what's going on in the "Sun" chapter of The Last Day.

Tim O'Neil of The Hurting: "I will say, for anyone who may have read the stretch from around 270-300 more recently than I, I have a little trouble keeping straight whether or not any of Sim's theological ideas are ideas he actually entertains and which are presented within the context of satire - I think I recall, for instance, that he genuinely believes that microscopic demons live in the sun and are responsible for perturbations in the quantum foam, or whatever the hell. He takes shit like demons seriously, after all, and was genuinely disappointed when, following the release of Cerebus #289-290, he wasn't immediately acclaimed as a visionary for having permanently reconciled the differences between science and religion."

I think he means them quite genuinely Tim, quite genuinely indeed. If there were no appendices then it might be possible to pass it off as weird satire, but those appendices make all the difference in cementing Dave Sim's somewhat..interesting take on the Bible and cluelessness about science.  But how could he be proclaimed a visionary?  He's not a feminist, duh!  Ugh.  Anyway, it's actually a dream Cerebus is having, now a very old aardvark indeed having been alive for a couple of centuries.  He wakes and writes his dream down and hides it for future generations and we finally get to the good bit of the book, Cerebus and his mortality.
                            

I suffer from a rather bad back, and in the mornings it can take quite a while for me to be able to get up and straighten up, even with the powerful pain meds I am on.  So I feel a huge amount of empathy as the ancient Cerebus moves slowly round his room, bone cracking and grinding together, tendons and muscle stiff and unresponsive. He can't even fart when he needs to.  Most of the book is Cerebus hobbling about, mumbling to himself, which for me are the best bits, even if it's difficult to quote the ramblings as they are so lengthy and all of apeice. The actual plot bits are somewhat daft, but the depiction of extreme old age is portrayed with sympathy and with truth. Dave Sim isn't afraid to show the indignity that comes with old age either, with Cerebus's trousers constantly falling down to reveal his diapered behind.

Cerebus: "Ow Cerebus's back spasms.  Ow Cerebus's side spasms. Ow Cerebus's front spasms."

                              

The narrative plays out as a monologue by Cerebus, with an off-stage voice providing further converstation and a final character being introduced very close to the end.  Cerebus is completely alone now, the focus of the books since the end of Minds have been tightening and tightening around Cerebus until he is all that is left.  It's hard not to see this as maybe a reflection of Dave Sim's disengagement with the world, as in the appendices, he, after declaring everyone in the world a feminist finds himself completely alone.  He has walked out on his family (who are feminists) and even his co-artist Gerhard was no longer able to work in the same room as Dave Sim (being a feminist and all).  Gerhard even tried to drop out of drawing this final arc, so unpleasant was he finding the experience now.  Anyway,  whether or not that is a reason, Cerebus is alone, with just his thoughts, failing memory and his aching, decrepid old body to deal with.

[You know, because I am a fully paid up member of the aetheist-feminist-homosexualist axis, I've been giving Dave Sim a lot of crap for his writing, but his and Gerhard's artwork is still amazingly good even at this stage when they could have easily half-arsed it and not dropped readers.  The above full page image in its content and composition conveys Cerebus's loneliness and isolation in such an achingly sad way that words almost seem unecessary.  It bought me close to tears when I first looked at it and that's something only great art can do.]

Cerebus finds he has been locked in, because of emergency procedures.  Some kind of battle is taking place outside and it seems that by now Estarcion has reached 20th Century Earth's level of technological and social advances, to judge by the weapons being used and the punky kids lounging around outside Cerebus's sanctuary.  Apparently one section of the church, the Joannists are attacking ( and yes that is after Joanne from Guys and Rick's Story, she got included into the Book Of Rick and now has splinters from the main "Cerebite" Church named after her) and Cerebus has to be locked in for his own safety.

Cerebus starts talking to the guard about his son Shep-Shep who hasn't been seen in over ten years, Cerebus reminices about his (human) son growing up, and sends the guard off to see if their are any messages from him.  While the guard is away, Cerebus begs God to help him remember why Shep-Shep left him (the reason isn't entirely clear, but it seems Cerebus ruined a music festival thrown by his son, with a violent crackdown on pro-abortionists.  After some deaths he was forced to sanction abortion and Shep Shep and Cerebus's wife left).


Later the guard returns with good news. Shep-Shep is actually at the sanctuary and wants to see Cerebus.  One problem, lifting the lockdown to allow this requires a vote by all the churches and when this goes ahead, one branch of the church santuaries permanent members vetoes the visit - the "Le Sanctuarie Upper Felda des Rick et Joanne et Joanne Lesbiennes" (those damn lesbians! *shakes fist*).  The reason given is ridiculous - that Cerebus might want to have sex with his son - but this is a ploy to manuvre Cerebus into making the concessions they want.  As Cerebus rages about the lack of authority he wields in his own church he is given the piece of paper to sign with the recognition that part of the Church wants.

Ultimatum: "The representative further welcomes the Great Cerebus's implicit agreement that the androgyne, the tribade, the sexual invert, the transgendered, the dual-gendered and the multi-gendered is of central and paramount importance in and to our faith.  In and to our society. In and to our sanctuaries. In and to the seat of truth. In the name of the Blessed Mother, her Blessed Daughter and The Scary Tampon."

                             

After a long moment, Cerebus signs the agreement and retreats to bed to wait for Shep-Shep.

Cerebus's church institution has fractured into a myriad different ideologies, that he himself has no control over any more.  Perhaps now is time to revisit Suentus Po's words on Power in Flight:

Suentus Po: "My experience taught me, there is no benefit and little wisdom in attempting to influence the minds and wills of massess of people.  In both my lives I described to you I sought that kind of influence and effect. I was a Reformer. I have seen the long range effects that profound change always brings about.  Each great movement is sown with the seeds of its own destruction, it's corruption and decay as inevitable as Death itself."

And so it goes. Cerebus is blackmailed into giving up pretty much all that's left of his power, his influence now negligable, his effect neutered, his reforms working against him, his church at war with itself.

There is a little mild homophobia that is threaded through Cerebus's messages and to-and-fro from the wilder reaches of his religion, the fact that he is being held hostage and refused to be able to see his son by the lesbian and gay off-shoots of his church makes for uncomfortable reading, that you could just about dismiss as some warped sense of humour except for the fact that in the appendices Sim goes off on a tangent about "homosexualists" being paedophiles and also oppressing him by the mere fact they have the temerity to ask to be treated as more than objects of scorn and pity.  And I think "how sad", that a man who gave us such a sympathetic portrayal of Oscar Wilde, dedicating a years worth of comics to his final days and who back in the late 80's was bezzie mates with Alan Moore and contributed to his anti-government homophobia comic, dedicating his part to Moore's wife and their mutual girlfriend (yeah, Alan Moore was in a polyamorous relationship with two women in the 80's, the lucky so-and-so).  And now he's a homophobe.  That probably disappoints me more than all the misogyny in the series combined. Oh well.

Shep-Shep finally enters the room secretly, but there is no joyous reunion.  Shep-shep is drawn in a very sinister manner, cloaked in shadow and holding a mysterious box.  After talking about some matters of doctorine, things get more personal. Shep-shep and Cerebus seem to have differing opinions of the time they spent together as he grew up, with Shep-shep taking a decidely negative view of his father, crushing Cerebus's happy memories.  He also reveals that Cirin is still alive, though in worse shape than Cerebus and that they have been working together. The tension in this scene is very cleverly built up with the box and the strange noises coming from inside as Shep-shep talks about what he and Cirin have been up to somewhat obliquely and Cerebus keeps asking what is in it. Finally Shep-Shep decides to show Cerebus what's in the box and takes out....

Shep-shep:  "...look father, see.  It's a lion's cub, with a baby's head.  Isn't that amazing?"

...
......
............


I think I would have preferred it if Gwyneth Paltrow's head was in the box. Ok, lets run through this quickly.  Cirin has been doing gene splicing experiments using slices from Shep's brain to clone this hybrid from.  Once they get the giganticism gene sorted, they'll make a huge one of these baby/lion hybrids and then they'll all go to Egypt where he'll be worshipped as a God.  Well done Cerebus, your son is fucking nuts.  Of course Cerebus is horrified by this, and seemingly hurt by this response Shep goes to leave, but not before leaving Cerebus with this warning:

Shep-shep: "I hope... the scattered remnants of your followers enjoy the limited time that remains to you. Because there's a surprise on the way father. A very, very big surprise.  Tens of thousands of surprises in point of fact!  A new group of believers father called Muslims!  And from what I understand? They've taken a decidedly dim view of what you've done with their God.  Good bye father."

And with that ominous threat, he departs.  A rage filled Cerebus finds his dagger under his pillow and jumps from the bed, with murder in his heart.


But he misses his footing and slowly topples to the ground, where he breaks his neck (although he gets his fart in before he dies). 

As the life ebbs away from him, his life flashes before his eyes.  Before his spirit finally leaves his body.

There he sees a bright light and every character of significance who appeared in the series is waiting, with the trinity of Ham, Bear and Jaka holding her arms out in welcome.

He turns into his old comic book idol "Rabbi" and starts to run towards them, but there is a sting in this final couple of pages.  He suddenly takes fright and tries to turn away, imploring God to save him.

Cerebus: "Help God! The Light! The Light! Help God! The Light has got Cerebus! GOD! HEEELLPPP!"

And nothing is left but white.  And so ends Cerebus the Aardvark.  Dying as The Judge predicted, "alone, unmourned and unloved".  Oh sure as the nominal head of the Church there might be some official mourning if it survives the war that's going on outside.  But in the end, even his son didn't care about him and his old enemy Cirin outlived him, while his Church fell into schismatic ruin.

A downer huh?  Well we were warned.  Actually I did wonder if Dave Sim would have the balls to go with the "alone, unmourned and unloved" prediction and I am glad he did, because Cerebus didn't really deserve a happy ending. I thought maybe having Cerebus becoming a genuine leader of his faith, rather than one in it solely for the gold and power might have been a set up for a happier ending than what had been foretold for him. Caveats aside, especially the whole Shep sequence with the spinx baby (and I am almost willing to say, "screw what Dave Sim says, I think it was a nightmare Cerebus was having") and some of the homophobic subtext, this is a pretty good capstone to the series.  It evokes sympathy for a protagonist who doesn't really deserve it in a very skillful way and is almost heart rending in places showing that Dave Sims ability to write evocative prose hadn't totally left him. I still think the swerve into making Cerebus the leader of a real Christian religion wasn't really my cup of tea, and I wonder if this ending was planned all along or if another ending to the series had been plotted out before Sim's real life faith impacted onto the text.  I guess we'll never know what could have been.

In Summary Then....

It's been just over ten years now since the main Cerebus series ended.  Despite the way it finished up, it's still a monumental achievement by both Dave Sim and Gerhard.  What I find rather saddening is how forgotten the series has become when it was one of the biggest indie successes of the 80's and early 90's.  When I started up buying the trades again, I wandered into my nearest comic specialist shop, Forbidden Planet in Manchester (UK), and when I couldn't find them on the shelves asked the man on the counter if they had any in stock.  He had never heard of the series, which really took me aback.  Whatever you think about the mess it ended up becoming, there was way, way more that is good about Cerebus than is bad, and it deserves a place on the shop shelves next to Elfquest, Spawn and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all big indie hits themselves.  Maybe Dave Sim's lack of interest in exploiting the property at the time beyond pioneering the trade paperback collected edition has told against it, but the series lack of presence in comic book stores now make it unlikely that any new readers will come across a copy while idly browsing and take a chance on a densely packed storyline starring a talking aardvark and a host of parodies and pastiches that chart the pop culture and personalities of the time in a generally amusing way.  
I'm concluding the images with my favourite set of panels from my favourite issue "The Deciding Vote" which was part of High Society.  I love these three panels which I couldn't include in the High Society review as I didn't have a scanner then.

What's noticable about the saga as a whole is you don't have to read to the bitter end to get a satisfying story if you don't fancy braving the last couple of books.  The series comes with several jumping off points for those less committed to completionism than me.  Just here for the satire and comedy?  Leave after Church and State II.  Only interested in Cerebus versus Cirin versus Astoria?  Drop out after Minds.  Want Cerebus to get a happy ending (for some reason)?  Go no further than Rick's Story.  Only curious to see what happens to Cerebus and Jaka's relationship? Do not pass the end of Form and Void.  Despite the frustrations I felt writing up the last few books, I'm glad I committed to doing the full run, looking at the books in more detail did increase my enjoyment of most of them and I was pretty out of practice with writing, so starting with something obscure let me relearn and polish up my critical skills again without feeling too pressured by the material.  If this series of blog posts manages to inspire even one person to check out a Cerebus volume (make it High Society if you do, very funny and little baggage from the preceeding arc at that point), I'd be pretty pleased.  But I probably won't be committing to such a long series of books again until I decide to look at Garth Ennis's twelve volume series The Boys, although I'll be writing about some series with up to around seven volumes in them prior to that.  So stick around please as I tackle more traditional comic books and maybe cover something you've actually heard of.

7 comments:

  1. Okay, the reference to the "Scary Tampon" shows that Mr Sim's misogyny is ultimately that most fundamental of dislikes, i.e. grounded in physical disgust. "Eww, women are yucky! Their bits are all different and they bleed once a month and it's just wrong!" To a certain extent one cannot be blamed for physical disgust, as it is an involuntary reaction and certainly not an enjoyable one, but one must move beyond it to build a society in which people are valued on their inner humanity, not their appearance — to move beyond surfaces, beyond the superficial. You'd think a man who wrote a book in which we have to empathise with an anthropomorphic aardvark would understand this. Also, love the random kick in the teeth for transgendered people. You're a real swell guy, Mr Sim. I still don't know whether transgenderism is a mental illness or a genuine 'I'm in the wrong body' thing or what, but transgendered people are suffering enough and deserve compassion, not just Mr Sim going "Eww, they're weirdos infecting Cerebus' religion like mites in flour."

    Having said that, the depiction of old age is clearly very moving and to the author's credit. Perhaps the people who read The Last Day will be inspired to help elderly people, or at any rate to empathise with them. In fact, it's kind of brave to depict your hero as a geriatric person. You end up feeling sorry for him even though he was a rapist, especially when he wants to be reconciled with his son but the uncharitable little so-and-so isn't having any of it. 'Shep-Shep' sounds kind of Old Testament. I wonder where Cerebus/Mr Sim got it from?

    I think that the lion cub with the baby's head is absolutely BRILLIANT, and gives the story a real sense of menace and foreboding, and in no way deserved to be facepalmed. It is a clear reference to Yeats' 'The Second Coming' — have you read the poem? If not, Google it, and it'll send shivers down your spine. Shep-Shep's plans for the future are clearly very dark indeed, possibly involving human sacrifices whose blood soaks slowly into the desert sand beneath a bronze, pitiless sky as terrified worshippers adore the Sphinx, God made Beast instead of Man. Okay, so it's mixed in with the old 'Muslims/the East are scary' trope (I've never read Orientalism by Edward Said but I probably should) but in storytelling terms it's terrific. Literally.

    I thought that Cerebus running away from the white light was very realistic. It represented a state of being he had never experienced before. Isn't rapture kind of scary when you think about it? But maybe it was like when you're going to have a medical procedure and you're dreading it, but when you actually have it it doesn't hurt a bit and afterwards everything's okay.

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  2. Yes, he does have more to say about transgenderism in the appendices, but I was trying to keep the post a manageable length and didn't discuss that, maybe I should have...

    Interesting that you had the opposite response to the spinx baby, I genuinely thought it was ridiculous, but I can't deny that your interpretation is a valid one. There was a two page spread of a giant spinx creature being worshipped that I couldn't fit on my scanner and I does look quite dark and sinister. But I stick by my initial response that it totally made me got "WTF?!" and somewhat threw me out of the narrative, so I stand by my faceplam dammit!

    I think we can both agree the depiction of old age is superbly done here, I can't think of anything like it in comics before or since. To show a character who was a fighter and adventurer to be so vulnerable and diminished is something you can only really do in a long series with a definite end. And now it has ended and I have a space in my brain free that was all about Cerebus, whatever will I fill it with now..?

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  3. Dead prostitutes!

    Only joking, I know you're not going to write about From Hell.

    I would absolutely love to know what Mr Sim says about transgenderism in his appendices. Maybe I should borrow the book. Oh, and you may stand by Captain Picard if you wish, as he is totally ace and I wish he were my granddad, but you're still Ms Wrongly Wronglington of Wrongsville Arizona. ALL HAIL THE SPHINX!

    Oh, and you've definitely inspired me to check out Cerebus some time, but if I keep shamelessly filching your comic books do I have to buy you more kettles??? I don't have anything to lend you in return apart from books with no pictures in.

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  4. Well, off the top of my head, his comments about transgenderism seem to revolve around a news story he read about a teenager in Australia being allowed to opt for a sex change by EVIL PSYCHIATRISTS. Which he seems to extrapolate into agents of the worldwide homosexualist-feminist axis being ordered by YHWH to force lots of people into having sex changes, or something. It's pretty offensive and stupid anyway.

    I would literally have no idea how to even go about tackling From Hell, it would have to be a chapter at a time and I'd be hard put to write anything more insightful than Mr. Moore has already put in the appendices. I might relent at a later date, because I realised a large amount of his obscure stuff is obscure for a reason and it might start looking like I dislike his writing by only concerntrating on the less well know stuff. So, we shall see....

    I still can't get my head around the spinx baby, but good to know it has one fan. And hey, what is cool is Cirin created it, and thus indirectly she was responsible for Cerebus's death. She won in the end, go feminism! er... :D

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  5. Oh and don't worry about not lending stuff in return. I like lending comics to people so I have something to chat with them about. Not just you, my Mum, my baby sister and her boyf all have graphic novels and trades of mine I lent out.

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  6. I forgot to say that the bit about being scared of Heaven reminded me of a bit in one of the Anne of Green Gables books. Anne's childhood friend Ruby, whose main interests in life were flirting and parties and socialising, is dying from TB or scarlet fever or something. She tells Anne that she's afraid of going to Heaven because "it won't be what I'm used to." But Anne manages to say something that comforts her, and she ends up dying with a smile on her face.

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  7. Thanks for discussing Cerebus here. I'm going to go back and read the rest of your entries.

    Cerebus was my favorite comic, my old standby, and the gateway drug to so many other comics I loved during the indie B&W boom of the 80s and 90s. I remember as a kid first spotting the earth-pig born in a goofy TMNT collection, and thinking, wow, what a fun character. Then attempting the current issue (Melmoth #3, I think), and not being quite ready for it...luckily, the noble proprietor of Maui's best comic shop, Compleat Comics, pointed me to High Society. From then on, my heart belonged to the little grey misanthrope.
    Perhaps the best part of reading it issue by issue during the early 90s was the amazing stuff I was exposed to in his Sneak Peeks back of the book: excerpts from Thieves and Kings, Strangers in Paradise, Naughty Bits, Strange Attractors, Very Vicky, Paul Pope's stuff, Colin Upton, Eddie Campbell...many of them later to show up in Guys...but at the time, a guidebook to the beautiful blossoming comic book stores I was blessed to have in range. I could go on.
    I tried to stay with him, read him critically but sympathetically. I remember sitting on a park bench reading #186, being perhaps at the ideal state to receive his message as I was rummaging in the wreckage of a failed mutually overdependent relationship--but still. Couldn't quite go there. Guess the feminists got to me, Dave. Sorry.

    It's hard to have a beloved figure in your (inner) life turn sour like that. I still hope people can celebrate the good stuff, of which there is so much.

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