Cerebus (1977) #1-25
by Dave Sim
I started reading Cerebus with issue 49, in 1983, and I was 14, and I read Cerebus until it ended some decades later. At first I thought Sim sounded like a pretty smart cookie, but by the time I was 16, I realised that he was just a bundle of inchoate emotions wrapped in a tortilla covering of denial, and that basically everything he was writing was, well, loopy and kinda stupid. So after reading every issue I would think about how moronic he was and carry on discussions in my head where I demolished all his ideas, which is, you know, fun, but not very productive.
(It’s somehow much easier winning discussions if you’re doing both the sides in your head. Odd, isn’t it.)
I did read the first ~100 issues multiple times as a teenager, and it’s funny and interesting until about… what… issue 80? 90? And when Cerebus reached issue #200, I sat down and read them all — I had lapsed in my Cerebus-ness and hadn’t bought all the issues as they came out, and…
There’s a lot of… boring stuff? Tucked in between the fun stuff? Sim is not a convincing prose writer, is what I’m saying.
So I really didn’t want to put myself through that again, but…
Anyway: here we go. I’m gonna do Cerebus in batches of 25, because that’s how many I can comfortably read in a day, while still doing other things, and I’m going to slot in the other Aardvark Vanaheim/Renegade comics in between, kinda sorta chronological.
I think this is the first time I’ve bought slabbed comics.
So I had to consult youtube to find out how to unslab them so that I can read the comics.
*gasp* I did it! Without cutting myself and bleeding out!
While preparing for this blog series, I was trolling Ebay a lot, and I got lower grades of all the early Cerebus issues. I was amused to see this scammer trying to get $8K for Cerebus Archive 1B — probably trying to confuse somebody looking for the read Cerebus #1? They have similar covers if you don’t squint too much.
I mean, it could happen, but it does sound rather unlikely. And it’s always the most expensive Cerebus thing available… but the price varies? SHENANIGANS.
But let’s get started with actually reading Cerebus.
I’ve read these issues before, of course — mostly in the form of Swords of Cerebus…
… and a smattering of bi-weeklies…
But this is the first time I’ve actually held the original comics in my non-sweaty hands. Let’s read the first four pages together:
First of all… it’s signed! To somebody named Ken! Hi, Ken! Does that mean that it’s worth less? But at least it’s an authenticated non-counterfeit issue. (This issue was famously bootlegged, and I don’t think it’s ever been revealed who was behind the operation?)
Anyway, this starts off… everybody says it’s a Conan parody? It’s not actually “ha ha” funny, though: It’s more a retelling of Conan the Barbarian issue #3 by Roy Thomas and Barry (Windsor) Smith.
Here’s Conan and a thief breaking into a sorcerer’s castle.
Here’s Cerebus and two thieves doing the same thing (which obviously makes it different).
Here’s the denouement, where it turns out that the magic McGuffin isn’t real.
Here’s the same in Cerebus, only here Cerebus is kinda smart and cunning, and the joke’s on the thieves.
So is “parody” the right word to use here? “Lazy rip-off” is perhaps more accurate?
I mean, the Cerebus version is written way better than the Roy Thomas version (way way), and the artwork is way worse than the Barry Smith version (way way), so I guess it’s kinda a toss-up?
However, Sim’s artwork would improve from here, and Thomas never did, so…
Huh! The Terim/Tarim stuff started in the first issue? I’d forgotten that. (It’s a religious schism thing that becomes important later in the series.
Did I mention that Sim’s artwork isn’t very good here? I did?
And then we round out the issue with what would become a less-than-normal amount of verbiage from Sim. And an oddly printed ad for a Gene Day portfolio. (It’s oddly printed because the innards were printed too wide, so the cover had to be adjusted, and stuff. There’s a gazillion historical articles about Cerebus you can consult for the details.)
So was that an auspicious start to a 300 issue series? Was it fuck.
But it’s… it’s OK? It’s OK.
The next issue has more actual laughs…
… and a lot of verbiage.
Hey! Stone faces already? They become something of a major feature in later issues.
But the artwork’s kinda rough, eh? Look at the face of that Red Sophia. I don’t think Sim did while drawing this…
Anyway, I remember Sim floating the suggestion of having somebody else redo the first 12 (?) issues of Cerebus a couple years ago. Of course, he’s suggested a lot of stuff, but that’s something I’ve been wondering about ever since I got hold of the Sword of Cerebus volumes: Cerebus the comic book becomes something very different after the first dozen issues, which means that people who want to get into Cerebus first has to … well, not “suffer through” exactly, but read something that doesn’t much resemble the rest of the 288 issues.
So rewriting the first dozen makes sense in that way.
At the same time, there’s not a single throw-away line or character in these issues that Sim hasn’t mined for all they’re worth. I mean, for much more than they were originally worth: It all ends up mattering, which makes redoing the issues somewhat tricky.
Deni Loubert writes the Note From The Publisher, and as usual, she writes that she’s got nothing to write about… and then writes about something anyway. It’s kinda charming? It gives the issue a… community feel, even more than the letters pages do?
Red Sophia (the Red Sonja parody with the chafing chain mail) is funny, and pretty much on point (as a character from barbarian novels written for boys):
And she seems like a throwaway character (and probably was), but she returns … a bunch of times? throughout the series. (I think? It’s been a while since Cerebus ended.)
Michael Loubert draws a map of the lands Cerebus is moving around in. It’s very helpful, because Sim hand-waves this stuff a lot, and being able to refer to the map made things a lot easier to understand this read-through. Print it out and refer to it often! (I don’t think it’s included in any of the reprints?)
Elrod, another parody character that stayed with the series for quite a while… and Sim is landing more and more jokes.
This sort of stuff is something Sim would abandon pretty soon: Death appears here as a character, which doesn’t fit into later Cerebi stories at all.
A reader questions what direction the humour in Cerebus is going, and Sim says that he’ll decide as he goes along.
*gasp* THE CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY! From Lone Star Comics. I feel so honoured.
Oh, and another signature. Sim sure likes scribbling in people’s books.
Sim decides that Cerebus getting really whiffy when wet is a funny joke… and it is! I think he abandons the idea after a while, though? I guess we’ll see. I mean, I’ll see.
And this is also one of those early issues where Sim is clearly trying to spend as little time possible actually drawing, but wants to fill the pages with something… so here we have a lot of straight lines denoting rain.
And when he wears out the ruler, Cerebus goes down into a cave, and then all the backgrounds are solid black.
This is also the first time Sim uses a storytelling tic that would become very common as Cerebus progresses: We’re told something that hints at something bigger; a mystery; things connecting. And then it’s not really explained or explicated upon for many issues: Cerebus really is 26, it’s revealed a handful of issues later, but these mysteries can linger for hundreds of issues without getting an explanation.
Which is what I think is among those things that have made Cerebus so enduring: That paranoid feeling of things being connected; that things make sense if you just try to puzzle out how it all fits.
The disappointing thing is that there’s little reason to believe that there really was much thought behind this: Sim (at this point) probably didn’t know either.
Michael T. Gilbert writes a fan letter (and draws a really horrid Cerebus)… which is fun, because Gilbert would be the second artist Aardvark-Vanaheim would publish, but that’s still four years off at this point.
Phil Seuling, the distributor, runs ads on the back cover of most of the early Cerebus issues.
Jaka became the most popular character in Cerebus… but it’s not quite clear why. She isn’t that well-delineated as a character here — but perhaps that’s the reason? I mean, she seems very nice? So people can write fan fiction about how she’ll straighten out that Cerebus rascal.
Sim would start telling people that he’d drop her off a clip if they didn’t stop asking him to bring her back (at one point). But then he did. And, of course, pretty much retconned her appearance here.
Ah… the 70s…
We get another hint that there’s something very special about Cerebus (or about aarvarks in general in this universe)…
The storytelling in the first few issues is pretty traditional. Sim would later be quite innovative, and you see him trying something new here, and… it doesn’t quite work?
So, the first year is basically Cerebus going out on one adventure after another, and he usually comes out the loser in an ironic twist. Here he teams up with the Conniptins, which seems like it’ll lead to a bigger story (and they return at the end of High Society, of course)…
… but then we just get a huge fight sequence, and then the fat guy tells him that he’s lost, once again.
The rhythms are getting kinda annoying now: Even if each individual issue is both entertaining and interesting, the repetetive nature is getting to me.
The book is mostly pretty well printed, but there’s the occasional page like this where you can’t read the text very well.
*gasp* An empty letters page! The Cerebus letters pages would, infamously, grow into monstrous proportions as Cerebus progressed, so it’s almost shocking to see something like this…
How smart Cerebus is seems to vary a bit… he starts off being clever, but limited, and then he grows more and more cunning… I don’t object at all, because that means a greater range of fun stuff.
Hm… perhaps I should find a different methodology to do these snaps… kinda out of focus on the top there… I think I need a higher chair to get a more even distance…
Anyway! First appearance of The Roach, which Sim uses to parody various super-hero characters. This is Batman. Hiss!
And then Sim had a nervous breakdown, and was committed for a few days. (Well, “nervous breakdown” is what they’re calling it, but reading Sim’s descriptions of it later, it seems more like a psychotic break. (He thinks he was touched by god and saw the secrets of comics, and the universe, I think? He’s gone on to create his own syncretic religion now, but that’s still decades off.)
And… here Sim is experimenting with Craftint paper, I think? (It’s got patterns embedded in it, and you use two different chemicals to bring it out — you just paint the chemicals onto the paper and the patterns appear as if by magic.) It’s not a successful experiment.
And once again, Cerebus loses all his gold in an ironic twist. By now, even Sim had to grow tired of this schtick.
It’s announced that there’ll be a reprint series (the original plan was the first three issues, instead of the first four, which it ended up as), and that Deni was going to write a story that Marshall Rogers would illustrate? I don’t think that happened?
Deni announces that she’s going back to school… but this apparently didn’t last long, presumably for economical reasons?
The Cerebus merchandising starts — a Cerebus hologram?
And then… the start of Cerebus is over! We’ve arrived at the book as it would then be for the next couple hundred issues: Political intrigue, Groucho Marx jokes, and a whole lot of interiors.
After two years of bi-monthly issues, Cerebus is now monthly, and the Adventure Of The Issue format is gone: Instead it all pretty much connects, and it’s more or less a continuous story from now on.
It’s not just that the jokes are funnier, but Sim is also starting to nail body language and stuff, so that Cerebus scowling at Lord Julius’ hand on his shoulder reads easily and naturally without Sim having to put in a caption saying “Cerebus scowled at the hand being put on his shoulder”, which Sim would 100% have done earlier, to make sure we noticed.
When going monthly, Sim also cuts back to 20 story pages per month (from 22), which leaves room for some ads.
It’s a penis.
These two jokers appeared in Cerebus #6, too (as the caption helpfully tells us), and I wonder whether Sim was planning on bringing them back as comedy relief on a regular basis. But did he? I can’t reacall.
He cruelly teases the fan base with a “ships in the night” thing with Jaka… but also makes more connections between the characters by casually letting us know that Jaka is Lord Julius’ niece. It’s all connected!
We get a bunch of background on Estracion from Michael Loubert… I don’t know if this is canon, though. It’s not… very thrilling to read.
I said that Cerebus was getting slyer? By now he’s one of those hyper-competent characters that gets everything right and carries out missions against all odds.
But the plot, while leaning hard into how smart Cerebus is, doesn’t make that much sense. Cerebus has joined up with some barbarians, and they’ve killed everybody in an entire city. (Either this is Sim just not thinking things through, or he’s signalling that Cerebus is a bit of an asshole… which he hasn’t really been up till now, and he still isn’t, so I’m leaning towards the first.) Then a little band of merchants show up, and Cerebus hyper-competently sets up a heist to rob them… when they could just have killed them all, surely.
The heist is fun and all, but it’s… the plot is a bit on the stupid side.
Marvel sends over a contract, and Sim decides that perhaps he doesn’t want to sign it.
Cerebus learns a lesson about sex workers, and… that’s kinda a sit-com joke?
And here’s the thing: Cerebus is hiring more mercenaries to invade another city with his army… and is then convinced to do another heist to steal a gold trinket to get more money to hire more mercenaries…
It reads like Sim had no idea where to go with the whole “invade Palnu” storyline, so he fell back on something he could dash off without thinking too much about it. It’s funny, and the artwork keeps getting better all the time, but it makes no dramatic sense whatsoever.
*gasp* A T. M. Maple letter!
Also note that Sim is already finding magic significance in 288 + 12 = 300 (because he said he was going to do Cerebus for 26 years, and the first two were bimonthly)… “Did you ever get the feeling you were sharing the pilot’s seat with someone else?”
Ah, the first Mind Games issue. Cerebus plots himself out of a sticky situation, and it’s funny and exciting, but I found reading it this time a bit of a chore? Probably because it’s so memorable that there was no excitement in it for me this time over. So that’s a compliment.
But the Palnu invasion thing went nowhere, of course. Instead Cerebus gets talked at for an issue or two by President Weisshaupt, who explains his cleverly fiendish plot to take over the city of Beduin. I think it’s meant to sound ingenious, but it makes no sense, really: So he’s selling war bonds at six silver pieces, promising they were worth twelve silver pieces in any shop… but doesn’t explain why any shop would accept these worthless war bonds, or why anybody would buy them when it should become immediately clear that no shops accepted them?
Perhaps it’s all a fiendish plot by Sim: Write totally nonsensical plot elements to leave the reader with an intellectual frisson. Or perhaps it’s just kinda stupid? You decide.
The merchandising continues… Do people really buy stuff like that?
It’s the Graphitti Designs re-release, but I think I had the original t-shirt as a teenager?
Sim puts Chris Claremont into the story, as a headmaster who tried using men as wizardly tools, but then decided upon women instead, because it’s Chris Claremont.
Or as Sim put it in today’s Moment of Cerebus blog post:
“Absolutist gender-fluidity ideology”.
I recommend not following that link.
Anyway, that’s the first 25 issues of Cerebus: The first 12 are a bit repetetive, and the artwork is kinda rough, but they’re fun. The next 13 issues are funnier, and they’ve got a lot more intrigue going on, but Sim doesn’t quite seem to know where to go with it all.
Tomorrow (probably): The next 25 issues of Cerebus.
This blog post is part of the Renegades and Aardvarks series.