A&R1981: Cerebus #26-50

Cerebus (1981) #26-50
by Dave Sim

We (that is, I) continue our (that is, my) (re-)reading of Renegade/Aardvark-Vanaheim with the second batch of Cerebus comics — the High Society sequence. (Hopefully with fewer parentheses per paragraph than this one (right).)

I started reading Cerebus with issue #49 (when I was 14), which is the 24th issue in a 25 issue story: I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but it seemed very intriguing. I finally got caught up three years later, when the High Society “phonebook” (as Sim called it) was published, collecting all these 25 issues.

Look! First printing! I must have ordered this from Aardvark-Vanaheim directly? Sim famously withheld the book from comic shop distribution, which made Diamond so angry that they… threatened to not distribute Puma Blues, the other book Sim was publishing at the time.

Such principles. Fortunately Diamond didn’t then later become the only distributor of comics in the US… right? Right?

Sim relented, but I think I got my copy before all this drama.

So I’ve certainly read these stories before, and I’ve also got a smattering of the High Society re-print series, but I haven’t read the actual #25-48 before now.

I’m excited!

Let’s start.

So that’s the first three pages, and we’ve come far since Cerebus #1 — Sim can really draw by now.

The printing is worse than ever, though.

The first 25 issues were extremely episodic to start with, but we’d gotten longer story arcs over the last dozen issues, and here Sim is going for a 25 issue epic, which means that he can pace things very differently. These aren’t really what you’d call “decompressed storytelling”, though: Sim still shovels a lot of stuff into each issue.

So: The story is that Cerebus is in Iest, and people think that he’s got serious pull with Palnu (the economic super-power in the area) and the bossmang there, Lord Julius. Everything spins out from there, really: Intrigue, elections, war.

The guy that runs the fan club, Fred Patten, asks what happened at the end of the previous Cerebus-led war. He asks whether Sim just wrote himself into a corner and didn’t know what to do?

Sim answers at length, and I’m paraphrasing: “Yes.” Or, rather, he passive-aggressively poop-poos Patten’s intelligence, and explains that of course the invasion was doomed to fail: How could a bunch of barbarians hope to take over a major city like Palnu? They’d be swatted! That’s just stupid!

(Sim had previously written in a letters column that that was pretty much what he’d planned on happening.)

Sim swears to never reveal what’s going to happen in a letters column ever again. (Presumably so that people can’t tell how little he thinks these things out?)

A new series is announced! Very mysterious!

Anyway, back to the story… So, people were offering Cerebus money hand over foot (during one dinner, he was offered 800 crowns) to have Cerebus whisper things into Lord Julius’ ear. So, naturally Cerebus arranges to have himself kidnapped… with a random of… 12K crowns? Which takes him a week to get? Which sounds way less than what he’d be getting if he’d just continue sitting at that restaurant table.

This is the main point of frustration with reading this comic: Cerebus whip-saws between being really smart and being downright moronic. Sure, Cerebus finds it more fun cheating people out of money instead of just being offered it… I guess… but it just doesn’t make sense: No dramatic sense, and it’s not really in character — Cerebus would be fine getting drunk while people are giving him money, surely.

But it’s a fun caper, and I guess that’s what was on Sim’s mind this week.

*gasp* Mike Bannon! He pops up a lot in the letters pages after High Society is over, and teams up with other wiseguys to give them a rather surreal feeling.

The second Mind Games issue isn’t as much fun as the first — it’s mostly an occasion to infodump at the reader some stuff about Estarcion society. From Suentus Po’s point of view, of course, so it’s not necessarily reliable information, but it’s pretty interesting.

The Regency Elf. And speaking of characters — Sim is getting really good at making them. In the early issues, they’re one-dimensional parodies, and they’re pretty interchangeable except for what kind of schtick they’re doing. In High Society, the characters feel like they’ve got a lot more depth — even older characters that are reintroduced, like Bran Mak Muffin.

More Mike Bannon. Unfortunately this is the last we see of him during the High Society run?

The Unique Stories plot becomes clearer: It’s an anthology series, and Neil The Horse is supposed to feature in it.

Speaking of ads: I sure hope Bud Plant paid well, because that’s just really really ugly.

The smart/dumb thing again: Here’s more political intrigue, where the prime minister, for some reason, has decided to have a heart to heart with Cerebus… kinda out of the blue? Because… he wants Cerebus to be furnish a pretty piddling amount of money through a too-complicated scheme? So it’s a heist, but this time without breaking and entering, so that’s up Cerebus’ alley (sort of)… but why would the prime minister actually imagine that the Palnu representative would be up for this sort of thing?

I love reading stuff that’s got many layers and things aren’t spelled out, but the problem here is that there really isn’t that much to figure out: The reason the plot doesn’t make sense (on the surface) isn’t because of some deep structures we can’t see, but we can tease out if we put our hearts into it. It’s because it’s kinda dumb.

But it’s entertaining! It’s fun! And Sim comes up with all these little exciting storytelling touches.

What I’m saying is that there’s less to High Society than meets the eye.

Another mayor player in this storyline: Astoria. Who introduces herself to Cerebus (and the reader) by claiming to have been raped by the Roach. I’m guessing that Sim mean for us to read this as her embellishing (or just lying outright)… but then again, Astoria is raped for sure (by Cerebus) later in the series.

This is supposed to be a riff on Neal Adams via Bill Sienkiewicz, I think? Not just a straight Neal Adams riff? Or is it?

It’s very funny, whatever it is.

And then Unique Stories is cancelled before it even starts. Along with something called Out of the Depths, which I hadn’t even noticed had been announced.

Astoria is a ingenious manipulator and schemer. And Sim has found an effective way to avoid drawing so many backgrounds: Just have everything happen in very very dark hotel rooms. Sim had tried to do issues in caves and stuff before, but I think it works a lot better now — Sim uses the black backgrounds to his advantage, in a way that allows him to be really clever with layouts that are super-efficient at telling the story he’s doing.

The page count is increase from 24 to 32, which leaves room for ads and backup stories (which were originally slated for the Unique Stories anthology). Here’s Brent Alan Richardson with a story that’s, frankly, incomprehensible.

Oooh! That’s the way to shame a barbarian: Grammer.

Intrigue and mystery!

William Messner Loebs does a five-part thing about whatsisname in heaven. It’s OK, I guess, but…

Fashion: 81.

OK, I really wasn’t going to do this… I think I’ve kvetched enough about how High Society doesn’t really make much sense when you think about it… but the bit where the people of Iest get to vote who the “leading diplomatic representative” of Palnu is… it’s… This thing, which is totally utterly different than an “ambassador” (somehow, Sim doesn’t explain how), allows the person to set a lot of policy on behalf of Palnu… so… er… how…

OK, just let it go. Just let it go an enjoy the funny drawings.

That rendering technique (on Astoria’s face) isn’t one that Sim uses a lot…

The merchandising continues with the stuffed Cerebus toy (sword not included). Hm… Where have I seen that before…

Oh yeah! On the shelf in the TV room.

I’ve had that since I was fourteen.

Jaka returns a couple times, and begs Cerebus to abandon whatever he’s planning. It’s a big emotional thing, and it works really well.

So, while campaigning, in Iest, to be elected a Palnuan diplomat (yes), he attends a convention to meed the voters. So it’s basically a parody of a comics convention for a few issues, where Cerebus signs autographs and… draws sketches…

It’s funny.

Ah, yes, the infamous counterfeit Cerebus #1 issue. Has it even been revealed who was behind it?

I have my suspicions as to who did the counterfeit but, no, the FBI never managed to catch the guys who were selling them-the “mules” folded their operation as soon as word started to spread-and therefore there was no route to anyone who was behind the scam. I certainly wasn’t about to accuse anyone publicly without evidence to support it but, yes, I’m pretty sure I knew who did it.

The FBI!

Well, OK, I can’t keep nattering on about High Society… there’s like a gazillion articles about it out there, I think? So I’ll just note that when it’s funny, it’s very funny. And Sim is endlessly inventive with his storytelling, and it all works.

Even stuff like this. (Four extra pages of Cerebus in an issue disguised as a Unique Story.)

Hey! Have I ever seen that ad for Love & Rockets before? It’s nice.

Ooo! A tour! Like real rock stars!

Remember them? They were these creatures that used to tour and then you could go to big halls and look at them up on something called “a stage”, while loud sounds would come out of “speakers” while “the audience” would drink “beer”.

True story!

Finally! Neil the Horse by the incomparable Arn Saba. We get a couple of these shorts…

*gasp* An ad from DC Comics? They were really pushing Camelot 3000, I guess?

Did I mention that Sim is really funny when he’s funny?

And the entire election sequence is quite masterful — it’s funny and tense and exciting, all at the same time.

Michael T. Gilbert, who I’ll be talking more about in the next blog post — he’s the first non-Sim person Aardvark-Vanaheim will be publishing a book from. (Did that make grammertiqly sense? Whatevs.)

A very mysterious ad! Three issues later, we’re told that this is an ad for a portfolio.

Then! Suddenly! Sim starts doing Cerebus sideways. Printing-wise, that is.

Did Sim or John Byrne do it first? A December 1982 on-sale date… This issue has a November 1982 date… So they both came up with the same idea at the same time?

Well, OK.

Anyway, it’s fun, but it’s kinda inconvenient when reading the phonebook.

And as we see above, Astoria and the Roach gets locked in… and then gets sloshed immediately… which is rather out of character for Astoria. I mean, she’s living a life of luxury in a luxury hotel, so why would she immediately got “oooh” at the sign of some booze?

But it’s a funny sequence. They get really drunk.

So, Cerebus becomes prime minister (oops SPOILERS), and he’s ruthless and kinda psychotic, as you’d expect. The narrative is totally on his side, though — he’s not just the protagonist, but the hero. And Sim has switched his character from being an ineffectual Astoria hang-around to hyper-competent 4D chess-playing genius … again.

Sim’s also dropping in another viewpoint — a history written by one of Cerebus’ gullible followers (and speech writer): A true believer in the “republican” ideals that were set out by Astoria.

Barb Rausch! I didn’t remember that she was working with Arn Saba already.

They start running the circulation numbers on the inside front cover in each issue: This unprecedented openness was very helpful to other prospective self-publishers, I think.

Michael Cherkas (of later Silent Invasion fame) does the artwork on this strip… in a very different style than he’d use later. And it’s funny how many of the people Deni Loubert later would publish under the Renegade Press banner showed up on her radar this early.

After Cerebus becomes, we seldom see Astoria doing anything — she’s his secretary, so she’s around… but again, the shift in character seems odd and unbelievable: From being totally in control, and being totally controlling, she’s now content to just sit back and let Cerebus do whatever thing he’s decided to do. It’s just… odd.

On the other hand, there’s a lot going on, so perhaps Sim just ran out of room if he’d already decided to end the storyline at issue 50.

The first Journey piece by William Messner Loebs, I think? Love the artwork; the story isn’t much to write about, so I’ll stop there.

The historically momentous issue #49! Of historical interest because it was the first Cerebus issue I ever read as a 14-year-old. Above is the very first page. Doesn’t seem like the right place to start to read something you’re gonna read for the next 20 years, does it?

But I was immediately fascinated.

Especially when Sim started doing stuff like this, with a drunken Cerebus and the orientation of the book changing gradually, so you sit there slowly turning the book around.

It’s fun and clever.

I think this is the first time Sim experiments with using xeroxing for comedic effect (or anything else, really). Also note the nice borders.

And then it’s over. It’s a very emotional ending — in one way, it feels unearned (as we learn the fate of the guy who wrote the history book), but you can’t really argue with it: It works, and it packs a wallop.

Or if you want to pick nits: Once again, Cerebus’ dreams of money and wealth is foiled by a deux ex machina: In the final issue, somebody who’s been passive for the preceding 24 issues decides to give a damn, and takes over everything. And then there’s an ironic coda. It’s very much like what happened with the Palnu invasion plan and the Conniptin thing before that again.

Another person pops up who’d later have a series or two with Renegade Press: Valentino.

Anyway. That’s it: This Cerebi batch is really good, and if I remember correctly, the highpoint of the series, really. Some people preferred the later Jaka’s Story for a while, but it seems like most people have changed their minds and are back to rating High Society the highest.

I’m not one of those: I loved High Society when I read it as a sixteen-year-old, and reading it again now was hugely enjoyable.

Next: Not Cerebus.

This blog post is part of the Renegades and Aardvarks series.

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