September 20, 2003

Swords of Cerebus, Vol. 1-6, by Dave Sim

A little while ago, while reviewing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen I mentioned that one of the very few other comic books I was familiar with was Cerebus the Aardvark. Man, are you in for a treat.

I first heard tell of Cerebus when I was college, back in the early '80s. I worked on campus one summer, and one day happened to visit the college library. Honnold Library had a long lobby which was used for exhibitions of various kinds, and this time it happened to contain an exhibition on Cerebus the Aardvark. To this day, I have no idea why it was there, or what, at that early date, Cerebus was considered worthy of any kind of exhibition. But there were a number of pages on display, and I enjoyed them thoroughly.

Some background: Cerebus the Aardvark is a swords-and-sorcery themed comic book which started out as a spoof of Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Barbarian"--all of which I had read by that time. The book also spoofed Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, albino, last king of a dying race, possessor of the evil black sword Stormbringer, as Elrod the Albino. Elrod's a bit of a blithering idiot, he's got a black rune sword of his own called Seersucker, and he talks just like Foghorn Leghorn. Elrod was also represented in this exhibition, and as I was reading a lot of Moorcock just then, I was enchanted. After all, what's not to like?

The possibility of my ever getting my hands on any of the Cerebus comic books seemed fairly slim, though--I wouldn't have known where to look, back then--and I moved along.

Some years later I was visiting a friend at Stanford University, and in nearby downtown Palo Alto I found a comic book shop. Good ol' Cerebus popped into my head, and there I found five intriguing books entitled Swords of Cerebus, volumes 2 through 6 (they didn't have volume 1). Each one collected four or five of the original comic books. I immediately bought volumes 2 and 3, and went back for 4, 5, and 6 before I went home. It was all lovely stuff, genuinely funny, with outstanding dialog, impeccable comic timing, and increasingly good artwork.

One of the highlights of these early books is that Dave Sim was learning how to write and draw a comic book in his own style--and each original issue is preceded by a lengthy introduction in which he talks about that. He explains his influences, and what he thinks did and didn't work; it's a fascinating introduction to comic book art.

So I read 'em, and then they sat on my shelf. Eventually, a friend of mine found me a copy of the first volume, and I read that, and re-read the others, and then they sat on my shelf. And, having mentioned them recently in this space they were on my mind and I happened to notice them on the shelf, and one evening when I was tired and wired and restless and needed something lighthearted and fun to read, I pulled Swords of Cerebus, Vol. 1 off of said shelf and sat down to read.

Rapture! Over the next week and a half, I went through the other five volumes, which I enjoyed (if possible) even more than the first time. They've only improved with age.

Now, when I bought these, Volume 6 was the most recent; there were no others. I had the notion that the comic book had continued publication after that; but I'd never seen any reason to think that more collections were available. (Granted, I hadn't been looking.) So I fired up Google, and went looking.

There are now approximately fifteen Cerebus the Aardvark collections in print--and the six Swords of Cerebus books I've got are equivalent to just the first of the fifteen. Clearly, ol' Cerebus has been successful beyond my wildest dreams--and I've got a lot of reading to do.

I picked up the second of the fifteen collections last night; it's called High Society. The first episode in the book was so funny I had to re-read it aloud to Jane. As for the rest, I'll keep you posted.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 20, 2003 07:55 AM

david fiore said:

Hey Will!

Got the link to your blog from Alexandra's site. I like what I see so far...

Just wanted to join you in praising the early Cerebus. Those first 25 issues are superb (I like Lord Julius/Groucho best, I think, but Elrod is also wonderfully funny. Plus that "Mindgame" stuff with Suenteus Po--which continues in later issues, by the way...). That's about as good as "alternate" comic books can get! And, as a scholar of comic book correspondence, I have to say, Sim generated some of the best (I can't remember if the "Swords" series reprinted the letters pages, if they didn't they should have!!)
Actually, you're in for a treat, because High Society is, if anything, even better than the first 25--more tightly plotted, thematically unified (with the series moving ever further away from its initial "parody" format), and, of course, the art just got more and more expressive. However, I have to warn you, with High Society (issues #52-112, I think), the series started on a downward spiral, from my perspective. It's not that Sim lost any of his ability, it's just that, his life seems to have gone to hell in the mid-to-late eighties, and he really got bitter (especially on the subject of women). The visuals moved into a whole new realm of spare beauty in stories like "Jaka's Story" and "Melmoth", but he seemed to lose interest in making his readers laugh (which, as your review suggests, is what he was best at initially) and really keyed the misogyny up to intolerable levels. I don't know what's going on in the series now (I haven't read a new issue since 1991), but I think it's just about done--Sim always said the climax was due in issue #300.

anyway, enjoy High Society!!
Dave

Will Duquette said:

Glad you like it!

Re: High Society, one could fairly say I devoured it. More on that when I review it.

As for the later volumes, well....I'll keep going so long as I enjoy them. If I stop enjoying, pfft.

david fiore said:

Will,

That's the spirit!
Looking forward to that review (and your opinion of possibly the greatest moment in comics history, with that teamster boss at the banquet who says "Dese potatoes taste GRATE!"... Actually, I guess there are probably some more illustrious moments than that, but it's memorable, no?)

Dave

Will Duquette said:

Um....possibly I read it a little too quickly...but I think I missed that moment. Darn, now I've got to go find it. ;-)

Claude Flowers said:

You're in for a treat. I envy you for getting to discover the rest of the tale.

Some of the books which follow vary in tone compared to what you've read to date, but the artwork takes a real step up with the introduction of Gerhard on backgrounds, and the plot becomes dazzlingly complex. And, it should be noted, the overall story has a gravity all its own: Each issue, each incident, has a direct bearing on the future, just as happens in real life.

Have fun.

--Claude