It’s a difficult thing to talk about the work of Dave Sim these days. For a start, he’s fallen largely into obscurity since his masterwork, the 300-issue CEREBUS series, wrapped up in 2003. And the back half of that run was tainted by Sim’s growing misogyny, his strange and often-deliberately-provocative belief that women had been a bad idea from the start. How much this stemmed from his own personal experiences I can only guess–and Sim has become only further radicalized in the years since, across a myriad of different issues. He is, to put it simply, the very picture of a problematic figure. So much so that the fact that a great deal of the work he produced over the course of three decades was remarkably good–and even those sequences that are unsettling when viewed in a modern context are executed expertly. Sim was a master of the comic book form, one who produced his series almost entirely on his own (despite the contributions made by his long-time background artist Gerhard, his ex-wife/publisher Deni Loubert, and a succession of other functionaries to help get the comics out on time.) CEREBUS was by and large a one-man show.
CEREBUS started out a a barbarian funny animal comic book. In the 1970s, with the success of HOWARD THE DUCK, there was a short-lived renaissance of interest in funny animal comics. Especially when those funny animals were crossed with some of the sensibilities that had grown up in the underground comics of the previous period–books that told stories rife with far more sex and violence than was allowable in the mainstream, and which were also allowed to tackle any taboo subject the author cared to address. While its early roots were taken whole cloth from the Barry Windsor-Smith-illustrated issues of CONAN, CEREBUS began to change and grow as Sim blossomed as a creator. It was, for most of the 1980s, about as sophisticated and adult a comic book as it was possible to find (this despite the fact that it was also often rife with nasty humor and punctuated with moments of grim violence.)
Gradually, Sim’s ambitions broadened, and early on, he announced to his readership that he intended to produce 300 issues of the series chronicling the entire life of his lead character up to his eventual death. This was an insane thing to say in 1979, but damned if Sim didn’t complete that journey twenty-plus years later. What’s more, influenced by a wide variety of interests outside of the world of comics, Sim began to tell larger, more sweeping stories. His first major epic (and many would say his best) was HIGH SOCIETY, a serialized story that ran from CEREBUS #26-50 and which was eventually collected in one of the first genuine graphic novels released into the marketplace. These days, a 25-issue story doesn’t seem to amazing, but in the late 1970s a four-part tale was considered an epic. Sim also began to adjust his pacing such that, the longer he went on, the less important to him the effect of a single issue became. Sim pioneered the concept of “writing for the collection”–he was crafting large graphic novels in twenty page chunks, and once he got going, they almost always read better under one set of covers than they did monthly.
But every so often, Sim did an issue that worked perfectly as a single installment within the larger story he was telling (although this tended to happen more often in his earlier days, when he was still making the transition to thinking across larger swaths of pages.) Such was CEREBUS #36, “The Night Before”. It was a singular issue that helped put the series on the map with a number of readers through word of mouth–in a time before the Direct Market was yet an all-encompassing force, CEREBUS was only sold in comic book specialty shops and through mail order. You needed to seek it out in order to find it. Looking back at it now, it reads like it was written just yesterday, with the kind of deliberate pacing that any number of titles use regularly today. But it was released in March of 1982, well before anybody else would dare do an entire twenty page story focusing on a conversation between two characters, and the ebb and flow therein.
At the point where this story opens, Cerebus has left behind his life as a barbarian and a mercenary soldier-of-fortune. He’s fallen in with Astoria, a mysterious woman with her own agenda who begins to position the Earth-Pig as a player in High Society, almost entirely due to Cerebus’ past relationship with the mercurial Lord Julius of Palnu (who is in sight and sound the spitting image of Groucho Marx.) At this point, as the Ranking Diplomatic Representative of Palnu, Cerebus is given pretty much whatever he wants by the various movers and shakers in the city-state of Iest where he’s been hanging his hat, all of whom hope that Cerebus will provide influence on their behalf with Lord Julius, to whom just about everyone is in debt. But that this point, Julius has dispatched Elrod to Palnu to be the new Ranking Diplomatic Representative–all of which results in the two men facing off in an election to the post. All of this is backstory, though. What happens in this particular issue, set on the eve before the Political Convention, is that Jaka shows up.
Jaka had been a character who had only appeared on one previous occasion in CEREBUS up to this point, in the book’s 6th issue. There, she was cast as a fetching dancing girl with whom Cerebus had become enamored. by the end of that Conan-style adventure, Cerebus had lost all memory of Jaka and his love for her, and she had promised to await his return. As tended to be the case often with CEREBUS, the longer you read, the more impact certain moments would have on you. So for audience members who had been awaiting Jaka’s return for a few years now, her entry at the end of the previous issue was a turning point moment. By this point, having rethought his approach to the series, Sim rethought Jaka as well. She’s still a dancer by trade here, but she no longer speaks in broken English. if anything, she’s among the more cultured and nuanced characters that Sim creates (which becomes funny in retrospect once Sim becomes disenchanted with women. He eventually assassinates Jaka’s character metaphorically some two-hundred issues later in order to bring her more in line with how he feels about women at that point.)
What follows over the next twenty pages is a single scene, a conversation between Cerebus and Jaka, in the course of which they move through a number of different emotional states. At first, Cerebus–who tends to be depicted as a relatively unlikable character with some consistency–is convinced that Jaka has sought him out because of his newfound wealth and status. That she’s looking for a handout, playing the golddigger. Throughout these early pages, Cerebus is constantly taking the wrong thing from what Jaka says to him, filtering it all through his own self-aggrandizing haze of bullshit, and behaving like a complete ass. He tells Jaka that sure, he can afford to give her a hand-out now, and that he wants her to stay and move in with him.
But Jaka isn’t here for money. Rather, she’s here to see what has become of the man she once loved. She asks him when he eventually remembered her, and he’s forced, sheepishly, to tell her that it was several months ago, when he was drunk and saw another dancer on stage. And yes, he never went back for her. But still, Cerebus doesn’t get what she’s saying–she’s here now, she can share Cerebus’ suite and his life (though she may have to do a bit of work so that people won’t think she’s a freeloader. And she’ll definitely need to stop dancing, since that’s considered lowbrow.) But this isn’t Jaka’s goal at all. Rather, she’s brought Cerebus a gift, and the subtext here is that she hopes that it will remind him of the person he used to be, before money and power had completely corrupted him. She spent her last penny on it when she came across it among a merchant’s wares.
And with that, sadly, Jaka turns to leave, despite Cerebus’ confused protestations. Once she’s disappeared into the night, Cerebus’ attention turns to the parcel that she’s left for him, wrapped, in a corner of the room. Haltingly, he begins to slowly unwrap it–and discovers that it is the unique sword that once belonged to him, which had been lost on a previous adventure many issues earlier. And with her gone, Cerebus’ heart breaks, as he realizes that he has misjudged the situation all along.
This is a hell of an issue, in particular when read within the context of the larger run. Even regardless of that, it still packs an emotional punch. Sim’s ear for dialogue and the musical rhythm of his characters’ speech is in fine tune by this point. He also makes good use of his lettering–for Sim, the lettering was as much a part of the story as the artwork, and he treated it accordingly. While he only ever lettered his own work, he’s still one of the finest letterers to ever work in the field. There really isn’t any way to read CEREBUS divorced from the abhorrent beliefs and behaviors of its singular author in 2020–but when I came to the series, all of that was still mostly to come, and so I could and did enjoy the book month in and month out. It is one of the greatest pieces of work produced in American comics. It’s unfortunate that the man behind it became such a piece of work himself.