Cerebus the Aardvark, volume 1: Cerebus, by Dave Sim

Dave Sim is a polarizing figure. On the one hand, he’s a giant in independent comics publishing, and his accomplishment of viably sustaining a self-published comic series over a long and ambitious series of plot arcs makes him an undeniable and significant part of any conversation about independent comic books.

On the other hand, he’s a raving nutbar, given to misogynistic rants and fulminations against liberal attitudes. He’s kind of like a more independent and more gender-oriented Frank Miller, in that he has earned both acclaim and scorn from the comics-reading community at large.

Cerebus is the first of a great many “phone books” which collect his magnum opus, the 300-issue megaseries called (straightforwardly enough) Cerebus the Aardvark. At this point in the game Sim’s hot-button topics hadn’t come to the fore, so it can be enjoyed for what it is, which is a spoof of the wealth of Conan-derivative comic properties. Although, with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help but wonder how much of his future lunacy was visible at this point in his career (comparing him, unavoidably, to Frank Miller, whose present-day “lovable quirks” were actually quite detectable themes even in his early work).

Based only on the 25 issues collected in this work, it’s hard to see where either the criticism or acclaim comes from. At this point the work was still very much in a finding-its-footing mode, with affectionate parody of the whole Howard-derived Conan mythos and related works (e.g. Red Sonja) forming the core of the work. Unfortunately for my review, I’ve not had much experience directly with the whole Conan mythos, so I can’t really offer much commentary on the extent to which the parody hits the mark there, and when he does stray out of the genre, his parody is a lot more uneven: the characters of Elrod, the Cockroach, and Charles X. Claremont don’t seem to bear any particular similarity, except for the broad lampooning of names and appearances, to their progenitors: as an example, Elrod of Melvinbone is a flamboyant extrovert who for some reason talks like Senator Claghorn, a far cry from Michael Moorcock’s mopey albino.

Artwise, it’s still finding its place as well. It’s mostly black-and-white pen work, with a notable exception in the gray fill used for Cerebus himself, making him stand out on the page. The art is generally solid but sometimes action is a bit muddled, and the lettering suffers badly from “P”s that look like “D”s, which is a particular problem in the not-infrequent wall-of-text pages. Even pages which have a full series of panels often have about a paragraph of text at the top, so this is a very texty work, to some extent not making the best use of the drawn image to tell its story.

And as for those early warning signs of crazification I was looking for? Well, they’re mostly not actually present, which is OK by me. There’s a modest amount of institutionalized sexism which is somewhat unavoidable given the subject matter, since any pastiche or parody of Howard has to engage or mimic his fairly loathsome gender issues (mercifully steering clear of his equally loathsome racial essentialism). There’s a certain amount of skeeviness in the handling of Red Sophia, but since her schtick basically boils down to, “ha ha, those womenfolk, always yammering and driving the men around them crazy”, it’s well-trod ground already pretty well established by newspaper comics, so I might give Sim a tentative pass here.

But while there’s not much to inspire disdain yet, there’s also not much to inspire praise. The art is pretty decent for its style, but the story thus far is pretty uninspired, and the humor is awfully hit-or-miss. I’m given to understand that the overall style of the work eventually changes in a way which makes it more interesting, but if you go into reading this particular volume wondering what made Dave Sim a significant figure in independent comics publishing, you might not actually find that question being answered.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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