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Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah

Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah: Essays on the Epic Graphic Satire of Dave Sim and Gerhard is exactly what the book’s title promises.  It’s a collection of essays by different authors, attempting to take a serious, scholarly look at various aspects of Cerebus, Dave Sim & Gerhard’s 300-issue independent comic book masterpiece.  I found myself occasionally rolling my eyes at some of the overly verbose scholar-speak in the essays, but mostly I was delighted by this serious look at an important (albeit controversial) comic book work, and I found it a thrill to dive back into the deep, crazy waters of Cerebus.

For the uninitiated, Cerebus is a 300-issue-long black-and-white self-published comic book.  At first the series was written and drawn by Dave Sim by himself, but eventually he was joined by Gerhard as his partner on the art.  What began as a silly parody of Marvel Comics’ Conan series (illustrated at the time by Barry Windsor-Smith) evolved into an incredibly complex saga that dealt with politics and religion and male-female relationships.  If one were to sit down to read 300 consecutive issues of, say, Spider-Man or Batman or Superman, it would become quickly obvious that the stories, while having some continuity, couldn’t possibly represent events that could actually happen to a real character.  There might be the illusion of change, but ultimately all of these characters have to remain in a perpetual status quo.  Sim set out to do something completely different, to tell the story of the life a character — the titular Cerebus — in 300 issues, with the 300th issue chronicling the character’s death.  Over the course of twenty-six years, Sim and Gerhard did exactly that.

That alone would make Cerebus a jaw-dropping achievement.  I am hard-pressed to think of any example of long-form story-telling that can come close to matching this sisyphian effort of telling the story of Cerebus in monthly twenty-page installments over twenty-six years.  But there’s far more to Cerebus than just Sim and Gerhard’s endurance.  The story is at points hilarious and thrilling and infuriating.  It can shift from juvenile humor (when Cerebus is funny, it is VERY VERY funny) to incredible action-adventure to painfully sharp observations of marital discord.  The series features a wealth of fascinating characters and settings.  Cerebus is one of the most complex, fascinating examples of fantasy world-building ever made, rivaling J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimon’s Foundation, and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

The series also pushed the boundaries of comic book art farther than any other series I can think of.  Sim and Gerhard experimented gloriously with page-layout, with different approaches to the combination of words and pictures and the use of large … [continued]