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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]

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More of Josh’s Favorite Graphic Novels!

Yesterday I wrote about several examples of my favorite graphic novels.  Today I’d like to share a few more that represent longer works:

Bone — Three cousins stumble into a mysterious valley filled with wonderful and dangerous creatures.  What begins as a whimsical, fun-filled fantasy romp gradually grows into an epic, Lord of the Rings type of adventure filled with action, death, greed, and a beautiful story of unrequited love.  The Lord of the Rings comparison does Bone a disservice, actually, as Bone is a brilliantly unique work unlike anything else I have ever read.  At times hilariously funny and at times deeply intense, Bone is a truly wonderful tale that (unlike many of the other graphic novels I have listed) is perfectly suitable for all ages.  It’s available in nine collections.  Start off with volumes I & II, Out From Boneville and The Great Cow Race, and I guarantee you won’t look back.

Cerebus — If you read 300 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man (heck, if you read 50 or 100 issues!) you would probably be struck by the cyclical nature of the story-telling.  The characters don’t really change, villains return again and again… you might enjoy the stories, but it’s not remotely a chronicle of what could really happen in one person’s life (even someone bitten by a radioactive spider!).  With his comic Cerebus, writer/illustrator Dave Sim set out to do something entirely different.  What began life in the late 70’s as a parody of Conan the Barbarian became something entirely different when Sim decided to create the ultimate 300 issue “limited-series.”  His comic would chronicle the life and adventures of one character, Cerebus (an aardvark living in a medieval world of humans).  It would be told at a realistic pace (with stories unfolding slowly and action only occurring every 30 or more issues, as opposed to having complete adventures every month), and it would end with Cerebus’ death.  (And in 2004, when Cerebus #300 was finally published, that’s exactly what happened.)  Although some have said, only half-jokingly, that Dave Sim went insane over the almost 30-years of working on his epic (and having read the bizarre and erratic final volumes I’m not sure I disagree), for much of its run it was truly magnificent.  Skip the first collection and start with the phone-book sized volume II, High Society, and volumes III & IV, the two-part Church and State.  These are extraordinary works, sophisticated commentaries on the nature of politics and religion that are also terrifically fun adventure stories filled with an extraordinarily rich cast of characters, and set in a fully realized fantasy world that has been fleshed out by Sim (and collaborator … [continued]