I don’t buy individual comics anymore, but I do occasionally find collected trade paperbacks worthy. In the case of Cerebus, an independent comic self-published by the indomitable Dave Sim, the thing to buy are the ‘phonebooks’ so termed because of their size, binding, and the weight of paper used. In its comic form, Sim plans to continue to write and publish until he reaches the 3OOth issue sometime in late 2006. Every 20 or so issues he has a separate chapter that he can bind up as one of these phonebooks.
Neither of these collected volumes are for the uninitiated. Collecting as they do issues from the late 100s, they require a knowledge of a large majority of the previously published issues of volumes. Cerebus itself is not necessarily enjoyable by those without some familiarity with its peer comics, fantasy novels by Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, the Marx brothers’ films, and the writings and lives of Oscar Wilde, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, to enumerate only some of its influences.
Reads is the more unusual of the two volumes at hand. Containing almost as many pages of pure text as traditional picture/text combination, it challenges the assumption of what a comic is. The story itself is highly irregular as well. Although it continues the ascension (where the previous volume left off), the text portion is a thinly veiled satire about a “reads” author and his publishers. I say thinly because even I could recognize the references to Kitchen Sink, Dark Horse and Vertigo, their publishers and editors, and I have not been following comicdom since 1990. The satire works itself into a chaotic manifesto on the nature of art, the distinction (as Sim sees it) between male and female, and the moral rights of creation. Heavy stuff for a “funny book,” especially one initially a Conan parody with an aardvark as the barbarian. I don’t think Reads is quite as effective as Sim thinks it is, but it scores major points for chutzpah.
Minds is much more traditional in its presentation, although it continues Sim’s idiosyncratic view of the relation between creator and creation. I liked it a lot–especially the points where Cerebus tries to come to grips with the fact that he is talking to “God.” Call it meta-fiction, call it jacking off–it’s unreal and poignant at the same time. Even if you think it doesn’t work, you at least have to admire Sim for his audacity.
New to Cerebus? Don’t start here. Find the first eponymous phone book and try that. It gets both better and worse after that, but this is truly one of those cases where you have to take the good with the bad.
[Finished 18 January 1998]