My Year With Cerebus: Issue 5

[Reposted from my blog 72 Pins]

Boom! Town recently announced that they would be publishing Dave Sim’s Last Girlfriend, a book collecting correspondences between Dave Sim and, as the title states, his last girlfriend Susan Alston. At the link above, you’ll find a quote from Alston (originally posted to the comments on a great essay on Sim by Heidi MacDonald) that popped back into my head as I was reading Cerebus #5:

His oratory did change after he started reading the King James’ version of the bible. But not at the beginning. At first he would read me passages in complete jest, his inflections and emphasis on certain words and phrases (taken out of the intended context) would have laughing so hard I had to wipe back my tears! Then, suddenly, he stopped reading to me from the bible, even though I asked him to. The bible traveled with him everywhere after that, never far from his eyes. We broke up within a year or so from the start of his relationship with the bible, when his love affair with god began. Was I dumped for god?

I bring this up because here in issue 5 we see Sim’s first commentary on religion inCerebus, and it’s pretty well in line with the satirical attitude Alston describes in that comment. In fact, by the end, it’s downright atheistic.

As I hope I’ve made clear in previous posts, I think it’s very easy to do writers a disservice by projecting their characters’ beliefs or behaviors onto them (or vice versa). However, I also think that context can make it very difficult to avoid such projection. Sim has clearly had a long and complicated relationship with religion, and (hopefully without projecting too much) I think this is where we start to see that working itself out in the pages of Cerebus.

After two issues of fairly light-hearted comedy, issue 5 once again delves into more serious satire. Cerebus encounters a barbarian tribe whose members describe their leader, Bran Mak Mufin, in terms that make him sound like a cross between Conan and Jesus.

(And remember, would-be writers: “penultimate” means “next to last,” not “extra-ultimate”.)

There’s a clear element of parody there, though, similar to Monty Python’s treatments of Biblical hyperbole in The Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That carries over to Cerebus’s first encounter with Bran Mak Mufin himself, who turns out to be something of an anti-imperialist rebel without a cause. “Any empire,” he tells Cerebus, “you name it and we’ve toppled it.”

When Cerebus learns that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the idol the tribe worships, he begins to consider abusing this coincidence to lead Mak Mufin’s supremely capable group of warriors on quests that will be of less benefit to the oppressed than to himself. But this turns out to be a pretext for a more transparent, decidedly anti-theistic bit of religious commentary. Despite his greed, Cerebus is appalled when he comes face to face with the tribe’s clay idol. In a fit of existential rage, he smashes the pale imitation to bits with his bare hands.

Or maybe there’s nothing atheistic or anti-theistic about this at all. Maybe we’re meant to look at Cerebus as a poor, blinkered fool, rejecting his best chance at redemption in the name of a deeply misguided sense of pride. Maybe the preceding satire was meant not to mock religion, but to lull us secularists into a false sense of security before getting to the real punch-line: that our rejection of God dooms us to wander alone through a hostile world with only that misplaced pride for company.

So is this issue about Dave Sim confidently attacking religion, or starting down the long road to his own conversion? More importantly, is such speculation about the creator more interesting than the creation? At least in this case, I would say it’s not.

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Posted by ruckus24

I'm really enjoying this series of blog posts. It's always interesting to see someone else's take on a series as layered as Cerebus. However in reading this post, it strikes me that you might not be familiar with Robert E. Howard's Pictish King, Bran Mak Morn. This issue is pretty much just a straight up parody of the Mak Morn stories. This issue is important though, because it introduces Bran Mak Mufin and his Pigts, who become integral to the story in later issues.

Also, I disagree that Cerebus' attack on the idol is anti-theistic. In fact Cerebus is definitely a theist. At this point in his story he is not much more than a parody of Robert E. Howard's Conan, and just as Conan unshakably followed his god Crom, Cerebus follows Tarim; a fact that will become the core of the story in Church and State. I can't wait to see your commentary when you get to that point.