[21 October 2009]
Cerebus: Latter Days is the most difficult read in the Cerebus saga. So why is it so compelling? Pure, insane ambition. There are the usual parodies, finely observed drawings, and inventive layouts, but Dave Sim distinguishes himself here. For starters, there’s the abduction of Cerebus by the Three Stooges. And then a commentary on the Book of Genesis as told by Cerebus to Woody Allen. Todd McFarlane, comic creator and co-founder of Image Comics, even shows up to contribute to a war that Cerebus starts. Calling this book insane might be an understatement. Brilliant would also be accurate. Although Latter Days is as amazing as it is frustrating, it’s Sim’s sense of character parody that makes the book shine.
This penultimate volume is a large chunk (issues 266-288) in the final home stretch towards what will be the series’ completion in Cerebus: The Last Day. This volume begins with a prologue that recounts the time following Cerebus’ leaving Sand Hills Creek, when he had a career in sheepherding and tennis. The collection moves on to explain how Cerebus becomes a religious leader again thanks to the Three Stooges (known here as Mosher, Losher, and Kosher). The last section of the work focuses on Cerebus’ theological wisdom in his (and Sim’s) commentary on the first three-fourths of the Book of Genesis, recorded by Woody Allen (known here as Konigsberg, the Not-So-Good-Samaritan). The book ends with a small revelation, as we are prepared for the last days of Cerebus.
The dominant mode of the book is parody. This humor saves Latter Days from falling apart. Sim admits as much in the notes that he intended the Woody Allen section to leaven the weightiness of the seven issues devoted to Genesis. Actually, it has much in common with Sim’s present opus, Glamourpuss: the writing is negligible, but the art is marvelous. The Three Wise Fellows are a perfect example of this contrast. Sim captures their body language impeccably with close observation and flawless realism that’s not too staid or static. The minute illustration of the Fellows’ looks and movements is complemented by Sim’s word balloons and lettering. The latter two elements capture the soul of the real Moe, Larry, and Curly to create the comedy which makes this part of the book so memorable. Without their respective personalities intact, the concept would be just a bad pastiche but Sim achieves that feat, too. They not only look like the Stooges, but just as importantly sound like them, too. This is no trifle as there’s no soundtrack. The lettering achieves the desired effect and makes the Fellows so faithful as Stooges. Having the Three Stooges in Cerebus is funny by itself, but its success as parody is testament to Sim’s art, more than his use of dialogue.
Latter Days is easily the most textually dense in the Cerebus library. Leaving aside the 140 pages of Torah exegesis, the book has a heavy word count. Cerebus himself is rather loquacious in the prologue narrations and middle section monologues. The hefty middle section has lengthy quotes from the “Booke of Rick” and the later “Booke of Cerebus”. The lettering and art is the most interesting aspect of this section. Sim went as far as purchasing a facsimile of the 1611 King James Bible to duplicate the look he wanted for the “Booke of Rick”. In terms of the story, it’s overkill. All it establishes is that the Three Wise Fellows are adherents of the “prophet” Rick who centered his religious beliefs on Cerebus during their previous encounter in Rick’s Story (much to Cerebus’ chagrin now). Taking up Rick’s mantle after his death, the Three Wise Fellows become the butt of Sim’s joke on biblical misinterpretation as they wait for Cerebus to speak the “Word of Truth”. Once he does, controversy quickly ensues and Cerebus learns how he can manipulate them.
The fact that Sim’s subsequent commentary on Genesis misses this hermeneutic irony is part of what makes Latter Days so frustrating. The overwhelming force of boredom that emerges from the Genesis storyline is blunted by the simultaneously accompanying parody of Woody Allen’s life as told by Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Woody Allen becomes part of this history because his father swore that he would present the Torah to Cerebus at the right time. This duty falls to Woody as it takes some time for the right moment to arrive. It is interesting to ask: Why Woody Allen? I think that Sim actually chose to use Allen so he could speak his mind on women much as he did with Hemingway in his earlier work, Cerebus: Form and Void. (See the notes for that volume and this one to see why Sim has the current reputation as a paranoid misogynist; perversely, Sim’s notes on the book are more interesting than the commentary he labored over so extensively.) He also puts Freud and Jung in his sights here, as he considers psychoanalysis to be an ungodly fraud. The book then ends with a small revelation about Cerebus. The entire section is an ungainly mess, but the Woody Allen parody helps enliven it and make it more interesting.
Sim is an artist of genius and, after the amazing run he’d had so far, one is hard-pressed to look away. Not all of Latter Days shines nearly as brightly as earlier volumes of Cerebus, but it still has its moments. While the rest of Cerebus isn’t exactly like being stuck in total darkness, it is disorienting. Fortunately, the artwork and the various parodies save the day. Dave Sim the artist lives on. I’d just never want him as a rabbi, though.