“Cerebites“, a blog about the indie comic book Cerebus is doing reviews of different chapters of the Cerebus story line. Here’s my take on the two most recent entries, Melmoth and Jaka’s Story. Information about Cerebus can be found here for those not familiar with the series.
Melmoth is, as far as I’m concerned, a complete and utter waste of time, and as I saw it then (and still do), I think it represents what happened when Sim either read some Oscar Wilde (one of the most brilliant writers in history) or decided to make commentary on it. Either way, as was mentioned, it did absolutely nothing to move the story forward. If Sim wanted to do a story about Oscar Wilde he should have done a story about Oscar Wilde, and left it out of the Cerebus timeline altogether. And that’s all I care to say about it, because it isn’t even worth the time it takes for me to say how awful it was.
Jaka’s Story, on the other hand, remains for me the absolute high point in Cerebus. Better than High Society, much better than all of Church and State, and far superior to anything that came afterwards, none of which I will even dignify with a critique.
You can tell Sim was gearing up for a lot of commentary on feminism and relationships with the sparring between Jaka and Rick: Jaka, who never in her life had any trouble finding work, is frustrated with her husband, whose cheery disposition belies the fact that he’s really unhireable in that place at that time, and who, frankly, is the kind of person for whom a regular, 9-to-5 kind of job will never work. Jaka just can’t seem to accept that and it’s ruining their relationship, though she still loves him, and Rick adores her.
Several things in Jaka’s Story still move me: Cerebus apologizing to Jaka for how he’s treated her, his tears listening to Rick and Jaka make love, Pud’s sad and lonely life, conversations repeating in his head because he has no real idea how to relate to people, his lusting after Jaka and his remorse when he nearly acts on his impulses. I know none of this moves the larger story along, but it represents some real growth for the characters and a greater insight into Jaka’s life, her courage and boundless optimism in the face of poverty and hardship. “Oscar” is also at his best here, the perfect dichotomy for the other characters, rich and secure in his wealth and in his skills, yet sadly so awed by Lord Julius, who reserves his greatest disgust for people who are such obvious suck-ups.
Several parts specifically of Jaka’s life growing up in Palnu (and unlike Sim’s later text on religion, it’s all to me quite readable), also move me: the scene with the monsters in her room is so much like what happens to so many children, the paralyzing fear that grips all young children who fear the unknown and have little grasp of the world outside their little bubble, is terrifyingly believable to me. Life in the upper echelons of Palnu, where paranoid conformity ruled and people with far more wealth than they know what to do with scramble for meaningless social prestige, is to me an awful existence. What would any of them do as leader of Palnu if they managed to get there? Does Lord Julius really know what he’s doing apart from simply staying on top? Weishaupt had Lord Julius pegged perfectly: how he mistakes staying one step ahead of his adversaries as leadership, and I always wondered if there was a single moment of honesty in his relationship with Astoria (from both sides, as Astoria clearly had ambition of her own and was ruthlessly manipulative). Cerebus may be crude and occasionally manipulative but you almost always understood where he was coming from.
There’s not as much humor in Jaka’s Story as there is in what predates it, but Oscar’s wit is very funny (in an early review of Cerebus, the writer claims that Sim has a lot of nerve writing dialogue for Groucho, but he’s up to the task:, you could say the same for his daring to write for the great Oscar Wilde), but also some lines, like “You do NOT ask a guest in my home to make A PILLAROFFIRE!” still crack me up.
Book Three, dealing with Jaka’s imprisonment and a closer view into life as run by the Cirinists, is also wonderfully written, Jaka’s hysterical fear of what is happening to Rick while she’s in jail, Ada’s reaction when she discovers who Jaka is, and her perspective on Jaka’s childhood events, the humorless and condescending Mrs. Thatcher, and the evil thing she did in revealing to Rick about Jaka’s abortion, this is also very moving to me. And finally, the last words of the series, Jaka’s sad return to the comfort and luxury of Palnu, a perfect ending.
Jaka’s Story for me, not only represents Sim’s best work on Cerebus, but I see it as one of the truly great graphic novels, up there with Eisner’s A Contract With God and Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley Of Wind.