Retro Review: Cerebus The Aardvark #300 (March 2004)

by

After 8 years (!!) at Major Spoilers, I like to think I have a general idea of what works and doesn’t work in the worlds of comic books.  Every once in a while, though, a creator or title presents a quandary that’s not easy to puzzle out, even for a nerd with my tenure and experience.  Indeed, I’m still not sure whether or not today’s review is a good idea or not, but what’s life without a bit of risk?  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review of Cerebus #300 awaits!

Cerebus300CoverCEREBUS #300
Writer: Dave Sim
Penciller: Dave Sim/Gerhard
Inker: Dave Sim/Gerhard
Letterer: Dave Sim
Editor: Dave Sim
Publisher: Aardvark-Vanaheim Comics
Cover Price: $2.25
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $4.00

Previously in Cerebus The Aardvark:  In the mid-1970s, Marvel Comics was in one of their periodic doldrums.  (Don’t worry, I’m getting to Cerebus, just stay with me here.)  Their core superhero titles weren’t at their peak anymore, with even Spider-Man’s adventures getting a bit formulaic, and their new offerings (Black Goliath, The Champions, Ms. Marvel and more) weren’t quite hitting the same home run as the first wave did in the Silver Age of Comics.  Fortunately, they found their footing in licensed books, eventually catching lightning in various bottles with Star Wars, G.I. Joe and Transformers, but before all that came their rendition of Robert E. Howard’s legendary barbarian, Conan.  When Dave Sim created Cerebus (See?) in 1977, it was as an all-out parody of Conan, right down to the costume that the earth-pig wore.  As the series continued, though, it became something VERY different, veering into sociopolitical commentary, character-based storytelling, quasi-historical pseudo-biography and a very touching tale of a main character who was at the mercy of his own worst instincts, and seemingly unable to change.  Even with the creator’s very public divorce, and an even more public breakdown that led to new vistas for Cerebus, the book continued on, going places that comic books couldn’t, wouldn’t (and some would say SHOULDN’T) adventure.  Having set a goal of 300 consecutive issues by one creative team back in the late-70s, Sim even planned for how the series would continue should he pass away before the series ended, and when the final issue of Cerebus hit the stands circa 2004, even many lapsed fans wanted to check back in to see how it ended.

As one of them, I can tell you, it wasn’t what I expected…

Cerebus3001

The first thing one needs to know about Cerebus, especially near the end: Dave Sim likes to experiment with the comics form, and so issues #289 through 300 of this book are basically one continuous story, transitioning in and out of scenes and serving as one “mega-issue” of the book, which was later collected as ‘The Last Day.’  By this point, the extremely elderly and fragile aardvark has had a very rough morning, with his only son visiting for the first time in years, only to give him a massive verbal beat down.  Having his beloved offspring call him out, rebuke his beliefs and tell Cerebus that he’s following in his MOTHER’S footsteps has left our aardvark pal angry and disoriented, which led to him taking up his sword again with the intention of murdering his own son, which led to that fateful cramped hamstring, and final confirmation that gravity is, indeed a harsh mistress.

Cerebus3002

At first glance, this page seems like a gross-out non-sequitur (one of the bigger pitfalls of reading Cerebus in monthly doses, rather than in the preferable phonebook collections), but in context, it’s a very touching moment.  Earlier, while discussing the many downsides of getting old, Cerebus had mentioned that he would give anything just to have one good fart, which makes for a strange cognitive dissonance: It’s actually quite a touching moment, and one that reminds us of our own existences as gross meatbags.  Of course, Sim is perfectly willing to hammer this point home with chilling finality.

Cerebus3003

The beauty of Sim & Gerhard’s art style is clear in every panel, and I’ve never found another creator so dedicated to detail, texture and craft as Dave Sim is.  The graphic depiction of the main character’s fatal fall is terrible and disturbing, but it also shows undeniably gorgeous visual storytelling in every panel.  It’s hard to read this issue, with its FOUR-PAGE fatal fall, without hearing the cliché ‘choirs of angels’ slow-motion tragedy music.  To be honest, it’s hard to read this issue AT ALL, as the dying Cerebus lies on the floor, reliving every moment of his advanced years, a three-page affair that makes certain to ape the art of each era of his life, and showing us all the important points in Cerebus’ timeline.  It’s an interesting study for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that every panel, every still is all about HIM, with little thought of friends, loved ones or family.  ‘Course, that’s kind of the point of the story, isn’t it?  As his body finally dies, Cerebus has the proverbial out-of-body experience…

Cerebus3004

Sharp-eyed readers with note that his “spirit-form” is Cerebus roughly as he appeared in the first issues of the book, with his ear intact, wearing his old trademark vest and medallions.  Suddenly engulfed in a blinding light, Cerebus looks up and sees…

…well, pretty much the entire supporting cast of the book, now all long dead, beckoning him onward…Cerebus3005

(Click to embiggen)

From out of the crowd, he sees his old friend Bear and his once true love Jaka stepping forward, entreating him to come to paradise.  It’s a really weird, really sweet, very touching sort of moment, one that causes Cerebus to say his magic word and transform into his sorta-superhero counterpart, Rabbi (I know I say this a lot, but it’s a REALLY long story, and one that you either have to experience for itself, or just roll with) and fly into the light, finally reunited with those he truly loves…

…all except for one.

Cerebus3006

That one man is Rick Nash, one of the few truly good people Cerebus has ever known (at least in Cerebus’ estimation).  He is also the prophet of the religion that sprouted up around our aardvark protagonist, and is one of the people who Cerebus knows for certain would have to be in any meaningful heaven.  Suddenly fearful, he tries in vain to stop his ascent, only to find that the light is pulling him in.  Cerebus cries out to his god for help, but is dragged away into what he believes is certainly hell…

Cerebus3007The End.

Hang on, I gotta catch my breath for a second…

It is really tough to discuss Cerebus, the comic book, separate of its creator, a man whose drive and vision to create something no one had ever seen before turned a simply parody comic into a work of deep meaning.  Of course, that same vision led him to denounce all women as sucking voids who would drain the superior males of their creative light, and the last third of the book’s run is clearly as much Dave Sim coming to terms with his universe and his deity as it is Cerebus doing the same.  Still, this issue makes for a gut-punch of an ending, leaving the titular character’s fate unspoken, but creating the implication that he (and by extension, nearly everyone he knew and loved) is doomed to eternal torment in the afterlife.  Fitting, yes, but also terrifyingly existential and a bit depressing.  All in all, Cerebus The Aardvark #300 is as hard to read (and as rewarding to those who complete the task) as it was a decade ago, and its explorations of mortality as disturbing as ever, leaving us with a strange and yet somehow still wonderful reading experience, earning 4.5 out of 5 stars overall.  I do not recommend this book for everyone, but if you can separate the message from the creator (and tolerate a jerkass main character) it’s definitely worth the read…