I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
It took me a long time to find my way to Cerebus. Dave Sim’s truly epic story had been unspooling for just over both a decade and a hundred issues before I bought my first copy. I had read about it quite a bit as it was one of those titles that was regularly cited in the burgeoning number of magazine and newspaper articles that strained to convince an obviously skeptical public that, as the writers of said articles regularly put it, comics weren’t just for kids any more. Sim was celebrating for this bruising satire of politics and religion and the smeared, bloody boundary in between. By all accounts, it had taken significant leaps forward in sophistication from the humble beginnings of the series as a fairly dubious parody of barbarian comics, then hugely popular.
By the time I arrived at Cerebus, Sim had already announced that the series would last 300 issues and it was clear that the recent approach of extended storylines–“novels”–that lasted twenty-five issues or more would be the norm for the rest of the way. By fortunate happenstance, the first issue I purchased was transitional one-off (or two-off since Sim sort of cheated by combining two issue numbers on the book). So the very next month, I was able to start on a new storyline. By not counting the early issues when Sim was still finding his footings and considering the lengthy Church and State as one book even though it was collected in two volumes, this was the third major storyline. It was titled Jaka’s Story.
Though it was background I didn’t necessarily have at my disposal when I started reading, it was easy enough to glean Jaka’s history with the title character, who, I perhaps should have mentioned by now, was an anthropomorphic aardvark. She was, quite plainly, the love of his life, a child of wealth and privilege and the niece of Lord Julius, the Marxian ruler of the city-state where the series took place. Jaka’s Story alternates between her childhood history and her present life working as a dancer in a desolate tavern and living with her husband, a layabout named Rick. Cerebus comes back into her life, longing to take her away with him and insinuating himself into her now quiet life, albeit one heavy with portent for the turnabout that’s sure to come.
Though I knew plenty about the series before collecting it, I had only the foggiest notion of what to expect from Jaka’s Story, a lack of preconception that was almost immaterial because what Sim was presenting (along with his collaborator Gerhard, who was primarily responsible for remarkably detailed backgrounds) a story almost entirely unlike he’d done before. Where previous stories with headlong, wild and rife with sardonic, colorful commentary, Jaka’s Story was patient, ruminative, steeped in an emotional meticulousness that was recognizable from serious literature. And yet there’s was no doubt that the comic form was the only one suited for the story, or certainly for Sim’s approach to storytelling. As the italicized sentences up top testify, I’ve read a lot of comics, and I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever seen any other creator that uses the craft of lettering to establish mood, place and the telling corners of his story like Sim. Just look at this page from late in the story, as Jaka sits in misery in a dark, isolated jail cell:
There’s a structure to the words deployed as sound effects that provide a wealth of information. Sim takes nothing front granted. No part of the creation is simply punted away or treated as inconsequential. To his credit, enduring credit, he formed his comic book stories with a focused attention of how to make his pencil and pen convey absolutely everything he wanted to say.
Unfortunately, the things he wanted to say grew more hateful and corrosive over the years. One of the great strengths of Jaka’s Story is the depth and dignity afforded to the main character, a rarity in comics, which have a tendency to concentrate all the development of female characters in the area of cup size. Whatever Sim’s original intention behind the writing of Jaka, Sim was eventually dismissive of the work, claiming it was simply a “writing exercise” to see if he could make a female into a sympathetic character. Sim became more and more outspoken in his plainly misogynistic views, most famously in a text piece included in Cerebus #186 in which he positioned the “Male Light” as the antithesis of the “Female Void,” removing any plausible confusion about his intent by further terming the latter as an “Omnivorous Parasite.” How charming.
With the added context of the vile views of the creator, which were surely brewing if not fully held at the time the story’s creation, it’s odd to look at Jaka’s Story now. I remain convinced that it’s high art, the pinnacle of the whole Cerebus series, which by definition makes it one of the very best works ever presented in the form of comics. To appreciate it as that requires a certain amount of deliberate mental detachment of the story from the light-headed male who created it (though I’m certainly willing to point out Sim’s intellectual villainy, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places). I devotedly read every page of Sim’s 300 issues, even as it became progressively less enthralling towards the end; Sim’s unsavory attitudes were the least of the problems, although they did insinuate themselves into the work with greater regularity. I’ll admit the happy flush of discovery may color my view, but I still love Jaka’s Story more than anything else Sim ever created, even if he’d likely loathe my reasons for doing so. Maybe he likes Jaka’s Story as much as I do, but I undoubtedly like Jaka far more than he does.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes