Cerebus the Aardvark was an independent comic published, created and written Dave Sim, with art initially by Sim alone, then from issue #65 by Sim and Gerhard (one of those one-named stars, like Madonna or Bono or Elvis) that ran for three hundred mostly-monthly issues from December 1977 to March 2004.
The lead character, Cerebus, is an anthropomorphic aardvark version of Conan the Barbarian in a heavy fantasy world populated with caricatures of other characters from within the genre — and quite a few from pretty far outside the genre. Groucho Marx being one of the more notable examples, and there was also The Roach, initially a Batman-like vigilante who later went on to develop a wide array of personalities based on superheroes like Captain America, The Punisher, Wolverine, The Sandman (the DC version), Moon Knight and so on.
The first twenty-five issues of the comic were collected in a great big chunky graphic novel: five hundred pages, on newsprint paper, and they’re great fun, especially if you’re a fan of classic sword-and-sandals fantasy adventures. They parody the genre while at the same time revelling in it.
As the series grew in popularity, Dave Sim’s ambitions expanded. He planned out much longer and considerably deeper stories that delved into the machinations of the fictional world he’d created.
The next collection was High Society, the first “proper” Cerebus ongoing story. It compiled the following twenty-five issues, tackling the absurdity of politics with a savagery and wit that was rarely seen in comics. Next came the massive two-volume Church & State, which did the same thing for religion (sixty issues in the comics: that’s five years in real time!).
And then came Jaka’s Story, which took a very minor, throwaway character from one of Cerebus’s earliest adventures and retconned her past, elevating her to co-star status. This one is more introspective and lacks much of the manic humour of High Society and Church & State, but it’s often stunning and quite moving in its insightfulness. The end of Jaka’s Story brings us to issue 136, still not half-way into the three-hundred-issue saga, but by now the levity and wit has been largely stripped away from the comic and replaced with cold, bitter vitriol.
With Jaka’s Story Sim’s editorialisation really kicked into high-gear, allowing his biases to not only seep into the story, but to steer it, all the while strongly intimating that this was what he had intended all along.
[Note: I had a 163-word rant about Sim’s political diatribes here, but I decided to remove it because one of the goals of Rusty Staples is to focus on the positive, not the negative.]
For the most part the artwork remains gorgeous right through to the end — especially the lettering, which at times is breathtakingly imaginative — but picture yourself stuck on a slow-moving riverboat, for over a year, with F. Scott Fitzgerald for company. Well, that’s Going Home, the thirteenth volume. Three hundred and eighty pages where the only thing happening is the reader hoping that something is going to happen. It doesn’t. And there’s still fifty issues of the comic to go. That’s a thousand more pages.
So, yeah, if you want to read some of the best comics ever, check out Cerebus up to the end of Church & State. And then stop there. Pretend that it all has a happy ending, and you’ll be happier for it.
But anyway… Back in the early days, Dave Sim was something of a legend in the independent comics community. He was highly regarded by his fans and his peers for his intelligence, immense talent and generosity. He apparently declined several offers to buy out the series, or to heavily merchandise it — which would have made him very, very rich.
One of the few pieces of Cerebus merchandise that did appear is aset of Diamondback cards. In the comic, Diamondback is a card game that Cerebus occasionally plays, and usually wins. A sort of poker with tarot cards, in a way.
Each set consists of of fifteen 76mm x 127mm cards (one magician, two priestesses, three queens, four kings and five priests):
And comes with instructions and a neat little envelope…
In the comic, the rules for Diamondback — which arrived piecemeal over many years — don’t make a lot of sense (not to me, anyway), but I always thought that was deliberately done for comedic effect. For this real version, the rules seem to have been clarified somewhat.
But it’s still not an easy game to master. Well, I found it hard, but that could be because I’ve never learned how to play poker. One time, many years ago, my old pal Mick O’Connor (now sadly departed) asked me if I’d like to join in their poker nights. I told me, “Well, I don’t actually know how to play poker.” He grinned and winked, and said, “Oh, sure. Right.” Another wink. “Yeah, I’ve lost a lot of money over the years to people who, heh, ‘don’t know how to play poker.'” And that was it. Whenever I mentioned it again, Mick would grin and wink and go, “Sure you can’t play poker.”
Mrs Rusty and I had a few goes at playing Diamondback when we first got the pack, but we’ve never been moved to return to it. It’s a game that looks like it might be a lot of fun, but once you get into it, it’s not really. It’s confusing, disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying. Still, the artwork is nice.