JAKA’S STORY: What It Was in 1988, and What Cerebus Used to Mean

John L. Roberson
Nov 4, 2018 · 12 min read

Whether you like Cerebus or not.

— John Linton Roberson (@jlr_1969) November 4, 2018

I have talked many times about my love of CEREBUS, and how much influence it, and Dave Sim, had on pretty much everything I manage to accomplish, if anything, as a cartoonist. (I even once took a crack at drawing a page of his in my own style) That it was key in my decision to move to cartooning from theatre. If interested I wrote more about it elsewhere.

A layout tracing paper work study that Dave sent to me around 2000.

Looking at a scene in Jaka’s Story inspired some thoughts again, different one this time. They were a series of tweets, but so much of it that it seems better to at least group the thoughts in one clump.

I. Superheroes Do Not Equal Comics: The Actual Importance of 1988

First, about the place the book had, often forgotten now, in the general canon of “prestige” comics thirty years ago that influences us all to this day, both market and medium and all its arms, more than any other period in comics. People forget, but at the time, JAKA’S STORY (then still ongoing 1986-on, collected in 1990) was mentioned, often, in a canon right alongside DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, WATCHMEN, LOVE & ROCKETS, ELEKTRA ASSASSIN & yes, MAUS as the main books showing that comics had matured here, in the US, long after Europe and Japan, as an artform.

Eclipse ad, reflecting the sell point of indie comics at the time called “groundlevel,” meaning they were sold in comics specialty shops and were not scandalous like the undergrounds, which mostly died with the head shops, but could pursue more mature subject matter at least as much as a movie. Which DC or Marvel couldn’t, with the Comics Code. Exploiting a limitation caused by censorship, indies exploded with creators, able to keep their copyright, draining from the majors. They were forced to compete. Epic happened at Marvel as a result.

Nothing to do then with how any interpreted superheroes.

JAKA’S STORY: Pud Withers in one of his many silent ruminations on how he will tell the married Jaka he loves her. Or something somewhat creepier than “love” exactly, as she works for him as a dancer in his business. Notice how your eye going down the blank space on the left between the text lines sends your eye back to him, in the moment, quiet, and then eye back to sound again. This is a specific comics thing and it makes the silence physical; in comics, space indicates time. The book has three levels and this is one of them, and looks like illustrated text, or script, but no, this is another way to do comics, because of the way it depends on specific interplay of the word & image, indicates time, but uses text to create the sequence with only one image whose space itself provides the sequence, which is him thinking. This was new, and JAKA’S STORY is full of such innovations, ways of showing silent, actionless sequence.

Then it was the incredible advance of FORM that was the impressive thing. That some had superheroes was not celebrated but looked past because the books were so good. Think about that. Personally, I still think of them that way. I like those even though some have superheroes.

But every time you’d see a ROLLING STONE article or similar about the new comics that showed comics were no longer for kids, the idea was: despite superheroes, comics had matured, not BECAUSE of them.

And that’s exactly how it was for the creators, folks. Perspective.

Point is: Superheroes do not equal comics, or vice versa. Stop equating them, especially now that they’re more popular in movies than in comics. Will we now say movies are therefore inherently about superheroes? Of course not, and wasn’t it always silly, then, in comics to do so?

Half of Jaka’s Story is the in-story book with that title, alternating with the story pages. Oscar’s in-progress bio of her, which Sim later had her deny at the end of RICK’S STORY. It is not necessarily her actual internal life. But it does tell you much about her.
Pud Withers, the proto-incel.

The idea some of these books were innovative takes on the superhero, rather than innovative books that showed you could have them in the book and still be art, was DC and Marvel trying to market to you. That’s how we got DC-grimdark, it was the closest THEY could get.

As for JAKA’S STORY, well. You barely notice the aardvark.

In 1987, a very stoned-looking but lucid Dave Sim was interviewed for the video MASTERS OF COMIC BOOK ART, along with some others in the aforementioned canon. He spoke of two people in a room talking being what narrative art should be all about, at its core. True, he also babbled afterward that David Byrne got this right when he named his band Talking heads, but it’s still a good point. And so in JAKA’S STORY, he decided to test this as far as it could go.

In this book & its companion MELMOTH, the point is Cerebus is barely relevant in either, These books are just their own thing and are both perfect. Sim’s greatest, ever. And barely like what his work is now.

The fact that JAKA’S STORY is wholly about a female character, and MELMOTH about a gay one, alone should prove that to you.

And in the case of MAUS the “Looked past” part was that the characters were animals, that spiegelman was skillfully using a masking metaphor. It did not then make people say, “My god, funny animal books are innovative art!”

What an actual “tent city” is, from MAUS (1986)

Otherwise it would have been easy to say MAUS was tasteless for using that for the Holocaust. But no one did, or would, because the point was not to advance funny-animal comics. Notice: unlike Marvel or DC, MAUS’ publisher didn’t have a genre to keep spinning money.

We don’t have a RAW now to shame comics creators into trying harder. We need one.

But in 1988, to the culture at large, saying something was about superheroes was not a sell point. Amazing how time alters things. But it’s important to always keep in mind when looking at WATCHMEN, to know that context.

WATCHMEN or DARK KNIGHT back then,outside the industry, among “normal” readers, changed no one’s view of superhero comics as such; more “Look at these great pieces of art that happen to have superheroes.” That they were more like LOVE & ROCKETS than they were like Stan Lee.

II. Sometimes You Might Not Mean What You Want and It’s No Longer Very Happy

This used to be Dave Sim and how we thought of him, to understand why we thought CEREBUS was, and indeed still is, a masterpiece despite the strange change Sim went through after MELMOTH.

Oscar not taking Pud’s homophobic crap, JAKA’S STORY.
Oscar Wilde was one of many past writers and actors — and also comics creators, some his friends — that he has simply at times plopped, back to life, right into his comics, or otherwise closely modeled as characters. Others have included (famously) Groucho Marx, F. Scott Fitzgerald, All 4 Beatles combined into one guy, Jagger & Richards (my favorite), Marty Feldman, Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway, Gene & Dan Day, and more. Oscar as presented here has, to me, always seemed to have more than a bit of Charles Laughton to him.

This is why for many, when Sim released READS, it was like a friend had died. In a way one had. It was very different before that and very shocking Sim suddenly became…however one wants to describe it.

Personally for me CEREBUS stops roughly when he and Jaka find his father had died and he wasn’t there for him. But after READS, that’s among the parts of what was going to be that still sputtered to their conclusions despite derailment. A lot of revealing dissonance too, like RICK’S STORY. Or the extended vacation of GUYS. Or FORM & VOID which…not sure what to think of it. Graphically arresting but…darker than the Pit.

But when we get to LATTER DAYS, that’s when the READS side takes over fully and it’s gone.

Most of the rest of MOTHERS & DAUGHTERS is great. And I love MINDS. And FALL AND THE RIVER is his last great masterpiece re: his use of the medium — it looked like he’d been reading Ware, from the layout approach.

MELMOTH was spent talking about the illness and slow death of Oscar Wilde, at a time people were still dying regularly from AIDS and little was even being tried to stop it. It was deeply sensitive and empathetic. And I still see nothing insincere in Dave’s empathy and affinity to Oscar Wilde, both in the more fictionalized version of Oscar here, who is never not entertaining, but also MELMOTH where it’s virtually the real man himself. That’s what makes later on so baffling.

MELMOTH: The death of Oscar.

Immediately after he acted like he was purging every bit of that.

This from FLIGHT was the exact moment I first started to sense…something had changed.

When I read READS later, I couldn’t help thinking back to this. After this moment most of what had been funny felt a little curdled, sinister. Not unlike how Woody Allen’s work was after 1991. (DECONSTRUCTING HARRY especially) That an extended meditation on Allen showed up in LATTER DAYS, later, therefore, seems interesting.

JAKA’S STORY: The Cirinist raid on Pud’s shop/pub. Mother is home, and all fun must die. Think of Thatcher — a character — or Phyllis Schlafly, or Anita Bryant, or Mary Whitehouse. The Cirinists, IMO, aren’t really “feminists” at all — that’s the Kevillists, who are the “Daughters.”
JAKA’S STORY: Jaka awaiting interrogation. The Cirinists — theofascists who do not believe anything besides a live birth justifies rights — have taken power, and she’s a dancer, now illegal. Oscar as well, because he was a writer who had no artistic license. Yes, that’s exactly what they say when he’s arrested.

The Roach was a vehicle for parody. So good he almost got Dave sued once. Not this one, when he did Wolveroach.

A very typical Roach scene.

He took on different personas based on what was the dominant form of superhero in the medium at the time. (therefore an ongoing comment on the market) He wove in and out, popping up at random in short bursts, never welcome, and became both less and more important as the series became more serious — less in that it moved beyond parody, and more because it still needed one place for it, so when that might be good comic relief, there he was.

It would be absolutely fair to say this was exactly how sick you felt looking at a 1993 comics rack

But there was something going on here, this time, that was different than parody. And it’s important to note that this was the embittering of the one place in CEREBUS that was entirely used for fun.

After this, there was a bitterness. It’s not accidental that much of this storyline involved the eradication of each of the light elements one by one and a denial of every single thing we had thought CEREBUS was about till now, even saying the Judge was lying. More on the Judge in a bit.

Astoria: Master administrator, who doesn’t SAY she’s always right — she IS always right. Whether it annoys Cerebus or not. Here she’s explaining why it would be better to beat his opponent in an election than it would to chop him into tiny albino chunks.

Most especially in MOTHERS & DAUGHTERS (which “Reads” is 1/4 of) he forces a re-evaluation of the women. Jaka and Astoria. In Astoria’s case, having not quite accomplished the defeat of Cirin she’d wanted all that time — this being a battle between older and younger quasi-feminist factions, Astoria’s being the Kevillists, who we would call pro-sex feminists of the 90s model. The Cirinists believe only mothers deserve rights (and no one else). Astoria does not.

But having gotten to victory, Sim just has Astoria walk away, which is against everything one has come to know of her intelligence, will and ambition till then. The idea seeming to be, she wasn’t strong, like you’d thought she was.

READS: Astoria humbled

But for me, it fails to convince. The thing is, his female characters were built so strongly he couldn’t manage to twist them after, they still spoke themselves.

Except she also tells him this on the way out. Yes, it’s true

Dave thought this scene below in GOING HOME was supposed to tell me I was wrong, Jaka wasn’t all that.

Sorry, same Jaka in a good mood, that’s all I see. Hey Cerebus, why not ask her about the time the Cirinists kept her locked up with rats? They did, and he escaped. She partly ended up there to protect him. And then they tortured and interrogated her. It’s intense, quite the 1984 shit, and being done by, no kidding, Thatcher. And it ends with Mrs. Thatcher (actual character name) confronting her with Rick, also having been imprisoned for being married to a dancer, telling him she had secretly had an abortion. Rick hits her, marriage over.

It was so she could stay a dancer, because she liked it and it was what she wanted to do, and also because it was the only work she knew and Rick wasn’t even trying to find any. And she suffered for it while Cerebus sat outside a pub saying “Aye.”

So maybe she’d rather relax for a bit now.

GOING HOME: “Tarim” is “God” in CEREBUS. He’s a dude, and for a while Cerebus was pope of their church, but only used it to make everyone give him their gold on pain of eternal damnation.

Dave seems to believe this moment shows Jaka to be shallow. I see it as Dave not understanding a nice moment in a ride through a countryside where nobody wants to talk about God and religion and ruin it, for fuck’s sake.

It’s a very telling moment that I can’t help but see a real incident behind that he tried to shove Jaka into to justify it.

And a lot of it is telling. From MOTHERS & DAUGHTERS till he’s thoroughly pounded the storyline down into one long tract from LATTER DAYS on, so much of CEREBUS seems to say something Dave isn’t meaning to reveal, that it seems different to objective eyes.

But to hear Dave later seem to say, this was ALL how he’d always seen it, meaning that all of “Walking on the Moon”, the crescendo of the massive CHURCH & STATE, was a lie he was conscious of when he wrote it. I do not buy this. And I take Sim, and CEREBUS, quite seriously. CHURCH AND STATE is still definitive, and can’t be nullified, it’s too powerful(and big). In my opinion it’s too genuine — it does convince, and rings right.

From the tour de force extended monologue “Walking On The Moon” that comprises the last 5th of the massive CHURCH & STATE (about 1000 pages). A cosmology of form and void. Which god is form, and which is void, and therefore — to Sim — the nature of man and woman — shifts as the series goes but as Tarim is the male god, Terim is the female, followed by the Cirinists.

The creation of the universe in WALKING ON THE MOON:
The male void breaks the female light into bits, then regrets it and misses her.

Thing is, form and void is expressed on the page as ink or blank. So the concept is not just about the universe or men and women, or gods, but also artistic creation, in this case comics where you command both the word and the image which create a third thing neither alone can do; and the nature of the process on the page itself. All these things in different levels, which is not a stretch when you consider MINDS is indeed Dave talking to Cerebus for a whole book, for real. And a big part of it is a series of scenarios Cerebus sees of what would happen if he saw Jaka again, none of which is good for Jaka — one has her simply silently bored with her life with him, another where she has a black eye, and a third where she hangs herself, Sim clearly saying it would be selfish & Cerebus hasn’t the right. But right after meeting Dave face to face at the end of RICK’S STORY, in walks Jaka. And he goes with her.
In the first version of the cosmology, the stars and planets are the corpse of the dead female god, battered and broken by the male Tarim, a vengeful god who is so miserable missing her he wants the universe to share this.

This struck 17 year old me very hard and made sense as a comment on toxic masculinity, though we didn’t have a word for it then. I took it to heart. I think it did good. And that Dave said this was bullshit later bothered me, a lot. This meant much to me.

This section is called “All the Suns Are Daughters”

For one thing, my father used to hit me, and he had just killed himself around then(not living with me by then), and I was relieved. On the way home from the funeral in a bookstore after eating was when I bought both MAUS vol. 1 and the first trade of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, as it happens. A weird week too when two other friends’ dads died in different ways as well (cancer and an accident). A time of fathers gone, though mine had been gone long before, and no one made him be.

For another, I was mostly raised by my mom from 1980 when a midlife crisis (and other issues) induced him to leave us for his secretary and he used to beat Mom before then. He liked hunting, too.

So I had not much interest in how “men” were supposed to be.

And whether I dated them or not, almost all my friends were women, & it was from women I learned to be an adult. It’s simply how it worked out: women were there for me more often than and generally were not as hostile or undependable, or as easily angered as, men. In my experience, it’s the men who are the emotionally-addicted ones who need placating. They’re awful as bosses. Just because you can rationalize your emotional reaction doesn’t mean it’s not one. Men can fool themselves very easily otherwise.

So Dave turns around & says no they are telepathic harpies stealing your essence, & by the way gays(so, my other friends too) are in cahoots…get to fuck please, no.

Consider why he never collected MOTHERS & DAUGHTERS under one volume with that title. It was split into smaller ones, starting with FLIGHT. After that here is how the titles read:


…and after that is GUYS.

NONE of what I became as an adult, if anything, came from the example of other men, except exclusively in artistic influence. But not socially. So to tell me that was wrong, and that either I alter what I had thought about all this, or have all of CEREBUS ruined for me is not a choice I think I have to make.

I do neither. I let it still mean the same thing it meant, for me. I refuse to be complicit in this senseless self-mutilation of what I still think is, on the whole, a masterwork, by tearing it out of my heart.

But it’s sad to see someone else seem to tear out theirs.

©2018 John L. Roberson. All artwork (except MAUS) © Dave Sim & Gerhard.


Originally published at I Didn’t Write That.

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