Many years ago, when I first saw Dave on that “Masters of Comic Book Art” VHS, the Church & State storyline had either just finished or was wrapping up soon. As such, a large part of (my memory of) the documentary focused on that storyline. The idea of a comic about a 3-foot aardvark becoming a prime minister and then the pope almost blew my 11-year old mind, after it had atrophied from years of reading about superheroes. It seemed such a unique and interesting idea, and of course Dave described his creation so persuasively that I asked for Volume 1 for Christmas that year. When I finally made it up to Volume 3 (C&S I), I was so excited to read what I had been pulled in by, and boy did Dave make good on his promise. This volume also sees Gerhard join Dave in issue #65, providing backgrounds and boosting the artistic quality by some measurement that I can’t even fathom. Gerhard would stick it out until the conclusion of the series with issue #300 as part of one of the greatest artistic collaborations of all time.
After Cerebus loses the title of Prime Minister of Iest, he travels through New Sepra, writing his memoirs, which are some of the funniest things I’ve ever read and very true to character. Dave really had this little guy figured out by this point. He then stays as a houseguest of Countess Michelle while he continues to write. Weisshaupt reappears (he’s known Michelle for some time) and reveals that he’s finally gotten the support of the city-states bordering the Feld River to join as the United Feldwar States, with Weisshaupt as President. He wants Cerebus to reassume leadership of Iest, but Cerebus has had enough of politics. Cerebus and Michelle’s relationship takes a downward slide due to outside influences and Cerebus heads off on a bender. He awakens the next morning to find that Weisshaupt has drugged him, and that he got married to Red Sophia (from issue #3) while under the influence. As he can’t divorce her without some…difficulty, he agrees to Weisshaupt’s terms and returns to Iest to stand as a puppet Prime Minister.
During his time in office, Cerebus is called to visit the pontiff of the Eastern Church of Tarim, who is assassinated before his eyes, seemingly for being a Cirinist. Bishop Powers demands that Weisshaupt supply a candidate for the next pontiff, but Weisshaupt and Powers clearly hate one another, and Weisshaupt plays coy on the issue. Powers’ hand is forced and he tries to get one over on Weisshaupt by nominating Cerebus.
Normally, the pontiff of the Eastern Church would reside in Iest’s upper city, but Cerebus has other plans and holes up in a hotel on the side of the tower upon which the upper city sits. He begins referring to himself as “Most Holy,” hires a couple of bodyguards (Bear and Boobah), and becomes drunk on power—an acquired taste from his Prime Minister days, and a quality that sees him descend from a crotchety talking animal to a bit of a reprehensible monster. He regularly climbs to the roof of his hotel to address his followers by telling them that Tarim is not pleased with them, and alerts them that if they don’t bring all their gold to Cerebus, that Tarim will destroy the world. This works predictably well, and Cerebus amasses quite a stock of gold. He also throws babies across the courtyard and kicks old men off the roof, both as some sort of lesson about life. Red Sophia eventually leaves him due to his behavior, and Cerebus calls for Jaka. She arrives at the hotel and reveals that she’s now married and pregnant. Cerebus tries to get her to leave with him, but she declines, feeling a duty to her child and husband. She returns to the lower city, and Cerebus gets word that Weisshaupt is dying. Cerebus goes to see him and in some of his last words, Weisshaupt reveals that there are two other aardvarks in Estarcion, and that he sees in a near-death vision that Cerebus, not Weisshaupt, is truly the chosen one. Cerebus returns to the hotel, and is confronted by the giant stone Thrunk (really a sorcerer who had implanted his consciousness in a huge statue in issue #13), who appoints himself the new pope, and chucks Cerebus down the tower into the lower city.
The characters and events in this book are extremely important to the rest of the series. The most valuable piece of information is that Cerebus may actually be somehow special, aside from being a short grey aardvark in a world of humans. Weisshaupt’s deathbed vision foreshadows, though not entirely accurately, some events and revelations that will take place in volumes 7–10. Jaka continues to be an influential presence in Cerebus’ life, which will come to a bit of a head in volume 5, and again in volumes 13–14. This is also the beginning of the “Something Fell” theme, which crops up again and again, but is unfortunately never fully explained. This volume also marks the return of supernatural forces unseen since the earlier days of Cerebus (if you don’t count the Regency Elf). Between the ghost of Charles X. Claremont inhabiting the body of the Roach (I just realized I haven’t covered this character yet. In a nutshell, he’s a whackjob who fancies himself a superhero, either choosing a new identity or having it chosen for him roughly each volume. He’s very easily manipulated and stands in as a parody of superhero comics. In this volume he is the Wolverroach, a pawn of Weisshaupt’s), the Big Round Glowing White Strange Thing, and the resulting ability of Cerebus’ to shoot fire from his snout when he sneezes, there’s plenty of fantasy elements to go around.
This is the volume that I think Dave started to become a bit of a graphic designer. His layouts (especially page 1 splashes) became way more stylish, and his typography and lettering were even more so. He began to use typesetting in addition to hand lettering, which lent an appealing crispness to many kitchen-based sound effects, and his sense of scale, position, and negative space were very pleasing to the eye. He also had gotten much better at drawing women by this point, something that I think had been a bit of a struggle for him in previous volumes. In High Society, Astoria could often be off model, depending on what angle he was drawing her from, but he’s a lot more confident at this point with Sophia and Jaka. His skill at drawing characters would only improve as time went on now that he had teamed up with Gerhard and could take his mind off of backgrounds.
Dave and Gerhard met at a party at Gerhard’s, where Dave saw some of Ger’s art and asked him if he’d like to collaborate on some color short stories that Dave had been approached to create for Epic. They turned out well, so Dave asked if he’d like to come on board for the monthly series, and the rest is history. Gerhard would go on to beautifully illustrate Estarcion around Dave’s characters. It’s a wonder to me that he never wound up with any sort of repetitive stress injury, as his work is so intricate and full of precise crosshatching and tone—you’d think he would have at least cramped up a lot. His work added immense depth to the world of Cerebus and as I mentioned before, turned a great comic into something truly extraordinary. His contribution cannot be understated. The “Odd Transformations” issues (below) were an exceptional piece of work, as it required Cerebus to interact with the landscape, so it was the first true test of this working relationship, and it paid off quite nicely. Church & State II would see further strengthening of this partnership and the levels of quality reached were as high as the moon.
Cerebus writing a sizable passage about Lord Julius’ leadership style, and concluding it with “He also has a painted-on mustache instead of a real one.”
Cerebus: “What did you say your name was…?”
Posey: “Archbishop Posey—just like the flower m-HUH m-HUH…I hope my base levity doesn’t offend you, Most Holy…”
“Spike’s a good dog…”
Next: That farmer guy from the “wuffa wuffa wuffa” issue
Cerebus trying to sneeze fire on Sophia’s mother only to have the power fail him at the last second.
For those who want to read along, the entire series is available as a digital download at Cerebus Downloads.