I always think of High Society as one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, but I’m always surprised by how incredibly dense it is each time I read it. I know the story well, but whenever I turn the final page, I invariably feel the need to sit for a moment, frazzled by how much actually happens within its 512 pages. This only took me three evenings to get through, but looking back on it, it nearly feels like I read it in real-time, like some political satire version of 24. Chief among the reasons for this feeling is Dave Sim’s astronomical increase in writing skill and ambition, which payed off gloriously. To go from (as I said last post) a pretty solid 5-part story at the end of the first phonebook to this 25-issue classic behemoth is nothing short of astounding, and if Dave had stopped here, he would have been assured mythical status as it is. But instead, he had a bad acid trip leading into a stay in hospital, during which he concluded that Cerebus should run for 300 issues, ending in 2004. And thank Tarim for that, because High Society is a portrait of a writer/artist who would only get better with age.
The story begins with Cerebus entering the city-state of Iest after some to-do with an artist and collector chap, who Cerebus guilted into giving up a sack full of treasure. He stops in at the Regency hotel and is completely baffled by the extremely warm reception: free room and food, and a number of people offering him money. He soon learns that he still holds his post in Palnu (run by Lord Julius), and as such, is the ranking diplomatic representative of that city-state while in Iest. Cerebus finds, after enjoying the good life for a while, that he must defend his position to keep himself in finery as Lord Julius intends to replace him with Elrod the Albino—a much more charismatic face for Julius’ government. Cerebus inexplicably finds himself under the wing of a woman named Astoria, who begins helping him dig himself out of some debt he incurred during an earlier ill-fated scheme, helping him earn some money of his own, and helping him try to beat Elrod. Astoria’s motivations are obscured for now, but she proves to be an extremely adroit political mind. While Cerebus ultimately loses the RDR election, Astoria recognizes that Cerebus is a near shoo-in for the post of Prime Minister of Iest and shifts him in that direction. What follows is a whirlwind campaign, in which Cerebus and his cronies travel around Iest’s districts in a bid to guarantee votes for the election. Julius is having none of it and backs a goat (yes, the farm animal) for the position. It’s not particularly subtle, but Dave does a great job of satirizing the political world by making it a pretty damn good fight. Cerebus eventually wins, but is almost immediately beset by his “Six Crises” as he attempts to invade neighboring city-states.
In the first book, Cerebus is drugged and winds up falling in love with a tavern dancer named Jaka. When the drugs wear off, he forgets about her, but she swears to wait for him. As he becomes more powerful in Iest, Jaka is finally able to find him. He tries to show off how powerful he has become, and invites her to live with him, at the same time as accusing her of showing up looking for a handout. It turns out Jaka has actually arrived in order to give Cerebus a gift. He treats her so shabbily that she decides to leave rather than stay with him. She shows up one more time near the end of the book, during Cerebus’s Six Crises. She pleads with him to come away with her, to save himself from an invading force, but Cerebus views this as cowardice and responds to her pleas with aggression. She knows why he must stay at his post, but leaves in tears. Cerebus’ relationship with Jaka will be a defining point of the series as it goes along, characterizing many of Cerebus’ motivations, as we’ll soon see.
Artistically, Dave really sharpens his skills in this book. Cerebus’ look becomes much more polished, though it’s around this time that people (non-readers of the comic, not characters in the book) begin to mistake him for a pig or a hippo, based on the way that Dave begins drawing him. It’s very clear that Dave has gotten pretty tired of drawing backgrounds by now, as most of the action that happens in Cerebus’ room at the Regency is set against a solid black background. While this was pragmatic on Dave’s part, it’s a pretty good solution to the problem. It implies a definite mood for the scenes set there and also sets up some mystery. Cerebus supposedly has seven rooms at the Regency, but we don’t ever see a clear layout of his space. Aside from that, there’s still some fantastic backgrounds (though none as breathtaking as Gerhard’s depiction of the Regency Hotel on the cover of the collection—he joined Dave before these books were collected in this format, and was able to contribute to the covers of the books that he hadn’t worked on initially).
An extremely important aspect of High Society‘s art is Dave’s attention to lettering, which begins to show the first signs of his road to mastery. The way that he implies inflection and tone is second to none, though it’s still nascent in this book. But you can get a sense of how good he is: bold, italic, underlined, vertically and horizontally stretched text and the shape and decoration of word bubbles all mean something different and the thing is, that he’s so good at this that there’s never any doubt as to what he’s trying to convey, even at this early stage of his development. I’ve always been a little irked at superhero comics because the words their letterers choose to embolden are not necessarily the ones that would be stressed in normal speech, but are instead just whatever verbs or proper nouns happen to be lying around in the sentence! It gives one a real sense of disorientation when reading, and something that Dave avoids, creating the most natural and readable dialogue I’ve ever read.
Story-wise, the book sets up a lot more aspects that will become incredibly important down the line. One thing that struck me in particular is Cerebus’ reference to having studied sorcery with Magus Doran in his youth. This is the first time we hear of this, and it is something that characterizes the book through its 300 issues. We learn bits and pieces about Cerebus as we go, in the same way we would with an actual person in our lives. This strengthens Dave’s goal of depicting the life story of a character, warts and all. The only person that we know everything about is ourselves. Why would it be any different for a character we read about? More importantly, however, we learn a bit more about both the Church of Tarim and the battle between Cirinism and Kevillism in this book (actually, most of these aspects are learned in one issue through a conversation between Cerebus and the Illusionist Suenteus Po) We will learn in a later volume that Astoria is a Kevillist, and she finally, near the end of the book, reveals to Cerebus why she stuck with him for so long: she believed that Republicanism (Cerebus’ political platform) would eventually lead to the right for women to vote. The struggle between Cirinism and Kevillism will play out very subtly over the next few volumes, and it shows a fantastic sense of control on Dave’s part that he didn’t reveal too much too early. In fact, one great thing I can say about Dave is that he never really fell victim to one of the main pitfalls of fantasy (and sci-fi) authors, that of world-building at the expense of story. And such a story, there is too…up next, Church & State, Volume I.
“Famous the Aardvark”
Cerebus: What about your own little group?”
Po: “The Illusionists? We’re not really a major force of any kind. More of a discipline, as I told you, for exchanging information.”
Cerebus: “Sort of a psychic social club.”
Po: “I’m not sure I like your tone.”
Cerebus: “You don’t have to sound so offended. Cerebus just finds it a little hard to believe that you carry around all these complex analyses of Estarcion politics just so you can chit-chat about it with your friends.”
“Dash it all—it’s getting to the point where a ranking diplomatic representative can’t play an uninterrupted game of wickets with his elf!”
“Cerebus can’t talk right now…Cerebus is sketching a TREE!”
“I honestly don’t want to vote in a goat for Prime Minister. At the same time, at least I know what a goat is…you tell me that’s an aardvark and I have to take your word for it…”
For those who want to read along, the entire series is available as a digital download at Cerebus Downloads.
There is also a major effort to restore the artwork of the series and release new phonebooks with the results. We’re moving right along, but the process requires a lot of man-hours and other resources, so if you’d like to help out, you can at Kickstarter.