Welcome back to Mothers & Daughters! On today’s episode, Dave finally makes good on a part of the story on which he’s been slowly shedding light since about 1979. Most readers probably thought to themselves many a time over the years, “what the hell is a ‘Cirinist,’ and somewhat fewer times, “what the hell is a ‘Kevillist’.” You have to hand it to Dave, he was never particularly entranced by the concept of world-building—a valuable tool in the writer’s arsenal, to be sure, but absolutely one that gets overused by sci-fi and fantasy writers to cover the fact that they don’t have much of a plot. Dave’s priority was telling a story, first and foremost, with the more obscure points of Estarcion’s politics being reserved for a wonderful little payoff called Women.
The book primarily consists of a quick 1-2-3-4 rotating punch of alternating events, setting up its separate plotlines. Punisherroach, having naively just fallen in love with a prostitute named Blossom, comes to the realization that she is not the new, pure flower her name implies, and sinks into the darkest of depressions. He sheds his vengeful persona and becomes “Swoon,” a pitch-perfect (though somewhat self-love obsessed) send up of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Dressing Elrod in women’s clothes and a black wig, he reveals that Elrod is now his sister, “Snuff (Death),” and informs him that a great battle is imminent. Across town, Astoria is occupied with preparing for her meeting with Cirin, her exacting standards coming to the fore in very humorous and cutting remarks to her hairdresser and a clothing retailer. Cirin, meanwhile, receives up-to-the-minute information that her files on Astoria and Kevillism have been replaced by forces unknown with a much funnier series of documents. Cerebus re-enters the physical world above a house in lower Iest, the skylight of which he promptly crashes through. He’s warmly received by an unnamed woman in her late middle age, who has been assigned a Cirinist “custodian.” This custodian, the woman asserts, is between a rock and a hard place, as her first order is to write down everything that the woman says, but she also knows how much Cirin is going to want to know that Cerebus has returned. Does the custodian leave to alert Cirin, thereby missing whatever the unnamed woman has to say, or does she write down everything and risk punishment for not passing along this extremely important turn of events? Cerebus’ host offers him a scotch and proceeds to uncover what was seen by the reader in the last volume, Flight: “All women read minds, with very few exceptions.” She proceeds to elaborate very poetically on this point, and though it can be viewed by some as perhaps one of the first explicit examples of Dave’s polarizing opinions, it is some of his most skillful and beautiful writing yet. The woman also vaguely mentions that she had a fairly large part to play in the rise of Cirinism, which she now views as an abomination. In the midst of this explanation, she apparently says too much, as her custodian storms off to report Cerebus’ return. The woman gives Cerebus some money and ushers him to a side door which she explain will lead him through a secret passageway to a tavern in town.
There is a conversation among Cirin and her generals regarding the reappearance of Cerebus displayed as a script next to a brilliant Gerhard illustration of the window of Cirin’s room at the Regency. The usual scapegoats of the Illusionists or Lord Julius are suggested. However, though they know where Cerebus is holed up, they aren’t able to do anything about it. Cirin’s Alcohol Sanction prohibits women from entering taverns. So they watch from afar as Cerebus begins sleepwalking up to the roof, where he raises his sword arm, causing a great spire to grow from the ridge of the Black Tower which encircles Upper Iest. As he belches, it breaks off and falls on the Regency, causing chaos and conflicting reports that Cirin is either dead, injured or perfectly fine. Astoria, en route to the Regency with a Cirinist guard, is caught in the crossfire of this chaos, with many Cirinists trying to kill her on the spot, based on what they think are Cirin’s orders. She falls from the cab and breaks her arm before she is whisked into an alley by her guard. She passes out promptly. Cerebus returns to the tavern downstairs, where he is informed by Dirty Fleagle of what has occurred, at which point Cerebus orders his first (as seen by us, anyway) bucket of scotch (side note: Estarcion is a fictional continent that does not include Scotland. How in the world do they have scotch?).
I had read in another review that this book could have just as easily been titled “Dreams.” Backing up that assertion, what follows is a series of dreams, as Cerebus dreams of sitting on the roof of the Regency with the Elf, as she explains to him how she is technically his daughter, as he created her from his subconscious as a result of his visit to the Eighth Sphere. Astoria, recovering in a small hotel protected by a cadre of Kevillists and Cirinist defectors, dreams of her father, who turns out to be Swoon (dream logic), who has found a way to mimic Morpheus’ dream-hopping abilities, as he also makes his way into the dreams of Cirin, similarly recovering from a broken arm and minor fever while in an unexplainable coma. The tables are turned though, when Cirin finds out about Swoon’s “hobby,” and chases him from dream to dream, haranguing him about his filthy habits. Eventually Astoria shows up in Cirin’s dream as Swoon departs and at Cirin’s goading, delivers a terrific right cross the the old battle axe’s snout. Meanwhile, a very tall, cloaked and hooded character is seen walking the streets of Iest. Cirin eventually wakes from her coma, and after some to-do with her generals, telepathically sends a blanket statement to the entire city from the Western Church, the power of which provides splitting headaches for all the men. She calls upon Astoria and her followers to surrender their hotel stronghold and promises no harm. Astoria prepares for a siege as Cirin’s troops surround the hotel, but suddenly has a vision which compels her to leave the hotel unprotected and unarmed. at the same moment, Cerebus experiences an an aural cue to also leave the safety of the tavern. He leaves through the second story window and leaps among the rooftops while Astoria calmly walks down the road toward the western church. Cerebus slips and realizes he can now fly, as he barrels toward the upper city. Cirin’s troops telepathically ask Cirin for a judgment on Astoria. In the absence of any actual crime being committed, Cirin opts for that old chestnut, sorcery, and orders execution. At the last moment, Astoria whispers “go away,” as Cerebus did to her in Church & State, with identical results. Many women on the sidelines bow to Astoria at this turn of events. There is a state of panic among the troops in the immediate vicinity of Cirin, which is quelled by a report that Cirin’s golden sphere has collapsed on one side, making her Ascension impossible. She defends herself against two treasonous would-be assassins, then proceeds to the papal audience chamber with her remaining faithful to receive Astoria. Astoria arrives at the church as Cerebus makes an adorable crash-landing. As he raises his sword to kill Astoria, the cloaked figure arrives and reveals himself to be Suenteus Po. He ushers the two into the church, not wanting to keep their hostess waiting.
To me, this volume always seemed to be just the second part of Flight. It’s not quite different enough from that volume as it is from the next two volumes, and it ends with a much better cliffhanger than Flight does. I’ve often wondered why Dave split Mothers & Daughters up into four separate books, when it would really make a rather nice two volume set like Church & State. That being said, Women is certainly one of the most tense volumes in the entire series so far. That’s saying a lot, considering how much of it is taken up with dreams, but the pacing of the scene cuts and the import of each character’s arc really sets the tension perfectly. It’s not uncommon to read this volume very much on the edge of your seat. The name of the volume is a bit of a strange thing, however. The story is really just about Cirin and Astoria, and with any other women being side characters. Cerebus spends most of the time being drunk and performing magic unknowingly, and the Roach spends most of the time jerking it.
I really like Astoria as a character. She’s smarter and stronger than almost anyone else in the series, and it’s fantastic to get a better look inside her head than we got in High Society, in which she was a simple manipulator. It’s a shame that Dave finally figured out how to draw her consistently, two volumes before he stops using her as a character. It’s also great to finally have some description of what the heck Cirinism and Kevillism are. These illuminations take the form of single page quotes from Cirin and Astoria from various written sources, laid out side by side and discussing the same topic. Astoria comes off as being quite reasonable and fairly liberal, while Cirin reads a bit like a hyper-conservative nutjob.
The text-only conversations between Cirin and her generals are beautiful reading. I’ve said this before, but Dave has such a command of natural dialogue. It’s such a rare treat to read what basically amounts to the script of a play, without really feeling particularly aware of that fact. It’s so fluid, and you can really imagine people speaking like this. These sections also provide Gerhard with a really nice opportunity to draw some lovely architecture without having to make room for any characters. These pages are understated, but some of my favorite moments in all of Cerebus.
So, now it’s time for a cliffhanger of my own. Women is the volume that a lot of readers make their last, because of what comes next. There’s hints of what’s upcoming in this volume, but my next entry will be a review of
“ELF! WHAT A THING TO SAY!”
Our last exposure to Lord Julius. Dave gives him a great send off. Nothing epic or obviously final, but just terrific writing.
Cerebus (drunk): “Cerbus allus LIKED you. Dudyou KNOW thad?”
Dirty Drew: “uh-huh. Yuh jest TOLD me.”
pp. 232–233 have some really inspired paneling, adding to the aforementioned tension