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Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month: Eric San Juan on Cerebus Vol. 16: The Last Day

Guest Reviewer Month: Eric San Juan on Cerebus Vol. 16: The Last Day

It would be dishonest to suggest that an examination of the final collection of Dave Sim’s sprawling Cerebus saga can take place without at least some discussion of Sim himself. As Cerebus wore on, Sim began to put himself front and center, making himself an explicit part of the story both literally and figuratively. His views became impossible to untangle from the narrative. It’s hard to maintain a level of distanced objectivity when he is using his story as a pulpit from which to espouse his views. 

I tried, though. I tried to assess the work and narrative without also assessing Sim. After all, it would be easy to savage The Last Day if you’re looking to assess Sim’s beliefs rather than his fictional narrative, especially since by the end of its run Cerebus very much became a Sim manifesto. 

So the trick is to step back a few paces, keep Sim at arm’s length, and say, “Well, how is the story?” 

In the case of The Last Day, those of you who bailed out on Cerebus before the end may be surprised to learn that it’s actually pretty damn good. This is the sixteenth and final volume of a saga that had already spanned thousands of pages, a saga that at its best ranks among the greatest works of the medium and at its worst sits among the most painfully self-indulgent. And all roads lead here. Cerebus, both as a series and a character, goes out in a way that by now HAD to be expected. With no apologies for veering off into whateverthehellDaveSimwantstotalkabout, with interesting and often bold use of the comics medium, and by posing just as many questions as it offers answers. Sim again shows that despite what you think of him or his ideas, when push comes to shove he crafts a damn compelling comic. 

Prior to this volume we experienced a major leap forward in time, a jump that turned the entire book on its head by wiping out every last member of the series’ mammoth supporting cast. Sim then used Cerebus to wax poetic on the Torah, Woody Allen, and (more overtly than ever before) gender issues. The Last Day uses the same jump forward device, moving us ahead to, well, Cerebus’ final day on Earth. The volume opens with … 

Okay, how do I explain this? Dave Sim believes he has figured out how to scientifically interpret the Book of Genesis, discovered the Universal Theory that eluded Einstein, and knows how to incorporate both into his belief that women are, like, total bitches. He spends the first 40 pages of this volume outlining his all-encompassing theory in a pseudo-Biblical style, and boy is it a chore. This is Dave Sim’s Book of Genesis and Quantum Physics, explaining how the universe and life was formed, how they relate to God, and why women are, like, total bitches. 

No, I’m not kidding. 

Annnnyway, the rest of The Last Day is (mercifully) pure comic book, dropping once and for all Sim’s examinations of theology. That’s not to say the themes and ideas that have come to dominate the series are dropped -they remain front and center - but rather that they are again made part of the narrative rather than an intrusive and distracting diversion. That’s a welcome return to form. Sim’s commentary via fiction we like. His lectures, not so much. 

Once the story proper begins, you get the sense the series is again going somewhere, and somewhere interesting. Set about 100 years after Latter Days, society is in shambles, Cerebus is a secluded religious leader (picking up threads first woven way back in Rick’s Story) and pagan evil is making the world an ugly place. But Cerebus doesn’t care. Cerebus is consumed only by his desire to see someone very important to him one last time. 

The culmination of this situation is Cerebus’ meeting with the person in question, and it is fantastic stuff. Ominous, hurtful, and compelling, the issue-long conversation is some of the best Cerebus in a long, long while. It all comes out of the blue, of course - Cerebus, this person and the situation they’re in, all of it refers to a huge stretch of Cerebus’ life we never actually see unfold in the pages of the book - but by now we’ve been thrown so many curveballs by Sim, what’s one more? This curveball is a particularly good one. For thousands of pages we’ve seen Cerebus struggle with his own weakness, with an ugly series of often anti-social decisions, and with an inability to keep and maintain connections with people. All of that baggage makes this confrontation a powerful and unexpected moment, one that brings to a head everything that came to define the Cerebus character. 

And then, Cerebus dies. That’s not a spoiler. We’ve always known this is how the series would end. What we didn’t know was that the ending would be so enigmatic. Sim, who had grown heavy-handed in recent years, uses restraint here, leaving it up to the reader to puzzle out Cerebus’ fate. It’s a bold choice, but by now we should expect such boldness from Sim. 

That said, it’s hard to say the end is satisfying. It is entirely appropriate, though. Cerebus goes out a pathetic, broken creature, feeling himself fucked over by people he loves, screwed over by his own rash actions, and left alone to die. Once on top of the world, once a ruler, a politician, a pope, a hero, Cerebus is now none of these things. He dies the slow, lingering death of his own comic book. A death in obscurity. Alone, unmourned, and unloved. 

Appropriate, no? 

Eric San Juan is the co-author of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense (Scarecrow Press 2009). In 2009, he self-published an anthology of comic stories, Pitched!, which is available at comixpress.com. For more on Eric visit www.ericsanjuan.com.

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