Four To The Floor… Cerebus: Volume Four – Church And State II

Salutations to Cerebus obsessives or neophytes alike. I’m assuming, (although assuming makes an ass out of u and… Ming… I suppose) that since you’ve found your way to this review, you either know, or could at least hazard a guess, that this is part of a larger effort to review the entirety of Cerebus, one overlarge collection at a time. To save you the trouble of arduously trawling through the archives for these monthly instalments, and to save me the trouble of having to link back to all the previous essays, I’ve added a category of “Cerebus Stuff…” to the sidebar, which links you to every part of this folly. All of which being more than enough history and justification for this farrago, so without further ado…

My heart sank when I saw that Church And State II began with the return of comics parody character the Roach, now riffing on Secret Wars, the 1984 Marvel event which seemed largely to consist of justifying dressing Spider-Man, and consequently the Roach, in a black one-piece like an overzealous mime. While his new habit of exposition through unconsciously referencing the continuity notices of editor from comic books ASTERISK letting the reader know that the allusion refers to events in last month’s Illustrious Goat-Man #63, or the like – is mildly amusing, the character and his teleological joke are increasingly at odds with the rest of Cerebus as comic and as internally consistent world.

Previously Cerebus had been utilising his position as Pope to extort gold by prophesising the return of Tarim, until he was told that Papal infallibility meant that he’d inadvertently triggered the apocalypse. Tarim approaches, and though there’s dispute over who gets to be his corporeal instantiation and his prophet, Weisshaupt, having prepared for his own defeat, sends Cerebus the means to be the one. This is a very potted précis, you understand, but I need to tell you how it ends in order to talk about why it ends where it does and what I think that means. The precise machinations, excepting the fate of Astoria, aren’t particularly relevant.

Despite being the second collection of the Church and State storyline, the title Church as State might perhaps have been more appropriate. Sim explores the state as slaved to the Church, handily avoiding the idea that power corrupts by having had Cerebus seek power for the opportunity to be corrupt, only for Cerebus to discover that being the prophet and entering Vanaheim, or Heaven, is nothing like he expected. Church and State II a surprisingly quick read compared to other collections, much more than a general musing on the nature of Religion, faith, God, the messiah as interpreted by people rather than as machinations of plot. Through what little story there is the Church (for which read Cerebus) exerts complete control over the city and its denizens, financially and morally. Unsurprisingly, total power in the hands of an avaricious aardvark leads to almost total ruination. “Cerebus can destroy anything. Cerebus is the Pope.”

From one perspective Cerebus is a useful character for exploring such thematic and philosophical issues, unmoved by the greater discussion, unmoved in fact by any issues greater than his own ambition, the repeated dialogues and soliloquies leave him confused. He is purely reactive, constant, a measure against which the world can be considered. On the other hand… SPOILERS AHEAD… In issue 94 Cerebus rapes the imprisoned Astoria. The previously comic tone of his former atrocities is suddenly brought into sharp relief. Whilst carried out off panel, to the extent that the duration is covered in blank panels and captions, it remains harrowing. It’s rape as power, but not at the exclusion of a sexual component, just as Cerebus feels thwarted by Astoria politically, so sexually, and he exercises his new Papal authority in every way. To underline this Cerebus declares himself and Astoria to be married in order to legitimise his crime… SPOILERS BEHIND

In discussion of Church and State II the term exegesis almost feels more apropos than criticism, being as this seems largely to be Sim’s take on religion as gender conflict. In Cerebus’ world masculine power is in the ascendancy, but during Astoria’s trial the cyclic nature of the male/female conflict dichotomy is experienced by both Cerebus and Astoria, as they see themselves in other lives, living out the roles they have cast one another in. This feels like an attempt to bring balance, but it does rely on our acceptance that such revolving priorities are part of the story’s world, or that balance of extremes is any kind of equilibrium. Maybe it would work in undermining the patriarchal church… Only… there’s a long section of Terim (female, light to Tarim’s male void, and significantly, the second entity) becoming cleft “like a peach” before Tarim’s phallic presence appears, “splitting her in two.” The illustration of this idea is as uncomplicatedly demonstrative as its captioning. It’s almost made worse when Terim, or perhaps Tarim’s own conscience, or maybe God, forgives Tarim this explicit brutalisation for “you know not what you do”. I’m not sure how this works in reverse. Finally we have the orgasm/ejaculate of everything turning white, which is Terim exploding into all light and matter in the void, which burn, “a nearly infinite number of hell’s within the living Tarim.” The sanctity of male purity is first breached by the feminine, then sullied and spoilt through sex…

Sim seems to have difficulty reconciling the contrasts, even within Tarim as masculine paradigm, apish chest beating, the aggravation of the masculine not being all, and at the same time an apologia for its destructive nature of even its attempts at creation. Cerebus’ future suffering is foretold, along with the message “if you are tempted – ever – to consider your suffering unjustified just remember your second marriage”. It’s a confused sort of book, there is no answer, no right or wrong, masculinity and masculinism held up against femininity and feminism as points on a spectrum. Some people might be wondering how we’ve segued so completely from religion to stereotypes in gender politics, and to them I can only say, “why are you here?” Religion begins with creation-myth and ends with annihilation-prophesy, and if you need further help taking faltering fawnlike steps from those concepts to the broadest then the last few issues of the book will spell it all out nicely, or at least more politely than I’m inclined to…

For reasons not totally linked with general business and poor time-management I read Church And State in a single sitting. Then I read it again. It’s a surprisingly brief read, almost single-minded in its exploration of a theme and subsequently tonally quite distinct from the volumes that preceded it. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the religious and social paradigm espoused in the book, even as it’s undermined, is aggressively and onanistically phallocentric , if not outright misogynist, (for the purposes of this point I’d argue that the cyclic history that Cerebus and Astoria experience at her so-called trial cannot offset misogyny by suggesting the inevitable rise of its opposite in misandry) and there’s certainly a larger argument than can be sensibly explored here about divorcing the politics of a creator from their work, but taken as a parable, the world gone wrong at one gendered extreme, it’s not as jarring. It’s not even that much of a stretch to incorporate the book into a leftist-liberal perspective, seeing Cerebus so pitifully alone at its conclusion.

Tune in next month as the Dave Sim punishes me for the last-minute nature of this month’s Cerebus reading/writing schedule by making Jaka’s Story the densest book so far with huge slabs of prose and guest appearances by Oscar Wilde. Alright, that second part isn’t much of a punishment, depending on how well Oscar Wilde’s been written. But the huge slabs of prose… Oh God, the huge, endless, slabs of prose… Nonetheless, I slave through these things so that you are slightly better informed as to whether or not you want to do the same. When you put it like that it doesn’t seem nearly as worthwhile. Oh well. See you next month, same aardvark-time, same aardvark-channel…

~ by Thom Dicomidis on 30/01/2011.

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