Five’ll Get You Ten… Cerebus: Volume Five – Jaka’s Story

Good morning / good afternoon / good evening / good night and a fond welcome to fans and friends of Cerebus and to everyone else in equal measure. As the doubly “fived” title might suggest Cerebus is a story collected across multiple volumes, which I’m reviewing at the less than industrious pace of one a month. In order to minimise the work that you have to do to find the previous reviews/essays, and to save me the effort of including an ever-increasing number of links in each of these introductions and preambles, there’s now a category of “Cerebus Stuff” in the sidebar, which takes you to a complete list of the project’s output to date. I’d advise starting at the beginning, but I’m somewhat used to my advice falling on deaf ears, so I’ll attempt to make what follows as self-contained as possible. Read on…

After a continuous run of material focusing on Cerebus’ personal and political ambitions and machinations from High Society through to Church and State II Dave Sim introduces an unprecedented shift in tempo and tone for Jaka’s Story. Somewhat removed from the larger ongoing story, in part due to its relative lack of the eponymous Aardvark, who is marginalised even before being written out of the book for a hundred-and-fifty-plus pages. Instead we get what you might expect; Jaka’s story, a pairing of her history retold as a nightmarish, Grimm fairytale which is largely prose with key illustrations, and the deliberate mundanity of her present, usually told in slow and even six panel grids. Where the flashback tales give us hints and indications as to Jaka’s inner life the other characters; Cerebus, Rick, Pud and Oscar, are more blatantly explored through dialogue or internal discourse.

This book is the story of Jaka’s childhood, or more specifically of Jaka’s power and Jaka’s men, and where the latter stand in relation to the former. Where Church and State II dealt with gender Jaka’s Story is about both power and control. It’s a meditation on the illusory nature of power, the transience and relativity of power, and the fact that Jaka’s power in particular is granted by consensus or fiat. My memory and understanding of the finer points of Hegel is a little rusty, but the relationships in the book seem to broadly follow the master-slave dialectic. Cerebus, who originally held power over her, is made almost peaceful here by his love for Jaka, and her husband Rick is drawn as the put-upon dreamer, too happy just to be close to her to miss his autonomy. Pud, the owner of the tavern where Jaka dances is more complex, as whilst he ostensibly controls Jaka’s food, shelter and employment, it is his frustrated lust that keeps him powerless.

Even the creeping dread of Pud’s inner monologue regarding black temptations and practised rationalisations is abated somewhat by the reader’s realisation that, as was the case in the past when she became aware of her aristocratic lineage, Jaka has the power. She is aware that their relationship is one-sided, and though she defuses his threat by offering redress when she can, it is ambiguous as to whether or not these frustrations would ever bear their poison fruit. In a continuation of the slightly confused and increasingly fringe approach to gender politics evidenced by the exploration of the Tarim/Terim dichotomy in Church and State II, Pud’s furtively threatening designs are portrayed as somewhat pathetic and perhaps drawn out by Jaka’s overt sexuality, as displayed in her dancing. This could especially be said to be the case where the promised dancing is withheld by fate, repeatedly, as the tavern sits empty, only the professionally provocatively dressed Jaka and the lonely, near mute Pud, sat alone night after night.

Given the age of the book, and Sim’s well-documented and occasionally textually-evident pseudo-misogynist leanings, (I’m not prepared to write the book or his character off entirely at this point) it can read as though, with her control over Rick, Cerebus and Pud, Sim is suggesting that in the brute, indiscriminate and unfettered expression of her power, sexualised in all three cases, Jaka would somehow bear the responsibility for any repercussions. The only enmity she shares in the village is with Oscar Wilde, fictionalised with as much of his character and history intact as possible, and for his part it initially seems more sport, a childish competition for Rick’s attentions. Both his sexuality and his erudition are shown to spare him, so to speak, from Jaka’s overly-sexualised power. Nonetheless, both of the traits which make Oscar immune to what might be called Jaka’s feminine wiles are loathed by Pud, in defence of an untenable position which is drawing him towards terrible sin. It is worth noting that Jaka’s use and awareness of her power is not presented as deliberate or calculated, instead there are overtones of woman-as-temptress, or original sin as borne-of-woman to the story. That said I find it hard to argue that a cry of, “forgive them, for they know not what they do”, mitigates the damning distinction drawn between male and female power, even is neither is presented as blameless. Oscar’s power for instance is wielded deliberately, and sometimes cruelly. In retelling, commercialising and selling his own diegetic version of Jaka’s Story, seeming to be constituted in the form of the flashbacks to Jaka’s childhood, he exerts his own power over her. It doesn’t matter if she is able to command Rick’s attentions and energies more than he, because in taking control of her history he is able to treat her, recreate her, as he wishes. In fact he is able to write her future, with Sim putting his own knowledge of what comes next into the character, which, when transplanting your prose and wit to the pen and mouth respectively of Oscar Wilde, might come across as somewhat arrogant…

In order to undermine the notion of Oscar as a truly dominant power he is himself brought to heel by the merest appearance Jaka’s uncle, Lord Julius. He is transformed into an obsequious toady; fearful, sweating and robbed of the confidence and verbal dexterity he usually exhibits and proudly boasts of to Rick. In some ways, as Sim has professed that the relative mundanity of the story is the point, then Oscar and Jaka, devoid of the fervour and zealotry of the heads of Terim and Tarim’s respective churches, are acting out the two gods’ relationship in microcosm. Eventually, in recreating her life as art and then seeing her dance, Oscar admits to some form of power in Jaka, although it is significant that this power must be conferred on her by him. Oscar decides that Jaka’s dancing is a form of art, and acknowledges her power as artist, not as woman, managing to simultaneously patronise and proffer respect. It is in this section that the book’s art, which I’ve discussed almost not at all for the last couple of months, becomes an issue. Where Sim is more than comfortable filling the page with prose, his attempts to impart the fluidity, the kinetic excitement of Jaka’s dancing, are stilted. While the blame for this may fall partly on factors intrinsic to the nature of the medium, it is also partly because Sim himself is finding expression through his writing, which in aping the form and voice of Oscar Wilde, denies the need for artistic affirmation. Even in its portrayal the dancing is a lesser art, one that can be codified and categorised by Oscar in his prose version of Jaka’s Story.

As this tentative détente of shared, if unequal, power is reached, the story takes a sudden dark turn. Whilst Cerebus is away Cirinist enforcers, moral policemen, attack the tavern, killing Pud and his sole customer. Jaka, forced to invoke the brute patriarchal power of Lord Julius’ name, is arrested and separated from Rick. Oscar avoids outright execution for his lack of the “artistic license” which would permit him to write and is instead sentenced to two years of hard labour, said labour presumably breaking his spirit and eventually being the death of him. In the dungeon Jaka finds herself imprisoned near her childhood nanny, who lacks the proper immigration papers and is soon taken to be executed. Jaka’s nanny is also revealed to be less than the monster of her memories as recounted via Rick to Oscar and made more florid and horrendous in each retelling, though how much of the exaggeration was added by each party is unclear.

As in the present, Jaka’s history is about the waxing and waning of her power, first as she’s up against her nanny, then her position within the family and finally as measured against Astoria before Lord Julius humiliates her into flight. As a prisoner she is made to see that the power she had was either not her own, borrowed against the family name, or was destructive. She is confronted with the so-called consequences of her power, namely the death of Pud, by being forced to hear parts of his diaries that expose his borderline-violent carnal interest in her as what made him hire her as illegal entertainer. She is made to feel culpable and guilty for exercising what authority and advantage she could, and made to see that she now doesn’t even have this power. This second phase of her internment and forced re-education is carried out by Margaret Thatcher, cast by Dave Sim as an establishment mouthpiece. This is an unfair charge inasmuch as Thatcher was much, much scarier and far more horrendous than that in British politics. While Thatcher is not written as Sim’s hero, he seems fairly comfortable apportioning dislike and blame both to Jaka as well as her brutal and dogmatic captors. Nevertheless, despite their fascistic-levels of feminism The Cirinist’s truly destroy Jaka by an appeal to the male power. They reveal to Rick, whom they have also made both timid and neat, that Jaka’s miscarriage was caused by her procurement of herbs which acted as an abortive. The particular sting is that the baby was a boy and Jaka’s feminine power, her hold over Rick is broken by his deeper love for what would be a similar form of power to his own. He had planned for his son to be powerful in a stereotypically male way, as discussed when he tells Cerebus how he’ll raise his son to be strong enough to lift a horse over his head.

As with Church and State II the politics of gender and power can seem uncomfortably blunt and one-sided to the reader. Nonetheless the story is of enough depth and complexity that Dave Sim’s nascent-to-solidifying opinions colour rather than choke the story and the detail in the development of characters is excellent. Aware that his tale has plenty of space to play out, the different beats and peoples are allowed room to spread out without harming the form or pace of the ongoing story, and whilst Jaka’s Story is more personality than plot driven the central five characters are enough to carry the book comfortably.

Now, since this seems to have turned out to be an unusually long essay, I’ll end with less ado than normal. Tune in next month as we reach Cerebus: Volume Six – Melmoth, of which no assumptions and forethoughts as I’ve to read a single word, page or panel of it. See you next month, same aardvark-time, same aardvark-channel…

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~ by Thom Dicomidis on 26/02/2011.

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