Slow pacing and inconsistency are the biggest problems with the Cerebus series as a whole. While the series starts out fast-paced and exciting, it slows down at the 5th volume, becoming agonizingly slow and droll–unfortunately, it never really regains its original pacing for long. These latter volumes are not boring per se but are a little tough to stick with.
Inconsistency comes from several things, one of which is inconsistency in the setting. Early stories place the world in an approximation of the Iron Age but later plotlines bring in technologies, social values and aesthetics that range from the Renaissance to the Victorian era up to an age of guns and airships. Several different fictional religions are used throughout. These are interesting but are eventually (and without comment) ignored in favor of a monotheism that most closely resembles the Abrahamic religions of our world. Clearly, a fictional world does not need to adhere to the timeline of our own world but the changes, inconsistencies and eventual complete abandonment of originality in setting make it hard to understand or become immersed in.
Another inconsistency comes from topic and theme. I think that this stems from the author’s personal goal (present in his mind from the earliest volumes) to create a comic with 300 continuous issues. There are several storylines (the volume Melmoth is the best example) that are essentially biographies of real-world celebrities and would have been better told as their own independent stories. However, the author’s commitment to Cerebus might have forced him to shoehorn these stories into this series and Cerebus suffers for this.
Satire is an important recurring feature in the series that is highly inconsistent in its use. Early volumes have characters that were very unsubtle parodies of fantasy characters (e.g. Red Sonya, Elric of Melnibone) and then superheroes (e.g. Batman, Captain America). More subtle parodies of historical figures (e.g. George Washington, Groucho Marx, Margaret Thatcher) are later used, to better effect. However, parodies of more contemporary figures (e.g. Keith Richards, the Three Stooges) seem completely out of place. The key is subtlety and the author’s command of this technique is mediocre at best. Several of these characters are likely used as frequently as they are in order to provide comic relief, in an otherwise heavy plot. However, being so out of place for the actual story’s setting, they stick out in a way that breaks immersion.
Cerebus and/or its author are notorious for their views and portrayals of women in a very anti-feminist, mysoginistic light. However, it is important to note that (until the final few volumes) these views are in notes and letters sections only. I make no comment on these (other than to recommend avoid reading them) because I view these sections as supplemental at best. One exception to this is an extended rant in issue #186, which contains 5 text-less pages of comic and 15 full pages of text–in this issue, the diatribe “takes up” what would otherwise be valuable comic space. This rant and all notes and letters can safely be skipped, saving your the trouble of being exposed to that authors venomous rhetoric without causing you to miss out on anything important to the story.
Later plotlines DO have more heavy-handed misogynistic overtures, within the story itself. Initially, these parts of the plot are not as offensive as his personal rants. They actually make sense given the setting and previous plot lines. A harshly patriarchal society arises to combat a harshly matriarchal society that had previously risen to dominance. At first, the message doesn’t seem to be “women are bad” but rather that “matriarchal AND patriarchal societies are BOTH bad”. However, the last storyline outlines some religious ideologies that are cynical and harsh regarding women and resemble our own world a little to much (hitting a little too close to home) to dismiss/ignore.
So what IS good about Cerebus? Simply put, it is the artwork and the artistry within the comics medium. Even though the art quality in the first issue is fairly rough, it improves dramatically very quickly. There is consistently excellent use of light, darkness and shadows. Backgrounds are intricately detailed and faces are very expressively detailed as well. There are frequent unconventional/experimental/unique paneling techniques (this is probably its biggest accomplishment, in the field of comics as a whole). The artist also does a great job of giving characters unique features (both overall body models and faces). In a long series with so many different characters this is both impressive and done well.
The big question is how to rate/recommend a comic that starts so good but falls so far. One strategy would be to recommend only the first portion of the series. Issue 25 (the end of Volume 1) makes for a fairly convenient cutting-off point. The reader of this first volume alone would miss out on experiencing some of the deeper lore and longer story lines but it is an excellent read on its own. Another such cutting off point might be issue 111 (the end of volume 4). This gives the reader exposure to what I consider to be the “best” storylines without ANY of the filler, boredom or misogyny of later issues. A third recommendation would be to read the entire series but to skip certain issues (289-290 completely) sections (the text-only sections of issues 175-186) and skim certain other sections (the Torah interpretations in 280-287).
Finally, I have outlined my thoughts and criticisms of each individual storyline below. Some storylines are contained in a single volume while others span multiple volumes. Some of this information many be redundant with what has been said above, but it might be useful in deciding how much of the series to read.
Volume Title Vol. # Issues Rating
Cerebus 1 1–25 ****
In many ways, Cerebus at its finest (although that is, of course, a matter of opinion). In these early issues, his adventures are fast paced, fairly short (1-3 issues) episodes. Each is interesting in its own way and does not wear out its welcome. These stories are not very action-intense but rely on well-crafted plotlines with plenty of twists and turns and clever solutions to problems. Unfortunately, in these issues there is a LOT of unnecessary expository text. There is an abundance of satire of fantasy tropes but not enough to prevent the story from being taken seriously or from having its own plot. What does stick out in a bad way is the fairly frequent tongue-in-cheek references to superheroes and the tropes of that genera (as explained above).
High Society 2 26–50 ***
As aspect of the series that occurs throughout but becomes prominent starting in this volume is the heavy amount of continuity. Old, seemingly insignificant characters from short, 1-shot adventures return and bring with them their plotlines. A good memory or a willingness to read continuously is needed to take all of this in. This volume also begins the rise of the lengthy plot-lines. This volume is essentially a single continuous story with lots of courtly intrigue and politicking. The obvious advantage to this long-form plot is that the story has more depth. However, this becomes a little too much of a good thing as the plot seems to drag on slowly as things are fleshed out. The plot moves slowly until it doesn’t–then it makes abrupt, fast changes. The conclusion is exciting but a little anti-climactic (too many important events get swept under the rug).
Church and State I 3 52–80 ***
Church and State II 4 81–111 ***
Like High Society, these two volumes make up a single (even lengthier) plot-line. As the name implies, the topics/themes of this storyline are organized religion, power, and the value of life. In these volumes, things start to get abstract, mystical, and deep/confusing (depending on your perspective on things) with several whole issues that are surreal dream sequences. These volumes also see a rise in the number of panels, pages and sometimes virtually entire issues that are devoid of text. This lets the art speak for itself and is used to great effect (but it is, of course, a big departure from the almost prolix writing in the first volume). Like High Society, the conclusion of this plotline is anti-climactic and fairly unsatisfying.
Jaka’s Story 5 114–136 **
I hesitate to call it “filler” because that kind of implies that there is no substance. There is substance but it is VERY slow paced (until its end), it does little to elaborate on the fallout from the major events at the conclusion of the previous storyline (which is frustrating) and it barely involves Cerebus himself. Also, many pages are single panels with a huge amount of text in a small font to the side. While this technique is interesting in moderation, its overuse makes one wish that the text were actually elaborated on in comic format. While there is an in-story justification for this format, that does not stop it from being tedious to read.
Melmoth 6 139–150 **
Much like Jaka’s Story, Melmoth is kind of “filler” in that it does little to advance the main plot and barely involves Cerebus himself. This volume is even more tangential than Jaka’s Story and mainly involves the latter years of an obvious in-universe stand-in (not really a parody of since its not played for comedic effect) of Oscar Wilde. In fact, much of the text in this short volume is verbatim or slightly modified text from letters written by friends of Oscar Wilde. Admittedly, the story itself is told well but it feels very out of place in the overall narrative and might have been better suited to a standalone graphic biography of Oscar Wilde rather than being shoehorned into Cerebus.
Flight 7 151–162 ***
Women 8 163–174 ***
Reads 9 175–186 **
Minds 10 187–200 ***
These four volumes constitute a single continuous plot referred to as “Mothers & Daughters”. The “main” plot now resumes at full speed and is exciting, revelatory and unique. However, there are too many side plots/characters that are being juggled, which makes following things a bit confusing. Although introduced in the last two volumes, there is now more elaboration on a matriarchal, fascist theocracy (an interesting combination of ideologies) in the world that plays a key role in the plot.
Unfortunately, this storyline is marred by the third installment (Reads), in which there begins the use of entire pages of pure text that are non-sequitur to the events at hand. These bring the otherwise great pacing to a stunted halt and are especially detrimental to the work as a whole as they are placed during some of the most exciting and dramatic events in the series to date. Initially, these segments detail the experiences (largely autobiographical and thinly-veiled, at that) of an author producing an ambitious work of writing. However, in the latter issues of Reads, these segments become more abstract and rambling, eventually settling into an extended rant by the author on the topic of women, men and society. In these rants, he is unabashedly misogynistic and belligerent in his viewpoints. As noted previously, these rants can safely be skipped.
In contrast, Minds is more fully on-point and evenly paced, even if it is a little abstract and 4th-wall-breaking.
Guys 11 201–219 **
Another single-volume storyline, Guys is a huge slow-down compared to the latter events of the previous storyline. It is emotionally introspective and has more character development than any other storyline to date. However, it is very slowly paced and, overall, is much longer than it really needs to be in order to get its message across. Previously, the author had made use of accented dialogue for many of the characters. This was (for the most part) inoffensive and innocuous. However, this volume has a huge amount of accented dialogue, to the point of being annoying and difficult to read.
Rick’s Story 12 220–231 **
Boring and slowly paced. The events in this volume become very important later but 12 issues was far to much for what needed to be said.
Going Home 13 232–250 ***
Form and Void 14 251–265 **
These two volumes make up the “Going Home” storyline. This storyline is a bit of a departure from the norm as is focuses heavily on romance. Similar to Melmoth (but not as severe), the first volume in this storyline heavily features an F. Scott Fitzgerald analogue and is more about him than the main characters for a large part. Form and Void has yet another excuse to shoehorn in a biography of a famous writer into the Cerebus story. This time, it is Ernest Hemingway.
Latter Days 15 266–288 *
The Last Day 16 289–300 *
The first two issues in this volume are as exciting, interesting and suspenseful as Cerebus has been in a long time. Unfortunately, the vast majority of it is boring, slow and irritating to read. The author’s personal misogyny (which, up until this point, had been mostly behind the scenes) rears its head in a dramatic way. And then, for 8 straight issues, Cerebus reads and interprets the Torah (especially this first book, Genesis). This is amusing at first as his interpretations are somewhat farcical but it quickly becomes very tedious. Interspersed in this is a short biography of Woody Allen. The telling of a famous figure’s life story in the context of the Cerebus story is by no means a surprise by now, but it is as out-of-place as it has always been. It was difficult to imagine how a run of issues could be more tedious but issues 289-290 step up to the plate on this as the author lays out his own personal scripture. To do this, he borrows some passages from the Old and New testaments but, for the most part, creates his own re-telling of the Abrahamic creation story. Importantly, this does not tie in to the previously established cosmology of Cerebus at all, which is completely abandoned. The author even comments on his own scriptures in this section and manages to be deeply misogynistic in doing so.
Issue 291 finally resumes a somewhat story “normal” story (albiet after a ~50 year time skip!). After such a long run, the ending to the series as a whole is anticlimactic, bizarre and lacks closure. It brings up completely new concepts, issues and plots but fails to resolve other long-standing questions about important characters and events in the world.