|Cerebus #136 (July 1990)|
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
My final offering of the scariest moments in comics comes from Dave Sim's series Cerebus, in the final installment of the extraordinary Jaka's Story. The story ran from issues 114 to 136, ended in 1990 and spanned nearly two years in the telling. Unlike in my previous examples, I will be sparse in the details on this one. Suffice it to say that the journey of the titular character is not an easy one. We follow her in her day-to-day life with her well-meaning but relatively clueless husband Rick in their isolated existence with scattered encounters with their reserved grocer and demonstrative neighbor. Cerebus the aardvark arrives and injects himself into Jaka's life in the hopes of winning back her love, something we know will never happen. The story is peppered with flashbacks from Jaka's past, written in lengthy and lurid prose in emulation of an author from a long ago time. The stretches of prose are accompanied by exquisite illustrations by Sim and Gerhard, making the comic appear to be regularly interrupted by a late 1800s storybook. The flashbacks at first seem intrusive and unwieldy, but in very short order draw the reader in, much like any good ghost story told in an intimate setting.
The matriarchal society of Cerebus's world forces itself into Jaka's life just as she begins to find herself and she, her husband, and her neighbor are attacked by female soldiers and imprisoned during a time when Cerebus, the only one who could have protected them, is gone on an errand. Jaka's stay in prison is arduous and painful, and we suffer it with her. At the story's climax in issue #136, both Jaka and Rick, the husband from whom she had been separated during her time behind bars, are brought before the villain of the picture, a woman known only as Mrs. Thatcher. This woman knows something about Jaka's past that was not covered in the lavish flashbacks and she intends to bring it to light.
What follows is one the best, and most intense, examples of comic book storytelling ever depicted. Using every aspect of the craft, from facial expressions to gestures to sound effects right down to the very size and shape of the lettering in the dialogue balloons, Dave Sim leads us down a path of suspense and growing unease as he has his villain do her work. She speaks, she has her massive female guard prevent Jaka from doing the same, and Mrs. Thatcher addresses Rick while her words do what all the best - and worst - horror stories do. They get inside your head.
Upon realization of what he's been told, Rick, ever the loving and doting husband, crumbles and is utterly destroyed, and we are undone along with him. Even Rick being escorted to freedom is shattering to see, and the final pages, illustrated with no captions or dialogue whatever, shake the reader to the core. As to the content of those pages, of Thatcher's scheming, and Jaka's secret, I will say no more. Pick up the story and read it for yourself. Just brace yourself beforehand.
Following the conclusion of that storyline, Sim released T-shirts which read "I survived Jaka's Story". The statement could not have been more telling. And yes, I bought one. Those who had not followed the story thought the shirt was in reference to its length, or the extensive use of prose pages within the text. I knew better. I had followed the story of this remarkable young woman, slowly fallen in love with her, and bore witness to her emotional destruction. That, my friends, is scary.