Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A Palpable Sense Of Uncertain But Impending Doom

Cerebus #48 (March 1983)
Art by Dave Sim 
(Click image to enlarge)
(from the The Fortress Of Nerditude blog, 2 July 2007)
I just finished the second Cerebus "phone book" and, in short, it was great. I can absolutely understand why so many people recommend starting with this book instead of the first volume. It’s more directed, more refined, more polished, better-looking, better-written. Everything in it is, well, better. I still think the first volume is worth reading, but if you only have the time/money to buy one, for now, start with High Society.

In terms of form, High Society represents the point at which Dave Sim decided to abandon the one-off humorous stories he’d presented during the first 25 issues. Instead, he developed an ambitious graphic novel and presented it over the course of the second 25 issues of Cerebus. It works magnificently well. High Society is a story of political, social and economic intrigue, but don’t let that confuse you - it’s a funny story. And a moving story. And a savage satire. And a gripping drama.

I read the first 2/3 of the book at a relatively leisurely pace. The story was interesting and funny and was obviously heading towards a definite conclusion, but it had enough comfortable stopping points that I was able to consume it in two or three issue chunks. That was, of course, until I got to the back third of the book. At that point, it grabbed me by the eyeballs and just dragged me straight through to the end...

...the story of Cerebus' rise to and fall from Ministerial power was absolutely gripping. "Smoke-filled-room" politicking and electoral college tallying aren't USUALLY the sort of thing you’d expect to make decent fodder for a graphic novel, but Sim pulls it off in spades. The duelling newspaper headlines interspersed throughout were great and often told the story just as effectively as longer, more verbose passages.

But it was the tension that builds as Cerebus' young administration begins to crumble that kept me riveted for the back third of the book. I got started late last night and figured I’d put away another couple of issues before turning in, but as the story progressed it built a sort of narrative momentum I couldn’t pull away from. It was nearly 3:00 AM by the time I turned the final page. A page, of course, that made me want to run into the other room and grab the next volume.

A lot of credit for this obviously goes to the story itself, but an equal - and perhaps GREATER - amount goes to the ever-improving visual style that Sim is using. Pages spin in and out of standard form and time, tense frames seem vibrate with outlines look like crackling, black electricity, shadows erupt and swallow characters only to throw them back out into the light moments later. And there are some moments in the story that are positively cinematic.

Sim literally changes our view of things throughout this portion of the story, twisting the pages sideways, upside-down, backwards and then back again. The palpable sense of uncertain but impending doom was magnified by the constantly shifting presentation. By the time it is reported that enemy troops have entered the city and Cerebus marches out to face them, I was having to force myself to read slowly, rather than tearing the pages aside and devouring the story as quickly as possible.

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