(Trying a sans-serif rather than a serif font. Let me know if you notice and care whether you think it's better or worse.)
“Church & State” may be Dave Sim's most magnificent achievement. This is not to dismiss the bulk of the Cerebus saga as unworthy. At the conclusion of this novel we are only 1/3 of the way through the entire saga, after all, and there are still things to be achieved that will reach beyond the grasp and probably even the conception of the Dave Sim (and Gerhard, who joins him about halfway through the first volume) who did this novel. You could certainly argue that some of what is ahead has higher literary and artistic merit than this novel does, although I might argue back that much of the later material also has serious flaws that impinge on the overall achievement, while this novel is very nearly perfect.
Another reason I think of this as Sim's masterwork is that in many ways this book is the entire series in microcosm - an odd word to describe a work of over 1,200 pages in two volumes, but used after all in comparison to a 16 volume work of over 6,000 pages, so I think it fits.
“Church & State” begins with Cerebus in a tavern - which is also the first place Cerebus visited after riding into the nameless "our city" in the beginning of the saga. His fellow patrons are shown to be uncivilized barbarians with fighter mentalities, much like Cerebus himself was presented to us when we met him. We meet Cerebus in this book writing, and writing and writers will be a major theme from here on, and we will meet the analogues of several famous writers along the way. Cerebus rehashes his previous history (the novel starts out with a collection of loosely connected short stories, and Cerebus again becomes Prime Minister), after which he becomes a powerful religious figure, which will happen to him again in the future. He is taken up off the surface of the earth into a journey into space, which will also happen again. He will be confronted with his own character flaws, which will happen again in an even more unmistakable and inescapable fashion. And the novel ends with a prediction of his death, a prediction that will be fulfilled at the very end of the saga. It's all right there.
Although in some ways this is the whole story encapsulated in one book, in other ways it is the antithesis of the whole saga as well, for on the topic of gender relations, everything is presented more-or-less from a feminist viewpoint.
The revisionist historian Dave Sim now maintains that when he wrote the earlier parts of Cerebus he was an "atheist feminist" (sometimes he even throws in "socialist" into the mix), and that his conversion less than a third of the way from completing the saga accounts for the difference, but I have some evidence that this is not in fact true, in correspondence between us dating back to the days when Sim was doing "Jaka's Story."
Most obviously, in the debate between Cerebus and Astoria regarding "Tarim" and "Terim," I thought it was pretty obvious that Astoria had the better part of that debate, that her arguments made a lot more logical sense than did his. Sim didn't exactly disagree with that interpretation of the scene's presentation, but pointed out Cerebus was a much more limited intellect than Astoria, and made it clear that he thought Cerebus was the one who was arguing from the correct position, even if he wasn't able to make his points as effectively. To Sim, it seemed quite clear even in those days not long after completing this novel, long before he made his views known in "Mothers and Daughters," that a male creator is the only kind of God who makes sense. He even said in one letter that, far from birth being primarily a female thing, the male seed is the real source of new life, and that the womb was merely the oven in which the bread is baked, so to speak (I think he actually said “turkey”).
Having had this correspondence to prepare me, I was less surprised than others by "Reads," and never for a moment believed the argument that "Viktor Davis" was "just a character" Sim was using to put forth a point of view that he didn't necessarily believed. It is clear to everyone now that Sim holds those "misogynist" views (I use the quotes advisedly - Sim is clearly not a man who "hates women," and he would be quick to castigate anyone who allows a definition of misogyny that is so transformed from the original and root meaning of the word that it can apply to anyone who, for instance, hates *feminism*, which is a very different thing, and in fact seems to be the current definition of the word). We’ll get to the whole “misogynist” thing later when we look at “Mothers and Daughters,” but my point is that, while this novel *seems* to be presented from the opposite viewpoint with regards to male/female issues than Sim would later take, he was saying things much like his later anti-feminist so soon after this book was completed that it seems unlikely he had changed his views after doing the Judge’s monologue. It simply has to be the case that when he wrote those words he was already putting an argument of a character who seemed likely to represent the author a viewpoint 180 degrees opposed to what he really believed.
I think it's almost certain that in fact by the time he started this book he was already disenchanted with much of the modern feminist critique of society, but was hiding that and deliberately writing the book giving us a feminist point of view. Not because he was hiding his true nature in order to keep his fairly large female readership, as some have alleged, but in fact to provide something more than an obvious straw man to later tear down. He wanted to present the feminist worldview in a convincing manner, so that when he came to tear it down the demolition would be all the more devastating and effective.
At least, that's what I think is going on here. We’ll see if I still think that by the time we get to the Judge.
Next: Floundering (but really not), the Countess, The Wolveroach, Sophia, Returning to Iest, and Reads