The second chapter, "The Kidnapping of an
Aardvark," is the key to everything that follows. Cerebus finally gets his
fight, though it is an abrupt affair that is quickly ended - Cerebus makes
short work of the McGrew Brothers which makes us think of them as incompetent,
but in retrospect considering how much Cerebus was itching for a fight the fact
that he went immediately for an incapacitating blow may have signaled that he
actually took them seriously as a threat. He didn't want to give them a chance
to wear him out.
In any case, he takes over and from that point manages his
own kidnappiong. There are two key things in this chapter which will be
repeated throughout the book and another which will have repercussions through
the book as a whole. I’m tempted to say “introduced,” but in fact all three of
them were introduced in the first book (as I pointed out in my essays regarding
that). But they are emphasized more thoroughly examined here.
The first is Sim's critique of mass media journalism. This
was barely mentioned in the references to Weisshaupt and his messages from the
President. Here, we have a critique of TV news. This chapter was first
published in comic book form as Cerebus #27 with a cover date of of April 1981.
The U.S. had just gone through the Iran Hostage Crisis, a tumultuous period
whose social anxiety and political upheaval seemed enormous at the time but has
been largely forgotten because it was dwarfed by what happened on 9/11/2001.
One of the things that was so stressful about it, and caused great strain in
the body politic, was the length of time the crisis lasted. One usually thinks
of a crisis as of short duration, but the U.S. was operating in crisis mode
politically from the time the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized and hostages
taken November 4, 1979 until the last hostages were released on January 20,
1981, 444 days later.
Sim is, of course, Canadian, but our neighbor to the north
largely shared a sympathetic angst, plus of course American TV is available in
the major cities in Canada, and it is in particular one American TV show that
is being lampooned here. ABC had been for some time contemplating putting a
news program up against "The Tonight Show" in the slot following the
local news. Various attempts at more-or-less imitative talk shows had failed,
and some network executives thought some kind of counter programming for those
who wanted more substantial than light entertainment and celebrity interviews
might do better. The show would eventually be called "Nightline" and
as of this writing (4/7/2014) is still on the air, but when the hostages were
taken, and it became clear after a day or two that the crisis was going to last
at least a week or two (though certainly no one at the time dreamed it would be
more than a year), the show was rushed onto the air on November 8, 1979 as
"America Held Hostage: Day 5," and that became the running title for
the duration, with the day changed each day to reflect how long America had
been held hostage. From day to day, there was in fact often very little news to
report on the situation, but the title stayed and the logo, even when the news
report was largely about other matters and the hostages were referred to only
briefly at the beginning and ending of the show.
This is, of course, the basis for Sim's "Cerebus Held
Hostage" pages, with "Day One" and "Day Two" as
heading and a special logo in the upper right hand corner of each. Secondly, the
behind-the scenes machinations of Iestian politics as the money is raised for
Cerebus' ransom, whether it is presented as a reality or as Cerebus imagining
what is going on, introduces us to the byzantine nature of Iest's legislative
government and its corrupt Prime Minister, which of course sets the stage for
the major plot element of the book. Indeed, it is the need to repay this ransom
that becomes the motivating factor for Cerebus' launch into politics. Finally,
the game of Diamondback, which had been briefly mentioned in chapter 11 and
elaborated somewhat in a backup story in one of the "Swords of
Cerebus" volumes, is more fully fleshed out. This becomes important,
because it turns out that some people (Weisshaupt, for instance) view the
various cards in the Diamondback deck - Magician, Priestess, King, Queen,
Priest - in much the same way that many people view the Trumps in a deck of
Tarot cards, as having deep and supernatural significance. Indeed, Tarot-like
themes will develop throughout two of the three multi-volume novels within the
saga, Church & State and Mothers & Daughters.
Media, politics, Tarot symbolism (or something very much
like it) and its relation to magic, and of course traditional religion in the
form here of the Church of Tarim, which isn’t really discussed in this chapter
but was so clearly introduced in the first book that it’s not a surprise when
it shows up here. Three of these will dominate this book, and the four of them
will dominate the next two big novels.
So the kidnapping, which seems at first just a funny
episode featuring the likenesses of Dave Sim's friend Gene Day and his brother
Dan presented as versions of Warner Brothers cartoon character Yosemite Sam
(Sam: "I'm the roughest, toughest, root'nest, toot'nest fastest gunslinger
west of the Pecos!" Dirty Fleagle McGrew: "[I'm] the dirtiest,
rottenest Onliu freebooter who ever dropped outa th' third grade!"), in
fact sets the stage not only for the rest of the novel, but in fact for much of
the rest of the saga.
The shallowness of mass media journalism will not just be
referred to glancingly but skewered in the later "one-sheets" put out
by each side in the campaign. Although these were in fact directly published by
the political parties and had more in common with today’s political advertising
than with any sort of journalism, in their presentation they more resembled the
screaming headlines that often grace tabloid newspapers. Which also applies to
the description of them in this unattributed quote (but obviously from the same
"Suenteus Po" who wrote the book on the election):
As for the so-called “one-sheets,” one would be hard
pressed to find a less suitable appendage to the body politic. If, as was
devoutly wished in the previous chapter, we are someday to witness full-blown
republicanism in Iest, surely the first casualty of the people’s will would be
these brazen testimonials to the colossal vanity of the ruling classes!
Shamelessly slanted, impervious to truth and catering only to those aspects of
human nature which might best be described as “base” …
Immediately following the kidnapping, in chapter 3, we have
"Mind Games II." After being knocked out, Cerebus returns to the odd
psychic plane of existence where he again meets with Suenteus Po. It is
ostensibly the same Po he met in the original Mind Games. “Return" may not
be the precise word, because Po tells him that he is in the "Eighth
Sphere" this time, rather than the Seventh. But the "Well, well"
that opens his greeting seems to imply that they have "met" before,
although we are later given reasons to suspect this may not actually be the
same Po. Or rather, that Cerebus has still, in fact, not met the original Po,
and that these two are different mental constructs he created for himself as
protective mechanism to keep him free from troublesome intruders. But this is
all possibly "retcon" as they say in comics, for we will not learn it
until much, much farther along in the saga.
In any case, within this chapter Po is presented as the
same person we met in the first Mind Games, though he so clearly seems not to
be that even Cerebus notices. "The last time we talked, you were surprised
when Cerebus told you the Cirinists had plans -- and even more surprised when
he told you they were dangerous."
It's possible that Sim had already thought of the idea that
the voices Cerebus was talking to in the Mind Games episodes were not the real
Po, or it could be that he just decided he needed Po to be a more serious
character to get across the information he wanted to impart here, and while
wise enough to realize that he couldn't make the change without at least
admitting something was different, he'd worry about how to explain it somewhere
down the road. The intricacies of plotting a 6,000 page novel as you go with
the ending and some major signposts along the way in mind but details left
deliberately vague until you get close to them are complex, and at this date I
doubt if Sim himself could tell you clearly which details he imagined when.
Perhaps when all his notebooks are archived and available future scholars will
be able to determine some of this.
(If anyone - other
than a few die-hard fans - still cares by that point, but as the reason for
possible pessimism on this point lies far in the future of the reread, we'll
let that go for now.)
Cerebus returns from his sojourn to the Eighth Sphere to
find that he has been discovered and returned to his suite at the Regency
Hotel. The McGrew brothers have, as far
as he knows, made off with the ransom, which the Prime Minister now requests be
Cerebus' attempts to raise the money to pay the ransom
impress the Prime Minister enough to invite Cerebus to go hunting with him,
during which they discuss the current state of Iestian economics, and the Prime
Minister mentions that he could forego asking Cerebus for the ransom if one of
the businessmen who solicited Cerebus' attention in the first chapter were to
forgive the Iestian government a loan made by his company. Cerebus arranges
this, but immediately after the businessman, who is the godson of His Holiness
the Pope, is crushed by a giant stone sculped into the likeness of a crescent
moon, hurled at him by the Roach, who is now calling himself "The Merely
Magnificent Moon Roach." After chasing him down, Cerebus finds him in a
room with a woman named Astoria, who begs Cerebus to take the Moon Roach
costume so that "Artemis," as she calls him, won't be able to become
the Roach anymore, rather than turning him in. When he balks, she threatens to
Cerebus reluctantly agrees, and thus is manipulated for the
first time by this mysterious woman who Sim has said was based on Mary Astor's
character in "The Maltese Falcon" and Deni Loubert (who was Deni Sim
at the time) has said was based on her. On the one hand, the obvious dichotomy
here is like the cases of Elrod and the McGrew brothers, where the physical
appearance is based on one thing (Barry Smith's Elric, Gene and Dan Day, Deni
Sim) and the personality on something else (Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam,
Bridget O'Shaughnessy). However, there's a little more to it than that. There
is a subtle criticism of his wife inherent in having Astoria represent here in
more than looks as this novel progresses while being the manipulative,
untrustworthy analog to the murderess in the famous book and movie.
When "Petuniacon" comes along, which is at once a
parody of political conventions and comic book ones, Astoria arranges things
and tells Cerebus where to be, at it seems pretty obvious that, as
"publisher" at Aardvark-Vanaheim, Deni Sim was almost certainly
handling all the details and arrangements and Dave Sim was going where he was
told and signing or sketching or both. Later, he would be handling the details
for himself and finding them to be no big chore, and promoting the idea of
self-publishing to all his fellow cartoonists.
This is important, because while it will seem clear to some
people reading this, as it does to some of the characters in the book, that
Astoria is in charge, pulling the strings, making the decisions, from Cerebus'
point of view this is never really true, and to the extent that it ever was, it
ends with his visit to the Abbess. From then on, he thinks of Astoria as a
On my first reading, indeed, on my first several readings
of this book, I had the opinion that Astoria was indeed the one in charge and
Cerebus was delusional. But this time, while Cerebus does seem to sometimes be
passively acted upon rather than active in his own administration, I see that
it's a bit more subtle than that. It is Astoria's nature to manipulate people,
in particular to manipulate men. It's not so much that she truly wields the
power in Cerebus' administration. Indeed, it's quite obvious that she's
completely unaware of much of what Cerebus does, and is playing catch-up,
pretending to be on top of things as she dances as fast as she can to keep up
with events changing around her.
Theresa shows up again from the three-chapter story that
ended the first book. She becomes Astoria's assistant. There's a bit of funny
byplay as they both become enchanted with Dirty Drew McGrew. This is
interesting for a couple of reasons. Theresa will in fact remain a character
for some time to come in the saga. Which
itself is interesting because of what happens to another character from that
story, the one who seems to be set up to return.
Katrina seems to be set up to be Jaka's sister. She is Lord
Julius' niece, and "her sister" told her in a letter of his version
of what happened in the underground tunnels in Palnu (a much different version
from what we saw in "A Night at the Masque," with a heroic Lord
Julius). You would expect from this that she might appear again, or at least be
mentioned again. But Theresa is the only one of the three girls in that story that
we ever see again, and when we explore Jaka's background and childhood in depth
in "Jaka's Story" there is no mention of her ever having had a
sister. Katrina's existence seems to have been completely forgotten.
But back to Astoria. Like Bridget O'Shaughnessy, she admits
fairly early on that she lied, but promises that "that's all over,"
and then immediately proceeds to lie some more. She attempts to manipulate
events, but she is actually clearly out of her depth. Blakely dismisses her early
on like the glorified secretary Cerebus will later think of her as ("Now,
be a good girl and run along …" - and it's important to note that at this
point Cerebus is stunned that *anyone* could treat Astoria that way and she
would take it; she slams the door on her way out, but she does indeed run
along). The Abbess refuses to even see her. She goes out into the snow with the
Roach trying desperately to drum up votes when Cerebus has (or thinks he has)
already sewed up enough votes to win the election.
On the other hand, we do have the hiring of Suenteus Po
(the book writer, not the one Cerebus meets in the "Mind Games"
episodes), whose interview is conducted entirely by Astoria while Cerebus is
apparently napping at his desk.
Once we realize what kind of character Astoria is, we look
back on her account of how she met the Roach and begin to question its
If the Countess Michelle (up ahead, but bear with me) is to
be believed (which is problematic, but she is certainly more trustworthy than
Astoria), Astoria's account of meeting the Roach is wholly fictional. However,
it's entirely possible that he did indeed “rape” her. I put quotes around it
because if he did, it would almost certainly have been because she manipulated
him into it, knowing that she could connect with some part of him that would
find that act utterly reprehensible and use that guilt to control him.
That's Astoria's nature. That's what she does. Although she
is one of the few characters in this book who actually matures and changes, and
also one of the few who seems to have been given a genuinely happy and peaceful
ending to her story, the Astoria we first meet here, and the Astoria we
encounter through most of her appearances in the saga, is a conniving, lying,
untrustworthy, manipulative bitch.
And yet Deni Loubert considers that she was meant to
represent herself, and apparently made no objection to her depiction in this
fashion until Cerebus raped Astoria near the end of "Church &
State." That, finally, was too much for her and she reported several years
ago that she quit reading at that point and as far as I know had never gone
back to read the rest.