It's been a while.
King of the unfinished series, Warren Ellis, shared this very interesting perspective (sign up to his email list) about Cerebus.
On top of that, a whole new chapter of Warren's Brain Hates Him, because for the last two weeks it's been whispering, "when you finish the three shorter comics projects on your whiteboard, why don't you do a really long monthly comics series? Dave Sim finished CEREBUS when he was, what, 46? You're 50 next month. Start a huge long series and we'll see if you die before it's done."
CEREBUS is probably the single longest complete novel in the comics form. Three hundred 20-page chapters, more or less, serialised monthly from 1977 to 2004. For all its size, it's a minor work in the canon, and possibly its most prodigious act of outsider art. It began as a parody book - note that TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES started largely as a Frank Miller parody book -- aimed at the sword and sorcery comics of the time.
Eighteen months or so into publishing, it is written that Sim decided to eat pretty much nothing but LSD for a week or two, suffered a mental break and got sectioned. He came out of the hospital with a vision of extending CEREBUS into a 300-episode novel. A couple of hundred issues later he developed a, ah, very personal interpretation of certain religious texts and decided women were the root of everything wrong with human culture. He began running long scriptural screeds as part of the work. The book became a sad, confused, toxic mess, as Sim seemed as if he were articulating the precise terms, ideations and experiences of his own schizophrenic break. And what had been an ambitious, famous success story of a book became, in its final issues, something that would probably have been cheaper to fax to its remaining readers.
The book didn't endure -- because of all that, and because it was extremely hermetic. It was filled with references to other comics, and to comics culture. Later, as Sim read more widely, it filled with references to literature and writers. It suffers that problem of early post-modern work -- it's mostly about other people and their work, and often seems to be nothing in and of itself.
And yet. Sim became Will Eisner's greatest descendant, a cartoonist and designer of exquisite skill who never stopped experimenting and innovating. He was his own letterer, and interpolated the lettering into the art until it became its own storytelling toolbox. I still vividly remember the scene of Cerebus shouting at his priest/handler, his big squared-off speech balloons acting as huge battering rams to drive the poor mewling prelate out the door. Sim's great surge forward was, it's seen, largely because he chose to focus on the characters and compositions, leaving the backgrounds to a superb artist named Gerhard who made this little black-and-white comic the richest artistic experience on the shelves.
And yet. That is a six thousand page graphic novel, the sum of the protagonist's life and anything up to a third of Sim's own life. Doing TRANSMET for 5 years (1300 pages) and FREAKANGELS for 3 years (900 pages) really kind of feel like enough? I want to say FROM HELL is only 600 pages or so. 6000 pages is a Serious Thing.
For a story about a talking animal that went entirely off the rails halfway through, it is still, somehow, weirdly, a high bar. Which I realise makes no sense, for something that I would never ever recommend to anybody. I think about it sometimes, and wonder. It cannot be approached or approximated on its own terms, but, creatively, it gives me to think.