Monday, August 24, 2009

Swords of Cerebus #2: Bran Mak Mufin, The Secret, Black Sun Rising, Day of the Earth-Pig

After 4 issues Cerebus had managed to exceed his creator’s initial aim and built up a small following, as well as create a world in which the character moved, however to me at this stage it was still a ‘funny animal’ comic. Two things differentiated it from Conan and the other Conanesque titles that were around: the central character was an aardvark and at times it was very funny. I find it interesting that neither Dave Sim or the fans of the time were particularly impressed with issue #5. Dave said that the story was largely lifted from issue #2 and that it contained one joke: Cerebus' fur smells when he gets it wet (this was a running gag for some time, it does beg the question: does he ever bathe?). I actually contend that it contained two jokes, one was the aforementioned smelly fur gag and the other was the play on words that formed the only title I’ve ever been able to find: Bran Mak Mufin, it’s hard to even say that without a chuckle, even funnier when Bran became a more important player in the political game later on. Why did I think the issue was important in the evolution of the character?

This is the basic storyline: Cerebus has signed on with a mercenary army and is stuck scouting in the Red Marches getting rained on (hence the wet fur), he takes shelter in a hollow tree and is discovered by a group of primitive warriors, members of the ancient and once very powerful Pigt tribe. They take him to their leader; Bran Mak Mufin. Bran seems to know more about Cerebus than he should and this piques the aardvark's interest. He goes exploring, and finds the Pigts at their worship. The object of their adoration is a statue, a statue of an aardvark! This is the first indication that Cerebus is more than just an itinerant warrior who happens to be an aardvark. He is a figure of destiny. I believe that Cerebus life and the way the readers viewed the character changed from this point onward. Cerebus destroys the statue, makes his way out of the tunnel network where then Pigts live and heads for the nearest city.

If issue #5 was a bit of a disappointment to readers and creator then issue #6 was an unqualified triumph. I think it is not only one of the best Cerebus stories written, but it is one of the best single comic issues I have ever read, it was also immensely important in the continuing story of the graphic novel as a whole. Dave said that this one was in some ways partially autobiographical, and it shows, things are handled with great affection and sensitivity as well as gentle humour.

Cerebus encounters a dying man, who with his final breath gives the aardvark the clue to finding great treasure. The unfortunate man’s pursuers; wily conman E’Lass and his large, strong, but stupid companion Turg, are also trying to gain that information. Once they realise Cerebus has it they first attempt to force it out of him, but discover to Turg’s eternal regret that even the thuggish barbarian is no match for the earth pig born. E’Lass then decides that where strength will not prevail, guile will. He drugs Cerebus' drink so that he will fall desperately in love with the first woman he sees; tavern dancer Jaka. E’Lass and Turg then heavy Jaka to get the information out of Cerebus. Cerebus is so smitten that he will do anything Jaka asks, and the scene between the two in Jaka’s room as she tries to wheedle the information out of him contains this priceless and hysterically funny exchange: a doe eyed Cerebus sits next to Jaka on her bed and murmurs lovingly to her: ‘I'd love to lick apricot brandy out of your navel.' Jaka desperately tries to steer Cerebus back on topic, but he refuses to be dissuaded from his wooing, and continues on: ‘If Cerebus had a navel would you lick apricot brandy out of it?’ at this point Jaka, convinced that her cause is hopeless, collapses with a moan onto the bed. A confused Cerebus stands over her and asks helplessly ‘You don’t like apricot brandy?’ I usually have to put the book aside to laugh.

Jaka tells Cerebus that E’Lass and Turg have threatened her. Cerebus finds them and hands out the mother of all beatings. He and Jaka plan to find the treasure themselves and start a new life together. Whilst preparing for the journey the potion wears off Cerebus, he forgets who Jaka is, and that he carried a torch for her. She meets him, but realises that he has no memory of her or what she meant to him, she promises to wait for him to remember even if it takes the rest of her life. So beautifully done and with such a tragic end, it almost makes you want to cry. I don’t think I’m the only fan who remembered The Secret for a long time after reading it. People were convinced that Jaka would one day return, but when?

Dave decided to return to safer ground with Black Sun Rising and brought Elrod back. Cerebus was on his way to see if he could get the treasure he had first heard about from the dying stranger, and had now recalled (although readers were left none the wiser as to whether or not he had also remembered Jaka), when to his horror he encountered Elrod, the big mouthed, incompetent albino. In his efforts to recover the treasure hidden somewhere in the Temple of the Black Sun and avoid Elrod Cerebus found himself battling a giant spider, and only just managed to get out of the temple with his life, let alone the treasure. Foiled once again, and once again penniless Cerebus continues his lonely wandering.

Day of the Earth-Pig was an odd issue, a good half of it saw Cerebus in a delirious fever dream trying to recover from the injuries presumably incurred during the fight with the spider in the Temple of the Black Sun. Seeing Cerebus willingness to inflict violence to get his ends an unscrupulous religious military officer nurses the aardvark back to full health, and then installs him as the leader of the Conniptin's. Of course Cerebus is supposed to be a figure head, leader in name only. By the end of the issue Cerebus is already scheming how to get rid of the man who made him the leader and take all the power for himself. The issue was left very open ended, and it looked like Dave had just started his first genuine multi issue story arc.

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