Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: Jaka's Story

Jaka's Story Jaka's Story by Dave Sim
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After 2500 or so pages of Cerebus the Aardvark (this is the fifth compendium of the strip), most of which I have read in the fifteen minutes before falling asleep, a lot of this still feels like a dream. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it, and I’m not always sure why I’m still reading, but there is something that does pull me back.

It seems strange when I pull myself out of the book and reflect on it – though it hardly seems strange when I’m reading so many other strange things inside the covers – but Cerebus is only a minor character here. After he turns over the expectations of what it means to be a great warrior in volume one, after he mocks “High Society” in volume two, and after he ascends to a kind of pope with both religious and political power in volumes three and four, he kind of chills out here as the love of his life, Jaka, processes her childhood disappointments and deals with her marriage to a likeable slacker husband. And as she dances, dances like no one else in this whole vast kingdom.

So I can’t even classify this as a love story or a political allegory or even a parody of what comics are supposed to be. Maybe Cerebus started out as that, but Sim follows so many tangents along the way that it isn’t possible to know what he’s intending once things go along. How do you make sense of the fact that Jaka’s uncle, Emperor Julius, is modeled directly on Groucho Marx (down to extraordinarily Groucho-like banter)? Or that the older man who tries to entice Jaka’s husband away from her is Oscar Wilde? Or what about the tavern owner who employs Jaka and, while saying almost nothing, keeps an extensive journal of his sexual fantasies about her? As I say, it all seems dream-like, but in the middle of it you don’t quite stop for questions.

I’m not even sure you can classify this as a story of any sort. Things happen, but Sim has a strange way of setting conflicts up – the tavern owner’s fixation on Jaka, Oscar’s plans for Jaka’s husband, Jaka’s childhood antagonism with her nursemaid – and then seeming to tire of them. If we get the end to a thread of story, it comes quickly, sometimes with someone dispatched by an arrow virtually out of the blue, and then we’re onto something else. I don’t say that as complaint, just observation. Whatever Sim is doing here, he’s writing brand new rules.

Underlying all of this are the often haunting illustrations. Because he originally self-published these books – and because Gerhard come along somewhere in there to draw beautiful backgrounds – the canvas is huge. This volume, like the others, is 500 pages, and some of them are wordless, cinematic repetition of pictures. At times it feels almost like a film, with Sim like a director taking us where he wants for as long as he wants us there.

The one complaint I do have is that this volume in particular has too much text, and it’s often rendered in almost unreadable letters. Large parts of this are in 8-point font; it feels like an artistic choice that I might respect, but it’s also a pain. With my aging eyes, I had to skip parts, and I never knew how relevant some of it was. I got the impression I was supposed to skip a great deal of it – to note it was there and then move on – but I couldn’t help getting frustrated as well. Why not make it easier to read? Why not excerpt these long prose pieces with at least some of the skilled economy of the graphic novel parts?

If you’re thinking of getting on the Cerebus train, I urge you to start with the first volume, which is more coherent and more clearly a conventional story. If you make it all the way to this station, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ve declared myself finished with Cerebus before this, but something in its weird and idiosyncratic view of the world has brought me back. I have no immediate plans for the next one, but I can’t help wondering where Sim takes his strange little hero next.

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