Jaka's Story

I shall endeavor to avoid being spoily.

This is one of the finer stories crafted by Dave Sim for Cerebus. It shows some of the artistic directions he will take over the rest of the series. Firstly his use of historical characters in a major role rather than as comedy relief which he used with the Marx Brothers. There's a story within a story that gives the reader a thorough background to Jaka's childhood and adolescence up to an important event in her life. This is presented to the reader with an illustration accompanied by a dense block of text detailing the events of the image instead of a usual comic book layout of panels, people and word balloons. As one continues reading Cerebus, one learns this is the style of the "reads" in Sim's world which are an analogue to comic books.

Square One

Starting with issue 112/113 one finds out that while Cerebus was on the moon the Cirinists had taken over Iest. The Cirinists had taken advantage of the chaos wrought by the unexplained growth of the black tower, covered with "demon 'eads and skuwws", which was Cerebus's ticket towards what he thought was ascension. Cerebus finds himself distraught at having lost the giant pile of gold he had amassed while Pope of the Western Church of Tarim in addition to his friends. He considers suicide as the Judge's pronouncement that Cerebus will die "Alone, unmourned and unloved" echoed through his head. A stroke of lightning knocks him back to his senses.

At the end of the book he finds himself in a tavern holding a crotchety old war veteran decrying the failure of the armies against the Cirinists to the ears of a very large bartender. At the end of his ranting he asks the rhetorical question "How does it all end?" Cerebus has the answer which leaves them stunned and silent.

Pogrom's Progress

Cerebus's progress takes him up the mountain until he comes into a smaller pub run by Pud Withers which leads to a series of discoveries. Cerebus orders an ale and decides to pay for it with a gold piece which shocks the barkeep. Apparently gold is very rare and dangerous to possess in Cirinist-occupied Iest. Next he runs into the one woman that he's been pining for since issue six.


They run to each other and hug while she expresses her concern for Cerebus and offers him a place to stay just before telling him that she's still married. Cerebus is a wanted man being the former Pope and may be killed on sight. There really isn't any way for him to keep a low profile since he's a little over three feet tall, gray with a large tail. Jaka really doesn't seem to realize that her straits are just as dire as Cerebus's because she is a tavern dancer. Such activities which raise the prurient desires of males, who are second class citizens under Cirin, are punishable by death. No questions asked.

Thus begins the love triangle which is at the heart of the story.

Cerebus has been deeply in love with Jaka for quite some time but it has never been the right time for them as a couple. Either he's drugged by a cult or too busy politicking or Jaka has that pesky marriage thing and a pregnancy getting in the way of things. Pud Withers, proprietor of the tavern, is a very lonely man. He deals with Jaka on two levels where she's Mrs. Nash, customer, with whom he exchanges the same banalities with over and over every single day. At night Jaka comes in to dance should there be any customers. Pud lusts after Jaka and uses money that he has stashed away to provide her with black market goods which he sells for exactly the same amount he pays her each and every night. Rick is Jaka's ne'er-do-well husband who is always looking for work but never finding it.

The Poet

Rick's friend on the side of the mountain is Oscar, a socialite and poet who looks and acts just like Oscar Wilde. The two men will spend many hours talking together by the side of the road. These aren't as much discussions but Rick acting like a fanboy while Oscar recounts the escapades of artists and other socialites in the upper city. Either Jaka or Pud eventually break up the two friends by their mutual distaste of Oscar. To Jaka, Oscar represents Rick's reticence towards finding work, distracting him with pointless anecdotes. Oscar looks down his nose upon Jaka's chosen profession for being something base and completely lacking in any integrity. Pud simply dislikes Oscar because of Oscar's homosexuality.

Eventually Oscar learns that there's a houseguest by the name of "Fred" but any formal introductions are immediately put to rest when Jaka reminds him that Oscar was there on Cerebus's election night and considering Cerebus's circumstances nothing can be left to chance. Rick explains that "Fred" is sick and they can never meet.

By now Pud's lust towards Jaka becomes stronger and stronger, he's playing out fantasies in his head that start out with her rushing into his arms out of sympathy followed by his demands that she put out because he's paid out more than enough. Things get even creepier when the fantasies turn to rape. Keep in mind this is never presented to the reader except as Pud's thinking to himself rather than being graphically depicted on the page. The title character, Cerebus, has left the scene not really having a part in the story. According to his note he said he went out to get some paint for a project.

Business picks up at the tavern when the old war veteran arrives. For the first time in quite a long time Jaka can dance for someone rather than staring out the window during the small hours of the night. Oscar, during a bout of writer's block with Jaka's Story, peeps in the window of the tavern and discovers that Jaka is no mere tavern dancer but an artist with a capital A. The next day he expresses his admiration and desire for an audience with her in order to appreciate her craft. Unfortunately this is where everything ends.

Mystery Achievement

Jaka finds herself in a Cirinist prison rather than dead due to her diplomatic immunity. She discovers that the person next to her cell is her former nanny. It's a dark, lonely and frightening place but Nurse does provide a little comfort. Sadly, the next day Nurse is told that her execution has been ordered within the hour for being an illegal alien. The day after Jaka is brought in for questioning by a Cirinist who looks like Margaret Thatcher. She's confronted with her impact on the lives of the people who were on the side of the mountain that night. Jaka learns of Pud's descent into madness because of her and is soon reunited with Rick. Unfortunately Rick learns one of Jaka's secrets and never wants to see her again.

Cerebus returns and finds all the buildings burned to the ground. He presumes everyone is dead.

All characters and story are © Dave Sim and Gerhard. All likenesses to people, living or dead, are intentional for parody purposes. No purchase necessary. Offer not valid in Tennessee.

The writeup above by heptapod covers this, the fifth phonebook in the Cerebus series, very well as far as a general plot summary goes, but there is much, much more to say about this book. Of necessity this writeup contains SPOILERS

Jaka's Story has layers and layers of rich symbolism unlike almost anything else in comics. This is a novel that bears reading and rereading with intense scrutiny, to dig out the extra layers. There is not one truly decent character in this story, and yet every character is sympathetic in some way, something that is rare in comics, and unlike almost any comic I've read before it uses the device of the untrustworthy narrator to great effect.

The plot of the comic part of the book is covered above, but there is another section to this book, the textual part of it, that deserves a lot more mention. The book alternates between the story described above and a textual description of Jaka's early years. At the beginning of the story we are more or less invited to accept this as simple truth, but it is later revealed that this is the text of a 'Reads' (the equivalent in Cerebus' world of comics) written by Oscar, the friend of Jaka's husband, Rick. Oscar is a parody of Oscar Wilde and the textual elements are written very much in a (very well done) pastiche of Wilde's style, full of elegant circumlocution and classical allusion, but it is made clear later on that Oscar only knows of the events of Jaka's life through Rick's retelling, and that Oscar is in turn fictionalising many of these elements.

Dave Sim has said in many interviews, at least those prior to his conversion to his own hybrid fundamentalist Islamic-Christianity, that he always wanted to leave some doubt in people's minds, that he believed most things in the world are open to multiple interpretations, and this is certainly true of Jaka's Story.

When we first meet Jaka's nurse, in the textual parts of the story talking about her childhood, the nurse is portrayed as almost a demon figure. We never see her face in illustrations, seeing her always from Jaka's point of view , a looming figure all breasts and legs, much like a more sinister version of the maid in Tom & Jerry (Sim's reappropriation of pop-culture figures and conversion of them into something entirely other is a frequent event in the Cerebus books, although whether this comparison was intended or not I don't know). Whenever a head needs to be shown, a picture of the expressionless face of Jaka's doll, Missy, is shown in its place.Much is made in the text of her sternness, lack of compassion, and cruelty - "Fear, installed forthrightly, reinforced continuously and compounded daily was, to Nurse, one of the cornerstones of a truly fine up-bringing".

It is only when later we meet Nurse again, this time in the cell next to Jaka's as she waits for her execution some 400 pages later, that we realise that the nurse of Oscar's story, based on Rick's embellishments of Jaka's faulty memory, is simply the same giant looming figure we all remember from our childhood - the disciplinarian teacher who, deep down, cared for the children far more than they realised. In the text, Nurse's concern when Jaka gets knocked out in her care is shown as a worry for her own job. In the 'reality' of the comic part of the story, even some 20 years later she is moved to tears by her recollection of nursing the child she loved through her sickness.

Part of this portrayal of the nurse may be down to Jaka's anger - the nurse inadvertantly caused an accident that left Jaka comatose, and while she was comatose she was sexually abused (probably by Lord Julius, although this is never made totally clear in the story) and though all she can remember of it is the image of some phallic, oozing insects, her personality is irrevocably changed by these events.

Much of the distaste towards the nurse though seems to come from a larger, more important theme in Cerebus, which is Jaka's distaste towards the idea of motherhood. In the comic women are split into two groups, Kevilists (roughly libertarian ultra-feminists who see men as inferior) and Cirinists (fascist matriarchist pro-lifers who see men as even more inferior). Cirinists worship motherhood while Kevilists despise it, and despite her quarrel with Astoria (the leader of the Kevilists), Jaka is definitely a Kevilist. Her own mother is dead, and she quarrels with both the mother figures who replace her - the nurse and Astoria - and demonises both to an unreasonable degree.

Jaka seems to crave attention - she is a dancer after all - and this is shown from a very early age. She needs an audience and seems to feel that the role of mother relegates one to being in the audience rather than being the performer - a very telling moment comes early in the narrative in the text part of the story, where Jaka, rather than play her usual game of having Missy watch adoringly while she waves to imaginary crowds, instead pretends to be in the crowd while watching Missy, who she imagines as her daughter:

Which led Jaka briefly (very briefly) to visualize herself seated on the reviewing stand while Missy rode Magic triumphantly before her, nodding in stately fashion as Jaka cheered herself hoarse, in concert with the hysterical throng.

Bad Missy.

Properly chastised (and agreeable as ever) Missy had returned to her prescribed role in the Pageant Game and was once more suitably awe-stricken as Jaka made entrance after entrance amid coloured torch flames and shrill fanfare.

When it is later revealed that rather than miscarry, Jaka has induced an abortion, this fits perfectly with her character. Mothers are at best members of the audience, not the star of the show. At the moment, Jaka is the star of the show to Rick, but she knows if he gets a son she will be sidelined, and even though she doesn't care about him (she doesn't care about anybody, truly) nor does she want the limelight to shift from her. All this later becomes the most important theme in Cerebus - after the Melmoth short story, the next major story arc, covering four years' worth of comics, was Mothers And Daughters, which explored these ideas in depth.

I could go on about this book all month, about the parallels I can see with my own life - I have at times been almost every one of the six major characters in this book, and can sympathise with them all even as I despise those aspects in myself, about the use of repetition (Pud Withers' fantasies repeating endlessly, getting closer and closer to the rape fantasy he so nearly acts out, Cerebus' speech with the repeated line 'and Cerebus is sorry about that') which starts on the very first page with 'rise and shine', about the beautiful art (this is the first of the Cerebus story arcs to be done with background artist Gerhard fully involved from page one), but really, this is something you should read for yourself. There are only one or two works in comics (When The Wind Blows, maybe Maus, maybe From Hell) that really engage the reader in this way, that show this level of technical ability, humour (I haven't even mentioned Mrs Thatcher as a member of the inquisition, with her vocal patterns perfectly mimicked in Sim's lettering) and simple humanity.

Every character in this book is exquisitely realised and fully human, even the comic relief characters (and the aardvark), and despite their flaws one can't help but sympathise with their fates. For there are no happy endings here. Of the six main characters, two die, one is imprisoned, one has his life destroyed, and the other two are left catatonic.

The word masterpiece can be overused, but this, and the volumes either side of it in the 300-issue run of Cerebus, deserves the title if anything does. No matter what views Sim holds now, or how repellent the man can seem as a person (and this has put many, many people off reading his comics), this is as good a work of art as anything out there, and is essential.

Some information and ideas for this come from the cerebus discussion group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/cerebus , especially Dave Sim's own postings there in March 2004 (the idea of Lord Julius being Jaka's abuser).
Previous 'phonebook': Church And State Vol II
Next 'phonebook': Melmoth

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