Cerebus Vol 5: Jack's Story (1988-90)
Art by Dave Sim & GerhardKIERON GILLEN:
(from Kieron Gillen's Blog, 31 July 2014)
Someone asked me about my comic criticism recently. I’m digging some of it out. I was looking for me writing about AMERICA, but found this. It was for a zine site Charlie Chu and I ran for a while, which was basically comics writing in the wanky mode of music journalism. This one leaned serious, but there was some agreeably goofy stuff in there. Tempted to drag out the Scott Pilgrim Vol 2 one. Anyway - kept it in Drafts for a while, and forgot about it, but let’s drop this thing now. Untweaked from the period, as much as it pains me.
It was three, maybe four, in the morning. It was just gone midnight when I let my Ex in. She was here to see the house-mate whose room was directly above me. It could be to chat, but it was probably sex. But I really couldn’t be sure.
Hence ceiling-staring. Hence listening. Hence sleeplessness.
I was a virgin before I met her. We’d split in the usual boring ways that I could handle. This was something different: An unprecedented sort of horror, and one that I simply didn't have the tools to deal with. I wasn't yet drinker enough to fall into the arms of a bottle of Smirnoff Blue. I didn't know about Nick Cave's From Her to Eternity, whose obsessive passion fantasia of murder-and-menstruation-blood dripping through the ceiling would have romanticised it all, given it meaning. And, relevantly, I didn't have a copy of Jaka's Story sitting on the shelves, whispering all about it.
So. Jaka's Story. What is it?
It's a Love Story. Of sorts.
It's about Art and the Artist. And the sacrifices thereof.
It's the fifth of the collected editions of Cerebus, describing issues 114-136. Except that really isn't important. Despite being foreshadowed by a pair of apocalyptic encounters in the previous High Society and Church & State, this stands alone. In fact, standing alone is one of its most lasting impressions. People like statues, arranged in rows, never touching until they're pushed. And then they collide, falling like dominoes, shattering into dust.
It's all the more effective for its brutal schism between form and content. The tools applied are as graceful and elegant as you can wish for, all silent panels, the borders tightening as the tension rises, as if to crush the players alive. The content mutters in the dark, painting with tears on a canvas of old-diary pages. Together, it's a comic that doesn't so much tear your heart out as incise it scalpel-style. And remember: rough cuts can heal. Smooth-edged cuts bleed.
It's a fearlessly measured piece, dovetailing dual separate narrative threads. One, presented in sequentials, is the events of the current day. The other is in illustrated prose, a single crystalline image with a stream of text, tells the tale of the eponymous Jaka's youth as a Lady-to-be. Its strength is the contrast, the hard juxtaposition: The long still pauses and awkward gabble of life versus prose’s sense of distance, structure, shape. This is comics swallowing prose alive and picking its teeth with a book-mark. This is prose as an artfully constructed lie and comics as truth.
It's in the most part a tiny-clockwork toy of a comic, with a minimal cast, even compared to comics other than the Grand Political Comic (genre, not form) Adventure of the previous Church & State and High Society. Small people. A single setting. Emotions too big for tiny rooms. The personalities work against each other, parts in a motor that’s gradually edging its way to a conclusion and...
Let's talk a little about clockwork things, as people never fail to misunderstand them. You say something runs like clockwork, then it's considered a beautiful perfectly-ordered system. That's purely an artefact of our perception. Take it from a cogs-eye view. What we see as order is actually its tiniest parts locking against its neighbours and wrestling, manipulating and being manipulated in return . Clockwork is simply small things trying to tear each other apart, continually denied release. Watch what happens when you stomp on a clockwork mechanism: it explodes, springs flying, cogs breaking, everything running for freedom, albeit briefly. And then brutal stillness.
Such is the lot of the poor cast of Jaka's Tale, lost half-way up a mountain. Little imperfections in their personalities mill against one another until a boot falls from the sky and exposes their gears to the world.
Let's meet the cogs. Look at Cerebus, Barbarian aardvark, living in a miscarriage's room, listening through the wall to his Ex, hoping the arguments get worse and the love-making gets less. His Ex? Jaka, married to a useless, hateless man and dancing in a bar with no customers. Food and board costs three coppers a day. Luckily, her dancing pays three coppers. The landlord, grocer and innkeeper are all the same man. He watches her cleavage, running through the same conversations in his head until the flames of hell lick along the grooves. Jaka's Husband, Rick gets drunk on one beer and thinks it’s entirely natural that everyone's in loves his wife: after all, she's lovely. Oscar Wilde smokes opium cigarettes, watches all and writes a pretty little story.
While only Cerebus is literally waiting each night for the noise of his Ex's passion for another to thrust voodoo-lances through his guts, heart and balls, all the characters are crouched in a bed of their own making, waiting for similar resolution. It can’t go on like this, surely? But it does, inching onwards for the majority of the work, with the only joy being as the clock strikes midnight and perfect chimes sound. For a few moments it’s all so beautiful that they forget Cinderella's Folly and the rotting pumpkin stinking outside.
As cogs, they turn. Slowly, like the waltz of Continents, waiting for the only release clockwork can hope for...
The heaven-sent boot? As if I’d spoil that particular apocalypse. But it comes, and comes hard. And then they’re all back to staring into the darkness, waiting for the footsteps of their own personal executioners.
Quiet. Shush. Cease your prattling. Listen carefully. What can you hear?
No you don’t. You’re not paying attention.
It’s the sound of everyone you’ve ever loved betraying you and betraying themselves.
You'll never hear it, but Jaka's Tale will tell you all about it.