The twelfth volume of the epic Cerebus picks up right where the eleventh left off. Cerebus is confronted with a familiar but totally unexpected face. At first he isn’t quite sure who is sitting across from him in the tavern by the Wall of Tsi. Is it his friend Bear, who symbolized masculinity and stability? The man gives the baffled aardvark a hint: “You once told me that you were in love with my wife.”
As the title suggests, the man is Rick, Jaka’s husband from Jaka’s Story (the fifth book). In that volume, Rick is a thin-as-a-rail man-child who siphons off the pittance that Jaka earns as a tavern dancer. Although he neglected his wife out of carelessness, Rick loved Jaka deeply--and their relationship was indeed the ground beneath his feet. As Sim explains in the introduction of this volume, Rick is one of those guys who “mates for life.” Therefore, the breakup of his marriage with Jaka at the end of Jaka’s Story irrevocably changed the man who expected to live out his days with one woman.
What has happened to Rick during his seven-book absence is complex and contradictory, as is any story retold by an alcoholic. The boyish, happy-go-lucky man is lost beneath pounds of emotional instability, self-loathing, and delusions of grandeur. Sim brilliantly captures this man in the throes of his psychosis, revealing the frightening imagery that manifests itself in his conscious mind.
Throughout the book, Cerebus desperately tries to “man up” Rick with concise self-inflating mottos like “Go on! Beat It! Scram!” Following Cerebus’s teaching, Rick begins a bizarre-religion in Cerebus’s name, where the aardvark mutually represents both god and devil.
The result is a disturbing blend of religious iconography and mental insanity. The gruesome nature isn’t unabashed gore, but part of Sim’s visual storytelling.
As Cerebus awakes from his nightly whiskey binge, he discovers Rick at the bar. The story flickers into Rick’s spiritual psychosis where he appears as an angel stabbed through the heart with an ankh. The skin on his chest is pulled apart with chains, revealing his broken rib cage and bleeding heart. The image appears three consecutive times on a six-panel page. In the third of those three panels another panel of Rick’s face as it appears in reality is inset over the angel’s head. Rick bleeds from the head suffering from a concussion. When Cerebus asks him what happened, he blankly stares at the aardvark and then asks, “Could I have a pint of stout please?”
The allusion to Rick’s mortification of the flesh (a practice of self-flagellation within small orthodox groups of the Roman Catholic Church) and alcoholism is difficult to stomach, especially when you consider the benign man he used to be. Rick’s Story is sad and very distressing.
From the frightening imagery of Cerebus as a spiteful, hell spawn to Rick’s exegesis on the “Books of Cerebus” in the style of the King James Bible, there are laughs and very pleasant surprises (particularly toward that latter fourth of the book). For the most part, though, this volume is ultimately a study of an unbalanced man in a bar conversing with a three-foot tall aardvark.
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