There are two things that have to be noted when reviewing the first volume of Cerebus, Dave Sim's remarkable and controversial 300-issue magnum opus. Firstly, it is utterly unrepresentative of the series as a whole. Secondly, it still manages to be pretty good fun. Far removed from the sophisticated book-length storylines and exploration of real-world issues that would come to characterise the series, this volume for the most part consists of single-issue stories, closely parodying Marvel's Conan series, with the central joke being that the protagonist is not a lumberingly destructive alpha male but a small grey furry cartoon aardvark. It is best judged in comparison to the other `funny animal' comic books that were enjoying popularity at the time (such as Howard the Duck, another key influence on these stories), rather than against later Cerebus volumes like `Jaka's Story' or the `Mothers & Daughters' series - stories which, though featuring the same lead character, are vastly removed from this volume in the depth and breadth of their ambition.
Sim is clearly learning his craft here - his artwork doesn't really settle into anything approaching a recognisable style of his own until about half-way through this volume, though it is nonetheless interesting to watch that style develop as he experiments with pencilling styles and inking techniques. The writing initially consists of little more than Conan rewrites with added jokes, but fortunately those jokes are often very funny - note-perfect impersonations of Foghorn Leghorn and Groucho Marx display Sim's talent for mimicry, and an utterly deranged parody of Batman is a treat for comic-book fans.
There are early signs of the ambition that would eventually turn Cerebus into one of the comic book medium's key works - the `Mind Games' story, for instance, consists of a conversation between Cerebus and an unseen antagonist against a crude abstract background - an interesting shift from the more action-orientated early issues in itself, but when each page is laid out, the backgrounds form a picture of Cerebus himself, a deliberate attempt on Sim's part to emulate Neal Adams' "hidden head" illustrations on a larger (if simpler) scale. The `Silverspoon' parody of Prince Valiant shows the range of Sim's interest in comics history beyond the standard Marvel/DC axis. The "Palnu Trilogy", a very funny precursor of "High Society" that riffs heavily on the Marx Bros' "Duck Soup," marks Sim's first attempt at political parody, a style he develops further with the introduction of "Adam Weisshaupt," the Illuminati founder. The final story successfully segues a superb parody of the Clint Eastwood movie "The Beguiling" into a very silly spoof of Marvel and DC's competing monster comics, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing.
The received wisdom when recommending new readers to Cerebus is to direct them to either High Society or Jaka's Story first, on the basis that these are considerably more accomplished works that are far more representative of Cerebus than this first hodge-podge of possible styles and directions. It's hard to argue with this assessment - both those books are considerably better than this one. Still, there is wit, intelligence, and a gradually developing level of ambition to be found here, and as long as the reader is prepared to wade through the decidedly shaky first half of this volume, the second half is an accomplished example of the `funny animal' comic genre and an entertaining prelude to `High Society'.