As this volume opens, Cerebus the Aardvark, having won and lost the office of Prime Minister of Iest, became the Pope of Tarim, an office with much less regulation and far more power. Being the self-centered so-and-so he is, Cerebus wasted his time taxing the populace to provide him with all of their gold, right up until his old enemy Thrunk usurps the title of Pope and casts Cerebus from Iest.
This fourth volume concerns Cerebus' struggle to reclaim the papacy and deal with his on-again-off-again manipulative ally Astoria, who has been jailed for assassinating another Pope. It all ends up on the moon as a cosmic figure dubbed "the Judge" answers every question on Cerebus' mind, pulling no punches as he does so. Most of the recurring characters recur.
At a key moment in this tome, Cerebus rapes Astoria, in what I believe the TV Tropes site likes to call, "Moral Event Horizon." It's difficult to imagine Cerebus ever living down the rape... then again, he's never been an entirely sympathetic protagonist, so I've been well-prepared for him to perform despicable acts. Raping Astoria is terrible (no matter how equally unlikeable Astoria is), but really just the most recent terrible thing Cerebus has done. So how does one sustain interest in such a terrible person for so many more volumes? It remains to be seen, in my case...
In addition to having a massive cast, Cerebus has a complex world which I'm afraid I constantly lose track of; it seems as though whenever Cirinists are invoked I'm left wondering, "Who were they again? What was their philosophy? How are they a problem?" There's a lot of talking in Cerebus, making comic relief characters such as Elrod and Artemis (now going by "Secret Sacred Wars Roach") a welcome respite; I also note how Lord Julius' character has less to do with the plot now, so that when he appears he feels like a more absurdly genuine homage to Groucho Marx than before. Special mention must also be made of the Flaming Carrot, who appears for one chapter of the story (strangely, there's nothing in the book's indica about who owns the Flaming Carrot; pretty sure it's Bob Burden, not Dave Sim & Gerhard?).
Looking back at Cerebus and the impressive talent on display by Sim & Gerhard, I wonder at the comic book industry we have today - it seems much the same as the 1980s industry, with two companies ruling the roost, except creators now seem as eager to please Hollywood as they've ever been to cozy up with the Big Two. From this vantage, it looks like things were going to change - could have truly changed - but for some reason, didn't. Sim helped empower creators' ability to chart their own path, but it seems as though the gates he kicked open have only ever enabled a tiny handful of folks to find success doing their own thing; some have the purity of their art, but address only a niche audience. Looking at Sim himself, there was a time when Sim as near to the mainstream of comics culture as a self-publisher could get; today, he's trapped playing to a niche audience. Where exactly did comics history go wrong? Why did so many talented individuals fail while the corporations just kept growing fatter? If you know the answer, don't share it; use its power to sustain yourself.
In two days, I'll begin reading the next volume in Cerebus: Jaka's Story.