As promised, my gradual journey through Dave Sim's Cerebus has brought me up to the fifth volume, Jaka's Story. Cerebus has a decreased role in this entry, with the focus reserved for Jaka, Cerebus' recurring love interest. Up until now, Jaka's been somewhat thinly-defined (not being the lead character); by the end of this book, we learn the story of Jaka's isolated upbringing, adolescent humiliations and her contemporary troubles as she and her husband Rick deal with her recent miscarriage, Jaka's career as a dancer working in a tavern run by one Pud Withers, Rick's friend Oscar (Wilde) who's writing a book about Jaka's life (without her knowledge); Cerebus himself is just a minor complication in Jaka's present; by the end of the book, she's in much worse shape.
Although the first volume of Cerebus demonstrated a marked improvement in Sim's craft as the book progressed, it's clear he was still finding himself as he went into Jaka's Story; this is the first Cerebus volume which reads like a novel, rather than a set of serialized comic books collected as a trade. There are no sudden halts to spend (roughly) 22 pages with the Rolling Stones, Elrod or Artemis. It must have been something to experience when the series was first published, to find Sim mastering how he would change the monthly comic book to better suit the eventual collection - the format people like me know it as today.
In his introduction (which I withheld reading until after the story), Sim described his character Pud Withers as being one example of a certain type of men:
"Their desires, natural and organic, fester within them, their shyness and their unappealing physiques the frail but insurmountable barricade which makes what is difficult for the rest of our gender, unattainable for them. That the merest handful of them surredener, finally, to internalied rage and sick need is testimony (to me) to the monumental restraint which characterizes the existences of nearly all men..."
He also notes Pud's character is representative of "much of the comics-reading community." He's not too far wrong, from my own experiences. As Jaka's Story progresses and it becomes clear Jaka's employer is harbouring a terrible crush on her - repeatedly rehearsing in his mind how he wants to express it - I could definitely see something of myself in there. I held a weird mixture of sympathy and dread for Pud - sympathy from our similarities, dread to imagine how his story would wind up. As I surmised, there was ultimately no way Pud's story could have a happy ending. He would either force himself on Jaka or allow his feelings to fester within him until he destroyed himself... or, so I assumed.
I'm not sure why Oscar Wilde is now a character in this book - no more so than I understood why Groucho & Chico Marx or Rodney Dangerfield were series recurring characters or Margaret Thatcher one of this volume's antagonists. I'm probably hamstrung by being very under-educated on Wilde - I think I've just read the Canterville Ghost & Picture of Dorian Gray and have never read his biography. In the introduction, Sim notes Oscar demanded more effort to write than his own parody characters; there is something interesting to be found in Oscar's all-too-proud cleverness, something almost pathetic given that Rick is the only character in the book he tries to impress.
By the end of the tome as Jaka is being held by the rigidly-dogmatic Cirinists, I wondered if the story was headed to an ending similar to Orwell's 1984 - the destruction of the hero's personality, reprogrammed into a tool of the oligarchy. Instead, just as Pud's fate is worse than rejection or eternal festering, Jaka's fate is worse than 1984's Winston Smith; she isn't remade by the oligarchy through an act of betrayal, but rather has her betrayal exposed by them in the worst way.
I'm curious to see where this now-focused narrative will go; I'll hopefully obtain volume six before too long...