Well, to start with, it's really funny.
It's funny in a lot of ways. I mentioned before that Sim is a great cartoonist in the gag-cartoon sense of the term, an there's a lot of that in the early volumes and issues (say, the first third or so of the series). But there's also satire, wit, farce -- a whole lot of different sorts of humor. The parody, as I said, is most intense in the first volume, but it continues sporadically throughout later ones -- and while it may not mean much to those unfamiliar with the source material, for those who are, it's really funny. And sometimes Sim's parody moves into simple pastiche -- or, less kindly, theft: Lord Julius may be called a parody of Groucho Marx, but basically he just is Groucho Marx, ruling the city-state of Palnu much as Marx's character rules Freedonia in Duck Soup. But then, Groucho Marx is really funny, and Sim captures him perfectly: you can hear the dialogue spoken in his voice throughout. So really that's a feature not a bug, except for copyright lawyers.
To give you a sense of the style of the humor, here's the set up for chapter 1 of the second volume, High Society (which was issue #26 in the original comic): Cerebus, a barbarian warrior, arrives at a hotel having had a truly terrible day, and wants to get his aggressions out by beating someone up. Much to his irritation, however, he is rather mysteriously being treated as a person of importance -- to the degree that no one will fight with him whatever the provocation. Over the course of the issue, people flatter him, serve him, cater to him (and he only gradually realizes why); most of all, to his irritation, they ignore his increasingly desperate and wild attempts to start a fight with someone. The chapter ends with his ignoring a police captain's warning not to walk through a certain section of the city alone since he might be attacked: "It's been a bad day, Captain -- don't try to cheer Cerebus up."*
If you want a more direct flavor of Sim's humor, though you can read some of it online. Humor is more susceptible to being excerpted than the drama, characterization and other virtues that Cerebus acquired over its run, and comes through in the bits and pieces people post. In addition, Sim wrote a number of small stories which were published places other than his own comic; as some of these are hard to find (they're not generally in the phone books), Sim has given permission for them to be reprinted.
So if you want a flavor of the early, funny Cerebus (not the really early, amateurish Cerebus, but the still-fairly-early, still-quite-funny stuff) I recommend two brief pieces. The first is a nine-page story "His First Fifth", which was published in Marvel's (!) Epic Magazine, and is not in any of the collections. It tells a story from Cerebus's childhood -- the time he drank his first fifth of liquor. Unlike most of Cerebus, it's in color. You can find it online here; it's also here (pages 3 - 11).
The second piece I'd recommend is this (illegally, I think) posted scan of Cerebus #51 -- one of the four issues not collected in the 16-volume run. It helps a bit to have read volume two (issues #26-50), but you can get the idea without having done so. Cerebus -- who over the course of volume two rose in political power in the city-state of Iest until he ended as Prime Minister -- is fleeing the city in the wake of the volume's ending. But he finds that many of the other major characters from volume two -- including some of his chief opponents -- are fleeing in the same ship that he is. Conflict ensues; it's funny.
But the humor wouldn't sustain a 16-volume series, and Sim began slowly moving away from it -- or, rather, incorporating other elements which eventually all-but edged it out (although in the stuff I've read it still peaks through here and there) -- to the point where Sim began to get hit with the famous line of Woody Allen's fans, "I like your earlier, funnier stuff best."
The humor is the chief virtue in volumes two and three (as well as the previously-discussed volume one), and a central virtue of volume four. The bulk of those volumes are political (2) and religious (3-4) satire (in volume three Cerebus takes over a church much as he does a government in volume two). This is sometimes described as being some sort of comment on politics and religion, I don't think that High Society has any particular insight into politics -- it's mostly pretty basic stuff about the venal and scheming stuff inside the political sausage. And I'd say the same about Church and State and religion. Still, they're fun, and they're funny, even if the ideas behind the humor aren't all that original.
And the humor isn't the only virtue of either volume. Cerebus's encounters with Jaka, his unrequited love, are generally quite moving. The stories begin to pick up some pace -- they're still pretty episodic, especially volume two, but they increasingly gain narrative momentum. And in volume four (the second half of the Church and State storyline) Sim starts to go strange places, including a lengthy religious quest that reportedly prefigures a lot of later content -- but here, at least, it's well done.
And the series changes in tone, feel and emphasis more than I have yet managed to capture here, for, by volume five, the tone changes significantly -- and does so without any sense of rupture.
The fifth volume, Jaka's Story (the last of the volumes I've read thus far) is far more serious: what humor there is is a minor element. At the same time (probably not coincidentally) Cerebus himself is reduced to a secondary character in his own book. The fifth volume is mainly the story of Jaka: her husband, her employer, her husband's friend, and her houseguest. (To keep from issuing spoilers, I'll refrain from saying which one of those Cerebus is.) In the wake of the events at the end of volume four, Cerebus is on the lam, hiding under an alias; Jaka is work as a dancer in a religious regime that frowns on such. The book is a wonderful tale -- and, far more than any of the first four volumes, it really is a graphic novel, a single story with a beginning, middle and end -- about obsession, jealousy, betrayal, disappointment, misunderstanding and miscommunication. It's in many ways a character piece about a tight little group of people who might well work as the cast of a play. (And then it all goes to hell. But you'll have to read it to see that part.)
Interlaced with this story set in the present is the story of Jaka's childhood -- how she got to be who she is. This is told in florid prose (deliberately so: its author is revealed to be one of the characters in the story, who is modeled on Oscar Wilde**) illustrated with individual pictures -- and, for all its overwrought style, it also is quite effective as a tale of childhood.
This is, basically, a completely different side to Cerebus -- Cerebus as serious drama, rather than humorous story. And it works.
In fact, it is (so far, anyway) the other place I can imagine recommending that readers start, aside from with volume two and High Society. There will be occasional confusions if you haven't read the first four volumes, but they'll be brief, and for the most part I think the story will hold together well as a drama. So if this sounds more appealing to you, you might think about reading it rather than High Society.
So yes, Cerebus is, or at any rate becomes a lot of things other than funny: it is also home to many of the features of good novels -- rich, interesting characters; compelling plots; developed themes.
But it's more than that, too. So far I haven't said much about Sim's work as comics; and one of Sim's central virtues is his originality with, creativity in and overall superb use of the comics form. Sim simply does interesting things with the various elements of comics -- designs good pages, uses sound effects in wonderful and ingenious ways, and so forth. (Some of those innovations have sense been incorporated into the general vocabulary of comics, but his work remains quite visually interesting, dexterous in its use of its form.) One of the reasons Sim's so widely praised by other comics artists is that they are more acutely aware of just how original, and just how good, he is in these respects. And, of course, they're likely to care more. If you are a fan of comics as a medium -- like seeing what can be done with it -- then you'll appreciate this aspect of Sim's work; but if you just like to read good books, then one of his chief virtues won't interest you as much. You need to just plain like good prose to like Proust; you need to just plain like good comics to like Dave Sim (though I wouldn't compare them in any other respect.)
This would probably be a good time to mention Gerhard. Dave Sim was the principle illustrator throughout Cerebus; but starting with issue #65 (about halfway through volume three), he was joined by a collaborator, the artist known only by the nom de brush "Gerhard". For the rest of the series, Sim drew the characters (and, I believe, designed the pages), but Gerhard drew the backgrounds. This added a whole additional level of richness to the art, and improves the book significantly.
In any event, the overall effect was amazing. Sim will do whole scenes off-panel, "showing" what is going on with the nature of the lettering and the sound effects; he will vary the shape of panels to convey drunkenness or dizziness, use odd "camera" angels to portray surprise or disorientation; long before Alan Moore and J. H. Williams pulled the same trick in the final issue of Promethea, he designed issue #20 so that if you disassemble the comic and lay it out as a poster, it depicts a larger image of its central character; he evocatively portrayed a sick, sleepless night over many panels by varying the uncomfortable position of the sleeper and showing the lights from the window shift on the ceiling; and so on.
And really, that's just the flashy stuff, the stuff that's easy to talk about. It's not the flashy, dazzling metaphors that make beautiful prose, but the paragraph-by-paragraph flow of compelling words -- still, it's the dazzling metaphors that are easier to quote. In the same way, while it's easier to mention Sim's flashier innovations, the real beauty in his comics, the reason he is really so highly regarded, comes from his simply well-designed, well-laid out pages, the sheer functional beauty of it all -- page after page, volume after volume.
And while it's hard to show Sim's humor, or his narrative skill, or his subtle characterization in a blog post, I think I can show something of his eye for design and his talent for the beautiful image. I want to do so by looking at an aspect of Cerebus that is (so far as I've seen) insufficiently remarked on even by its admirers: the covers of the original comic. I think that looking at them can convey something of why Sim has a touch that is so admired, even if the ends to which it is put are often shatteringly disappointing.
Continued in Part Three
(wherein the promised illustrations will at last appear)
(wherein the promised illustrations will at last appear)
Update (Feb 4): For work-related reasons, it may be a few more days before I can finish part three -- hopefully by the end of this week. In the meantime, a third place to look for samples of Cerebus humor (and other elements, but the humor particularly) is Free Cerebus. This pamphlet, online with Dave Sim's permission, was produced in 1992 to catch new readers up. It is comparatively spoiler-free, given its purpose (it tells broad strokes, avoid giving away key surprises, etc.), but contains a number of sample pages which give you a sense of Sim's humor. Also useful for those thinking of trying out Cerebus, and starting with either volumes two (which I'd recommend) or five. Again, it encapsulates the humor better than other elements of the work; but it's worth checking out. Later Update: Part Three is now online.
* Cerebus almost always refers to himself in the third person. It's a quirk.
** Another one of Sim's odd habits is using essentially real people in fictional roles. I've already mentioned Groucho Marx's casting as Lord Julius; I haven't yet mentioned Keith Richards and Mick Jagger's appearance in book four, or Margaret Thatcher's appearance late in book five. While these are not supposed to be the celebrities themselves -- if nothing else, it's set in a fantasy world -- they are modeled in appearance, speech and other traits on real individuals, sometimes quite closely. I think this arises out of an impulse towards parody, but obviously it's one thing to make a Conan-like figure who's an aardvark and quite another to have someone who is for all intents and purposes Oscar Wilde hanging out at a tavern with Jaka and her other companions. Effective, I suppose, but also weird.