(This is the second in an ongoing series. Part one can be found here.)
If I'm to discuss Jaka's Story, I should at least be polite enough to introduce to you to Jaka, pictured here in a rare happy moment. Her life has not been an easy one: she was born into the royal family of Palnu, but a life of royalty she did not lead. From the moment she awoke, her nurse hounded her every movement—and perhaps this was for the better. In the few hours when the nurse wasn't roughly scrubbing this or manhandling that, the six-year-old Jaka was molested by an unknown member of the royal family or the palace staff. (These nightly molestations are alluded to on a single page, but it is a significant page, and one I will return to later.)
The reader is first introduced to Jaka as a young woman dancing in a nightclub. According to Sim in his editorial introduction to Cerebus 114—the "Prologue" to Jaka's Story—she is based upon the mistress he had when he first married his wife, Deni: "I was naive and ridiculous and the poorest imaginable husband material (still am) but my subconscious was at least able to dredge up what I considered a particularly interesting character out of a singularly unstable period of my life." Then again, in response to a letter in Cerebus 268, Jaka is "a spoiled, myopic, insensitive, self-absorbed and self-important harlot princess (quite apart from her position in the heirarchy of the city-state of Palnu)." I mention this not to point to Sim as a hypocrite, but as a way to track the development of his thought: Jaka begins as a complex character with a fraught and troubled past, but in the end becomes a symptom of feminist effrontery. In the strict allegory into which Cerebus will eventually descend, Jaka will come to mean something. She ceases to be a character with motivations the minute she becomes this meaning-laden symbol in possession of an established allegorical function.
To belabor this point, indulge me in a brief discussion of another allegory, Dante's Commedia. Every character in the Commedia symbolizes and personalizes the sin. In the Inferno (Canto V), the soul of Francesca da Rimini is blown about by the winds, the perfect contrapasso for a woman whose lust led to her ruin. Dante uses a familiar figure from (then) recent Italian history in order to prevent his readers from falling into a purely allegorical mode of the sort found in Le Roman de la Rose, in which a Lover is thwarted by Jealousy. Sim's revisionary account of Jaka shovels abstract generalities on top the rich character he had created, much like a snow-machine transforming the rugged terrain of an archaeological dig into a pristine white field.
Why would someone take a snow-machine to a dig? Because life is easier when less complicated. Because history can be rewritten with a little effort and lot of alcohol. Those are fine, if ultimately inadequate, answers. What I want to argue here is that coming to understand individual lives with the bulldozer of a comprehensive world view flattens people into allegory. Once Sim underwent his idiosyncratic religious conversion, he had no choice but to deny Jaka her individuality. The strength of Jaka's Story comes then not from a full-fledged recognition of her humanity, but from the inchoate desire for system which will one day result in his endless talk of Woman and The Void. It is this very teetering—this desire for a system, this need to impose upon the world a narrative—which invigorates this book.
Which is, to return to our story, the tale of a young girl, molested at age six, who leaves the "comforts" of the royal palace for stripping in the slums. She is a divinely good stripper—so talented, so lovely, the future Prime Minister and Pope, Cerebus, spends both glorious careers pining for her. When they both have ended, he seeks solace in her company, only to find her (still) married to a dolt named Rick, but without any children. When he was Pope, she cited her pregnancy as the reason she could not leave Rick for him, so from the moment we see her in Jaka's Story, the absence of any children is palpable. Tomorrow I will discuss how this absence is made wrenching by the various frame narratives Sim employs, but I want to end this post with a brief discussion of Pud, the barkeep who takes Jaka and Rick in.
Pud stands in neatly for the kind of narrative tension Sim eschews in the later books. He is a simple man with simple pleasures: unbeknown to Jaka, he houses and employs her at great personal expense, and their relationship is touchingly unsettling. He longs for her, but knows he cannot win her directly. So he practices his lines—the little manipulations which he hopes will bring harvest—and while they should disenchant the reader, they never do. Pud is the portrait of a man struggling with lust who, despite himself, is not the beast he could have been. Like Sim at this point of his career, Pud is infinitely better than he thought himself to be. Had he a faith forcing him to repress his lusting, his victory over it would not be so moving. Now, that victory is not complete—circumstances intervene, and it could be argued that he merely lacked the opportunity, that he would've taken it when the moment finally ripened—but I have a panel which says otherwise. It'll be the last one in the (fairly lengthy) series of images linked to below the fold.
Note how, in the last panel on 129, Jaka moves beyond the script he'd written for her, and becomes to him a person. It's a small moment, I admit, but there aren't many more with Pud against which to measure it (for reasons to be discussed at some future time).