The writeup above by heptapod
covers this, the fifth phonebook
in the Cerebus
series, very well as far as a general plot summary goes, but there is much, much more to say about this book. Of necessity this writeup contains SPOILERS
Jaka's Story has layers and layers of rich symbolism unlike almost anything else in comics. This is a novel that bears reading and rereading with intense scrutiny, to dig out the extra layers. There is not one truly decent character in this story, and yet every character is sympathetic in some way, something that is rare in comics, and unlike almost any comic I've read before it uses the device of the untrustworthy narrator to great effect.
The plot of the comic part of the book is covered above, but there is another section to this book, the textual part of it, that deserves a lot more mention. The book alternates between the story described above and a textual description of Jaka's early years. At the beginning of the story we are more or less invited to accept this as simple truth, but it is later revealed that this is the text of a 'Reads' (the equivalent in Cerebus' world of comics) written by Oscar, the friend of Jaka's husband, Rick. Oscar is a parody of Oscar Wilde and the textual elements are written very much in a (very well done) pastiche of Wilde's style, full of elegant circumlocution and classical allusion, but it is made clear later on that Oscar only knows of the events of Jaka's life through Rick's retelling, and that Oscar is in turn fictionalising many of these elements.
Dave Sim has said in many interviews, at least those prior to his conversion to his own hybrid fundamentalist Islamic-Christianity, that he always wanted to leave some doubt in people's minds, that he believed most things in the world are open to multiple interpretations, and this is certainly true of Jaka's Story.
When we first meet Jaka's nurse, in the textual parts of the story talking about her childhood, the nurse is portrayed as almost a demon figure. We never see her face in illustrations, seeing her always from Jaka's point of view , a looming figure all breasts and legs, much like a more sinister version of the maid in Tom & Jerry (Sim's reappropriation of pop-culture figures and conversion of them into something entirely other is a frequent event in the Cerebus books, although whether this comparison was intended or not I don't know). Whenever a head needs to be shown, a picture of the expressionless face of Jaka's doll, Missy, is shown in its place.Much is made in the text of her sternness, lack of compassion, and cruelty - "Fear, installed forthrightly, reinforced continuously and compounded daily was, to Nurse, one of the cornerstones of a truly fine up-bringing".
It is only when later we meet Nurse again, this time in the cell next to Jaka's as she waits for her execution some 400 pages later, that we realise that the nurse of Oscar's story, based on Rick's embellishments of Jaka's faulty memory, is simply the same giant looming figure we all remember from our childhood - the disciplinarian teacher who, deep down, cared for the children far more than they realised. In the text, Nurse's concern when Jaka gets knocked out in her care is shown as a worry for her own job. In the 'reality' of the comic part of the story, even some 20 years later she is moved to tears by her recollection of nursing the child she loved through her sickness.
Part of this portrayal of the nurse may be down to Jaka's anger - the nurse inadvertantly caused an accident that left Jaka comatose, and while she was comatose she was sexually abused (probably by Lord Julius, although this is never made totally clear in the story) and though all she can remember of it is the image of some phallic, oozing insects, her personality is irrevocably changed by these events.
Much of the distaste towards the nurse though seems to come from a larger, more important theme in Cerebus, which is Jaka's distaste towards the idea of motherhood. In the comic women are split into two groups, Kevilists (roughly libertarian ultra-feminists who see men as inferior) and Cirinists (fascist matriarchist pro-lifers who see men as even more inferior). Cirinists worship motherhood while Kevilists despise it, and despite her quarrel with Astoria (the leader of the Kevilists), Jaka is definitely a Kevilist. Her own mother is dead, and she quarrels with both the mother figures who replace her - the nurse and Astoria - and demonises both to an unreasonable degree.
Jaka seems to crave attention - she is a dancer after all - and this is shown from a very early age. She needs an audience and seems to feel that the role of mother relegates one to being in the audience rather than being the performer - a very telling moment comes early in the narrative in the text part of the story, where Jaka, rather than play her usual game of having Missy watch adoringly while she waves to imaginary crowds, instead pretends to be in the crowd while watching Missy, who she imagines as her daughter:
Which led Jaka briefly (very briefly) to visualize herself seated on the reviewing stand while Missy rode Magic triumphantly before her, nodding in stately fashion as Jaka cheered herself hoarse, in concert with the hysterical throng.
Properly chastised (and agreeable as ever) Missy had returned to her prescribed role in the Pageant Game and was once more suitably awe-stricken as Jaka made entrance after entrance amid coloured torch flames and shrill fanfare.
When it is later revealed that rather than miscarry, Jaka has induced an abortion, this fits perfectly with her character. Mothers are at best members of the audience, not the star of the show. At the moment, Jaka is the star of the show to Rick, but she knows if he gets a son she will be sidelined, and even though she doesn't care about him (she doesn't care about anybody, truly) nor does she want the limelight to shift from her. All this later becomes the most important theme in Cerebus - after the Melmoth short story, the next major story arc, covering four years' worth of comics, was Mothers And Daughters, which explored these ideas in depth.
I could go on about this book all month, about the parallels I can see with my own life - I have at times been almost every one of the six major characters in this book, and can sympathise with them all even as I despise those aspects in myself, about the use of repetition (Pud Withers' fantasies repeating endlessly, getting closer and closer to the rape fantasy he so nearly acts out, Cerebus' speech with the repeated line 'and Cerebus is sorry about that') which starts on the very first page with 'rise and shine', about the beautiful art (this is the first of the Cerebus story arcs to be done with background artist Gerhard fully involved from page one), but really, this is something you should read for yourself. There are only one or two works in comics (When The Wind Blows, maybe Maus, maybe From Hell) that really engage the reader in this way, that show this level of technical ability, humour (I haven't even mentioned Mrs Thatcher as a member of the inquisition, with her vocal patterns perfectly mimicked in Sim's lettering) and simple humanity.
Every character in this book is exquisitely realised and fully human, even the comic relief characters (and the aardvark), and despite their flaws one can't help but sympathise with their fates. For there are no happy endings here. Of the six main characters, two die, one is imprisoned, one has his life destroyed, and the other two are left catatonic.
The word masterpiece can be overused, but this, and the volumes either side of it in the 300-issue run of Cerebus, deserves the title if anything does. No matter what views Sim holds now, or how repellent the man can seem as a person (and this has put many, many people off reading his comics), this is as good a work of art as anything out there, and is essential.
Some information and ideas for this come from the cerebus discussion group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/cerebus , especially Dave Sim's own postings there in March 2004 (the idea of Lord Julius being Jaka's abuser).
Previous 'phonebook': Church And State Vol II
Next 'phonebook': Melmoth