Robot 6

Quote of the day | Into the Void with Dave Sim

Cerebus

But the main impediment to Dave Sim’s literary reputation is Dave Sim himself. His regressive social and political views and obnoxious rhetoric have created a public persona that’s eclipsed his artistic achievement in the comics world much more completely than it would have in the larger, less insular artistic world — where, for example, plenty of people call John Updike a chauvinist but not even his bitterest detractors question his mastery as a prose stylist, where Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ill-advised statement about 9/11 being a work of art didn’t get him ejected from the first rank of postwar composers, and artists like Wagner and Pound are still secure in their respective pantheons despite having endorsed ideas that are, to put it charitably, pretty well discredited.

But Sim’s controversial ideas are not peripheral to his work; he ultimately makes them its central message and purpose. Wagner never actually wrote any operas about the villainy of the Jews, nor Pound cantos praising the wise and just rule of Franco, but Sim incorporated his screeds about women and the tenets of his one-man religion into the text of his novel, so that even a reader determined to ignore all the apocryphal gossipy bullshit accumulated around the artist and concentrate on the work itself is finally forced to confront the fact that the man has some bizarre ideas and an abrasive way of expressing them.

Tim Kreider, in his must-read introduction to a longer essay on Dave Sim’s seminal (in more ways than one) independent comic Cerebus from The Comics Journal #301. (I made this exact point, complete with the Wagner example, a few years back.) It’s one thing to be an artist with odious ideas unrelated or tangential to your art; it’s quite another to make them your art’s main attraction. Kudos to Kreider for drawing the distinction so clearly.

That said, Kreider’s piece also contains the single best explanation I’ve seen for why you would want to read Cerebus: Its authors resolute determination to follow his bliss, and to better himself as an artist in order to keep up with it.

In the early, sword-and-sorcery issues of Cerebus, Dave Sim drew about as well as the second- or third-best artist in your high school, the guy you’d ask to do the cover for your heavy metal band’s album or airbrush the side of your van. After drawing about a hundred issues, by the time he’d finished Volume II of Church & State — around the same time he hired a brilliant and apparently indefatigable draftsman named Gerhard as his background artist, freeing himself to concentrate exclusively on his characters — Dave Sim had become one of the best cartoonists in North America. And not just in the excellence of his technical skill — he was relentlessly inventive and virtuosic. His exuberant formal experimentation extended from his lettering and paneling to the design of whole issues: Readers puzzled and wowed over the issues in which each page’s background was a fragment of one large picture of Cerebus, or the spinning of an ascending tower was reflected by the page layout rotating several degrees on each page, so that you had to slowly turn the whole book 360º in your hands in the course of reading it. “Thou shalt break every law in the book,” was his injunction to himself.

Sim was also a smart and voracious autodidact (he dropped out of high school after grade 11), and, as he matured, his intellectual passions grew beyond comics, and his artistic ambitions far beyond parody. The single-issue stories expanded into longer and longer story arcs, gradually growing into full-length, 500-page novels. As he continued drawing Cerebus, Sim incorporated everything that captured his interest into the book: He became interested in the mechanics of electoral politics, and Cerebus ran for Prime Minister; he got interested in the history of religion, and Cerebus became the Pope; as Sim’s literary tastes became more sophisticated, Cerebus encountered incarnations of Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. He insatiably appropriated not only literary, historic and political figures, but fictional characters and screen personae, the likenesses of friends and colleagues, other authors’ prose styles, even another cartoonist’s dialogue in a manner that would’ve been called postmodern if he’d had an MFA. He wrote books within books, invented intricate political ideologies, created whole cosmologies. Throughout all of which the book’s central character remained the same anthropomorphized aardvark.

Kreider essentially argues that Cerebus was always about Dave Sim; this is what made the comic so fascinating for so long, and what undid it in the end.

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Comments

8 Comments

Regarding the first part, the bit about Sim’s misogyny: Am I wrong for reading that as a Sim apology? Kreider makes it seem like the problem is not one of content but of context, as if acrimonious hatred toward women would be alright, or at least a less bitter pill to swallow, in some other form of expression. I disagree. I would be heartily repulsed by Dave Sim if I read his brain-diseased ranting in a format where reader, author and material are more closely-knit, such as comics, or in any setting at all. He makes a good point about Sim’s advancement as an artist but there’s no way to easily dismiss hate-manifestos.

I have never read Dave Sim, never will. Draw your own conclusions.

It doesn’t read like an apology to me.

I feel a bit sad for today’s readers who only know Cerebus post-186, with all of the misogyny and hate and bile and bitterness. They never got to experience the fun and joy there was in reading pre-186 Cerebus, when you saw a young man grow into one of the best cartoonists ever. When Jaka’s Story made you jittery and angry and sad and mad all at the same time. When there was blistering parody with Julius and the Roach. When there was the best letters columns and young cartoonists in the back.

The best way to read Cerebus isn’t the phonebooks- it’s in finding those old issues, or the biweekly reprints of the first 50, and seeing the birth of the comics culture that we have today among the 20 pages you’d get of Cerebus in each issue.

But instead, you either have to torrent 300 issues and commit to the experience (and probably blog about it- there’s a lot of half-finished Cerebus blogs out there), or spend a fortune on phonebooks. Or do what most people sadly do, decide not to try.

I’m not a Dave Sim apologist. He said some horrible, horrible things about women, women that he knew and that didn’t deserve his hatred. He’s got issues, and his issues have issues. He’s also incredibly talented, and much of my life as a comics reader was spent waiting for a new issue of Cerebus. I try to balance the two realities as best as I can.

“it’s quite another to make them your art’s main attraction”

I’d sooner stab burning needles into my eyes than read a Dave Sim parody of women’s fashion magazines (i.e. Glamourpuss) but…Sim’s odious views are very far from the main attraction of Cerebus, at least. They may be what Sim **thinks** is the main attraction, but he’s his own worst interpreter.

For instance, his take on Jaka, as revealed in supplementary material, is a totally Bizarro “me hate women” take which is, well…the only way it could be more directly refuted by her portrayal in the actual comic is if Sim had drawn a big sign over her head saying “Don’t believe Sim when he talks about me”…

The Wagner example doesn’t hold water. Wagner did made his views known on record, in his essay “Jewishness in Music,” so were not talking about hearsay or some tangential opinion he held unconnected to his music. The essay is, after all, a sort of manifesto arguing that real German music, like Wagner’s, should be free of the taint of Jewish influence. Arguably then, anything Wagner made following this manifesto would be something meant to, on some level, repudiate Jewishness in music. If that seems too abstract, there’s always the issue of Jewish stereotypes in his work: some argue that Mime in the Ring, Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, and Klingsor in Parsifal are meant to mock Jews.

I think you’re trying to distinguish between artists who just also happened to be a-holes and those who incorporated ideologies we find sinister into their works. Problem is, I think, if you’ve decided before hand that an artist’s ideology is an important part of him and his work, you’ll find that in his work. You almost can’t help but see it. If you dismiss it before hand as tangential, then you’ll find other interpretations available to you. Neither, however, seems to me particularly obvious or given and the latter has the added defect of requiring one set yourself up as a reliable judge of what the artist did and did not actually mean, even in cases where one has an explicit statement of meaning on hand. Neither is necessarily true, but one is necessarily insincere.

Jones,
I think you’re quite right that at times Sim was too good a creator to keep “on message,” no matter how diligently he strove to convert himself to his avowed philosophy. Example being–

For some reason, that didn’t come across in the work proper (for me), Sim seemed to think of Cerebus’ friend Bear as some sort of male ideal, as against prissy princess Jaka (as Sim tried to remake her).

Yet there’s a barroom scene where Bear accidentally-on-purpose blows smoke in Jaka’s direction. She gets up and leaves with great hauteur. Sim may’ve THOUGHT he was showing a male character in a good light and a female character in bad light. But the actual scene merely makes Bear look like a stupid ox, no “male ideal” at all.

beard of warpath

March 29, 2012 at 7:39 am

Dave Sim is one of my all time favourites. in fact i have a wrap around tattoo of cerebus that fills my leg from ankle to knee. i was introduced to his work in high school where i loved the early issues and the later issues were lost on my young mind and heart. but re-reading in my mid-twenties i developed a new understanding of what dave may have been trying to communicate or even just release from his soul. all art is an outlet, be it in comics, music or movies. now i may not agree with everything he says but it is very bold and brave to illustrate your passion, be it true of heart or fleeting….you’ve captured something and expressed it to the public. obviously controversy will push people away or pull them closer.

“Earthly Women and the Muses are ancient sworn enemies. The battle field is the Creative Male…John Lennon maintained through his House-Husband years of baking bread and minding the baby that he had ‘lost his Muse’. Untruer words have never been spoken. He drove his muse from him. The forces within his Groin and his Heart, armed to the teeth, legion upon legion, surrounded those forces in his Brain and in his Mind, and the battle was lost. John Lennon was a triumph for the malignant forces of Discordia, of Diana, of Venus.” – Dave Sim, Reads p. 238

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