A Chat With Dave Sim. Creator of Cerebus
An interview with Dave from the SPACE Con booklet. Here is the cover to the booklet.
An ardent supporter of small-press and alternative comics, Dave Sim prepares to conclude his epic Cerebus, which is slated to end next year, after 25 years, with issue 300. Last year, Dave awarded the first Gene Day Award, which he and collaborator Gerhard award annually to a deserving small-press creator . Below, we pitch a few questions at Dave regarding life during and after Cere- bus, as well as his view on the world of small press.
Q: You've been promoting small-press work for years. What is it about small press that you find appealing?
I guess the most appealing thing to me is the complete creative freedom. If you read a mini-comic or a small press comic you are guaranteed to be reading what someone specifically wanted to write and draw. Not a 100% guarantee. It's a vice in the small press as elsewhere that people fall prey to the temptation to do what they think the market wants or what they think is go- ing to be successful. I plead guilty to that. Cerebus started as a rip-off of the most successful comic book on the market at the time, Howard the Duck combined with Conan, another big commercial success. It wasn't until High Society, nearly three years in, that I started, as Wendy Pini put it, "finding my own voice." Wendy started with the Ralph Bakshi elves from Wizards but made them quite identifiably her own before the first issue of Elfquest came out. But -- for the most part, just given how labour intensive the production of even the smallest comic book is -- you are pretty much guaranteed pure creative expression in the small press.
Q: How, if at all, has the small-press community changed since you started promoting independent publishing? What do you find encouraging? Is there anything that turns you off?
First, I would have to judge my efforts to promote the small press and the small press community as abject failures at every level but one: those people who wanted badly enough and were willing to make the near-absolute sacrifices required to move from amateur to professional status. In retrospect, it's self-evident why it didn't make sense to "promote" the small press. One, a large part of the small press, the vast majority, wants to be outside of the larger context of comic books and they naturally resent anyone trying to infringe on their "outsider" status. Two, a majority that overlaps the first majority desires mainstream success but isn't willing to make the sacrifices necessary or is only willing to make those sacrifices intermittently or for a brief period, and they naturally resent the idea that they are to blame for their own failure. In trying to promote them, you provide them with a built-in scapegoat. "Dave didn't promote or advertise The Spirits of Independence stops heavily enough," or "Dave knocked on doors on other people's behalf when he should've been knocking doors down." "Dave should've started a distribution company for the small press instead of just accepting it when Diamond wouldn't carry a lot of books."
"Success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan." True enough. It's also true that, in a "victimized feminist" society, a thousand failures will have no trouble finding a "deadbeat dad" to blame themselves on. If you're the only one standing up on their behalf, you are elected "deadbeat dad."
"What do I find encouraging?" I find SPACE encouraging. I find it encouraging when Bob [Corby] tells me that more people are planning SPACE-sized shows next year in other cities. I find the success of Strangers in Paradise, Bone, Supernatural Law -- the fact that their continued success refutes the early 80s mythology that Dave Sim is "exception that proves the rule" that Dave Sim is the only one who can successfully self-publish his work -- and the others encouraging. I find the fact that Cerebus could very well reach issue 300 with the support of a little over 6,000 people against the active resistance of -- however many people there are in the direct market who aren't in that 6,000. 200,000? 400,000? -- I find that personally encouraging although its probably discouraging for anyone considering following in my footsteps.
"Anything that turns me off'? Collectivism. When SPX handed out questionnaires asking "What do YOu want to see at SPX?" I knew that that was it for SPX. as far as I was concerned. Why fill out a questionnaire when you know that you're going to be in the 1% that they ignore and that it will lead to "Workshop I: Selling out to Hollywood. Who you have to blow and how often."
Q : All the Day Award finalists produced excellent work. What made Tom Williams's Misa stand out?
I For me, it was the very off-hand approach to autobiography, the frank admission that Misa was largely produced as a "hey, maybe this will help" in the aftermath of a relationship that didn't "take."
"Apartments say a lot about a person. This one is a perfect mix between Pee-Wee Herman and Martha Stewart."
That's a very astute way of putting it. Pee-Wee Herman and Martha Stewart are definite feminist icons, both of whom, in their own way, entirely refute feminism. No better way to establish -- in two short sentences -- who this woman is.
"Did I mention I used to be heavier? No one remembers that."
Another insight that a guy only really sees in the aftermath. Relationships purportedly exist as a way of establishing your own existence. "Here's someone who cares about me, cares enough to know everything about me," is the prevailing myth to which men are supposed to subscribe. In a feminist age girlfriends are obsessed with establishing, for themselves (among other peculiarities), what it is that thematically unites Pee-Wee Herman and Martha Stewart and using whatever conclusions they draw to empower themselves. Who you are fits somewhere in between the drapes and the colour scheme in the bathroom. Who you were is about as important as what the colour scheme in the bathroom was when they moved in that they immediately painted over. It's yesterday's problem. "Get over it." Feminists, like the sharks they most resemble, always have to move forward. "Did I mention I used to be heavier? No one remembers that." You remember it. For a man, in a feminist age, it's important to hang onto those things. You have inherent importance. Like the guys who say they hate coming home to an empty apartment. Don't think that way. If you are in your apartment and you consider your apartment to be empty, that is far more your problem than any lack of a girlfriend. The alternative is to capitulate to feminism and accept a role somewhere between her drapes and the colour scheme in her bathroom. Misa, to me, was full of those kinds of insights. Even though Tom will probably end up miserable and married with five kids, even a temporary burst of insight is better than an entirely "insight free" existence.
Q: What are your plans after Cerebus? Any short-term or long-term projects lined up? Anything on Gerhard's plate?
The absolutely definitive version of Hoppy, Marvel Bunny. [laughs] I really have no plans after Cerebus. I told Will Eisner that he has to stay alive long enough for me to buy him dinner when I'm done. Fly down to Florida and have dinner with Will. He said if I make it to issue 300, he'll buy me dinner. You can't do much better than that. After that, I intend to go through the metric ton of paper that we've accumulated over the last twenty-five years, piece by piece, and put them in order for a Cerebu5 Archive which I'll be will- ing to a) the City of Kitchener b) the province of Ontario, c) the people of Canada in descending order of preference. At that point, I see my only job as staying alive long enough to reach the "post feminist age" somewhere up ahead. My conservative estimate is that it will be necessary for me to stay alive for a minimum of thirty or forty years in order to maximize the possibility of the Cerebus Archive being preserved. Anything short of that and it will, like everything that runs afoul of feminism, just sort of "disappear."
[Gerhard's answer:] I'm planning to take a long nap.
Q: You made an interesting statement regarding creating comics and your future after Cerebus in an interview about 10 years ago: "There are comic books that I would like to do, but I think in the best of all possible worlds you have to earn the right to do more personal work by putting in your time on a regular feature... When I'm done with Cerebus, I hope to do exactly the same thing; stories that appeal to me, done at my own pace. " So are we going to see something more personal from you in any future work?
It's hard to imagine anything more personal than "what I see when I read the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran," which is really what "Chasing YHWH" is all about. I tried to address that in Cerebus 286 with Cerebus answering the question, "What was going on in your personal life while you were doing the commentaries on the Books of Moshe?" You know, "prayer," "sleep," [laughs] "reading the newspaper." I come from a secular humanist background and I was a secular humanist up until six years ago, so I understand where the question is "coming from." "Yes, these commentaries on the Books of Moshe are all very interesting in their own way, Dave, but what we really want to know is more about you, personally." Secular-humanist translation: "Cut the religious crap, Dave and start dishing the dirt." I work six days a week. I'm up at 6 a.m. and I'm usually at work by 7:30 a.m. I usually work until 6 p.m. I pray five times a day. I read the newspaper for two hours. I go to bed. Sunday, when I'm not sleeping I'm reading aloud from the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran, a big chunk of each. [laughs] The only "dirt" I could come up with is Friday night I go out to a bar which, apart from me, is exclusively inhabited by university students. I drink two, three or four beers and I look at dozens of amazingly, dazzlingly, astonishingly pretty young girls - each more amazing, dazzling and astonishing than the last - for all of whom I am completely and mercifully invisible. I look until I think my eyeballs will bleed. Around 1 a.m., when some of the amazingly, dazzlingly, astonishingly pretty young girls have had a little too much to drink and it becomes obvious that I'm becoming visible to some of them, I go home.
But, to return to the heart of your question: ten years ago, I had no idea of the scope of the end of Cerebus. I had a rough outline, a skeleton, of what I thought was a darned good ending - and which is still the ending. And I was looking forward to putting the "meat" on those "bones." As I've been putting the "meat" on those "bones," it has occurred to me that I could very well be in the midst of saying all that I have to say. The analogy of the Guide to Self-Publishing keeps coming up. It took years to do, but once it was done, it was done. There was no need to keep "doing" it. I've recently moved out of my two bedroom penthouse apartment into my former office at the back of the studio, partly to ensure that I don't feel a financial need to produce more work after Cerebus and partly to try to fulfill Jesus' instruction to "sell all that thou hast and give the money to the poor." I always try to stay attuned to what God wants me to do -- not that I'm anything special: I believe there are things that God wants each individual to do. RIght now, I believe God wants me to keep doing Cerebus. I don't know if God wants me to finish Cerebus. But I think God knows thtat the only way he can stop me finishing Cerebus is by disabling me or killing me. SO, sometime in the next year, either I'll finish Cerebus or God will disable or kill me. A year is a long time to have to live in that state of mind, knowing that disablement or death are just around the next corner. [laughs] It does tend to deflect me form any consideration of "what Golden Age super-hero do I want to do for DC?"
If God wants me to finish Cerebus and wants me to do something after Cerebus, I'm sure He'll let me know. [laughs] It would be nice if He could hold off for a couple of months or a year or so. But, as with everything else, that's up to Him.
Q: Over the years, some of your squabbles outside the panels -- stepping on Marvel Comic's toes over the Wolverine parody and the whole feminism feud, are two that come to mind -- have been as in teresting to watch as the adventures within the panels. Which one in particular stands out for you?
"Squabbles?" Squabbles. That's a very feminist way of putting it. Like everything I've ever had to say about feminism comes down to a disagreement over whether to do the bathroom in "pink" or "peach." In order to call my disagreement with feminism a "feud," there would have to have been a response from the other side. They've done everything that they can to destroy me and my reputation on the Internet, but of course, I'm not on the Internet-which (I'm sure you, as a feminist, won't agree) bespeaks a fundamental cowardice on the part of individual feminists and feminism as a "movement." I'm still waiting for a response which refutes my carefully developed argument in "Tangent." Failing that, I'm still waiting for a point-by-point answer to the "16 Impossible Things to Believe Before Breakfast" contained in that same essay. It's not a feud, Matt, and it's not a debate. It is my rational observations on why feminism doesn't and can't work and complete radio silence on the other side.
Q: I'm a "Feminist" simply because I used the word "squabbles?" [laughs ]
Well, yes. [laughs] Obviously. It is one of the few remaining channels of escape open to feminists to try to minimize the conflict - to make the fight against feminism into a "squabble" with feminism: that is, to attempt to render the central conflict in our society into a "tiff" about whether the bathroom should be done in "salmon" or "peach." Along the same lines, I'm amused by your putting feminist in quotation marks. I appreciate the urge on the part of feminists to try to make their movement seem mythological at this point - you know, as if feminism is just another one of those weird boogiemen that conservatives keep inventing to make liberals look bad. Unfortunately for feminists, feminism (not "feminism") is all too real and, unless I'm missing something, entirely indefensible as a societal movement.
Q: Besides your work with Gerard, who have you enjoyed collaborating with? Who would you like to work with in the future?
I enjoyed working on "Ricky Robot" with Jerry Seigel and Dan Day. My only regret was that I didn't talk to Mr. Seigel on the phone or, at least, attempt to. I thought at the time that the creator of Superman would have better things to do than talk to some guy doing an obscure comic book about an aardvark. At the same time, I was the only person besides Dean Mullaney at Eclipse who was willing to publish his work in the last few years of his life. I still would've felt as if I was intruding. Of course I'm consistently surprised about these things. Murphy Anderson (another guy I enjoyed collaborating with on "The First Invention of Armour" in Cerebus Jam) leaving me a phone message after reading the first installment of "Why Canada Slept" took me completely by surprise. I almost didn't phone him back figuring he just wanted to be taken off the freebie list. "Never darken my mailbox again!" And then we talked for almost two hours about military preparedness, standing up for democracy and being opposed to totalitarianism. I forget all the time that there are generations of men still alive who predate feminism. [laughs] I forget all the time that anyone reads any part of Cerebus, to be honest. Certainly since "Tangent" came out I might as well be talking to myself for all the reaction that I get. I mean, no feedback at all. One letter every two or three weeks. "You are turning out to be a very interesting individual." What sort of a reaction is that? Who are you supposed to be? Ming the Merciless? "You are turning out to be a very interesting individual." The temptation was to say to Murphy, "You read the latest Cerebus? WHY?" Him talking about being up in one of the guard towers on the border between South Korea and North Korea back in the 60s when he was working on PS Magazine for the military. And, you know, right over there, the North Koreans staring right back at you. Gives you chills. Sorry, forgot you were a feminist. Gave me chills, anyway. And then Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter give them the bomb.
"Who would I like to work with in the future?" You don't understand, Matt. I'm not a feminist. You might just as well ask a screenwriter who was blackballed in the 1950s who he wants to work with now that he's been identified as a communist sympathizer. I would do no one any favours by naming names.
Q: So you're saying that no one would want to work with you because they would fear being labelled as misogynists by feminists simply because they collaborated with you? I asked the question regarding who you would like to work with because in a Usenet interview a decade ago you said that you would like to do a story with Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman. I wondered if you would still like to work with them or if there's anyone else you'd like to team with on a project, perhaps in the small-press / independent publishing world.
No, like all feminists you only perceive on your own terms and you've completely overturned my meaning to make it conform to your prejudices. They - and let's take your examples of Alan and Neil - wouldn't believe that they would be labeled misogynists. Alan and Neil, as male feminists, believe that feminism is a movement of profound inclusiveness, the societal "Big Tent" where we all belong and everyone is accepted and equal no matter what they believe. If anything, they would see working with Dave Sim as [laughs] feminist out-reach! "Let's show Dave that he's wrong about feminism, let's show him how inclusive feminism can be." Alan and Neil's reputations are large enough that - while I'm sure they would take a career "hit" for working with me - it would only be a "hit" because their careers - and this is guesswork on my part, which is where the problem comes in - are larger than the destructive capabilities of comic-book feminism to inflict lasting damage on them. If they did take a major hit, of course, the last thing they would attribute it to would be feminism. To them, as devout feminists, it would just be one of those odd little occurrences that their careers suddenly went in the toilet. So to directly answer your question: so far as I know, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are now and have always been good practicing feminists and there is no need for feminists to take any action against them based on your citing them to me as hypothetical future collaborators. They have neither expressed support for nor denounced the views of Dave Sim or his right to hold them which, so far as I know, is the official feminist position and/or non-position on Dave Sim.
To move below the career threshold of an Alan Moore or a Neil Gaiman - whomever else might be the hypothetical subject - takes us well within range of comic-book feminist destructive capablities, particularly in the small press / independent publishing world, and, at that point, I return to my intial answer: I would do no one any favours by naming names, Mr. Chairman, and therefore I decline to answer.
Q: What are you reading these days - non-comics and comics, mainstream and alternative?
I'm afraid the only thing I have time to read is the National Post, my daily newspaper, in order to be as current as possible with "Why Canada Slept." Apart from that I did read Michael Chabon's Kavalier & Klay. Where he avoids grafting onto the 1940s comic-book world anachronistic feminism and homosexuality (i.e. the first third of the book), it's actually pretty good. There are a couple of explicit homosexual scenes that ruined the book for me, but, then I was reading it when I had time: over breakfast. I take it as a given that explicit homosexuality is going to be a part of, say, Gore Vidal's autobiography, Palimpsest. You want to read about Vidal, the writer, you're going to have to accept content that is going to make you want to throw up. In a book about the Golden Age of comic books, on the other hand, I thought scenes of explicit homosexuality served as a stellar example of the term "gratuitous." As a creator of a 6,000 plus page graphic novel, I was amused that the 2,OOO-and-some-odd-page graphic novel of The Go/em gets completed and then left hanging as a plot thread. What happened to it? Where did it go?
Yes, exactly. An implied threat from the feminist zeitgeist. "Big graphic novel go 'bye-bye."'
Q: Here's a challenge: How would you sum up 25 years, 300 issues, of Cerebus in a few sentences to someone unfamiliar with your work?
In a few sentences? Cerebus, one man's pyramidal search for truth in a world made up lies. Part one: Its "base" (and it is base, indeed) is a pagan, secular-humanist vaudeville roman a c/ef romp through parody, satire and the thematic societal configurations of Politics, Organized Religion, founded upon the aforementioned one man's fervent faith that there does exist an eternal apex which can be reached, one diminishing layer at a time (sales wise the apex is reached: 37,000 copies of issue 100) .Part two: Love and Marriage, Mothers and Daughters the slow rise to the apex, layer by layer and the dawning realization as a Guy that the pagan, secular-humanist pyramid only goes up so high and beyond a certain level all that is discussed is how overrated the idea of an apex is and that a six-sided box, slightly compressed on one end upon which an infinite number of feminists are capable of dancing is much to be preferred over a four-sided structure rising to a single coterminous point. Part three: the long, slow march to the summit with Gerhard as his collaborator and business partner and God, his only companion (sales of 6,000 and dropping by the minute, Dave)(steady as she goes, Gerhard. Steady as she goes.)