Friday, 25 October 2013

When Ken Jennings Met Dave Sim

(from the Ken Jennings Blog, 28 October 2006)
The most interesting part of my presentation last night at the Great Salt Lake Book Festival was what happened before it. I was scheduled to speak at 8 p.m. Friday night at Salt Lake City's beautiful downtown library (currently featured in Archie comics!) And, speaking of comics, the presentation directly preceding mine was by comic artist Dave Sim. He was doing a reading from noon to 6 p.m. Yep, you read that right: a six-hour reading...

I was a huge Cerebus fan in the early 1990s, when Sim was doing some of the most complex and formally exciting work ever seen in comics, turning his odd barbarian aardvark parody into a sprawling epic of politics and religion, and leading an influential movement for self-publishing and comics creators' rights. But today, if Sim is known for anything, it’s not the invention or longevity of his flagship series. Cerebus took an odd turn in the mid-90s, with Sim himself entering the comic proper to deliver a bizarrely misogynistic monologue in which he accuses women - unthinking female "Voids" - of seeking to quench his creative male "Light" (and perhaps sap his Precious Bodily Fluids).

Though the last decade of Cerebus had flashes of the early greatness, it read to me as if its woman-hating author was becoming swiftly unhinged. This was essentially confirmed by the final book of Cerebus, in which forty pages are given over to a kooky retelling of the origin of the universe, in which the creation account from Genesis is recast as a battle between the male Creator Elohim and the conniving female deity YHWH, whom Sim calls “Yoohwhooh.” And Sim made it clear that this story wasn’t just invented for the comic. He had recently undergone a drastic religious conversion (to a religion of his own devising, mixing elements of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and became convinced that his own odd cosmology was obviously capital-T true, and the only reason his crazy-sounding ideas weren’t catching on in scientific circles was because of the “feminist-homosexualist axis” conspiring against him.

That forty-page cosmology was what he was reading (and explicating) to true believers in Salt Lake. For six hours.

At 6 p.m., Dave was supposed to have wrapped up. I had shown up early for my own presentation, with my brother Nathan and his wife Faith, because we wanted to see the post-Yoohwhooh event: Dave's brilliant artistic collaborator Gerhard talking about a gallery display of original Cerebus art. But Dave wasn’t done. In fact, at about six, Dave was only on page 22. I'm sure he would have talked right on through my event, if they’d have let him.

But Book Festival organizers finally shooed Dave and a few hardy remaining fans out into the hall, where he continued his lecture with a laptop. Someone had told Dave that I was a fan, and I was ushered up to meet him. I was a little wary. I loved much of Sim's work and had spent hours and hours of my life reading it. But what do you say when you meet a certifiable genius whom you suspect is also certifiably nuts?

I was disarmed when Dave - a little leaner, a little less cocksure, a little twitchier than when I’d last seen him at a 1992 signing in Seattle - seemed to know exactly who I was and wanted a signed copy of Brainiac. I wasn’t sure what a reclusive religious ascetic hiding out from a vast feminist conspiracy would want with a frivolous, secular book about North American trivia culture, but I told him I’d love to sign him a copy. Was he just being polite? No, he seemed oddly gratified that I knew his work. He wanted to hang out.

"It's always sort of odd," he said, gesturing at the gathered comic fans, waiting to hear the end of Genesis, "meeting someone else that’s well-known and trying to talk in a situation like this."

I'd quibble with that overly inclusive definition of "well-known", maybe, but I wish I'd had more time to spend with Dave Sim. How often do you meet an personal idol-slash-fallen-idol and find out he wants to spend some quality time? But, on the other hand, maybe it would have turned out badly. I’d have been horrified by the psychological train wreck. Dave would have seen that I’d clearly been co-opted by the feminist-homosexualist axis, and accused me of trying to snuff out his Hard Gemlike Male Flame. The relationship was doomed from the start.

But I did feel an overwhelming urge to get home and reread some of my Cerebus comics. Maybe the masterful Jaka’s Story, or the issue where the funny old guy's snowshoes say "wuffa wuffa". You know, for old times' sake.

Ken Jennings holds the record for the longest winning streak on the U.S. syndicated game show Jeopardy! and as being the all-time leading money winner on American game shows. In 2004, Jennings won 74 Jeopardy! games before he was defeated by challenger Nancy Zerg on his 75th appearance. His total earnings on Jeopardy! are $3,172,700.


Adam Ell said...

Somebody comes off like an ass in this story and it ain't Dave.

Jake said...

I had to read the ending to even know who that guy is...and I still don't really know. Also how do you "write" a book on trivia? Heck I could just print out Wikipedia, and publish it?

Ethan Bowman said...

Here, Ken Jennings speaks plainly and conveys the way the majority of Cerebus readers saw the decline and fall of this comic book series… one that ended almost 10 years ago… while they were abandoning it.

Ken does not hide behind the rhetorical hair-splitting that we can hear from Kitchener, when proclamations are issued from the Off-White House.

Most of the old fans, like Ken, simply moved on. They retain their pleasant memories of when the book made good sense to support. They voted with their feet, something I am certain Dave Sim wholly defends - the right of the individual to make a decision about where they spend their effort (and their money).

What was left behind? A small, nearly invisible group of devotees. You can see them, sometimes, in making the comments they make here. The blind devotion of the faithful, tucked away in his holiness's frock.

Dave Kopperman said...

The book always made good sense to support, because it was in those last 60 issues, peak work by one of the medium's top creators (and team). The point has been made many times, but it apparently needs to be made again: who only wants to be exposed to art that contains ideas that conform to their pre-existing worldview?

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting story. I can see how this can be seen both ways.

From a pro-Dave POV, it's pretty clear that, based mostly on Tangents and 186, Jennings absolutely has his mind made up before meeting Dave that he is crazy. He never gives Dave a chance to change his mind.

In fact, if we only look at Jenning's actual description of Dave and the event, this ugly impression is not born out. Dave is giving time to fans who clearly appreciate it and are there to hear him speak about those 40 pages, he loses track of the time but leaves when asked, continues to talk with fans who apparently were glad to continue on, was very friendly to Jennings, knew about Jennings, complimented his work, and wanted to talk more.

Jennings portrays this all as a bit weird, but it's hard to see that just from the events themselves. The bit where he compares Dave as a 50-year old to Dave as 36-year old seems particularly unfair. I think a lot of people are leaner, less cocksure, and in poorer health (especially after 14 years at a drawing board) after such a lengthy passage of time.

The bit about calling the fans "true believers" also seems unfair. They could just as well be called "fans". I mean, apparently Jennings has actually read the Cerebus text pieces in 186, Tangents, the 40 page Cosmology, and can summarize Dave's religious views. Why did he keep going with Cerebus after reading 186? Seems like he's living in a bit of glass house there.

From Dave's POV, Jennings would be among those that have ostracized Dave, based on Jenning's use of words like "bizarrely misogynistic", "woman-hating author", "unhinged", "kooky", "crazy-sounding ideas", "certifiably nuts", and comparing Dave to the lunatic officer in Dr. Strangelove. Jennings also makes it clear that he's not there to see Dave, but Gerhard, who is "brilliant".

From Jennings POV, and in fairness to Jennings, Dave is as one with the opinions he expressed in 186 and Tangents. I think Dave himself has endorsed that assessment. And Jennings only ever refers to the comics themselves as the source of his low opinion of Dave. It seems like Jennings is basing his opinion entirely on the comics (as Jennings is even aware of the 40-page cosmology, which is less well-known than 186 and Tangents).

Jennings just can't get past the views that Dave expressed in Cerebus, which in light of Dave's admitted oneness with the book, is probably fair.

-Reginald P

Ethan Bowman said...

A point HAS been made many times, and it does appear to need to be made again: once you move over from fiction, even speculative fiction, to proposing, seriously, models for life, the universe, and everything, then you cross a line for how you are evaluated.

As Jennings points out, and there is every reason to believe Dave when he states it explicitly, Dave moved over to writing what he wanted to be taken seriously for as a theorist. Fine. But you cannot use the rules of artistic expression to play that game.

If you take on science, then expect to play but science's rules. Dave Sim does not even know where the playing field is when it comes to science. As Shaw wrote: without knowledge, ignorance calls itself science.

If you take on religion, and you invent your own, as well as your own version of life, the universe and everything, then you have crossed into the Hubbard zone toward scientology.

Whatever. At this point, the criteria used in the decision to support the book changes because the underlying premise of the work changes. Now I need to decide whether the hundred or so premises about the nature of reality that the author is asking me to posit are something I can live with… not as a case of suspended reality, but as a case of reality. The autobiography of the universe, as seen by an individual whose personal revelation, as seen against the whole of humanity that is now alive or ever was, is being presented as a Truth.

Dave has asked his reader, at this point, to buy a hundred or so impossible things to believe before breakfast (at least). Compared with this wild speculation, the "15 things" list barely hits the radar.

When Dave moved his narrative over to non-fiction, then the question is no longer exposure to art that contains ideas that do or do not conform to a pre-existing worldview. And he is the one who took that off option the table. He has stated many times that he is right, and that he hopes that at some point in the future, after the feminist-homosexualist conspiracy that he identifies has been eradicated, that his wisdom and truth will be re-discovered.

Go ahead. Start that petition for the underlying foundation of those last 60 or so issues: "As an intention work of non-fiction, I support Dave Sim's view on the origins of life, the universe, and everything." This is what he wants you to believe before breakfast; don't be distracted by the other hand waving at the 15 things.

"Rodimus" Ben Lundy said...

"Jennings won 74 Jeopardy! games before he was defeated by challenger Nancy Zerg on his 75th appearance."

Aha! You see! Even Jennings was defeated by the feminist-homosexualist axis!