The following interview originally appeared in The Comics Journal #100 in July 1985. Dave Sim would have been 29 years old and Cerebus #76 would have just hit the stands.
The Comics Journal #100 (July 1985)
Cover by Jaime Hernandez
As Cerebus The Aardvark embarks on a new extended storyline, interviewer Heidi MacDonald catches His Holiness's mentor Dave Sim. Sim, last interviewed in Journal #82-83, talks about the future wayfaring aardvark (both immediate and long term), and discusses the internal shake-up at Aardvark-Vanaheim. At this crucial point in Cerebus' evolving storyline, Sim's hints and ideas may prove quite helpful in the coming months.
I don't want to get too snoopy here, but there have been changes in your personal life recently. How will those affect Aardvark-Vanaheim and CEREBUS. Or will they?
Gee, I don't really know. Aside from allowing me to make CEREBUS the focus now, I can't see any real changes yet. You know, it hasn't really gone in to effect yet, I think once April comes and CEREBUS is the only book coming out from Aardvark-Vanaheim, it'll probably feel a little more real then. Certainly, it leaves me a lot more latitude to do what I want to do. I really don't have to consult with anybody. I'm surrounded by yes-men now.
If I have an idea and tell them what it is, they say, "Wow! That's great Dave!" Oh, that's not true. I just made that up. You know, it's very typical of Deni that so many of her Notes From The Publisher dealt with the weather. Living in Canada was like a 15-year prison sentence for her. She's the only person I know who orders extra blankets from housekeeping in California hotels in July. I think she's probably very happy right now. I hope so.
In some of your previous interviews you've spoken about how an artist shouldn't have to worry about running the business end of things.
So do you foresee that as a problem, or...
Not really. Karen McKiel is staying on to handle all the business side of it, and she's awfully efficient, especially with the reduced workload. Right now, a lot of her job entails getting orders from distributors, sending out invoices and whatnot, and we will be down to, basically, just soliciting for CEREBUS JAM and CEREBUS. So, the company runs basically the same way that it did with Deni, where as long as everything runs as it's supposed to, I really don't have that much to do with the day-to-day operations, but if something comes up, somebody wants to change the rules, or convention invitations or whatever, then it's just a matter of putting in that half-hour, 40 minutes a day, going over what's changed from yesterday.
In other words, you're still free to be up in your ivory tower.
[Laughter] That your phrasing and not mine. But essentially, it's true that it's been bought for me, with the sweat of my brow, the luxury to not really be concerned about a great deal of input, the matter of me figuring out what I want to do and then carrying on with it. And, certainly, I think any creative person would view that as an enormous luxury. An enormous luxury and a great responsibility. I'm trying to be true to what I started. I'm trying to maintain the quality that I figure the book has had. That's an on-going responsibility, but there is, I think, more of an urge on my part to try and break ground on top of it.
You're still essentially self-publishing, then.
Yeah. I think some of the people who are doing newave comics and whatnot might find that not technically accurate, and I don't go down to the quick-printer and print them up and fold them myself and staple them, but, yeah, it still qualifies as self-publishing.
How do you see the state of the so-called alternative publishers?
I always know when there's been a major meeting of distributors, publishers, or retailers. For the next week I get phone calls from people who want Aardvark-Vanaheim to help finance crackpot schemes to quadruple everyone's circulation. I look at it this way. If a comic shop buys 30 copies of CEREBUS a month and sells 25, no amount of promotion is going to get him to buy 50 copies. If it does, the owner is an incredibly stupid businessman. Most people in comics don't understand money or business. The shop owners have to learn or die, as do the distributors. It isn't necessary, however, for fans or creative people. It makes for interesting schisms when you watch the four groups interact. For good or ill I think we've moved into a new era in alternative publishing. I think we'll see a further decline in the fortunes of the "mainstream" alternatives as Marvel increases its stranglehold on the super-hero market. That's not to say that I think it's impossible to turn a profit on alternative super-hero comics, it's just that I wouldn't bet the mortgage on them surviving the next decade.
Most of the comic-book companies have seen the writing on the wall. The publishers now recognise that there are artists who can sell 200,000 books and there are artists and writers who can't. As a consequence and in order to maintain their preeminence, they a) relentlessly remind the reader that there is no such thing as a bad character only bad handling of the character; b) muck around with creative work they don't understand so they can feel part of the "team"; and c) make arbitrary decisions, "corrections", and adjustments to justify what they get paid to muck about about with creative work. Most artists and writers who jump from book to book aren't moving on to new challenges so much as fleeing editorial tyranny. I'm basing this opinion on conversations with friends in the business, not press releases. There's a very simple reason I can continue to produce CEREBUS every month until March 2004. I own it. If I were just an employee, no matter how well paid, I would probably be playing musical titles at Marvel right now.
You've often said that it's the long view that you really keep uppermost in your mind. Now, let's get real here, Dave.
How firmly do you really have the entire story in mind?
Basically, I have fragments of stories. Like a lot of what led to me putting Cerebus back in the hotel and moving him towards being Pope was that there were all these elements to the HIGH SOCIETY storyline that sort of got passed over. It's actually difficult to describe. It's not like they got passed over, it's more like, they didn't fit. Issue #50 came up, and there wasn't really any place I could put these things, but they were story points that I thought were part of HIGH SOCIETY. And the same things happen now. There are storylines that I will start to develop just in an issue. Again, it's difficult to describe, elements of all the goings-on that I've had in mind for the last six years that are still not even in the book. It's just touching on it in this page without calling any undue attention to it. It's very odd, because I know where it fits and I know that just by having somebody say this to somebody else, that that implies this has to come up again later on. Largely, that's the way I've done it. I know the touchstone points, or the key points to this storyline that are coming up, and then it's a matter of fleshing out what's there and hooking it up as it becomes part of it. I don't know if that really explains it.
Well, I don't know, it sounds like you have small pieces than one large picture.
Well, in a way I suppose that. In another way it's all a big picture. There's very little that I put the book now that doesn't tie-in in some way. It just doesn't need to right off the bat. A lot of the problem is that if you don't know why I put that in there, it becomes very difficult to see it as part of a coherent whole. I think that the lesson of HIGH SOCIETY is that certainly a great deal of it got tied up in the end, but that is very suspect.
This is obviously a very large commitment in your life to CEREBUS.
Do you ever wake up and say, "Get out of here, Aardvark!" Do you want to say that?
No I really don't. I understand the instinct, I suppose, because so many people in the business have it, of, "Well, Jesus, it's been fun for 18 months, now it's time to go on to something else." But I was having dinner with a number of people from DC and Marv Wolfman was there. And a couple of the guys were saying the same thing you're saying, like, "Get real, Dave! Are you really in this for 300 issues?" And I turned to Marv, and I said, having done 70 issues of TOMB OF DRACULA, did you not find that there was a quality to doing that that just doesn't exist with (however interesting a project becomes) one that only takes 8 months or 9 months of your time? And he waxed quite poetic in answer, saying, very much so. And, as you know, the characters begin to build the world, and you're in some ways documenting, in other ways making up, it's difficult to tell which is which, sometimes. There's really nothing that parallels it, there's really no way that I would be able to say, oh, well, now I'm going to go draw a painting and become a real artist. Or now I'll do animation, now I'll do this, now I'll do that. It's also because the fans are paying for my livelihood. I can't really get away with saying, well, you know, let's just give it a rest for a few months, because they're just readers. I think Garry Trudeau can do that because a lot of the DOONESBURY readers are DOONESBURY readers. There's no question that most of the people who are reading CEREBUS and providing me with a livelihood are fans. And, you know, this is what they've been screaming for all along. Every fan gets very upset when they get addicted to a title like Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL or Byrne and Austin and Claremont doing the X-MEN, and it's almost like you don't want to like it too much, because these guys are going to leave and go off and do something else. So basically, it is a large commitment, but, on my part, I see it as, nobody else is doing it, so I'm going to do it.
Then you do enjoy it?
Oh, yeah. Just the satisfaction of sitting here and staring over 70 issue of CEREBUS in a stack. You know, maybe I haven't accomplished too much bloody else in the last 7 years, but at least I've got a stack of comic books that I made. That's a little facetious; and it's also the thing of, you know, it's not all wide-eyed idealism either, there's the fact that if a comic book gets to #300, it achieves a certain status. Very few comic books have gone to 300 issues, where it was a coherent 300 issues. Now, SUPERMAN #1 to #300 is not a 300-issue story. You can read it, and watch it evolve and change, but basically, you're doing a merchandising package for a character. Whereas in CEREBUS, it's my intention to do a graphic novel, and if you look at how many words there are in the average novel, I figure it's going to take 300 issues to do something that can be called a novel. You know, there's enough content there, there's enough whatever there that, if there's enough pictures and words together, we're not going to call it a comic book, we're going to call it a graphic novel. Or call it Fred. That's what I want to do.
This will be called CEREBUS I guess.
I think that name has been decided upon. Here's a kind of metaphysical question for you.
Oh, good. I love those.
Do you have metaphysical thoughts about CEREBUS?
No, we're just good friends.
It seems to me that you're really playing with objectivity and subjectivity in the book.
It seems like it's very hard to find any objective truth in it. Is there any objective truth in CEREBUS?
Well, that's where you've got to be careful. The most common mistake made by fans trying to understand the storyline is mistaking implication for inference. But then, it's the most common mistake people make in life too, so what the hell. It does become a problem or a concern that there are things I figure I do know about the world, but I wish somebody on the stage would talk about it. But I don't feel a whole lot of objective truth in real life. You ask Ronald Reagan to describe Washington to you, in an objective way, he can do his best, and you can ask Tip O'Neill, and you can ask Jack Anderson, and you can ask somebody who's living in a slum in Washington, and how much is each one telling you the objective truth? They perceive objective truth, but they're not objective.
For instance, the entire situation with whose side Weishaupt is on. I mean, is he for the Cirinists? Is Astoria for the Cirinists? That entire thing has kind of been thrown for a loop.
Yeah. Well, it's going to continue to be that way, largely because alliances get shifted, depending on who's doing what. And it may be in Astoria's best interests to create the impression that maybe she and Lord Julius are still operating together. That doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't either. So, there's a lot of marriages and alliances of contrivance in the book. Which is, a lot of the problems I have with bringing that kind of thing out is that I can sit down and do a 20-page story that brings you a great deal more information, per se, than there has been in the book, but then I get protests from all the people who want it funny. It's a balancing act to know, okay, this is where we're moving for plot. Now in order to get the step, point A to point B, can we come up with a funny B, if the funny B is better than the serious B, which is the nature of the book, but if you can't find a funny B, then settle for a serious B, and hope you can find a funny B after that.
Have you ever thought of just a simple gazetteer of some of the basic facts of the world of Cerebus, like...
Yeah, I know. I hear you talking. [Laughter] I know a lot of people want that. They want that and they want a basic, flat out history of what happened so many years ago. That would be difficult in that, okay, Bran Mak Muffin. He is right. He's right in what he's saying. Things have gone wrong, because he's not as right as he should be. But if you were to try and find his truth, written down somewhere as a history of the continent, it wouldn't be there. Let's take John F. Kennedy as an example and say, okay, the perception now is this would be a liberal person, or a person with great liberal tendencies. And then, there is sort of a backlash for the last 4 or 5 years, saying this is hogwash, that he was a basic fiscal conservative, and certainly not a rabble-rouser. And which of those is actually the truth. Well, read the book, THE KENNEDY IMPRISONMENT, and there's a very reasoned discussion explaining why not very much got accomplished at all. But then you can read something by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who's very literate and certainly very enthusiastic about the subject, and get completely carries away with that. You can say, well, yeah, okay, there was something to that. If I were to try and put that kind of information in the book, and I do from time to time, I'm doing it to a degree, but there's always a caveat there, don't take this too seriously.
Yeah, for instance, I don't know the difference between a Cirinist and a Kevilist, okay?
I do. [Laughter]
I mean, how important is knowing that to the enjoyment of the strip? Or maybe that's for me to guess?
It's not critical, see, right now, you're getting the Feldwar Valley prejudice in the way of the information going out. Cerebus will go over to Upper Felda, which would be probably a good deal more important than the difference than the difference between the Cirinists' and the Kevilists' philosophy of life. You don't have to know the difference, but there's a certain -- especially in the end, because it's so insulated, with Lower Felda really hardly even under consideration by the other side -- that, it doesn't figure into it that much. It actually does, there's more activity, between the Cirinists and the Kevilists than anybody really acknowledges, just because they don't like to make it a rumour and spread it. I'm not helping you at all, am I?
No, you're not [laughter]. But then, do you want to? I don't know, it's so... I mean, let's face it, the funny stuff you can enjoy whether you don't know a Kevilist from a hole in the ground.
Yeah, so obviously, you are working on all the different levels, which is what you intend, I suppose.
Yeah, well, it's doing a 300-issue comic book, I mean, if you're doing that 6-issue book, a CLOAK & DAGGER mini-series or whatever, you're obviously doing one thing. If you're talking about doing a 300-issue storyline, you've got to have a number of major surprises, and it also allows you the luxury to really sneak up on people, which is something that I really guard very jealously. And I understand when people say, the last three issues have been dull, or whatever complain, nothing's happened, but, to me, it's a matter of contrast. If nothing happens for three issues, then you know that in the fourth issue will be a major revelation, it had that much more impact. Like, I had to lull them into sleep from time to time, just so I can wake them up with a bang and get them all excited.
Right. I think the constant complaint that non-CEREBUS fans say is, they think, come on, guys, this is boring.
Yes, well, it is. There's no question that reading a single issue of CEREBUS is not likely to convince someone to buy the book regularly. But I figure let someone read 10 issues in a row and I might as well be pushing heroin.
At a specific level, you know, if you read Dostoevsky and you're looking for PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT or something like that, yeah, you're going to be a little let down because not a great deal happens. But that doesn't mean I going to stop doing it, because, when people find this book, if they're absolutely shell-shocked, I basically appeal to people like myself, who went through reading comics and got shell-shocked. The universe blowing up. Big guys eating planets. Cosmic rays, dead guys coming back. You know, all this mayhem and murder. CEREBUS is quiet because of the contrast. I think it's a sign that it works on that level that among the staunchest readership I've got are comic-shop owners. Because by the time you've run a comic shop for 5 years, you know, when you first got into it, you usually woundup reading comic books all day. A lot of them don't read comic books, or they get very intellectual, they get down to five or six they really care about what's going to happen from issue to issue.
I think you very consciously work with the contrast that you mentioned. I notice that you even do that within the story itself. You'll have a very static set-up, looking at Stormy Weather here -
You have this very static set-up with Cerebus in bed, and suddenly Sophia's mother comes in, and is a bursting figure.
Yeah. See is Sophia and Cerebus have been having a major, screaming argument or something, they're throwing their arms around, that wouldn't work, because that wouldn't have any impact. It's the same with trying to plan those so that they occur on odd-numbered pages, so that you don't have the situation of somebody flipping it open and looking at the joke on the last panel, and then going back and filling in the story. I get frustrated with that, but I realise a lot of people do it. I'll see people flipping through an issue, the new issue that they have seen when I'm at a convention or whatever, and then they'll hit the second-last page, and start laughing because they saw what was there. Makes me feel a little cheated, because they don't start at step one, and go through the motions.
In other words, you would never have done First Impressions as a two-page spread.
No! No, because the eye just would have naturally to the -- well, we'll just leave that alone.
Yeah, right. Okay. I just want to clear this up, that you mentioned in a letter column that Henrot Gutsch (Gesundheit) is based on or inspired by some other mother-in-law, or...?
It's the grandmother character in the GILES cartoon.
Where does that appear?
It's in the DAILY MIRROR. It's one of the principal strips in Canada. They put out a book collection of GILES cartoons. They're just one-panel cartoons, but its this English family, it's been running for, God, like 25 or 40 years. Maybe even longer than that. And one of the best characters in the strip is the grandmother character. And when I was trying to think of a mother-in-law for Cerebus, it had to be the most difficult, grotesque, belligerent, obnoxious, self-centered individual I could think of, and she kept popping into my mind. So, well, what the hell, I guess that's Cerebus' mother-in-law.
Another change in CEREBUS is that you now have Gerhard assisting you. Why did you decide you needed an assistant?
Well, we worked on the EPIC story, and that was basically just, "let's see if Gerhard can actually do it." I'd seen his work and it was quite good, but I had no idea if he could handle deadline pressure, so we tried with the EPIC story and it worked very well. I don't know, I think it was largely a disinterest in background and an increasing interest in people. Gesture, composition, layout. I would try to do backgrounds, but my heart really wasn't into it. At the same time, I could see that there was a need for some background at some time, particularly in this storyline, because there's a lot that actually happens in the background. You know, it's like I know what that's doing there, and why that is what they did.
How do you two work?
Well, he draws the backgrounds, I draw the characters on top. I wanted to say that you can credit Gerhard with the resurgence of humour in CEREBUS. The guy loves to laugh and I love to make him laugh. I couldn't get the baby-throwing pages fast enough to show him. Sometimes when I can't pencil fast enough, I act it out for him. It's not a bad job doing Groucho Marx walk in and recite the next two pages of dialogue from #71.
There's this one panel here that has this enormous building and just one little hand coming out the trap door at the top. Did you really draw the hand?
[Laughter] Yeah, yeah, I really drew the hand.
Before or after the building?
Before, I believe. It might have been after. But that's one of those things where, I suppose you could call it cheating, but this story, the storyline has a lot of establishing shots. Just because I'm trying to establish more than location. Over the next 2 or 3 issues you'll be seeing that the mountain that the upper city's on is actually a character in the book. Probably as much of a character as anybody else. I've got a few surprises coming up.
How do you feel about finally getting into the PRICE GUIDE?
Now, that CEREBUS is in the PRICE GUIDE, there's a whole new group that likes me a lot. Diana Schutz's move from California to New York was paid for by selling her CEREBUS collection. (Yes, Diana, I know, only the ones that are reprinted in SWORDS.) I think that's neat. I look on the first issue of CEREBUS as 2,000 shares of stock in Aardvark-Vanaheim. From a dollar a share in 1977 to 2,000 a share in 1985 isn't bad. It's not Xerox, but it's not bad. Actually, it didn't bother me that CEREBUS wasn't in the GUIDE. What bothered me was the History Of Comics: 1933 To The Present in the front of GUIDE. The big events for 1977 were the SPIDER-MAN and HOWARD THE DUCK newspaper strips, and in 1981 Pacific Comics is credited with inventing the direct-sales market.
So how does it feel to be superstar Dave Sim?
I can go to a convention and be famous, but if I walk into a coffee-shop next to the hotel, I'm not. You can tell the professionals who prefer the convention to the coffee-shop because the fans call them assholes behind their backs. I refuse to sit on panels at conventions now. If thoughts were dynamite, the average amount of though expressed on the average panel wouldn't be enough to blow your nose. But there is the thing I like best about conventions which is that at 7:00 when they close there's at least 100 grown-ups looking for some fun in a strange city. We usually find each other. I've had some of my most memorable Friday and Saturday evenings at conventions. On the other hand, I see the whole comics environment, books, shops, dealers, artists, fans, as one of the purest and most enduring repositories of FDR's New Deal and JFK's New Frontier. It takes the occasional drunken swing in the direction of Woodstock but there aren't enough party animals to maintain it.
Let's see. Any final thoughts on CEREBUS you want to...?
No, I don't think I'll be ready for final thoughts on CEREBUS for another 18 years yet.
Final thoughts for right now... I generally have a hundred voices raging in my head at once. Rather like this interview if all the words overlapped. Once, in 1979, I thought, "I have all the pieces, haven't I? I just have to fit them together." All the voices immediately ceased. It was an interesting moment. (When I read Windsor-Smith's interview in ARIEL where he described seeing a red light jump out of someone's head and bounce around the room, I felt a lot better. Up until them I thought I was crazy.)
I don't know if this is an appropriate forum to rebut Jim Friel's comments about SWORDS OF CEREBUS in a recent JOURNAL issue, but I just want to put all the distributors and shop owners' minds at rest: SWORDS OF CEREBUS is no longer on a tri-yearly schedule. When everyone at conventions starts begging me for the next volume, I start producing it. In the case of Volume 6, I didn't start on it until most if not all of the issues between #21 and #25 were totally completely and irrevocably unavailable in any significant quantity. The same will be true for Volume 7. It wouldn't go into production until issues #26 through #29 are completely unavailable. The comic shops are the life's blood of Aardvark-Vanaheim and I intend to cooperate with them every step of the way to issue #300.
As far as CEREBUS goes, I'm pleased to have a toehold that's getting more secure all the time, especially for alternative comics, I think. As satisfying as that is, ego-wise, I'm probably more flattered that there's security to it now, that whenever Marvel decides to glut the market again, there is a different place for CEREBUS.
You think that your niche is secure?
Oh, I think it is. If I announce tomorrow that everyone's screwing me around, so I'm not going to do the book any more, you're liable to see people have heart attacks. So you'll never know how it turns out.
"Dave Sim is leaving CEREBUS." Well, there'll be a lot of blank pages.
Well, I may do a special vacation issue sometime, where it'll just say Special Vacation Issue on the cover, with blank pages all the way through. My vacation. But I think there's a possibility -- that before #300, I have to take a rest at some point. I don't think I can do what Garry Trudeau did. At least, I would hope not. But, aside from that, Gerhard and I are amazed every month that it gets done. But it gets done. I congratulate myself and start all over again.
You don't feel that you need the vacation right now, but you know you will need one someday.
Oh, I probably do need the vacation right now. I'm pretty thickheaded about those kind of things. Gene Day always used to have the theory that when things are going wrong in your life, you're all fucked up about something, the only thing to do is work. It's pretty helpful.
Oh, one last question. Do you have a name for the new storyline yet?
Yes. It's probably going to be called CHURCH & STATE. It's that pretentious.
Well, it's short.
It is short, but it's pretentious.
Well, I guess we can be pretentious about being pretentious or something.
Okay, that sounds good.
Oh, this is the special 100th issue gala. Do you have any special comments on the occasion of THE COMICS JOURNAL's 100th issue?
Oh my God. [Laughter]
Okay, that's a pretty good one.
It's very nice to know that it's lasted this long. It's nice to have somebody around besides me who pisses off so many fans, month in month out.