Friday, 11 December 2015

Jeff Seiler: Dave Sim & Me

This article is from the Dallas Morning News, Leisure section, dated September 4, 2004. I used to work for the Morning News, as a sportswriter, and I met the author of this article and told her about Cerebus. She took it from there:

Wrapping up his tale gutsy aardvark humble ends his 26-year run
By Aline McKenzie

It started out as a silly joke -- a black-and-white, crudely drawn comic book about a helmeted aardvark that was a barbarian hero.

Like Conan, he used his sword well, but had an additional weapon -- the "dreaded earth-pig snout punch!" Absurd, yes.

But the story of Cerebus, the ill-tempered aardvark, went on to make comics history, recently ending its 26-year run from late 1977 to become the longest graphic novel done by a single author.

“As far as I know, it’s the longest sustained narrative in human history,” says author Dave Sim, 48, who lives in Kitchener, Ontario. “One person, telling one story, for 26 years.”

Mr. Sim promised readers early on that the series would end at 300 issues, with Cerebus dying. “Alone. Unmourned. And unloved.”

And that’s exactly what happened. In the final pages, the aged Cerebus, incredibly wrinkled and creaking from pains throughout his body, dies not in battle, but in a fall from a stool.

“It’s sort of a downbeat ending, as promised,” says Craig Miller, 44, and Arlington editor [JS: RIP] who is co-producing Following Cerebus, a magazine of essays, interviews and analyses of Cerebus that began in August.

The story is entirely Mr. Sim’s, although at issue 65, he took on a collaborator who goes by the single name of Gerhard. He drew the often-elaborate backgrounds while Mr. Sim drew the characters.

The story spanned political and religious satire, parodies of other comics, anti-feminist treatises and, in later issues, extremely detailed religious analyses.

“It’s run the gamut of what you can do with a comic book,” says Barry Fuhrman, manager of Zeus Comics and Collectibles in Dallas.

Other single author/writer comics have had multiyear runs--the fantasy Bone by Jeff Smith recently wrapped up at 55 issues, while Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore is midstory at issue 67 and the samurai story Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is at issue 78. The epic Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman, ran 76 issues, but had a variety of artists.

Mr. Sim created his own publishing company so he could write the story exactly as he pleased, without having to deal with anyone else’s vision.

“I was able to set my own course and try to measure up to what I thought the story could be,” he says.

In the adventures of Cerebus--the name came about when a then-girlfriend misspelled the name of the mythological dog Cerberus--the “earth-pig born” became Pope, a prime minister, a sports star, a lowly shepherd. He encountered characters based on Groucho and Chico Marx, Oscar Wilde, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and others.

Circulation peaked at about 100,000 readers, very respectable for a black-and-white comic, and Mr. Sim’s craftsmanship won critical approval.

“I’d have no trouble calling him one of the top 10 cartoonists on the North American continent today,” say Dirk Deppey, managing editor of The Comics Journal, which is about to publish six analytical essays about the work.

A first issue, which cost 50 cents to produce, was recently auctioned for $10,600 to raise money for a fund that helps comics creators in need.

Now that the opus is done, it will remain in print in collected paperbacks that fans call phone book, and Mr. Sim will begin cataloging his papers, to form an archive that he hopes will someday go to a university.

“The most difficult part was just the length of it,” he says. “No one knows when you start out on a 26-year marathon if you’re going to be able to complete the 26-year marathon.”


Anonymous said...

Is Cerebus the "longest sustained narrative in human history"?

The definition of "sustained narrative" is debatable as we can argue about whether something has truly been sustained or is truly a narrative.

However, I will just note, as Dave himself has, that "For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston was published regularly over a longer period of time and had a story arc where the characters aged. Her story arc was arguable more consistent than Cerebus. High Society is unlike Melmoth is unlike the Last Day.

And how about Peanuts by Schulz, published over a period of 50 years? One could call Peanuts, like Cerebus, a "non-traditional narrative".

I did a little digging and found that Raymond E. Feist has published a series of 30 novels and three short stories over a period of more than 30 years, called the "Riftwar Cycle", that revolve around a fantasy world setting. That seems like a longer sustained narrative that has been published fairly regularly. Feist has produced other works during that time, but in fairness, so did Dave.

I recall that there is also a Japanese graphic novel that has more pages than Cerebus, if page count is the standard. The name of the work and artist escape me.

I have no doubt that Cerebus is a unique work in terms of its breadth and achievement, but attempting to define that achievement in a few words seems to show that his achievement is, on the one hand, not without parallel, and on the other, as esoteric as Cerebus itself.

- Reginald P.

Jeff Seiler said...

As far as the "longest sustained narrative in human history" bit goes, please remember that this interview and subsequent article were done in 2004, as I noted in my introduction. Even Dave has backed off from that hyperbole since then. You're treading already-trodden ground, Reggie. As you often do.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff:

I think Christopher Hitchens said it best: "I always think it's a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem".

- Reginald P.

Cerebus Online said...

I think that calling "For Better or Worse" or "Peanuts" a "sustained narrative" is absurd since there is no actual narrative, i.e. story. There's no beginning, middle and end, it's just a bunch of jokes in a row. You can call it a "non-traditional narrative" but I I think that's just cheating. But Lone Wolf and Cub is about 8,000 pages and there are a couple of novels ( that are longer than Cerebus. Right now, I think the designation of Cerebus as "the longest graphic novel in the English language" is correct, AFAIK.

Travis Pelkie said...

Peanuts as sustained narrative, yes, that's absurd. But I think a case can be made for "For Better or For Worse", because while it started as a humorous domestic comedy comic strip, over the years it evolved into a strip about the Patterson family growing up and the parents getting older and watching the kids grow up and start families of their own. And the strip actually did end several years back, with Elizabeth getting married. The strips appearing in papers now are, I think, sort of a reworked version of the early years -- yes, that's right, she rebooted the comic!

I thought we were getting more of the university head's replies, Seiler. What kinda cliffhanger stuff is this?! ;)

Anonymous said...

As I say, we can debate what a sustained narrative is. To do that, we should define our terms.

According to the dictionary, a story is "an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment". A narrative is "a spoken or written account of connected events". Both are pretty broad definitions.

According to Wikipedia, For Better or For Worse had a number of "key storylines" and it did follow the ups and downs of a family as they aged. That makes it more than a series of jokes -- it makes it an account of imaginary people and events that are connected.

Cerebus includes a long essay on feminism and a long analysis of the Torah. Is that really telling a story? Only in a very non-traditional sense. I would say that an essay is definitely not a story. The essay on feminism was not an account of people or events; it was Dave's thesis.

If a the definition of narrative requires "connected events", then I think it requires a lot of work to explain how an essay on feminism and the Torah analysis had any connection to elements of a story.

Here's another way to put it: a traditional narrative will introduce a main problem, then there is the body of the story with a series of events that the main characters have to overcome, a climax where the main problem is solved, often in dramatic fashion, a denouement, and perhaps a coda. It would be completely artificial to attempt to fit Cerebus into that framework.

I mean what's the climax? Where Cerebus has a dream where he reconciles the bible and science? What exactly was resolved in Cerebus? Was it something to do with the Cirinists? What did the events in the last 50 issues of the book have to do with the events in the first 50? Almost nothing I would say. I think Cerebus was a pretty non-traditional narrative.

Again, I think Cerebus is a unique work and a remarkable achievement in terms of scope and imagination; but if people want to determine where that achievement sits in comparison to what others have achieved in the field, I think it invites a more nuanced discussion.

Also, since Lone Wolf and Cub has been translated into English, that would make Lone Wolf and Cub, in some sense, the longest graphic novel in the English language.

- Reginald P.

Barry Deutsch said...

Gasoline Alley - which began in 1918, and is still running today - lasted WAY longer than For Better or For Worse, and forms a single continuous narrative.

The characters in Gasoline Alley age in real time - that is, each year of the strip, the characters all got a year older. The strip has now chronicled several generations of the central family, from birth to death.

Frank King drew Gasoline Alley until his retirement in 1951, a 33 year run. The strip hasn't been nearly as good since King retired. And although Gasoline Alley is not as amazing an accomplishment as Cerebus, in my opinion, it's certainly better than FBOFW.

Anonymous said...

Just to add one more thing, Syracuse professor, and Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture has apparently called Peanuts: "arguably the longest story ever told by one human being".

According to Wikipedia, "the character's interactions formed a tangle of relationships that drove the strip". Again, I think the definitions of story and narrative are so broad, that Peanuts would fit both.

- Reginald P.

Paul Slade said...

I realise this is an old remark we're discussing, but it's still interesting to consider what, if anything, a claim like "longest sustained narrative" might actually mean. For a start, we need to know whether "longest" means time taken to complete creating the full story or simply how long that completed story is in terms of page count, running time on screen or whatever.

How do you then compare the apples of a prose novel's page count with the oranges of a graphic novel's? A page of prose will likely contain much more narrative content than the average comics page, so is a one-to-one comparison really that useful?

Anthony Powell's prose novel series A Dance To The Music of Time comprises 12 volumes, published between 1951 and 1975. I don't know the total page count, but I do know they're all part of the one story, narrated by the same man throughout, and with many characters appearing in more than one volume.

The BBC radio soap opera The Archers broadcast its first episode on January 1, 1951 and is still going strong with six episodes a week today. The story remains set in the fictional village of Ambridge, with the same families moving from one generation to the next as the years roll on. There's at least one character still appearing regularly in the cast who's been there (played by the same actress) since the 1950s. Hard to argue that's not a "sustained narrative".

Coronation Street, a British soap, first appeared in 1960, and has done so at least twice a week ever since (with no end in sight). Again, it's the same community whose story is told as the years wind on, with many characters remaining in the cast for decades and spawning children whose stories we then follow in turn. As with The Archers (and Cerebus), Coronation Street characters grow old and die within the story.

I'm less familiar with US soaps, but I'm sure there are examples there with similarly lengthy runs. Like Superman or Batman, of course, a successful soap's story can never be allowed to end, so it will always lack that element of a conclusion to the tale. It may be that the fact they're (again like Superman and Batman) the work of so many different writers would lead us to rule them out as well.

India's ancient epic poem the Mahabharata (like Cerebus itself a mixture of narrative and philosophy/metaphysics) runs to 200,000 lines (totalling 1.8m words). Assuming a fairly typical paperback's typesetting and a gap between each four-line verse, that'd fill about 7,000 pages - if page count is your criterion.

Personally, I think Powell's novel cycle is the best comparison to draw where Cerebus is concerned. It was written by a single author, who was able to craft its whole progress himself and work towards a satisfying ending. Powell described his work as a cycle of novels, and if we add the clarification "graphic novels", that's always struck me as the best description of Cerebus too.

Jeff Seiler said...

To Travis (and anyone else who gives the hindquarters of a rodent), I am publishing these letters in chronological order (with a few exceptions). But I can tell you that, following a very lengthy letter from Dave to me to be posted next Saturday, a Boxing Day present will be a post of Mr. Jeffery's reply to Dave, along with Dave's subsequent reply to him.

What's that? Oh, no, no, no! Thank *you*!

Travis Pelkie said...

Yay! Thank you, Seiler! I take back maybe a third of all the bad things I was going to say about you ;)

Joe Moniker said...

"As far as I know..." began the man who has, by his own admission, barely stepped outside of Kitchener with less than a million in its metro. Either he's never heard of Japan (doubtful) or, in a painfully typical gesture of conservative conceit, never given it a second thought. Berserk, by Kentaro Miura, has fully illustrated an epic following a singular protagonist for 38 volumes each at 200 pages or more since 1989. Sim's claim was ridiculous before Cerebus was even finished. I'm certain there are many more examples, but I'm no expert.

Outside of comics, of course, we have many more examples including those above. Henry Darger's secretive and notorious "Realms of the Unreal" weighs in at a whopping 15,145 phone-book sized(!) pages which include several hundred of his own hand-painted, colorful illustrations.

I cheerfully acknowledge that no other author has ever successfully self-published his own work-- by himself managing the business, marketing, distribution and all with minimal assistance --for over twenty years without interruption or compromise, and *that* speaks much more as to what is possible with determination and creative, hard work. David Sim is, first and foremost, a pioneer in the field of periodicals and publishing, and his achievement there is never in dispute.

However, this benign claim of his emblazoned upon his first digest of collected correspondence is one which is sadly characteristic of his current state. God be with you, David Sim; it seems he'd like to be with him/her/it in private and I say, with no irony, he has earned that right.