Monday, 5 December 2016

"Cerebus Cover Art Treasury" Reviewed!

Cerebus Cover Art Treasury
by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(IDW, 2016)

PAGE 45:
(from a review by Stephen Holland, Page 45 proprietor)
If the 300-issue, 6,000-page magnum opus that is CEREBUS remains one of the most inventive comics this medium has ever produced, with narrative innovations cascading from its pages at such an astonishing rate as to make Niagara Falls look like a domestic, dripping tap - and it does - then its covers were no less ingenious, iconic and iconoclastic, all at the same time.

What makes this luxurious, full-colour treasury even more of a thirstily devoured "Yes, please!" is that so many of these illustrations don't just set the tone but actively inform the story within, which most modern readers have had access to only in the form of those whopping, black and white CEREBUS phonebook collections. They never reprinted the colour covers to keep their costs down, but some seen in sequence form comicbook narratives in their own right (#153 & #154) and they are bursting with clues.

The diversity of their approaches and angles - geometric or otherwise - was jaw-dropping, especially when one considers the relative, relentless homogeneity of the corporations' covers competing for space on retailers' shelves back then, and even more so to this day.

You never knew what you'd be startled by next: stark silhouettes, spot-lit close-ups, balletic action shots, quiet reveries, dream-sequence deliria, architecture only, lunar photography, William Morris wallpaper either hung with framed portraits or used to frame pithy, telling snap-shots; typography only (ever so brave and oh so effective), images rotated sideways to reflect what lay within, woodland landscapes, a funereal flower arrangement, glistening bottles of booze placed in the foreground of drunken misdemeanours, film-poster parodies, cosmic chess matches, or Dave / David Sim drawing the divine Mick / Michael Jagger in precisely the same pose as Michelangelo once sculpted David.

No, I wasn't perceptive enough to spot that little joke - and, trust me, I studied these long and hard as I acquired each treasured gem. The good news is that, thanks to the conversational back-and-forth between Dave Sim and Gerhard's annotations on almost every page, you'll be privy to even more process notes and private self-indulgences. Take the cover to #77. Here's Gerhard:

"Dream covers are always fun. When I was drawing the water pouring from the statue, I thought it might be fun to have the water fill the letters M and T... as in 'MT is full'. Say it fast, and you'll get the joke... or not."

Dave was joined by landscape artist Gerhard in CEREBUS #65, though not on its cover which was the typography-only effort bearing the truism (which has stuck with me ever since), that "Anything done for the first time unleashes a demon". There were some very, very fine titles: some portentous, some ripping the piss - out of themselves, readers' expectations or Marvel's melodrama - some simply playful yet salient, like "Sane As It Ever Was".

From #65 onwards Dave continued to write and draw all the characters while Gerhard would render the backgrounds in meticulous detail, providing both textures and colour. The cover to #66 is a ripped-open version of #65, exposing Gerhard's first cover and colour contribution.

"It was interesting watching Gerhard tearing art paper carefully so it LOOKED like torn art paper."

That's what I mean by meticulous.

"It took me years to figure out that Gerhard LIKED doing precise measurements / vanishing point stuff: that it was his favourite part," observes Dave of the phenomenal window on #68.

Of #162's extraordinary spectacle: "Vanishing point and applied geometry. It was there in front of me the whole time." And once again of #164's delicious, crystal-clear, blue-sky winter panorama with its single shattered skylight because we'd been there before.

Neither of the artists is here merely to pat themselves or each on the back, though. They're both commendably candid about their mistakes, shortcomings and where things didn't work out the way they had planned. But it was a monthly comic which only once fell behind schedule (towards the end of CHURCH & STATE) so at the end of the day, a) they had to go to print and simply strive to do better next time b) you simply don't know what it will look like until the printed article appears right in front of you.

Sometimes I found myself shaking my head, bewildered by what one or the other considers a failure. The library cover to #151 with its tumbling book and exceptional sense of space has always struck me as one of the ten best covers ever to grace a comic, but Gerhard was so frustated by its colours that when he hung it on its clip on completion, he did so facing the wall.

"In these situations," writes Dave, "you take the hint and just hope it's still on its hook, face to the wall, when you come in tomorrow. It's HIS cover."

Hilariously, however, Dave confesses that during much earlier days - the beginning to HIGH SOCIETY - he tried his hand at watercolours for the covers without comprehending that you were supposed to dilute them. You know, add water. So he used them as you would oil and acrylics, virtually smearing them onto the board. Such is the way of the self-taught artist. I actually liked those covers, but you can't un-see something once you've been shown.

Successful experimentations are equally well documented, like Gerhard's discovery that using a toothbrush to flick white or red ink onto the boards was far more effective for snow, stars and blood than an airbrush. There are lots and lots of different space and star effects in evidence. Also, in one instance, a book bearing bloody finger prints. They're Gerhard's, if that ever proves forensically relevant.

You may have noticed by now that the covers are presented in different ways. The majority are shot from the originals before some or all of the lettering and extra effects have been added which, with attendant notes, gives extra insight into the process behind them. I find it fascinating to peer behind the curtains to see bits pasted on here and there, and what was entrusted to the printers instead.

Others are reproductions of the covers as we encountered them complete with the ever-evolving CEREBUS logo and other typography. I learned a new word: "majuscule". Sim has long been hailed as one of the medium's all-time greatest letterers, sliding sentences up and down, giving them an extra lilt or cadence (when Thatcher is speaking, for example), and deploying the visual equivalent of onomatopoeia in places. At least one is the result of Sim and Gerhard revisiting a cover, recreating it for a commission.

They're reproductions or recreations because some of the originals have been sold, and so many more have been stolen. I'll leave the introduction to fill you in on that aspect.

So yes, there are practical and commercial considerations as well as artistic ones assessed. From time to time, Dave's Inner Business Manager retrospectively smacks himself upside the head to much comedic effect when either carelessly or wilfully making design decisions which ran the risk of thwarting his own sales.

When getting it right on #52 he writes: "Cerebus breaking a chair over the head of a barbarian. Yes, Dave, BRANDING. What is it you're not 'getting' about what you're trying to sell here?" In addition both Cerebus and the logo are found at the top, so easily seen even in shops with semi-tiered shelves which obscure some comics' bottom halves. Everything is a learning curve including copyright infringement, though Dave did get away with it on satirical grounds.

"The three 'Wolveroach' covers which I really just did to show Frank Miller and Joe Rubenstein how the WOLVERINE mini-series covers SHOULD have been done - more like Neal Adams. Thus overshooting the 'Branding' runway and smashing through Marvel's intellectual property fence and leaving this mixed metaphor jackknifed into their swimming pool with its tail in the air."

Of the second in the series, #55: "Now that you mention it, it DID look sort of familiar".

From the ridiculous to the sublime, we finish where Dave Sim and Gerhard concluded, with the final ten issues sub-titled CEREBUS: THE LAST DAY. For this Gerhard supplied a detailed 360-degree view of the room divided into nine covers which conjoin seamlessly with each other and at each end. This in itself constitutes sequential art when considering that time passes ever so slowly inside, but the pan is paused with #298 for a halting juxtaposition.

That's what I meant when I wrote at the start that the exterior art informs what lies within and - at times - creates a narrative all of its own.

This is a gallery we never thought we'd see because of those aforementioned colour costs which would have jeopardised the self-publisher's finances, so bravo to IDW for enabling this miracle.

I'd only add that to close this book immediately after the final cover is to feel almost as bereft as Mark and I did after reading the very last panel on the final page of CEREBUS itself twelve years ago.


Jeff Seiler said...

Excellent review, Stephen! I agree with everything you've written, especially the bit about finishing the book...

Tony Dunlop said...

Huh. I love the watercolor covers of the early HS issues, and wouldn't have known there was anything "wrong" with them had I not read this review!

Sean R said...

Hey Tony, that's because there's isn't anything wrong with it. Painting with watercolor sans water is just like painting with gouache. Look at Winslow Homer, i.e. the dean of American watercolor. He used undiluted color all of the time, and didn't come around to transparency until much later. Even John Singer Sargent, certainly the most painterly watercolorist I've ever seen, used lots of opaque passages, although usually limited to special particular effects.

Dean Reeves said...

I have to say that I really like this book. Having all of the covers in one hard cover edition is something that, I think, every Cerebus fan has been waiting for ever since the trades. Even the slabbed versions and the re-creations - although issue 88 is my favourite cover from the entire run and to see the re-creation, no matter how good, was disappointing because I was really looking forward to the original to 88. The covers were that missing piece that we all wanted.

Now I'm going to take a risk here and say a few negative things about it.

I think Cerebus, Dave, and Gerhard and the fans deserved something even better.

I think the book would have been more amazing if it had been printed to the size of the actual artwork (like many other IDW treasury and artist editions), so that you could truly appreciate the amount of detail that goes into each piece of artwork. But for whatever reason this book is 9.25 x 12.1625. Not the approximately 11x17 page that Cerebus original art is. The wrap around of issue one would have been spectacular as a full size gatefold, for example. It's a small thing, but it is a thing.

I also think that more attention should have been paid to the colour correction. I found that a lot of the images come across as muddy when compared to originals that I’ve seen, and certainly compared to how they looked when originally printed. Issues 79-104 in particular. That run has some of my favourite covers. For issue 93 there is actually a photo of Dave holding the original on the website A Moment Of Cerebus and it is incredibly vibrant. You would not know it here.

So while I am greatful for the effort, and I really do like the book (especially the comments) these are the things that prevent me from LOVING the book.

My two cents.

Mike Battaglia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Battaglia said...

Fantastic review from Mr. Holland! Can't wait to get my copy.

@ Dean -- Personally, I think 11x17 would be too unwieldy and would relegate it to the coffee table. The current size is perfect, because it's bigger than the original issues, but still small enough to comfortably take with you on a plane, subway, so forth. This is the kind of book that needs to be mobile, and at its size it both gives with the eye candy and has legs under it.

(I would give the left lens from my glasses for an editing function, here).

Mike Battaglia said...

At least I know what my first Christmas Amazon gift card purchase will be this year. ;)

Dave Sim said...

Dean -Always gratifying to get input from the Canadian "Dean" of CEREBUS art collectors.

I think most of your reservations -- particularly the size of the book -- have to be chalked up to "level of popularity": CEREBUS just not being in that category relative to the general comic-book market. I've already told Chris Ryall (IDW editor-in-chief) that any possible future CEREBUS projects at IDW are going to hinge on how the COVERS TREASURY does over its first two quarters of sales -- so roughly between now and next summer's convention season.

That having been said, whether IDW ends up "eating" a substantial portion of the print run or the book is enjoying sales sufficiently brisk to justify their not inconsiderable investment in it, I consider the rights to the CEREBUS covers in book form to be exclusively theirs until they DO recover their investment and that they have the option to do another printing if we get to that point.

I realize that CEREBUS art collectors tend not to be "hands-on" about these things, but I'm hoping this is a case where you guys WILL be: contacting IDW directly with SPECIFIC criticisms of the reproduction of SPECIFIC covers -- particularly of pieces that you own -- and any leads you have on covers that weren't featured in the book.

Collectors tend to have a sharper eye than the average consumer so I think IDW will need some input from you guys if (when?) we get to the point of a new printing if that printing is going to come up to your exacting standards. Hope you can help with this!

Dave Sim said...

And thanks to Stephen for the lengthy review! Hope PAGE 45 is doing some land office business in COVER ART TREASURY books this holiday season!

Glen said...

Dave, did you ever consider including the TPB covers in the treasury?

Dave Sim said...

Hi Glen! - Uh, that was one of those things that seemed to move off the radar screen pretty quickly. "Why don't we do ALL the covers?" ALL the covers? "Fanzine covers, magazine covers, the fan club newsletters, convention books, SWORDS." Um. It's already going to be 300 pages minimum. Once you actually start putting together a book of 300 covers, you start to realize that you've really got more than enough on your plate. It's a weird Comic Art Metaphysics effect: "it's JUST the covers, how complicated can it be?" Yes, but it's three HUNDRED covers. There aren't a lot of graphic novels that are 300 pages. Picture how long it takes to put together a 300-page graphic novel. "Oh, yeah."

It also means that the commentary side is only partly done, but that was the compromise: CEREBUS fans get the COVERS book they've wanted and ONE comment on most of them from both Gerhard and myself.

As contrasted with CEREBUS ARCHIVE where the commentaries are as exhaustive as I can make them: 6 pages of reduced type commenting on 10 pages. Now I don't have to talk about those 10 pages again EVER! :)

Travis Pelkie said...

I finally (finally!) got my copy today, along with the remastered Going Home (I can tell by the price!). So I hope to do a review ... sometime soon. No promises as to when. It might take awhile to read and absorb. Plus, I don't have a scanner so no example images from me, unfortunately.

But I will review it.

Dave Sim said...

Travis - Thanks, I appreciate it! You're still the ONLY person to review CIH? #0 online, aren't you?

Travis Pelkie said...

I'll have to check the google that the kids all seem to like, but most likely. I felt bad that it took me 2-3 weeks after the issue came out to review it, but considering I am the only reviewer of it, well, now I don't feel so bad!