Adam Beechen is a comic book writer best known for his work on various DC titles (including Batman, Robin, Countdown) and his own creator-owned series Hench.
1. How did you discover CEREBUS, and for how long did you read it?
I first saw Cerebus in the ads for the comic in The Comics Journal. I’d guess it was 1981, so I was about twelve years old. My mother had purchased a subscription to the Journal for me, and while I loved getting the magazine, I can remember paging through it at that age and having almost zero interest in ninety percent of the subject matter (Creators’ rights? Foreign comics? Some lawsuit by Michael Fleisher? Why aren’t we talking more about the greatness of John Byrne’s art?). But the CEREBUS ads always drew my attention and held it. They were beautifully designed, with lots of solid black and inventive lettering to catch the eye. The art at the time was just to the left of Neal Adams, and it often featured a super-hero that looked pretty amusing (Moon Roach). And the ads were funny, a great combination of words and pictures, each complimenting the other perfectly (I particularly remember the ad with Moon Roach standing over the McGrew brothers, giving his “The Shadow” spiel).
After that, when I’d make my weekly trips to my local Phoenix comic shop, the long-gone Book Tree, I’d always pause and consider the issues of Cerebus I’d see. The covers were as arresting as the ads, and I’d wonder what was inside, but was too nervous to take a look. This was an independent comic, and from what I’d read/seen in The Comics Journal, that likely meant either lots of beyond-Marvel gory violence, lots of gratuitous sex and nudity, and lots of swearing. Not that I wasn’t interested in or couldn’t handle all three, but how I could I justify their purchase if any adult in my life wanted to check them out? The comics stayed on the stands.
After my Bar Mitzvah, however, I was a little more confident, and on one visit to the comic shop the following year, I riffled through the back-issue bargain bins and came up with issues 37 and 38 (which had fairly recently become back issues). Nothing too sexy/gory/swear-y on the covers, so what the heck? I ponied up.
And fell hard.
(No adults ever asked about the book)
The dialogue was amazing, especially the parody characters – The accents and lettering and even the carefully-considered placement of the dialogue balloons made me hear the characters in a way Marvel and DC books just didn’t, and they all advanced the delicate, flawless timing of the gags. The facial expressions added immensely to this, amplifying the humor many times over. The layouts were like nothing I’d ever seen, cool and new, and thought had clearly been put into them; They hadn’t just been put down quickly to help get the book out on time. I can remember having some tween-age quibbles with the human figures (If they were just drawn a little better, This Guy Sim would be up among my favorites with Byrne, Adams, George Perez, Paul Smith, etc.). I didn’t always get the subject matter or the character history being referenced, but I got the context and the book made me laugh, it made me want to draw, and it made me want to write. Even the letters page was fun. This Guy Sim seemed to know his readers, have a relationship with them that was totally different than the faceless editors who answered letters in the Marvel and DC lettercols. The book seemed like a club of select people who were in the know about this awesome comic and character. I was skinny, self-conscious, chronically nervous and utterly invisible to girls. I wanted to belong somewhere. I wanted to be in the CEREBUS club.
So on my next trip to the comic shop, I bought the latest issue, 48, and never looked back. Every month, until issue 300. From grade school to high school to college to grad school to professional life, I didn’t come close to missing a single issue. Phoenix to Chicago to Phoenix again to Austin to Los Angeles. CEREBUS was my traveling companion the entire way, and it travels with me still.
I use storytelling techniques I learned from CEREBUS all the time, both in comics and in animation writing, particularly in the case of timing jokes or funny moments. I’ll give you an example: In the first issue of ROBIN I ever wrote for DC, #148, Batman tells Tim Drake that he couldn’t have beaten Batgirl in a fight. It’s a cold thing to say, and Tim responds with, “Ouch.” But the way we set it up visually was straight out of CEREBUS. Two panels, identical illustrations in each, profile shot, Batman on the left, Tim on the right. Batman says his line in the first panel, then the eye travels over to Tim, who says nothing. On to the second panel where the eye travels to Batman, waiting for Tim’s response, then finally lands on Tim, who says, “Ouch.” The distance the eye has to travel from statement to response functions as a pregnant pause, and there’s only about a zillion of them in CEREBUS. Before reading CEREBUS, I probably would have structured the sequence to take place in one panel, thus losing the comic awkwardness of the moment. But from Dave Sim I learned how and when to draw moments out for maximum effect, whether comedic or dramatic.
From Dave’s amazing ear for dialogue, I learned how to write dialect and vocal mannerism into animation and television scripts in such a way that the actor has a good sense of how lines are meant to be read, or at least how I hear them when I’m writing them. I want actors to bring their own style and interpretation to the script – that’s part of the collaborative process of making TV – but hopefully this at least gives them a good starting point as they make their choices.
CEREBUS #44, “The Deciding Vote.” It’s a flawlessly written issue that never fails to crack me up. “This mess is a place!” I’m giggling just typing it.
The balance between the two stories (Cerebus and the farmer, Moon Roach and Astoria) is perfect, as is the balance between slapstick and wordplay. And at the end, a brilliant conversation with an innkeeper who could be right out of New England central casting, and we know that because of the way Dave has structured his sentences and indicated his dialect.
“Wubba wubba boing boing boing…” Seriously, milk just sprayed out my nose, and I’m not even drinking milk.
I’d recommend CEREBUS for all kinds of reasons.
a) It’s a fascinating read as a work of fiction, straight up. Not every book will be to every reader’s taste, but there’s something for everyone, and the scope of the narrative itself is astonishing.
b) It’s an inspiration to dream big as a storyteller and to not be afraid to chase that dream.
c) It’s an unprecedented picture of the development of one creative person, from month to month, over the unbelievable span of 25 years. To chart the growth in artistic capability, to observe the changes in the interests and philosophies of the writer… As a reader, you’re seeing those processes at work in a way you don’t get from reading even the most prolific of novelists or screenwriters. If you’re creative in the least, or curious about the nature of creativity, CEREBUS is invaluable.
d) It is a storytelling textbook. If you have any interest at all in being any kind of storytelling pro, thorough study of this material will go a long way toward educating you to the possibilities of the medium. Panel construction; page construction; timing, dialect and mannerism; set-ups and call-backs; character development; pacing; figure poses and facial expression; lettering… the list goes on and on.
e) It is a comics history textbook. There was very little, if any, self-publishing reaching an audience of more than a few when CEREBUS began. The book blazed the trail, and along the way, Dave advised and mentored many fledgling creators, some of whom have come and gone, others who have become key industry players in their own right, whether working on their own, or for other companies. Read CEREBUS, read all of it, from the panel pages to the text pieces to the letter answers, and you’ll experience the entire history of the independent comics corner of the industry between 1979 and 2004.
As far as I’m concerned, CEREBUS is one of the most important works the medium has ever, or will ever, see. Its content can be debated, its creator’s intent and opinions can be debated, but it deserves to be remembered, discussed, and acknowledged for the titanic achievement it is.
…a little piece of personal trivia: Dave Sim published the first work of mine that ever appeared in a comic book. It was a "Single Page" feature that ran in the "High Society" reprints around 1991 or so. I still have a photocopy of the Aardvark-Vanaheim check I received for it.
Adam Beechen's Single Page From Biweekly Reprint of Cerebus #74