Monday, 13 February 2017

Cerebus: In My Life -- Adam Beechen

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.

2. How has your own creativity/comics reading been influenced by CEREBUS?

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.

3. What is your favourite scene or sequence in CEREBUS?

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.

4. Would you recommend others read CEREBUS, and if so, why?

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.

5. While I’m here...

…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.

Bonus Strip: 
Adam Beechen's Single Page From Biweekly Reprint of Cerebus #74


Jeff Seiler said...

Nicely done, Adam. #44 is my favorite issue too!

crazyyears said...

"If you’re creative in the least, or curious about the nature of creativity, CEREBUS is invaluable."

That is the most all encompassing statement regarding Cerebus I've ever read. I intend to lead with it from now on.

--- Michael Hunt

Unknown said...

Thanks, guys!

I forgot to plug HENCH in the intro, a graphic novel Adam first did for PlanetLar way back in the day. The premise is the life story of a freelance super-villain henchman. A very human treatment of a subject that's always just right there in front of us as a comic book cliche. One of those stories that makes you wonder "Why didn't anyone come up with this before?"

HENCH is gradually making its way through the three-ring-Hollywood-circus process of being turned into a TV series for a cable outfit whose name you would recognize in a minute. Best of luck to Adam Beechen with it. Hope it becomes the next WALKING DEAD, Adam!

Unknown said...

And as Adam said in the Comments section of the Weekly Update where I talked about him: "HENCH is available from!"

Unknown said...

This was beautifully written and very relatable to a guy like me—except that I didn't care if my parents found questionable indie comics in my room. Funny that, because my mom was quite strict, but for some reason I never felt any need to hide Cerebus from her even though it definitely dealt with adult themes.

Tony said...

#44 happens to be the very first issue I picked up new off the stands. Over the next few months (thanks, paper route money) I was able to obtain the five SWORDS collections and then the singles from there through 43 and stayed on board for the rest of the run.

Travis Pelkie said...

Nice piece, with excellent reasons to like and read Cerebus. I may have to remember to cop a few of these whenever I write a big piece on the series (with credit, of course!).

Adam wrote the issues of Robin with the first post-Seven Soldiers appearance of that version of Klarion, iirc, and iirc, they were pretty good. So I'll have to get Hench sometime. There's no STAR code for it through Diamond, is there?

Unknown said...

Dave - Thanks for the good wishes! The production office is still trying to find a poster or some such that I can send you. I'm going to give them to the end of the week, and if we still can't find one, I'll just print a screen grab from the show on some nice photo paper and send that along. I hope that'll be all right.

In other news, I received my copy of the CEREBUS COVER ART TREASURY yesterday afternoon, and it is GORGEOUS. Another informative glimpse into the creative process and a chance to see the covers in a new context.

Hi Travis - I don't know if HENCH is still available through Diamond at all... I don't think it is. But it's definitely available if you type it into Amazon. I'm publishing it on-demand there through Createspace.

Unknown said...

Adam - I appreciate it more than I can say! The production office is probably trying to wrap their heads around someone who still traffics pretty much exclusively in "meatspace". Definitely looking forward to it!

When was HENCH available from Diamond? Was PlanetLar distributed by them? And did you distribute through them when you self-published the "Director's Cut"?

Unknown said...

Hey Dave -

HENCH was available from Diamond when PlanetLar published it in 2004. When the 2012 "Director's Cut" (really, just the original graphic novel with the sequel tacked on when PlanetLar stopped publishing and the original artist moved on to other things) came out, I never even approached Diamond. The original book barely made a ripple when it came out in 2004 (aside from with a small group of readers and a smaller group of film/TV production companies for whom I am VERY grateful), so there was no reason to think a listing with Diamond would yield anywhere near what it would cost in money and effort to get the listing... especially as I was already paying the sequel's artist out of my pocket.

At the time I went with Amazon and Createspace, the book had fallen out of its most recent option and I was out of copies. I mostly wanted a means to have the book on hand in case anyone happened to ask for it. Now it seems to sell 1-3 copies a month from the site, which is really nice. If the book never gets made into a movie or a series, I should make all my money back by around 2032. :-)


Travis Pelkie said...

Well, sometime when I get around to ordering stuff on Amazon, I'll have to be sure to remember to order a copy of Hench. Then I can review it for the Atomic Junk Shop!

Unknown said...

Adam - That answered my other question: how many copies DO you have? Thanks!

Unknown said...

Ahoy, Dave - Not sure if you're reading back this far, but wanted to make sure you'd received what I sent you a few weeks ago...