Monday, 7 September 2020

The Many Origins of Cerebus

Hi, Everybody!

Cerebus masks and whatnots with all the money going to Dave. New product will be added to the store this weekend if I get around to it. Also, they let me know that:
Your entire store will be on sale:
Sep 5 – 7
Sep 16 – 18
Sep 28 – 30
Everything but tees will be on sale:
Sep 10 – 12
Sep 22 – 24
Tell your fans! Remind them that everything but tees will be up to 35% off! That means $20 phone cases, $15 totes, $7 art prints, and way more.

Okay "fans" I've done told you.

The latest Cerebus in Hell? one-shot: Spider-Whore available to order wherever those kinds of things are sold.

The Amicable Spider-Vark is in stores, which is the lead in to Spider-Whore, which was SUPPOSED to be the immediate sequel, but Batvark: PENIS ended up taking Spider-Whore's slot when COVID-19 threw everything up into the air.

If you missed the Kickstarter for Dave and Carson Grubaugh's You Don't Know Jack, there's an Indiegogo, which is still up and running, LIMITED numbers of The Strange Death of Alex Raymond are available through there if you want one and didn't order a Fundraising Edition back when I posted a link to how to get one damn near every day for weeks if not months...

If you missed the Waverly Press Kickstarter for the Remastered Cerebus #1, limited overflow of the rewards are available at

And Signed copies of Vark Wars: Walt's Empire Strikes Back (Signed by Dave, Signed by Dave and me, Signed by me after I scribble out Dave's name, Pretty much available Signed only...)

It's Monday:
Speaking of things Dave Sent me:
The Many Origins of Cerebus 

By Dave Sim
(Originally printed in Following Cerebus #6)

Kensington Market/Aardvark 

I don’t remember what year it was, but I phoned in to CHYM Radio (1490 at that time: I would later do their ad campaign for the switch to 570) and answered a trivia question and my prize was an album. I couldn’t make out over the phone what album it was that I won, so I was looking forward to finding out. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be an album called Aardvark by a band named Kensington Market. I remember being particularly irked that there was no picture of the band itself, just this fairy-tale looking cover of a stage with the curtains parting and revealing (what I took to be) an aardvark. That was my overall reaction: irritation. I’m pretty sure I never listened to the album, but I did spend a fair length of time looking at the cover. An aardvark in the middle of a stage. “I don’t get it,” I thought. 

I didn’t know what a Kensington Market was, either, until a couple of years later when a rare example of a Canadian situation comedy debuted called “King of Kensington” starring Al Waxman. That was when I found out that Kensington Market was (and is) a largely ethnic neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, bordering Chinatown. Oddly enough, it is now part of the regular route that Chester Brown and I take walking back downtown from the Beguiling, right past the statue of Al Waxman. 

[If you wanna hear the album, here's a playlist I made on YouTube. -Matt (They have a Beatles/Monkees kind of sound...)]

“A Boy & His Aardvark” 

T. Casey Brennan had come to the first annual Southern Ontario Panel Art Festival held at Now & Then Books in June of 1972. He was an early enthusiast of conventions and fan gatherings and had heard about the event from someone and had come up from Michigan on his own initiative which pretty much flummoxed all of the attendees and we, the organizers. 

A professional comic-book writer. An actual professional comic-book writer

I remember all of us crowded in the front room of Now & Then Books at 103 Queen Street South basically just staring at him, goggle-eyed. At one point I remember he flashed his ACBA (Academy of Comic Book Arts) laminated membership card, ironically establishing for us his bona fides as a pro and, I suspect, was much amused when the gesture basically sucked all of the oxygen out of the room. We stayed in touch with him and he returned to Kitchener in December of that year to be interviewed for the second issue of Now & Then Times which I edited and which was published in the summer of 1973. 
Click for bigger

His professional history had been a good example of “right place, right time” in that he had submitted a
 script to Warren Publishing, completely ignorant of the fact that he was doing so in the immediate aftermath of long-time editor and ubiquitous scripter Archie Goodwin’s departure. He produced a series of distinctly lyrical, metaphorical and allegorical stories in a very short space of time, the most famous of which was “On the Wings of a Bird” in Creepy No.36 which not only won the Ray Bradbury Cup that year (part of Jim Warren’s in-house awards which he used to present at Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Convention) for best story, but was also nominated for an ACBA Award in the same category: virtually the only time that ACBA had nominated a non-DC, non-Marvel work in any category. 

It’s not an enormous stretch to say that T. Casey Brennan was as influential on me as a writer as Barry Windsor-Smith had been on me as an artist and in a very comparable way: it was he who first introduced me to the idea of the allegory and its core application to storytelling. That was what made the best of his works—“On the Wings of a Bird,” “Carrier of the 

Serpent,” “Climbers of the Tower”—stand out, particularly at Warren Publishing where the EC, Twilight Zone stock twist ending still reigned supreme. The summer after interviewing him, my lessons in allegorical storytelling had begun to sink in and one night I did a parody of the splash page of “On the Wings of a Bird,” changing it into “On the Back of a Pro” and substituting Casey for the Creepy magazine horror host, Uncle Creepy. In retrospect, this very much represented the seminal wedding of allegory and parody which would prove to be the foundational concept behind Cerebus. I sent Casey a stat of the first page and asked him if he would agree to script the rest of the parody. He wrote back in a letter dated 8-30-73: 

Why in God’s name do you want me to write it when you can do a job as good as this? The fascinating thing is how you can completely capture a style when doing something like this…as you captured Feiffer’s style in that 1-pager in the last CANAR, and as you captured mine in the enclosed.

Pretty much assume all these images get bigger with clickings...

Even though I suspected he was just being polite, it was the first time that someone had suggested I had an aptitude for capturing the style of others and I filed it away mentally for future reference even as I completed the story: my first full-length parody which John Balge agreed to publish in CANAR. The exaggerated cartoon-like drawing style that Jerry Gandenetti (a veteran of Will Eisner’s late 1940’s Tudor City shop) had adopted by the late 1970s was certainly easier than a lot of styles I might’ve tried to imitate and the gray washes helped to hide a lot of my fundamental lack of basic drawing skills. 

okay, except this one...

Again with the clickings...

As Casey said in the 1972 interview, whenever he and Jim Warren got together, either he would quit or Warren would fire him. By the time I was drawing “On the Back of a Pro,” Casey was beginning to plan an entirely new career, centered on doing adult comic book stories for an adult audience in an oversized trade paperback format (“the Dracula format” named after Warren’s 1972 experiment with a 120-page trade paperback which reprinted the Spanish Pan-European Buru-Lan/NEL Dracula series which featured a number of stories by Esteban Maroto and other Spanish artists). It’s interesting to consider thirty some-odd years later that Casey was very much decades ahead of his time in anticipating the need for a fan-centered Direct Market and in seeing that a 120-page trade paperback represented a giant step in the right direction. Quoting him from the December, 1972 interview: 

Jim Warren has come out with something no one in the U.S. has come out with before and that’s the five-dollar Dracula book to be sold in book stores. This is strictly for adults because no kid is going to say, “Mom, can I have five dollars to go to the store and buy Dracula?” So that’s a new idea in comic books—the idea of a quarterly to be sold in book stores for a high price and for adults only; not in the sense that “adults only” has come to mean in comic books and other magazines—that it’s dirty. It’s just good work. 

I’m not sure if I wasn’t the one who first put the bug in his ear about doing his own version of Warren’s Dracula, asking at one point in the interview “If you were deciding to organize your own company and had your choice of any four artists, whom would you choose?” To which he replied, 

Well, it would depend a great deal on what kind of comics I was putting out—some of my favourites like Jim Steranko, like Neal Adams, like Esteban Maroto. I like Kirby on super-heroes. I like Charles Schulz on Peanuts. I’m very impressed with Jim Steranko’s imagination and his talent for understanding the comic-book storytelling method so well. 
bigger = clicking

When he did begin to plan his major book project he obviously realized that he would have to start many, many rungs down the ladder of professional pecking order and had sent out feelers to various amateur and fanzine artists he had met in his travels of 1971-73 asking if they were willing to draw stories “on spec”—no up-front money, but a promise of royalties—for the proposed publication. I was one of those artists, which should give you a rough idea of how close to the bottom of the list he was in seeking out collaborators. I was certainly more than willing and cranked out a seven-page story called “Picture This” from the script supplied. Another script—a five-pager—followed shortly thereafter entitled “A Boy & His Aardvark”. This time I was asked to just supply the pencils. I suspect Casey had been horrified at the precipitous drop in drawing quality from “On the Back of a Pro” to “Picture This” (attributable to the fact that I wasn’t virtually tracing another artist’s drawings this time out). 
"I get bigger"

“Again with the aardvark,” I thought, mentally kicking myself that I had, in the interim, gotten rid of the album whose cover would’ve been useful for drawing reference. Instead I had to look up “aardvark” in the dictionary and fake the details that weren’t visible (as well as trying to figure out what this strange beastie—which I had only seen in illustrative profile—might look like from different angles). It did seem like a strange “next link” in an allegorical chain provided by the person who had himself first introduced me to the concept of allegory. The aardvark that had been inexplicably posed on a stage was now—equally inexplicably—a co-star in a comic-book script, the first I had ever been asked to draw. Even though I was seventeen at that point and Casey’s script called for a “slightly long-haired boy of about twelve or thirteen”, I drew the boy pretty much as a self portrait, having a sense, however vague, that “allegory is as allegory does.” 

I don’t think I did an appreciably better job on this one than I had on “Picture This”. It would be convenient to blame the inker, Jim Friel (who, coincidentally, a few years later as the owner/proprietor of Big Rapids Distribution would become the second distributor of Cerebus when he agreed to take five hundred copies of the first issue), but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have much to work with. Two years later I would try again on “Picture This,” aiming to hit a more professional level still beyond my grasp, studiously examining Al Williamson’s work and coming to understand for the first time exactly what was meant by the art cliché of “Less is more.” But on “A Boy & His Aardvark” I was really just thoughtlessly and hastily slapping down pictures without really pausing to consider anything that could be described as composition or narrative. 

I never heard back from Casey about the second story and in fact it would be a little over three years later when Power Comics No.1 would arrive in my mailbox. A far cry from the adult book that had been promised it was an unhappy mish-mosh of the strange paganisms and sorcerous subjects which had come to occupy Casey’s literary attentions by that point in the usual 75 cent newsprint and colour cover format that Mike Friedrich had pioneered with Star*Reach. T. Casey Brennan had introduced me to the allegory and as his own life took some hard turns he was also the first person I ever heard use the name Aleister Crowley with—as I thought even at the time—misplaced reverence. 

There in the pages of Power Comics No.1 was the story Vince Marchesano of Hamilton, Ontario’s Spectrum publications had drawn featuring an extremely fictionalized “T. Casey Brennan, Figure of Mystery” who bore not the slightest resemblance to its author and which I would later satirize in one of The Beavers strips in Quack as “A. White Beaver, Figure of Mystery”. “A Boy & His Aardvark” was easily the worst drawn of the stories in that issue and all I really hoped was that so few people would see it, or notice my signature on the last page, that it wouldn’t hurt me professionally at that late date. 

The Ant and the Aardvark 

It had been just my bad luck that my family got colour television for the first time in the summer of 1976 (for the Montreal Olympics being staged that year) and that I would move out on my own in December before I could really enjoy it. One of the television programs that I was watching faithfully that year was a syndicated package of Depatie-Freleng Studio cartoons—the ones who had developed the Pink Panther animation which preceded the film and its sequels and who evidently retained the license to produce a number of shorts over the course of the next few years. The Pink Panther cartoons were quantum levels below the full animation quality of the movie intro—reportedly they were paid a quarter of a million dollars to produce the cartoon movie titles—and like most of the Depatie-Freleng output it ranged from above average to atrocious (average when they had first secured a license, as they had previously with the Road Runner, and then atrocious as they just pumped out the mandatory amount of product for Saturday morning television). The Warner Brothers and Depatie Freleng syndication packages were comparable in that way. You usually saw three or four really appalling examples of the worst grade of animation for every above average one but it was the sacrifice you had to make. In the 1970s, in Southern Ontario, anyway, that was the only way the better cartoons were made available. 

It was actually a relief when I had to make do with a black-and-white second hand television to watch “The Ant and the Aardvark” series. At least the Aardvark in black and white had a certain stylishness to him. In colour he was sort of this electric blue bright enough to make you wince. I always wondered whose idea that was—making the aardvark’s fur and clothing—everything in fact except his eyes—all one colour. I tended to suspect the budget people in collusion with the cell-painting department. 

I’m not sure if they got the famous Jewish dialect comedian, Jackie Mason, to actually do the Aardvark’s voice. There’s a long tradition in animation of misappropriating voices by doing imitations of famous actors and actresses. But, I remember being struck by how the whole thing just didn’t work. The Aardvark didn’t look remotely Jewish and, as far as I remember, never said anything that sounded remotely Jewish. So, I’d usually just sit there wondering about that. Given that the whole point of Jackie Mason’s act was that he was irrefutably Jewish, why would you get him to voice a character that had no Jewish qualities to him? And—even more perversely—if you had just gotten someone to “do” Jackie Mason, why that particular voice if there was nothing remotely Jewish about the character? 

Kind of funny to think about in light of the Torah commentaries in Latter Days, but I also used to wonder “What could possibly be Jewish about an African mammal?” 

It was a little strange when Power Comics came in at the same time that The Pink Panther show had become part of my daily afternoon routine. 

“What is it with this aardvark business?” 

Cerebus and “Not Loubert” Press 

While assembling the Cerebus Archive, I came across the following: 
It all began when a slender, dark-haired wench (looking all of sixteen) walked into the downstairs of Harry Kremer’s Now and Then Books (my only regular job ever) and said, “Hi. Are you Harry?” Once I allowed as how I didn’t believe so, she (undaunted, of course) informed me that she was the publisher of a magazine yet to be published. Right. Another one of “those”. This magazine was going to be like Dark Shadows and would Harry be interested in selling said unpublished work in his store? I told her the magazine was called Dark Fantasy (didn’t faze her a bit) and added that I—ahem—knew the publisher personally (Hi, Gene). She fairly glowed with appreciation at the fact that this was a celebrity of rare proportions, undoubtedly working in a bookstore for the sheer joy of being like common folk (actually it was for $65 a month). Taking pity and heart respectively, I told her I would do some drawings for her first issue and proceeded to write about my name, address and phone number and told her to call sometime and come over and we would discuss it (no fool I). She recognized the ‘Sim” from “Dark Shadows” since I wrote it the way I sign my drawings (once again, no fool I) and I felt like the King of France being discovered in a whorehouse. Wondering what such a famous artist was doing in such a low establishment, she wrote out her name: Denise Loubert de Neuilly (the second half being another of her half-baked fantasies) and departed into the snowy depths of December 16, 1976. 
It all began when I asked her (on her next visit to the whorehouse) what this marvellous work was to be known as. 

Cerebus.” replied she, “You know, like the three-headed dog?” 

That night, I drew a fanzine cover, a spot illo and designed a logo. C-E-R-E-B-U-S.. I made up a logo for Loubert Press, as well (I figured this would please her, since her brother and sister were also working on the magazine). Her reaction was one of horror. “Oh, no. Eric Hope is the editor and he won’t want it called Loubert Press.” 

“Well, what’s the publishing house going to be called, then?” Reject my logo, will you? 

“I’ll call Michael and Karen and ask them.” 

I was going to ask why she didn’t call Eric, but chose instead to wedge my tongue between two molars. 


"It gets bigger..."
“Hi, Michael? We need a name for the publishing company. You know—like Shadow Press…” 

“Michael says Vanaheim Press and Karen says Aardvark Press.” 

“Why not put the two together?” 

If my art career fell through, I was considering becoming a diplomat. 

It all began when I drew the logo for the newly christened Aardvark-Vanaheim Press. One was a stylized graphic of an aardvark head with horned helmet. The other was a little more “cartoony”. Deni selected the cartoony one. I still sometimes wonder where Eric was through all of this. 
I’m not sure what it was written for but it’s handwritten on the back of “48 Weber Street East” stationery which would indicate it was written after our move to 221 Queen Street South in March of 1979 (when the 48 Weber Street East stationery became scrap paper) and stops dead at this point in the narrative. The repeating “It all began” motif suggests that even at this early point, I was acutely aware of the many tributaries that made up the “Origin of Cerebus.” 
"The name is Biggers, Clicky Biggers"

And, of course, I didn’t mention one of my first reactions to the suggested names for the proposed press. “There’s that aardvark, again.” From the front of a record album to a comic book script to a cartoon show and now to a company logo. I’m not sure how long after the fact it was that I asked Karen why she had come up with Aardvark Press. As I indicated to Tasha Robinson of The Onion—largely under duress—the only way that I would answer the “Why an aardvark?” question by 2004 (see Collected Letters, page 255): 
It turned out later that a boy that Karen had a major crush on—she was in high school, then—had made a joke posing his hand on a table so that the thumb and three fingers were balanced on their tips like legs and his middle finger was extended like a snout. “Aardvark” [see front cover for Karen Rittinger (ne Loubert)’s re-enactment]. When you are a high school girl and you have a crush on someone, these are the sorts of things that stay with you. So I drew a cartoon barbarian aardvark as a mascot for this fanzine publishing company. Later when we realized that what Deni had intended to call the book was Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded Hades in Greek mythology, I told her we would just make Cerebus the name of the aardvark. The fanzine never got off the ground, so I decided to try drawing a sample comic page of Cerebus the Aardvark. And, for a number of months that was all that existed: the page that turned out to be page one of Cerebus No.1.
Of course I omitted two of the intermediate steps in this description. One: after the California printer had absconded with the original paste-ups for Cerebus the Fanzine and the money we had paid to have it printed (neither Deni or I had been farsighted enough to get clear copies of the pages made in the event of just such an eventuality), in another side of my multi-faceted career wherein I was hanging on by my fingernails—freelance comic-book creator—I had decided to try and draw a sample comic-book panel of Cerebus the Aardvark not really having any idea of where it might be useful. There were a couple of interesting problems that presented themselves pretty quickly and persuaded me that maybe Cerebus the Aardvark was better left as a one drawing phenomenon. Because his helmet was flying off his head in the logo drawing, I hadn’t had to figure out how to fit it in between his ears and it was definitely an awkward drawing problem. Either the helmet had to be ridiculously tiny or the ears had to be unnaturally small and far apart. The other problem was that in the logo, his mouth was clearly visible at the side of his snout, but drawing him square on there didn’t seem to be a way of making that look right. He appeared to be talking out of the side of his face like a little gray James Cagney or something. 
Clicky Biggers: Professional Enlarger

Two: Mike Friedrich of Star*Reach Productions had served notice that he was open to any suggestions I might have on how to revive sales on his funny-animal anthology title, Quack! which at this point was dying on the vine in spite of (or more likely because of) the inclusion of my own “The Beavers” strips. In a letter dated 22 June 1977 he wrote: 
Would you mind spending some time someday soon and write me up a short description of just what the hell you’re trying to do in “The Beavers”? Why do you do this strip? Where’s it going? How do you intend to get there? So far I can’t detect much connection between the strips except some vague interest in media and Canadian self-commentary. (And meanwhile Quack! seems to be drifting towards “entertainment humor”, whatever that means; though so far your strips have stayed within whatever vague boundaries I’ve set). 

Looks like my cover idea for Quack #3 isn’t so hot; after the initial orders the book is just sitting here. It’s not nearly as well-selling as Star*Reach and actually is falling off in sales. I’m at a bit of a loss for ideas. Any suggestions? I could use a bit of your critical facilities. 
The impression I had been left with from this characteristically blunt communiqué from my editor-in-chief was that a couple of my fingernails had just slipped and my visions of a cover featuring “The Beavers” on Quack! being the launch point to riches, fame and glory (the only honest answer to Mike’s question of “Why do you do this strip?”) was, as a result, dissipating quickly. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that “entertainment humor” was a discrete euphemism for “not funny”. I brought my “critical facilities” to bear and asked the obvious question: why was it that Howard the Duck was still a hit and Quack! was a miss? The answer, it seemed to me was that Howard the Duck featured a funny animal in the world of humans whereas the Quack material seemed to consist of funny animals solely in their own milieu. As far as I recall, I first presented this to Mike as a theory in response to his request for my suggestions. Certain as I was that Mike would share my sense that this was a “Eureka” moment in the history of funny animal comics, I wasn’t prepared for his response from 12 September 1977: 
Some bad news: 

1) I don’t feel comfortable with your lettering on Gene Day’s dramatic stories and so I’ve asked him to have it sent out here for that work. Your style works excellently with your own “Beavers” work and on the one “Quack” story Gene did for me, but I seem to prefer a crisper, more regular style on dramatic stories and you aren’t there. Sorry. 

2) Bigger, though, is my decision on what to do with Quack (I’d expressed to you my problems with it before). What I’ve decided is two-fold: first to cut it back to twice a year (I’ll be starting up an SF/Fantasy spin-off called Imagine…putting continued features in Star*Reach and the non-series short stories in the 2nd title…this will alternate with Quack on my publishing schedule), second, to cut back the strips to two or three: [Steve] Leialoha’s rabbit…and [Michael]Gilbert’s “Wraith”…and [Ted] Richard’s “Quack” (his spin-off from “E.Z. Wolf”), if Ted can make it. 

This leaves you out. I know this isn’t the most exciting of events for you, but I hope you don’t take it overly hard. I have liked aspects of “The Beavers” (as I have liked parts of the other strips I’m dropping), but I don’t think it fits in with my expectations nor my feeling as to what market I’m going after. As I’ve said before, my thinking about Quack has been very soft and I’ve made this decision reluctantly, since I’m still not totally confident it’s “correct”, but the best thing I feel I can do at this point is pull in a bit, retreat to a smaller base if you will, and try to get better bearings from there. 
I was certain that I had hit on a key point of marketability and—grasping at straws even as I was getting edged aside—put together what would become the splash page of issue one of Cerebus. As far as I could see, if my theory was correct, I was in a race against whomever else might bring the next “funny animal in the world of humans” to market ahead of me. I figured all I need to do was to show Mike what I envisioned and he would “get it”. However he wrote in his letter of 30 September 1977: 
Anyway, some specifics: sometimes timing is everything. Your splash page for CEREBUS brought an immediate smile…but I’m gonna be stubborn about this pull-back (meaning I’m gonna give it a couple of issues…that is, a year…to see how it goes before making any changes or additions). I’ve heard a rumor that Denis Kitchen is starting up a funny-animal book, but don’t know anything more; I’ll let you know if I hear this is true. If not, keep developing the idea every now and then anyway. It’ll find it’s place. 
Years later he told me that sticking to his intention to “pull back” he had rejected Elfquest as well in September of 1977. 

Having very few professional options at that point, I took a hard look at the splash page of Cerebus the Aardvark and asked myself a core question: “Did I really believe that the key to the viability of a funny animal title was that there be only one funny animal and all of the other characters had to be human?” Yes, I was still pretty sure that that was the case. Which led to even more of a core question: If I did really believe that, then why was I trying to get Mike Friedrich to publish it and sharing the revenues with him? 

Why not publish it through the moribund Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint, getting Deni to do the nuts-and-bolts business side? 

The rest, as they say, is history.

Everybody say "Thanks! Dave!"

Next Time: The Origins Interview: Dave Sim on "Way Back When"


Jeff said...

Gee! T'anks, buddy!

Brian West said...

Thank you Dave Sim.