Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Alternative Comics Cadaver Derby

The Comics Journal #98 (May 1985)
Art by Kevin Nowlan

(excerpt from an essay at The Beguiling)
...The First Fifth [was a] series of prints which Ger and I did in the unsettled days when Aardvark-Vanaheim Inc had just been permanently divided into my Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint and Deni’s Renegade Press imprint. Among the various clauses we had mutually agreed to: I agreed not to contest or compete for any of the services of the cartoonists or of the books we had been jointly publishing to that point; I agreed to assume all of the debt incurred in the publication of The Animated Portfolio (roughly seventeen thousand dollars owing to my serious overestimation of the incentive value of a low price, $12.00 for 45 colour plates) and we agreed to divide the cash-on-hand between us. This essentially allowed Deni to start with a clean slate and encumbered Aardvark-Vanaheim with a debt-to-assets ratio of about three-to-one. To give you an idea of what we were facing, Jan Strnad (who I doubt was even marginally aware of the debt Aardvark-Vanaheim was carrying and the precarious position in which we found ourselves) had written a piece in The Comics Journal not-so-delightfully entitled "Comics Cadaver Derby" handicapping the odds on which would be the next independent comic-book publishers who were likely to go out of business as part of the wave of bankruptcies sweeping the field.  The analogy he had come up with for the new Dave Sim administration at Aardvark-Vanaheim was that it was comparable to turning General Motors over to "Big Daddy" Roth - he of the "Rat Fink" cycletoons notoriety - and rated our chances as "not good". 

...One of the reasons that I instituted the "Note from the President," replacing Deni's "Note from the Publisher" was to remind everyone that I had been - and continued to be - the president of Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc. (Deni’s official title had been secretary of the corporation). I certainly wasn’t a genius as a businessman (witness the Animated Cerebus fiasco) but I was far from the clueless artistic flake I was commonly perceived to be.

…for a cost of  what I considered at the time and still consider today to be an excessive amount of money, $100; $300 for Gerhard’s hand-coloured version... They sold well enough to pay off many of our most pressing debts and to pay down a chunk that was owed on the Animated Cerebus, bringing our debt-to-assets ratio down to something more manageable, in the range of 1-to-1, rather than 3-to-1.

...Anyway, it was with genuine gratitude to the art-buying Cerebus readership (many of whom are still with us and still bidding on Cerebus pieces today as they come onto the market) that The First Fifth "worked" in the way it very much needed to if Ger and I were to have a fighting chance of making it to the mythically-distant issue 300.  We sold out virtually all of the black-and-white series and the colour edition in a little over a month and were able to pay off a sufficient number of debts to ensure that all we had to focus on was keeping the book as good as possible and on schedule.
The Animated Cerebus Portfolio (1983)
Art by Dave Sim 

(from the original 'Alternative Comics Cadaver Derby' article, The Comics Journal #98, May 1985)
Aardvark-Vanaheim was founded by husband-and-wife team Dave and Deni Sim. Dave was (and still is) the creative force in the company, writing and illustrating the adventures of a barbarian aardvark, Cerebus. Cerebus developed a following and the reprint series, Swords of Cerebus, was born. A third Cerebus-related title, Cerebus Jam, is under development.

But Aardvark-Vanaheim was not a company to rest on its aardvarks and was soon publishing books by other creators, including Neil The Horse by Arn Saba, Normalman by Valentino, Journey by Bill Messner-Loebs, and The Flaming Carrot by Bob Burden. All seemed to be going well.

And then, trouble in paradise: Dave and Deni were divorced. Dave kept custody of the aardvark and continues to publish Cerebus and Swords of Cerebus himself, assisted by Deni's former assistant. Deni took the other titles and formed Renegade Press (q.v.). Since the Cerebus-related titles were the back-bone of Aarvark-Vanaheim, one is tempted to suggest that the "new" A-V will be leaner and more solid; on the practical side, though, we have to remember that the company is now solely in the hands of an artist/writer, a situation akin to putting Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth in charge of production at General Motors. Aardvark Vanaheim is definitely on shaky ground.

(from the updated 'Alternative Comics Cadaver Derby' article in The Comics Journal #235, July 2001)
At the dawn of the alternative comics scene, writer Jan Strnad took to the pages of Comics Journal #98 and proposed a contest to see which of the new breed of publishers would be the first to bite the bullet. With that, the 'Alternative Comics Cadaver Derby' was began. It's time now to take stock of the casualties. 15 years later, a full 20 of the original entrants are fertilizer, with just five companies remaining [ie Aardvark-Vanaheim, AC/Americomics, DC Comics, Fantagraphics and WaRP Graphics].

...Aardvark-Vanaheim: In hindsight, Roth would have designed a bitchin' line of cars. Sim stuck to his guns and cranked out issue after issue of Cerebus, which he soon began supplementing with a series of graphic novel collections. That said, Sim's just started his final story arc, and the years before #300 hits the stands can now be counted on the fingers of one hand. After that? Sim's indisputable talent as a long-form cartoonist gives me hope for his post-Cerebus career as a self-publisher, but his increasingly outlandish, presumably hermitage-induced wackiness makes his final place in the Derby a tough call. 

Dave Sim's Aardvark-Vanaheim Inc remains in business to this day, regularly publishing Cerebus Archive and Glamourpuss, as well as keeping in print the 16 volumes collecting Cerebus #1-300.

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