Friday, 9 December 2011

What Gerhard Did

Cerebus #229 (April 1998)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard

(Notes From The President, Cerebus #131, Feburary 1990)
A lot of people have been asking what Gerhard does on the book since he was nominated for "best inker" in the Harvey Awards last year. Gerhard does all of the backgrounds in pencil and ink on the covers and interior pages. I write the words, letter the balloons (pencil and ink) and pencil and ink all of the characters and all of the characters' clothing. Gerhard puts the mechanical tones on the backgrounds where he sees fit and puts the tones on Cerebus (and the costumes if I indicate it, except for Jaka's skirt on page 12-13 in this issue. I put the tone on that. I don't know why. Just felt like it, I guess).

So, yes Gerhard inks his backgrounds, but he also pencils them and I'd say he's at least as good a background pencil artist as he is a background ink artist but I never vote in the awards so what do I know, right? If I have a specific background or angle in mind, I'll suggest it to him or do a rough sketch on the page. It's up to him if he wants to follow it or do something else. As we pointed out at the Northampton Summit if Gerhard wants to draw the interior of a submarine instead of Pud's tavern, that's up to Gerhard; that's what creative freedom is about. He draws Pud's tavern because he wants the story to work the same as I do. If I ask for advice on what I'm doing he gives it and I take it or leave it. If he asks for advice I give it and he takes it or leaves it. Creative Freedom. Rah rah.

(from Gerhard - Craft, Credit, Cross-Hatching & Completion, 16 February 2011)
Gerhard and Dave Sim created almost five thousand pages together over two decades, and through that time Sim extended credit (and praise) to his partner in every way possible- nominally, publicly, and financially. If you pick up a collected volume of Cerebus that Gerhard worked on from start to finish, you will find his name, on the cover, the spine of the book, and title pages, always the same size as Sim’s. Gerhard even gets his own dedication. Along with this acknowledgment in type, Sim noted and praised Gerhard’s contribution to the book in virtually every public forum he had- in interviews, in speeches and public appearances. Eventually Gerhard was made a financial partner in the work as well, having a 40 percent stake in the company up until the dissolution of their partnership.

Despite all of this acknowledgment, and despite Sim being arguably the best-documented figure in the past 30 years of North American comics, Gerhard’s role in the series and the scope of his achievement seems to be frequently misunderstood. He’s been nominated for awards as an “inker.” In some articles on Cerebus he’s hardly mentioned at all. Of course, a mention itself isn’t necessarily good- in one memorable (and hopefully tongue in cheek) letter to The Comics Journal, it was suggested that Gerhard was actually Dave Sim himself, mentally separated to somehow make the job of drawing backgrounds easier.

It’s possible that Gerhard’s sometimes lack of acknowledgment could be the aforementioned tendency to discuss artwork as the result of one individual. Or it could be that Sim’s unprecedented crediting of his visual partner just hasn’t made a dent in the comic book critical consciousness. After all, when you see a discussion of a panel attributed to Wally Wood, or Will Eisner, or Osamu Tezuka to use an even more extreme example, there’s very little discussion of the many hands that the page passed through before printing. One of the most visually distinctive, and influential, visual aspects of The Spirit was the expressive and flexible lettering, an innovation that is often credited to Eisner, despite evidence that it was taken to its fullest expression by long-time Spirit letterer Abe Kanegson. As for Tezuka- he didn’t produce sixty pages a week solely because he was superhumanly fast, which he undoubtedly was, but because he had a squadron of “assistants” to labor over his pages. All three of these men, for varying reasons, were willing to put their names on work that many people were responsible for, and it’s possible that comic culture’s willingness to accept this as part of the system is part of what affects the response to an artist like Gerhard.

In the world of film, at least the technicians and artists behind each of the specialized tasks have names, have credits. And yet it doesn’t seem to have done much good, at least in the way that people tend to view the “authorship” of a movie. To take a ready example- it’s still routine to read analyses of Citizen Kane that mention Gregg Toland, the film’s cinematographer, in passing only. I find this example particularly apt, as it seems clear that Toland and [Orson] Welles created the visual look of Kane as equal partners, that in fact Welles was as eager to work with Toland as Toland was to work with him.

The Welles/Toland comparison seems even more relevant when you consider that although Welles was undoubtedly the central figure, the “author” and architect of Citizen Kane, the film relied very heavily on the visual innovations of Toland, and that Toland had himself been developing many of these innovations for years. In a certain way it could be argued that many of Welles’ chief visual contributions to Kane involved knowing when to collaborate, and when to leave Toland to his own devices.

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