Friday 28 September 2012

Neil Gaiman: 300 Good Reasons To Resent Dave Sim

Cerebus #167 (February 1993)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(from Comic Buyer's Guide #977, August 7 1992; reprinted in Feature vol 3 #4, Winter 1997)
It's rarely enough in this complex world that one can recognise the sources of things -- hologram-covered, die-cut, foil-stamped, origin issues notwithstanding. We forget where things begin.

Endings are more memorable than beginnings anyway; we remember where we were when we heard good friends were dead, while our memories of them are hazy, muzzy things.

Thus it is with a certain amount of pleasure that I find can recall my first encounter with Cerebus. I remember who and how and why I started reading. It went kind of like this: My friend Roz Kaveney has settled down a lot over the years. When I first met her, however, I was intimidated mightily. She was, and is several sizes bigger than I am, huge as Thomas Aquinas and just as large as life: all dressed in black leather (Roz, that is, not Thomas Aquinas, who was a Saint), carrying a black leather bag full of manuscripts heavy as bricks, and to top it all she occasionally wears hats. Roz also knows a lot more than me; and she doesn't believe this, so she has, since I've known her, always assumed that I know everything. Everything.

A typical conversation with Roz used to go:
Roz: ...Of course, he can't really be seen as the first of the deconstructionist revisionists, notwithstanding anything the Dickinsons or Frosts may say. Well, you've read the recent translations of the P'nanok'tian Manuscripts -- you shake your head? Oh dear, silly me, I read an advanced unpublished typescript in the unexpurgated edition that is unlikely to see print in England for the next five years if at all -- so anyway, I pointed this out to Beedle and Twoddy and they said -- you do know who Beedle and Twoddy are, don't you?

ME: Um. No.

Roz: Ah, well, Beedle is a very close friend of Sammy's - Sammy knew me when I was at Oxford, and Twoddy is currently doing 30 years to life for recklessly taking and driving away an ice-cream van... But then, most of Twoddy's problems date back to his break-up with Madeleine and Billy... I've told you about them, haven't I?

Me: Um...
Sometimes Roz would explain stuff, but usually she'd assume I knew what she was talking about. I had a mental map of Roz's world that was more or less like listening to an ongoing soap opera of truly operatic proportions (with real Valkyries). To be honest it would occasionally be a shock to meet members of the cast, who were without fail a disappointment: life-sized people of no particular distinction in whom it was hard to discern the sacred monsters of Roz's sagas.

So one day at a party we were talking about comics, which I thought was safe territory. She'd discussed fascist imagery in The Dark Knight Returns and the use of the fetish boot as helicopter in Elektra: Assassin, and then she started taking about more people I didn't know.
Roz: ...and of course you saw the Countess. Well, laying three extra plates for dinner, obviously Lord Julius is one of the dinner guests, but who are the other two, we ask ourselves...?
For a brief minute I thought she was talking about more people she knew I'd never met, then she said Cerebus, and the penny dropped. As with most conversations with Roz of that vintage, I didn't confess ignorance. Instead I made a mental note to find out what I could by our next conversation. (This method proved the easiest -- it was how I discovered authors such as Peter Ackroyd, who tend to arrive with scurrilous tales about their private lives before ever I had a chance to read their work.)

So I went off and read a Cerebus.
Looking back on it, Roz's friendship proved invaluable in coping with Cerebus. I had the same sense of being at a party where you don't know anyone, but everyone else knows everybody else.

In defence I went out and bought the six volumes of Swords Of Cerebus, (this was in the Dark Ages, before the 'phone books') and started getting more of a handle on it all. I wasn't entirely clear on how this little Barbarian Warrior had become Pope, but then Dave just brought on Mick and Keef in the regular comic, and he was just about to start his wicked Frank Miller parody...

What was strange, even then (and it's even stranger now), was how far he'd come from the first issues of Cerebus. I mean, it all started out as a charming homage to Barry Smith's work on Conan, flat Jane Morris noses and all, with a central conceit - the hero's an aardvark - that didn't seem to amount to more than a couple of jokes (smells when wet, doesn't like granola), combined with a certain deflatory logic applied to comic conventions (the ones we follow, not the ones we go to. They came later).

It was both fascinating and revelatory, how Dave grew, and learned, and kept on growing, and kept on learning: and how what he'd learnt fed back into the work.

Lou Reed (as iconic for me in my way as the Glimmer Twins are for Dave in his) made an album some years back called Growing Up In Public. Some of us are lucky, and we do our apprenticeships where no-one's watching (I, for example, spent my years learning to write in the disposable world of magazines,) and appear in public in adult form. Some of us grow up in public. Dave did.

I met Dave for the first time (a meeting chronicled in one of his Notes From The President and in a fax I sent him which ran in the lettercol) in his suite at the Savoy, back when I was still a starving journalist. (Roz Kaveney, whom I mentioned earlier, was there too. So was Escape's Paul Gravett, and my old friend Dave Dickson, a man who has drunk Jack Daniels with Keef Richards and lived to write about the bits he remembered).

Dave held court (which he does, and very well) and one by one we'd interview him, while the others would munch Beluga caviar on toast, and drink Dave's champagne (which I drank Dave's scotch diluted with ginger ale).

300 issues, he said. A 300-episode story. It'll happen.

I remember asking him what he'd do if there was something he wanted to write about, something he had to say that didn't fit into Cerebus. "I'd use a big hammer," he grinned. "I'd get it in somehow."

That was six years ago. Since then Dave has written (and drawn -- with the able assistance of Gerhard, who is one of the nicest people I've met, despite having a really unlikely last name) about eighty issues of Cerebus.

And the story's still only half-way through. That's scary.

(As an aside: I'm typing this on a train, and the man sitting across from me is talking to himself, very clearly, and quite loudly. "Bollocks" he's saying. "My first bloody project. I don't believe it. They can't bloody do this to me. Bollocks. I was going to be a bloody projects officer. Bollocks. Bloody bollocks to the lot of them..." although he isn't actually using the word bloody because this is the CGB. The word he's using is the adjectival form of a monosyllabic anglo-saxon word which rhymes with one of our commonest waterfowl.)

300 issues. Think about it. I mean, I think Sandman's daunting, at the roughly 60 plus issues altogether it'll run. And I'm only writing it. (On the other hand I've experienced one thing Dave hasn't: the terrified look in the eyes of people who've just realised that one day there won't be any more. You wait, Dave Sim. In eight or nine years' time twenty thousand people are going to start getting very nervous...)

I've met Dave three times now. Spoken on the phone a few more times. Written a couple of letters and sent faxes. Seems like more than that, but that's all.

Each time he has been, in turns, brilliant, congenial, infuriating, difficult, and, much of the time, right. Often more than one of these at a time. One of the most infuriating things about Dave is that even when you disagree with him, which I frequently do, he's thought about whatever-it-is-I-disagree-about far more deeply and exhaustingly than I have. This is dead irritating. It is even more irritating when I disagree with him utterly, and still suspect he may be right. He also has really good rejoinders.
Dave: Neil, why don't you and Michael Zulli self-publish Sweeney Todd? It's easier than stealing candy from blind babies.

Neil: Because both Michael and I are flakes, that's why. I wouldn't trust either of us to manage a lemonade stand, let alone run a comic book company.

Dave: (Proceeds to demonstrate indisputably exactly how you can run a comic-book company and self-publish using only a pencil, a telephone, a small lump of silly putty, and a photograph of Shea Stadium.)

Me: Um...
It's something like that anyway.

Dave is unique, which is a shame. He's seen how powerful the periodical comic is as a medium, and decided to go the distance. 300 issues of Cerebus. In a world in which artists can rise to prominence having drawn a handful of comics, this demands a level of commitment from the readership which is positively unheard of, and it demands a level of commitment from Dave that's positively insane. We're talking rolling huge rocks up impossibly steep hills here. Dave Sisyphus.

Dave Sim is the conscience of comics. It's a lousy, thankless job, and if he wasn't doing it we wouldn't have to invent him. We'd probably just be pleased that he wasn't around to bug us. Remember: Jiminy Cricket was squashed by a wooden hammer by the end of chapter four in the original Collodi novel of Pinocchio. Were there a wooden hammer large enough, and he did not live out in Kitchener, and were there no fear of societal retribution, Dave would probably have been squished long since.

When one talks publishing with Dave, again, he knows what he's talking about. He's published other people; he's been published by other people. He knows the pitfalls, and he tells unpleasant truths. This can be really irritating.

He still hasn't stopped learning. And he doesn't forget what he's learned.
Mothers and Daughters, the new storyline, is a delight for many reasons - one of which, for me, is that he's taken all the techniques he's spent so long honing and he's using them all at once. It's akin to seeing someone write music first for violin, then for oboe, for harpsichord, then for electric guitar. And then, just when you wonder what instrument they'll turn to next, they start to use the full orchestra, with a choreographed display of fireworks somewhere in the background.

I'm rather proud of the fact that my only written-and-drawn comic story was published in a Cerebus. I'm just as proud that one of my characters has been misappropriated by Dave for his own purposes. (Note to Dave: treat her well. She enjoys long walks and being taken to saccharine-sweet movies).

I'm sometimes a good writer. It irks me that Dave is, in my opinion (and when he's firing on all cylinders) as good as, or (okay, I'll say it) better than me, and he's had longer to be good. It also irks me that he's a far, far better artist than I'll ever be, and that he's a better publisher than the majority of us (particularly those of us who really couldn't run a successful lemonade stand).

He's offered twice now to put me on the Cerebus complimentary list, and each time I've declined. I like going into comic book stores, but these days it seems like I buy less and less each time I go in. It's good to have something I can rely on - and which, barring disaster, we'll all have for more than a decade to come.

Most of us who create comics are mayflies. We come into the wild wacky world of comics, blaze like little meteors (or not), flitter from one project to the next like small children with access to the TV remote control...

Dave's still there. He's keeping Cerebus in print. He's still doing it. He won't shut up and go away.

I'm grateful. Even when I resent it.

There are 300 damn good reasons to resent Dave Sim, and as I write this he's published over 160 of them.

Sometime in the next millennium, when kids coming onto the scene remember Sandman as a dusty old character somebody did a long time ago, like Scribbly or Binky or Jerry Lewis, Cerebus #300 will come out and Dave will stop - or at least stop Cerebus. (I tend to assume he'll go into politics at this point; although the idea of Gerhard as Jean Chretien is one I find difficult entirely to come to terms with.)

Then, when it's all done, I've promised myself I'll sit down and read the whole thing, start to finish. It may take some time.

300 issues. Hell, that's over 6,000 pages.


Okay, let's scrap the title we started with. Let's make this 6,000 Good Reasons To Resent Dave Sim...
Postscript 1997: Most of this is as true as when I wrote it. However, following the sad death of the only comic shop within 40 miles, I was eventually forced to phone Dave up and ask, and am now, as of a couple of months ago, on the Cerebus complimentary copy list.

Neil Gaiman is the author of the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline and The Graveyard Book. (300 Good Reasons To Resent Dave Sim © Neil Gaiman).


Adam Ell said...

Thank you, I was looking for this earlier after seeing Mr Sim reference it.

Anonymous said...

I've just discovered Cerebus in the last few weeks and am reading all of them. Very little still captures my imagination, but this has. Thank you for this frankly miraculous body of work Mr. Sim.