Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Gerhard: A Lack Of Recognition

Cover Recreation: Cerebus The Newsletter #12 (1984)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(Click image to enlarge)
(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 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.


Anonymous said...

I think you also have to take into account that Gerhard stayed in the background (see what I did there) on purpose. He is not your typical comics artist. Those of us that are fans of the book know what his contribution was and I think most of us acknowledge and appreciate his amazing talents. It appears that he was very happy to be done with Cerebus and I doubt we'll see anymore comic pages from him. His website has a lot of his new work and he continues on as an artist. If someone wants to follow what he is doing now it is easy enough to do.

David Birdsong

Jeff Seiler said...

Yeah, I know Gerhard and have spoken with him several times. He is the consummate gentleman and professional, but he is also pretty shy socially and seems to really prefer flying under the radar. He also is BY FAR his own worst critic, having on more than one occasion stated that when he looks at every finished page or product, he thinks it's crap. That actually worked against both him and Sim in the last stages of Cerebus, as he wound up giving himself an ulcer from agonizing over his work and, thus, slowed things down considerably just when it was time to sprint to the finish line. Reading between the lines, it's easy enough to see how Dave had to compensate in the artwork to allow time for Ger to do what he was capable of getting done, rather than letting Ger do the backgrounds at the amazing, superlative level he had done so in the past. That's something Dave has written about in the past--you could look it up. Nevertheless, Ger clearly is the most underrated, unsung, brilliant background artist in all of comics history.

Eric Hoffman said...

You'll note that my book on Cerebus is sub-titled, Essays on the Epic Graphic Satire of Dave Sim and GERHARD. If that isn't recognition, I don't know what is.