Monday 12 August 2013

Comic Art Metaphysics

Cosmix (Imagine #4, November 1978)
Art by Dave Sim
Read the full Cosmix story here.
Originally serialised within the pages of the self-published Glamourpuss #1-26 (2008-2012), The Strange Death Of Alex Raymond is an as yet uncompleted work-in-progress in which Dave Sim investigates the history of photorealism in comics, specifically focusing on the work of comic-strip artist Alex Raymond and the circumstances of his death on 6 September 1956 at the wheel of fellow artist Stan Drake's Corvette. Dave Sim has recently announced plans for The Strange Death Of Alex Raymond to be serialised in an 18-issue monthly comic-book to be published by IDW.

Tim asked me to comment on Cosmix because I didn't get to that one before I had to pull the plug on Cerebus Archive. It's, I think, a good example of what I've decided to call "Comic Art Metaphysics" in The Strange Death of Alex Raymond.  Mostly because Eddie Khanna and I both got tired of just saying: Well, whatever it is, there it goes again -- although that might be as 100% accurate as we can get about it.  The story was done, I'm pretty sure, after I had started Cerebus but definitely before Cerebus became a 6,000-page, 300-issue project (it was published in Star*Reach's Imagine No.4 in November 1978, so roughly the same time as Cerebus No.6).

The metaphysical property at work -- which I think is unique to comic art -- is that if you "incarnate" something in a comic story, it tends to incarnate in the real world as well.  Physical incarnation -- spirit housed in a physical form -- what we all appear to be -- being comparable.  We're just slowed down so that we experience time sequentially even though time is actually simultaneous: the fourth dimension (for a thorough hashing over of that refer to my Dialogue: From Hell with Alan Moore).

When you draw, say Rip Kirby in this panel, "saying" these words in 1955, it becomes permanent.  Rip Kirby always "says" that at that specific point.  Even if I don't read it until 2012.  What you're doing as an artist -- what Alex Raymond was doing over Fred Dickenson's script -- is incarnating an even more drastically-slowed-down form of physical incarnation.  There's even "free will" to a degree -- that quality where a character just won't say what you want him to say -- he wants to take a different course.  There, it's probably the artist's unconscious mind enacting/incarnating the image and words and the unconscious doesn't always want to do what the conscious mind thinks it's doing.  I've decided there are different degrees of this.  Sometimes you're just writing and drawing -- banging it out -- and sometimes there's a lot "on the line" you aren't consciously aware of. Having now read all ten years of Raymond's Rip Kirby, there's quite a bit of "Comic Art Metaphysics" that I see in there -- and Eddie's finding more examples outside of Rip Kirby every day.

The guy's totally amazing.  Alex Raymond AND Eddie.
Glamourpuss #4 (November 2008)
Art by Dave Sim
In the case of Cosmix, I think there are a couple of significant elements:  it's my first professionally published "auteur" work.  I wrote it, drew it and lettered it.  It was the first time a professional publisher, Mike Friedrich, looked at a total package by me and said, Yes, this is worth publishing (and thank you, Mike!) when it wasn't just a script or funny animals (The Beavers).  On top of that, it's -- and this is a big element of "Comic Art Metaphysics" -- a comic story inside a comic story. When you do that (my theory goes) what you're doing is inviting something larger than you to write you in the same way that you're writing your character.  Something I was completely unconscious of at the time but, arguably, this is where I backed a larger part of me into a comparable...grandiosity... to what I was writing about.

The closest approximation to what Cosmix was, as I describe it (but you notice, don't actually show much of it) being, say, a 26-year, 6,000-page graphic novel.  And I think this became of interest on the next chessboard up (as I like to call it) because it seems to promise a boffo suicide ending, or total insanity or a range of generally voyeuristic possibilities:  what IS he going to do?  Lots of speculation:  bet he goes crazy, bet he kills himself before he gets there, bet he kills himself after he gets there.  Bet he goes on a homicidal rampage. A lot of that based on a misreading of the extent of the autobiography involved: I just was never that emotional, that pain-racked OR that suicidal as the character in the story. Not even close.

[If you took Life Suit (1975), which I see as another "Comic Art Metaphysics" story created by me -- and, Tim, feel free to reprint that here if you want -- and instead of the suit automatically restoring emotional balance, you took my own character trait which did that for myself pretty much automatically here in our world -- and grafted that onto Cosmix, that would be a LITTLE closer to autobiographical.]
Life Suit (1975)
Art by Dave Sim
Read 'Life Suit' here.
But the picture seemed to stick: Dave is emotional, pain-racked and suicidal, which I think, accounts for the basic radio silence that greeted the end of the book. In a largely atheistic environment (like comics), it was kind of a "done deal":  he chose to believe in God, ergo he went crazy, the end.

I think it's on-going as well. "Okay, #300 just came out, give it a while. Bet he goes completely insane. Bet he kills himself in six months."  Six months go by.  "Okay, give it five years. He's estranged from his family, he has no friends, he believes in God, he fasts and prays and works.  Any minute now they'll be dragging him off to a rubber room.  Or he'll buy a gun and blow his brains out." Well, you know, it's been ten years (this December).  And I think the reaction now is, Yeah, well. Whatever.

Well [insert laughter here].  No, it's NOT a "Yeah, well. Whatever."  You're willfully not looking at it.  It definitely proved a point.  You scale something up that large and it will end the way it ended.  It's -- at the very least -- circumstantial evidence (or "Comic Art Metaphysics" evidence) for the existence of God.  

I think it went up, chessboard by chessboard over the 26 years and I think the smart money, the further up you went was: he'll come back to God (Who I had been away from since I was, like, 8).  He's going to see too much of the Big Context to stay an atheist.  He'll WRITE Cerebus losing HIS way and that will be the cautionary note not to let it happen to him.  Badda bing badda boom. Which is pretty much how I think it happened and why I ended up the way I am.

So, it's STILL on-going. Here we are at ten years "Yeah, well. Whatever." (Watch this neat segue!) They just closed the post office at Market Square and moved Box 1674 way to heck and gone out to Waterloo. A half-hour walk or $10 cab drive away. So I have no excuse to go out every day and get the mail. What's he going to do (fervent hoping THIS will drive him crazy, THIS will make him kill himself)? Well, no, now I'm just going to get the mail every other Friday and answer it with form letters with little notes at the bottom (the first batch went out August 2nd).  I think I was pointed in that direction. "Dave, you're slowing down. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is taking an average of three days per page.  Answering the mail has to GO!"  So I'm doing the same thing I did the last year of Cerebus (only this time, it's probably going to be a minimum of three years).  I'll answer the mail, but when I'm done SDOA.

See, to me, that was another proof of sanity: what did I actually do when Cerebus ended? I answered the mail. And made it into a 500-page book Collected Letter 2004. And NO one registered that. Go through the 500 pages. You see any drama queen or craziness or suicidal impulse in there?

Yeah, well, Whatever.

[laughter]  So, anyway, sincere apologies that you're going to see a lot less of me around here than you have (not that you've seen that much of me as it is).  I'm going to encourage Tim to ask me to write about stuff he thinks people would like to read -- but the answer a lot of times (but not ALL the time) is going to be "No".  Not because I don't want to do it, but because I've got to get back up to speed on SDOAR and HOPEFULLY (God willing) three years from now, you'll all have a Dave Sim monthly comic to read for a year and a half.

And if you have a question I can answer in a sentence or two at the bottom of a form letter, by all means, send it along.  The longer answers, you'll just be assigned a number for my post-SDOAR mail answering session.

I'm on page 14 of issue 2, but I'm starting to really remember how to do this.

Hope a bunch of you are still here three years from now!

Thanks, Tim!

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Originally serialised within the pages of the self-published Glamourpuss #1-26 (April 2008 to July 2012), The Strange Death Of Alex Raymond is an as yet uncompleted work-in-progress in which Dave Sim investigates the history of photorealism in comics and specifically focuses on the work of comic-strip artist Alex Raymond and the circumstances of his death on 6 September 1956 at the wheel of fellow artist Stan Drake's Corvette at the age of 46.


Anonymous said...

I always think this kind of stuff is the funniest stuff Dave writes! I'm glad to hear he will be spending more time writing and drawing, and less time pontificating. We need more Dave Sim comics, and fewer Dave Sim metaphysics.

-- Damian T. Lloyd (tm)

Jeff Seiler said...

Damn! The last letter I got from Dave was so pointedly back to "reading into the record" that I took too long to think about how to respond, but I really have to answer one accusation he seemed to level at the ME "you" rather than the YOU "you". (Those of you who have gotten those kind of letters know what I'm talking about. The rest of you---imagine that Dave is writing to you, but using the word "you" to mean everyone out there in reader land. Yeah, it's kind of disconcerting at first. So what you have to do is just read between the lines to pick out the non-"reading into the record" bits. So, now I have to wait three years for an answer.

Tony Dunlop said...

Jeff, this is where English could really use a plural "you..."

ChrisW said...

There's no evidence, but I'll claim a fair contribution to Dave's concept of "Comic Art Metaphysics" by giving him a copy of the "Metaphys-X" thread I had posted on I certainly don't think I gave him the idea in the first place, I just think I influenced him with essays which (among other things) conceived of Chris Claremont's X-titles as a "Cerebus"-sized work, with a beginning, middle and end.

Not a very good one admittedly, but a guy who wrote over 300 issues off a single 'storyline' which divided fairly well into three 'acts' [The Death of Phoenix, the Rebirth of Phoenix, and the long downward spiral afterwards.] Which actually has some similarities with the "Cerebus" storyline if you think about it (and I obviously have.)

There was more to the essays, encompassing other titles and so forth, but Dave told me in a letter he was very impressed, to the point of trying to figure out some way to find me on the internet and thank me, before dismissing that as impossible and realizing I was probably just an "X-Men" fan who had briefly moved to "Cerebusland" (I think he used a phrase like that.)

Anyway, There's no evidence, I certainly don't claim all or most of the credit, but I'd bet I contributed to the thinking behind this essay.