Tuesday 13 May 2014

Dave Sim: The Lost Interview

The following interview with Dave Sim first appeared in Comics Buyers Guide #1267 in February 1998, and was conducted by Michael Cohen with Jimmy Gownley. Dave would have been 42 years old and Cerebus #227 would have just been published. This is the first reprinting of this interview since its initial appearance. Sincere thanks to Michael Cohen for making a copy of CBG #1267 available and for his permission to run the interview here.

Dave Sim on the creative process, Gerhard's contribution, and whether it was all worth it.

With justification, Dave Sim is a man who said he's tired of answering questions. He has done numerous interviews in just about every comics-related magazine and marathon on-line question-and-answer sessions, not to mention 20 years of replying to the letters printed in Cerebus. He graciously consented to this interview but clearly didn't want to reiterate answers he had already given time and again; this focus is on his creative process and the business end of self-publishing. The interview was conducted by fax from October to December 1997.


Dave, if in the last 15 years, Cerebus had turned unprofitable, what would have been your course of action?

Dave Sim:
That’s a very difficult question for me to answer -- impossible in fact -- because I had to train myself very early to not deal in hypothetical questions, particularly hypothetical questions about the past.

Also, it wouldn't just be me having to decide "what now?" since Gerhard has a lot at stake, as well. If Gerhard is going to ask me about a course of action or vice-versa, there has to be a genuine and demonstrable crisis afoot. Otherwise, I’d just be interrupting or he would be interrupting there's. genuine work to done.

The closest we came to any discussion like that was through the "exclusives" war between Diamond and Capital, and Capital subsequently going out of business. At that point the dialogue was about "How much cash do we have on hand and how long will it last, at the present expenditure rate, assuming that sales stay flat and we have to reprint several of the trade paperbacks?" We picked a date about three months before the "flashpoint" and agreed to talk more specifically when we got there.

When the date arrived, sales had picked up and the slow sales period we had come out of meant we didn't have to reprint several of the trades as early as we thought. We're both pretty much in agreement that the best way to handle any crisis in the direct market (at least so far) is to get the next page and the next issue and the next trade paperback done.

Do you think price relating to value is a serious part of the sagging market problem? You’ve managed to hold the line at $2.25. A change to $2.95 probably wouldn't affect your sales, since you’ve got a fairly addicted regular readership. The question is: Is $2.25 where you think the actual entertainment value of Cerebus is?

That's a tough question to answer without sounding as if I’m indicting others. We've absorbed a lot of paper increases and general increases in the cost of doing business, because, well, in a lot of ways I think Cerebus should still be a buck. More than $3 in Canada seems like a lot of money for a comic book to someone who thought it was grand larceny when they went from 25¢ to 35¢. It's more important to me to know that a substantial part of the readership would pay $2.95 than to actually have the extra 25¢ a copy in the company bank account.

It's likely that we would have another price increase before issue #300, but I would hope it would be the last one. If it's at all possible to hold the line at $2.25, it would be really nice to see that on the cover of the last issue. Since Ger and I are the ones running the show, it really doesn't matter how the price is perceived -- too low or too high: It's how we perceive the price. All things considered, we both think the price is about right. We'd have to both decide it was too low or too high before we would change it.

Currently what are the payoffs to you from what you’re doing (outside of the vast fortune you rake in)? What makes all that slogging worth it? Have you considered what it's going to feel like when you’ve put that last ink line on #300?

Well, first of all, I can think of half a dozen things I could have done for the last 20 years 50 to 60 hours a week that would have produced a much larger fortune than Cerebus has. I'd say the greatest reward is just having a vehicle to explore what is possible on a comic-book page and in the comic-book medium. Particularly when the story lends itself to a new "tack" -- like Rick's Story.

Since I was intending to pull out all the stops on the writing side, dealing with good and evil -- or, in its context as an extrapolation of Guys, Good Guy and Bad Guy -- in a very condensed 12-issue span, it allowed me to allow myself as designer and penciller to pull out all the stops, as well. I usually restrain the designer-penciller aspect so that it doesn't interfere with or detract from the writing. Since the story was going to swing very far across many conventional boundaries of -- sanity, for want of a better word -- it was really the first time I let my designer-penciller self completely off the leash.

Of course, by the end of my 10- or 11-hour work day, I'm much more aware of being one page closer to the end of an issue, one page closer to March 2004. My biggest concern is getting the page completely finished so I have a full day to do the next page. For the last hour or hour and a half, that's uppermost in my mind. I have to finish this page and not mess it up in the last hour. The second biggest reward is getting to see what Gerhard has done with a page I finished a few weeks before. That's usually the last thing I do in my work day: go into Ger's studio and take a close look at how he solved his problem du jour -- what he decided to change, what he decided to emphasize, what he decided to leave "un-backgrounded".

I think it was Howard Chaykin who said that what interested him in other people's work was how they solved the problems that the page presented. With Gerhard, I know the finish is always going to be meticulous, so I'm usually looking past that to the thinking he did to solve the problems posed by the page. He's quite a problem-solver, Ger is.

Issue #300, if I don't get hit by the Bus of Damocles, is going to be the same as all the other issues -- finished in stages. My part of #300 will be done, then Ger's part of #300 will be done, then the "back of the book" stuff on #300 will be done, then #300 will go to the printer, then the blue lines for #300 will come back, then the printed version of #300 will come back, then #300 will be in the stores, then I'll have to write the introduction and do my part of the cover for the trade paperback for the last book (Cerebus #266-300 and, no, I'm not telling you the title).

Then Ger has to do his part of the cover of the last trade paperback, then the last trade paperback goes to the printers, then the blue lines of the last trade paperback come back, then we have to sign the first signature of the last trade paperback, then the last trade paperback comes back, then the last trade paperback is in the stores. I think you'll agree that that’s a long time to "feel" anything -- even if I was inclined to do so. Relief is about the only feeling I can picture when the last trade paperback is in the stores.

Have you seen any encouraging signs in the comics biz in the last six months?

I'd say the only encouraging signs that I've seen have been I with a few creators and a few retailers who seem to have decided that comic books are inherently and infinitely better than music, television, movies, toys, and card games. Very few in both cases. As for the doom and gloom among the comics-creator crowd, one of the best pieces of advice I ever heard of came from an unusual source. When Marlo Thomas was starting her acting career, her famous father, Danny Thomas, gave her a set of horse blinders and a card that said, "Run your own race". If you have your blinders on and are running your own race, I don't see where doom and gloom would have an access point to you.

Cerebus The Barbarian (November 1997)
Art by Dave Sim

Was there a point where you no longer needed to use outside reference to achieve the effects you wanted? Do you still check out how Bernie Wrightson achieved that ‘certain lighting effect or haul out that book on period clothing design or dig out your Burne Hogarth anatomy books to see what those pesky little muscles are supposed to look like?

I definitely don't refer to other people's artwork nearly as much as I used to -- in terms of "how do I create this or that effect?" I still look at Wrightson's Black Cat when I can -- and my Jeff Jones Idyll collection, Eisner's Contract With God, Sienkiewicz's Elektra -- but more to induce a pleasurable state in my artist personality than anything else. Mmm, mmm, good.

How much work is done on character and costume design before you commit things to the page?

Character designs I usually let evolve over the course of the storyline. I used to try to do a lot of sketches of the characters before introducing them, but they evolve anyway, so it just seemed like hitting a bucket of balls out at the driving range before going out to play softball. It didn't hurt but it didn't help enough to warrant making a fetish out of it.

Is there a conscious shifting from writer mode to artist mode to letterer mode, or is the creator really all these at once (as well as editor and publisher)?

A distinction that I actually make when I'm at work? There is a definite distinction but I couldn't say -- in any way -- that I "make" it.

Most times, starting a page, I either know what it looks like or I know what it has to say specifically, but I very seldom know both. If I know what it looks like, I start blocking in the pictures: The artist is "in", and the writer is dormant or has subsided below the threshold of my conscious awareness. If I know the specific dialogue, I start writing it left to right across the top of the page. The writer is "in", and the artist has subsided below the threshold of consciousness.

In the former case, the writer is definitely dormant. The artist is aware of the mood, the message, the overall statement that the picture or pictures have to make but has no internal communication with the writer (that I'm aware of, I should add -- it's very possible that they're jabbering away like rhesus monkeys below the threshold). The artist just keeps going until he's reached a plateau. If the artist is temporarily lost or satisfied with the "blueprint", the writer then takes over, using words to emphasize what the artist has rendered.

Usually, the writer and the letterer alternate at this point. The writer is doing various readings of the dialogue while looking at the face that is going to say the dialogue. The letterer is looking at the same face and is translating the words into characters -- glyphs -- of different sizes, shapes, and textures.

Likewise with the balloons. The alternating either leads to a smooth narrative flow, or it just isn't happening. Often it goes back to the artist then. The writer and the letterer give the artist the best "reading" they can come up with, and the artist takes his cue from that. Everything is in service to the writer, though. He's the final authority -- which is why it's carved in stone that the artist and the letterer don't do anything except the simplest guidelines until the writer is satisfied.

Otherwise, a pointless debate ensues with the artist or the letterer defending a really cool face or a really cool sound effect that they are loathe to erase while they try to persuade the writer to make changes to suit the needs of a backlit silhouette the artist wants to ink. If the writer says "erase it", the artist or letterer has to erase it. A few times the artist has kept going and had to put the page aside and start over, having wasted several hours of his and the writer's time. The writer has my dad's motto: "Be reasonable; do it my way."

The writer always wants to say more on the page than the page will comfortably accommodate. Writing one page a day is excruciating for a writer, which is why, although the writer is the final authority, the actual final authority is the story which is housed inside the writer. A lot of times the narrative flow is going to be served best by one small word in one small balloon. Very tough on a writer when all he gets to write that day is one word -- which he then has to write out 20 different times in 20 different spots until it suits the artist. The writer would definitely rather be digging ditches at that point.

Is inking just a technical exercise, or are creative decisions worked out at that stage?

To me, describing inking as a technical exercise is like describing championship figure skating as "sliding around on the ice". I don't think there are many creative decisions attached to it.

I find good inking to be all self-confidence and confidence in the creative decisions that have been made in the pencilling stage and I think it's difficult, if not impossible, to have the required level of self-confidence if you're still making creative decisions.

I'm curious how you rate yourself as a comics artist. Do you feel you’re in the same league as Steve Rude, Jaime Hernandez, Mark Schultz -- that on a pure drawing skill basis you're one of the best? Immodesty here will be forgiven.

I can't say that any of the names you mentioned intimidate me. Like, "How embarrassing to have my work on the same shelf as these giants, these masters." Rude and Hernandez have a far more austere line than I prefer. Mark Schultz is consistently the best of the Frazetta-Williamson school. That school didn't graduate until Wrightson's Black Cat story, from where I sit. It's all just personal opinion and personal preferences.

The last time I was actually jolted by someone's work was David Lapham with the first few issues of Stray Bullets. Even though I couldn't use it for anything, I thought he kicked the austere-line school up another grade or two. The latest issue of Bone (#29, I think) has kicked the austere-line school up another couple of grades from there. You can't fake lines like that. You have to know what you're doing.

I think all cartoonists have experienced the feeling of being creatively stuck on a certain level, and, no matter how hard we study, we can't make any improvement. Then suddenly we're doing the best work of our lives and we've magically moved up a level. Do you experience this phenomenon and, if so, do you have an explanation for it?

Oh, sure. That's really the "sweet spot" that I'm looking for when I'm easing up and bearing down in reaction to sweating and straining and being too casual. I once heard from someone that Mickey Mantle said that of the -- I don’t know how many -- career home runs he had, he only got all of the ball on two or three occasions. They talked about it during one of the World Series games. Evidently, when you get the ball square on the sweet spot on the bat, you don't even feel the impact, it's that pure, that clean, that sweet.

In my experience, if you continue to focus on easing up and bearing down when you hit one of those stretches, it makes them last longer. Hemingway's immortal advice also applies: Quit when you're going good. Don't pull an all-nighter, milking it dry. Walking away from the board in a state of peak confidence is going to do more for tomorrow's work than trying to do it all today.

You're able to portray an amazing variety of subtle facial expressions. Where did the information to achieve these evocative expressions come from? Are they something you just visualize? Is it from close observation of people? Mugging in front of a mirror? Or is it trial and error on the actual page?

Trial and error with occasional inspiration. I'm sure you know the "sweet spot" I'm talking about. Everything -- mood, message, statement, expression, words, word shapes, balloons, texture, contour, composition, location of blacks, and linework -- everything just lands on the page the way it's supposed to from the first pencil line to the last cross-hatching stroke. Siiighhh. Uh! Where was I? Oh, expression, right.

I definitely mug into my interior mirror. What does that expression look like? I don't have a mirror by the drawing board but I do tend to try out the expression and then follow the lines on my face (it's getting easier to find the lines, by the way) with my, fingertips. "When I go like this, what muscles are pulling, where are they pulling from, how hard are they pulling?" etc. If it takes me an hour to capture Rick wincing, say, my face will hurt from wincing by the time I'm done. Visualization helps. Micromanaging helps, as well: treating it as if it's a page, getting all the elements there in light pencil before I even consider tight pencilling.

I think one of the things that keeps a lot of guys from really working with expression is the pretty female face. I don't know who I heard the rule from, but anything more than a few lines on a woman's face was considered a no-no for years. Lines = ugly; no lines = beautiful.

You could get away with a few more lines on a man's face, but only a few, or the contrast would be too startling if you had a man and a woman in the same panel. Foster seemed to come closest to the solution and he still worked with a very limited range of lines when it came to faces.

Raymond opted for no lines and no expression on either men's or women's faces with Flash Gordon and seemed to modify Foster's solutions when he started Rip Kirby. Williamson seemed to take the best of the Flash Gordon Raymond and the Rip Kirby Raymond. When Neal Adams arrived in comic books, he seemed to say, "Oh, the heck with this", and leaned way into the "forbidden dichotomy" -- lots of lines on men's faces and few or no lines on the women's faces. Why not? On arrival there was no one in the comic-book field who outranked him in the pencilling, composition, realism divisions.

He'd achieve the balance through trade-offs -- an extreme close-up of a woman's face so he could put more lines in without violating the basic contour. A lot of it went into the mouth. The cheek was a clean brush line and there was nothing between the cheek and the mouth, where he would elaborately render the relationship between the top and bottom lip, the relationship between the lips and the teeth. Of course, inside of two decades we had the Image boys showing why the dichotomy was forbidden. The men and women look like two difierent species -- gazelles and elephants, no less.

Do you think that good graphic storytelling is a combination of good writing and good illustrating -- or is it something that could be independent of those technical skills.

Well, "good" is a very subjective thing. I think the seminal point or area of creation is a mystery to all of us. "Where do you get your ideas?" Consequently, the seminal point or area does exist apart from the technical skills; then the technical skills are brought to bear in putting that seminal point or area down on paper.

It always suffers in the translation, doesn't it? I know the creative work that I prefer -- and Roberta Gregory is a good example -- is the work that retains enough of that seminal point or area of creation that, no matter how much is lost in translation to the original page, enough is "nailed down" to make it very worthwhile. Ralph Kidson's work is right near the top of my list of favorites.

I certainly wouldn't use Naughty Bits to brush up on my anatomy. But there is certainly more authentic portrayal of women in a single issue of Roberta's work than in the last five years worth of, say, Cosmopolitan.

Could you explain a little bit how you go about designing, drawing, and coloring your covers?

Very much at odds with conventional thinking, I design the cover so as to give away as little as possible about what the issue is about -- nothing about what the issue is about, if I can manage it. I like the cover to have significance only alter you've read the issue. Ideally, I should be done with the previous issue before I have to come up with a cover for the Diamond solicitation -- finish page 20 of issue #228 the Friday before the cover to_#229 is due in Timonium.

I have no idea how Gerhard colors the covers. But I think he does a great job.

Cerebus is a work that is extremely complex, both in form and content. How do you balance the desire for complexity and detail with the "need for speed"?

With excruciating difficulty. This is definitely a game for guys in their 20s and 30s.

I console myself continually that the two full decades are done and that I will never again have to do a full decade of a monthly comic book. The back cover of issue #225 was only a slight exaggeration. I'm more than a little dazed every night when I leave the studio. Given that I don't have the stamina I used to, I have to wonder if I have seven years of stamina left. Since I wasn't issued with a stamina gauge when I started this little experiment, I guess it will take about six years and 11 months to know the answer.

Cerebus At The Local Tavern (Commission, 2001)
Art by Dave Sim and Gerhard

How has your working relationship with Gerhard evolved over the years?

I wouldn't say that the working relationship with Gerhard evolved at all. The first day he was working in the studio on the first page of issue #65, he did a really half-assed job because he was so intimidated. I wasn't happy with it, and that was nothing compared with how unhappy he was with it. I basically said, "Well, we'll try again tomorrow."

He got over the opening-night jitters pretty quickly; then it was a matter of both of us learning contrast. The characters came out more if I stuck to mostly white and shades of gray and left him black and shades of gray. I had followed the ongoing debate about creators' rights for many years and, on the creative side, that seemed to come down to jurisdiction. Good work comes from confidence, and confidence comes from jurisdiction: turf.

Apart from telling Ger or doing a rough sketch of what I pictured in the background, he had to have complete jurisdiction over the backgrounds or he would have no source for the necessary self-confidence and couldn't, as a result, produce his best work.

I think that's a key point that a lot of people miss. We don't produce the work together; we produce it separately. I don't think the team would've lasted five years, let alone 12 years (and counting), if Ger had to come running into my studio every time he put something on the page for my approval. "No, the flying buttress has to be more open. That cross-hatching is too tight; the window should be taller; the building shouldn't look that old; it should be more of a Tudor style."

It is evident that Gerhard's role has grown over the years, from "Backgrounds by Gerhard" to "Cerebus is copyright Dave Sim and Gerhard." How did Gerhard's position shift from assistant to co-creator and co-copyright holder?

On the business side, the creators' rights thing figured prominently. As we got to a point where Ger had worked on the majority of the Cerebus pages (issue #130), it seemed to me unethical to continue as employer/employee. Any business decision I made would affect his 10 years of creative work, so it was only ethical that we became business partners. We have a mutual veto over decisions. If we both don't agree, then we keep going the way we've gone up until now.


Have you had any success in marketing Cerebus overseas (non-UK) and will you pursue this in the future?

No, Ger and I really have no interest in translations. How would you translate Harrison Starkey's Liverpudlian lilt into French? Even assuming it could be done, how could I verify any translation, being unilingual? Who would do the lettering? The biggest obstacle is the loss of control, speaking for myself. To self-publish a translation I would have to start a foreign company, hire people to run it, etc. Otherwise, I would just be a cartoonist signing a contract with a publisher, which I ruled out as an option a long time ago.

Do you think the lack of a single definition for the much abused term graphic novel is detrimental to the maturation of this art form?

As I said before, I consider Cerebus to be a graphic novel, and think a persuasive argument can be made that a lack of a definition of what is and isn't a graphic novel could very well be holding us back. It would be pointless for me to define what a graphic novel is, in my view, because I'm so far removed from the popular viewpoint on the subject. It would be like asking a guy who makes 80-pound pizzas how much a pizza should weigh to be called a pizza. If your own preference as a creator is for graphic novels of 200 or more pages, then I think you should do graphic novels of that length and forget about what other people are going to call them. you could probably finish writing and drawing several of them before anyone begins to discuss the subject seriously.

I conceived Cerebus as a graphic novel of 6,000 pages, because I believed and believe that it takes at least that number of pages to even aspire to the structural validates of a really good prose novel. I haven't changed my mind. Cerebus is a graphic novel that is three-quarters completed, in my view.

There are funny little side-shows, of course. Gary Groth has declared Cerebus invalid, because it's "a comic book about an aardvark". By the same logic, Maus is "a comic book about mice and cats". All I can do is smile. As Capote said, "The dogs howl but the caravan rolls on."


Margaret said...

Thanks for posting this AMoC and to Michael for allowing it to be posted!

For those curious who don't have time to look - Cerebus' last issue did indeed have $2.25 US on the cover.

Anonymous said...

Fun interview.

Might I add that that drawing of Cerebus holding a brew is probably the best visual depiction of the feeling of krunk that I've ever seen.

-Wes Smith