Friday 31 July 2015

Jeff Seiler: Dave Sim & Me

Eleven years ago, when Cerebus ended, Dave Sim decided to answer all of his back mail. A month or so later, he had his "Jeff Seiler Day" in which he answered multiple letters I had written over the previous year. After I received that letter, I decided to keep writing, and he kept his promise to answer every letter he received. And now, I have a foot-high stack of letters written and received over 10 years or so. I will be posting full paragraphs or pages of interesting excerpts from those letters every Saturday.

From a letter dated 13 November, 2004, from Dave to me: This one refers to an ongoing series of letters between Dave and I and between Billy Beach and Dave, that occurred at roughly the same time, taking exception to an interpretation of a verse of scripture (you’ll see which one below -- if there’s anyone who doesn’t own a bible or doesn’t have access to one on their Internetty-thingy, let me know in the Comments section and I’ll quote it. For what it’s worth, Dave was quoting from his King James version.). It started out that Billy and I were both writing to him, at roughly the same time, without either of us being aware of the other having done it. Dave initially thought he was being ganged up on, but I quickly reassured him that he wasn’t. Nevertheless, the exchange of these letters went on for some time, with Dave taking a firm stance that he was not wrong and with Billy and I trying to point out, in great detail, why he most certainly could be wrong. This post effectively ended the discourse, which was, for the most part, quite polite:
I intended the accusation of sophistry in the exact way, I think, that you and Billy did vis a vis my original viewpoint. "You can't be serious." Although, it seems obvious to me that we are, each of us, serious about our own viewpoint and incredulous about the opposing viewpoint. The reaction was more to your reaction in saying that my viewpoint on Luke 17:35 made you doubt that I was a serious thinker. I don't think a counter-accusation of sophistry is a disproportionate response in that instance. You left it up to me to choose the extent to which you considered me an "un-serious" thinker; I left it up to you to decide which definition of sophistry and Pharisaical argument you thought I might’ve intended. In my mind, I was responding to a warning shot across my bow with a warning shot across your bow. And we've now arrived at a "let sleeping dogs lie" situation which I think is only sensible. Although, I’m sure we’ll be getting last words after last words "in" at each other, as Billy and I did up until our most recent exchange of letters. That's how those things tend to go, in my experience.

Weekly Update #93: Fan Bequeaths $500,000 to Cerebus Trust

Anonymous Cerebus fan "Mr. J." to bequeath $500,000 to Dave Sim in order to preserve and protect the Cerebus Archive after Dave Sim's death. Thanks Mr. J.!

"Dino's CafĂ© Action Set"™ with Cerebus and dying Oscar Wilde (sold separately).
Not available in any store.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

A Creator Named Dave

A few years ago I scanned all of Dave Sim's notebooks. He had filled 36 notebooks during the years he created the monthly Cerebus series, covering issues #20 to 300, plus the other side items -- like the Epic stories, posters and prints, convention speeches etc. A total of 3,281 notebook pages detailing his creative process. I never really got the time to study the notebooks when I had them. Just did a quick look, scanned them in and sent them back to Dave as soon as possible. So this regular column is a chance for me to look through those scans and highlight some of the more interesting pages.

We last looked at Dave's notebook #19 this past April. In "Uncomfortable Truth" we saw the preliminary layout sketches for when Dave was talking to Cirin and Cerebus. Notebook #19 covers bits of Reads, Minds and Guys. Today we'll be looking at two pages of dialogue that would've been in Minds.

But they weren't. This dialogue never made it to the finished pages. Probably a good thing as it is a more pessimistic end of Minds then the one that made the finished pages.

Notebook 19, page 57
"I'll put you back in Palnu if you want. Jaka will overwhelm and crush you."

That is one way of looking at what happened - "Go on. Beat it. Scram."

"I can't save myself from myself. You can't save yourself from yourself."

The dialogue continues on the next page:

Notebook 19, page 58
Rather than state "Can you make Jaka fall in love with Cerebus", Cerebus demanded that Dave make Jaka be in love with Cerebus. We saw where that led. It led to Joanne. It led to unhappiness. Instead of that, Cerebus asks Dave if he could do it, and he responds 'No. No more than my creator can make women fall in love with me."

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Light and Dark

Mara Sedlins:

I'm happy to report that Church and State I is getting close to the printing stage! We received several new original art pages just last week (big thanks to Jeremy Shorr of Titan Comics and David Rankin!). Sean is working on the essay for the end pages and I'm putting together a list of all of our dragnet and CAN2 contributors to thank. From the proofs I've seen so far, the printing quality on this volume is going to be unbelievable - but I'll let Sean fill you in on those details in the coming weeks.

In the meantime: after researching computer algorithms used in digital restoration last week, I started thinking about what kind of image analysis I might realistically be able to do with the Cerebus art scans we have. One of the techniques I'd read about involved creating an average of many images to provide a baseline brightness profile. This made me wonder about the average brightness of a typical Cerebus page - how much ink is on the page relative to white space? How does the proportion of black to white change over the course of an issue? Are there typical patterns of light alternating with dark? How does this literal lightness/darkness relate to the plot?

It occurred to me it would be pretty straightforward to convert each page to its average grey level in Photoshop and try to answer some of these questions. To start with, let's look at High Society at the issue level - each block below is the average value for one issue, starting with issue 26 on the left, and ending with issue 50 on the right (the smaller sliver in the middle is Goat). 

The pattern seems to be, roughly, medium - dark - light - dark - medium (with Goat thrown into the second dark section for a moment of lightness). What stands out to me the most is the stark contrast between issues 38 and 39, at the core of this volume. What's going on there?

Issue 38 is Petuniacon Day Two - its per-page profile looks like this:

Aside from the first page (a scene with Cerebus and Jaka), the rest of this issue favors white space, particularly on pages featuring typed transcripts of the panel discussion:

By contrast, Issue 39, The Ambassador Suite, has a consistently darker per-page profile:

The action in these pages occur entirely within a blackened room. Here's one of the darkest pages:
Some of the issues alternate between light and dark quite a bit ... 

Issue 44
... or shift suddenly from one to the other ...

Issue 49

... have one page that stands out from the rest ...
Issue 27
... or definitely end on a dark note:

Issue 50
I'll leave it to those who know the book better than I do to speculate on the meanings of these patterns. I'm sure that something as integral to this medium as the sheer volume of ink on the page is something that Dave leveraged artfully in his storytelling.

The other type of "image analysis" I was able to achieve is perhaps less meaningful - but it seems to me that the first step in any computerized approach to Cerebus artwork must be to translate him into the language of computers ...

... right?

Monday 27 July 2015

Cerebus & Lord Julius

(from Tales Of The Rabbitfish, 3 June 2015)
A convention illustration Dave Sim did for me some time in the first half of the 80s, I suppose. Cerebus and Lord Julius, his Groucho Marx character.

Cerebus TV Urgent Fundraiser

Print: Cover to Following Cerebus #12
Art by Dave Sim & David Petersen
Donate just $20!
Yikes, CerebusTV domain and hosting fees are due today and no one's donated! We need this to be able to keep airing the show, with 100 plus episodes in the library. So I just went through the various items in the Cerebus TV Archive to see what we could give folks for helping out at Cerebus.TV that hadn't been offered before.

What I found was what Craig Miller, the publisher of Following Cerebus, had sent to support Cerebus TV, along with his 10 minute video segment that hasn't yet been aired, just a week or so before his untimely death several years ago. So, CerebusTV will make a gift of Craig's gift of these 11x17" full color prints to those who can help out!

Our PayPal donation link accepts all major credit cards as well as direct PayPal transfers.

Possibly, we can air Craig's segment as well. I was very moved as I just watched it again; Craig's loss was a big one to the indie comics community, as well as his personal friendship being sorely missed. He was also a self-publisher of comics himself, as a creator/artist/writer. You can see the prints at the Cerebus.TV page if you scroll down.

And don't forget to watch the show and read the Cerebus Guide to Self Publishing!

Sunday 26 July 2015

Chris Ryall, IDW Editor-In-Chief

(from Chris Ryall's gallery at Comic Art Fans)
Based on some of the images I've posted here, it seems like I just ask Dave Sim to draw me but really, I don't...

This is the header Dave wants in the first issue of his coming Strange Death of Alex Raymond series. 

This is the header Dave wants in the second issue of his coming Strange Death of Alex Raymond series.

In the midst of sending material for his amazing, coming-someday Strange Death of Alex Raymond comic, he included these bonus pieces of original art. Since he's got me appearing in the comics' letters pages, this is his initial drawing of me before working on the page itself. Again, pretty amazing to have Dave Sim draw me.

This seems odd but in one of the packages of material Dave Sim sent to us, he included, out of the blue, this drawing of me, my wife and kid. Which was a pretty oddly wonderful surprise. I look like a Cerebus character, which is maybe the greatest I will ever look. 

Saturday 25 July 2015

Petunia Con: A Celebration Of Cerebus!

Petunia Con Advert
The Comics Journal #88 (January 1984)

Limited Edition Petunia Con 1984 Print
Art by Dave Sim
(Click image to enlare)

Friday 24 July 2015

Jeff Seiler: Dave Sim & Me

About a week ago, I took a taxi ride with a driver named Ali. I correctly assumed that he was a Muslim, so I mentioned my "friend", Dave, who is a Muslim. I told Ali all about how observant Dave is in his religion, and that he practices four of the five pillars of Islam, but he won't go to Mecca.

I told Ali that my understanding, based on a remembrance of a letter Dave wrote to me once, is that Dave won't go to Mecca because he doesn't believe it is safe for a white Westerner to go there alone. Ali told me that he tries to go every other year, if he can afford it, and that he is always surprised by how varied are the colors and nationalities of the people making the pilgrimage.

And then, Ali gave me his cell phone number and told me to give it to Dave, in case he should like to ask him about his Mecca experience/s. So, dutifully, I called Dave and left him a message about this, along with Ali's phone number. As usual, no intended good deed goes unpunished, so I got a phone call later that day, July 14, from Dave, telling me I had it all wrong and that he was going to call back with a message for Ali that he wanted to leave on my voicemail. And, he asked me to transcribe the message and post it here at AMOC. So, without further ado:
First Voice Message:
Hello, Ali. I'm afraid Jeff Seiler has misrepresented me, not intentionally, I'm sure, but by accident. Um, I have no concern about making a haj to Mecca because of personal safety concerns (chuckles). Mecca is probably the safest city on the planet particularly during the haj, when you take into account the fact that Sunnis and Shiites and Sufis, and all different shades and stripes of Muslims have been performing the haj, as far as I know, without any serious conflict for generations and generations and generations. I mean, people get trampled if somebody gets spooked and everybody runs the wrong way at the wrong time, but that's a very different thing from actual conflict. So I didn't want you to think that I thought that I wouldn’t be safe in Mecca because I'm white or because I'm Canadian, or anything like that.
However, I do give equal weight to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And, as far as I know, I did hear that Jews are not allowed into Mecca, and that it also causes a problem to get into Saudi Arabia is you have an Israeli visiting stamp in your passport. And, at one point, I thought, well I do think, as someone who gives equal weight to all three faiths, I should probably go to Israel after making the pilgrimage to Mecca so I don't have an Israeli stamp in my passport. But then, the Jewish side of my nature or the part of my nature that adheres to Judaism thought, no, that’s unconscionable, that's hypocrisy for me to try and pretend or try and structure it so that it doesn't look like I have very, very strong Jewish sympathy, which I do. So, that's really been the deciding factor. In good conscience as a mono-theist, I realized that the House of Saud does not believe that non-Muslims should be allowed into Mecca. And, uh, I don’t tend to agree with that.

I mean the fact that there is a reference to "the standing place of Abraham" in the Grand Mosque. You know, Judaism is descended from Abraham just the same way that Islam is. It’s just descended through Isaac instead of Ishmael. And I know that Ishmael and Abraham purified the Grand Mosque.

Second Voice Message:
Hello, Ali, um, I apologize for the length of this message and what I see as the necessity of this message, but obviously on the 27th day of Ramadan, when something like this comes up, I do like to clarify what the actual situation is that I'm in. I really don't like any situation where it makes me sound as if I don't know anything about Islam or I don't know about Mecca or I don't know that it is a very safe city for the people making the pilgrimage, I definitely envy you having been there as many times as you have. And definitely, if the situation changes, if God enters in upon his work and makes a change in this while I'm still alive (I'm 60 years old now), I will definitely be absolutely over the moon with the idea of being able to visit the central location in monotheism.

And, I appreciate your being interested enough to give Jeff Seiler your cell phone number and being willing to talk about this. But I thought it would be better if I clarified this not only just for you but also for Jeff. So, I'm hoping he’ll be storing these messages and hopefully transcribing them or putting them on the fan-site devoted to my work. A lot of people really don’t get what it is that I’m talking about and that I’m doing. I am a monotheist; I haven't converted to Islam. I give equal weight to Judaism and Christianity and Islam. I just can't bring myself to let go of any one of them in favor of any one of the other two or picking out one of them. We'll see what God thinks of that on judgment day or I will anyway. Thanks again very much for your interest.

Weekly Update #92: The Second Cerebus Superfan Award!

Jeff Seiler provides Dave Sim with some information on the world-famous Mayo Clinic. Dave provides you with some behind-the-scenes research photos of Alex Raymond and Friends!


THE NOMINEES (so far):
Brian Coppola (Serious Art Collector)
Chris Ryall (IDW Editor-In-Chief)
 Dean Reeves (Dedicated Cerebus Art Hunter)
Eddie Khanna (SDOAR Researcher)
George Peter Gatsis (Audio/Video Producer, Restorer, Action-Figure Maker)
Greg Kessler (Dedicated Cerebus Art Hunter)
Jeff Seiler (Dave Sim Letter Writer)
Mara Sedlins (Cerebus Restorer)
Margaret Liss (Cerebus Fangirl)
Matt Dow (Cartoonist)
Oliver Simonsen (Cerebus Film Maker)
Rich Johnston (Bleeding Cool)
Sandeep Atwal (I Knew Dave Sim)
Scott Dunbier (IDW Special Projects Editor
Sean Michael Robinson (Cerebus Restorer & New Parent)
Ted Adams (IDW Publisher)

Cast your vote in the 'Comments' to this post
and state which of the following ways you want your vote to be registered:

registers as 3 votes for anyone on the ballot having no votes at the time of voting

registers 1 vote for each nominee on the ballot

registers 1 vote for everyone EXCEPT whomever is winning at the time of voting

registers 1 vote for whomever ultimately wins

subtract 1 vote from each candidate

subtract 1 vote from whomever is winning at the time of voting

registers 1 vote for each candidate except [pick one name]

bid on eBay for your own Cerebus Superfan Award [your choice of recipient and inscription]
bidding closes 10/19/15 11pm ET
starting bid $1

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Cool's Right

A few years ago I scanned all of Dave Sim's notebooks. He had filled 36 notebooks during the years he created the monthly Cerebus series, covering issues #20 to 300, plus the other side items -- like the Epic stories, posters and prints, convention speeches etc. A total of 3,281 notebook pages detailing his creative process. I never really got the time to study the notebooks when I had them. Just did a quick look, scanned them in and sent them back to Dave as soon as possible. So this regular column is a chance for me to look through those scans and highlight some of the more interesting pages.

We haven't yet looked at Dave's notebook #23 yet. It covers Cerebus #224 to #230, which is the majority of Rick's Story. The cover says there were 100 pages in it, but I only scanned 58 pages. There were another 37 pages that were blanked, so they weren't scanned. 

On page 44 we see some dialogue between Cerebus, he starts it off in the upper left hand corner, and Dave from issue #229 - if you're following along in the phonebook, page 192 is where the dialogue starts.

Notebook 23, page 44
This dialogue, however, wasn't used. Well, the part about the Coors light and an ashtray was, but the rest of it? Not so much. I do like this back and forth:
Cerebus: "Do you ever get the feeling that you're being picked on? That you've been singled out for punishments that no one else has to put up with?"
Dave: "mm. No. I think everyone picks their own punishment."
Cerebus: "But someone like. . .well, like Cerebus for example. Ever since Cerebus got here it's as if everyone is driving Cerebus CRAZY on purpose."
Page 45 has a couple rough sketches of Cerebus opening up the package that Dave left on the bar. Then on page 46 we get a full page of hand written dialogue between Cerebus and Dave.

Notebook 23, page 46
The dialogue on page 46, "leapfrogging the conversational sequence" shows up on page 193 of Rick's Story (page 7 of issue 229), about one third of the way down the page. Though on the finish piece, Dave finishes it up with "my particular social vice" instead of what is on the notebook page "a conversational vice of mine." 

Another difference? When Cerebus says "Served your sentence?", Dave had originally wrote "Yeah. Yeah, I guess that was it" and crossed that off and put down "I suppose so." But on the finished page Dave says "Exactly."

There are a few other differences between the finished text and the notebook. One of the more noticeable ones is that there is more of the "stage direction" - (smiling), (smiling back), et al. - on the finished page then there is in the notebook.  

The next page shows us the same dialogue, but it is much closer to the finished dialogue:

Notebook 23, page 47
The dialogue this time continues on until page 49 where the dialogue ends with the dialogue on page 195. On the above page 47 you can see that there is  some text along the top that was continued from page 46. In it Cerebus has another good line - "...I was going crazy. Just one long argument in my head."

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Dust and Sparkle: Digital Restoration Research

Mara Sedlins:

Although Cerebus stands out as a unique work of comic art, its preservation and digital restoration is not a unique problem. Many of the challenges involved in this undertaking are also faced by those using digital techniques to restore other types of artwork, like motion pictures or daguerreotypes. These other media also feature fragile original materials, large amounts of “data,” and characteristic types of “noise” whose identification requires the careful attention of an expert. I’ve spent a little time researching existing digital restoration approaches with an eye to finding techniques that might be adaptable to the work that Sean and I are doing with Cerebus.

The digital preservation of motion pictures is a controversial topic - some argue that true cinema can only exist in analogue form. But the digitization of film allows for more possibilities for restoration - such as the use of computer algorithms to track the motion of objects across frames, the automatic detection of scratches and dust (or “dirt and sparkle,” as it’s referred to in the industry), and the interpolation of missing pixels with appropriate values from neighboring areas.

Research in computer vision and image processing has also addressed the unique needs of daguerreotype restoration. Daguerreotypes were able to capture an incredible amount of detail and have great historical value - but they’re susceptible to deterioration over time and are delicate enough that attempts at manual restoration are likely to cause irreversible damage. This makes them ideal candidates for digital preservation and restoration. An especially compelling example is the 1848 Cincinnati Waterfront Panorama restoration project. You can read about it here (or for the academically minded, here), but briefly: this series of eight 6.5- by 8.5-inch images captures about 2 miles of the Cincinnati waterfront, and the resolution is so great that you need a microscope to see the finest visible details (wheel spokes, curtains, sign lettering).




The Cincinnati Public Library has made annotated, zoom-able digital images available to the public here.

But the images are marred by dust motes, corrosion, and scratch marks created by the initial polishing of the plates. At such a high resolution, these sources of noise obscure a lot of detail. Also, as you can see in the sky of the second image above, despite carefully controlled lighting the individually photographed sections are distorted at their edges (creating the mosaic effect in the composite image).

As you can imagine, restoring the entire panorama by hand at the pixel level would be a tremendous amount of work. Archivists at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography (where the plates are housed) partnered with computer scientists at the University of Rochester to develop automated digital restoration techniques uniquely suited to the challenges presented by this series of daguerreotypes. For example, to correct for the tiling effect in the sky (or other “featureless areas” of the image), they created an average image (below) that was then used to correct for “brightness inaccuracies” created by the reflectivity of the plate.


To detect dust and other noise, the researchers used machine learning techniques. A support vector machine was provided with several filters, as well as a sample image that had been annotated by experts to test filter performance against (you can find more details in the academic paper linked above). I read enough to know that this type of approach is beyond my personal expertise - but it would be interesting to partner with a computer scientist and develop Cerebus-specific algorithms to detect and repair the various types of damage described in my taxonomy.

On the other hand, there are aspects of our restoration process that go beyond purely archival preservation goals - the images are specifically being readied for the printed page, and we’re making judgment calls to alter the original artwork in subtle ways to improve readability and honor the original intentions of the artists. I don’t see this process being fully automated anytime soon.

Monday 20 July 2015

Nobody Move!!

Cerebus ad designed by Richard Bruning

For further information on Richard Bruning see the in-depth profile in
Comic Book Creator #7 (TwoMorrows, Spring 2015).

Sunday 19 July 2015

Conqueror Or Conquered?

Cerebus ad designed by Richard Bruning

For further information on Richard Bruning see the in-depth profile in
Comic Book Creator #7 (TwoMorrows, Spring 2015).

Happy 63rd Birthday, Bob Burden!

Kickstarter Reward Jam (with a pole-vaulting Cerebus!)
by Bob Burden, Kevin Eastman and Dave Sim

Saturday 18 July 2015

Dave Sim: The Comic Collector Interview

The following interview with Dave Sim originally appeared in COMIC COLLECTOR #1 in 1992 when Dave was 35 years old and CEREBUS #156 was on sale. The interview was conducted by Dave Dickson and incorporated into the following article. A huge thanks to Robbie Foggo for making this available to AMOC readers.

Comic Collector #1 (March 1992)
Cover by Simon Bisley

According to Alan Moore, CEREBUS just keeps getting better and better. The man has a point. Fourteen years ago Dave Sim unleashed CEREBUS THE AARDVARK onto the world in a grand novel prospectively slated for 300 issues. Sim recently passed the halfway mark on this quest and, as Moore points out, the quality of the product is not lacking.

CEREBUS is a labour of love for Sim who writes, draws, edits and publishes the book. His confrontations with both Marvel who were unhappy with his spoof of Wolverine, and the ongoing battle with distributors, made him a marked man. Dave Sim is a thorn in the side of the comics industry. After all he has proved it can be done: that it is possible to produce your own comic and play by your own rules in a marketplace governed by two giants. Dave Sim may not be Mr Popular but you'd be hard pushed to find anyone who didn't respect both the man and his achievements. All this and he's a Rolling Stones fan!

CEREBUS, by Sim's own admission, began life as a Barry Windsor-Smith clone. Dave Sim desperately wanted to be Smith, and CEREBUS was his vehicle. However, it didn't take long for that ambition to fall be the way side; with the introduction of the HIGH SOCIETY storyline (issue 26 onwards) CEREBUS had been transformed into a biting social, political and religious satire. Today CEREBUS has few, if any, peers with its fine art and acerbic wit, crisp, intelligent dialogue and thought provoking scenarios. All that and funny too.

To the uninitiated CEREBUS looks to be a treacherous minefield with its convoluted, almost impenetrable plot and its 'other-worldly' setting. CEREBUS clearly does not take place on this planet, nor its continuity fit easily into any other comic universe. Despite that, CEREBUS' great come-on is its humour. It is not a 'funny animal' strip, but it is funny. CEREBUS has a kind of wry and twisted humour that naturally enough, neatly fits its creator. A scene in the CHURCH & STATE novel, HIGH SOCIETY's successor, caused a ruckus on the letters page: Cerebus, having become pope, is addressing a huge crowd, conning all their gold pieces out of them. A mother holds up her screeching baby and asks Cerebus to bless him. Cerebus takes the baby, telling the crowd he is about to teach them a valuable lesson. He blesses  the child and then hurls him away. The moral, he says, is that you can get just what you asked for and still not be happy (issue 66).
Cerebus #66 (September 1984)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
You do, undoubtedly, need a somewhat perverse sense of humour to appreciate CEREBUS. But there is more slapstick humour, such as the Roach and his multifarious superhero incarnations; Elrod, Sim's spoof of Michael Moorcock's ELRIC, who speaks like Foghorn Leghorn; the McGrew Brothers, an inept pair of ne'er-do-wells who suffer unduly at the hands of the aardvark. But perhaps most prominent of Sim's comical characters is Lord Julius, his apprentice take off of Groucho Marx.

CEREBUS, then, has it all: sex, humour, politics, religion, beautiful women and dumb men... and its hero is an aardvark. Quite why is a question Dave Sim now refuses to address. "It's on a shortlist of about nine questions I don't answer anymore. I stopped answering them after the first five years". And Sim will not be drawn further. But on the subject of Barry Windsor-Smith, CEREBUS' inspiration, Sim is enthusiastic. Smith had contributed a cover and short story to SWORDS OF CEREBUS Vol 5 -- actually receiving the work proved to be a problem.

"It was like pulling teeth to get it because Barry is so finicky, so meticulous. He was working on the second CONAN film out in LA, doing designs and stuff. It's just going crazy out here, they've got me in a hotel room, they're paying all my expenses and I'm supposed to meet producer Dino De Laurentis. I haven't met him yet and I don't know what's going on. So he wanted something to keep busy with. I asked him to do a SWORDS story on his own. He'd say, Well, I got it all done and it's sitting across the room but it's just not right, it doesn't look like Cerebus, and my back teeth are aching! I said, I don't care, just put it in an envelop and send it to me. If it's really bad I'll only print five million of them!"

To get a CEREBUS story from Barry Windsor-Smith was, to Sim, the ultimate accolade, proof that he had finally arrived. But Sim's list of enthusiasts makes impressive reading.

"All the people I admire and went gaga over in my teens and through my early 20s, virtually to a one treat me as a peer whether they're CEREBUS fans or not: Howard Chaykin, Jeff Jones, Berni Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock -- it's the fan's dream come true! To have aspired to one of the better spear-carriers and be admitted to the pantheon -- it helps take a lot of the sting out of bad reviews. You meet the person who gave you a bad review and he has a skin condition and hasn't had a girlfriend or something like that, and I say: Well, I don't give a shit. Harlan Ellison likes it. Ha!"

Sim is characteristically discarding of unfavourable criticism, but you'd never guess it by reading the letters column. Cerebus has the liveliest, not to mention the weirdest, correspondence page in comics. There the fans rule and some have even built up their own cult following!

"You should try reading all of them!" laughs Sim. "There's like the eight a month that cause my eyebrows to go up and my head to spin around like a propeller, and the other ones are just as strange, if not stranger. If I'm in a mood where I'm feeling put upon and nobody loves Dave and I feel like shit and everybody's saying: You're scum and I really hate you. Well, let's show then that this month. We'll show them how really cheesy these people can get. There was a really obnoxious letter from a guy in issue 88 that I looked at and went: I really can't believe this. And I thought, just to give the readers an idea of why I get really pissed off sometimes, I'm going to print this and if he sends another I'll print that. It was obnoxious: You think you're so hot, well you're a turd, you're crap, you're a doo-doo, you're a cah-cah. Just vitriolic to have that arriving in the post and it's like, OK I'll run it next time and say: Remember the guy from last issue who was really obnoxious, well here he is again. I can't wait to see what he writes now! And if he really goes screaming over the edge all he's going to do is alienate himself from all the fans, but he does thrill those who are still buying the book but figure it's not as good as it should be and read it and go: I'm disappointed again and then read the letters page and say: I agree with this guy! Yeah, it sucks!"
Cerebus #66 (September 1984)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
CEREBUS would almost be worth buying solely for the letters but the plain fact is the column if fronted by 20 glorious pages of stunning artwork and acid scripting.

Sim's introduction to this world began as a fan -- he wrote for fanzines before turning professional -- and later became part of a Canadian clique who wanted to be involved in comics. He had, as he explains, two heroes.

"I started in comics with the idea that maybe someday I could be Barry Windsor-Smith, maybe someday I could be Neal Adams. Neal Adams is a better example because for a period of three or four years any character he picked up he produced the definitive version, because Neal had a very, very sophisticated art style. He redefined the whole way of telling stories and what you could get away with in a dopey little colour comic. He knew how to knock out a first class commercial art illustration in a very short period of time, so he just applied all that thinking to it. But he's created this whole generation of people who are doing 'Neal': I'm going to do the definitive Spectre, I'm going to do the definitive Star Spangled Kid."

"I started off petulantly because a friend of mine, the late Gene Day, was inking at Marvel and we had started off in a crop of maybe 10 or 11 guys scattered around southern Ontario and Quebec in Canada who were fired up by Barry Windsor-Smith and Berni Wrightson and Neal Adams and it was like: Yeah, I'm gonna get a job in comics!

"They would get a job, farmed out by another artist, and get all carried away that they'd done ten pages of Batman under somebody else's name, and gradually just lost the whole thing; gradually lost sight of where they were going, what they were doing. And then you still had to work. OK, you got a job at Marvel and you did two issues but the third one's five weeks late so you're going to get fired in pretty short order."

"Gene got the job, inking, and I went: that was it, the final bottle-neck and he got through and I didn't. So I thought, OK, I'm going to go off and do my own  comic for three issues and if it doesn't go over it will serve as samples to take to the companies."

The three issues take off and Sim was not forced to go cap-in-hand to the major companies. Instead he is half way through his epic 6,000 page novel. He will finish, so long as he keeps to schedule, some time in 2004, but which time he will be 46 years old. And what then? Where do you go after completing a 26 year work?

"Then it becomes a matter of sticking with it, because that's the other thing I wanted to demonstrate -- we're going to get a whole lot further in this field if people set out to do their life's work. Instead they're all wandering around like Brett Maverick with a gun strapped on, like: OK, now I'm gonna go over here and Blatt! Blatt! Blatt! There, did a helluva job on that one, didn't I? Then they go chinking outta town and wander into the next town and it's like: Oh, here's the local bad guy. OK - bang, bang, bang! But all the towns are owned by Marvel and DC."

"I'm sitting in a town going: I'm the local sheriff, we don't like trouble here 'cos I've been here all these years and I can take care of myself, I got it all billed up. And it's a nice, quiet, sleepy little town where everybody has a good time."

"That's it. All I'm saying is that the 26 years becomes central. If you assume you do your best work through your 20s, polish and refine it through your 30s and hope to get out with your skin intact halfway through your 40s, that's not a bad time to retire. I'm going to be working until a specific age anyway, why not set up a situation where at the end of 26 years of doing the book I have 20 mint sets of issues 1-300 and assuming the security is okay... like, I have 30 copies of number 1 in mint. Now, at the time it went up to $50 a copy I in effect had assets there of $1,500. At the time that wasn't a tempting amount of money. Now that it's selling at $300-400, with 30 copies, that's $12,000, which, five years ago, would have been really tempting. Let's ditch these and give ourselves a financial cushion. Now it would be as ridiculous as selling them all for $1,500. And you just project down the road..."

"It was a good motivation to get through those first five years. Once you get there it becomes a peripheral kind of thing. I really imagine when I'm done, my 300 issues will be donated to specific comics museums or whatever. It would be like you'd donate any work like that to a library."

Sim clearly has his eyes set on his self-imposed target of issue 300 and is little disposed to allow the likes of movie offers to distract, or, heaven forbid, selling out to Marvel or DC.

"It's the same thing that happened to a lot of English country estates through the last part of the 1800s. If you sell something you own for money you don't really need, you're gradually chipping away at the edge. Maybe you're saying: Well, I not doing anything with it right now, why not turn them into money? If you don't need the money, why give them up?"

"No one else has ever published CEREBUS without express agreement -- they get the rights to whatever fragment I decide to throw their way. It's not part of the 6,000 pages that I'm working on."

"I'm not about to sell the film rights to HIGH SOCIETY as a novel -- or even sell the rights to a paperback house to put them in all the Walden Books, you know, Dave Sim's HIGH SOCIETY paperback-sized -- We're gonna move a million of them, kid! Well, we didn't want to just do a million of them we're going to buy the film rights as well."

"So it's like a $1 million film and Dave walks away with $200,000 -- great, Dave, but a shitty movie's gonna come out of it made by somebody that I don't know and for which I have to take the rap. And the comic become peripheral, it either becomes, as HOWARD THE DUCK became: Oh, yeah, that comic based on a lousy movie. Or, if the movie's successful: Oh, I didn't know it was a comic book."

"I have to keep my thing centre-stage. As soon as you bring television, or the movies, or record or any of the other larger media into it you become a peripheral sidelight. You can't help but do, because the public is more used to: This is going to be a made for TV movie! Regardless of it being based on a comic book, if it's successful nobody's going to know."

"Let's say it's not even a movie but a stuffed toy. Sure, the natural thing to do is go to a big company like DC, let them do the ELFQUEST trip on CEREBUS. You go to the guy that makes the Garfield stuffed toy and say: Make us a Cerebus. And a year from now the Cerebus stuffed toy is out-selling the Garfield four-to-one but nobody has a clue there's a comic book about it or that it has any more depth or richness than just an aardvark with a sword."

"It's jeopardising it to the 30,000 (readers) that I've got who allow me enormous latitude. If it was DC they'd be saying: These are our 1.5 million DC fans, and DC fans don't like things like this. And in a business sense we don't like things like this, so we want you to change things that we think are going to get us into legal trouble or whatever. Inside of three years I'd give up the book, just go: Fine, nobody gets the next issue, I'm pissed off..."

"I'm pissed off because I introduced the impurity and then got jittery and frustrated and angry and bored because the impurity got bigger. Nobody is just going to say: Yeah, we'll be happy to make $20,000 off Dave every year for the next 10 years. No, they figure they're gonna make $20,000 this year, the year after that they wanna male a million, the year after that they wanna make it $5 million. And if you have to take that into consideration you have to come up with $5 million ideas. I don't know if I've got $5 million ideas. I couldn't write the X-MEN, I could not do what Chris (Claremont) did -- and he did it month in month out."

"The problem there is they pass judgement in their context. DC is not going to just say: Sure, We'll start printing in colour and we'll start sending you this amount of money every month. No, they want to sell it off to a film company that they know, want to sell it for a radio show, for a newspaper strip, for the whole Superman/Batman treatment. They jeopardise what I'm trying to do."

Sim has an apparent lack of concern for his audience. Doesn't it matter to him that he frequently infuriates his readership even as far as driving many away permanently? Well, yes and no.

"That's not the criteria I use. The criteria I use personally, the thing that for me makes it worthwhile, is that Harlan Ellison likes it, that Barry Windsor-Smith likes it, that Michael Moorcock likes it, that somebody who can write an intelligent review for the ATLANTIC MONTHLY likes it and sees a lot of what I'm putting into it -- that's what I get out of it. I take it for granted that because that's who I'm going for, I'm going to annoy major chunks of the constituency quite frequently until it drops off to levels I thought I would achieve at the age of 30, say 22,000. I'm still perfectly content, there's a financial cushion there now. Even if it drops below that I can keep financing all this, saying exactly what I want to say."

It would be easy to see Dave Sim as arrogant -- and to a degree he is -- but you can't escape the thought that anyone who allows his readers virtually a free hand at the back of his comic must care something for them. There's the sneaking suspicion that behind the brash, tough-guy exterior there lurks, somewhere well hidden, a heart in the right place. His enthusiasms - CEREBUS, The Rolling Stones, comics in general -- are infectious. As to his favourite comics, well  no surprises there.

"LOVE & ROCKETS. If [publisher] Gary Groth could just get every comic shop to hire one person with a mohawk dyed purple to stand in the front window and read LOVE & ROCKETS, that book would be selling 75,000 copies tomorrow. The fact that it gets addressed in the rock press, becomes one of ROLLING STONES' What's Hot And What's Not items is going to do them the world of good because it's where their constituency is."

And as to CEREBUS' constituency , who represents Sim's ideal reader?

"I'm going to paraphrase this because I can never remember what I said. Something to the effect of: I appeal to people for whom there is as great an appeal in obscurity as clarity. CEREBUS is obscure and reveals itself bit by bit, and is in no great rush to do so -- on average you will learn three or four pertinent things a year."

"It's one thing from there to say Who does it appeal to? A specific person doesn't come to mind. But to translate it into novels -- a person who likes the big hit, reads Peter Benchley's JAWS and gets grabbed by the first page and reads it all the way through sitting on the toilet or wherever else they go. It's gripping, spine-chilling, moves right along, a roller-coaster ride of suspense"

"You can try putting that on the back of Dostoyevsky's THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, but it's not. It's not a roller-coater ride, it's not spine-chilling, gut-wrenching, sphincter-tingling action. If you're patient it'll deliver the goods. And then you hit the kicker page, like on page 300, and from there it becomes the Peter Benchley JAWS where you're just going: Well, how did he resolve this, how does he resolve this irresolvable thing that he's got? Somebody's going to get what they want and somebody is not, and I can't wait to see how he works this out."

How CEREBUS works out -- apart from the aardvark dying alone, unmourned and unloved -- we're not going to discover for another 12 years. In the meantime Dave Sim is in the process of creating an expansive, powerful and evocative work that, impossibly enough, as Alan Moore put it, keeps getting better and better. It's a rare work and you should savour its beauty. I just hope nothing fatal happens to him before issue 300.

Friday 17 July 2015

Jeff Seiler: Dave Sim & Me

Eleven years ago, when Cerebus ended, Dave Sim decided to answer all of his back mail. A month or so later, he had his "Jeff Seiler Day" in which he answered multiple letters I had written over the previous year. After I received that letter, I decided to keep writing, and he kept his promise to answer every letter he received. And now, I have a foot-high stack of letters written and received over 10 years or so. I will be posting full paragraphs or pages of interesting excerpts from those letters every Saturday.

From a letter dated 13 November, 2004, from Dave to me:
I enjoyed your John Kerry anecdote from The Dr. Phil Show. I still find it hard to believe that there's an interviewer named "Dr. Phil", let alone the rest of the story. I really do wonder if the momentum is towards or away from Senator Kerry and the Ketchup Lady [Ed: the Heinz heiress]. Three million votes is not a huge margin of victory for an incumbent President, so a lot of folks must've looked at the Democrat and approved of what they saw. That is, not even being able to give a straight answer on whether he and his wife have a favourite between their two daughters -- obviously that and the number of other instances of indecisiveness didn't meet with any serious level of disapproval by a good half of the voting American public. It certainly raises questions about whether Hillary Clinton will run in 2008, whether she will get the nomination and what the Democrats and "swing" Republicans are going to think of her. Revenge of the Ketchup Lady.