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.

1 comment:

Travis Pelkie said...

If Sean is looking for backmatter for C&S 1, maybe he could do a photo recreation of this scene with the new baby?


Congrats to Sean, even though I could have posted this on the actual post about the new baby.