Friday, 1 April 2016

Jeff Seiler: Dave Sim & Me

Cerebus #65 (August 1984)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
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. Now, I have a foot-high stack of letters written and received over 10 years or so. I'll be running interesting excerpts from those letters each week.

Today’s entry is dated 28 January, 2006. In it, we get an “Inside Baseball” look at how a major character in Cerebus was created. This one's GOLD, folks:

Dear Jeff:

Thanks for the latest batch of corrections. [Ed: I sent them to him 22 pages at a time, marking in red on the printed pages of Collected Letters and tearing them out of the book. When I started proofreading Reads, Dave thought I would do that again and suggested getting the digital download instead. But, what I did was to write the corrections out by hand on a legal pad.]

Yes, there is a story behind, wattayacall, my use of "wattayacall". The name "Bear" and the visual look of the character came from a biker that I met at a Calgary signing on the 1983 Canadian Tour and who appears to have vanished without a trace without ever finding out that he had become a character in Cerebus. One of the only times of all the people who asked to be put into the book that I actually put someone in the book and to this day he has no idea that he made it, I’m sure. The, wattayacall, verbal tick of using “wattayacall” came from one of the charter members of Gerhard’s high school group at Grand River Collegiate--the self-declared “Out to Lunch Bunch”--a guy by the name of Ernie. If I ever knew his last name, I’ve forgotten it now. The friendship between Ernie and Gerhard had exactly the tone I had been looking for in the relationship between Bear and Cerebus. Both of them were outdoors-y, self-reliant “do it yourself” types--real guys and it certainly looked like a permanent thing, which was the other thing I was going for: you’d need a crowbar to separate these two. Entirely unspoken and entirely understood to even an intermittent outsider like myself (who was always just thought of as Ger’s strange boss). Strangely, Ernie was one of the ones who eventually left the group and with whose departure the group basically ceased to exist, as previously constituted, and became instead Dirty Shirt, the garage band, and a certain number of indirectly connected individuals. At one point, Ernie (who now lives up north in some place isolated) was coming back for a visit and phoned the studio. Ger wasn’t there, but Ernie left the message that he wanted to clear some things up that had taken place around the time of his leaving. When I passed the message on to Ger, he had no idea what [Ernie] was talking about and, from there, the conversation went “indoors” between the two of them--Ernie never mentioned that he wanted to see me on his visit and I would have been surprised if he had expressed interest in seeing Ger’s strange boss, although I would have been glad to see him--and whatever he was talking about was and is, of course, none of my business. I can say from experience that if Ger doesn’t know what you’re talking about, that’s where it will be left. Sometimes relating to Ger’s governing philosophy of “there’s no problem too big that you can’t run away from it” (I know what you’re talking about but I don’t want to talk about it) and sometimes a genuine case that he doesn’t know what you’re talking about. I always thought the schism, whatever was behind it, was unfortunate because--as I said--I figured Ger and Ernie would still be palling around together when they were old and grey.

Ernie had a real job getting the right word for something when he was talking to you. He was particularly bright--he was certainly one of the few members of the Out to Lunch Bunch who was genuinely interested in ideas of all kinds and usually had an opinion about any subject you could come up with and good working knowledge of any number of subjects. But he didn’t have a ready vocabulary and, as a result, “wattayacall” proliferated in his conversation to an objectively amusing extent (objectively amusing at least partly because it was so subjectively unamusing for Ernie himself) and, of course, I always kept an ear out for things that were objectively amusing, since I made my living from them. The other word that he used to excess, in the same vein, was “unit” and its verb form “unitize”, which I suspect he got from Frank Zappa (the Out to Lunch Bunch were of the rebel generation after mine, post-Beatles and post-Stones, which basically did to the Beatles and the Stones what the Beatles and the Stones had done to Elvis--basically made him irrelevant and meaningless--by deciding that rock-n-roll began with the Who and then headed out to obscure cult bands like Frank Zappa’s) who called his daughter Moon Unit. “Unit” was a little too anachronistic for use in Cerebus’ world since it originates in late twentieth century component electronics. In a medieval context, it wouldn’t have a core value as either a specific term or as a verbal touchstone. At one particularly extreme point, I remember Ernie trying to explain how you had to fix something and he said, “You need to take your unit and unitize it with the, wattayacall, unit” which, as I recall, was sound advice, just lacking in specifics if you had to communicate it to someone who didn’t know what you were talking about.

Thanks again for the corrections. Hard to believe the “Ye Bookes of Cerebus” display [Ed: at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York] is coming down tomorrow. Seems like yesterday in some ways and seems like forever in others.




Travis Pelkie said...

Only skimmed right now, but I swear I've read this explanation before. I particularly remember the Zappa bits, as I am a fan. Did this explanation appear elsewhere, to anyone's knowledge?

Eddie said...

It was posted on the Yahoo group around Feb 2006

Travis Pelkie said...

Was it on the Blog and Mail, too, then? (has that been 10 years?!)

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

It's a personal letter, so perhaps it's not fair to nitpick, but Frank Zappa is obscure? Cult I guess I can see. "Unit" originated in the late 20th century? Dave's only off by 400 years.

Interesting origin story! I hope Bear the Biker eventually caught up on his reading; what a great story to tell your friends.

-- Damian

Dave Philpott said...

Thanks for sharing Jeff.

Jeff Seiler said...

I live but to serve, Mr. Philpott.

Tony Dunlop said...

It's the textures like the ones in this page that the "Envy" print reminded me of. Clearly Ger was getting his "sea legs" so to speak; his later walls were much more finished and realistic.

Max West said...

Bear the biker...quite a story. It's not unusual to base characters on people we know or met. Charles Schulz did base some of the Peanuts characters on those he knew - remember the Little Red Haired Girl? That was an actual crush of Schulz's!

iestyn said...

More letters like this would be welcome - this is a really interesting insight and discussion about Dave's inspiration.