Saturday 4 June 2016

Dave Sim: Comic Book Rebel

Comic Book Rebels:
Conversations With The Creators Of The New Comics
by Stanley Wiater & Stephen R Bissette
(Donald I. Fine Inc, 1993)


Dave Sim is the most infuriatingly independent and ethical man working in the comics medium in North America. His anchored and sole, driven creative focus is Cerebus (from 1977 to the present), which he and his creative and business partner Gerhard self-publish on a monthly schedule.

Cerebus began as a periodic homage to artist Barry Windsor-Smith's seminal contribution to Conan The Barbarian (#1-24 Marvel Comics, 1970-1972). Cerebus The Aardvark was the absurdest barbarian hero, and Sim's title quickly matured into a remarkable vehicle for barbed (and often hilarious) perspectives on life, love, politics, power, religion, and reality. The expression and projection is uncanny: Dave Sim is Cerebus.

With precious few peers, Sim and Gerhard are producing volumes that truly fulfill the term 'graphic novel'. Of the six collected volumes to date, High Society (1986), Church & State (1987) and Jaka's Story (1990) are most remarkable for the breadth and depth of characterisation which fuels the Machiavellian stories -- each over 500 pages in length. These are, in every sense of the word, true novels, with an acute eye for nuance, action, and detail, and an ear for dialogue that is second to none. Jaka's Story is arguably their most accomplished work to date: compelling, moving and audacious; though Melmoth (1991), a haunting meditation on human frailty and mortality, is perhaps a more deeply felt and evocative work.

Equally impressive is Sim's long term commitment to Cerebus as a self-contained 300-issue novel.

When Sim announced his ambitious, unprecedented plan in 1979, the comics industry simply shrugged. Sixteen years later -- and well past the half-way point in his thirty-year plan -- Sim's unswerving commitment to the art form, his creation, and chosen marketplace, demands far more than the industry's acknowledgement or applause. Yet Sim pauses for neither; he is too busy working on the next chapter of Cerebus. So far he has paused only to better the creative and business environment of comics, particularly for those creators who also choose the even more difficult path of self-publishing.

The current novel, Mothers & Daughters (serialised in Cerebus #151-200), returns Cerebus to the foreground of the action, erupting with a breathlessly orchestrated series of battles which in turn launch an expansive reevaluation of the entire Cerebus cannon. With over a decade (at least three more novels to go), Dave Sim's and Gerhard's unique accomplishments are clearly to be celebrated and savoured. Beyond our applause, their efforts to enlighten both the creative and business interests of the North American comics community deserve careful scrutiny and assessment.

What you've done with Cerebus is unprecedented in comics history. We can't find a record anywhere in the world of someone writing, drawing and publishing 150 issues of their own work. Do you know of anyone?

No, no.

Why do you think the industry seems so afraid of this achievement?

I think it's got a lot of the same quality as the twenty-four-hour-comic. It was a great experience, but as soon as someone asks me if I'm ever going to do another one it's, like, probably not. Doing a long story like Cerebus is a lot like that: it has so much to recommend it, but at the same time it's not difficult to see why someone would avoid doing it. Obviously you can only do one of them, for one thing: I can't really start another one when I'm done.

I was out for dinner at a convention one time and talking to someone who was asking me, first of all, why on earth would I do 300 issues, and second of all, now that I an doing it, why don't I stop and start doing something else? Coincidentally, Marv Wolfman happened to be sitting across the table and I was sort of looking to him for help. I said, "You did Tomb Of Dracula for seventy issues with the same creative team, Gene Colon and Tom Palmer. Can you not back me up on this: that there is a quality to doing an extended story in terms of getting to know the characters, the story sort of writing itself and amazing things coming out that you are really convinced have nothing to do with you? You didn't come up with that, it just sort of appeared there?"

And of course he's nodding vigorously and is saying, yes, there's no question about it, that in his experience of writing nothing has approached Tomb Of Dracula for what it did to him, how it felt; but at the same time he's not at all keen to do another seventy issues of something. It's an attraction/repulsion thing. As much as you're attracted to it -- that's why I compare it to the twenty-four-hour-comic -- the sheer amount of energy and large bits of yourself that are required to do it make it completely understandable why someone would not want to do it.

Have there been any disadvantages in doing Cerebus on a monthly basis, producing roughly a page a day?

No, I can't say that has ever bothered me or ever caused any kind of real problem. I did the first fourteen issues bimonthly, and I found there was a psychological strain of stopping doing it for the month in between to do advertising or whatever it was I was doing in the month in between to make revenues. The psychological wrench of getting out of this world I created and doing something else to please somebody else where the check was on the line and then psychologically getting back into it was wrenching. I think even at this point, where I could do the book bimonthly and probably do nothing the other month, would be too psychologically wrenching to keep pulling myself out of it and putting myself back in to it.

I found it interesting with John Byrne saying that he was leaving the trenches, he wasn't going to be doing a monthly book anymore, and then just found it was in his blood. I hope to hell that I don't find that out in the year 2004, that inside of six months I'm back doing a monthly title again because I'm just too badly hooked to do anything else. It wouldn't surprise me!

It's such  a unique skill to be able to produce a whole comic book in a month. There are so few people who can do it. There're very few people who can produce a comic book every four months. If you take an average illustrator out of commercial art, and tell him you've got to produce thirty pages, and you've got to be able to draw this character from any angle, keep it interesting, you've got to draw it fast, and you've got to be better than you were last month, and you've got to keep everybody's attention engaged and you have to do it for probably a tenth of what you made drawing that toaster, they would look at you like you were nuts!

Our whole field is full of guys who could probably do the average commercial artist's year's worth of production in four or five afternoons and then take the rest of the year off. But we don't do that because the only reason to do comic books is because you love them.

Maintaining the pace of writing, drawing, and publishing a monthly comic book is no day at the beach. It has to take a lot out of you, doesn't it?

Yes, but at the same time, everything does. It is still the line of least resistance in my life. I've always been a big advocate of at least trying it. If self-publishing is not for you, you'll know pretty quickly that it's not. You're a guy who, for good or ill, should be working for other people or should have somebody handling all the business side. I tend to think it really hasn't taken a toll. I remember seeing an interview with Dennis Hopper where they were asking him about his crazy life style -- all the women and all the drugs. That's the stuff that takes a toll on you. The work doesn't take a toll on you; Cerebus has never cost me anything emotionally.

Everything that has to do with having a real life, marriage and girlfriends especially, I've always found that to be what has taken a toll on me. At the same time, I still feel that I am about sixteen years old. I don't do anything different on a day-to-day basis that I didn't do during my summer vacation between high school years. I just sink right up to my neck in comic books and I exist there, but now it's 365 days a year. I used to take weekends off until I realised that I had more fun on the weekend drawing without the pressure. If I get a page done, that's fine. If I only get a panel done, that's fine too. If I do something that is never going to get seen by anybody bit I got the joy out of drawing... there's where the back cover of issue 150 came from, The First Half, with Cerebus as the football player.

I had no idea that I was going to use that, but I was in on the weekend and I thought, "Yeah, that would be pretty cool." I've always anted to be a football player, and to draw Cerebus as a football player, and then ultimately it became a back cover, and now it's going to be a poster and a T-shirt, and the response to it has been phenomenal. Everybody commented on it -- which is what usually happens when you do something just because you wanted to do it. If you really, really wanted to do it, and it just dropped out of your pen, That's what people are going to respond to.

When you reached issue 150 you didn't even get so much as a shrug of notice from the industry trades. Does that pain you or doesn't it matter to you any more?

No really, no. There was enough of a time period when there was so much attention paid to everything that I said, and everything that was going on in the book, that I know what that's like, and consequently I don't miss it. You get to a point where you realise that what you're doing is doing the thing for yourself. It's a really good job. It's a lot of work, but it is something that I enjoy doing. And I get fan mail. How many people do their job all their lives and will get maybe one or two pats on the back from the boss? And on a day-in and day-out basis I'm getting letters from people who are saying I'm a god, or whatever... That's a very unique kind of job to have.

In terms of influences, what was there in the comics community when you started Cerebus that prompted you to have such a grandiose dream, to pursue thirty years of doing one story? Was there something other than just the love for the medium that you obviously have?

Well, that would be it. I think you have to remember that I first said that I am going to do Cerebus for 300 issues in 1979 and it was, easily, five years before anybody took it even half seriously. It was just completely unheard of. At the time I started doing Cerebus, comics was not something that you did as a life's work. Comic-books were something that you did to attract the attention of somebody so you could do something else. Like The Studio guys (Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jeff Jones, Mike Kaluta) when they started doing their pictures: "I have learned from comics and now I want to move into a more mature form."

As a publisher, Dark Horse might be a perfect example of that, given their recent move into feature film production.

Yeah -- or the guys who move into storyboarding. Paul Chadwick walked away from Concrete for a specific length of time because somebody offered him a movie.

Bear in mind that Paul Chadwick came out of storyboarding too.

But that doesn't tempt me. If somebody came and offered me a really interesting, artsy thing to do that I had never done before, I would not feel a wrenching choice between Cerebus and that. Or even in comics. If someone came to me and said, "We want you to do a Rolling Stones comic book, we want you to do it basically as issue #86, but do it without Cerebus," that would still not be a temptation. I would love to do it; it would be fun, as opposed to taking over, say, Batman, which I would treat as a joke. Compared to developing and continuing the Cerebus story as I have done for fourteen years, I mean, there is no comparison.

Let's talk about some of the temptations that have been put in your path. You're one of the few people in the industry who has resisted licensing. Why?

As Henry David Thoreau said, "Simplify, simplify." If it's simple already, examine itand see what it is that is good, maintain that, and then see what is bad, and if it is bad, just pass it by.

By that I mean, I was never much tempted by merchandising and whatnot, because you are then dealing with those guys in the three-piece suits. I love the story of your once talking to Peter Laird about merchandising, and you me one of the "Turtle suits" for the first time. You took an instant disliking to the guy. One of those people you would not allow to pet your dog, let alone invite him to dinner. And Pete looked at you with that very blank look that Pete does so well, and said, "Well, they're all like that!" There's not an amount of money in the world that would compel me to sit in the same room with somebody like that. I passionately disagree with them; I am at the opposite end of the spectrum and dealing with them would diminish what it is I enjoy about Cerebus: the autonomy, and not having to talk to people like that. If I don't have to talk to an editor, I certainly don't want to talk to somebody who is a licensing cop or a senior agent, or whoever it is.

What makes me feel good about Cerebus is working on the book. Working on the actual story. After the first three of four years of doing it, once I had established a kind of "name" in the field, I got to invited to conventions. Somebody was willing to pay my plane fare and my hotel room, and take me out for dinner and agree with everything I said, so that seemed to me like the reason to do it. I got to travel, I got to go to these conventions, I made a lot of money doing sketches and all that... but obviously the novelty went away. Then I realised, "Well, son of a gun, that's not why I do it," because I didn't want to be away from the board any more. Realising I never had to do another comic shop signing, and I never had to do another convention for the rest of my life, that I can just sit and draw my comic book -- I leapt at that chance. That's what I wanted.

Once you realise the creating of the book is everything, then there are very few temptations.

Anything that I agree to, or anything that I go after that I accede to is something that takes me away from the drawing board. Consequently, it has to go on the back burner... But if you start doing licensing, merchandising, translating, and all of those sorts of things, they all have to be accommodated into your day. Then you have to start allocating specific amounts of time... But that's part and parcel of Cerebus being the central thing in my life; the thing I derive the most happiness from; the thing I am best at, and the thing I get the best results out of the effort I put in.

But what led to the decision of compelling all the published issues of Cerebus into graphic novels, or as they have since affectionately been termed, into "pone books".

It was a problem of keeping the issues in print. If you're only reprinting four back issues at a time, what do you do when you get up to Cerebus #40? I forgot what issue was out at the time, but I could just picture this situation as an ongoing nightmare. How do you keep fifteen four-issue volumes in print, simultaneously? And it was also necessary to keep them in print to build up the readership. It may not have been possible to read the whole story at once -- Cerebus has always been a treasure hunt, but you can't make it too much of a treasure hunt, or people are going to be very resistant to the idea of ever starting it.

You began issuing these huge collections before the mainstream publishers, such as DC Comics, began their first experiments with the higher priced 'prestige editions'.

Yes, it was definitely a breakthrough in terms of Cerebus being a twenty-five dollar comic book! [Chuckles] To a great extent, DC was -- and still is -- experimenting with how much you can make people pay for a comic book: How few pages can you get away with, at how high a price? The issue is still not adequately settled, because it does really depend on what it is you're selling.

Yet on sheer aethetic grounds, you clearly asserted the initial parameters under which a graphic novel could -- and perhaps should -- be technically defined.

Well, I thought I did. [Chuckles] But there weren't a lot of people who agreed that I had, and that was the beginning for me of a very isolated time period, from 1986 on, which continues to this day. People are still calling my reprint volumes "phone books", whereas anything that's published that's a hundred pages in length is called a "graphic novel". With a lot of that definition being because there's just nothing else out there that's 500 pages in length. I think there eventually will be, as it becomes obvious with the volume of material going through the stores that there is enough in terms of issues for other creators to collect.

There was a time when you were publishing the works of other cartoonists, for example Stephen Murphy's and Michael Zulli's Puma Blues. What stopped you from pursuing Aardvark-Vanaheim as a publishing house?

Essentially I found myself caught in the trap that you see everywhere with publishers in the direct market. That the people in the office -- the bureaucrats and the functionaries -- are paid a salary, while the creative people are only being paid a percentage of the revenues that are coming in on their books, once the book is done. And theoretically the money comes in to them thirty days later. You end up with a situation where, if you totaled up what the creator made through the course of a year, and matched that against what my office workers were making, it was probably a two-to-one ratio in terms of salary over royalties.

This is a straight forward business, but it is the creator's obligation to make his own book work, to stay in touch with everyone, and to do his own promotion. We would also get a certain amount of flak from the creators that not enough promotion was being done. But when you're barely making enough to pay these two office salaries, there's not a lot of money left over for advertising. And if you're going to do advertising for all these different individuals' book, you're ultimately forced into a situation of doing "company" ads. I never liked that sort of centralisation. And, of course, at that point, I just became one of the artists working for Aardvark-Vanaheim.

Although Cerebus was doing quite well at the time, the other books were always just marginal by comparison. There was just an awareness that a lot of the money that was coming in because of Cerebus was going towards paying the salaries of my two office workers, as well as paying for advertising, and the usual office overhead. What finally ended it was our trying to insure the entire company to replace me if I left, which ultimately proved untenable.

You played an important role in the series of Creator Summits in the late Eighties. What led you to gather a group of primarily self-published comic book creators together?

At the time, business people were always in the superior position. Basically, I was making five times as much money doing things my way as by doing things their way, in terms of dealing with the distributors and the retailers. It just seemed natural to get together a group of people who were reasonably close to the present business situation, and who understood how the market functioned, and to make up a set of rules by which to work. At the time, there were no rules. I wanted to get some input from people whose opinion I respected, to find out just what was the right thing to do here. Ultimately that led to the summit being held in Northampton, Massachusetts, and that led to Scott McCloud coming in with his Creator Bill of Rights.

One of the things I was looking to find an answer for, "Does a creator have the right to chose how he sells his work, and who he sells it to?" Whenever that issue came up with people who weren't creators, there was always this, "Yes, that's a foregone conclusion -- you should sell to whoever you want to in whatever way you want to." But the flip side of their argument was always, "But that's not fair!" There was till a very large degree of animosity between some in attendance saying that "your way was the wrong way," and my saying "my way is the right way", and it seemed really unresolvable at the time. But that was largely because I had retreated from the whole idea of personal appearances as well.

But once I did establish through the summits that I was on pretty strong ground for saying that "I have the right to sell my work the way that I want to sell my work", it no longer seemed necessary to go out and interact with the marketplace. By the beginning of 1989, there was a definite sense that I really didn't have a place here; I was being heralded as the problem, and everything else in the industry apart from what I was doing was fine. So essentially I thought, "We'll just sit back for a couple of years, and since everybody else knows what's best for the direct market, and I'm the one causing trouble, we'll just see how it goes."

Yet in 1992, you did return to making personal appearances, and in fact devoted a good part of your career to purposely interacting with the marketplace. Why did you return?

I essentially came back in once I started seeing that, left to its own devices, the industry was pursuing exactly the wrong course of action. When you consider all the controversy that was raised when Watchmen and The Dark Knight were first coming out, by the time I came back in in 1992 to do essentially a year-long fact-finding mission, all of the promise of Watchmen and The Dark Knight had been frittered away on gimmick covers, the editor as superstar, and massive crossover, year-long storylines that ultimately went nowhere. I found there was a far more receptive audience among the retailers who had felt, if not consciously, at least unconsciously, that things had gone seriously wrong in this business.

But the biggest thing I noticed in the first couple of months of my tour, which kept getting reenforced from that time forward, is that there's a 90-10 split in the direct market. And that's among creators, distributors, retailers, fans, collectors and investors. Ninety percent of the people are happy with the way things are going, or at least are very much adjusted to the fact that this is how things are today. And they don't want to rock the boat, and they are now very interested in new ideas.

Then, there is this newly vocal ten percent who are interested in change, who are no longer content to sit back and say that "Quality material doesn't sell. Only crap sells." And I think we have The Comics Journal to thank a great deal for that being such a widely held view, both among people who want change, and people who don't want change, because it seemed to reinforce both viewpoints.

Among that ten percent, the biggest development for change has been Larry Marder's very enlightened view of the direct link between retailers and creators. The creator who really wants to change things, who wants to see better material sell, who wants to produce better material. Who is not looking to do another line of superheroes; is not looking to do another revisionist take of Green Lantern. Working in tandem with the store owners who would be tickled to death if the next Punisher title just dies on the vine, and the circulation of Love & Rockets triples.

Direct communication is needed between those two forces, not at the expense of the distribution network, but as a way of developing that end of the market. By finding ways of making the better material sell: by actually getting out and pushing the books on the retailer's part, and on the creator's part to produce better material, rather than just capitulating to the market forces by saying, "All they want is crap, so that's all I'm going to write and draw."

We have to get over the notion that everybody is the same in this business. Not all retailers are the same, not all creators, and not all the people working in the distribution system are the same. There are good people at every level, and the more we can stay in communication -- to talk to the people who already have it as an article of faith that change is necessary, that's where the potential lies.


Travis Pelkie said...

This is a great book. Anyone interested in comics who hasn't read it ought to. I'm going to have to check it out from the library again.

Unknown said...

It's definitely a snapshot of the time period. It would be interesting to rank the subjects by Level of Rebelliousness "then and now".

Travis Pelkie said...

Well, I count 22 creators here, and it's quite impressive that most of them are still with us (on this mortal coil and in the comics world) nearly a quarter century later. I count Eisner, Moebius, and Pekar in the no longer with us camp (is Jack Jackson still alive?). Off the top of my head, I think Colleen Doran is the youngest out of the bunch, and she's still got over 3 decades of experience in the field, so that's impressive that so many...not so young anymore creators are still kicking and still creating.

I'd still rank you as most rebellious, Dave!

Anonymous said...

I bought this book when it was new, from Steve Bissette himself. He drew me a nice sketch of Tyrant in the front.

Later that day (or the next, I forget) after the Spawn panel, we were all waiting in line for Todd and Neil. Obviously "knowing his place," Dave was making his way down the line, seeing if anybody wanted any autographs from him instead of waiting in the long line. So I got his autograph on that interview. And I happened to mention that I had all the phone books, in my hotel room, and forgot to bring them in that day.

Which sets Dave on a rant - which was probably very entertaining if it wasn't happening to you - about how stupid you have to be to bring all the phone books to Chicago but forget to bring them to the convention itself. Fast forward a decade, as me and the other Cerebites meet Dave at SPACE (2002 or 2003, I forget) and I accidentally let it slip that I had met him before, but I only got this one book autographed because I had forgotten the phone books, and Dave ranted, etc... So of course Dave picked up on the same rant, pretty much where he left off. Again, very funny if it's not happening to you.

Ok, I'm chuckling as I type this, so even if it is you, it's still funny. Have at it, Dave. Maybe in ten or twenty years I'll learn to stop admitting I was that guy way back when.

Also, this is a very weird coincidence, this book actually appeared in my dreams a couple nights ago. I don't generally remember any part of my dreams, but I do remember this. Rick Veitch was there too. Weird.

ChrisW [who has given up on trying to remember his Google account and is just going to be 'anonymous'.]