Saturday 8 October 2016

Dave Sim: The Fantasy Advertiser Interview

The following interview appeared in the UK fanzine Fantasy Advertiser #90 in April 1985. At that time Dave Sim would have been 29 years old and Cerebus #73 would have been on sale.
Fantasy Advertiser #90 (1985)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard

This interview was conducted by Martin Locke over a year ago; it has been held for so long in the hope that a second part would arrive. However, presumably due to the recent split in the company, this has not materialised, so I decided to go ahead with what we have. ~ Martin Skidmore

According to my researches, Dave, you were born in May 1956 in Hamilton, and moved to Kitchener two years later, taking your parents with you.

Yes, they were unwilling captives, but I was the only one in the family with a driver's license at the time, so they didn't have much of a choice in the matter.

I get the impression that you started Cerebus so that you would have control over the fate of your work, after seeing too much of it vanish into limbo, or appear in a much less prestigious format than you'd been led to expect.

Not to mention money. I didn't get paid. Artwork was never returned; it was returned without cardboard liners so it looked like an accordion. I was always the "and others" in the advertisments -- "Gene Day, Jim Craig, John Byrne, Frank Cirocco... and others". I love whining in print; makes me feel like a real pro.

Is there any connection at all between the T. Casey Brennan-scripted story that you drew, A Boy And His Aardvark in Power Comic #1 and Cerebus? Not that Dandy looks like even the earliest version of Cerebus...

Someday I'm going to write the story of how my life is interwoven with Casey -- The Aleister Crowley of Comics -- that was the first story I ever drew an aardvark in. It was inked by Jim Friel who was one of our first distributors. Long, strange story. Remind me to tell you some other time.

And then, on December 16, 1976, Dave was working in the local comic shop, Now & Then Books, when in came Denise Loubert to enquire about the shop selling copies of a fanzine to be called Cerberus, give or take a letter or two.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Or all downhill from there; I'm not sure which.

It's just as well that the fanzine was prepared first, with Cerebus as mascot -- or else the originals for Cerebus #1 might have been sent, along with payment, to that far away printer who... er... is taking his time over finishing his work on that particular job.

No, no. This guy printed -- or didn't print -- his stuff in a garage. He'd never have been able to handle a job as big as Cerebus #1.

Was it a difficult decision, to decide to publish Cerebus yourselves? Particularly after Mike Friedrich [editor/publisher of Star*Reach] had turned the character down as lacking commercial potential?

That's all right -- I never respected Mike's opinions. No, that's a joke. Actually I didn't expect Cerebus to make it based on the quality of my work, so much as on the basis of coming out on schedule every two months. Remember, I had worked for Faerie Star, Orb, Star*Reach -- all people with "flexible" publishing schedules. Cerebus was a gesture of frustration on my part. I swore I would put three issues out on schedule, and then decide whether or not to keep going. My suspicions were correct, fans will buy anything on schedule in greater numbers than anything published when the editors can get it together. Laissez-faire publishing theories killed the undergrounds.

You started with a 2,000 print run, which is one good reason why the first issue is so rare now, give or take a few hundred counterfeits. Has the circulation climbed fairly steadily, or gone up and down, or zoomed straight through the roof, even?

It's held fairly steady in a wave pattern. Great sales in winter, ordinary sales in spring and fall and "eat tasty death, aardvark people" orders in the summer. No, seriously, orders always go down for us in the hot months (cold months if you're reading this in Australeeyer). The exact opposite of every other comic. Very strange.

Actually, I only found out recently that actual sales go down in the fall. It's just the orders (made up basically in the summer) that go down in the summer. From what our distributors tell me, we are not the only ones caught in this sales pattern.

How do sales of Aardvark-Vanaheim's other titles compare with Cerebus?

Nothing sells as well as Cerebus, but you should probably ask Deni if you want a little hype on that question. I consider Journey, Neil and Strange Brew brilliant projects by brilliant creators. How they sell is not really my concern.

No hype, just some facts. Right now, Neil the Horse and Journey have been doing quite well. With only five issues out, they are selling eight and ten thousand respectively. I didn't expect the kind of steady climb on circulation that Journey has had, or the possibility of Neil The Horse going to colour, when we began them. But then, those kinds of surprises are always nice.

How big is Aardvark-Vanaheim these days? Presumably the publishing side is too large for Deni to handle alone, or even aided by Dave?

Deni's never really been aided by Dave. Deni and Dave are aided by Karen. She fills in my blacks on the artwork and does all of Deni's work for her. That's a joke. Christ, British fans have no sense of humour. All three of us have very straightforward jobs, so I don't think we'll need to expand our "staff" much in the next while.

For those of you into "official titles", Karen is "Assistant to the Publisher", which everyone knows means "she who does all the real work".

Was there ever a temptation to switch to colour printing? I know it's not really necessary when your hero is grey, with a black waistcoat, but there must have been people who swore it would quadruple your circulation.

In today's market it doubles your income, doubles your expenses and doubles the production time. I haven't seen a process yet for doing colour in comics that didn't suck the money with glee. I like to be able to see what the drawing looks like instead of seeing them through a multi-coloured layer or murk. No. No temptation here. Other projects, but not Cerebus itself.

Does Cerebus ever surprise you, by refusing to follow the plot?

Oh, all the time. All the time. Cerebus is a character of nearly limitless inertia. That's why he stayed in Iest so long. It was a chore to pry him away from Michelle -- the Countess Detin. In both cases it was a matter of a female character greatness holding him in her orbit for an extended period. As the writer of a character who has this incredible need for a mother substitute, these situations present a real challenge, if you want the character to move on. Notice that Cerebus is trying to cast Jaka in a mother role in #6 -- very vulnerable, lying with his head in her lap, etc. In #36 he wants to be a father substitute. Story of his life -- he either wants to be taken care of or take care of someone. I'm probably going to keep him away from female characters because it only intensifies his natural inertia. Every time his life gets screwed up, though, he starts looking for Mama, so it's going to be tough.

Cerebus himself has a curiously arranged face -- if he yells, his month is as high up as his two-in-one eye, just under his ear. How does it get there?

Muscle tension and india ink.

A lot of Cerebus characters are modeled on media personalities, like Foghorn Leghorn (and Elric) for Elrod, Yosemite Sam for the Fleagle Brothers, Groucho Marx for Lord Julius, and many others, some of whom a British reader wouldn't be likely to catch... is this a convenient short-hand, to help us to hear the different voices as you do? I think I have heard it said that there's a touch of Bugs Bunny's confidence in Cerebus himself, though Deni has gone on record as saying that Cerebus has your voice...

Cerebus has George C. Scott's Patten voice. And you can tell him I said so.

On the other hand, are there ever moments when you feel that a human hero would be easier to move through the 300-issue grand plan? Is the intrinsic humour of an anthropomorphised aardvark ever a drawback, instead of an asset?

It's tough drawing him drinking, because the snout gets in the way. I remember Charles Schulz saying he can't draw the Peanuts characters holding something over their heads, because their arms are too short. No, I consider Cerebus, like Howard The Duck, to be a symbol of alienation. We're all "Funny animals in a world of humans" to a degree. I feel that way a lot.

I noticed in your Comics Journal interview that you mentioned a number of ploys which would boost your circulation -- Elrod on every cover, the Moon Roach in every issue, a Lord Julius mini-series. It was the High Society storyline that was keeping you in line then... is the Wolveroach plot designed as a circulation booster? And why not a Lord Julius mini-series from A-V, outside the Cerebus numbering? He must have led an interesting life, after all.

All in good time. I'm probably going to be doing Cerebus-related comics for A-V, in colour (so much for integrity), now that I don't have a wife to pay attention to. Productivity as a cure for depression or aimlessness was something I learned from Gene [Day]. You lucky fans, you.

Is it a wrench to part with your original pages, or do you lose your proprietary feelings towards them once they're published?

It's hard to form an attachment for eight hundred-odd pages of artwork. It's just too much to appreciate. I'd rather someone own two or three pieces he'll appreciate owning than leave them in a pile in the closet. I produce twenty pages a month, so it's not like I'm going to run out of them or anything.

Radio shows, animation projects, cuddly toys, portfolios... has anyone ever tried to talk you into a Cerebus newspaper strip, based on your Beavers experience?

Yes. A major American syndicate. I'm waiting to hear back from them on the samples I sent.

We've come to an end of the Swords Of Cerebus series, except for the mammoth High Society number... will there be a new outlet for the off-trail collaborations that they've featured? It would be nice to see other inkers over your pencils, or other pencillers under your inks, on an occasional basis.

Probably in the Cerebus-related books I mentioned wanting to do through A-V. They will appear under the name of Tap-Dance Studios, which will be me and anyone else I work with on a comics project. Watch for us.

Who are your major influences, Dave, both as a writer and artist?

As a writer, Dostoevsky, Harlan Ellison, Robertson Davies, Jules Feiffer, David Halberstam. As an artist, Jules Feiffer, Al Williamson, Foster and my two "biggies", Adams and Wrightson.

Have you any favourite classic comic stories you recommend in particular?

Master Race by Bernie Krigstein, Hostilman, The Oddball and The Lonely Machine by Jules Feiffer, The Man by Vaughn Bode, Rowlf by Richard Corben, The Dreamberry Tales by Wendy Pini, Big If by Kurtzman, A Contract With God by Eisner, anything by Toth, Maus by Art Spiegelman, A View From Without by Neal Adams, The Black Cat by Wrightson.

What do you think of the state of the direct sale comic arena at the moment? There's an awful lot of "product" being put onto the shelves these days.

Yeah. Yeah, there is. No-one will admit it, though. Ask any company or company man and they aren't glutting the market with superhero crap. The other guys are. We all delude ourselves in different ways, I guess.

I would like to point out that A-V is doing "it's share" by virtually doubling our output with two new titles coming out next year. But them, with two separate households, it gets more expensive to run a company, and we've all got to eat, right?

Mike Gold said recently that at First they see a couple of dozen treatments every week for new comics, some from big-name pros. Do a lot of these arrive on the Aardvark-Vanaheim doormat as well?

Doorstep. We use them for a doormat when they get here. Just kidding. Yeah, a lot.

What do you look for in a treatment? Is it different from what Mike Gold, or David Scroggy, or Jim Shooter even, would hope to find?

Humour. If it makes me or Deni laugh or both of us, you've got a sale.

Has it been a big step, Deni, to publish books by people other than Dave?

Yes. It was probably the biggest  decision I've made, business-wise, since I decided not to look for another full-time job, and "just" take care of Cerebus. Personally, it's fun working with different people for the very reason that they are different. But Cerebus will always be my main concern at A-V.

Is self-publication the answer for a lot of people, putting their own money on the line? It's worked out pretty well for you, and for Wendy and Richard Pini.

Depends on if you want long-term or short-term money. In the short term you'll make out better at Marvel. In the long term you make more if you own the company.

Helps if you are a businessman or have a partner who is.

Does Cerebus have many female readers?

Yes, God bless 'em. It's a book about relationships in a market that is wall-to-wall power fantasies for adolescent boys. Any port in a storm, right, ladies?

The Cerebus/X-Men team-up strikes me as full of potential, and a wonderful way to get more people aware of the earthpig... but do you have misgivings about tying your character, and your 6,000-page story, in with Marvel, even peripherally?

No, no. Not at all. I want to have fun. I want to have a good time. It sounds like fun. I don't write full outlines very well since I never know how a Cerebus issue goes until I have it done. If I can get a story down on paper we'll be off and running. No, I'd have Cerebus meet Fidel Castro if I would come up with a suitable story-line.

Do you read many comics these days?


Uh-um. Yes I do. Primarily X-Men, Teen Titans, Eclipse, Scorpio Rose, Dr. Strange, American Flagg, and Mars (which I really love!) Anything written by Chris Claremont because of his portrayal of female characters.

Dave, you've a reputation for being pretty outspoken about Marvel and their output at times. Are they getting better, or worse?

They are what they are. Same as DC. It's very easy for Cerebus artist Dave Sim to say he'd never had any trouble with either company. They don't exactly brow-beat me, y'know? I need them about as much as they need me. So we basically make use of each other. The situation (naturally) changes quite a bit when you need them more than they need you. I mean, it's a business. Approach it from that standpoint and don't romanticize it and everything is relatively okay.

If circumstances forced you into it, which Marvel or DC title would you be happiest to take over, as writer and artist?

US1 and Atari Force. I don't know. Maybe I could revive Binky or something.

Returning to Cerebus, how is he doing in the overseas markets now?

Fine. He won four hundred crowns playing Diamondback in Ress last week.

Seriously, we are happy with the distribution, but I would like to see, or course, a bit of expansion into the European market. Know anyone reliable who would want translation rights? It's just not something we push as actively as we should.

Are there any other special projects coming along, after the X-Men?

Crikey. I hope so.

And to finish with, what can you tell us about things to look forward to in Cerebus in the next year?


Deni and Dave, thank you very much.


Interested in obscure low print-run UK comic fanzines from the 1970s and 1980s? Look no further than Classic UK Comic Zines, where PDFs of ultra-rare fanzines are being posted for free! Great nostalgic fun for all!


Travis Pelkie said...

Cool stuff. Have we ever seen the "comic strips" alluded to here?

And man, don't give me a link to old fanzines! I'm going to have to discipline myself and not fall down that rabbit hole!

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Huh! I never knew there might have been a Cerebus comic strip. I wonder if Dave still has the samples he sent to the syndicate?

-- Damian

Michael Grabowski said...

It's hard to take most of Dave's responses seriously--including the one about having sent Cerebus strips to a syndicate--but this one is interesting in light of the Cerebus Archive in all its forms:

Is it a wrench to part with your original pages, or do you lose your proprietary feelings towards them once they're published?

It's hard to form an attachment for eight hundred-odd pages of artwork. It's just too much to appreciate. I'd rather someone own two or three pieces he'll appreciate owning than leave them in a pile in the closet. I produce twenty pages a month, so it's not like I'm going to run out of them or anything.

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

It's been interesting to see Dave's arguments as he's changed his mind on keeping the original artwork. In the Guide to Self-Publishing he said, "What's the use of keeping all the art to your first three issues if you can't afford to publish your fourth issue and you go out of business?" Now he regrets not keeping the artwork as "bad custodianship" of his own work.

There's a cautionary tale right there. Dave said that as long as you have the negatives, the original artwork is just raw material. Today we might think we're fine with our 2,400 dpi scans -- until 2019, when anything less than 124,000 dpi looks like crap.

When Dave is done with his current work (ha!) and has some spare time and lots of spare money (double ha!), he might consider a "Cerebus Archive Original Art Buy-Back Campaign", to return as many original pages as possible to a publically-accessible archive.

-- Damian

Unknown said...

Damian - Anywhere outside the Feminist Theocracy and I'll consider it. Oh wait. There ISN'T anywhere outside the Feminist Theocracy.

My bad! :)