Some time early in 1992, when it was still bitterly cold, a bunch of us went down to Boston for Dave Sim’s signing at the Million-Year Picnic. I shared a car with Barry and Kurt Busiek, which meant I kept quiet in the back while they kept up an argument about whether James Bond could strictly speaking be considered a superhero, and for the life of me I can’t remember who was on which side, or why. (I mean, sure, I guess: he’s an iconic figure in a starkly simple, expressionistically drawn moral landscape; more powerful than mortal ken, he lives in a world bent and shaped by the rules of his genre to at once enhance and conform to his role; he has his catchphrases, his signature style, and if he isn’t always wearing a tuxedo, well, the bad guys are usually all wearing the same sort of jumpsuit, so it’s easy to pick him out in a pop art “Where’s Waldo?” fight scene. On the other hand, his underwear is pretty much always under his pants. But I didn’t care to put a dog in this fight then, and I’m only taking it for a walk around the block at the moment. We were, after all, talking about Sim, and Cerebus, and Cerebus isn’t a superhero. So.) —I kept quiet, then, because I didn’t really care, and I didn’t know from Kurt Busiek at all, and I had this secret burning a hole in my backpack.
It’s traditional, after all, to bring something to be signed to a signing, and I had a doozy. The year before, I’d worked as a clerk for New England Comics, and I’d stumbled over a treasure: before he started his aardvark-headed Conan pastiche, Sim worked on a number of freelance art projects, among them the first issue of a Canadian small-press superhero comic called Phantacea. It was about—well, there’s this kid who walked with a couple of orthopædic crutches who really loves Baron Justice comics only his Scottish grandfather (“Laddie, have ye naught to do but read this smut?!”) doesn’t like him reading this garbage because it will give him ideas just like it gave the boy’s father ideas to dress up as a superhero and fight crime as Baron Justice only he doesn’t do that now because he’s the head of security for a mad scientist who’s building some sort of gravity train to alpha Centauri except this Romani master of electromagnetism who helped design the gravity train has decided it’s a misguided effort doomed to disaster and is determined to stop it any way he can even if it means going through the boy’s father to attack the train itself only the boy after he fights a mugger to save a little old lady (“Justice for all!” cries the caption box. “If a cripple can help—why can’t you?”) finds his father’s Baron Justice costume in the attic I think and he decides to put it on and fight crime even though the orthopædic crutches are going to make the whole secret identity thing problematic except oh my God! The train has launched! What will we do! See you next issue, pilgrim!
I don’t think there was a next issue. (Google: oh, wow. There was. There were several. Oh, my. It’s still sort of going on. Oh, goodness.)
Anyway. That’s what I had in my backpack. Phantacea #1.
So we end up at Million-Year Picnic and stand in the long line and the guy ahead of me is asking some really long convoluted question about Cerebus continuity (what had become of the false albatross, maybe), and Dave has signed whatever it was he was going to sign for the guy and he waves him along and it’s my turn. So I reach into my backpack. To his credit, he grinned and rolled his eyes when he saw the oversized bright magenta cover. “I really liked what you did with Jaka’s Story and Melmoth, Mr. Sim,” I said. “But I think I liked your earlier, funnier stuff better.”
Ha ha, right? He suddenly gets this serious look. “You know,” he says, “everybody thinks Woody Allen was kidding when he said that. But he was serious. That really happens. People really do come up to you and say that stuff.” He starts drawing a quick Cerebus head on the inside front cover of Phantacea #1. I make a noncommittal noise, something not unlike “Uh-huh.” The guy who’d been ahead of me says, anyway, about the Conniptins, and Dave looks up at me and says, “You going to let him take up your time?” and I kind of shrugged. I’d pulled off my great joke. I’m lousy meeting people I admire for the first time. My tongue was tied. Dave signed the sketch with a flourish and never got around to answering the guy’s question about Onliu Diamondback variants.
That’s my Dave Sim story. It was funnier then than it is now.
I stuck it out through Guys, looking back, and most of Rick’s Story, which I never got around to finishing. (The Spouse made it through Going Home, I think.) For all his faults (and they are legion), Sim’s the best fucking cartoonist on the North American continent, and up there in the pantheon of Best Ever Anywhere for All Time. His lettering, sure; his unparalleled ear for dialogue and dialect; his spot-on caricatures of Groucho Marx and Mick and Keef; his acerbically satiric edge and the loopy mysticism that kept leaking around the edges, making the world a bigger and weirder place than it had any right to be, to step away from the strictly speaking cartooning portion of the proceedings. His flawless compositions, his fearless bending and melding and splintering of panels, his design sense, his ability to make a whole page—a whole issue, a whole run of issues—work as a tightly considered unit in a staggering variety of styles that juggernauted from belly laughs to wailings and gnashings of teeth. His brilliance in scooping up the last of the Renaissance masters to painstakingly work out the perspective in all his backgrounds and cross-hatch them into things of beauty (Gerhard, take a bow, man; you more than deserve it). His quixotic stand for self-publishing in the face of all else, to step away from the cartooning again, and his not-so-quixotic stand for creators’ rights and the importance of the cartoonist over the importance of the property (and yet, while a lot is made of his influence over self-publishing successes such as Jeff Smith and Terry Moore, not so much is made of the influence his cartooning has had on folks like Alex Robinson, who wears it well). —There’s a simple, beautifully cinematic sequence in Guys that’s just a piece of paper blowing away from Cerebus; the paper stays in the foreground of each panel, and Cerebus and the background drop further and further away from us—it’s simple and wordless and flawless and perfect.
For God’s sake, the man figured out how to letter an echo.
So even if he’d snapped and murdered a busload of nuns, I’d say you ought to have High Society and Church and State and Jaka’s Story and Melmoth on your shelf, you want to be a serious student of comics. Of course, he didn’t snap and murder a busload of nuns. He snapped and started saying women were dark consuming voids who latch onto male lights of reason and suck away their vital essences for nourishment and so men are vastly better than women and here’s the long, painstaking, Ditkoesque proof.
—It’s a little more complicated than that.
There’d always been a tension between Sim the Polemicist and Sim the Novelist in Cerebus. Sim the Novelist used to win, hands down, every time, letting Sim the Polemicist out for a bit of exposition now and then, and otherwise keeping him confined to the Notes from the President and the letters column, where he got up to some mischief now and again, but otherwise stayed mostly out of trouble.
Now, in Jaka’s Story, Sim had indulged himself with illustrated set-pieces written in a rich pastiche of Wildean prose, rather than straightforward comics, as a technique to distance Jaka’s privileged past apart from the moment-to-moment comics storytelling of the all-too-quotidian present. Some think this worked really well and some think it stopped the story dead, but it was all still the work of Sim the Novelist. It wasn’t until the metafictional set-pieces of Reads, where he interspersed an argument and a bloody fight scene that lasted for issues with long text pieces—at first, a roman à clef of the comics industry staring a certain Victor Reid, whose creative life collapses when he sells out to a big publisher and gets married; then a not-so-roman with an even thinner clef: evidently autobiographical essays from the soi-disant Viktor Davis, who began to tell us what it was like, doing Cerebus: roads taken, and not. —Now, here, Sim the Polemicist was starting to leak through, but it was at least as a technique okay. Reads was the apotheosis of Mothers and Daughters, his blockbuster follow-up to the relatively quiet, contained novel-and-epilogue of Jaka’s Story and Melmoth. Old characters going back years were brought back into the plot, and threads left dangling for years were picked back up and held, tantalizingly, just out of reach. Reads begins with the four prime movers of the story-that’s-finally-being-revealed (Cerebus, Astoria, Cirin, and Suenteus Po—three aardvarks, and a human, and if you have to ask at this point, don’t bother) finally gathered together (again for the first time!) in one room; it ends with the aforementioned fight scene. Everything in the comic book was finally coming together. The momentum was almost unbearable. It only made sense that Sim the Polemicist was being sucked in along with it.
And some of the effects were brilliant—backstage comics industry gossip linked with the philosophical themes of freedom and creation; metafictional leaks and linkages between the prose bits and the comics they interrupted—but most notably the trick he pulled in issue 183: he started to write about how he’d been working at Cerebus one night in 1980, about a year after he’d announced that the comic would run for 300 issues to the general scoffing disbelief of the industry.
He [the Viktor Davis pieces are written in the third person; again, a distancing technique] was in the middle of lettering “Blinky Boar and the Strawberry Patch” and humming “Strawberry Fields Forever” to himself when the local radio station interrupted its programming for a news bulletin.
“Possibilities for a Beatles reunion were dashed at eleven o’clock tonight when John Lennon was shot to death outside his Manhattan apartment building…”
That night, Viktor Davis decided that Cerebus would not run for three hundred issues. He decided that Cerebus would run for two hundred issues. Viktor Davis decided to keep this a secret, telling no one for fourteen years.
He would not announce it until issue one hundred and eighty-three, a year and five months before the end: November 1995.
It doesn’t work now, of course, since you know and I know he made it to 300 and right on time, too: March, 2004. But then: I yelled, I think. I gasped for breath. I’d been rabbit-punched. —What follows is almost a page describing the roller-coaster like motion of the ground beneath the reader’s feet, a recreation in prose of some of the trippy, looping effects he’d used in comics, when Cerebus had spoken with Suenteus Po in a magical, illusionary world. It was an impressive linkage of my memories of the comic with what I was reading right then with the very physicality of what I was feeling at that moment as I read: a truly magical evocation of presque vu, about the highest effect you can claw out of a reader.
“I was just kidding,” he said. “Cerebus goes to issue three hundred. Just like I’ve always said. March 2004.”
The reader and Viktor Davis regarded one another for several minutes, without speaking, across the strange, lighted rectangle. Calmly, Viktor Davis withdrew his pack of cigarettes from his hip pocket and selected one. Raising the lighter in his right hand, he lit the cigarette in a quick, easy motion.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, still smiling through a dissipating cloud of smoke.
“Don’t you trust me?”
And then he says, “Bang.” Back in the comic, Cerebus looks up. “Something fell,” he thinks—the two most freighted words in the whole comic. And then, BANG!
It was all about to come together. Everything. The whole shebang so far. Questions were about to be Answered. And given what he’d just pulled off, I’d’ve followed him—Sim the Novelist, Viktor Davis, Sim the Polemicist, whichever—I’d’ve followed him over a cliff. I thought.
What he did, what Sim the Polemicist did, what Viktor Davis did, was rewrite the end of Church and State. That book ends with a creation myth, of the female light of creation being embraced and then smothered by the male void, squeezed until she shatters, sprinkling stars throughout the night sky. Now, though, Davis tells us that it’s a male light, shining bravely, and a female void, smothering sweetly.
And then, in the infamous issue 186, he tells us why.
Unbidden, the image of the Cerebus Theatre swam to the surface of Viktor Davis’ awareness. He turned away from his typewriter and allowed the picture to coalesce in his mind’s eye.
The Cerebus readership was there, composed in some (small? large?) measure of females with their male housepets. He squinted, endeavouring to see if any male was chafing at the invisible conduits and metaphorical tubing which drained his life, his essence, his energy as surely and as effectively as any fictional vampire. Cats’ eyes gleamed in the darkness, filled with malice. A couple of rows back an obese brunette was stripping away chunks of brain tissue from a thin, pale youth with a spotted face. His head lolled against his shoulder in her direction, his face radiant with ecstasy. He turned to her, his eyes half-lidded. He smiled and mouthed, “I love you.” She smiled back at him, indulgently. His eyes closed once more. She stuck out her sandpaper tongue, dotted with brains and blood, in Viktor Davis’ direction and then cackled loudly. The youth giggled quietly to himself.
To the far left, in the front row, the white husk of a heavy-set man in his early thirties squirmed in the direction of his Lady and Master, his features reflecting pain, confusion and fear. She held his forearm in front of her as if they were bound, one to the other, but in such a way that she was also holding him slightly apart from her. Viktor Davis could see that the fellow had been a quick meal—little more than a snack, by the looks of things. Traces of dried brain-matter, hard and uninviting, encrusted what little there was left of the top of his head. She looked very, very hungry. Every few seconds she turned around in her seat, the hunger in her gaze sweeping across the rows to her immediate rear. Females touched by that insatiable stare hunched a little closer to their own housepets, a menacing growl rumbling low in their throats.
Viktor Davis turned back to his typewriter.
“There is no cure for willful stupidity,” he typed and then sat back, cigarette in hand, to contemplate the words.
There’s more. You can read it for yourself if you like.
Issue 186 became something of a flashpoint. You either stuck with Cerebus in spite of it, because of everything else, or you dropped it like a hot potato. You got into knock-down, drag-out fights with people who did the opposite of what you did, if you were so inclined. It might seem these days as if almost everyone dropped Cerebus then and there, but that’s not quite right: things polarized between “I can’t read anything by such an evident misogynist” and “You shouldn’t let his admittedly odious philosophy detract from what he’s done as an artist.” And I’d have to align myself with the latter camp: certainly, I’m willing to put up with all sorts of backstage bullshit I’d never countenance at a cocktail party, say, so long as I get a moment of transcendent beauty every now and then. And Sim had delivered those, in spades. So I stuck with it: we, rather, since it was a communal house at the time, and comics were largely purchased collectively, and most of us wanted to see where he’d go, and how. We’d come this far. (Surely he couldn’t be serious, some of us said, even though we knew we were probably kidding ourselves. Surely this is some sort of joke. “What’s the matter?” said Viktor Davis. “Don’t you trust me?”)
But almost all of us have since fallen away. Because it became clear: he’d built up that momentum not to finally tie it all together, but to sweep the board clean and start over: to clear the clutter he’d been working with and start poking around in a brand new worldview. Sim the Novelist, concerned with character and plot and world-building, had inexplicably surrendered the field to Sim the Polemicist, concerned with axes, and their grinding. He was rewriting. Revising. Revisioning. And his new worldview was based on mean, mean-spirited, and above all stupid logic:
“Men like Cars. Viktor Davis doesn’t like Cars. Viktor Davis is a Man.”
These observations were all true statements. Was it a syllogism? Or was there another name for it? Viktor Davis was uncertain. To the Reasoning Mind and to the Emotional Void, the fundamental structure was sound. They were all true statements, though they appeared contradictory. Using those three statements as a template, Viktor Davis had spent much of his adult life attempting to Reason with the Female Emotional Void. In each case, whatever success he had had (and he had had very little success) had been temporary. He considered his lack of success to be central to the Issue at Hand. Within the context of the Female Emotional Void, no general observation could be considered sound if there existed an anecdotal refutation.
One hardly knows where to begin.
At least Astoria got out while the getting was good.
Because that’s one of the stickier ironies: Sim, misogynist, is responsible for one of the greatest female comics characters ever: Astoria, the political machinator, the power behind Cerebus’ initial rise to power. Cynical, manipulative, self-assured, confident, competent, savvy, imperious, arrogant, idealistic, committed to fighting for women’s rights as part of a larger battle for equality and liberty, she’s the opposite pole to Cerebus’ capricious, hot-headed, stubborn, foolish, oblivious plunge through the plots a-swirl about them. In the climactic, board-sweeping confrontation of Reads, before it dissolves into the (brutal, pointed) fight scene, she has her apotheosis: “Po was right,” she says,
If I’m honest with myself, I’ve only ever wanted power for its own sake… Ostensibly, I wanted to destroy Cirin. As her protégée, I came to despise everyone she kept tabs on—everyone who she felt was a threat to her… I married Lord Julius solely to set up a Kevillist empire from within Palnu… I seduced Artemis and used him to execute matriarchal sympathisers… I seduced her son and made him a glorified errand boy… When you turned up in Iest, I engineered your rise to power. I surrounded you with Kevillists and our symbols. Ultimately, I even became the Western pontiff… A short while ago, the entire city bowed down to me—hailed me as the messiah.
I haven’t even made a dent in her—
Power over others is an illusion, she decides; “a stifling, insulating, frustrating practical joke from Terim… or Tarim. What does it really matter whether it’s a god or a goddess who’s laughing at you?” She remembers a daydream she used to have, as a little girl: a little church, open to the skies. She has several thousand crowns, enough to last her the rest of her life, to build her little house. (She will be mindful of death, and disinclined to long journeys; she will have ships and carriages, but no place to go.) —And with that simple declaration, Astoria walks out of the room and out of the dispute and out of the comic book, never to return.
And if she does return, at some point in those later issues I haven’t seen yet, I don’t want to know. Because I like to think that this simple little goodbye is Sim the Novelist also taking his bow. He’s done. The Age of the Polemicist is at hand.
(That’s on a good day. On a bad day, I think Sim the Novelist is a bastard. I think he typed that line up there, “There is no cure for willful stupidity,” knowing that no Polemicist would ever have the gumption to turn anything he said back on himself—that’s one of the weaknesses of polemic. Sim the Novelist typed one last line, a poison pill, and then he faded to black. Bye-bye.)
We used to sit around wondering what this day would be like. (Idly. Very occasionally. We had other things to do, too, you know.) We’d lock ourselves away for the better part of a week, we figured, with a stack of the Cerebus phone books to hand, and we’d read it through, start to finish, 6,000 pages of comics from a single creator, telling a single story, more or less.
And here we are, in March 2004. He kept his word. We should have trusted him, in that much, at least.
But I’m not rushing out to buy it. We haven’t bought a collection in ages. And I don’t know that I ever will, either. Don’t get me wrong: there’s maybe a handful of people on this planet who have ever worked in comics at his level. His work as a fantasist and a satirist and, yes, a novelist is astonishing. But that’s not enough—because he’s also a dreadful, didactic bore, a muzzy-headed chop-logician with the ever-shifting convictions of his courage. He lost the fight that mattered, with himself; in a very real sense, Sim didn’t make it to 300. —But he made one hell of an indelible mark on comics along the way.
Here’s one for you, then, Mr. Sim.
Even if I do like your earlier, funnier stuff better.