Sunday, 30 December 2007

Dave Sim - The Song, Not The Singer

A few days ago I had the most exciting comics-related news of the year - Dave Sim has announced his new project, Glamourpuss. Given that in the four years since Cerebus ended, his only comic work has been a couple of jam pages with Chet Brown, a few pages of webcomic about the life of an obscure actress, and a co-authored script for an issue of Gun Fu, I'm excited to finally read some new work from the person I consider the single greatest comic creator ever.

Others are not so enthusiastic. Pretty much every reaction I've seen online to this has been along the lines of "Who cares about David Simms? He's a misogynistic misogynist. His comics must be like Chick tracts or something."

Now this irritates me. Not because of the people reacting that way - had I only read Sim's interviews, blog or text pieces I would have absolutely no desire to listen to anything he had to say. Even the most cursory reader of any prose he's written after about the early 1990s would come to the conclusion that he's both severely mentally ill (not in itself a reason to ignore someone - my day job is on a psychiatric ward in a hospital and I know that mental illness does not preclude someone from being intelligent, witty or perceptive, and may even give people perspectives others don't have, perspectives that are worth having) and also a rather unpleasant person (something that's apparently not true in person, but seems to be the case with his writing persona). Pulling my copy of his Collected Letters 2004 vol 1 from the shelf and opening it at random I find:

Satan, like Lucifer, was an ill-advised escalation of hostilities on the part of YHWH, like Leviathan. I think God was happy to keep it on the level of "an adversary" which is what opposing spirits were called. As in the way that Samuel's mother was childless for years because of "her adversary". YHWH was aware of God and God was saying that there is no question that there is only one God. Let's be patient and see how the whole thing hatches out.

And so on. Sim as he comes across in print is dogmatic, rude, paranoid, believes women to be subhuman and evil, and holds political and religious views which, to the extent that they're comprehensible at all, are totally incompatible with humanity. He's read the Bible as a struggle between Good and Evil and thought that Evil sounded like a good idea.

Which is what infuriates me, because he's destroying the reputation of the finest creative mind of his generation, and I'm sick of trying to defend someone who I find (as an essayist - again, no judgement of him as a human being implied) utterly repellent and inimical to everything I hold dear. But I have to, because he's that good.

Even was Sim's comic writing as bad as his prose would imply, I would still want to read anything the man did just because of his technical skill. Sim is one of the best artists working in comics today, a master mimic who can 'do' any style - a Sim page will often contain an Alex Raymond photorealistic character next to a Mort Drucker caricature next to a perfect Eddie Campbell figure - as well as having his own distinctive style, and do it in such a way that they inhabit the same world - the different shapes, inking styles and degrees of realism complement each other rather than appearing incongruous. (This is of course aided in Cerebus by Gerhard's wonderful backgrounds, by far the most detailed black & white line art I've seen in comics, but with that detail all being there for a deliberate aesthetic effect. I can't even imagine how much effort it must have taken for Gerhard to produce work of that quality day after day for nearly twenty years, and hitting pretty much every deadline).

Sim's layouts have also always been hugely inventive, from the early "Mind Games" issue (which prefigured the last issue of Promethea by more than twenty years) through the dream sequences in Guys and the hallucinatory sequences in Rick's Story to the Citizen Kane establishing shot in The Last Day. On every single page in at least the last 220 or so issues of Cerebus , just looking at the page you can see that it is the creation of people who are working full out to make the best comic possible - every single element is very obviously the result of a conscious creative choice, never falling back on cliche except for parodic effect.

And even Sim's detractors praise his lettering. While he's not as versatile as a Todd Klein (he tends to stick to one look for his hand-lettering, a blocky but very readable look that can be traced ultimately to Spirit letterer Abe Kanegson, and is limited enough that he had to get Rick Veitch to letter 'his' dialogue parts when Veitch appeared as a character in Guys and Going Home) he's almost unique in his ability to integrate the lettering with the page, having it become a physical object with which his characters can interact. And in a medium where random
words are often emphasised with no regard for the natural stresses of the English language, Sim's use of different sizes and shapes of letters to accentuate the different speech patterns of his characters opens up huge areas that have been almost completely unexplored otherwise. The Mrs Thatcher scenes in Jaka's Story (some of the best comics work I've ever seen) gain much of their intensity through the lettering, which evokes perfectly the mix of harsh menace and soothing insincere gentility that were so recognisable in the real Thatcher.

But despite this, and amazingly considering his prose work, it is as a writer that Sim most excels. While those who only know him for his prose might expect him to turn out Chick tracts, but possibly with less subtlety and more outlandish opinions, he's possibly second only to Alan Moore in writing ability in the comics medium. I've written before about the work I consider his best (and quite possibly the best graphic novel ever created - certainly the best I've ever read by quite a margin), Jaka's Story, but that one more than any other sums up just how different Sim's comic writing is from his essay persona.

In Cerebus we're time and again shown unreliable narratives - be it Oscar's book in Jaka's Story, Cerebus' misunderstanding and drunken recounting of his time on 'Juno' in Guys, the narrative by 'Suenteus Po' in High Society, the Judge's monologue in Church & State, 'Dave's description of what Jaka is doing in Minds, Rick's book in Rick's Story, Cerebus' own account of his life story in Latter Days - the more authoritative someone is presented as being, the more their account of events is thrown into question by later revelations. This appears to have originally been inspired by Robert Anton Wilson (a huge influence on the early volumes of Cerebus, though from comments he's made since Sim seems not to have fully understood his writing) but Sim carries it on throughout the story, even up to the very last pages of the comic.

If Cerebus is 'about' anything, it's about how we can never know the truth about anything, only a biased and inaccurate viewpoint which is missing crucial elements of the big picture. In a sense it is lucky for Sim that the story ends where it does, because the only logical place to go from the revelations in Latter Days is to undercut them, just as he does with every other Big Truth revealed throughout the story, and of course the religious ideas in Latter Days are in fact those Sim currently holds.

Although maybe that accounts for his current dogmatism - Cerebus is also, at least in part, a record of Sim's search for capital-T Truth, and the fact that it ends before he could undercut his current worldview maybe helped set those views in his mind. Maybe if Cerebus had continued Sim would be just as loudly proclaiming a Gospel According To Andrea Dworkin and calling for all men to be castrated.

Because one of the things that makes Cerebus - and Sim as a comic writer - work is that it is true. Not literally true, but artistically true. Throughout the years he did the comic, Sim tried to present the world as he saw it as accurately as he could (within the confines of a humorous fantasy story). And that it is the world as he saw it is the saving grace of Cerebus, and why Sim can write comics when he appears to be almost incapable at this point of rational thought.

If you read Sim's prose work (don't - it's badly written, mean spirited and generally unpleasant, except when he's talking about neutral subjects like comic creation) the problems with his thinking generally boil down to two. The first, common to autodidacts, is that he will try to make authoritative statements on subjects that he knows very little about, and ends up looking a fool to anyone who's studied those subjects in any depth (which is why he can write so cogently about comic creation or creators - he knows what he's talking about there).

The second, related, one is to look for patterns where none exist. What Sim does is take one observation ("That reporter from The Onion seemed unusually competent") and then build on it a huge superstructure that the observation just can't support ("The reporter was probably so competent because YooHWHoo wanted me to be impressed, so I'd fall in love with her and marry her and renounce anti-feminism and become a feminist-Marxist-homosexualist-atheist member of the conspiracy"). This usually involves imputing motives to people that they simply don't have. But crucially the actual original observation is accurate. In fact, because he's looking for details to support his hypothesis, the observation might be more detailed than anyone else could make.

So while Sim doesn't appear to understand how other people think, he's a keen observer of how those people behave. While the motives he gives in interviews for Jaka's behaviour make no sense when compared to real human beings, at the same time you know that the character as portrayed thus far would show her ringless hand when reaching Sand Hill Creek. And while Sim appears to regard Bear in Guys as a largely admirable figure, while I think of him as a revolting boor, both of us would, I think, agree on how the character would behave in a given situation, because he's drawn accurately. I may not like it that many groups of men, placed together in a bar without women, would behave like the men in Guys, but I don't deny that that is the way many men do behave.

Sim would make a terrible novelist, because the novel depends in large part on showing characters' thought processes, and Sim just doesn't get how people think. But comics show rather than tell, and Sim uses almost no thought bubbles. The only time we're treated to anyone's thought processes, it's either Cerebus himself (who has almost no inner life and who is, anyway, an anthropomorphic aardvark), Rick (who is clearly presented as extremely mentally ill) or for too short a time to make any judgement. If we were shown Jaka's thought processes they would be along the lines of "Ha ha! I will do this because I am a spoiled brat bitch who is controlled by the devil and I will destroy Cerebus' Male Light with my evil female void!", but seeing her act we can form our own opinions - we're just being shown the facts, not the author's interpretation of them.

In fact in some ways Sim's assigning of importance to details no-one else would notice, while a limitation for him as a thinker, adds veracity to the comic. There are times when a tiny detail ( like 'something fell') takes on an importance in the comic out of all proportion to its importance to the story itself, but they all feel right artistically, because Sim's thought out a huge superstructure which goes unsaid in the comic itself but informs every detail of it.

So I'm eagerly counting the days to the release of Glamourpuss 1, and expect it to be among the best comics I read this year.

Now if only that arsehole Dave Sim would stop promoting it, I might not feel ashamed to walk into the shop and ask for it.

15 comments:

random link hunter said...

Though not in the same caliber of creator as Sim. I often feel the same way about Chuck Dixon. I love his gritty non-superhero work and usually admire about half the stuff he does in capes and spandex as well. (He is also one hell of an ebay auctioneer and is worth stalking on there for original art and old comics)
But damn it embarrasses the hell out of me to read the things he says in interviews! I just want to bury my head in the sand and forget I like the guys writing.

At least with guys like Morrison or Moore, you can accept the non-traditional religions and socialogical ideas as charming quirks that don't harm anyone. But sexism, homophobia, and almost suicidal contempt for your fanbase really hurt guys like Sim and Dixon.

Matthew said...

Andrew, thanks for posting this. I think there may be a re-appreciation of Cerebus separate from Sim in the future. I've been talking to a lot of fellow comics fans and a lot of people recognize how damn good his books are, despite the author's intent towards the end, and I think your description of Dave Sim's writing facility (someone who understands how people act if not why) gives me hope for "Glamourpuss." It could be great despite the gulf between my interpretation of what's going on and Sim's.

Also amusingly, have you seen his promo photos on the website? He's clearly trying to take some "goofy Dave Sim" slant to his image. I hope this effort doesn't result in a forced comic effort to be acceptable to 'Marxist-feminists'.

Anyway. I found your essay really insightful and interesting. I do have one question, do you include the text passages in Cerebus as part of the prose Sim stuff that's worth avoiding?

Chazbot said...

Fantastic post. I was inspired to write my own thoughts on Sim and link back to your site. I think his Cerebus books will stand the test of time, long after his essays and ideas about women are (rightfully) forgotten.

John said...

I think part of the problem with Sim in people's perception aside from the obvious is that he never gave anyone what they were expecting, he was constantly on his own wavelength. He is also VERY experimental and people don't expect that - it can be quite difficult reading his work, it takes effort in a way so much comics work doesn't.

And though his opinions are misguided, my interaction with him and others I know was always pleasant, he was always genial, charming, polite. Even cranks can be likable and creative.

All that said, I kind of shake my head at the subject matter of Glamourpuss. What the hell??? Where the hell did that come from???

zack soto said...

It comes from him wanting to draw like Stan Drake, I'd think.

Greg Shantz said...

"Sim as he comes across in print is dogmatic, rude, paranoid, believes women to be subhuman and evil,"

I don't think he believes women are evil, just that they are insane. The philosopher Otto Weininger says:

"She is neither moral nor anti-moral. ... She has no direction and is neither good nor bad, neither an angel nor a devil. ... She is amoral, just as she is alogical."

I think Sim would largely agree with this.

"and holds political and religious views which, to the extent that they're comprehensible at all, are totally incompatible with humanity."

How so?

"He's read the Bible as a struggle between Good and Evil and thought that Evil sounded like a good idea."

I don't understand what you mean here.

Greg Shantz said...

Chazbot said...
"I think his Cerebus books will stand the test of time, long after his essays and ideas about women are (rightfully) forgotten."

The philosopher Kevin Solway believes Sim's writings on women to be immortal.

Andrew Hickey said...

Mr Shantz, I have argued this issue with you many times - on the Cerebus mailing list, on my old livejournal, on various comic fora. I have no intention of doing so again. The only reason Dave Sim's 'ideas' (such as they are) merit even the cursory consideration that comes with dismissal is that he is such a great comic creator. I would really be grateful if you didn't insult half the human race in the comments section of my blog.

Those of you who have made substantive replies - thank you. I've been busy for a couple of days but will try to reply tomorrow.

John said...

Andrew - I do have a practical question about Cerebus to ask you and you seem better qualified to answer it than most - How can you ignore the writings on women when they are foisted into the actual story in 186? Is it possible to actually read and appreciate the series and skip the text that is included???

Billy said...

Dear Mr Hickey, I was glad as usual to read your partially positive comments on the artistic merits of Dave Sim and for offering your expression of enthusiasm for the upcoming release of GlamourPuss. However I really think that you are making every effort to prove Dave Sim right in his using of the term "Marxist Feminist" in the way you refer to the comments made by Greg Shantz. From what I have read, Greg in his comments has simply stated what he thinks Dave's views are, you have done much the same in the article which Greg is commenting on. I can’t see how you can accuse Greg of having insulted half of the human race when he is pretty much confirming what you wrote yourself. Unless of course you think that your own article is also offensive to half of the human race simply because it briefly reiterates Dave Sim’s views.

I would also ask you to reconsider the implications of your strong criticism of anyone who would be willing to offend half of the human race. Please think in general terms not just with regard to Dave Sim's views, and ask yourself the following questions:

If any given 50% of the human race are too easily offended and take offence when none is intended, is an offending party necessarily in the wrong?

If any given 50% of the human race really are worthy of some form of criticism should any member of the other 50% not be able to offer it simply due to those deserving of the criticism being in the majority?

For example if half of the human race were thieves/murderers/etc., would that make the given crime a correct behaviour?

With this I am not saying that I am 100% in agreement with Dave Sim (I doubt there are any 2 humans on planet Earth that agree on everything 100%), just that I AM a supporter of evaluating a viewpoint of reality without the prejudice of it having to correspond to the current majority viewpoint.

Gavin Burrows said...

I think Sim's real achievement is that he pretty much pioneered 'long haul' storytelling in comics. Before Sim if people wanted to tell longer or more involved stories they'd up the amount of information on the page by creating bigger and bigger captions. I respect Gil Kane, but that's what all his 'graphic novels' do - they're just novels with some graphics added.

Sim conversely slowed down the pace of events, and would even put in long silent passages. It had been assumed conversations couldn't be portrayed in a dramatic fashion in comics, you were supposed to cut straight to the fight scene. Sim proved all that wrong.

I think you're right that his... um... eccentric views will gradually be forgotten while his contributions to the comics medium remain. That kind of 'bad taste in the mouth' tends to die with an author. No-one objects to you reading Strindberg or the Marquis de Sade, after all.

Unfortunately other posters are right that at times the fulminating Sim occasionally steals control of the comic from the creative Sim, so while you can sideline him you can't completely ignore him.

Whether this new comic turns out to be any good is quite another thing,,,

Gavin Burrows said...

greg shantz said..
The philosopher Kevin Solway believes Sim's writings on women to be immortal.


The Administrative Assistant Gavin Burrows considers this to be unlikely.

Anonymous said...

"
If Cerebus is 'about' anything, it's about how we can never know the truth about anything, only a biased and inaccurate viewpoint which is missing crucial elements of the big picture. In a sense it is lucky for Sim that the story ends where it does, because the only logical place to go from the revelations in Latter Days is to undercut them, just as he does with every other Big Truth revealed throughout the story, and of course the religious ideas in Latter Days are in fact those Sim currently holds.

Although maybe that accounts for his current dogmatism - Cerebus is also, at least in part, a record of Sim's search for capital-T Truth, and the fact that it ends before he could undercut his current worldview maybe helped set those views in his mind."

You really put your finger on something there. I strongly agree with that viewpoint even though i hadn't articulated it with such clarity in my mind yet.

The thing is, you can't separate a lot of Sim's ideas from his work, they're right there, embedded in the book.

2goldfish said...

"
If Cerebus is 'about' anything, it's about how we can never know the truth about anything, only a biased and inaccurate viewpoint which is missing crucial elements of the big picture. In a sense it is lucky for Sim that the story ends where it does, because the only logical place to go from the revelations in Latter Days is to undercut them, just as he does with every other Big Truth revealed throughout the story, and of course the religious ideas in Latter Days are in fact those Sim currently holds.

Although maybe that accounts for his current dogmatism - Cerebus is also, at least in part, a record of Sim's search for capital-T Truth, and the fact that it ends before he could undercut his current worldview maybe helped set those views in his mind."

Thank you for articulating something i've been struggling with for quite some time. I really do think that's how we should look at Cerebus and Dave Sim.
You can't really separate the ideas from the work but you can choose to stop judging Dave Sim as a person and start judging him as a character. He included himself as such in Cerebus after all.
Looking at things that way, as i hope people will when time as passed and critics reviewing Cerebus will not have had a long, personnal history with Dave Sim, you can see Cerebus as the tragic story of a creator slow decent into madness, much like you can enjoy Syd Barrett's or Guy de Maupassant's work.

Gavin Burrows said...

"Cerebus is also, at least in part, a record of Sim's search for capital-T Truth, and the fact that it ends before he could undercut his current worldview maybe helped set those views in his mind."

"You can't really separate the ideas from the work but you can choose to stop judging Dave Sim as a person and start judging him as a character. He included himself as such in Cerebus after all."


Good points both. Truth is, we do have a tendency to see such things as Great Works, a grand scheme which sprang fully formed from the brows of great minds, like giant bridges or some other architectural feat. Any variation along the way is seen as inconsistency or weakness, something akin to a continuity error.

But, intended or not, Cerebus is the journal of the passage of one man's mind. The 'inconsistencies' are the very nub of it. It was said from the beginning it would end badly, and then it did.

In a Following Cerebus Sim says casually he never wrote anything down ahead of scripting each issue. The interviewer didn't even pick him up on it. But it may be the most telling thing he's ever said about his relationship to his work.