Wizard #58: Dave Sim Q&A

Since Wizard #58 was the unofficial “small press” issue, I was asked to conduct an interview with Cerebus creator and self-publishing pioneer Dave Sim for a full-length feature article in addition to my regular “Palmer’s Picks” column.

As you might recall, I first wrote about Sim and Cerebus way back in 1992 for my second “Picks” in Wizard #7, which looked like a regular article because it was inexplicably printed without the usual column masthead. I briefly spoke with Sim for the “Palmer’s Picks” Small Press Expo special report in Wizard #50, but this new interview was my first full-length conversation with him, as well as my first Q&A-style article.

When I got the assignment from Wizard editorial, I was asked to submit my questions for approval. Anything I was going to ask related to the business side of things was nixed—the subject was deemed “too boring” for the typical Wizard reader—and, while I don’t remember a specific request to avoid any discussion of Sim’s views on women, you’ll notice that this article is misogyny-free. (This issue of Wizard was published almost two years after the infamous Cerebus #186, where Sim laid out his controversial views on gender with his explanation of the “male light” and “female void” and was subsequently labelled by many in the comics community as a misogynist.) The powers-that-be at Wizard were looking for an article that played up Sim’s role as a “guru of the small press” to tie-in with the theme of their latest issue, and the questions they wanted answered had to do with why he thought self-publishing was so great and what was in store for the rest of Cerebus.

The first draft I submitted needed a little tweaking, so I had to conduct a follow-up interview with Sim to get some more information about his early days in the industry, and I also had a quick talk with Cerebus background artist Gerhard for a new sidebar. All of the revisions made to the article meant that a good amount of material got left on the cutting room floor. Some things were edited out because they just weren’t that interesting and others were cut because of space considerations. So now, after over twenty years, I can finally present the missing parts of my Dave Sim Q&A. (The original interview follows directly after, so if you are so inclined you can skip ahead to read that first before diving into these excerpts.)

The interview originally opened with some questions about self-publishing. In hindsight, that was probably a little dry and boring for the typical Wizard reader…

Many people consider you to be the guru of the small press and self-publishing. Is this a position that you are comfortable to be in?

I’m glad that I have made the effort to put my observations on self-publishing down on paper, both in how-to form and the implications of it, because it’s a discharging of obligations to me. I’ve been very fortunate in the comic book field to be in the situation I’m in. A lot of it has been hard work but there’s so much luck that goes into it as well that it’s really important to not lose sight of the guys coming in behind you who might be the next Dave Sim or somebody inclined to take that same approach.

In terms of being a guru, I’m a lot happier that there’s such a variety of viewpoints on self-publishing that a 17- or 18-year-old guy talking to Charles Vess, Colleen Doran or Rob Walton at a convention is going to get three different answers to the same question. I think that’s a lot more valuable to the future of self-publishing than to have one viewpoint standing as the be-all and end-all. I think there was a time when my viewpoints were the be-all and end-all on self-publishing, but that’s because I was the only guy doing it.

My revised second draft opened with new questions about how Sim got his start as a comics artist, but there were a few questions related to the subject that were cut for publication:

Were there any other artists who inspired you early on?

I was interested in Neal Adams. It was fascinating at the age of 12 to see someone like him come along and violate all of the strictures that had been placed on artists since time immemorial. He had such an inventory of abilities: the different perspectives he used, the varying of proportions, the illustration style he brought to Jack Kirby’s innovations, and the sense of page design and composition he used by changing the shape and number of panels on a page. His work taught me to think before you sat down to start doing a page, as opposed to just starting up in the left corner and drawing a face.

Did you have any formal art training?

I’d look at art instruction books and anatomy books, but basically I was always of the opinion that comic books were an idiosyncratic artform. I learned a lot more about anatomy by accident than I ever learned intentionally. Most people who are self-taught as comic book artists usually get it the wrong way around. They learn the finish and technique and other stylistic things before they learn the actual thinking processes of anatomy and structure behind those things.

Sim’s answer to my question about the evolution of Cerebus was trimmed a little bit. (I guess the Wizard editors weren’t fans of Russian literature…)

Cerebus initially started as a parody of Barry Windsor-Smith’s work on Marvel’s Conan, but it soon evolved into a more complicated comic. What motivated you to take this direction with the comic?

It was sort of an extended process from the time I decided to go monthly, around issue 14. I decided I wanted to do Cerebus until issue 300 because I didn’t want to be 75 years old and racked with arthritis trying to do the next page, and I also didn’t want to just do the character for another year or two until I got bored. Doing 300 issues seemed like a good compromise.

I also realized that I wasn’t interested in filling those 300 issues with a bunch of individual stories. I wanted to do a graphic novel, which was a very new term at the time. Having discovered Charles Dickens and Dostoyevsky at that same time, what I thought in my head when I heard the term “graphic novel” was very different from what a lot of other people saw.

The more I labored to get the kind of structure and characterization that you get in a really good novel into Cerebus, the more I started to see what else it was I wanted to cover in the series.

The discussion about the state of self-publishing was also cut down from what I originally wrote:

Most of the successful self-publishers today, like Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch and David Lapham, have had experience in comics. Do you think this played a part in their success or is a relative unknown like Jeff Smith still able to come along?

I think it’s difficult [for newcomers]. I think Jeff Smith is still the real poster boy for that one because he was a complete unknown in the comic book field. I would maintain that anyone coming along with the level of quality that Bone had when it arrived in the market and the quality that it still has, I would find it hard to believe that they would at least not have a fighting chance of being able to do it.

Having said that, I think there’s a case to be made when Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, David Lapham and other people with name value decide to self-publish, it does put the high jump bar up another six or eight inches. Before they arrived, it was very possible that somebody jumping 5’1″ would be clearing the bar. Somebody jumping 5’1″ is knocking the bar over or jumping under the bar at this point. I don’t think that’s a thing to be deplored. I think that’s a good example of how self-publishing builds muscle. Collectively we’re all pushing the boundaries of the comic book field. If that means that somebody who would have made it three years ago can’t make it now, we’re going to have to look at the fact that we’re getting Stray Bullets, Tyrant, Rare Bit Fiends and Ballads & Sagas and say, “Well, that’s appropriate.”

I’m not sure why this quote was cut, but it’s an interesting one:

What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle you have faced in the last 18 years of self-publishing Cerebus?

The impediments have usually been self-generated. I’m sitting here looking at a four inch stack of mail to answer. On the one hand, it would be nice if that four inch stack of mail with a bunch of basically insolvable problems wasn’t sitting there, but it is sitting there and that’s going to cut in on my writing and drawing time. That’s really about the only impediment. It doesn’t have to be as big as an animated film or somebody offering you the chance to write or direct your own movie to end up making your eight hour day into a twelve hour day.

My first draft had Sim talking a little more about Gerhard, some of which was incorporated into the sidebar:

Gerhard has been drawing the backgrounds in every issue of Cerebus since issue 65. What do you think the comic would be like without his help?

It would have a lot of very lopsided, badly rendered buildings [Laughs]. The characters would probably be better drawn than they were in the issues around 65, but the rest would be very blank looking: Here’s the background, here’s the establishing shot, memorize it because I’m not drawing it again.

So he’s had a big impact on the look of Cerebus?

Enormous. He’s the other half of the book. I might pay to go see Mick Jagger singing and Charlie Watts playing drums, but it wouldn’t be a patch on a Rolling Stones concert.

And here’s a little bit that was cut from the Gerhard sidebar:

The background (pardon the pun) details on how Gerhard met up with Sim are a little cloudy. Gerhard vaguely remembers meeting Sim at a party in the late ’70s. “Where I lived at the time was the party place,” he recalls. “Every weekend we would have forty of our closest friends over for a party and we would blow out the windows. I think I fell over Dave when I was trying to get to the fridge for another beer.”

And here’s Sim on what might be possible after Cerebus is done:

You don’t see yourself moving on to something else other than comics?

I wouldn’t think so. I sometimes wonder about that; is there something out there that would really give me pause about whether I wanted to stay in comic books or whether I wanted to go someplace else? I can’t really think of anything, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. If it does exist I’m sure some bright light will present it to me in November of 2003, just to really rub in the point. I would hope that that wouldn’t happen. I would hope that I could just make a transition from sitting down at the beginning of the day and saying, “OK, we’ve got to get Cerebus from this point to this point, we’ve got to bring this character in,” to being able to just sit with a blank piece of illustration board and say “What if you had a guy who was…” and be able to just sit there and play with the idea, start doing page one and then say, “That’s interesting, now what would he do on page 2?”


The Wizard Q&A: Dave Sim

The guru of the small press is overtaking the odds and the skeptics by bringing bringing Cerebus to #300 or bust

By Tom Palmer Jr.

Vital Stats
Name: Dave Sim
Occupation: Writer, artist, publisher of Cerebus
Date and Place of Birth: May 17, 1956 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Base of Operations: Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Favorite Mixed Drink: Bacardi rum and Diet Coke with a slice of lime
Favorite Beer: Heineken in the U.S. and Coors Light in Canada

Dave Sim is in the homestretch. After reaching issue #200 of his self-published Cerebus last November, the writer/artist only has eight more years until his self-proclaimed final issue of the series, #300, hits the stands. He has survived the many ups and downs of the comic industry for almost two decades, and if one thing’s certain, he isn’t giving up now.

Two hundred issues of a comic might not seem like much to get excited about. Many mainstream titles are well past that milestone: Amazing Spider-Man hit it in 1980 and Action Comics trampled it way back in 1955. But those titles withstood a round robin of writers and artists. Cerebus, on the other hand, has had only one: Dave Sim. He writes, draws (with the help of background artist Gerhard [see sidebar]) and publishes every monthly issue of Cerebus.

In recent years, the 40-year-old Canadian has become an outspoken proponent for creator’s rights and self-publishing. His tireless and uplifting efforts on these subjects (including several editorials in Cerebus) have led many to see him as the wise man and father figure of the small press. He has even inspired many popular artists to try their hand at self-publishing their own comics. Without his influence, there might not be comics like Bone, Stray Bullets or Tyrant on the racks today.

Publishing your own comic isn’t as easy as it sounds, so Sim and Gerhard often spend 10- or 12-hour days in their studio in Kitchener, Ontario, making sure that everything runs smoothly at Sim’s publishing company, Aardvark-Vanaheim.

The always upbeat Sim took some time recently to talk to Wizard after a full day of writing and drawing Cerebus and preparing an exhibition of his and Gerhard’s artwork for the Words & Pictures Museum in Northampton, Mass., this June.

WIZARD: You’ve survived through all the hard times in the comic industry for almost two decades. What do you think is the secret to your success?

SIM: As Bob Burden [creator of The Flaming Carrot] once said, “I’ve been around the block so many times I feel like my turn blinker got stuck.” [Laughs] I think hard work more than anything else. I forget who it was who said success is largely a matter of luck, but I find the harder I work the luckier I get. Those really are words to live by. The periods where I’m working very hard on the book and putting the majority of my attention into it, everything else just seems to fall into place around it.

You have to achieve a balance of being your own biggest critic and being your own biggest fan—[both of] which every artist has to be—and working very hard and not lying to yourself about your productivity. If you had a bad day and you screwed up and you didn’t get the pages done that you thought you should, don’t rationalize it away. Admit that you had a bad day, and go in and have a good day tomorrow.

What was it that made you want to become a comic artist?

Comic books have always, except for very brief time periods in my early teens, been at or near the number one position in my life since I was 8 years old. The first big impetus to work in comics was figuring out the difference between [Superman artists] Curt Swan, Jim Mooney and Kurt Schaffenberger. That was really the first time I came to recognize the difference in styles. Their work motivated me to learn to draw more realistically, as opposed to adopting a stylistic approach to drawing comics. To this day, I want to create the same effect—you’re looking at these events that are taking place on the comic page and you get swept up in the proceedings. You lose sight of the fact that you’re just looking at somebody’s drawings.

Cerebus initially started as a parody of Barry Windsor-Smith’s work on Marvel’s Conan, but it soon evolved into a much more complex book. What motivated you to take this direction with the comic?

It was sort of an extended process from the time I decided to go monthly, around issue #14. I decided I wanted to do Cerebus until issue #300 because I didn’t want to be 75 years old and racked with arthritis trying to do the next page, and I also didn’t want to just do the character for another year or two until I got bored. Doing 300 issues seemed like a good compromise.

I also realized that I wasn’t interested in filling those 300 issues with a bunch of individual stories. I wanted to do a graphic novel, which was a very new term at the time. The more I labored to get the kind of structure and characterization that you get in a really good novel into Cerebus, the more I started to see what else it was I wanted to cover in the series.

Most people must have been pretty skeptical that you’d be able to pull off a 26-year run on one title.

Yes, and I think rightly so. At the time, it seemed like a real pipe dream. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been the one doing it and someone said there’s this guy who is going to do a 300-issue comic book series that is all one story, I probably would have said, “Well, he’s just going to have to [stretch] it out.”

I think now there’s a kind of acceptance of it from Cerebus fans who have read the first 200 issues. They can look up and see how this is possible and this will actually be…something [Laughs]. I hope it will be the equivalent of a novel, but it’s at least a step up from a hundred different artists doing their interpretations of a character.

Considering the success and longevity of Cerebus, it’s obvious that self-publishing works for you, but why do you think it is a viable option for other creators?

I think it’s worth a try. I will go so far as to say I think any creator, particularly any writer/artist or any writer/artist team, who finds himself intrigued by the possibility of it, that it would be worth their while to try it. They’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s for them or not. Having said that, I will acknowledge that self-publishing is not for everybody. But I think the only way you find that out is to actually do it.

In the past, Aardvark-Vanaheim published other creators’ comics like Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot and Jim Valentino’s normalman. You even started Aardvark-One, a separate company, to publish work like Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli‘s Puma Blues. But Cerebus is now the only comic you publish. Why have you avoided publishing other creators’ books in recent years?

My sense is that with those two experiments there was a praiseworthy motive in doing it—I’ve been very lucky, I’ve been very successful and I’d like to pass this on to someone else. It took those two experiments and a good deal of thinking to realize that I wasn’t passing on what I had gotten. I didn’t go and find someone to publish Cerebus or to help finance the startup of Cerebus.

It would be very easy for comic book creators to [disagree] that advice is more valuable than money. Given the choice between having a wad of Dave Sim’s information and a wad of Dave Sim’s money, they’d probably rather have Dave Sim’s money to start their comic book. But I think in the long term most people would rather do it themselves, once they find out the level of gratification [of] managing both the business and the creative side. It’s very difficult for someone who’s gone through self-publishing to go back to just getting a check from a publisher and going through the various stages of compromise or looking for approval at the various stages.

Do you fear Cerebus will become Charles Dickens’ unfinished play The Mystery of Edwin Drood? What if you don’t make it to #300 for some reason?

That doesn’t concern me that much. I’m not someone who believes in coincidence per se. I tend to believe in synchronicity. If I suddenly developed inoperable cancer or got hit by a bus and I was paralyzed for the rest of my life, I would consider that a bad review of the issue I was working on at that point. I would certainly caution any aspiring comic book creator that if some disaster like that befalls me, look at what I was doing when that happened and don’t do that in your own book. [Laughs] It will be easy to pick out because if something like that happens and I’m at mid-issue, the instructions are that the comic book gets printed with the rest of the pages blank. Look at that last page I drew because that’s probably the point where the gods went, “No, I think we’ve had just about enough of this guy.”

So there’s no big vault where all the secrets of Cerebus are locked away?

Hell, no! [Laughs] That would give everybody an out. [The gods] could say, “Okay, we’re sick of him. Get rid of him at #251 but release the transcripts of what was going to happen in the rest of them. We’ll give it to Mike Allred. He can draw it.”

Do you have any idea what you want to do after issue #300?

Not really, but my mind is starting to work on other stories just in stray moments here and there. When I go out back to “Camp David” for my hourly cigarette break—which is coming up, by the way [Laughs]; I’m nine minutes over, but that’s OK—and I’m just standing there smoking a cigarette, looking across the backyard, strange little story ideas come into my head. I can picture doing Dave Sim Comics & Stories after Cerebus is done. Maybe I could put out a 32-page quarterly comic or something like that, reprinting some of the stuff I did before Cerebus that I’m still kind of happy with, trying some new drawing techniques and things, doing some stories with Gerhard, doing some stories with other people. That, to me, would be very satisfying and a definite irreplaceable reward for having kicked it over the goal line with Cerebus #300.

Do you have anything to say to the people who thought you wouldn’t make it this far?

Not especially. I’ve been very lucky in that a lot of things in the comic book field and the rest of the world have favored what I’m doing. I don’t feel like gloating. I have a great sense of relief and accomplishment, and I am looking forward to the last 93 comic books I have to do in the series. I’m just grateful that it’s gone okay so far, and I hope that some of the people who have doubted that I could do it have at least enjoyed what I’ve tried to do.

Tom Palmer Jr., who tells ya all about the small press in his monthly “Palmer’s Picks” column right here in Wizard, is looking for a pet aardvark (He lost the first two.)

Catching Up With Cerebus

If you pick up a recent issue of Cerebus, you’ll most likely find a gray aardvark with an eye patch (who happens to be called Cerebus) drowning his sorrows in buckets of Scotch. At least that’s been the main thrust so far in the first few parts of “Guys,” the current storyline in Dave Sim’s monthly comic. But you can’t blame Cerebus for wanting to get drunk all the time; he’s just been on a journey through the solar system that answered questions from his past and brought him in touch with his creator. Are you confused yet?

Things didn’t start out so complicated for the little guy. When he first appeared in the comic that bears his name in 1977 as a short aardvark with an even shorter temper, he was intended as a parody of Barry Windsor-Smith’s work on Conan. His early adventures found him wandering from place to place in a fictional, medieval world, but he soon became entangled in events that led to his becoming Prime Minister (in the story “High Society”) and even Pope (in “Church & State”). Throughout all of his experiences, Cerebus has held on to his headstrong nature, almost to a fault. He might not be the most lovable of characters, but at least he’s consistent.

While the stories in Cerebus can get very serious and complicated, there are still plenty of exciting moments and hilarious characters. Most of the supporting cast is inspired by famous personalities like Groucho Marx, Mick Jagger, Margaret Thatcher and Foghorn Leghorn. Sim also has an expert ear for dialects and is a master of orchestrating visual and physical comedy on the comic book page.

The biggest thing that makes Cerebus different from other comics is that once the final issue, #300, is published there will be no more regular Cerebus comics. Sim claims that the main point behind doing 300 issues of one comic is to give a complete picture of the life of one character. For this reason, he is hesitant to reveal where the book will go in the next few months; it would be like someone telling you Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad before you watch Star Wars.

However, Sim is able to give a general idea of where the comic will go, even though it might not be the best of news for Cerebus. “You have to bear in mind that the last 100 issues document the end of Cerebus’ life,” Sim notes. “I don’t really expect all of it to be too terribly cheerful. I hope that there will be a level of insight to it that will satisfy a maximum level of readers. A lot of them have stuck with it a long time and they better have satisfaction.”

The Background of Gerhard

Many comic artists break into the business by inking backgrounds for established professionals, but very few make a full-time job out of it. Gerhard, Dave Sim’s partner in crime on Cerebus, is the exception. He has been drawing the backgrounds behind Sim’s characters every month since 1985.

Sim isn’t too sure exactly when the two met, but he does remember the first time he saw Gerhard’s artwork. “He drew the exterior of the Kitchener train station at night where all you could see was where the lights had illuminated and all the rest was left black. That was an amazing piece of work.” Shortly after seeing Gerhard’s work, Sim asked him to help with a series of color Cerebus stories for Marvel’s Epic Magazine, which then led to his work on the monthly comic, starting with issue #65.

Gerhard’s far from your typical background artist. While most background artists just ink what someone else has drawn, he fully pencils and inks everything except for the characters and lettering. “The characters are pretty much the way Dave puts them down on the page. It’s my job to make it look like they’re not floating three feet off the ground. Unless they’re supposed to be, of course.”

And what kind of impact does Sim think Gerhard has on Cerebus? “Enormous,” he says. “He’s the other half of the book. I might pay to go see Mick Jagger singing and Charlie Watts playing drums, but it wouldn’t be a Rolling Stones concert.”

Gerhard’s work is also unique because he makes sure to get all the little details down. There is a distinct sense of time of day and setting that is apparent just from the way the characters interact with the backgrounds. If you see a specific building or a room once in Cerebus, you can be sure that it will look the same the next time you see it.

Paying such close attention to things is hard work, but Gerhard really doesn’t mind. “I get to do the only thing I’m really better at than most people I know. I did very poorly through high school because all my notebooks were just full of sketches. Now I get to do what I really like doing, and you can’t beat that with a stick.”

Tom Palmer Jr
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer/editor/web developer. He also once had a job filling perfume bottles on an assembly line.

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