Whenever Cerebus, or its creator Dave Sim, is talked about today, the word misogyny always comes up. But that wasn’t the case back when I wrote “Palmer’s Picks” for Wizard #7 in early 1992.
Sim had just passed the halfway point of his projected 300-issue black-and-white comic book series and was embarking on the serialized “Mothers and Daughters” story that promised to tie up loose plot threads that had been left hanging for the previous fifteen years. After the glacially slow pace of the previous two stories (“Jaka’s Story” and “Melmoth”), the series was moving at breakneck speed: old characters reappeared after dozens of issues only to be shown the door a few pages later; thrilling, kinetic action scenes were followed by perfectly-timed jokes. And to top it off, the art in Cerebus had never been better. Sim and background artist Gerhard had perfected their blend of dynamically rendered characters in a fully realized fictional world.
But all of this came to a halt in late ’93 with the “Reads” chapter of the “Mothers and Daughters” arc. Each issue of Cerebus was now split between a few pages of comics and long blocks of text detailing the life of writer Victor Reid/Viktor Davis, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Sim. Things really came to a head in issue 186, which contained a long treatise on the differences between “male light” and “female void.” It’s here where the accusations of misogyny began.
In hindsight, there were more than a few warning signs in earlier issues of Cerebus; the character of Astoria is the stereotypical “manipulative bitch;” Jaka is another cliché, the unattainable exotic dancer with a heart of gold; and the army of militant feminist Cirinists are often depicted as hulked-out women with hints of mustache stubble.
Wonky gender politics is not the only problem with Cerebus. There’s a long chunk of issues in the final third of the series that is nothing more than Sim’s lengthy interpretations of the Bible set in the tiniest of tiny fonts. It’s a slog to get through, especially because it comes right before the end of the entire series. Another big problem is accessibility; it takes a lot of dedication to make your way through Cerebus. The size and complexity of the series is definitely not new-reader-friendly, and there really isn’t a good “jumping on” point. You have to read it from the beginning for all of it to make some sort of sense.
When you factor in all of these things, it’s difficult to defend Cerebus and its creator. Sure, Dave Sim did what he set out to do: write, draw, and publish 300 issues of the life of a fictional character. But is it any good? Is it worth reading? I’ll admit that it’s hard for me to answer those questions because I discovered Cerebus at a formative time in my comics reading, when I was tired of Marvel and DC superheroes and wanted something different. I’m always going to have an affection for it, warts and all. I find it hard to look at certain pages in the series and not see the sheer skill and talent on display. And the fact that Sim and Gerhard were able to produce all of those pages on a monthly schedule for decades is staggering.
That being said, the problems that do exist with Cerebus and Sim are too big to just ignore. While Sim often argues that he is merely an anti-feminist and not a misogynist, the resulting controversy around his views has left a mark on the book’s reputation because Sim has made it difficult to separate the story from the man. Sim even appears as a character in the comic several times, and the letters pages and supplemental material after issue 186 grew more and more focused on Sim’s theories on gender and religion. I have to admit that when that infamous issue was first published, I wrote it off as just part of the story or the thoughts of a character and not the author, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t the case. (If anyone out there is curious, I think his views on gender—and many other things—are complete horseshit.) It’s a shame that both the public’s unfavorable opinion of the book and the undeniable problems with the series itself often get in the way of any appreciation of what should be seen as a high point for comics. But it’s an even bigger shame that Sim’s viewpoints have become intertwined with the book’s reputation.
Despite this, Dave Sim does deserve credit as a pioneer of self-publishing. At the time this column ran in Wizard, the big self-publishing boom that launched Jeff Smith‘s Bone and Terry Moore‘s Strangers In Paradise had yet to take off. Sim had been in the trenches for years and had seen all of the potential pitfalls and problems in the industry and was able to help guide others like Smith and Moore as they took the plunge into full creator ownership. There’s also a strong case to be made that the creative freedom enjoyed by the current lineup of artists at Image Comics is a direct result of Sim’s advocacy. And the Cerebus “phone book” reprints were some of the first trade paperbacks that collected huge chunks of a comic series, and helped pave the way for today’s graphic novel boom.
I apologize if it seems like I’m spending all of this introduction re-examining Cerebus instead of providing background on “Palmer’s Picks,” but I feel it’s necessary to place what I wrote in 1992 in context. As I revisit these old columns, there are going to be a few comics that I’ll look back at and have a hard time remembering why I chose to write about them. That isn’t the case with Cerebus, but just as Dave Sim’s magnum opus is not an easy comic to read, writing about it is not a simple task.
This was only my second piece of published writing, so there were still a few visible growing pains. This particular installment is unique because it isn’t really “Palmer’s Picks.” The caricature of me from last issue has gone missing, and the column is inexplicably listed under “Features” in the magazine’s table of contents. Being an insecure 17-year-old, I thought this was some way of forcing me out of a regular gig. In hindsight, I think it was just that things were probably really chaotic at the Wizard offices at this point in the magazine’s life. Just look at the amount of typos that crept into this issue’s column!
I was still finding my way with “Picks,” so the “Recommended Reading” sidebar was still undergoing some tweaks. While last issue’s “Recommended Reading” listed Neil Gaiman’s work as well as other unrelated comics that I wanted to plug, this issue’s sidebar basically focused on Cerebus with a short summary of the other comics mentioned in the column. I felt this was necessary because even though Cerebus was only halfway complete at this point, it was still quite complicated to explain the various ways to read the series; it was much easier to simply list them instead of trying to incorporate the information into the main text. The “Recommended Reading” sidebar stuck around for the duration of “Palmer’s Picks” and even morphed a few more times to help highlight comics that might not warrant a full-length write-up, or to allow my interview subjects a chance to plug some books that they liked to read.
At this early stage of the column, I was treating it like an essay on why the Wizard reader should check out some weird comic book that they would probably ignore as they scrambled for the latest issue of X-Men or Youngblood. It wasn’t until later that I conducted interviews with the creators I was profiling, but I was careful to not revisit comics I had already profiled (with a few exceptions). I mentioned Cerebus several times in future “Picks,” but I didn’t devote another full column to it. I did get a chance to interview Dave Sim for a feature article in Wizard #58, and I’ll discuss that one when I get to that issue. In the meantime, here’s the original “Palmer’s Picks” from Wizard: The Guide To Comics #7:
On The Road To Self-Publishing Success With Dave Sim, Creator of Cerebus
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Dave Sim is one of a handful of self-publishers who have continually published their own work. While others of his kind have sought support from larger companies like Tundra, Sim has upheld his principles and his beliefs through dips in circulation and disputes with distributors and retailers. The one title that Sim publishes under his Aardvark-Vanaheim company is Cerebus, a black and white comic that is, in a sense, a serialization of a larger story. Every month, Sim publishes twenty pages of a projected 6000 page story that chronicles the life of a small, gray aardvark named Cerebus.
Cerebus began in late 1977, when Dave Sim, with the help of his then girlfriend and later ex-wife, Deni Loubert, decided to publish a comic for a few issues to gather material to show other companies. The book, at the time, was a parody of Conan, with Sim’s art greatly influenced by the work of Barry Windsor-Smith. With its blend of humor and sword and sorcery, the comic caught on within a few issues. As the series progressed, Cerebus eventually moved away from its roots to tackle more serious subjects while retaining its sense of humor. Sim’s art style began to evolve as well, due to his drawing on other artists for inspiration. By its twenty-sixth issue, the comic started a story of political power called “High Society” that would run until the fiftieth issue. This storyline, with its tightly woven plot threads and political intrigue, marked a departure from the direct parody of the earlier issues.
After “High Society,” Sim began work on a sixty issue mammoth entitled “Church and State,” which included, among other things, Cerebus as Pope, Cerebus’ marriage, and a trip to the moon. “Jaka’s Story,” the next novel, was a conscious effort to avoid the complicated storylines of the previous novels in favor of a more character-orientated story. This held true for the following novel, “Melmoth,” which concerned the death of Sim’s Oscar Wilde character. Last October, Sim began the current novel, “Mothers and Daughters,” returning to the involved plot twists of earlier issues.
The writing of the initial stories was in the normal comic book style, but Sim soon adopted a different approach to writing. Instead of summarizing events in expository captions, Sim opts to show what takes place over an extended period of time. For this reason, the length of stories in Cerebus is measured in years instead of months. Sim’s unique method of telling stories places more importance on the facial expressions and body language of his characters. However, there is still a good deal of writing in each issue of Cerebus. There are occasional illustrated text pieces that are used to show different characters’ viewpoints or to break the pattern of sometimes wordless pages.
With the emphasis on the interaction between charcters, setting plays an important part in Cerebus. Helping Sim on the backgrounds is Gerhard, his collaborator on the regular comic since 1984. Unlike most background artists, Gerhard pencils and inks what he illustrates, ensuring that his backgrounds are accurate and highly detailed. To add to the realism of the surroundings in Cerebus, Gerhard draws up floorplans of the locations, and sometimes builds cardboard models of the buildings in the book. These extremely accurate diagrams show the place of furniture and props and even indicate the location of the sun in relation to the buildings.
To celebrate the recent publication of the halfway point in the 300 issue series, Sim is undertaking a tour of the United States. Beginning in January and apparently lasting throughout the year, the tour will include Sunday appearances in twenty-one different cities. At each stop, Sim promises to include many surprises aside from the usual signings, such as original artwork and special Cerebus merchandise.
When Cerebus began in 1977, at the start of the direct market, self-publishing was a favorable alternative to the larger companies. Today, as the marketplace is continually changing, there is more risk involved in publishing without the support of other companies. Aside from Cerebus, there are very few self-published comics that have survived for more than a few issues. Comics that are entirely self published, like Hepcats by Martin Wagner, barely survive because they depend on a core group of fans. Other more well-known artists like Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette have allowed their smaller companies to merge with larger ones such as Tundra. Needles to say, these comics need your support, otherwise the option to self-publish will no longer be viable to both new and already established artists.
Cerebus has been published monthly since 1977 and will continue until the 300th issue in 2004. The stories have been presented in a variety of formats.
The monthly comic: Recent issues are relatively easy to find, but early issues are both rare and expensive. If you are interested in the entire story, there are other means of obtaining all of the issues. In addition to the regular story, each new issue contains, on the avergae, ten pages of letters, and occasionally, a preview of work from other self-published artists. To help new readers and refresh the minds of the regular readers, Sim recently published a special edition that recapped the first 150 issues in one comic. This should be available for free from your local dealer.
Bi-weekly reprints: Every other week, an older issue of Cerebus is reprinted. Currently, Sim is in the middle of reprinting the “Church and State” storyline. These reprints are affordable and contain the original covers and letters pages as well as excerpts from Sim’s notebooks and Single Pages highlighting some of the best in small press comics. There are reprints available for the first two storylines as well.
Swords of Cerebus: Six volumes were published reprinting the first twenty-five issues. They are hard to find, but contain introductions by Sim as well as new covers and back-up features.
Reprint volumes: These phonebook sized graphic novels collect the entire storylines. To date, there are six volumes, each gathering the complete story from start to finish. The covers, letters pages, and in-between issues are not reprinted, making these books more cohesive. Sim plans to keep these books in print for the duration of the series and to add all of the remaining stories to the collection as they are completed.
Cerebus – reprints the first twenty five issues
High Society – reprints from issue 26 to issue 50
Church and State volume I – reprints the first half of the story, from issues 52 to 80
Church and State volume II – collects the second half of the story, from issues 81 to 111
Jaka’s Story – reprints issues 114 to 136
Melmoth – collectes issues 139 to 150
Other self-published artists mentioned in this article:
Hepcats: published by Double Diamond Press
Tundra co-publishes with a variety of self-published artists. These include:
From Hell and Big Numbers from Alan Moore’s Mad Love Publishing
Taboo from Steve Bissette’s Spiderbaby Grafix and Publications
The One, Bratpack, and other titles from Rick Veitch’s King Hell Press
What I really appreciate about the linked blog series is that, while it's critical of Sim's views, it's just as positive about the wonderful things in Cerebus and when it's critical of Sim, it's never apologetic about having read the series.
This is another one of the few articles I've read that successfully addresses Sim's views, but within the context of discussing the actual series, not as apology acknowledging it: http://emmatinker.oxalto.co.uk/downloads/sim.pdf
Interestingly, it's also written by a woman.
In contrast, what you've written reads less like an introduction to an old article about Cerebus, and more like you're trying really hard to distance yourself from Dave Sim's views, which are so out there, really isn't necessary. Not even groups like the MRAs agree with Sim about women. One paragraph giving an overview of the series with a quick mention of the controversy/criticism and also the innovations/praise would have sufficed.
I apologize if I seem rude, but this is something I see in nearly all discussion of Cerebus, and it's not applied to work about other writers with controversial views. When people write about Lovecraft, they do mention his antisemitism, general racism, and the influence his atheism had on his work. They also criticize Lovecraft's lack of plot/characterization, as that's all necessary for understanding his work. But they mainly write about how innovative his writing was; how it completely changed horror, how atmospheric it was, etc.
Cerebus was just as innovative in comics as Lovecraft was in horror. But in any mention of Cerebus, it's all about Sim's views and not about his story. Even the good stuff is damned with faint praise or reevaluated in light of his later views. It just seems like when men write about Cerebus, they are insecure about being viewed as misogynist, as though feminists were out there with pitch forks waiting to lynch anyone who steps out of line. But that's just not the case, and it's ironically pretty close to Sim's view of feminism. In reality, feminists and women are among the few people out there praising Cerebus.
If you do write more about the series, perhaps this is all something to keep in mind.
These blog posts are not meant to be “quick set ups” as you call them, nor are they meant to be brand-new reviews of comics. They are simply to republish my old columns for Wizard Magazine and fill in some of the blanks in the intervening twenty-five years. With a book like Cerebus, there happen to be a lot of blanks to fill in. If you're looking for an in-depth examination of the series, look elsewhere.
If you look at my original post again, you'll notice that we actually make the same point. I wrote: “It’s a shame that both the public’s unfavorable opinion of the book and the undeniable problems with the series itself often get in the way of any appreciation of what should be seen as a high point for comics.” That sounds like pretty much what you're saying when you bemoan the fact that there are too many articles out there about Cerebus that focus on the controversy around it.