In December 1977, independent Canadian writer-artist Dave Sim launched his comic-book series Cerebus. This month, he completed it with the death of his titular character, in the long-promised 300th and final issue. Over 26 years and 15 hefty collected volumes, Cerebus, a foul-tempered anthropomorphic aardvark, has been a mercenary warrior, a politician, a religious leader and scholar, a revolutionary, a professional sports player, a bartender, and a comic-book fanboy, among many other roles. In telling his story, and laying out the larger social and political conflict that shaped his world, Sim has delved into broad satire, novelistic storytelling, and radical stylistic experimentation; at the same time, he's used the back pages of his monthly issues to publish essays, boost other artists' work, champion creators' rights and tout self-publication, and interact at length with his readers and with other creators.
While admired for his long-term ambition, his artistic sophistication (helped in large part by his work partner and background artist, Gerhard), his technical innovation in areas like lettering and page design, and his commitment to creative independence, Sim has gradually become one of the most polarizing figures in comics, particularly over the controversial opinions he's expressed in text pieces in Cerebus, and in lengthy essays like "Tangent," his analysis and condemnation of "the feminist-homosexualist axis." While preparing the 16th and final Cerebus reprint volume for publication, Sim recently agreed to speak with The Onion A.V. Club via fax about Cerebus' origins, "Dave Sim Syndrome," the Marxist-feminist sensibility, and where he's headed next.
The Onion: Why an aardvark?
Dave Sim: You know, it's really quite unbelievable to me that you have 4,000 words in which to cover the longest sustained narrative in human history, and your first question is "Why an aardvark?" What would your first question to Franz Kafka have been? "Why a cockroach?"
O: If Kafka had spent 30 years of his life writing one 6,000-page book about a man who turned into a cockroach, then maybe.
DS: [Sighs.] Why an aardvark? Before there was Cerebus the comic book, there was Cerebus the fanzine. That's how I met my ex-wife, Deni. I told her she needed a company name—the way Gene Day published Dark Fantasy through Shadow Press, which was what she wanted the 'zine to look like: digest-sized. She asked her brother Michael and her sister Karen for suggestions. Michael suggested Vanaheim Press, Karen suggested Aardvark Press. I suggested combining the two. It turned out later that a boy that Karen had a major crush on—she was in high school then—had made a joke, posing his hand on the table so that the thumb and three fingers were balanced on their tips like legs, and his middle finger was extended like a snout. "Aardvark." When you are a high-school girl and you have a crush on someone, these are the sorts of things that stay with you. So I drew a cartoon barbarian aardvark as a mascot for this fanzine publishing company. Later, when we realized that what Deni had intended to call the book was Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded Hades in Greek mythology, I told her we would just make Cerebus the name of the aardvark. The fanzine never got off the ground, so I decided to try drawing a sample comic page of Cerebus The Aardvark. And, for a number of months, that was all that existed: the page that turned out to be page one of Cerebus No. 1.
O: That's interesting.
DS: I'm glad you think so.
O: When you initially began Cerebus, did you intend it as a mouthpiece for social commentary?
DS: I suppose that depends on how broadly you define social commentary. Red Sonja was the hot comic book at the time, beautifully written, penciled, inked, and lettered by Frank Thorne about a female Conan-type who wouldn't surrender sexually to any man unless he defeated her in battle. When I did my parody, Red Sophia, I extrapolated that this poor, magnificent warrior woman was probably getting unbelievably horny waiting for someone to come along who could beat her. It does seem more resonant today now that the "ballsier" feminists, much to their consternation, seem to be having difficulty finding men who are interested in—or capable of—going mano a mano with them. At the time, it just seemed a funnier, racier version of the real thing. When Red Sophia whips off her chain-mail bikini top and says "What do you think of these?" and Cerebus deadpans, "They'd probably heal nicely if you'd stop wearing the chain-mail bikini." I just hoped that it would sell enough copies that I could keep going. It wasn't until two years in, when I switched to the monthly schedule and chose to attempt to do 300 issues, that that stopped being the primary motivation and switched to "How do you fill 300 issues of a comic book with something besides just sight gags and wordplay?"
O: How much of the larger story arc did you have in mind when you first came up with the idea for the 300-issue run?
DS: None of it. But that would only make sense, right? Up until that point, I hadn't decided to do 300 issues.
O: Once you made that decision, how far in advance did you plan out the story?
DS: I moved from the three- and four-issue story arcs to, first of all, High Society—the barbarian at the five-star hotel—and the unheard-of-at-the-time ambition of doing a 500-page graphic novel which swept Cerebus up into the world of politics, because I've always been a political junkie. I had no real interest in Conan, even to make fun of him, but by making him the exception in the environment, I could write and draw what I was actually interested in: an involved election parody, with electoral districts, voting patterns, campaigning. Of course, now Conan is the governor of California, so I guess I was just 20 years ahead of my time.
O: At what point did you sit down to allocate the issues you had left?
DS: First, I had to get over the disappointment of how little you could fit into a 500-page comic-book story. I had pictured doing the comic-book equivalent of War And Peace with 500 pages to work with. Originally, it was going to be the relationship between the political side of Iest and the religious side of Iest, spilling over from the one into the other. By the time I had figured out how many pages I needed to do an election campaign, election night, the deciding vote, and then six issues of Cerebus as Prime Minister, the book was over and I never even got to the religious side. That was why I doubled the length for Church & State, so it wouldn't be just an A to B to C to D story. I'd be able to visit different parts of the city, and introduce "reads" and anecdotes of various figures that I had introduced. It still ate up pages like nobody's business. So I learned to mentally scale back the books that I planned up ahead, learned to realistically assess what I could get across in 200 pages without having to rush everything. My best assessment now is that I hope I was able to produce, over the 6,000 pages, the comic-book equivalent of one Russian novel, as opposed to the 12 Russian novels I'd originally intended.
O: Would you advise new readers to start with the first book and read all of Cerebus in sequence, or is there a better starting point for the series?
DS: I'm not sure that I would advise a general readership like yours to read Cerebus.
O: Who should be reading it, then? What's your ideal reader like?
DS: It's not really a matter of my ideal reader. My ideal reader is anyone who will buy it. It's a very strange book. And not strange in that "Mum, Dad, and the kids" way that Harry Potter, from what I understand, is strange. It's virtually impossible to sell because it's virtually impossible to describe. A number of comic-book retailers—who are among the books' biggest champions—have told me that people have to come to it on their own. They have customers who will thumb through the books literally for years before they actually read one. Indescribable. Which is why interviewers always want me to describe it. Every description just falls flat. It sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry. I remember when I finally read War And Peace, and I had expected it to be this… ordeal. I had a notepad to write down all the Russian names and my thumb marking the family relationships in the front. Two chapters in, I put the notepad away. It just wasn't necessary. Tolstoy was a great storyteller, so even though the book is huge, it's very easy to steer through. And yet the impression I had gotten over the years was that it was this daunting, unassailable literary mountain of a book with this gigantic unwieldy cast. In the comic-book field, the same kind of reputation has become attached to Cerebus.
Also, Cerebus contains a lot of new thinking on a variety of subjects and a number of different ways of looking at things. The evidence that I see around me in society indicates that not only is thinking very much out of favor, but I'm not sure that the last couple of generations—Generation X and Generation Next, or whatever you want to call them—even know what a thought is, having been raised to be women. I think this is particularly true among leftists, which is what I assume The Onion's readership is primarily made up of. North American leftists just keep trying to relive the '60s, or to make the '60s happen again. Oasis are a pretty poor excuse for The Beatles, and John Kerry is a pretty poor excuse for John F. Kennedy. But it seems to me that that's all that interests leftists. They don't want to think: As a central example, they don't want to examine feminism as a philosophy; they want to re-experience it as a new phenomenon. For obvious reasons. It doesn't work, so there's a very strong urge to go back 30 years to when it seemed that it might work.
O: Which segment of the series came closest to garnering your ideal critical or fan response?
DS: See, there's a perfect example right there. Leftists always want to… circle around subjects… rather than addressing any subject directly. What you're obviously driving at is to try to get me to say that I wrote issue 186 and "Tangent"—my seminal anti-feminist writings—in order to provoke the level of outrage which resulted, or to say that I long, bitterly, for the days when I was a fan favorite and was getting tons and tons of favorable press before I went public with not being a feminist, which resulted in my becoming a pariah in the comic-book community.
The plain fact of the matter is that I have always been pretty much ignored. My work, with rare, generally vague, single exceptions—a few paragraphs in Rolling Stone in the late '80s, a page in the Village Voice in the '80s, a page and a half in the Atlantic in the '80s, that kind of thing—has never been reviewed, either in the comic-book press or in the mainstream press. And what grudging, intermittent critical response I have gotten has always been qualified. Just in the last few years, I have somehow become generally acknowledged as a "brilliant creator" without ever once having my work itself discussed, as in: "Dave Sim is a brilliant creator, but…" followed by an extensive list of personal invective. Because my work discusses feminism and disapproves of feminism, it is important from the leftist standpoint to destroy Dave Sim as an individual and to ignore his work.
One of the letters that I just got this week outlined what I would call the Dave Sim Syndrome. He read "Tangent" and was convinced that I was kidding. No one could believe what I was writing. Then phase two: He realized that I wasn't kidding, that I actually meant what I was writing, that it wasn't a publicity stunt, and was seriously horrified and offended. Then phase three: He doesn't know what to think, because he keeps reading and re-reading "Tangent" and trying to figure out where I'm wrong in what I'm saying, and he can't do it. But—and this, to me, is the central ridiculousness of the leftist position—he still thinks I'm wrong. He can't disprove my viewpoint, he recognizes what I'm saying, he has nothing to replace it with, but he is just going to disagree with me.
O: I wasn't actually referring to "Tangent." In editorials in the monthly comic, you've repeatedly referred to disappointing or annoying reaction to your work—for instance, the fan silence after Church & State ended, or the storm of misinterpretation following Cerebus' "marriage" to Astoria. Has the response to your work ever indicated that readers really were getting it as you intended them to?
DS: That's a question that each reader would have to answer individually. I wouldn't classify the non-reaction to the end of Church & State as disappointing or annoying—those are emotional responses—so much as inexplicable. The first 1,100-page graphic novel in the history of the medium, and the reaction could be summed up as the sound of one cricket leg chirping. Just as there was no "storm of misinterpretation" following Cerebus' "marriage" to Astoria. I'm not sure the quotes belong on there. That was part of my point. If Cerebus is the Pope and he declares himself married to Astoria and has sex with her, is that rape? There were a number of levels to that one, but that was the joke as far as I was concerned. To give it a greater immediacy: Why does having a priest say a few words to a couple make what they do marital relations, and if he doesn't say the few words, it's fornication? And if a priest can make fornication into marital relations, why can't he make rape into marital relations? Enlarge the question: If Pope John Paul decided to declare ex cathedra—in his legally infallible capacity—that he is married to whomever, can he do so? Peter was married, reportedly, so why not Pope John Paul? I just thought it was an interesting question to pose in a parody called Church & State.
O: You say that people often don't think logically about your work, or address it on the proper intellectual level. Has that always been true, or just since you started writing about feminism?
DS: Well, I don't think that people think at all these days; it isn't just about Cerebus. It's a conscious choice with things like affirmative action. It's introduced to balance the number of women and men getting into university. More women than men are getting into university, but no effort is being made to achieve a state of balance now that women are winning. The reaction to that on the part of male and female feminists is to stop thinking. If you thought about it, you would have to do something about it or admit that there's—let me be charitable—something of an inconsistency there? Feminism, like the Marxism that spawned it, demands that you ignore things like that. If the facts don't fit the program, comrade, then the facts must be mistaken.
O: From an artistic standpoint, do you regret the series having come to an end?
DS: No, not at all. It was pure guesswork on my part back in 1979 as to whether I would have the stamina to write, pencil, ink, letter, tone, and fill the back of a monthly comic book for 26 years. In retrospect, I should've said 250 issues. Finishing the book, the last four years, what had previously been an interesting job that left me a certain amount of spare time for other things had become a 15-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week, Herculean task. At the age of 23, I actually thought I would be fine into my 50s doing a monthly comic book, but that I would let myself slack off by ending it at the age of 47. It's a young man's game.
O: Why was it taking so much longer toward the end?
DS: I had no idea at the time. I thought I was just getting old. It's only been in the last few days—after a month of answering the three-year backlog of reader mail, which started out as something of a lark and has now become this thing I'm compelled to finish—that I've noticed my answers are getting longer and longer and more intricate. I double back to reinforce any point that I think is unclear, and some of the letters are getting to be 10 pages long. It seems to me that toward the end of things, I develop this compulsion to become more thorough. Possibly because I'm aware that it's my last kick at the can. Possibly, as well, because I'm so used to being misunderstood and I'm usually a "minority of one" that I have this compulsion to try to explain myself as thoroughly as possible—to really try to break through that Marxist-feminist sensibility that always chooses "not thinking" whenever it's presented with facts that don't fit the Marxist-feminist program.
O: Are there parts of your story that you would still like to address, or perspectives that you feel you haven't yet had the chance to get across?
DS: Ever the oblique leftist. I don't "feel." If I "felt," I would never have gotten the book done. I'd be off "feeling" somewhere. My best intellectual assessment of the completed work is that I said exactly what I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say it. What you want to know is if I'm going to continue to attack feminism, and what sort of artillery I have left. I have a lot of artillery left. My best guess would be that I emptied one metaphorical clip from one metaphorical AK-47, mostly firing over your heads and at the ground, although most of you are feeling as if I dropped an atomic bomb on your house on Christmas morning.
Leftist reactions are always histrionic. If it becomes necessary to renew my attack, I'll renew my attack. At this point, I think history will do most of the dirty work. Feminists are in an untenable position, defending something they no longer believe in, and which history will force them to recognize was destructive of most of the central pillars of civilization. I'm just the first one to point it out publicly. Everyone ignored Winston Churchill's warnings in 1937, but the question for Churchill wasn't, "What are you going to do to convince people you're right in 1938, 1939, and 1940?" If you perceive reality accurately—and I think I perceive reality a lot more accurately than feminists do—then ultimately, history will prove you right.
O: Again, I wasn't referring specifically to your writings on feminism. You mentioned that you should have made the series 250 issues, instead of 300. But if it took 300 issues to say exactly what you wanted to say as you wanted to say it, presumably 250 issues wouldn't have been enough space. Did you ever reach a point where 300 issues didn't seem like enough space?
DS: Oh, no. Sorry, I misunderstood. No, that was part of the steep learning curve through High Society and Church & State, finding out how much story fits in 500 pages, how much information you can get in there, how long the arcs can be, how long it takes to close something off or how much you can overlap two sequences, how many silent sequences you can have in a given story before it starts to intrude on the content. How to alternate mood and content without swerving too far over into pretentiousness, how to stream pretentiousness back into mood back into content. By the time I was doing Jaka's Story, I was able to shape 500 pages in my mind and have it come out pretty much on the money. Except for the Hemingways-in-Africa sequence in Form & Void. That one spilled over about seven pages, which made me paranoid for the rest of the run. I didn't have room for that to happen again.
O: If you were going to "renew the attack," would you consider a follow-up or spin-off Cerebus series?
DS: No. Cerebus is my attempt at a literary work. A literary work doesn't have follow-ups or spin-offs. It's ridiculous to think about More Crime, More Punishment or The Sons & Nephews Karamazov.
O: What do you think has been the overall effect of your personal worldview on the reaction to Cerebus?
DS: It's caused what I would guess is pretty much a universal reaction, which ranges across the narrow spectrum from clinical denial to clinical shock. Arguably, over the next year or so, it will probably result in a Cerebus version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for those sorts of people who would rather collapse themselves around a lie than face the possible existence of an alternate truth which suits the given facts. That is to say, leftists. It's very dangerous to pretend to be open-minded when you're the exact opposite. I think feminists are only making it worse by blocking out all other viewpoints but their own, only reading their own propaganda and only associating with each other. There's this resulting exponential upsurge in quasi-scientific jargon—"content-challenged streaming issues," if you will. Quasi-scientific jargon is the underground bunker of leftist ideology. The only thing after that is the cyanide capsule or the revolver.
O: Did you expect any different effects?
DS: Well, I've always been more of a thinker than a "feeler," so I've always assumed that if you can frame a persuasive argument—as I think I did with "Tangent"—that, all things being equal, that should open up a dialogue on the merits of the argument. But when you're dealing with feminism, you're dealing with women, and that means if you frame a persuasive argument with which they disagree, they will, instead, indulge in character assassination. Was Dave Sim abused as a child? Is Dave Sim gay? Is Dave Sim insane? Does Dave Sim have misogyny issues? It's evasive. But then, the defense of feminism is always going to be evasive, because it's indefensible.
O: Much of your commentary on feminism has centered on how inherently illogical, irrational, and emotional women are. At the same time, Cerebus, your central male character, seems more emotional, irrational, and illogical than just about anyone in the series. Is that because he's a hermaphrodite, and has female elements? Or because he allows himself to be controlled by women? Or is there more to it?
DS: Well, yes, each of those aspects figure into it. Like in Guys, when Bear finally blows up at him and says it's like he's… part chick… or something. Married guys, boyfriends, newly divorced guys, and guys—like Cerebus—who are permanently stuck on a chick that they might never even have slept with, or they might have broken up with 10 years before, are like that. Part chick. That was my joke with Bear. He had broken up with Ziggy long enough ago that he could see clearly again, and could come up with the observation that Cerebus was part chick. But as soon as Ziggy came back, POW. Bye-bye Bear. And, when he turns up again after their next inevitable breakup, he's 50 pounds overweight and his hair has turned white. I finally stopped hanging around with guys when I realized that they were all just waiting for the next one to come along and stick an ice-pick in their brain.
O: What's next for you?
DS: Ten years ago, I was saying that I hoped to be like Will Eisner, who did The Spirit for about 12 years—the seminal work he will always be known for—and then set out to do more important non-genre work, like A Contract With God, the pioneer graphic novel in 1978. Peter Birkemoe of Toronto's Beguiling comic-book store told me that what he hoped I would do is an accessible, self-contained graphic novel that he could give to customers to read and use as an entry point into graphic novels. It was an interesting idea. Having proven that I can push envelopes and kick open doors, it would, I thought, be a real challenge to produce an interesting self-contained short work that would fit the bill.
As I got closer to the end of Cerebus, I started examining it as if it were a math problem. I got X and Y figured out and made some progress structurally, and then I hit the brick wall of feminism. I live in a society that believes feminism is workable. They literally won't read anything unless it's founded on an outright lie.
I'd still like to make a stab at it, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to wait for my society to grow up. Eisner finished The Spirit in 1952 and published A Contract With God in 1978. So, by my reckoning, society has until 2030 to grow up. Reading the newspaper every day, I'd consider that to be a very optimistic deadline.