Sunday, 2 October 2011

Dave Sim: Cerebus, Spirituality and Sexism.

Looking at the first few issues from 1977 it's hard to believe what 'Cerebus the Aardvark' became...
Initially conceived as a parody of the popular 'Conan the Barbarian' comics that had recently been published, with a heavy influence from Steve Gerber's 'Howard the Duck' strip, the early stories are an energetic, if scrappy, affair.
However it didn't take long for Dave Sim, the creator of the series, to see the potential scope of this new world he had created and expand upon it.
With the second story arc, 'High Society', Sim took his cast of characters and moved them to the city state of Palnu where Cerebus, a hard-drinking, combative Aardvark finds himself dragged into the corridors of power. Sim realised he could address any theme he wished to in this book and went on to explore religion, finance, sexuality, war and creativity across the later volumes of the series.
'Cerebus the Aardvark' was a huge success and sales on the book were phenomenally high, particularly given the fact that Sim self-published as well as creating the book single-handed.
By 1984 Sim found himself struggling to keep up the book's monthly schedule and recruited Gerhard, a fellow Canadian artist, to produce the backgrounds of the script, allowing Sim to focus on the highly-detailed character work that had become synonymous with the strip.
Another reason for Sim's need for help was a vow he had made in 1979.
'Cerebus' was going to be 300 issues long...
To be fair on Sim he had made this declaration after being hospitalised following ten days of prolonged LSD usage and could have backed down later without any major outcry.
Sim's steely determination to see this through and stand by his rights and obligations as a creator would crop up again throughout his career...
When the first collection of Cerebus stories were collected into a single volume Sim first made them available directly from himself via mail order. This upset many of the comic stores who had supported 'Cerebus' as a title but Sim was unapologetic.
It was estimated that he made up to $150,000 by this decision so it's unlikely he lost a lot of sleep...
However, it was later in the life of the series that things really began to get interesting.
While researching the various religions of the world to create the beliefs of the 'Pigt' and 'Cirinist' sects that are in the story Sim began to develop his own system of spirituality that borrowed from Christianity, Judaism and Islam. His practices included fasting, celibacy, prayer and the giving of alms and considered the holy books of all these religions to be equally valid as the word of God.
As it went on 'Cerebus' shaped Sim as much as Sim shaped 'Cerebus'.
He wanted to discuss religion in the book so he did the research and made Cerebus the Pope.
He wanted to discuss politics so Cerebus became Prime Minister.
He wanted to discuss the life of a writer so he introduced Oscar Wilde as a character.
He wanted to write gags for Groucho Marx so he 'cast' him as Lord Julius, the ruler of Palnu.
And then he wanted to discuss feminism and gender roles...
So, he created a character called 'Viktor Davis' who outlined what Sim had come to believe were the position of men and women when it came to creativity.
'Davis' explained that men were 'lights' who tended to produce while women were 'voids' who tended to absorb.
Many were alarmed by this language but felt it was appropriate for an author to give his characters opinions that may upset people but may not represent the views of the author himself.
However, Sim went on to support the theories that 'Davis' had put forward in an editorial under his own name where he elaborated on the ideas and explained that his work didn't get sufficient coverage or respect because of a 'Marxist/feminist/homosexualist axis'.
This caused a major storm in the comics world and a lengthy debate followed.
Another creator, Jeff Smith, got caught up in the furore and had a heated exchange with Sim that ended up with Sim accusing Smith of being dominated by his wife and challenging him to a boxing match.
Smith declined...
The sales on 'Cerebus' dropped later in the series as Sim pursued his various agendas but he remained determined to stick to his 300 issue target.
He left orders that if he died Gerhard was to complete as many issues as he wanted with just backgrounds and then, if necessary, the remaining issues up to 300 to be published as blank pages...
In March 2004 Sim published 'Cerebus the Aardvark' #300.
It was the culmination of 27 years and 6,000 pages of work.
Sim has described it as 'the longest sustained narrative in human history', has made arrangements for it to enter the public domain upon his death and while he is alive there is an open invitation for other creators to use his characters in their own work.
Few people take him up on the offer...

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