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Unorthodox Economic Revenge: Dave Sim to Digitize ‘Cerebus’ via Kickstarter

One of comics’ most startling creative (and physical) achievements, Cerebus is a 6,000-page self-published graphic novel series written and drawn by Dave Sim that the famously outspoken cartoonist has described perhaps unreliably as “the longest sustained narrative in human history.” To read all 16 phonebook-sized volumes of Cerebus from beginning to end is to demonstrate a zen-like command of patience and tolerance (you would doubtlessly disagree violently with many of the political and philosophical and theological notions put forth in the work), to be sure, but it is also to take a master class in sequential art innovation. There’s little as impressive in terms of pure visual storytelling as Sim’s variously hilarious and infuriating magnum opus about an anthropomorphic, despotic, narcissistic aardvark whose life we follow as he graduates from mercenary barbarian to prime minister to pope to, um, super-pope-king.

Eight years after its final issue, Cerebus is making the move to digital. In something of another landmark for Sim, who is a willful luddite, his plans amount to leap-frogging all the major comic book publishers by fulfilling digital’s promise of added value by imbuing every chapter of the 500-page High Society — the only Cerebus graphic novel that can be read on its own — with multimedia content including running audio and video commentary, archival and development material, and vocal performance of all the dialogue, all for 99 cents per issue. That is, if he can raise $6,000 on Kickstarter, which seems entirely doable. He did it in less than nine hours.

Originally serialized between 1981 and 1983 and in print as a 500-page graphic novel since 1986, High Society finds Cerebus the Aardvark walking through the front doors of the Regency Hotel in the fictional city-state of Iest, setting off a chain reaction that will see the brutish and greedy “earth pig-born” ascend to the highest political office in the land. Sim’s first true graphic novel (and arguably one of the first true graphic novels in North American comics), High Society is an enduringly funny political satire that demonstrates the author’s unmatched gift for dialogue and penchant for character-based drama and humor (the superhero parody Moon Roach and his cry of “Unorthodox Economic Revenge! HISSSSSS!” is a favorite).

Perhaps most rewardingly, High Society — which was created early in his career, before Sim courted controversy with his decidedly unpopular personal views on feminism and politics — showcases a cartoonist working without restraint and allowing himself to improve and innovate by tremendous amounts, sometimes from page to page in a single chapter. From the expressive figure drawing to the abstract page layouts to the exquisite lettering, it’s difficult to find a graphic novel like High Society (except for, naturally, the subsequent Cerebus volumes, where Sim is joined by background artist Gerhard).

Because High Society serves the dual purposes of being both really good and a keen introduction to the world of Cerebus, Sim and his media collaborator John Schrudder (Cerebus TV) have elected to make it his first foray into digital content. This is no small step for a man who confesses to still work with an electric typewriter and communicate via “escargot mail” (his joke), fax machine and landline telephone, using a laptop and the Internet purely for typesetting and Google Images for photo reference.

The initial $6,000 Sim raised via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform will go towards the high resolution scanning and conversion (from original artwork and photo negatives) of all 500 pages of High Society, including the original color covers and back-matter from the original serialized issues, for digital distribution via comiXology and other platforms (the aim is universality). Most comic book publishers employ people especially for this task, and most of the digital comics available were helped along by the various computer processes involved with producing modern comics, but Cerebus has always been an old school, independent effort. That makes it all the more impressive that should Sim pull this off, he will outdo Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, IDW and virtually every other publisher you can think of.

Beyond the primary hope of opening the industry to new readers, digital has always offered a way of adding unique value to comic book content in the form of supplemental material — a comic book DVD, in other words. Some content creators have certainly availed themselves of the technology (even Marvel with its augmented reality titles), but so far there’s nothing on the level of Sim’s intentions, and nothing in the works (that we know of) with as much literary significance as Cerebus. The digital initiative includes the built-in bonus material that came with every issue of what became High Society (front covers, editorials, essays, letters and back covers) as well as Sim’s performance of every piece of dialogue (you can get a preview in the video), narration and caption text; audio and visual commentary for every issue, with relevant documents from Sim’s Cerebus Archive; and additional footage and narration of material from Sim’s old notebooks and original artwork. This is the kind of digital presentation I think most people would love to see for The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen or Akira, but self-published Sim is doing it first, and that is kind of amazing.

Officially called Cerebus Digital 6000, the project comes with the variety of rewards familiar to those of you who’ve participated in Kickstarters before. Among them, copies of uncollected Cerebus comics, posters, prints, sketches, original artwork, a phone call from Dave Sim or even a visit to your hometown (that last one is for a pledge of $10,000 or more). Excess funds will go towards recreating the arduous process for the remaining 15 volumes of Cerebus.

Cerebus Digital 6000 comes with endorsements from Neil Gaiman and, curiously, legendary Joy Division and New Order bass player Peter Hook, and has since been hyped on Twitter by creators including Kurt Busiek and Colleen Doran. You can learn more about the project at its Kickstarter fundraising page.

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