Beginning At Aardvark: The Extraordinary And Controversial Career of Dave Sim
No other comic artist's legacy is as tough to nail down as that of Dave Sim, born on this day in 1956. As the creator of Cerebus, Sim is one of the medium's biggest champions for creators' rights, a patron saint of self-publishing, a contender for the title of greatest living cartoonist, and a visionary who achieved something that seemed both both crazy and impossible.
Simultaneously, he's a lightning rod for controversy, the holder of a litany of contentious opinions that he's made one with his work, and he's often dismissed as a kook at best, disgusting at worst. Yet no matter what one thinks of Sim as a human being, there's no denying the white-hot sequential brilliance that emanates from one of comics' most controversial creators.
In 1977, Dave Sim was getting some work as a cartoonist, an illustrator for fanzines, and as a contributor to a few stories for the famous StarReach, including an early triumph in the Steranko-like "Cosmix." Frustrated with the small number opportunities available, Sim and his soon-to-be-wife (and future ex-wife) Deni Loubert founded their own publishing enterprise, Aardvark-Vanaheim, starting with the flagship series Cerebus, a sword-and-sorcery parody starring the titular anthropomorphic aardvark. In the early days, it was pretty decent: well-made, adventurous, and funny, but overall just decent. Commercially and critically, a modest success.
About two years later, Sim took a bunch of LSD, went through a nervous breakdown, was committed to a mental institution, and declared that Cerebus would be 156 issues long and conclude in 2003 --- an absolutely insane benchmark for a self-published black-and-white comic.
Shortly after, as Cerebus moved to a monthly schedule, Sim amended his statement: it would instead be three hundred issues long, and chronicle the character's life up until his death. And although he wasn't crazy enough to make a prediction about the quality of his work, over the course of those three hundred issues, Sim developed into one of the most accomplished and innovative cartoonists of his era. Maybe ever.
Being a 300-issue story made up of over 6,000 pages and taking twenty-seven years to complete, it can be difficult to describe Cerebus by any terms other than its dimensions. It's the Noah's Ark of comics, thirty cubits by fifty cubits by three hundred cubits, and holding two of everything. What began as a straightforward fantasy-comedy evolved into a sophisticated long-form narrative subdivided by massive, self-contained novels that basically encompassed everything that interested Sim.
As Cerebus rolled along through the years, it encompassed political satire, doomed relationships, love and art in a dictatorship, metaphysical discourse, the comics industry and pop culture parody, the dynamics of sex and gender, theism, genesis, and apocalypse. Cerebus is set in the land of Estarcion"in the 1400s, but for some stories, it becomes other times and places, notably Victorian England and 1950s America. Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all appear.
Cerebus becomes Prime Minister and Pope, travels to the moon and the farthest reaches of space, witnesses creation and meets his creator, and that's all in the first two hundred issues. In the final hundred, he ran a bar, got married, got divorced, and died, and the lack of action is far from the biggest complaint about the final third of the series.
Throughout what Sim has called "the longest sustained narrative in human history" (and he probably has an argument, actually) his constant formal experimentation and virtuosic cartooning consistently made Cerebus one of the most visually interesting books on the stands. After writing, penciling, inking, lettering, and applying tones to the first sixty-four issues himself, he brought on another artist in Gerhard, who provided incredibly detailed and intricate backgrounds for Sim to flourish over.
For twenty years the pair grew together, with Sim innovating in every aspect of the comic's creation, from scripts to layouts to lettering. Gerhard joined on as a polished draftsman with remarkable control, but when Sim began Cerebus he was an okay comic book artist. Halfway through the series he was a master of the medium, with expressive characters, fluid lines, brilliant caricatures, marvelously inventive layouts, and a sense of space, time, and page that had no precedent; it belonged to him alone.
Concurrently, Sim became one of the medium's finest writers. For long stretches, Cerebus was arguably the best-written comic book: complex, nuanced, funny, dramatic, emotional, and compassionate, particularly the novels Jaka's Story and Melmoth. That compassion --- that apparent humanity --- is likely why Sim lost so many readers with Cerebus 186, in which he published his anti-Feminist essay "Tangent."
At its commercial peak, Cerebus sold over thirty-five thousand copies an issue, easily the most successful self-published comic. Following issue 186 and Sim's ongoing diatribe against Feminism, his public arguments, and the increasing presence of his abrasive opinions in both the letters pages and the story pages of Cerebus, readership dwindled dramatically. By the series' conclusion, only about three thousand remained, with most former fans citing Sim's entwining of his ideas and himself with the main narrative as the reason the work had become unreadable, and the majority of the comics-reading world coming to the conclusion that Sim was a misogynist.
Sim would contend that he is not a misogynist because he says that he does not hate women. He argues that he is simply an anti-Feminist, and in the world culture climate, such an opinion leads to vilification. But the specifics of his cosmology are deep and strange, and the prevailing opinion is that his rhetoric equates to hate-speech.
Sim believes that, apart from a few "Exceptions," women are incapable of rational thought; that womanhood is a void that siphons male light and creative energy; that women are naturally inferior to men; that the advent of Feminism has led to many problems in western society, particularly Liberalism; that YHWH of the Hebrew Bible is not God but in fact God's female Adversary; and many more peculiar things. If he does not think this is misogyny, plenty will disagree.
As he has transformed from a drinking, smoking, drug-consuming atheist to a celibate monotheist who fasts once a week and recites a 1,491-word prayer five times a day, Sims has come to believe in too many controversial things to list. But like Walt Whitman and Cerebus, Dave Sim and comic book readers contain multitudes. It's possible to disagree with him and still appreciate the artistic mastery on display in his work.
For extended periods, Cerebus is one of the greatest comics of all time. At other points it's almost unreadable for a myriad of reasons: the opinions, the pace, the shift in story direction and subject matter. But even when it's borderline indecipherable, Cerebus is still unceasingly fascinating.
While Sim was alienating ninety percent of his readership with his essays in Reads, the comics themselves were still thrillingly unique. Across the final third of the series, during what many saw as Sim's steep decline, his art actually continues to progress, to the point where even the most inane story beat or highly debatable philosophical ideal seems impossible to look away from. Over the last hundred issues, Cerebus the character is actually more interesting than ever: self-hating and loathsome, his anger and bitterness leading him to die, as foretold, "alone, unmourned, and unloved."
After Cerebus, Sim shifted focus to shorter work, at first with Judenhass, a raw and unflinching examination of the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism. Following that came Glamourpuss, part parody of fashion magazines and superhero comics, part history of photorealistic comic art, and part biography of Alex Raymond, artist of Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9. The Alex Raymond biography will be completed as The Strange Death of Alex Raymond at IDW.
However you define Dave Sim --- misogynist, loony, acid casualty, genius, a--hole --- you cannot discount his monolithic talent. As an artist, his work is never less than compelling.