By Sandy Atwal
Dave Sim sat hunched over the bar with a pint of Coors light draft perched within easy reach. One hand held a Viscount 1 extra light cigarette while the other propped open a Norma Mailer book. It was almost too precious for words. A misogynist bastard doing his homework by reading up on another misogynist bastard. He saw me approach, but made no effort to acknowledge me, preferring instead to wait and let me interrupt him, just to remind me that he was doing me a favour…
But Dave Sim is, unsurprisingly, an amicable, friendly fellow. The first thing you notice is his voice. Clear and strong, it would sound good on the radio He drank less and more slowly than I did, but smoked about as much as me — and I go through a pack and a half of Camels a day. Although interviews with Sim appear as frequently as Stone Roses albums, he was more than talkative and gave me close to two hours of his time.
Curiously, (perhaps less curious to Sim himself) Sim’s actual claim to fame, Cerebus the comic book, receives precious little mention in this interview. First appearing in 1977, the book essentially began as a mediocre Conan the Barbarian/Groo the Wanderer-type parody, but no sooner had it begun than all the elements that make it remarkable today appeared; stunning character development, an intelligent correlation with our world, and a constant improvement in Sim’s writing and drawing skills made Cerebus universally recognized as one of the best comic books ever created….
Despite his position that no interview with him has ever properly illustrated what he or Cerebus was about, I’d like to think that this interview displays more than a little of what Dave Sim thinks about, and some of the ideas that find their way onto the pages of Cerebus in a more aesthetically pleasing fashion…(the following is only an excerpt from Sandy Atwal’s lengthy interview, for the complete interview, contact Filler).
Do you think of yourself as a borderline schizophrenic?
In the classic sense? Sure…If you’re talking to any comic book creator, particularly a writer/artist, what’s real and what’s completely fantastic…take Rick Veith with Rare Bit Fiends where he’s putting his dreams down on paper. He can draw and he can write, he can letter, he can draw a picture and it’s a very strange experience, having done a couple of Rare Bits myself, to actually draw this mental image that you had that did not exist apart from your mind. It’s both reality and fantasy and I think this is one of the areas of terror that comic book creators create in the world at large that the world doesn’t even understand why it is terrifying. They don’t understand that we are the one standing on the precipice, we are the ones that day after day stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back at us, and we put down on paper as best we can, and the rest of the time we have to walk around as if we’re normal. But we have no problem because they know you’re not famous. You’re famous, but you’re not really famous, apart from “My brother collects comic books, and he thinks you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread,” and they’re looking at you very weird like, “You seem like a regular kind of guy to me, but this guy talks about you the way a Beatles fan talks about John Lennon or a Stones fan talks about Mick Jagger.” But I have to go to a convention to be that. When I’ walking around, I’m as normal as anybody else.
That’s the whole thing. The classic definition, sure, but in reality you’re no more schizophrenic than a musician who puts it down in a song which is reality and fantasy.
Or any other human being. This becomes the scary part. This is why I think we’ve come to “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine,” because the artists who are putting it down on paper or putting it down in music have confronted those demons day after day that everybody else likes to think “Well there’s the border-line the demons are way over there and I’m way over here.” No, we’re all right here dancing and it’s like “Am I on the demon side and the demons on the real side or is my demon on the demon side and I’m on the real side?” Fuck, I don’t know, I got another page done today, lets go for a beer.
People want to think they’re normal and artists are the fucked up ones.
Sure, I think television is instrumental in that. That’s the whole idea behind Oprah, that’s the whole idea behind Hard Copy, “We’re the normal people. We’re the normal people narrating it, you’re the normal people watching this, here’s the fucked up freaks,” and it’s like any person on the planet could be on one of those shows if it just gets found out, or if one of them just cracks and goes, “Yeah man, I go home and dress up in women’s clothes, and my wife hates it.”
I wanted to get into the self-publishing topic a little bit. I’ve read all of the issues where you give a guide to self-publishing, but it applies primarily to comics. Why did you make the decision to go a self-publishing route.
See, the instinct there was just, I want to do my own comic book. I’ll make my own mistakes, thank you. I don’t want an editor telling me I made a mistake. I don’t want to write a script and have somebody else draw it. I don’t want to get a script in and have to figure out what the guy’s driving at. So the big advantage in the comic book field is that it’s a hell of a lot less expensive than, let’s say, music, to get into as a self-publisher. I mean, you draw a comic book, and you take it to a quick copy place and if you’ve got a couple of hundred bucks, they can print off a hundred sixteen page comic books and you can hand them out to friends, you can sell them to people, you can sell them on consignment at a comic book store. So it’s really effortless. It’s the same thing with your own magazine here.
How many copies did you start with?
How much did that cost?
Back then? Probably three, four hundred dollars. The best thing to do in terms of comic books is just to realize that the very best comic books that were ever done, historically — Bernie Krigstein’s Master Race, Kurtzman’s Big If, Ron Bodet’s The Man — all of those things were all drawn on the same art material, like 35 bucks of art material. You get pens, you get the brushes, you get the india ink, you get the art boards, you get pencils, erasers. Boom, that’s it. Sit down and do it. The biggest problem that most people face is that they want the first one to be a classic. “If I’m going to sit down and draw a comic book, it’s going to be a twenty page, brilliant comic book. This is going to be so cool, years from now I’m gong to be doing interviews about it.” If instead somebody who wants to be a comic book creator just sat down and put it down on paper, photocopied it, showed it to people who don’t read comic books, here, what do you think of it? Not friends, just random people. I just want to find out, if I show this to you, what do you think? Creativity, in and of itself, is a good thing. The satisfaction in doing a comic book, doing a twenty page comic book where you say on the page what you want to say. Those are your pictures, those are your words and this is what you want to get across, that’s as good as it gets. Everything else is just everything else. It can make money, it can not make money, it can be a sideline, it can be a hobby, it can be a career. All of those different things, but the key is that you just sat down, you and a piece of paper and a drawing board, you just produced this thing, you just expressed yourself on the page.
But aren’t you happier knowing that this is all you have to do?
Imagine if it was just once every six months kind of thing that you happened to squeeze in between…
Because I had to work at McDonald’s the rest of the time?
Yeah. But what were the steps that enabled you to make it a full time thing?
You just stay focused on it. I mean, the first three years I was doing Cerebus, I could have made more money baby-sitting, literally. How much money I was taking in divided by how much time I was spending on the thing probably worked out to 75 cents to a dollar an hour. what you have to realize is that the creativity is the first thing. That’s the primary instinct. That’s what you want to do, you want to get something down on paper. The biggest drawback is that people approach comic books the same way people approach music, which is, “Well, I want it to be sort of like what this guy does, I want it to be sort of like what this guy does, and I want to do some of this kind of thing.” The moment people hear it, they go, well I know exactly what you’re doing. Or it’s like, well, what would a good comic book be like, “well I’ll do this,” instead of saying, “Okay, what am I not seeing in entertainment and arts like when I pick up a magazine, or I watch something on television, or when I read a comic book, what do I not see?” The thing is, it’s very much like sailing. Like if you just sail with the breeze. “This is the way the breeze is going, you set up the sail, and this is where we’re going.” There’s nothing very special about that because everybody’s sailing in the same direction, that’s the way the wind is going, but if you do something very clever where you turn the sail, suddenly you’re bouncing through the waves and you’re going toward the core of something. “There’s something over here. Everybody’s going this way, but I think there’s something over here.” It’s a tough leap of faith to make, to set your sail so you’re going, “No, the wind isn’t the thing, this thing over here, this glowing thing whatever it is, the light or the radiation or something I know what that is. All of this stuff is going in the wrong way, all of this stuff is sort of out at the edge, sort of circling around it going ‘Yeah I’m a creative person, I’m an artist’. And it’s like, no, let’s get down to the core of it, so when you’re a comic book artist and nobody know who you are, you’ve got some writing talent, just sit down at the drawing board and go “What no bullshit thing can I put on these twenty pieces of paper?” If these guys would just take that as their jumping off point, rather than “That’s where I’d like to get eventually” it’s like fuck, I don’t care, I’m paying the printing bill, I’m just going to go down and print 200 copies of this. I’ll get one, give one to my mom, and I’ve got four friends I want to have it, after that I’m just going to hand them out. What do I want people to know? What you do fucking know for a fact and in everything else that you see around you, what do you think is bullshit? Like yeah, we know you think it’s bullshit, you can put it down on paper but where do you start tacking against the wind and going “I’m going to tell you what the bullshit is but then I’m going to take you over here and show you what I see”. Most people don’t see anything, that’s the problem. They feel it, they sense it, it’s a vibe. It’s the same reason that the Beatles are still so vital that they can tie up so much network time with The Beatles Anthology, because those four guys, led by John Lennon going, “No no no no fuck all this man. I think it’s over here. It’s a little bit hipster, it’s a little bit beatnik, it’s a little bit rock’n’roll, it’s a little bit R’n’B, it’s a little bit PR, it’s all of this stuff, but basically, it’s over here.”
Interview with Cerebus creator, writer and illustrator Dave Sim