Hating the Hero The Inspiration and Vilification of Dave Sim
Published Mar 01, 2004From the beginning, the tale of Dave Sim. and his aardvark comic creation Cerebus, has been an Icarian tragedy. Twenty-five years ago, Sim made his mark on the comic industry by pledging to create the longest-running single-artist illustrated narrative in history, a goal he'll finally reach this month with issue 300. Along the way, Sim became one of the independent comic scene's most influential figures and one of its most controversial. His efforts to change the face of the industry made him a hero, yet for his disturbing and frightening views of women, others have vilified him.
At the tender age of 23, Kitchener, Ontario native Sim began self-publishing his comic Cerebus, tales of a sword swinging, womanising, gold seeking aardvark. Like many artists, Sim wrote and drew under pot's acrid cloud, but soon began experimenting with LSD in an attempt to relieve anxiety. What he got instead was a complete breakdown and a "holiday" in the psychiatric ward of Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital.
Following his release, Sim had an epiphany he decided that unlike comic icons like Peter Parker or Clark Kent, Cerebus would age, suffer setbacks, grow wise and eventually die; the project would continue until the artist was in his late 40s. In 1979, sales were high enough to warrant moving to a monthly publishing schedule and Sim became more specific about when it would end: after issue 300, in March 2004.
This mortal life and his commitment to seeing the ambitious project through would not be Sim's only innovation. He became a strong advocate of creators' rights, and was instrumental in lobbying on behalf of writers and illustrators. He donated $100,000 to a comic book legal defence fund, set up to help creators fight against censorship. And in [what year?], after completing a 25-issue Cerebus story arc called "High Society" (which traces his adventures as prime minister of a medieval city-state), Dave Sim collected the entire run into a graphic novel. Critics lauded its sophisticated political satire; the innovative collection soon became the industry standard.
Cerebus connected not just to fans at the height of the book's popularity, it was selling 16,000 copies a month, making it one of the five best-selling independently published comics but to admiring artists as well. Sim proved that one didn't have to sell out to DC or Marvel to make a living. Spawn's Todd McFarlane was one artist inspired by Sim to start his own company. He was a hero to many, particularly in the underground comic scene.
Then Sim did something that changed forever the way he is perceived.
In 1994, issue 186 of Cerebus hit the stands. In it, Sim included an intense, 15-page diatribe against women. Fans were immediately confused, and many thought maybe it was a joke that such misogynist views were a satire within the context of the comic. Sim himself claimed it was written by a stand-in. But as the months rolled by, it became increasingly apparent that these were the unvarnished views of a man who hated women. Among the outraged were fellow Canadian comic book creators Chester Brown and Seth. Both were deeply offended by the things Sim was saying and refused to have any further dealings with him. His ex-wife stopped reading the book after Sim drew Cerebus raping a woman that was based on her. But Sim continued on his path undeterred.
In the intervening years, a different Dave Sim has emerged. Although still deeply anti-feminist, his fanatical ravings have been replaced by a deep devotion to his own strain of religion, one that blends Judaism, Christianity and Islamic beliefs; it's complicated and difficult to comprehend much like the Cerebus of today. Many devoted fans, uncomfortable with being preached to, have abandoned the series because of the biblical references.
It's clear that Cerebus has been a vehicle for Sim to work out some personal rage issues; many have wondered what will happen when his vehicle for doing so comes to an end this month. Some have speculated that without the grounding demands of the book and a page-and-a-half per day workload he's maintained for a quarter-century that Sim might take his own life. Others maintain that his misogyny and other eccentricities are merely dressing for a story behind the story. Regardless, the mental toll brought on by his intense and prolonged dedication to his goal means that, in the end, the accomplishment has been tainted. But despite the ranting and hatred, Sim has contributed greatly to comics. At the end of a journey no one believed he could ever complete, one has to wonder whose story is really finished: that of Cerebus or of Sim himself.
Bone Takes Its Place in History
Like Dave Sim's Cerebus, another long-running, single artist narrative is soon coming to an end, but unlike Sim, Jeff Smith may not make his deadline. In fact, the penultimate issue of Bone is already late.
Not that Smith isn't disciplined. He has enjoyed drawing and writing Bone since 1991, when he first developed the concept, which chronicles the three Bone brothers, who are forced out of their home and out into the wild.
Bone is one of the most successful self-published comics in the world, having been translated into 15 languages, boasting its own web site and garnering a host of awards. But one thing many people don't realise about Bone it's managed to recapture the one audience that the comic industry had appeared to forget: children.
Regularly compared to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings the story is a rich tapestry of cleverly blended topics Bone is regularly used as a means to encourage children to read. Multi-layered and packed with symbolism, Bone is written for children but allows for adults to visit its glorious world.
Smith's work demonstrates that there doesn't need to be a super strong man in a tight costume with a cape flying by to save the day. Similarly, he's proven that independent-minded comic artists needn't rely on a large publisher the economic equivalent of a superhero to save a comic book either.