This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue issue #16, June 2004.
There can’t be many of you reading this who haven’t read some, or at least, heard of Dave Sim’s Cerebus. I daresay a fair percentage of you are big Cerebus fans. Some of you even probably discovered Strangehaven via the Cerebus Preview in the back of issue #197.
But for the uninitiated among you, Cerebus is a self-published black and white comic book telling the life story of a talking Aardvark. Not much mileage you could get out of that, you might think, but creator Dave Sim this January, published his 300th, and final, monthly issue. Yes. 300. Monthly. Issues. An achievement unparalleled in comics. 20 pages a month, every month, for 26 years.
For a creator to self-publish his own comic book to any degree takes an extraordinary amount of skill, discipline and dedication. To do it on a monthly basis for three hundred issues is a monumental achievement in any field of the arts.
In the early days, young Dave didn’t have any idea of his destiny. In 1977, he set up a publishing company in his native Canada with his then wife, Deni, called Aardvark Vanaheim and created his first comic book, a parody of Conan, with a barbarian Aardvark called Cerebus (a typo of Cerberus, so the story goes) as its central character. That might sound quite straightforward, but in those days, the comics direct market was very different to what it is now, and it was extremely hard for any independent comic, especially one in black and white, to get any kind of distribution.
At some point early on in its run, young Dave thought it would be really cool if he committed himself to a long, continuous stint on Cerebus, say, um… 300 issues. Maybe he thought that his favourite long-running titles were spoilt by changes in personnel, by fill-in issues and other industry wide, corporate-driven decisions that led to a lack of continuity or cancellation of books in mid-stream. Or not. Either way, Dave announced in the pages of Cerebus that it would indeed run for 300 consecutive monthly issues.
And, despite the collapse of his marriage to Deni, seismic changes in the direct market’s distribution system, the black and white glut and subsequent implosion, the creation and demise of his line of creator-owned comics, changes in print and pre-press technology, a handful of crisis-dodging “double-issues,” Dave, in tandem with background artist extraordinaire, Gerhard, completed #300 on time, as it rolled off the press in January 2004, just as predicted 20 years or so earlier.
Not only that, but Dave morphed the straightforward barbarian parody into one of the most controversial, thought-provoking and innovative comics of all time. Dave’s complex political/religious storylines coupled with his ever-experimental storytelling, imaginative layouts, exquisite line work and expressive lettering coupled with Gerhard’s insanely detailed backgrounds resulted in a genuinely original product of the highest quality.
Dave progressed towards combining text and illustration in new ways and multi-layering his stories with levels of fiction, non-fiction, biography, auto-biography, observation and opinion.
Possibly of even more importance than his actual comic work was his dedication to and belief in self-publishing. In the 1990s, his success and his editorial tutorials encouraged many creators to self-publish following his model and Dave strove to promote self-publishing as a movement, giving seminars and making appearances across the globe on his Spirits of Independence tours.
Without Dave, we may not have had Bone, Strangers In Paradise, Thieves and Kings, Stray Bullets or Finder to name but a few. We may not have had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Taboo and therefore no From Hell, no Lost Girls. We probably wouldn’t have had Strangehaven, either. And Dave was also instrumental in drafting the Creators’ Bill of Rights, but that’s a whole other story.
However, many of Dave’s achievements have been ignored by the comics community, or at least overshadowed, due to his ever more controversial and provocative opinions, expressed in his (often extensive) letters pages and essays in the back of Cerebus, which have included anti-feminist tirades, picking fights with fellow creators and most recently by his apparent dedication to a unique amalgam of religious beliefs (and yet, Dave Sim in person is the antithesis to his print persona, one of the most genial, generous and polite people you could ever wish to meet). His only industry recognition in recent years appears to be his perennial Eisner Awards nomination for “Best Letterer,” which although fully deserved, is mere lip service in light of his other achievements.
Taken as a single work, Cerebus is understandably uneven and inconsistent. The early issues are obviously weak by comparison to his prime material, and perhaps the later work suffers in places from his message suffocating his narrative, but vast chunks (High Society, Melmoth and Jaka’s Story) remain among the greatest creative works ever produced.
Rumours abounded in the months preceding issue 300 and the completion of Dave’s life’s work, as to what he was going to do next; of which my two favourites were that he was going to commit suicide after #300 was published, such was the emotional dependence and state of mind that Dave had placed himself under; and the other was that he was to be the new writer of The X-Men. But no, Dave is simply taking a long, long rest, catching up with his correspondence and assisting in the “Following Cerebus” project.
So to Dave, for reaching the impossible 300, an astounding achievement which will never be equalled, and for changing the landscape of comics forever, many congratulations. I await your next project, whatever it may be. In the meantime, please take your place alongside Kirby, Eisner, Tesuka, Hergé, Herriman and Moore, the greatest comic creators that ever walked the Earth. And to Cerebus, my furry grey chum, rest in peace.
The entire 6000 page Cerebus saga has been collected into a series of hefty “phone books” (another Sim innovation) and available from all good comic stores (and some bad ones too).