From 1981 to 2004 I was an avid follower of Dave Sim’s Cerebus, a 300 issue black and white independent comic that’s a cultural landmark as the longest single comic book run written and drawn by a single creator. That’s twenty-three years in which I collected the issues month by month, in which they were the first thing I looked for and the first thing I read. Only R.E.M. have lasted longer with me than Cerebus.
When it ended, Dave Sim and I were both 49 (he is six months younger than me). Long ago, he’d been asked what he would do after Cerebus was completed and he was honest enough to say that he didn’t foresee doing anything of that size again, that Cerebus was pretty much his life’s work. He intimated he would probably retire.
But that was at a time when the comic was riding high, and Sim was pretty much rich from his own efforts. Though the title’s sales, even at its peak, were small in comparison with the numbers being done by even lower end DC and Marvel titles, the difference was that Sim owned his character, his company and his process. He kept everything instead of getting a page rate and royalties.
By the end of Cerebus and in large part due to his, shall we say for now, idiosyncratic opinions, expressed both publicly and in his work, circulation had dropped away substantially, to a point where Sim was making a loss on the title. His ‘retirement’ years have become a time of struggle.
So both financial imperative and artistic necessity combined to bring Dave Sim back to the business with his second series, Glamourpuss.
I described myself above as an avid follower of Cerebus until its final issue in March 2004, and I was. Avid, loyal, determined to get to the end. But not a happy follower in the end. For almost the last three years, from issue 268 onwards, I found the series to become dull, unfunny, strident, ridiculous and a trial to follow. My overwhelming response to issue 300 was relief. Relief that it was over and that I would not have to read any more of it.
Even now, nearly fifteen years later, I have only re-read Cerebus twice. So much of it is good, so much of it is brilliant, Sim is a maestro, endlessly inventive, endlessly fresh, endlessly finding new ways to convey his story. He is a master parodist, a master caricaturist, a master cartoon stylist, and let us not forget that for about three-quarters of the run, he had the blessing of Gerhard doing backgrounds for him, making everything look incredibly real and everywhere look stunningly beautiful.
But those last three years, those last 33 issues. In that, Sim loses all semblance of control. The story loses all semblance of coherence, becomes tediously unfunny and, in its extended Bible exegesis sequence (over half a year!), grindingly dull. With the end in sight, it is as if Sim decides that the gloves can come off and his anti-feminist message can be portrayed in the most indigo of humour, without the faintest attachment to reality.
It is an appalling ending to so brilliant a piece of work, and I cannot now read those many years of out and out genius without the pain that comes from knowing just what it is going to degenerate into. And there is no more appropriate word than degenerate.
So I was well-warned about starting to read another Dave Sim comic, self-warned, which ought to have been the strongest signal. It wasn’t as if Sim’s opinions had been ameliorated in any way. Between comics conventions and telephone calls to order the limited edition ‘telephone book’ collections, I’d spoken to him nearly half a dozen times, I have a signed and framed piece of original art, and in order to contact him, I would have had to sign a piece of paper stating that I did not think he was a misogynist. And I can’t do that.
But. This was a Dave Sim comic. A new Dave Sim comic. Even if all it was was equal parts curiosity, hope and the ingrained habit of twenty-three years, I started buying it. And I kept buying it, every other month, for the twenty-six issues of its existence. Now, seven years on from its demise, I’m putting my collection on eBay in the hope that someone will take it off my hands and free up space in my bookshelves.
Of course, I read it again before doing so, to remind me of its course, and to write this piece about one of the oddest comic books I have ever collected.
The theme of Glamourpuss, which might not be obvious from its title, is the History of Photorealistic Comics, by which Sim meant, originally, newspaper strips, with particular regard to Alex Raymond and, subsequently, Stan Drake. Raymond was, of course, the creator of Flash Gordon but in the post-War period to which Sim was referring, he was responsible for Rip Kirby, a private eye strip distinguished by its avoidance of all the cliches of the form, as well as Raymond’s fine and highly-influential art.
Sim pursued this outcome in two widely contrasting manners. There was a highly analytical historical account of Raymond’s position in the industry, after the war, and the challenge his art posed to the prevailing Milt Caniff/Terry and the Pirates form of stylised realism, followed by a similarly detailed appreciation of the differing approach to photorealism taken by Stan Drake, following his debut in 1952 with the soap opera strip, The Heart of Juliet Jones.
The other aspect of this history was Dave Sim, a supremely talented stylised cartoonist, teaching himself photorealistic art by means of full-page drawings of models and supermodels, traced from fashion magazines.
It sounds bizarre. I mean, Dave Siim and fashion magazines? That is not a juxtaposition you can imagine going down well under any circumstances and yet, initially, it had its merits. Sim, in his devotion to not just Raymond but Hal (Prince Valiant) Foster and Raymond’s worshipful disciple, the extremely talented Al Williamson, accompanied his art with discursions on how hard it was to learn the techniques applied by these artistic giants, upon their technical approaches and their equipment, and upon the argument over whether inking is best with pen or brush.
And insofar as that was what Sim was presenting, it worked. It looked and sounded serious, because it was serious, to Sim. The audience might find it all a bit esoteric, and they might wonder why Sim was so taken up with something antithetical to the style he’d evolved and made so successful, but the artist must be allowed to develop as he sees necessary.
However, which sounds so much nicer than but, there was a but,and a big one. The marriage between Dave Sim and fashion magazines is not, after all, positive. Far from it. Sim invents two characters for the comic. One is Glamourpuss, the titular star, and the other is Skanko, her evil twin. Into Glamourpuss he pours ignorance, self-obsession and dumbness, all the things he attributes to models for being a) women, b) models and c) wearing the expressions models wear in fashion magazines, and she’s the ‘good’ one. Into Skanko he pours – well, what do you think he pours? And Sim wonders why only a tiny handful of people don’t think he’s a misogynist.
It’s there from the start and, this being Dave Sim, it only gets worse, although as Sim is now revelling in his position as comics’ official pariah, we don’t get a couple of decades of brilliant cartooning before it does.
That part of the comic becomes literally unreadable. But as Sim develops the unlovely technique of interleaving the fashion plates and the serious side of the comic, metamorphosing in its third part into ‘The Strange Death of Alex Raymond’, without warning which part of this schizophrenic title we might be reading on any page, it is necessary to look at every page instead of just turning to a handy page where what is worth reading can commence. Presumably, this is Sim aware that if he didn’t force his readers to do so, they wouldn’t look at that part at all. (Mind you, his dreadfully unfunny Cerebus in Hell collage book still appears, so maybe it’s just me.)
And SDOAR, as everyone abbreviates it, is getting both increasingly intense and increasingly odd as Sim progresses.
I was completely unaware before Sim started this project that Alex Raymond had died at the age of 46, killed in a car crash whilst driving the car of fellow strip artist Stan Drake (a-ha!), in Westport, Connecticut. Sim has broken down the events of the day in a very painstaking fashion, supplemented by a great deal of imaginative reconstruction of the various participants’ thoughts, motivations and manipulations. Like Alan Moore in From Hell, Sim, who is acting as narrator in propria persona, explains how and why he has come to these conclusions, and the researches that ‘support’ them.
Unfortunately, even here he cannot help be Dave Sim in his attitude to the women involved, and the men’s responses to them. This is particularly pointed in the case of Drake, who at this time was working with the twenty-years-younger woman who would become his second wife, and upon a sequence in Juliet Jones involving Juliet’s younger and more vivacious sister, Eve, the strip’s unacknowledged but real star, that Sim interprets (convincingly) as a metaphorical playing out of Drake’s feelings towards his future wife.
And Sim portrays Raymond as potentially threatened both by a cartoonist turning out to be, naively, a potentially greater photorealist than himself but also a man in his forties capable of pulling young girls.
But most tendentious of all is something that Sim names ‘The Margaret Mitchell Glamour’, and which he interpolates into the whole incident as some form of mystical force, beglamouring Drake (in the oldest sense of the word) and practically causing the accident and Raymond’s death.
This is another of those areas where Sim told me things I didn’t know. Mitchell was, of course, the author of Gone with the Wind, my parents’ copy of which I struggled through over several weeks many decades ago, who died, aged 48, in a traffic accident. Sim portrays her as sexually promiscuous, an adulterer, and a wild child, obviously disgusting him: he even refers to her as a skank. He makes much of her death in a road traffic accident as linking to Alex Raymond, though gives no details, and the Wikipedia entry suggests she was an innocent victim.
But the real source for his bringing her into the story is that Mitchell supposedly contributed the idea for The Heart of Juliet Jones, and some of its elements, notably the initial portrayal of Eve Jones as a scheming villainous bad girl. Though Sim makes some very telling points about whether Mitchell could have been involved with Juliet Jones, he forgets this as he goes on to create this ‘Glamour’, built upon wild child Mitchell and a supposed affinity for car crashes, as playing an overwhelming unconscious part in the crash and Raymond’s death.
It’s a notion that would have worked perfectly in Cerebus, but in a final re-read it is out of place, and almost unworthy in SDOAR.
But at least it preserves a certain consistency between the madly mis-matching halves of Glamourpuss, which was cancelled with issue 26, for reasons explained at length by Sim as having been inevitable from the moment he only got 16,000 retailer orders for issue 1. He goes over his attempts to make the series financially viable and how all of these work, without once ever considering if his alienation of his once-large fandom has played any part in this, and the effect is of a long wallow in self-pity and, it has to be said, self-entitlement.
‘The Strange Death of Alex Raymond’ was unfinished at the cancellation of Glamourpuss: hell, we still hadn’t even got to the crash itself! Sim signed up with publishers, in a breach of his ethical stance that they were parasites and artists shouldn’t sign contracts, to publish SDOAR as first a comic book, then a Graphic Novel. This remains to be seen. Sim’s health has been uncertain in recent years, and he has mystifyingly refused to see Doctors, paying for an independent MHR scan. A wrist injury/condition has left him unable to draw for some years now (I am afraid that this news only led me to speculate whether the possibility that his highly-individualised God had finally gotten fed up with the shite he’s spouted in God’s name for too many years had ever crossed his mind), though apparently he is now able to do some drawing again. Sim has been working with other photorealist artists to produced a publishable SDOAR, but there is no word of when, or if, it will ever be scheduled.
For all of Dave Sim’s flaws, of its flaws, I think I would probably buy it if it ever appears, though the final decision would depend on the amount of non-comics supplementary matter from Sim that the book contains. I have read enough of Sim’s view of the world to last me a literal lifetime and want no more. But as a respecter of good art, I would like to see ‘The Strange Death of Alex Raymond’ completed. Even Dave Sim deserves that.
Anyway, even though it contains all of that story that has ever see print, I am putting the complete Glamourpuss up for sale on eBay. The space will go to something that contains less wildly-egregious and flagrantly misogynist stuff.