Dave Sim’s Afterlife: Glamourpuss

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.

A manifesto, of sorts

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.)

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond

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.

Zootanapuss – you don’t want to know, honestly

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.

Dan Dare: The Gates of Eden

A great gift

The advent of Spaceship Away was a godsend to many, not least those who had dreamed of working on their own Dan Dare stories. One who was far more advanced than most, and far more qualified, was Tim Booth, writer, artist and musician, who approached Rod Barzilay with a story he was writing and drawing. Barzilay approved of it, and Booth’s The Gates of Eden debuted in issue 9, running for 39 episodes.
I love it. There are reasons why I shouldn’t, and I’ll explain these, and it’s something Frank Hampson would never have countenanced, for many reasons, and it’s not as if it has a proper ending, except in the closing of a door to something way beyond the Dan Dare series. But I still love it: for the imagination it displays, for the long periods in which it focuses on Hank and Pierre and their continual banter, and for its art.
I didn’t really care for Booth’s contributions to Green Nemesis. He’s not as precise an artist as any of the ‘professional’ stable, his work is frequently fussy and over-detailed, and his colouring is far too Sixties psychedelic to be wholly suited to Dan Dare.
But for The Gates of Eden, Booth adopted, and primarily hewed to a simpler, more direct style, with more naturalistic colouring. In some ways, it’s like a cartoon version of Hampson’s style, and the early style at that, which befits a story that slips into continuity between The Venus Story and The Red Moon Mystery.
And Booth is to be congratulated lavishly in one tiny aspect at least: he is the first and only Dan Dare writer or artist to show Albert Fitzwilliam Digby speaking to his wife!
Booth takes his time over the first half of the story. He’s not just preparing for the dramatic aspect of his tale, he’s enjoying himself filling in details of Hampson”s world that were left to our assumption. I do have to criticise one immediate detail, which is that The Gates of Eden begins in 1998, and one of its preliminary details is Dan being taken off a mission to the Asteroid Belt to supervise the first full Venus Food Run: given that the Venus Story ended in 1996, that’s an awfully large gap for a planet so desperate to escape from reliance on food blocks.
But Dan, and of course Digby, have to go to Venus, leaving Hank and Pierre, that pair of puzzled pilots, to go it alone in the old-fashioned Nimrod. Their mission is to identify suitable asteroids for Impulse Wave Relay stations to be built upon, extending Earth’s space-shipping range. En route, picking up newly-designed spacesuits, they bump into the designer, Professor Peabody, with Tystar, the young son of the Theron Volstar. These two will also have a part to play, when things hot up. Take note that the ship they are travelling on is the Milton Caniff.
Meanwhile, the ‘Frogboy’ and the ‘Yankee Palooka’ fly on to the Asteroids, the latter toting a ukelele/mandolin on which he sings, badly and, if the picture in his cabin is any evidence, a bit of a torch for the fair Jocelyn. And the two ‘copains’ go about their mission, but Pierre the more sensitive of the two, has the feeling that they are being watched, and he is, of course, right.
On Venus, the urgent reason for Dan to supervise this Food Run is carefully revealed, and it is a genuinely touching moment. There is a symbol of Treen/Theron co-operation, designed and constructed in secret: nostalgia overwhelms as Sondar and Volstar present the Pilot of the Future with his personal spacecraft, the Anastasia.
And there’s a perfect excuse for a first mission, as radio contact is lost with Hank and Pierre in the Asteroids. Dan and Digby take their new craft (about which Dig has doubts, given the number of windows that will have to be polished) and set a course.
En route, two things happen: first, the Milton Caniff goes missing, with young Tystar and Earth’s premier food expert, Jocelyn Peabody aboard, and the Anastasia is overtaken, swept up and given a lift by an American crewed Rescue Fleet commanded by Colonel Estev Cyonna.
Yer what? Estev who?
This is a moment to step away from the story and address some of the issues that ought to disqualify The Gates of Eden from consideration.
Those whose knowledge of comics, strips and cartoonists stretch beyond the purely British world of the Eagle ought to have recognised the name Milton Caniff as being the highly influential master of the adventure strip, the writer and artist of the legendary and rip-roaring Terry and the Pirates. Caniff was a master of chiaroscuro, an artist dedicated to realism and accuracy, one of the most influential American strip artists of the Twentieth Century.
Personally, like many, I prefer the dozen years Caniff put in on Terry to the near fifty he spent on his second great strip, the one he left Terry to create and, more importantly, own. That was Steve Canyon, and if you jumble the letters of the improbable Estev Cyonna… And within Booth’s style, he is drawn to be Canyon.
I’ve not the least objection to that, but I feel that, as a matter of consistency, I ought to. It’s not just Caniff and Canyon, but there are spaceships of all sizes and dimensions, such as the rock-crusher Bo Diddley, the Little Eva, Miss Liberty, Crazy Horse, Dixie Darlin’, the Thomas Pynchon. Admittedly, the list of ship names also includes the Lancastrian but that’s very much an exception. Booth peppers his strip with American names and icons, all of which should be thought of as inimical to the atmosphere of so British – so English – a character and series, as Dan Dare.
That’s not all, but we’ll return to that subject after another section of the plot, this time the ongoing mystery of what is happening to Hank and Pierre.
They are being watched and, what’s worse, whilst investigating one asteroid’s possibilities, their ship is taken, leaving them in desperate straits with only a few hours of oxygen each before inevitable death, long before Anastasia could possibly reach them.
Only death is not inevitable. Hank and Pierre have been led, and where they have been led is into the interior of the asteroid, where they find a strange, unmanned base. It’s accessed through a mysterious, yet familiar to Pierre, set of numbers: 21 – 12 – 1918, it’s got breathable air and it’s got a doorway out into the open. It leads to Eden, a planet of natural goodness and beauty, an idyllic yet empty world that proves to be populated by robots fighting an automatic war.
Just what the heck is going on?
What’s going on is a cyborg-Treen, Syndar by name, vat-brother to Sondar and so valued by the Mekon that, when involved in a bad crash, he was rebuilt with robotic parts. Let’s be honest, if it was hovering near the margins of an authentic Dan Dare story, at this point Booth takes it outside the line and keeps it over for almost everything that follows. The Mekon repair a damaged Treen? No, he wouldn’t, under any circumstances.
Syndar conducts Hank and Pierre from Eden to Isshka, a primarily water planet, via some form of telesender. They are greeted by a mermaid, or rather Professor Peabody, with Tystar. Forget Tystar, the Prof looks like she’s never done before, with a grin on her face far more sexy than any look managed during Eagle‘s run, and she changes out of her wet-suit on-stage, revealing a fetching pink slip. No wonder Hank closes in for a hug. And good old Jocelyn is definitely on-side with what’s going on.
Then, with Dan and Digby being led carefully to a rendezvous at Shelter, a secret asteroid base constructed and run by the man behind all of this, we get the great revelation. And it’s Bob Dylan.
No, it’s actually former Earth scientist and spacepilot John Henry Hibbings, who prefers to be known as Mr Jones (as in you don’t know what’s going on, do you?) and in both the visuals and the dialogue, the Dylan references pile up so thickly you could pick them up in lumps. And is not the title of the very story a not-in-the-least coded reference to the man?
Let’s cut quickly to the chase. Dylan/Hibbings has bummed around in space since the Sixties. Early on, he found some crystals with power over space, time and dimension. He has learned how to master them. But the longer time has gone on, the more he has sensed something dark, dense, distant, a threat of immense proportion. That’s why he’s gathered the Venus team, minus Sir Hubert, together. It’s a repeat of what the McHoo will do in Dan’s future, collecting an unparalleled Space Exploration Team. Will they help him?
Unlike McHoo, Hibbings/Jonesy will not force a decision. Should Dan and Co refuse, they will be returned to those places in space and time where Hibbings first interfered, without memory, to live out their lives as they choose. With Tystar absenting himself from decision-making, it becomes a matter of democracy.
There are two in favour – the Professor, already enthralled with the possibilities of discovery, and the ever-adventurous Hank – and two dead-set against – the disbelieving Pierre and Digby, who has taken against this ‘snake-oil salesman’ on sight. The final decision falls to Dan. As it must always have been, and by this I don’t mean the future we already know of, he turns it down. He’s younger, less convinced, lacks the personal elements of his lost father and McHoo’s fait accompli, but it’s down to his duty, to his Controller, to Spacefleet, to the people of Earth.
So Hibbings keeps his word, and everyone goes back, without memory, without trace (save for Hibbings’ compulsion to re-string Hank’s rackety old mandolin). What remains is the successful conclusion to the Venus Food Run and a soiree hosted by Jocelyn, at which Pierre re-finds the mysterious numbers, that mean nothing to anyone save Digby who, metafictionally identifies them as Frank Hampson’s birthday.
Where do we start with all the ways in which this is absolutely wrong for a Dan Dare story that seeks to ground itself in the authentic canon? I’ve already alluded to the overt Americanisation of things, the worship of Caniff and the utter wrongness of Syndar, but the biggie is of course the presence and tutelary spirit of Mr Robert Allan Zimmerman.
Booth’s fixation with Bob Dylan practically takes over the strip. This buttresses the Americanised aspect of the tale but also gives it a distinct leaning towards the Sixties, when Dan’s proper metier is the Fifties.
Then there’s Eden, and the opening of the gates to a wider world, to more universes that Dan’s own. Booth even uses the word Multiverse to describe what lies beyond, a word that I at least cannot hear or read without instantly thinking of the Justice Society of America and DC Comics. It’s wrong, completely wrong, and it has the unintended effect of diminishing Dan Dare by making his Universe one among, well, a Multitude.
None of this is appropriate to a series whose basis lay in hard science, in plausibility and realism. So far as what Booth introduces here, it is advanced science of a kind indistinguishable, in Arthur C. Clarke’s saying, to magic, and so in Dan Dare terms it is magic, by virtue of not having any rational explanation, such as Impulse Waves, or Nimbus Drives.
Of course, there is another interpretation of this final phase of the story. It can be cast into symbolic terms and read as a metaphor for Frank Hampson’s desire to extend Dan Dare’s reach, into American newspapers, into animated films, to take Dan into a world wider than that occupied by Hulton Press, where stories may well have had to be retold in a different manner to his art boards. Though the analogy is weakened by it being Dan himself, supported by the solid, stolid Digby, who rejects such an expansion.
As for that metafictional ending in which the characters themselves disclaim any knowledge of their creator, let’s adopt Dan’s final verdict and not go there, just not go there.
Yet for all that I said I loved The Gates of Eden, and I still do. That’s why it appears here in this series, on an equal par with the official canon. The only part of it that makes me truly flinch is Peabody’s overt sexuality, because it’s just wrong for Dan Dare’s world (and besides, forget this anonymous Jack Gurk – Professor Jocelyn Mabel Gurk? No way – if there’s any marrying to be done, it should be with Dan, there’s definitely a story there in getting him to come down off his Confirmed Bachelor perch and recognise what good things could ensue).
As I said before, I recognise the people. Booth’s story and setting may be wrong, but I believe it’s Dan and Co who take part in it. And I will forgive much for Booth bringing Albert Fitzwilliam Digby and his wife and four-times mother to his children together at long last, even if it’s over distances counted in the millions of miles, via a viewscreen, Earth to Anastasia. “’Ullo monkey, how’s tricks?” she says, getting a word in edgeways before Aunt Anastasia starts hassling Digby about wrapping up warm in space.
There’s a long overdue world in that greeting, and enough to let us all know just how the Digbys keep their marriage on track when he’s never home. That’s the real Gates of Eden.