From 1977 until 2004, cartoonist Dave Sim chronicled the life of an anthropomorphic aardvark in the pages of his comic “Cerebus.” One of the most important and groundbreaking independent comics of all time, “Cerebus” delved into politics, religion, gender and pop culture, all seen through Sim’s satiric eye, and in the 300th and final issue, exactly as Sim had long promised, Cerebus the aardvark died and passed into through a great light to something unknown.
At long last, Cerebus’ afterlife fate is revealed in Sim and partner Sandeep Atwal’s new online comic strip, “Cerebus in Hell?” Sim and Atwal aim for the funny bone, crafting a four-panel, joke-a-day strip that tosses sharp burns at the modern world, including many japes at the comics industry in particular. Done fumetti-style, the comics feature images of Cerebus Photoshopped into classical Gustave Doré illustrations inspired by Dante’s “Inferno.”
The online strips have been well received, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg, as the duo’s best strips have apparently been set aside for a print incarnation. “Cerebus in Hell?” #0 ships to comic shops in September from Aardvark-Vanaheim, and if sales warrant, Sim plans to release four more issues of “Cerebus in Hell?” in 2017 in commemoration of “Cerebus” #1’s 40th anniversary.
CBR News spoke with Sim about returning to Cerebus (although Sim has never really been away), why Sim no longer draws, the importance of maintaining a creative work, and the pinnacle of the Alex Raymond school of cartooning.
CBR: While “Cerebus” was marked by satiric content but dominated by long-running, overarching storylines, “Cerebus in Hell?” is a straight-up joke-a-day strip, correct? What prompted the four-panel gag approach to this strip?
Dave Sim: Right. A couple of things. I haven’t been able to draw since February of 2015. There’s something wrong with my wrist that makes drawing impossible, particularly at the level I was drawing at doing “The Strange Death of Alex Raymond.” I could maybe do head sketches of Cerebus, but I’m just trying to keep the wrist as stabilized as possible.
Hopefully somewhere up ahead when I’m working on the book again, I’ll be not just writing it. I’ll be able to draw it.
I was looking at David Malki’s “Wondermark.” It’s an online strip, and he’s had a few collections. Basically, it’s using Victorian engravings and putting in funny dialogue. I was sick over Christmas and I thought, “I want something funny to read. Actually funny, capital-F funny.” “Wondermark” is one of my go-to things for that.
Looking at it this time, I thought, “I think I could do this. I could do this with Cerebus and have him stripped into old steel engravings in Photoshop.”
How’s your wrist doing? Is there a timetable on your recovery?
No. The left wrist is in the worst condition, now. I definitely have what Charles Schulz used to have, which is essential tremor in the left hand. I’m hoping to keep it out of the right hand by keeping the right hand in a brace and really babying it. We’re talking about such a fine, delicate spot in the wrist that I really don’t trust anything that a doctor would tell me about it. Unless they treated Al Williamson or Neal Adams or Stan Drake, somebody who did those really tiny, fine little lines, they’re not treating somebody who has the same occupational needs.
In lieu of being able to draw yourself, how many classical artists are you drawing from to create this comic?
Gustave Doré did a series of about, I think, 140 engravings of his interpretation of Dante’s “Inferno,” which was an epic poem that Dante Alghieri wrote in the middle ages. It’s very interesting because it’s really not Dante’s poem. It’s whatever that suggested to Gustave Doré in reading the poem. So I assume that Dante’s turning over in his grave, going, “Look what you did to my poem. Do you know how long it takes to write an epic “Inferno? And you just made all this stuff up.” And it’s really what people know the “Inferno” as. We even found a movie adaptation of “Inferno” from 1911 that was done in Italy, because of course, the “Inferno” is a very big deal in Italy. Really, Dante Alghieri is considered the father of the Italian language. So it’s very weird to look at this movie that should be Dante’s “Inferno” and it’s really Gustave Doré’s “Inferno.” They’re going, “Well, no. We’ve got the storyboards right here. This is what we’re going to do.”
Theology has long been a running theme in your work, and of course, the notion of Hell has many literary precursors. This being a joke-a-day strip, it may not play us as much, but are you drawing on any particular philosophies of the netherworld?
The reason that it is called “Cerebus in Hell?” with a question mark is that as a monotheist who – I read ten chapters from the Torah every Sunday in the morning, and ten chapters from the Christian gospels in the afternoon. And I regularly read my English translation of the Quran out loud, and there’s really none of this in Scripture. So it really is like, I don’t know where Dante was getting this or where Gustave Doré was getting this stuff. But as far as I can read, hell is just fire. Fire, fire, fire. Really, really hot fire. Which probably wouldn’t make as nice of illustrations.
You have a version of “Cerebus in Hell?” running on your website cerebusdownloads.com, but this published version will be all-new. So people will have to pick it up to read them, correct?
Yup. Basically, what we did, what we’ve been doing, is just moving what we consider the best strips, the funniest strips, up in the batting order as we finish them – basically saying, if you like the online strips, you’re probably going to like “Cerebus in Hell?” number zero.
We’re hoping that we can sell enough so that it makes sense to do the miniseries. We’ve got number zero done, and we also have the four-issue miniseries completed. But [Laughs], first of all, we’ve got to sell enough to generate a Diamond purchase order. After that we’ve got to pay the printing bill on this and see how much money came in. Does it make sense to do this as a collection of comic strips in comic book format, or do we just say, “People seem to like them online and we’ll just use it to try to herd people over to cerebusdownloads.com, which is really — I wouldn’t call it the fallback position. It’s more, that’s plan A. The Cerebus downloads site is pure profit for every download that somebody does there. So hopefully if we can get people seriously addicted to “Cerebus in Hell?,” they won’t be able to help themselves. They’ll just keep going there and going there, and finally say, “Well, I like these strips. I guess I’ll have to try these graphic novels.”
I have to admit, I’m not a computer guy. I don’t even have a cell phone. But I think we have a whole new generation of people, who if you say, “For $99 you get all 6000 pages,” hey for them, that’s a great thing for them to have in their phone. When you have a few minutes, you sit down and read the next couple pages.
I like having a physical book for a lot of things, but I’m wearing down. I got a Kindle, and it’s certainly convenient. I don’t know about reading on my phone. Kindle has a decent enough screen size where you can actually see it.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s one of those “depends on what you know.” You’re forty, so you still remember when we didn’t have all this stuff.
Some of the strip reprints out now are so gorgeous. Like the “Prince Valiant” books that Fantagraphics is putting out, they’re so nice. Shrinking them down would be a crime.
In a way it would, but again, if that’s what you know. People who grew up with a cell phone, they live inside their cell phones. Anything they like, they want to have inside their cell phones. They might have something that they really like, I think that’s the break point where they go, “Okay, I’ve got this in my phone and that’ll do.” And then if they find out that they really like it, they’ll go, “Okay, now I want the books.”
Or, “I really like the books, I’m gonna want the Artist’s Edition.”
Let’s get back on your strip a little bit. The online comics contain extensive discussion of and jokes about comics, current and past. I thought to myself that “Hell” serves, at least in part, as a satiric commentary on the status of comics publishing today.
Yeah. The comic book industry, and the world in general. That was certainly one of my impressions, that you’re not all the way into the “Inferno” where all you’re really doing is burning. As it says in the Quran, as soon as the flesh burns away, all of your skin burns off, you’re issued fresh skin, so that it can burn.
I think that the more society erodes — and I think that’s just something that you tend to see as you get older, you think that things aren’t really as good as they used to be — almost everything fits in Hell. All of these really pointless discussions that they have and the fact that every day is a new premise, that one day this is who Dante is, he’s Cerebus’ boss and the next day, he’s Cerebus’ lackey. And it only lasts four panels, and then it’s over with and you have to go through a whole new premise.
Unless you find a more abiding way to live, I can’t really rule that out. That’s the ultimate destination for people, is if you live a pointless life on Earth, you’re going to live a pointless life in the afterlife.
It’s been twelve years since the final issue of “Cerebus.” However, is it fair to say that with “Following Cerebus” and the “Cerebus Archive Project,” the character has remained a constant in your creative life during that absence.
Yeah, I definitely think there is a responsibility that you have to your creative work. You created it, so you have to do whatever you have to do to preserve it – not so much for yourself as for the people, the core fans, for whom it’s a major deal. “Cerebus” was a major part of their life, so you can’t just say, “Well, okay, that’s something that I did twelve years ago. I want to do other stuff now.”
Your series “glamourpuss” struggled commercially before you pulled the plug on it in 2012. When you were considering “Cerebus in Hell?”, did the commercial clout of Cerebus’s name push you toward revisiting the character at all? Was it the fortieth anniversary coming up next year?
All of that and more, really. It is very much a branding exercise. When we started putting “Cerebus in Hell?” together, at first I was just using the image of Cerebus from the “Cerebus” trade paperback cover. This is the “Cerebus” trade paperback that sell the best and this is the one that all the retailers keep in stock, so let’s just have this be the only Cerebus that we use.
It’s a branding exercise, and it’s getting back to the humor that attracted a lot of people to “Cerebus,” that it was actually a funny comic book as opposed to in quotation marks “funny.” By the time the twentieth or thirtieth “MAD” imitator was coming out, it was like, “Yeah, yeah, we get it, but this is not particularly funny.” Funny isn’t something that you can fake. You either read it and laugh or you don’t read it and laugh.
Are there still plans to finish “The Strange Death of Alex Raymond”? I guess it depends on your wrist. I’d heard it was going to appear through IDW.
That’s still out there. I’ve got about a hundred and eighty pages done that I had finished before the wrist went out of commission. So basically, now I’m doing the research and writing on it, which is very, very thorough, and very, very exhaustive.
I’ve been working on just doing commentaries on the “Rip Kirby” comic strip, starting in 1946. I’m up to 1950 and just waiting to see if I can tell where it is that Ward Greene leaves the strip, who’s the guy that actually wrote the strip and was also the general manage of King Features Syndicate. I think the next that you will hear about “Strange Death of Alex Raymond” is we’ll probably do something comparable to “Cerebus Archives.” We’ll do ten or twenty pages at a time, the same size as the original artwork, an artist’s edition in stay-flat folders printed on glossy stock and see how many people we can get interested in reading “Strange Death of Alex Raymond” that way. That’ll mean we’ll have either nine or eighteen of those, and that’ll be used to pay me to continue to do the research and writing on it, and also pay Carson Grubaugh and Carl Stevens to do the actual drawing, from my mockups of the pages.
Essentially, we’re casting a wide net for photorealists. If you think you’re the next Al Williamson or Alex Raymond, or you think you could be, or the next Stan Drake, and you want to pitch in on this [Laughs] – you won’t be working right away. It might be another year or two, but eventually you will have more than enough work to keep you busy.
Maybe somebody who reads the article will be that person. I am not. I can’t draw anything, though Al Williamson has long been my favorite comic artist.
It’s interesting that he’s less popular than I think that he should be. I think that he really perfected the Alex Raymond style. Al would’ve punched me in the eye for saying that: “Nobody, nobody improves on Alex Raymond!”
“Ah, no, sorry, Al. I gotta tell you, buddy, you’re the guy who showed us how it was done.” To me, he’s the gold standard, and I think, to most of the guys who are working in the photorealism style. The Star Wars strip that he did – I want to get that collection even though I have zero interest in Star Wars. It’s Al Williamson basically doing his Flash Gordon, his chance to step up to the plate and just absolutely knocked it out of the ballpark every time.
Back on topic, any idea how long “Cerebus in Hell?” is going to run? You’re going to keep putting them up as long as people keep reading them?
More as long as Sandeep and I find it funny to do. We call it “Funny Friday,” because that’s when we work on “Cerebus in Hell?”. Basically, I paste it up from printed-out lettering and I’ve just got little stick-on Cerebuses that I stick on to reductions of the Gustave Doré prints. I mock it all up and photocopy that, and give it to Sandeep. Either he does it in Photoshop, or actually we have what we call the paint department now, which is volunteers who have volunteered to do the Photoshop on “Cerebus in Hell?” in exchange for a permanent credit on any strip that they work on. Sandeep will email them my paste-up and then they just clean it up in Photoshop with raw materials. I do that in house, and Sandeep is back at Camp David with his computer actually doing his in Photoshop, and you just try and make the other guy laugh. Usually I’m doing it overnight. I get up about one-thirty in the morning and I’ll have four or five strips by the time he gets in at ten in the morning. Then he works from about ten in the morning until about five at night, and brings them in on a thumb drive. I read them, and that’s the job – just make the other guy crack up.
“The Strange Death of Alex Raymond” and all of the other stuff that we’re doing is like really, really arduous, intensive focused stuff. So it’s good to have one day a week when all you’re doing is just sitting and being funny.
I was going to ask what else you have in the works. “Strange Death of Alex Raymond” and “Cerebus Archives” and things of that nature.
“Cerebus Archive,” we’re probably going to be doing them a little more often. That’s arduous in a different way, because it’s, “Here’s the first ten pages of “Jaka’s Story.” So I’m going to write six pages of commentary, eleven thousand words, and that’ll take a good four or five days to do properly. So for four or five days, I’m living back in 1982 or 1983 or whatever it is, 1987. It’s like, “I had enough of 1987 when I was there.” I really don’t want to spend four or five days in 1987, but that’s again what you owe to the material and what you owe to the fans.
Margaret Liss, who is if not the number-one Cerebus fan, definitely a top contender for number-one Cerebus fan – the first issue of “Jaka’s Story,” number 114, was the first issue that she read. She has done so much to help promote “Cerebus” and preserve “Cerebus”; it’s like, “Okay, for you, Margaret, I’ll go back to 1987 and live there for a week. And explain all of this as arduously as I can, so that you know everything that went into ‘Jaka’s Story.’”
Right now, I’m doing the Many Origins of Jaka instead of the weekly update at a moment of Cerebus, while we’re doing the “Cerebus Archive” for “Jaka’s Story,” and basically doing “here’s all of the movies where Jaka came from.” Some of them I didn’t even remember until I saw them like fifteen years later. I’m watching it and I go, “Oh my God, it’s Jaka and it’s Rick. That’s where I got that scene from.” Another scene in another movie where I go, “Oh, that’s Missy. That’s where I got Jaka’s doll.” Unbelievable. Completely forgot the scene, had no idea it was in there.
“Cerebus in Hell” #0 is available now from Aardvark/Vanaheim.
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