But the main impediment to Dave Sim’s literary reputation is Dave Sim himself. His regressive social and political views and obnoxious rhetoric have created a public persona that’s eclipsed his artistic achievement in the comics world much more completely than it would have in the larger, less insular artistic world — where, for example, plenty of people call John Updike a chauvinist but not even his bitterest detractors question his mastery as a prose stylist, where Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ill-advised statement about 9/11 being a work of art didn’t get him ejected from the first rank of postwar composers, and artists like Wagner and Pound are still secure in their respective pantheons despite having endorsed ideas that are, to put it charitably, pretty well discredited.
But Sim’s controversial ideas are not peripheral to his work; he ultimately makes them its central message and purpose. Wagner never actually wrote any operas about the villainy of the Jews, nor Pound cantos praising the wise and just rule of Franco, but Sim incorporated his screeds about women and the tenets of his one-man religion into the text of his novel, so that even a reader determined to ignore all the apocryphal gossipy bullshit accumulated around the artist and concentrate on the work itself is finally forced to confront the fact that the man has some bizarre ideas and an abrasive way of expressing them.
—Tim Kreider, in his must-read introduction to a longer essay on Dave Sim’s seminal (in more ways than one) independent comic Cerebus from The Comics Journal #301. (I made this exact point, complete with the Wagner example, a few years back.) It’s one thing to be an artist with odious ideas unrelated or tangential to your art; it’s quite another to make them your art’s main attraction. Kudos to Kreider for drawing the distinction so clearly.
That said, Kreider’s piece also contains the single best explanation I’ve seen for why you would want to read Cerebus: Its authors resolute determination to follow his bliss, and to better himself as an artist in order to keep up with it.
In the early, sword-and-sorcery issues of Cerebus, Dave Sim drew about as well as the second- or third-best artist in your high school, the guy you’d ask to do the cover for your heavy metal band’s album or airbrush the side of your van. After drawing about a hundred issues, by the time he’d finished Volume II of Church & State — around the same time he hired a brilliant and apparently indefatigable draftsman named Gerhard as his background artist, freeing himself to concentrate exclusively on his characters — Dave Sim had become one of the best cartoonists in North America. And not just in the excellence of his technical skill — he was relentlessly inventive and virtuosic. His exuberant formal experimentation extended from his lettering and paneling to the design of whole issues: Readers puzzled and wowed over the issues in which each page’s background was a fragment of one large picture of Cerebus, or the spinning of an ascending tower was reflected by the page layout rotating several degrees on each page, so that you had to slowly turn the whole book 360º in your hands in the course of reading it. “Thou shalt break every law in the book,” was his injunction to himself.
Sim was also a smart and voracious autodidact (he dropped out of high school after grade 11), and, as he matured, his intellectual passions grew beyond comics, and his artistic ambitions far beyond parody. The single-issue stories expanded into longer and longer story arcs, gradually growing into full-length, 500-page novels. As he continued drawing Cerebus, Sim incorporated everything that captured his interest into the book: He became interested in the mechanics of electoral politics, and Cerebus ran for Prime Minister; he got interested in the history of religion, and Cerebus became the Pope; as Sim’s literary tastes became more sophisticated, Cerebus encountered incarnations of Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. He insatiably appropriated not only literary, historic and political figures, but fictional characters and screen personae, the likenesses of friends and colleagues, other authors’ prose styles, even another cartoonist’s dialogue in a manner that would’ve been called postmodern if he’d had an MFA. He wrote books within books, invented intricate political ideologies, created whole cosmologies. Throughout all of which the book’s central character remained the same anthropomorphized aardvark.
Kreider essentially argues that Cerebus was always about Dave Sim; this is what made the comic so fascinating for so long, and what undid it in the end.