Comic Studies: Dave Sim and Seth

The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world's first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student's perspective, looking at and discussing what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.

It's the final week of class for the Autobiographix module, and for the first semester of Comic Studies as a whole. My essay has been submitted, and I can attempt to put the pain of endless citations behind me while looking forward to International Comic Cultures and Creating Comics after Christmas!

First though, a look at our last class: Displaced Autobiography. For this discussion we read "Cerebus" by Dave Sim, and "It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken" by Seth. Full disclosure: we did not have to read the entire 300 issue run of "Cerebus"! The issues recommended in particular for reading were #1, #186 (the infamous anti-woman rant), #196, and #220-231 (Rick's Story).

(Trigger warning: discussion of "Cerebus" includes mentions rape.)

"Cerebus" is not a comic I had read before, but I'd certainly heard of Dave Sim. These days, his work is generally known for two reasons: the 6,000 page length of "Cerebus," a work that took Sim 27 years to complete; and for "Cerebus" turning from a humorous Conan the Barbarian spoof into a rather odd, personal and arguably hateful soapbox. Sim inserted prose pieces into his comics, pontificating on the nature of men as "lights" and women as "voids," and sharing his belief that the state of modern Western society was due to the acceptance and advance of feminism.

"It wouldn't be that big a stretch to categorize my writing as Hate Literature against women... in this Fascistic Feminist country" -- Dave Sim, Reads, "Cerebus"

In a lot of ways, Sim reminds me of Robert Crumb -- both are fascinating artists and skilled creators, subverting the form and achieving their fair share of fame, yet both have their work overshadowed by their controversial personalities. In Crumb's case, it didn't have much (if any?) of a negative effect on his work, perhaps because his more provocative work appeared quite early in his career. Sim, on the other hand, took his long running series, "Cerebus," and injected his own politics and beliefs into the narrative quite late on. Fans possibly felt betrayed or hoodwinked that they'd bought into this character and universe only to have strident misogyny thrown down their throat.

Sim is, naturally, appalled that anyone would think him a misogynist. He doesn't hate women, you see; he just hates feminism. So -- he just hates that women can vote, work and want equal pay? That they should get back in the kitchen and stop bothering the menfolk? Anyway, he has decided he will no longer work with anyone who doesn't sign an online petition declaring he isn't a misogynist, or who assure him of such by letter. Whatever your personal opinion, his audience plummeted as fans were either appalled or downright bored with it all.

Politics played an important part in "Cerebus" from nearly the beginning, once it had turned away from the original idea of parodying sword and sorcery comics. But these seemed like general political ideas, corruption and electoral shenanigans, or the perversity of religion, not one man's own (twisted?) opinions. The general musings still permeated the comic, but they were becoming increasingly rare. One character who had been there from early on, Astoria, a powerful political woman, increasingly became a feminist straw woman for Cerebus to clash with. Rumours of Astoria being based on Sim's ex-wife are particularly worrying considering that Sim has Cerebus rape Astoria in issue 94. This was clumsily explained away later, that Astoria wanted it, that Cerebus (the Pope) married her seconds before and divorced her after so it was okay, and all those other rape-apologism type horrors.

Sim is perhaps as famous for his misogyny as he is for his incredibly long storylines. I'd like to say that's because the majority of his readership refused to read sexist rhetoric, but I suspect it has more to do with his reaction to criticism; rather than laugh it off or indeed own his misogyny (à la Crumb), the demands for people to sign a petition just to work with him were more than a little off-putting to many.

Don't worry, though -- it's not just women he hates! If you score anywhere on his communist-feminist-homosexual axis, you are definitely in the line of fire.

"I firmly believe that feminism is a misguided attempt to raise women above their place, which I firmly believe is secondary to that of men... I firmly believe, for the reasons stated, that the place for homosexuality -- again homosexuality, not those who practice it -- is at the margins of society and behind closed doors" - Dave Sim, Tangents, "Cerebus"

Like Crumb again, Sim's mental health is often called into question. But whilst Crumb arguably uses his art as therapy, with Sim I gather people are more trying to excuse his misogyny because of his supposed borderline schizophrenic diagnosis that was given when he was recovering from LSD overuse. That line of thinking bothers me for two specific reasons: firstly, that to be misogynistic to such an extreme requires one to have a mental illness -- it doesn't; secondly, that any nutty behavior is often written off as a mental illness, often by those with little understanding of mental issues.

In the beginning, "Cerebus" is an amusing enough read, clearly playing on some of the tropes from the "Conan the Barbarian" comics. Like Conan, I found that some sequences fairly dragged while others were far more readable. Sim's experimentation with the comic form -- rotating action within the panels, repeated art, lots of darkness -- is nothing short of remarkable. However, it isn't long before Red Sophia turns up: a parody of Red Sonja, but by making a sexist character (what did they do to my Red Sonya, dammit?!) even more sexist, the humor doesn't hold up particularly well. When Astoria turned up I began to feel truly uncomfortable: the mysterious and manipulative woman felt like a clear set up for a 'men need protection from scary women' scenario or for that trope to be overthrown. It was, of course, the former.

I do not think that misogynistic or sexist work means that the creator is misogynistic/sexist, as there are many examples of comics that show sexist attitudes either a) for money, as it's rather popular of course, or b) in order to then show the wrongness of these attitudes. However when you know for sure that the creator is misogynistic then there isn't much of a defence to be made.

How "Cerebus" changed over the decades, incorporating more and more strange beliefs and more emphatic displays of 'anti-feminism', is very much related to whatever happened to be going on in Sim's life as he developed more of a bizarre personality himself.

I think in many ways a lot of comics, particularly creator-owned, contain elements of autobiography as the writer and/or artist seeks to process events in their everyday lives. Some are more successful than others, and Sim is perhaps one of the best examples of someone who has estranged their own audience via the inclusion of their own self. (Compare this to someone like Grant Morrison who has frequently 'inhabited' his work, yet his career goes from strength to strength.)

I read through to "Cerebus" #100, but the rape scene was just too off-putting for me to continue further. Rape is used far too often as a plot point for male characters, but when written by someone with such obvious contempt for women, I can see why many readers abandoned this comic and its writer. And more than anything else, it's a crying shame because the artistic talent is quite incredible. I found myself wishing at times that the words would just disappear so I could look at the pictures in contented bliss.

(NB: If you've signed Sim's petition, simply replace all instances of the word "misogyny" above with "sexism." cheers.)

By contrast then, Seth's "It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken" was a breeze! I knew it wasn't autobiographical before I read it, which perhaps influenced my take on it, but at the same time, it was easy to forget that knowledge when reading certain chapters. It feels very true to life, very non-fictional and intriguing. The character Seth is not the type of autobiographical protagonist I typically warm to: he's negative, cynical and constantly feels sorry for himself despite not terribly much appearing to be wrong with his life. The art has a warmth to it, though, a nostalgic homey kind of feel (it reminded me of that lovely Christmas feeling), and of course his passion for old newspaper cartoons is one I could identify with -- if not his obsessive nature!

But perhaps the real reason the character didn't bother me that much is because I knew it was fictional,tThat the successful artist Seth isn't really such a self-pitying misery guts. (There doesn't seem to be any underlying reason for the love of negativity.) I wonder whether given my belief above that many comics writers and artists inject their own experiences into their work, but I asked myself, can "It's a Good Life" really be completely non-autobiographical, or is it more likely to be half real in terms of the people and feelings, and half-invented in terms of the scenarios and facts?

As a fake autobiography, it is very convincing, indeed; Seth utilizes a lot of autobiographical storytelling techniques which gives the comic a very genuine, non-fictional feel. Unsurprisingly, some classmates did not realize it was fiction until the actual class discussion! The successful faking of the autobiographical feel is as much a talent as the story itself.

I don't think Seth ever outright said that this work was autobiographical, but nor did he deny it for quite some time which led to a lot of fans feeling very betrayed. By taking the known forms of biography and fictionalising it, Seth has perhaps damaged other comic autobiographies out there -- if one person can fake it, why not others? In the publishing world, when James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" was revealed to be part fictionalised and later Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's "Three Cups of Tea" came under fire from news outlets like 60 MINUTES for alleged inaccuracies, there was a great deal of outrage -- not only for the authors' deception or alleged deception, but for bringing the genre into disrepute.

However, the reaction within comics has been far more relaxed, and I find myself wondering whether the lines between fiction and autobiography are already quite blurred when it comes to comics as a medium. When you have protests happening around the world, with people wearing V for Vendetta masks, inspired by a comic that an anarchist comics writer called Alan Moore wrote over a decade ago, it does seem quite plausible that a theory from another comics writer called Grant Morrison, about comics being able to influence our own world, might very well hold true.

"Cerebus" then is presented as fiction but rapidly turned into autobiography, and "It's a Good Life" was always fiction but mistaken for (and portrayed as) autobiography. Both to the upset of many fans, but far more damaging to Sim due to the autobiographical nature of "Cerebus" revealing the worst parts of his personality.

Can anyone truly write a work of fiction that contains no autobiographical influences at all? Or write an autobiography with not a hint of fiction to ease the story telling?

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

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