No-one really talks about CEREBUS anymore, do they?
It's probable that even a fair percentage of you, my erudite and worldly audience, have never heard of or read CEREBUS. My local store doesn't, as far as I can see, even order a copy for the shelf anymore. And yet this book has broken a vast amount of ground.
It's three hundred issues long. Writer/creator/illustrator Dave Sim, working in tandem with co-illustrator Gerhard, is devoting a huge chunk of his adult life to the telling of this story. I mean: can you imagine starting a story when you're twenty and not finishing it until you're forty? Dave Sim was one of the first, if not the first "ground-level" comics creator to declare that his series was a finite series, one vast novel. And no-one, to my knowledge, has since aimed at a work of this size. Neil Gaiman brought SANDMAN to seventy-five issues, making it the mainstream's largest declared finite series - a quarter of what Sim has intended.
Dave Sim introduced the first really coherent and successful trade paperback program, selling the truly massive CEREBUS collections - some six hundred pages long, earning them the working nickname of "phonebooks" - by the ton, and evidently making money hand over fist. Illustrating quite graphically that keeping your work in print pays. Which you wouldn't think anyone would need to be taught, but comics are a backwards place.
Dave Sim is more than a little mad, as I think anyone who's read a great deal of CEREBUS would attest to. Us old lefties instinctively shy away from someone who communicates what is at best gynephobia and at worst pure bloody misanthropy in the way that Sim does, even allowing for the dichotomy between auctorial intent and personal belief. But as a creator I keep coming back to Sim for his masterful, hugely inventive storytelling. Creatively, he's the mutant bastard child of Will Eisner, The Studio artists (Barry Windsor-Smith and those guys) and Chuck Jones. And as an observer of the comics business, I keep an eye on Sim for the way he keeps his book alive. Because, make no mistake, CEREBUS is economically a marginal book. It's a comic about an aardvark, for Christ's sake. It ain't selling like SPAWN, know what I mean? And it's self-published. CEREBUS has gone through periods where I think it's made a lot of money. But this, weird ghost-year 2000, isn't one of them.
What Dave Sim does is some of the most innovative and passionate marketing I've seen. Dave Sim is someone who has profitted by the direct market. It's the direct market that allowed him to do CEREBUS in the first place, back in the Seventies and early Eighties when the market first seemed full of wild potential for change. Sim wants to keep the direct market going. And he wants to keep selling CEREBUS. So he's launched a new promotional campaign. And a comics retailer I met on the net, Chris Shorb of Third Planet (http://www.thethirdplanet.com), was kind enough to tell me about it.
Sim is sending out a promotional pack to help retailers sell the forthcoming final four years of CEREBUS. Now, if you're a retailer and you didn't get the pack, you can actually phone Sim and ask for one. He wants to hear from stores. The phone number is Canadian, and it's (519) 576-0610. Fax is 519 576-0955. This is a Canadian phone number. He's not online, so don't try it.
In this pack, then, Sim has evidently put: a large poster (20x30-ish), signed and personalised to the store it's sent to by Sim and Gerhard made out to *Third Planet*, a four-page letter explaining the promotional deal, ten pages of camera-ready art of images, text, and ideas that are free to be used on promo items like mugs, posters, t-shirts, brochures, etc. That's nice, right there. But Chris Shorb got on to the contents of the letter, and this really fascinated me.
Sim is running a contest, for a start. The store that puts up the best CEREBUS display between now and the night of the US Presidential election gets Sim and Gerhard down to your store to do a signing, and it doesn't cost you, the retailer, a penny. Sim and Gerhard pick up the bill for everything - including buying the retailer and staff dinner that night. He'll also give that retailer ten pages of original art, give photo display space to your store prominently on CEREBUS inside-front and back covers, five complete sets of the phonebooks (that's over one thousand dollars' worth of books, at retail price), an autographed CEREBUS special for each of the store's CEREBUS subscribers…
That is pretty bloody impressive. But it goes on:
Sim recognises that it's hard to get new readers started on CEREBUS. The phonebooks can be, as Chris Shorb said, daunting. You can kill an ox from a standing start with one of these books, but they're still $25 each, which takes more than $200 out of your pocket if you want all the collections published thus far. (Although I'd note that the phonebooks' price has remained the same since 1987.) But what if the retailer could say: "The First Half" phonebook collection -- the 500-page HIGH SOCIETY, the two-volume CHURCH AND STATE that weighs in at a total 1200 pages, the 500-page JAKA'S STORY and the 250-page MELMOTH, thereby comprising the first 150 issues of the 300 issue CEREBUS story -- can be yours for four monthly payments of just $31.75. Plus as part of the store's participation in the promotional campaign, that new reader gets CEREBUS, volume one in the Cerebus phone book series, autographed by Dave Sim on the title page with a hand-drawn Cerebus head sketch and directly personalised message by Dave Sim for Only $5.99. CEREBUS alone sells for $25. That's a 75% saving off the cover price.
The retailer has to pay for the five phone books (retail $127), and manage people's payments for 4 months, or 2 months, or whatever they're are comfortable with, but they don't have to pay for volume 1. Also, Sim does all the work. Every morning, he will sit, sign, and do a sketch for everyone. Then he will send out the books direct to the retailers, which they then hand to a hopefully pleased customer.
And you're sitting there wondering why I'm telling you all this.
Well, I'll tell you why. First, it's an object lesson in how to bend the direct market culture to your own purposes. Retailers are, despite your nagging doubts, human. All they really want is help in selling books. If, tomorrow, SUPERMAN sales sink from 50,000 to 10,000 and CEREBUS sales shoot from 20,000 to 60,000, they won't weep for SUPERMAN. They'll thank whatever filthy deities they worship that something plugged the gap in their weekly takings. Doesn't matter how much they love spandex boys - in the end, if something different is selling better, they'll learn to be happy about it.
Secondly: Dave Sim is one guy, a co-artist and an office assistant, writing, drawing, producing and publishing a monthly comics series and running a company to do it with. And he can put together this huge promotional campaign.
And Marvel Comics launches a new series with the vast promotional push of giving it half a page in PREVIEWS. And if DC really loves you you'll get two pages in PREVIEWS, a house ad and a poster.
Food for thought.
Please do print off this week's column and give it to your local comics retailer.
I can be contacted by email about this column at firstname.lastname@example.org. My terribly beautiful website, updated earlier this week and now containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com/.
INSTRUCTIONS: Read FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM by Umberto Eco, listen to OCEAN RAIN by Echo and the Bunnymen, because I'm in a nostalgic mood tonight (WEA, 1984) and hit BAD WORLD, a new series of occasional articles by myself, at http://www.themestream.com/gspd_browse/browse/view_column.gsp?column_id=6666
Not an URL that trips off the tongue, is it? Oh, well.
Today's recommended graphic novel is THE HUNTING PARTY by Enki Bilal and Pierre Christin, published by Humanoids Publishing.