The Psychotic Will of Dave Sim

By Ryan Howatt

New Head Writer? And he’s Canadian? And he’s going on and on about Dave Sim!? What the hell am I reading!? As a reputable news source for Indie Comics, I would be sorely overlooking the elephant in the room if I didn’t mention at least something about Dave Sim. For those who don’t remember, Dave Sim is the president of Aardvark Vanaheim and the creator of the once enormously celebrated ‘Cerebus’ series. Cerebus is a 300-issue epic that ran from 1977-2004, is now a 6,000-page graphic novel, and in my opinion, a very complicated masterpiece of graphic storytelling.

‘Why, oh for the love of God, are you telling us this?’, I imagine you asking. I feel that the grandpappy of self-publishing deserves a bit more credit than he gets in today’s zeitgeist. I’m glad to see that his crossovers with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spawn have both been resurrected on Kickstarter, but I still can’t help but feel the little grey aardvark is a lost icon to today’s average comic book reader.

Cerebus began as a Conan the Barbarian parody dreamt up by a Canadian fella with a very heavy axe to grind (and admittedly a few screws loose, but I’m also a cartoonist so I’m definitely not throwing the first stone). There are about 26 issues of fun sword and sorcery-type stories. Then suddenly, the story grows heavy as it moves toward political satire. It continues to evolve and shift, as its author does as well. Sim wrote and drew the book himself for over 30 years with only the help of a fellow Canadian artist Gerhard. He pretty much made it up as he went along. This is almost as much a structured narrative journal as it is a work of fiction.

I’m honestly surprised his name doesn’t come up more often around comic shops and online. I mean, the dude is definitely eccentric and has a couple of black marks on his reputation over the years, but as far as ‘screw it! I’ma make my own thing!’ goes, you’d have a hard time beating a book a month for over thirty years straight. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird credited Sim as the inspiration behind Mirage Studios and what ended up being the gift to the world that is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

So, if you haven’t heard of him, you may be wondering ‘why haven’t I heard of him?’ The short answer is Dave Sim is kinda… nuts, and has been for quite a while. I know him personally and find him to be an incredibly intelligent and respectful person, but there is no denying the guy has made some pretty strange decisions over the years. Again, I think just about anyone who works and builds as he did is bound to misfire, but Dave Sim found himself under heavy fire for a misguided (and perhaps ‘self-destructively honest’) stab at gender politics back in the early 80s.

Anyone who’s ever picked up a single issue copy of Cerebus would be aware of his editorial prefaces to his stories. Being so outspoken about his opinions and philosophies over the years makes it very difficult to separate ‘the art from the artist’ in this case. Given the satirical nature of Cerebus and the position of its author, it becomes almost impossible to disassociate the two. So I’m going to unpack a little bit about what I’ve heard about Dave Sim, and you can decide for yourself whether a magnificently illustrated 6,000-page graphic novel is worth looking into.

Sim started Aardvark Vanaheim with his ex-wife in 1977 after being rejected by a few different publishers back in the day when you had to pick up the phone, beg, and plead to get books picked up. His wife worked for a small publishing imprint, and Sim figured most of the gig was just politics and accounting, something that he and his wife, Deni Loubert, were perfectly capable of doing themselves. Sim printed the first run of Cerebus in December of 1977, producing 2,000 copies. At that time, the cost of having something like this done could’ve easily bought you a decent car. It was practically unheard of, especially in Canada. Over time, Sim sold the majority of the first run, and copies from this first print run are reselling online for up to 9,000 dollars. Deni and Dave ran around like crazy, cramming these books down people’s throats for a meager profit margin, and then they did it again… and again.

In Dave’s book “Cerebus Guide to Self Publishing,” he explains his original plan was to print a few issues and see how it went. The book became successful enough to have Sim invited to conventions in the U.S. A combination of anxiety about the event and stress from his ambitious goal led to Dave accepting an offer from a friend to try LSD to take the edge off. According to Sim, it worked like a charm and made dealing with people and working on his books practically effortless, so he kept doing it… a lot. Dave’s wife, Demi, admitted him to a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with borderline schizophrenia. In the hospital, he had a revelation that Cerebus would run for 300 issues, the character would grow, change, learn, and eventually die. The book would be a story of Cerebus’ entire life, and the kicker? Sim, that crazy SOB, actually did it.

Now, the nasty bits. Sometime shortly after this decision, Demi and Sim had a very nasty divorce, and I don’t think this brilliant man ever really recovered from it. Throughout the story of Cerebus, the theme of gender politics becomes more and more focal until it’s almost all that he can depict. Side note, most of the run is fantastic, mind-blowingly incredible. Jakka’s Story is one of the best things I’ve ever read or seen in any medium. In the later years, however, Sim wrote very complex pieces about what he thinks of the fairer sex, which, while occasionally containing rational arguments, raises questions about why he is so fixated on this topic and how he could justify the mental gymnastics required to make his arguments in the first place. I am not going to argue any of these points with him directly because if he were willing to debate me, I would likely lose, and I’d desperately need a shower.

In summary, Dave Sim is a complicated man who wrote a lot of incredible stories and published them in a way that changed the face of the industry. In more recent times, he’s been practicing a self-designed pseudo-religion around the belief that women are irrational and manipulative. I can say from my experience that he never asked me to sign the ‘Dave Sim is not a misogynist’ form, so I’m not sure if that is still a concern of his. Dave Sim is an incredibly complicated man who spent most of his life creating a gorgeous book and pushed the limits of indie publishing in ways I can’t entirely wrap my head around. If you’re interested, go online or to your local library and find a collection of Cerebus to see for yourself. Or don’t; I’m not your mom.

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Ryan Howatt

ByRyan Howatt

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