Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Conversation with Eric Hoffman and Dominick Grace

Eric Hoffman and Dominick Grace are the editors of Dave Sim: Conversations, the latest edition to UPM's Conversations with Comic Artists Series.

Dave Sim first entered the comics world with an innovative move: he began to self-publish Cerebus, one of the earliest and most significant independent comics, which ran for 300 issues and ended, as Sim had planned from early on, in 2004. Over the run of the comic, Sim used it as a springboard to explore not only the potential of the comics medium but also many of the core assumptions of Western society, analyzing politics, the dynamics of love, religion, and, most controversially, the influence of feminism—which Sim believes has had a negative impact on society.

Moreover, Sim inserted himself squarely into the comic as Cerebus’ creator, thereby inviting criticism not only of the work, but also of himself. Generally, however, he allowed the comic to speak for itself; as a result, he gave relatively few interviews. However, what interviews Sim gave often pushed against the limits of what an interview might be in much the same way that Cerebus pushed against the limits of what a comic might be.

Dave Sim: Conversations delves into Sim’s career via interviews that range from 1982 – 2006. Some of the interviews collected here are extremely difficult to find, not having been reprinted since their original appearances (in some now-defunct publications. The book also includes a chapter dedicated to Yahoo Q&A sessions that features selections from Sim’s exchanges with members of the Yahoo Cerebus discussion group.

Sim as an interview subject is generous, expansive, provocative, and sometimes even antagonistic (especially in later interviews, after being beset for years with harsh criticism), but always insightful and eminently readable. His discursive style is not conducive to the sound bite or to easy summary.

Below is a conversation with the book's editors, Eric Hoffman and Dominick Grace. Like a conversation with Sim himself their answers and insightful and expansive. We cover the originality of Cerebus, Sim's influence on the comic industry, and their process for selecting the pieces that were included in the book.

What drew you to Dave Sim's work?

Dominick Grace: Several things drew me to it. One is that, as a Canadian, I tend to want to check out work by Canadian talents, so Cerebus automatically was something I needed to try out, once I heard of it. I first heard of it in The Buyer's Guide for Comics Fandom (later renamed The Comics Buyers' Guide), which gave glowing reviews to early issues and, more importantly, ran the one-page Prince Valiant parody strips Sim did early on as a promotional tool. As a Hal Foster fan (Foster was another Canadian, incidentally), I was predisposed to like this strip, and Sim did a great job of affectionately skewering that classic strip. It was a short step from there to Swords of Cerebus volume one--another attractor was that Sim made the early issues available in such an inexpensive and accessible format--and the current issues of the comic; I got the first Swords volume and issues 13-17 (the then-current issue) all around the same time and was quickly won over mainly by Sim's humour and deadly parodic skills.

Eric Hoffman: When I began reading Cerebus I was still quite young, 13 or so, and was mainly interested in superhero comics, notably Alan Moore, John Totleben and Stephen R. Bissette's Swamp Thing. An employee of the comic shop I frequented showed me an issue of Cerebus that included a Swamp Thing parody and I was immediately struck not only by the clever dialogue but also the overall weirdness of the work (in that issue, the character Cerebus, an anthropomorphic aardvark, is perched atop a floating mountain made almost entirely of carved faces spinning through space on some unknown trajectory while engaging in a conversation with a three-headed monstrosity composed of equal parts wizard, Swamp Thing and Marvel's Swamp Thing-esque Man-Thing). Also of note was the cover design, a simple photographic image of a moon, and the interior artwork, particularly the detailed line work of Sim's collaborator, Gerhard. It was quite unlike anything else I had seen - and this sometime after the height of the black and white comics explosion of the mid-1980s.

What makes Cerebus stand apart from other comic book works?

Dominick: Several things make Cerebus stand apart. One of the most significant is its scope. Sim was way ahead of the curve on using comics to develop long, complex narratives that stood up well to (indeed, really demanded) rereading when major arcs were completed. Another, and perhaps the most significant one, is its graphic innovations. There are few cartoonists with so complete a command of the panel, the page, the sequence, the long narrative in comics form--even of often invisible elements of cartooning such as lettering. When Sim hit his stride, almost every issue of Cerebus was not only hugely entertaining but also a master class in how to do innovative, medium-expanding comics

Eric: When I first read Cerebus, I became thoroughly addicted, as the work came out in mostly monthly doses with little to no break in continuity (moreover, the 100 or so issues that came out before I started reading it were available in collected format and in bi-weekly reprints). I continued to read Cerebus for several years until my interest in comics waned. When I came back to the comic some ten years later, I was immediately struck by how Sim and Gerhard's work had progressed, in particular Sim's skill as writer, letterer and caricaturist and Gerhard's layouts and detailed line work. Going back and reading the material I had missed - some one hundred issues - was absolutely enthralling and engrossing. I can't say that any other comic, which if it does last for any length of time regularly changes creative teams and dispenses with continuity whenever possible, provides a reader with a similar experience.




 Where should readers new to Dave Sim's work begin their explorations?

Eric: Personally, I think it's always best to begin at the beginning, with the first Cerebus volume. It generally gets short shrift among fans, and it has been customary for readers new to Cerebus to pick up the second volume, High Society. I've never understood this. For one, the first volume does contain what is now called "The Palnu Trilogy" which must be read first in order for High Society to make perfect sense. Also, the work does marvelously display Sim's stunningly vast improvement in skill as artist and writer (it covers just over three years' worth of work) and there are a number of plot points and characters introduced in this work that are crucial later in the series. Finally, the comic is a painfully amusing send-up of popular 1970s comic books, most notably Conan the Barbarian and Howard the Duck. Like much of Cerebus, it helps if you are familiar with what he is lampooning, but, like Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, is not necessary to enjoy the work. 
Dominick: Actually, I would recommend starting with High Society. It does suffer a bit from plot points carried over from the first volume, but not so much that it should really impede reading, and its general level of accomplishment is much higher. Besides, now is  a good time to be getting it, what with IDW contracting with Sim to release a digital version including lots of extras. 

How did you go about selecting images to accompany the interview selections?

Eric: Primarily, we followed suit by choosing images we felt best illustrated a certain topic or theme being addressed in the interview. In some cases, we chose images simply because we had a particular preference for them; for example, Dominick was quite adamant that we include images of Mick and Keef, Sim's caricatures of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Dominick: I'd just add that, without trying to be programmatic about it, we tried to ensure that we produced images from across the run of the series, so that readers get to see samples of Sim and Gerhard's work from early on, from the middle of the run, and from late in the run. We ended up including images from most if not all of the individual collections.

Were there any interviews you wanted to include but could not?

Dominick: One that leaps to mind is an early interview conducted for The Comics Journal, by Kim Thompson. It's a great, wide-ranging one, but also massive (as many Sim interviews are) and would have taken up a huge chunk of the available space. As it is, since interviews with Dave Sim do tend to be expansive, this book has fewer selections than some others in the Conversations series, so to include the Thompson one, we'd probably have had to cut two or three others.
 
Eric:  I for one would have liked to include some later interviews dealing with Sim's post-Cerebus work (notably Judenhass and glamourpuss) but as Dom says space was a concern and also the interviews included seem to have Cerebus as a natural focus, it being Sim's only major work and the bulk of his professional output to date. 

Why is a collection of Sim's interviews necessary?

Dominick: A collection of interviews is necessary, I think, because, like old floppies, these original records also often tended to disappear quickly into back issue bins, or oblivion. Comics and comics-related materials are often ephemeral. Many of the interviews we've included are inaccessible, or very hard to find, even for studious collectors--and even in these days of eBay. And it's important, even essential, to look at these records because they present Sim in his own words. Given the controversies that dogged the latter years of his career, I think it's important to get back to his own explanations of his work and his ideas, rather than relying solely on what others have to say about him--which is often, to be frank, unfair to the work and to the man.

In what way has Sim's work changed the industry or the art form?

Dominick: Sim made the graphic novel, as opposed to the floppy, the format of choice for comics, I'd argue. Pre-Cerebus, comics reprints were rare, and even rarer in book form--especially of new material, which in most instances was consigned to back issue bins within months (even weeks) of first appearing and had to be sought out and paid for through the nose, if you weren't lucky enough to be in on something when it started. I doubt we'd have the plethora of long serials designed to have clear endings, or the increasing number of original works produced at novel length, today without Sim's example.

Eric: I'd add that without Sim's example such creators such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore would likely have continued working for the major publishers for a longer period of time and such works as From Hell and Sin City might have appeared in considerably different form.  Creator's rights would have been a more marginalized concern in the comics industry during the 1980s without Sim's presence as a viable self-publisher/alternative.  I'd say in part because of the example of Cerebus (there was also DC's well-publicized lawsuits over creative ownership of Superman, Jack Kirby's struggle to recover his original artwork from Marvel and Steve Gerber's lawsuit with Marvel over ownership of his character Howard the Duck), both DC and Marvel began to take creator's rights more seriously and to reconsider their very unfair and outdated contractual terms concerning restitution for creators - allowing creators to retain their rights, paying percentages as opposed to per-page pay rates, and so on.

What position do you believe Dave Sim occupies in the comic industry today?  Ultimately, what sort of legacy do you believe Sim has contributed to the comics field?

Dominick: I think that the controversial nature of what Sim has had to say about feminism and to a lesser extent about religion has unfortunately marginalized him, at least to some extent. That said, many comics luminaries, both long-standing and more recently emerging, have acknowledged Sim's mastery of the medium (even when they object to Sim's ideology). He is recognized as a master of the comics form, though his influence is probably not as obvious as is that of some other comics masters. Certainly, one does not tend to see many Sim clones or imitators, as one has seen over the years with other figures, such as Neal Adams, Kirby, Eisner, and so on. Sim's more sui generis--a unique figure like Ditko, or Gene Colan--instantly recognizable, hard to imitate, but definitely foundational

Eric: Cerebus is a long-form work ne plus ultra - there is literally nothing else like it in the discrete, monthly comic format (the closest form that comes to it is manga - a form with which Sim said he has little familiarity - and yet manga is designed to be read quickly and involves a more cinematic structure than its Western counterparts, most notably Cerebus which, with its many text interpolations, is a decidedly literary comic book).  Anything exceeding Cerebus' length is necessarily compromised by a variety of factors and always to the detriment of its tone, narrative structure and stability and even comprehension.  So it is my feeling that, at least for the time being, Cerebus will remain an entirely unique work for its medium.

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