This month we’re going to look at a creator who has been a big influence on many in the comic field, Dave Sim. Sim is best known for his popular creation, Cerebus the Aardvark. It is this aardvark’s book, and Sim’s handling of it, that continues to serve as an inspiration to many.
Born in 1956, Sim has lived in Kitchener, Ontario, since the age of two. He was interested in comics from his early years. In his youth he was a DC Comics reader, even having a letter published in an issue of Superman. Sim didn’t finish high school, instead heading into a career in comics. One of his first jobs was at a local Kitchener bookstore, Now and Then Books.
Some of his earliest comic work was for fanzines. The National Advisor out of Texas, and Gene Day’s fanzine Dark Fantasy, were among his earliest gigs. Sim interviewed comic artists for his fanzine Now and Then Times, which was financed by the owner of the bookstore where he’d been working. He sold a strip to a local paper, the Kitchener – Waterloo Record, called The Beavers. In a bid to get the paper to buy the strip, Sim, with inking from Gene Day, created 52 strips, a whole year’s worth. He took the whole lot into the paper’s offices, and The Beavers got picked up. He didn’t get rich off of this, but it helped, since this was a couple of years before Cerebus really got going.
Sim eventually began his own graphics studio, COMICgraphics. Advertising his artistic skills in The Comics Journal, he offered everything from simple illustrations & lettering, to full 24-page comic books complete with a color cover. Sim got several jobs as a result of this ad.
In late 1977 the first issue of Cerebus the Aardvark was published. This began the title that would change Sim’s life, and last for 300 issues, over the next 25 years.
Sim cites Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian as influences for Cerebus the Aardvark in its early days. It wasn’t until about three years into the book that Sim feels he found his own voice. Since then, he has taken his readers through many aspects of the human experience through the life of Cerebus, the title character.
Cerebus has been described as a misanthropic anthropomorphic three-foot tall bipedal gray aardvark. Even though Cerebus is referred to as a male, he is a hermaphrodite, although without the ability to asexually reproduce due to an injury. He refers to himself in the third person. He is amoral, he likes getting drunk, and he has quite a temper. He can also be brave, and show affection for others at times. He was once Pope. This little aardvark is quite a developed character. Sim has used him to explore the political and religious realms of human life. The fact that Sim was in complete control over the book gave him the freedom to write whatever story, on any subject he pleased.
The book itself has gained critical acclaim, and has earned its creator many awards over the years. Among them are the Eisner award, an Inkpot, a Harvey, a Kirby, a Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: Defender of Liberty Award, and several others. On the flip side of the award coin, Sim and his longtime collaborator Gerhard founded the Howard E. Day Prize for outstanding achievement in self-publishing, in tribute to Gene Day. Self-publishing is something that Sim and Gerhard know very well.
Cerebus has a couple of distinctions in addition to the aforementioned awards. The book was self published by Sim’s company, Aardvark-Vanaheim. Sim and Gerhard collaborated on the book for quite some time. Beginning with issue #65, Gerhard contributed the background art, onto which Sim put the rest of the story. Sim and Gerhard make up the longest running single creative team on a comic book, going from #65 (August 1984) to the book’s conclusion with issue #300 (March 2004). That’s about 20 years of the same two guys, on the same book. That’s something that no English language book will surpass any time soon.
Sim didn’t write Cerebus as a bunch of little stories that could be taken primarily by themselves. He refers to the book as the longest running narrative in human history. For quite a while he had the series’s life span in mind, 300 issues, ending in March 2004. Despite not getting a book published every month from its beginning, Sim managed to finish the book on schedule, just when he said he would. Overall, Cerebus the Aardvark is quite a monumental accomplishment.
Sim has kept busy since the completion of his Aardvark’s adventures. He appears at conventions, does interviews and artwork for the magazine Following Cerebus, does guest work, and is busy in the local goings on in his home town of Kitchener. He’s got other projects as well, like an online comic-book biography of Canadian actress Siu Ta, titled Siu Ta, So Far. He’s also working on Glamourpuss, a parody of fashion magazines in a comic book and somewhat photo realist format. Another project is Judenhass, a 56-page “personal reflection on The Holocaust.”
Dave Sim and Cerebus have influenced many comic creators. Among them are the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird. Also Jeff Smith (Bone, RASL), Terry Moore (Strangers In Paradise, Echo), and Martin Wagner (Hepcats). Some artists have been so influenced by his work that they’ve been accused of outright copying his style in certain areas.
There’s not a lot of people who you can learn from in terms of storytelling, but Dave’s always one of them.
Along with several others Sim contributed to the creation of the Creator’s Bill of Rights, a document designed to protect the rights of creators and aid against their exploitation by corporate work-for-hire practices. Sim has been a real force for the rights of the comic book creator.
There has been more than a slight bit of controversial issues in Sim’s life. His views on feminism have been called into question. This has also been touched on in some issues of Cerebus. His relationships with Jeff Smith, and also with The Comics Journal have made news from time to time.
Regardless of any controversy, or political views, or any of that, Dave Sim has made great contributions to the comic medium, and the comic business. He has fought for the rights of creators, something that has been a struggle since the dawn of the superhero age with Shuster & Siegel. The dynamic range of artistic techniques that he explored in Cerebus, and his endurance in self publishing it, have spurred many forward in their own pursuits. Some of these giving us beloved works of sequential art. If you’re going looking for some of those early issues of Cerebus the Aardvark, be warned, they fetch a pretty high price. However, if you just want to read all about Cerebus, you don’t have to pony up several hundred dollars to do it. The series has been collected into several trades for your reading pleasure.
You’ll no doubt find sterling examples of sequential story telling in the pages of Dave Sim’s work. Throughout all the years that Cerebus was being published, Sim retained the rights to it, never opting for a sale to a large publisher. He had options, but he turned them all down. He’s made arrangements to allow the copyright for the Cerebus character to go into the public domain after his death. He has stuck to his ideal that a creator should be able to decide what goes on with their creation. A respectable stance indeed.
For those of you who may be wondering what exactly an aardvark is, click here.