As long as there have been comics, there have been
local authors creating them. These authors may not have been doing
something that major comic book companies like Marvel or DC were
interested in, but they made comics anyway out of their love for
the medium. Dave Sim was one such author trying to make it with
a little comic book called Cerebus, a parody of other comics
such as Conan the Barbarian. Rather than catering to a mass
audience, however, Sim was happy covering expenses while doing what
he liked to do best: writing and drawing an aardvark in a world
But then something happened.
Cerebus, begun in 1977, started selling to larger and larger
audiences. Two years later, Sim proclaimed that Cerebus would
be a 300 issue graphic novel with a definite beginning and ending
and with Sim himself in charge of everything (writing, drawing,
and publishing). Nobody believed him. Over twenty years and 250-plus
issues later, however, the comic world waits with bated breath as
Sim counts down to Issue 300 (scheduled to appear in March 2004).
Sim's self-publishing approach gave him the confidence to try new
things and, in doing so, make his comic one of the most literary
ever published. When authors Stanley Wiater and Stephen R. Bissette
gave Sim the title of "One Man Army" (because Sim does
everything himself) they were not kidding (Wiater and Bissette 97).
Sim's take-no-prisoner approach to storytelling has rubbed many
people the wrong way and led to speculation that, among other things,
Sim's comic is really a pulpit for his chauvinistic views. For others,
though, Cerebus says what the readers have been saying for
a long time: that comics can tell complex stories with high quality
prose and artwork, and they can even be considered literature.
A comic having a long run does not surprise people; Superman,
for example, ran past the 500 mark years ago. What is unique about
Cerebus is that Sim is creating the entire comic (with the
exception of background drawings by artist Gerhard) by himself.
What is even more unique is that Cerebus is an adult comic
for an adult audience. It does not "dumb down" its writing
to attract more readers; in fact, it makes the reader work at reading
and understanding the story. Between Sim's styles of writing and
layout, Cerebus is anything but easy to read. Furthermore,
Cerebus is the most unlikable character imaginable. He drinks, swears,
picks fights, and will go to any length to get as rich as he can.
A hero usually, among other things, upholds what is conventionally
right and moral in a story. A hero captures bad guys. A hero will
do things that will defend the law. A hero dies defending others.
Cerebus, on the other hand, is an anti-hero—he tries to do none
of these things. He drives Jaka, the woman he loves, away time and
again; he deceives people for his own well-being, and he even commits
rape while he is the Pope. Even though Cerebus is an anti-hero,
though, he is still fascinating. That fact is what makes this case
of hero/anti-hero so complicated, and so human. Sim creates a love/hate
relationship between the reader and Cerebus, and this dynamic keeps
the reader intrigued, coming back month after month.
But this is supposed to be a funny comic book, right? About a guy
who looks like he is dressed up in a rabbit's outfit, right? Right?
Cerebus did appear at first to be a funny-man's comic book,
taking everyone along for the ride for the first year and a half.
The fact that Cerebus is an aardvark and everybody else is human,
although never mentioned, is just one small thing (although Cerebus
is described from time to time as anything from a short midget to
a guy wearing a bunny's costume). The early stories were populated
with parodies of famous fictional characters and figures from Marvel
Comics. These lampoons of standard comic book clichés made
Cerebus stand out in the early days from the rest of the
pack; Sim was thumbing his nose at the corporate comic book machine.
There was Elrod of Melvinbone, a character who was based on Michael
Moorcock's famous albino hero Elric, whose speech was patterned
after the Warner Brothers cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. There
was Red Sophia, a parody of the Red Sonja character created by Robert
E. Howard, and The Regency Elf, Sim's version of Tinkerbell. One
of the best was Jaka's uncle, Lord Julius, the ruler of Palnu and
an impersonation of Groucho Marx down to his speech, mannerisms
and his first name (Groucho's real first name was Julius). Finally,
but not least, there was Artemis, who morphed into parodies of Wolverine,
Captain America, Spider-Man, Moon Knight, The Punisher, Sandman,
and countless others over the years.
With all this parody going on, when did Cerebus get serious?
The seriousness started with Sim himself. He was always serious
about doing comics, but it was around 1979—when he declared that
Cerebus would run 300 issues—that the comic began to show
more focus. Sim moved away from sword-and-sorcery tales and started
dealing with the more adult themes of politics and society. The
comics, collected in Book 2 as High Society, told one continuing
story and were first published in comic form at around the same
time as his announcement. Nobody noticed this connection, but the
reader could see that Sim was more focused, as if he had something
bigger in mind, and with each subsequent collection the stories
and the artwork became more involved and, at times, more serious
in tone. These collections, or Books, would eventually showcase
the entire series. Sim also declared that the series would be in
two overall parts, each with 150 comics. Cerebus, High
Society, Church and State, Jaka's Story
and Melmoth (Books One through Six) are the First
Half of the series, and the Second Half (unfinished as of this writing)
are Flight, Women, Reads, Minds,
Guys, Rick's Story, Going Home
and Form and Void (Books Seven through 14; the books got
shorter as the years went along because Sim published fewer issues
Two themes that developed as the comic evolved were Cerebus' campaigns
to move up the ladder of power and his love/hate relationship with
the dancer Jaka, who was introduced in Issue 6. Cerebus wanted Jaka,
but only when he could not have her, and when he could have her
he was too busy campaigning for power to notice. "You said
you'd wait forever for Cerebus
" he says to Jaka at one
point, referring to their first meeting when he was drugged against
his will so he would not remember her. Jaka replies, "I said
I'd wait forever for you to remember [me]. Well you did remember
and you never came back" (Sim, Church and State
I: 461-63). Cerebus does come back to her in Jaka's
Story, but unfortunately she is married to Rick (who appears
later in Rick's Story). Sim's take on the guy/girl
romance angle haunts Cerebus through the entire run of the
series. Cerebus is only truly happy with Jaka at the end
of Rick's Story, and even that is short-lived. Throughout
twenty-plus years of Cerebus, he has loved Jaka and driven
her away, and when it seems that he has finally learned his lesson,
he drives her off again at the end of Form and Void. The
reader can only wonder if Jaka is to be heard from again.
Cerebus' campaign for power eventually wins him the title of Pope
of the Eastern Church of Tarim, which in turn leads to a power struggle
and eventually a radical power shift from men (Kelvinist) to women
(Cirinist) being in control. While Cerebus' quest for power is at
times very funny, it is also very serious. When all is said and
done, Cerebus embodies the notion that "absolute power corrupts
absolutely." The more powerful he becomes, the more insane
he becomes until finally he is brought before The Judge—a being
of intense power (though his greatest power is observation)—to
prevent the destruction of the entire world through Cerebus' greed.
Church and State ends with a prophetic warning from The Judge:
"You live only a few more years. You die alone. Unmourned.
And unloved" (Sim, Church and State II: 1212).
This prophecy will haunt Cerebus, and the reader, for the
remainder of the series.
Cerebus' drive to do things his way only mirrored Sim's. When Sim
launched his series, there were only two comic companies around:
Marvel and DC. Rather than sell his creation outright (the fight
over creator-owned comics was still to come), Sim decided to self-publish
his work. He had an advantage because he could do everything himself,
from writing and drawing to stapling the issue together. However,
he also had a disadvantage: he had to do everything himself, from
writing and drawing to stapling the issue together
With his girlfriend's help, he began planning out the comic. He
wanted a character that was barbaric like all those Barry Windsor
Smith comics he read (Smith had worked on Conan for many
years before he was let go by Marvel, a move that angered Sim).
He wanted a name, something mythological, and his girlfriend Deni
suggested the three-headed dog of Greek mythology. Deni, however,
spelled the name wrong; Ceberus became Cerebus, and a legend was
born (Jones and Jacobs 229). Over time, as Cerebus started
to attract a reading audience, Sim realized that there was an incredible
amount of power in doing everything himself. He did not have to
answer to anybody as far as his subject matter; if the readers did
not like it, they would stop reading it. The readers' vote was what
mattered most, and not the corporate idea of what a comic should
look like or how much money it should make. As Marvel and DC were
in a constant power struggle over which company was on top that
week, Sim was left alone because, as far as the Big Two were concerned,
Sim and his ilk did not matter. Little did they realize how wrong
Comic creators have been abused almost as long as there have been
comics. It is not uncommon to work in an industry where one's talents
and ideas belong to the company. In many industries, if an employee
comes up with a new idea that makes more money for the company,
that idea belongs to the company and not the individual. For decades,
this was true of the comic book industry, as well. Sim was part
of a growing movement among comic writers and artists to retain
the rights to their creations and to profit from them. These artists
were incensed by industry horror stories, such as the one about
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two men who created Superman while
working for DC Comics in the 1930s. Siegel and Shuster signed all
of their rights to Superman over to DC in 1938 for a grand total
of $1,300. Years later they realized their mistake and sued unsuccessfully
for ownership of the Superman character. DC Comics not only refused
to return the copyright, but as a further insult removed their names
from the Superman comics (Ellison 174, 222). Through the
efforts of other comic artists who were fighting for creator's copyrights,
DC finally gave Siegel and Shuster a tiny fraction of the Superman
franchise—pennies when compared to how much money Superman
was making in one year (Jones and Jacobs 218, 266).
Another incident involved Jack "King" Kirby who, with
writer Stan Lee, put Marvel Comics on the map in the 1960's and
1970's by creating many memorable characters including the Fantastic
Four, The Avengers, and Doctor Doom. Eventually Kirby and Marvel
parted ways, but when Kirby decided that he would like his art back,
Marvel refused, even though the company had started giving other
artists rights to work they had done while at the company. Kirby
startled the company by demanding co-author credit on every character
he worked on while he was employed at Marvel. Kirby was tackling
a gray area here since writing and plotting were,
to Kirby, the same thing. To Marvel, writing meant the actual story
word by word written by one person, while plotting was a brainstorming
session in which anybody could contribute. Kirby argued that a visual
story with words was still a story that Kirby had created and, therefore,
he should get credit for it. It was a long and hard battle, but
eventually in 1987 Marvel gave in and returned—albeit a tiny amount—of
artwork to Kirby. It took the entire comic industry backing
Kirby to accomplish this feat (Jones and Jacobs 251-312).
These are two of many cases. Sim might have started Cerebus
as an independent early on because there was nowhere else to go,
but soon realized that his independence was actually a good thing;
he did not have to worry about rights or royalties because he was
the sole owner. He soon started promoting self-publishing as a noble
cause. In the late 1980's, Sim began organizing Creator Summits
to discuss issues of ownership and copyright with other comic artists,
"One of the things I was looking to find an answer for, 'Does
a creator have the right to choose how he sells his work, and who
he sells it to?'
There was still
a large degree of animosity
between some in attendance saying that 'your way is the wrong way,'
and my saying 'my way is the right way'" (Wiater and
Bissette 107). As a result of these discussions, fellow comic creator
Scott McCloud came up with the "Bill of Rights for Comic Creators,"
stating that writers and artists should have full ownership of their
work and the right to use said work as they see fit (Wiater and
Sim's success confirms his ideas about self-publishing. Back in
1977 there were two comic companies; now thanks to Sim, McCloud
and others, there are many more, many with the Comic Creators Bill
of Rights as their motto. Sim published the Cerebus Guide to
Self Publishing in 1997 as a further statement that people,
if their heart is in it, can self-publish and answer to no one but
themselves. He argues that a contract between a creator and a publishing
company is the creator's death warrant waiting to happen. "I
can't put it any more plainly than I already have," Sim says.
"If you sign a contract, you have lost control of your work"
(Guide 52). He sums up his philosophy in the Introduction:
If your motivation in self-publishing is to become wealthy and
famous, self-publishing will eat you alive
[But if] your
priorities are to keep yourself alive, keep a roof over your head,
keeping distractions and intrusions to a bare minimum, and spend
most of your waking life getting better at what you do
odds for your success will improve dramatically as a result. (Guide
As Sim campaigned for self-publishing, Cerebus became increasingly
complicated and involved, with grand stories that took years to
wrap up and in turn were part of an overall larger picture that,
in 2001, was still going on.
In other words, Cerebus became literary.
This process was a slow one, but one that Sim embraced the more
he got into the story. "After three years [when Cerebus
first came out], I was scraping the bottom of the barrel of the
handful of sword-and-sorcery clichés
Once I moved from
a field in which I had no interest to fields in which I was interested
(politics, economics, power, religion, etc.), I began to find my
voice" (Guide 22). By the time Jaka's Story
began with Issue 114, Sim had abandoned the issue-by-issue format
he had used in his previous four collections. Jaka's Story
seemed to be a four-hundred-plus page story instead of a
collection of twenty-page issues. Sim also began to play around
with his artwork, making it seem that Jaka's Story
was not a series of comic book pages but rather written words that
incorporated artwork. Entire pages were taken up with single illustrations,
with few or no words, increasing the impact of the artwork on the
reader. Many declared Jaka's Story the highpoint of
not only Cerebus but of storytelling in comics.
This balance between story and art is a delicate one. If Sim gives
the reader too little story, then Cerebus is nothing more
than pictures that one can read rapidly (like Japanese comic books,
manga, which are actually supposed to be read rapidly; hence,
no long speeches). If Sim gives the reader too much story, then
he is writing a novel. All of this—playing around with text and
art, the layout of the book itself, and even some of the characters-places
Cerebus in another literary category: that of postmodernism.
The four-book story Mothers and Daughters (Flight, Women,
Reads and Minds) is postmodern in structure
and content, with slight spillover in the later books. One example
of Sim's postmodern approach is the self-reflexive appearance of
the character Dave who, for lack of a better explanation, is
Dave Sim, down to his likeness appearing in Rick's Story.
Dave first appeared to Cerebus in Book 10, Minds.
He does not make a physical appearance but is to Cerebus
a god that can, and does, make Cerebus do anything he wants him
to do. At one point, Cerebus even sticks a syringe in his eyeball
just because Dave makes him do it (241-48). By the time he appears
in Rick's Story, Cerebus has forgotten Dave (the god)
and tells his bar mate (Dave the Same Person)—in a classic Beckett
moment—that he has been waiting around even though there is no
one to be waiting for. "Cerebus is not driving ANYone crazy,"
he tells Dave who replies, "Well
be surprised at WHO you're driving crazy" (195-96). As Dave
says this, the reader can see a ruler, pencil, and various issue
numbers from comic books that appears over Cerebus' head; Sim as
creator is making an inside joke about the trials of making comic
Another example of Sim's defiance of conventional comic book creation
occurs in Reads. A "Read" is an old-fashioned
word for book, and Reads takes the art-plus-story concept
to its fruition. As he has done since Jaka's Story,
Sim plays with story and art in each volume, making the pages appear
to be actual old-fashioned book pages with an illustration beside
each page. In Reads, though, Sim goes further. There
are pages with nothing but artwork—no text—and there are
pages with text but no artwork. Readers accustomed to seeing text
and words joined together, making the comic book very easy to read
(again, like manga), were in for a rude awakening.
Reads was to become the most controversial volume
of Cerebus, again because of Sim's supposed use of the story
to comment on himself as the creator. At one point, as Cerebus is
in the middle of a battle, the viewpoint shifts until eventually
the reader is looking at a drawn comic book sheet and its creator
sitting in front of it (142). Whether it is Sim or another character
is debatable, and no real answer is ever supplied. The reader's
enjoyment of Reads was further challenged by the vast
amount of text that Sim had included, and what the text said. The
persistent reader would discover "the truth" about Sim:
that he hated women and wanted to let the world know it through
his comic. Issue 186 of Reads became known thereafter
as the "misogyny issue." Sim, supposedly writing as the
character Viktor Davis, spells out how the male is superior to the
female, and the female is the enemy to the Muse that guides Davis/Sim,
"Women, he would say, are not Muses. Muses are Muses. To confuse
one with the other is to mistake the Devouring Void for the Seminal
Light. Earthly Women and the Muses are ancient, sworn enemies"
(237). The whole issue, in fact, is a diatribe about this particular
topic; a topic, the reader notices, that does not involve Cerebus
or the comic. Sim just climbed on a soapbox and started preaching
about female inadequacy—a charge that has been leveled against
such literary greats as Ernest Hemingway.
Never before had Cerebus generated so much reaction from
its its puzzled and
outraged readers. Reader Kristen Brennan, who for years maintained
the Dave Sim Misogyny Homepage website, asks, "If Sim
has a serious argument to forward, especially one which doesn't
involve his Cerebus characters in any way, is his 'Cerebus' comic
book really the best place to do it?" (Brennan). To this day,
seven years after Reads was released in book format, Sim
still continues his attacks, this time in Issue 265 and under his
own name. Sim even involves The Comics Journal (a well-known
magazine for comic creators and fans) by giving them permission
to reprint all of Issue 265 on its website (Sim, "Tangents").
Is it all just a publicity stunt or a real misogynistic agenda
on Sim's part?
Fellow comic creator Rick Veitch comments that he has seen Sim
get "vicious and cruel on a heartbeat (especially toward women)"
and that saying that "Tangents" is a publicity stunt to
boost sales is a fair, but highly unlikely, claim (Veitch). Comic
writer Peter David compares Sim to comedian Andy Kaufman—who would
do anything to get a response out of someone—and says that it might
be a PR stunt to get people to read Cerebus again (as they
did in droves when Issue 186 came out) and that Sim is laughing
all the way to the bank (David). Fan Kelley O'Hearn says that it
is obvious that Sim is mentally sick, but he is still writing great
comics that should not be missed (O'Hearn) (Sim himself has mentioned
being mentally ill in the past). Finally, a person posting on The
Comic Journal message board summed it up this way: "Lots
of talk about Sim's rants—barely any talk about Sim's comics. Draw
your own conclusions" (Davelot).
When Sim uses Cerebus as a soapbox, he draws readers away
from what made the comics so interesting in the first place: the
characters and the story. His fascination with real-life literary
characters, for example, is another reason that Cerebus is
more than an ordinary comic book. Sim has said that every bit of
Melmoth is from Oscar Wilde's own life—specifically,
Wilde's final years after he was released from prison. He even includes
facsimile pages from a real book—the Collected Letters of Oscar
Wilde—so the reader can see that, other than minor details
such as the city names, the text is taken from an actual work (249).
Sim said, "Once I actually re-read the 'Epilogue to Collected
Letters' and I got to the actual description of Oscar's death, I
knew that that was my story" (Usenet).
Along with Wilde, Cerebus meets characters modeled on F.
Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Sim tells about these characters
in scholarly-appearing notes printed in the back of each Book (Going
Home and Form and Void, respectively). However, the
astute reader might wonder to what extent Sim has taken creative
license with history here—in Sim's universe, something may look
like a duck and sound like a duck, but still turn out to be a ham
sandwich. Do Sim's notes on Hemingway and Fitzgerald (appearing
in his comic as F. Stop Kennedy and Ham Ernestway) represent actual
biography or are they largely fictional—another of his tricks in
blending truth and fiction? Sim says that all of the notes he took
while working on the two Books are real, but unless the reader wants
to recreate the painstaking research that Sim says he went through
and find out for sure, the reader will just have to take Sim's word
The storyline in Cerebus has always been divided by gender.
The first 150 issues presented the story from the men's point of
view (action) and the second 150 issues presented the women's point
of view (reaction). The first 150 issues are as strange to the reader
as to Cerebus himself, and the second half will reveal or
explain what happened in the first half:
Church & State functions as a compressed allegory
of the entire revelation part of the story: Jaka's Story
and Melmoth the reaction part. The four books
of Mothers & Daughters function as an allegory of the
First Half; Flight (book one) is Cerebus, Women
(book two) is High Society, Reads (book three)
is Church & State and Minds (book four)
is Jaka's Story/Melmoth. (Usenet)
This contrast between men and women has been a driving force of
Cerebus almost from the beginning:
The point of Church and State when you get to the end
of it was "Poor little seminal female light. She didn't stand
a chance. This giant male void beat up on her." When you
get to the end of Mothers and Daughters (sic), it's "That
poor little peckerhead male light. It didn't have a chance against
that all-consuming female void." (Spurgeon)
There is also another structure that Sim does not point out. Jaka's
Story and Rick's Story both came after a major story
arc (Church and State and Mothers and Daughters, respectively).
In turn, these two preceded Sim's use of literary characters in
his storylines. Melmoth follows Jaka's Story (about
Wilde), and Going Home and Form and Voids follow Rick's
Story (about Fitzgerald and Hemingway). These patterns give
unity to the vast behemoth that is Cerebus. There is an even
bigger pattern to all of this, one that cannot be analyzed yet:
the 150 issue split. Sim has always maintained that Cerebus
should be viewed as an overall piece. Only when Issue 300 is reached
will the readers truly see the complete work and make something
of it for themselves. Sim's master plan at the end of the Cerebus
series is to present the male and female viewpoints together as
an overall picture of Cerebus' world. What Sim's view of that world
is is unclear at the moment, especially in light of the misogyny
charges that Sim is facing from his readers. Whether those charges
eventually bring a once-great comic book crashing down remains to
Dave Sim has maintained Cerebus for over twenty years and
plans to continue until Issue 300 in March 2004. Few comic books
tell so complicated a story, and no comic book in North America
has ever done it with only one creator doing everything for so long.
Along the way, he has given the reader a fascinating read in religion
and politics and a unique artifact in the world of popular culture.
Cerebus may be a comic book, but it would
not be out of place in a literature classroom.
Breenan, Kristen. Hey, Kids!!
Dave Sim Misogyny Homepage!! 17
Aug. 2001. http://www.jitterbug.com/pages/sim.html.
Dave Sim - The Usenet Interview.
8 Aug. 2001
Davelok. Online Posting. 11 April.
2001. Dave Sim on a Tangent (Page 1). 18
Aug. 2001. http://www.tcj.com/messboard/ubb/Forum2/HTML/
David, Peter. Online Posting. 11
April. 2001. Dave Sim's Tangents (page 2). 18
Aug. 2001. http://www.comicon.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/003106-
Jones, Gerard and Will Jacobs.
The Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin: Prima
Ellison, Harlan. "It Ain't
Toontown." Playboy. Dec. 1988: 162+.
O'Hearn, Kelley. Online Posting.
12 April. 2001. Dave Sim's Tangents (page 3).
18 Aug. 2001. http://www.comicon.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML
Sim, Dave. Cerebus Guide to
Self Publishing. Windsor, Ontario: Preney Print,
—- . Church and State I.
Windsor, Ontario: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1987.
—-. Church and State II.
Windsor, Ontario: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1988.
—-. Melmoth. Windsor, Ontario:
—-. Minds. Windsor, Ontario:
—-. Reads. Windsor, Ontario:
—-. Rick's Story. Windsor,
Ontario: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1998.
—-. "Tangents." The
Comics Journal. 17 Aug. 2001.
Spurgeon, Tom. "Dave Sim Interview."
The Comics Journal.
Veitch, Rick. Online Posting. 15
April. 2001. Dave Sim's Tangents (page 6). 18
Aug. 2001. http://www.comicon.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/003106-
Wiater, Stanley and Stephen R.
Bissette. Comic Book Rebels. New York:
Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1993.