The Man Behind the Aardvark

By Self-Publishing, Dave Sim
Keeps Control of 'Cerebus'

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, April 5, 1992

DAVE SIM writes and draws comic books.

Now, many of the new breed of independent writers and artists trying to bring respectability to the medium try to avoid all contact with the term ''comic book.'' They produce graphic narratives, they will tell you, or sequential stories. Some spell the word differently, saying they do ''comix'' or even ''commix.'' Magazines such as ''Love & Rockets'' or ''RAW'' are produced in formats no one would mistake for an ordinary comic book. Dave Sim writes and draws comic books. His ''Cerebus the Aardvark'' can sit comfortably on a shelf with the superhero books produced by Marvel and DC (the largest companies, home to Spider-Man and Superman, respectively).

But inside it is different. First, the art is reproduced in its original black and white instead of being ''colorized'' as the superhero books are. And instead of costumed bodybuilders pummeling each other in space, Sim tells stories about politics, religion, love and death. Human stories, even though the protagonist is a talking aardvark.

Unlike the assembly-line production of the typical Marvel or DC book, Sim writes ''Cerebus,'' pencils and inks all the figures, and even letters the word balloons. His associate, Gerhard (he goes by only one name) then pencils and inks the backgrounds and colors the covers.

It is almost unheard of for a comic book creator to publish his own material, but Sim has done just that since he started ''Cerebus'' in 1977. Self-publishing is usually thought of as a portfolio-builder at best, if not an act of desperation, for amateurs not yet good enough to get hired by a major company. But Sim has turned down offers from DC, a giant in the industry and a division of the Warner Communications empire.

''I basically don't want to deal with those people,'' said Sim. By publishing himself, he has no editors or marketing directors telling him what will or will not work.

When Sim began publishing ''Cerebus'' in December 1977, the so-called alternative comics field was just getting started. Specialty shops devoted to comics were just beginning to appear. Sim wasn't the first person with the idea to produce a comic book for this new market, bypassing the traditional outlets, but ''Cerebus'' is the only such title to appear before 1980 that is still being published.

Sim's longevity is impressive, but even more impressive is the fact that the 150 issues published so far constitute the first half of a consistent story line. When Sim announced early in his career that he was going to do 300 issues, it was an audacious boast. Few comic books last even 100 issues. He was claiming kinship with the giants in the industry, like ''Superman'' or ''Batman.'' But unlike them, Sim wanted to avoid endless repetitions of origin stories and yet another battle with an arch-nemesis.

''If you read 300 issues of 'Superman' or 'Spider-Man,' '' said Sim, ''they don't make sense as a story or a life. When I started 'Cerebus,' uppermost in my mind was the thought that I wanted to produce 300 issues of a comic book series the way I thought it should be done - as one continuous story documenting the ups and downs of a character's life.''

In reaching the halfway mark toward his goal of telling a 6,000-page story over 26 years, Sim has produced six collected volumes that are known as ''phone books'' in an industry where 70 pages often passes for a ''graphic novel.''

The first book, titled simply ''Cerebus,'' collects the first 25 issues, when ''Cerebus'' was little more than a funny-animal parody of ''Conan the Barbarian.'' The second book, ''High Society,'' is Sim's first novel, a 512-page tale in which the aardvark barbarian gets ''civilized'' and becomes involved in politics, climaxing in his election campaign for prime minister.

The next novel, ''Church & State,'' is a massive work of 1,200 pages, printed in two volumes. In it Cerebus becomes pope and promptly announces that the world will be destroyed in 14 days unless everyone gives him all their gold. Although the resulting complications occur swiftly while reading the bound volumes, some readers of the comic book became frustrated by the fact that the next two weeks took some three years to complete at 20 pages a month.

''Jaka's Story,'' which follows, is a novel about one of the story line's major supporting characters, which makes Cerebus himself a supporting character within the novel itself. In fact, as the comic was published, nearly a year went by in which the title character didn't appear in his own comic book.

Imagine DC's reaction if a writer suggested spending two years' worth of ''Superman'' comics examining Lois Lane - her upbringing, her daily life, what made her who she is - and included a nine-issue run in which neither Superman nor Clark Kent made an appearance. Yet, within the context of a 300-issue story line, nine issues is a small fragment indeed.

Sim's latest collection, ''Melmoth,'' revolves around the circumstances surrounding the death of Oscar Wilde. It is harrowing reading, at times, for natural death has seldom, if ever, been portrayed so vividly in all its horrifying reality. The modern media have been eager to portray the grisliness of violent death, but natural death is still usually sanitized into a peaceful exhalation and a turn of the head. It is not so, or at least it was not so for Oscar, and Sim shows us exactly how it was.

At 240 pages, ''Melmoth'' is by far the smallest of the ''Cerebus'' collections, and Sim archly calls it a ''short story,'' despite the fact that it is longer than all but a handful of the so-called graphic novels that have exploded on the scene in the last few years.

Sim's graphic novels, aside from the distinction of being longer than anyone else's, are also more realistic than most. This may seem curious in a story whose central character is a talking aardvark, but Sim has invested the character with a personality that is much more human than any dozen superheroes one could care to name.

Cerebus is not a hero, though he sometimes acts in heroic ways. He sometimes acts in villainous ways, as well. In fact, he's not a likable character. He is greedy, selfish, ill-tempered and often self-defeating. It's obvious he doesn't really understand a lot of what is happening around him. And yet, he has a strange charisma, an ability to charm that draws in people who should know better.

''I think everybody knows someone like Cerebus,'' said Sim, ''someone who you wish wasn't your friend, who makes you so mad you swear you'll never speak to him again, and then he does something unexpectedly nice and you can't help liking him.''

Still, as recently as last year a reviewer in the Comics Journal argued that the very presence of an anthropomorphic animal lowered the level of seriousness Sim could ever hope to attain. Many people find it hard to take seriously a book whose main character is 3 feet tall and has a nose the size of a salami, not to mention long ears and a tail. So why an aardvark?

''The original idea was to do something like 'Howard the Duck,' '' said Sim, referring to the brilliant comic book of the '70s, not the awful movie of a decade later. ''A funny animal in a world of humans. But I didn't want to do a modern-day one because it would be too close to Howard. So it was either a science-fiction Howard the Duck or a barbarian Howard the Duck.''

Asked why he chose the latter, Sim said, ''Not as many straight lines. You can draw a building without using a ruler.'' Actually, he was already immersed in drawing barbarians as a budding fan artist. Barry Windsor-Smith's stunning art on the early issues of Marvel's adaptation of Conan had helped spark an explosion of comic book barbarians.

''At that time, the most lucrative way for a fan artist to make a living was drawing Conan stuff.'' Already familiar with the genre, Sim decided to use it when he launched his own book. ''I tried to do 'Cerebus' so that it looked like the whole issue was drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith except Cerebus, who I wanted to look like he was drawn by Chuck Jones. Because I thought that hadn't been played with. When they were doing 'Howard the Duck,' Howard was always rendered with the same kind of texture as everybody else. I wanted 'Cerebus' to look like an animation cel in the middle of a realistically drawn comic book.''

Although Sim's choice of an aardvark protagonist and a Conan-style milieu might seem limiting, the fact is that 6,000 pages provides him a large canvas on which to paint the variety of human existence. He has managed to weave references to current social and political events in his narrative, from electoral politics to abortion, and many familiar people like Oscar Wilde and Groucho Marx show up in the books.

''Cerebus'' is a work in progress, which will be completed in March 2004. And what next for Dave Sim? ''A long nap,'' he said, laughing. ''Probably more comics, but definitely not on a monthly schedule. Actually, you shouldn't ask a prisoner halfway through a 26-year prison term what he plans to do when he gets out.''