Dave Answers 6 Questons: August 2004
Recently, Dave has taken to answering questions for the Cerebus Yahoo!Group. Here are the questions and Dave's answers for August 2004. If you prefer, here is MS Word document with all of the answers and questions. Once again, thanks to Lenny for getting the questions organized, sent to Dave and posted!
Q1: How reliable is the information Theresa is feeding Weisshaupt in general, and specifically how does what she say about Gerrick square with the apparent contradiction of Astoria's statements about Cirin having given birth to a human son in "Reads" ("Appointments" in C&S I p.211)?
Dave: Well, one of the problems with a pathological liar character like Astoria is that pathological lying becomes endemic in proximity to her. Remember, she’s based on Bridgette O’Shaugnessy as portrayed by Mary Astor, who told her stories a little differently each time out and a little differently to each person she told them to. Or a lot differently. A pathological liar also derives great benefit from a Star Chamber approach to government such as Cirin practiced—providing she has immunity—because all of the proceedings are completely secret. Something happened behind closed doors in the series of events that Theresa is describing that probably resembles the story she is relating in certain particulars and is wide of the mark in others. I assume that Theresa is a pathological liar herself. The type tends to attract true believers who have a tendency to swallow everything whole and—when they finally start connecting the dots—tend to imitate the behaviour. If there’s no way of knowing what actually happened, there’s no reason that Theresa can’t tell it in her own way. The temptation to manufacture reality and to dictate it to others becomes too great. At that point the only guessing game is Which reality will ultimately prevail? So you might as well get yourself a dog in the fight just for the sake of having a dog in the fight. Who knows? You might win.
It’s one of those ‘well met’ circumstances. Cirin and Astoria were very much suited to each other. One hyper-secretive and the other a pathological liar. And, as I indicated last time (at least I think it was last time) Astoria wasn’t particularly good at what she was doing, so she tended to alternate between the urge to be a true revolutionary working to replace the system with one of her own devising and the urge to play Samson in the Temple—bringing everything crashing down on everyone and everything including herself. It’s a very sloppy form of anarchy and it works at cross purposes to itself. Replacing a system is a very different exercise from bringing everything to crashing ruin. So, I assume that Theresa would be pretty much the same.
Of course the overall point—whether it’s Astoria’s or whether it’s Theresa’s point—is a natural extrapolation of the abortion debate. “It’s none of your business.” Did Astoria believe that a mother had the right to murder her own children or was this one of Theresa’s innovations? I was less concerned with who thought it up or how it came to be discussed than in introducing the idea that once you have let daughters—the daughter impulse which is always to shock their mothers as a way of indicating their own superiority by not being shocked—off the leash it doesn’t take long to find the darkest corners of reality and begin to treat those corners with perfect equanimity. The recent move by Planned Parenthood to promote their cause with an “I had an abortion” t-shirt, it seems to me, is an attempt to recover that 70s frisson of sang froid, the “doesn’t bother me” philosophy that so titillated daughters at the time and which they found so compelling as lifestyle choice. “My mother is such a fossil. She thinks abortion is evil. She’s SO uncool.” There’ll be a lot of psychic debate going on between women right now about “I had an abortion” on a t-shirt and what it means. I suspect for a number of pro-choice women it’s just very creepy to picture themselves wearing an “I had an abortion” t-shirt and that (I would suspect largely unexpected) reaction within themselves is probably causing a certain amount of (equally unexpected) self-examination of how they actually feel about abortion. Having an abortion is one thing, advertising it jauntily on a t-shirt is another. At the other end of the spectrum where “Doesn’t. Bother. Me” is the ingrained, genetic level response to everything—the triple-X Hardcore Feminist crowd—I would suspect that for an unknown number of women neither abortion nor infanticide are causes for concern. Kill a baby, kill a fetus, what’s the difference and what’s the big deal? “Doesn’t. Bother. Me.” The fact that women in our society who murder their children are treated far more leniently than men who murder their children would indicate that this is, indeed, one of those dark corners of reality that is a little more crowded than most people in our society would accept it as being. Still an occult—in the original sense of “hidden”—sensibility but one which is quite widespread and one which is just biding its time before actively declaring itself. For that sensibility, wearing an “I had an abortion” t-shirt would be a good place to start.
In documenting Cirinists and Kevillists, I tried to outline what I saw as some of these interesting dark corners which daughters tend to find so enticing in their on-going need to shock their mothers. The actual facts—given that I was documenting women at war with each other and with society—I never really concerned myself about. Take the question: Was Sir Garrick adopted or Cirin’s natural son? In a woman’s world, it depends on who you ask. A big part of living with women involves simply believing everything that they say—their version of events, no matter how improbable. At this point we get into the areas of “Are women like that? or did Dave Sim just have this awful run of bad luck that the women he was with were always peddling a point of view on something?” I’m happy to discuss this further, but I’m just going to make a lot of you feel bad or angry or sad or a mixture of those. It’s why I showed a reasonably abstemious fellow like Weisshaupt drinking like a fish. If you actually try to determine the nature of reality by listening to women, you better have a bottle near to hand.
Q2: How did Lord Storms'End come by his knowledge of the Kevillists, the growth of the tower, the significance of the events Cerebus initiates as Pope etc? He tells Cerebus that Tarim fever sweeps through every decade or so, until someone says "enuf is enuf" - What's this mean? (i80)
Dave: Well, you have to remember that I had a really bad grasp of what the Meschiach—a messiah—is at the point I was writing this. “Tarim fever”. I came from the benighted generation directly after John Lennon’s. Let me see if I can describe this. I assumed, like John Lennon, like most atheists that Jesus was less of a manifestation of God’s will and God’s revelation of Himself to the world than he was a…job description. As John Lennon said about going to the cinema and seeing Elvis singing on the movie screen and all the girls in the audience jumping up and down and squealing: “That looks like a good job.” John Lennon wanted to be Elvis and he got to be Elvis. I don’t think there was anything larger in John Lennon’s world. He looked around and there was no one bigger than Elvis and when he got to be Elvis, there was no one bigger than John Lennon. Not even Jesus. How many magazine covers was Jesus on last month? In the same sense that the Beatles were all said to be fascinated with Hitler. Famous name. Big crowds. Power and control. It’s really all that you have in the skyer-no-higher—Lennon’s toppermost of the poppermost—category when you’re an atheist. Elvis Presley allowing himself to be called The King. Only half-heartedly protesting that there was only one King and that was Jesus—and then going out on stage dressed as Captain Marvel, Jr. It’s a mixed message in Elvis’ case. How devout was he? You had the Gospel singing and then you had the exponential fornication, the under-age fiancee. In John Lennon’s case there’s nothing to clutter up the message. In “apologizing” for saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he said, “I didn’t mean anything against God as a thing or Jesus as a person.” That’s a very good summing up of the atheistic view of both. God as a thing. Jesus as a person.
At twenty-five or so—I didn’t really discover the Beatles until a good ten years after they broke up—I assumed that the world was made up of individuals who were all “in” on this messiah racket and that they were all contending with each other as to whose guy was being advanced at any given point. Hitler, John Lennon, Elvis. It was part of the distorting effect of television which was difficult to see at the time because I was in the first generation of television children. Television was just as much a substitute religious altar in an atheistic family as it was an entertainment source. It was the grown-ups who were insisting we had to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, had to watch JFK’s funeral, had to watch the Gemini astronauts walking in space. I was seven years old. Watch the television. This is important. Okay. I’m watching, I’m watching. Television made of civilization a community of people all engaged in what Joni Mitchell called “the star-maker machinery”. Watch the television. This is important.
At one level “the star-maker machinery” was just about big houses and fancy cars and swimming pools and all that. But, I assumed in the rarefied heights the game was a good deal more serious. Even when you dismiss “God as a thing and Jesus as a person,” as could be seen with John Lennon, you still have an awareness that the “toppermost of the poppermost” exists. Although the controversy over Lennon saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was ancient history by the time I was reading about it and watching it in documentaries, it didn’t surprise me nearly as much that John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus as it did that he backed off so quickly in reaction. I mean, I was an atheist. Why not John Lennon? Why couldn’t John Lennon be the Jesus for this age the same way that Jesus had been the Jesus for his age? It’s an atheistic question, founded on ignorance. Not stupidity. Ignorance. Wilfully ignoring something you should pay attention to and understand more thoroughly.
The more I examined the situation in that strange mental landscape inhabited by writers where all questions apply to yourself and all questions apply to your work, the best assessment I could come up with was that there was some sort of exponentially wearing quality that level of fame seemed to have and that “taking the Jesus step” just amplified the crushing burden implicit in that Famous name/Big crowds/Power and control equation. Of course, now, I realize that someone in John Lennon’s situation is just courting disaster through transparent stupidity. You want to be Jesus? You remember what happened to Jesus? Okay, bud. You asked for it. I mean, you’re a singer. The reaction I had Cerebus give to Estarcion’s Frank Sinatra. When did a singer get to be thought of anywhere NEAR this category? And on what basis? The number of underage girls who want to have sex with you? Moon June spoon? Having “come from” that side of things, that level of absolute atheism, it just seemed obvious. Sinatra! Presley! Kennedy! They were obviously Exalted Beings. More than mere mortals. What more is there to say? But all of them —I see now in a life where God has His pre-eminent position—functioned on a very mundane and largely disreputable level. They’re only “up there” to someone even further down than they are.
I’m going on at length about this, because this was really how I saw the world as I was working on Cerebus through most of High Society and Church & State. People hook up with other people. One in ten million is a Brian Epstein and one in ten million is a John Lennon. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in either category. Apart from really liking hotel suites—the bigger the better—I could never see the percentage in materialism and materialism on a profound level seemed to be a necessary part of the equation. George Harrison buying a castle to live in. You aren’t going to get to that point unless you think buying a castle and living in it is a great idea. Really consider that mentality. Waking up in the morning and going, “Yeah, I’m going to buy a castle and live in it.” The idea of owning and living in a castle or a mansion repels me. All I see when I look at world-class materialism is: you own it, you have to take care of it. As one rap singer rather famously—and astutely—remarked, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” I mean, not necessarily. It depends on what you spend your money on. If you like supermodels, cocaine, platinum jewelry and antique sports cars you will indeed have many, many problems to go along with every dollar in your rapidly diminishing bank account. I just wasn’t in that category, nor was the medium in which I was working. A comic-book convention is a flea market, not a rock concert. Even Todd McFarlane’s home in one of Oregon’s posh bedroom communities was a “mansion,” not a mansion or a Mansion. There was no access point to that toppermost of the poppermost from where we were, so the point, very early on, became making the book into an “in context” monument, to try to make Cerebus the 6,000 page graphic novel and Cerebus the character into comic-book fixtures.
I assumed that the portrayal of JFK’s assassination as “martyrdom” and John Lennon’s “The way things are goin’, they’re gonna crucify me” were just pointing towards the year 2000 and that these kinds of messianic expectations were just going to start coming closer and closer together like labour pains. Again, in retrospect, I think this was a skewed and disproportionate view of reality which resulted from being born into an atheistic family, in the first television generation with televised images taking the place of the religious altar and celebrity substituting for scripture.
Now, trying to bring this around to Lord Storms’End, I also assumed that in this structure that I pictured there were a lot of abstainers. I certainly started out as a would-be contender and then turned abstainer. Why bother? If you aren’t a materialist, all that leaves is (if the ladies will forgive me) pussy. And the one time that I had three women I was sleeping with at the same time—very, very brief time—told me that a lot of female genitalia sounds a lot better than it is in actual practice. I hadn’t realized, at the time, how deep this thought went. Access to a lot of female genitalia was like “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” More female genitalia, more problems. But, I still wanted to get laid. A lot. It was a contradiction I continuously evaded and then paid the price for evading well past the age when I should’ve known better. When I finally stopped evading it, when I finally recognized what getting laid actually was, then I was a complete abstainer and I got off the treadmill I had been on, started climbing out of the pit I had dug for myself.
But, it’s interesting to me that—back in the days when I was completely absorbed in the contradiction, I was coming up with characters like Suenteus Po and Lord Storms’End. It was as if I was really trying to tell myself something. Which, I think now, I obviously was. When you really start to abstain—when abstention becomes your way of life—you really start to figure things out and the more you figure things out, the more you abstain, and each begins to reinforce the other. If I see a picture of a millionaire in front of his mansion, I just look at it and think, wow, what a headache: think how much of your conscious attention has to go into maintaining that. When I think of all the things that go wrong around this dinky little place that I live in and multiply them by mansion scale. Wow. Boggles my mind. How aggravating.
So, it interests me that I tended to document that viewpoint as the highest imaginable reality long before I experienced it. I wish I could supply you with backstory for Lord Storms’End but, just because of the nature of the character, I wouldn’t have come up with backstory for Lord Storms’End so I have none to offer. Obviously, wherever he came from, whoever he was before, whatever pit he might have dug for himself—and he is, clearly, well-informed on any number of levels, several of which you identified—he realized at some point that no good could come of it. And he chose to just be a farmer. Actually clings to just being a farmer. For his own safety and for the safety of others. And, of course, Cerebus’ magnifying nature screws that up—gets him where he lives and breathes, the same as Cerebus got Suenteus Po. They know abstaining is the only sensible course and then, suddenly, there they are, nattering on and on, interfering, trying to affect events, advocating, showing off what they know, using what they suspect as a cudgel. It’s another vice, because the urge to show off accompanies ideas when you’re a thinker. You always want to “try an idea out” on someone else. But that’s the opposite of abstention. It’s one of the reasons that I’m glad that socializing went by the boards for me through the ostracism and vilification for not being a feminist. I know how valuable it is to just keep to yourself. I never would’ve discovered it otherwise.
Q3: What was up with the Countess? Who is she? What was her role in the larger story intended to be vs. what her role actually was? My intention with the Countess was to document a female who really just wanted to be a regular female and ended up in this idealized Kevillist circumstance owing to inherited wealth or having Weisshaupt for a sugar daddy. I’ll leave those two as open questions—as a reader (I didn’t remember hinting at Weisshaupt as sugar daddy, but that seems to me to be what I had the Countess talking around in her second appearance). Why was she there?
Dave: What I was trying to pose for the reader was the problem which results when you feminist-ize society (feminist-ize, not feminize). Essentially you make being female into a political role and a set of political decisions. As an example, in our society, every woman is expected to be in the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camp and to be willing to denounce the other side and defend her own side at the drop of a hat. Which side are you on? Historically, a lady’s—as opposed to a woman’s—reaction to the question would be that it seems like a very unpleasant subject. And then she would change it or evade it gracefully. Because good breeding and good manners would dictate that she do so. Femininity was the custodian of those natures. Good breeding and good manners were passed down because mother had good breeding and good manners and her mother before her had good breeding and good manners. And suddenly, you not only don’t have good breeding and good manners, you consider the whole idea of good breeding and good manners ridiculous. Everything is open for discussion. Air your dirty laundry. Let’s talk turkey on the subject of mutilating foetuses.
The genuine female interest in romance remains, even as romance itself goes by the wayside. Even at the time I saw this as a societal problem. There was the same impetus to create strong, independent (usually wealthy) female characters that there is today—they’re less characters in the literary sense than they are role models in the Feminist propaganda campaign but as I did so—Astoria being the first major example—I thought, these women are not going to be very happy being like this. Where’s the courtship and the courtliness? Where are the stolen kisses and the “loves me, loves me not”?
Q3 Con't: Why the change from her first appearance to her second appearance?
Dave: I’ve heard that before, but, personally, I don’t see there being a big difference between the Countess’ two appearances. It’s just a little later on and Weisshaupt—her self-appointed Henry Higgins—is dead. She’s taking care of Secret Sacred Wars Roach and the two McGrew Brothers. Men are still drifting in and out of her orbit but structurally it’s unsound. She realizes that they’re just going to drift in and out of her life in fewer and fewer numbers because she’s going to be an old woman soon. She’s a born housekeeper, as I think most if not all women are, which is why I portrayed her doing all of the chores in her second appearance. There is, in both of her appearances, a forced air of feministic superiority—that is, fundamentally bad writing— which, as I recall, was pioneered by Sonny Bono on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. He would portray himself as a buffoon and Cher would portray herself as his dominant superior. That would be the schtick. Which was the complete opposite of the situation. He was the brains and the ambition of the operation. I don’t wince as much today as I used to when I read myself partaking of that poisoned apple—it was twelve years into the Feminist propaganda age and twenty years later on, I can pat myself on the back for at least recognizing that these lives were not going to end happily and that most strong, independent women were going to be getting most of their romance from fiction—the “reads” Michelle continues perversely to read while Weisshaupt is trying to get her to read complicated economic tracts—rather than from their relationships or their marriage(s). It was clear to me in re-reading the material that this was, ultimately, Weisshaupt’s weak spot that, through all of his machinations and manipulations, he still thought that a female needed to be worked into the mix. Not the more natural and sensible “and of course I’ll need a good wife,” but “I need a woman as amazing as myself to install in that position adjacent to me if I am going to make all of this work properly.” If you’ve ever read the litany of attributes that Conrad Black was looking for when he picked Barbara Amiel, it seems cut from the same cloth. On paper, for a woman to see herself in just so heroic and significant a role on the portion of the world stage occupied by her husband must be flattering indeed. But it seems to me that it owes a good deal more to Frank Miller’s Batman and Robin than it does to, say, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I see it as an implicitly unhappy circumstance for women because it means there is always greener grass on the other side of the fence. A feminized Robin is always going to long to be someone’s Juliet. A Juliet is always going to long to be someone’s Robin. And, as a direct result of their implicit dissatisfaction, they’re going to drive Batman and Romeo around the bend with their whining about their unmet needs in their respective categories nine times out of ten—where they don’t choose to oscillate between the two role models: I’ll be this fellow’s Robin until that proves unsatisfying and then I’ll be this fellow’s Juliet until that becomes unsatisfying. It’s no wonder Botox and other longevity treatments are coming into fashion. Courtship and nesting are sequential and consume decades in and around career decisions. I really do think, as men, writers need to be more aware of this and to stop creating these really unlikely fictional female hybrids and mutations. As I reread the Countess’ dialogue, she has too many “snappy rejoinders”. There are a number of notable instances of Dorothy Parkers and the late Anita Loos—women who are genuinely that bright and that quick—but they are the exception that very much proves the rule. Katherine Hepburn wasn’t nearly as sharp as the woman she portrayed in Adam’s Rib and the Katherine Hepburn of legend was more a creation of a succession of male screenwriters than she was of herself.
Okay, you’re all getting angry and sad and irritated again, so, let me shift gears a bit.
The Countess, visually, was based on Karen McKiel, the Aardvark-Vanaheim secretary from 1982 to 1988 (?). She was an interesting character and very much a first generation feminist in the strong, independent woman mold. Nothing particularly new or interesting then or now. It was really at one step remove from the situation (being a married man at the time) that I began to remark upon the societal change that was taking place with most girls/women having jobs and either taking it as a given that that was always going to be the case or that the job could be the lifestyle choice while they tracked down a husband whereupon they would either chuck it in (the vast minority) in favour of marriage and children or (the vast majority) put it on hold until the marriage and the children had been accomplished, whereupon it would be resumed in earnest. Boyfriends and husbands would be expected to fit themselves in and around the margins of the career wherever they could find a spot (cooking dinner, cleaning the apartment, doing laundry and shopping for groceries seeming like some valuable places they could occupy in their largely orbital existence around their strong, independent woman). Karen was kind of interesting in that she had a predilection for other women’s boyfriends and husbands. She liked to test the bonds of other people’s matrimony and usually found it wanting. Which seemed to both satisfy and frustrate her since she was also in search of a husband of her own. In her own terms, she liked to “cause shit”. She was a big fan of the TV show Dynasty (the Prince song—“Kiss”?—with the line “You don’t have to watch Dynasty/to have an attitude” was certainly bang-on for the time period) where causing shit seemed to be a major female preoccupation. I didn’t really interest her for the longest time because I was in an open marriage. Having sex with someone you were allowed to have sex with was no challenge and, therefore, no fun. There needed to be the possibility of fireworks not only in bed but in the resulting soap opera. This many years later on, I can see in reading the Countess’ dialogue my attempt to sort of wed Karen McKiel to that Dynasty brand of high-stakes relationship power fantasies that she liked. But, in a literary sense, it really just rings false. Even contriving Weisshaupt’s overblown infatuation with Michelle which blinded him to who she actually was and compelled him to try and make her into someone she could never be (and, in rereading these sections that does seem to be my subtext: Pygmalion gone seriously awry at any number of levels. Not the least of which is that My Fair Lady was concerned with turning a flower girl/guttersnipe into a lady, not turning an average girl into Donald Trump) just seems a transparent literary device to cover for the implausibility of the plot point, the tip of the playing card is showing between my fingers when it’s supposed to have vanished.
I started having an affair that was off-again, on-again through the ensuing year with Karen about five months after Deni and I officially split up, having an affair with your boss’ ex-husband having an illicit tinge that having sex with your girlfriend’s open-marriage husband just didn’t have. My dedication in Church & State Vol. 1 to Jessica—Karen’s own euphemism for her vagina—and that “somewhere it is always January 23, 1984” (the night we first had sex) certainly indicates that it was worth waiting for. Ultimately, of course, I ran afoul of the Holiday Rule which is a centerpiece of most women’s on-again, off-again relationships. As a guy, if you want to stay in the game, you had better time your “on-again’s” to coincide with Christmas, Thanksgiving and her birthday and, in this case, agree to drive home to New Brunswick with her sister and brother-in-law for Christmas. I declined and she came back with news of her new boyfriend that she had met while down there. That really wasn’t the end of things
She stayed the secretary for a couple of more years until the Bank of Montreal called asking for me and she tearfully showed up at the studio door to tell me that she knew what it was about: she had been paying her personal Mastercard from the company’s account we had opened for depositing our Mastercard phone orders. I guess she had figured since it was all one big happy Mastercard family, no one would notice. If it wasn’t quite a Dynasty flourish worthy of whatever-her-name-was-who-was-the-Queen-Bitch-on-Dynasty, it wasn’t through lack of effort on Karen’s part. To add insult to injury, several years later we had to pay tax penalties on her clothing purchases on her company Visa (evidently it was important to me that she look good in the office, thus justifying a clothing allowance of several thousand dollars) when the charges were, naturally, disqualified.
You know, Neil Gaiman chided me a while back saying that no one is entitled to know these sorts of personal details. I appreciated his very human concern and evident compassion, but I’m in a very different situation from Neil. It’s still standing policy in the comic-book field that “Dave Sim is crazy.” And, as far as I can see, no one seems to have any need to substantiate the charge. Everyone just takes it as a given. “Dave Sim is crazy.” So, as much as possible, I think it’s necessary for me to establish for posterity that a) I’m pretty sure I wasn’t crazy and b) I had very good reasons for believing the things that I believed about gender relations, feminism and the post-70s hallucination in which I see most people living. Unless I cite actual experiences, I think I’m leaving myself open to the charge of evasiveness. I think if there were to exist at some point a groundswell of support for the view that Dave Sim is NOT crazy, I could probably see my way clear to “easing up” a little bit on the subject. But, as I don’t see that to be the case, I’m going to continue to be as honest and thorough as I can be in answering questions posed to me in this forum and elsewhere and I’ll then leave it to posterity to decide who was crazy and who wasn’t.
Q3 Con't: Why did Weisshaupt say that she would stand beside Cerebus?
Dave:Oh, well, that was just Weisshaupt’s vanity on the Napoleonic Scale. He really assumed, as those sorts of individuals tend to assume, that his passing would leave a huge void in the history of Estarcion and the forthcoming Ascension he both anticipated and was trying to engineer. If he had made the Countess into His Nibs Paramour, again on the Napoleonic Scale, then a crucial role needed to be found for her when His Nibs was gone and His Nibs had determined that she would be by Cerebus’ side. People in proximity to that sort of Napoleonic vanity tend to get swept up in it despite themselves. Michelle is a tad too emphatic that this won’t be the case: she’s obviously afraid that Weisshaupt can still control her life from beyond the grave.
It’s very much analogous to Susan Alexander, the singer in Citizen Kane or John Lennon with Yoko. Michelle was a very regular chick who liked regular chick things—housekeeping and trashy romance “reads” among them. It’s always sad when one of those runs afoul of someone’s Napoleonic masculine vanity.
Q4: The Death of Weisshaupt: Weisshaupt is portrayed as an egotistical idealist who sees himself as a pivotal figure in history. He can't even comprehend the fact that Cerebus is just a greedy primal force and not someone with an agenda. However, upon his death he has an epiphany in which he sees some special role that Cerebus is playing in the grand tapestry. He calls Cerebus Most Holy - which is startling in terms of the secular viewpoint he held throughout his life. What spurred this change of viewpoint?
Dave: The deathbed epiphany. It was a very unnatural death. I’ve often wondered at the fact that no one has asked “How did Weisshaupt get that emaciated in that short a space of time from when he has his heart attack to when Cerebus comes to see him?” I was trying to indicate that this had been a serious contention on a serious high plane of existence and that—whatever the magnifier quality Cerebus had was, guardian angel, demon, whatever—was nothing to mess with one-on-one even if you have a roof full of cannons on your side. That just made it worse. Remember this is the scene that Cerebus involuntarily hearkens back to when F. Stop is looking to steal Jaka. That primal whatever was always prepared for that level of threat. So, it was really a matter that Cerebus’ context crushed Weisshaupt’s context, literally draining him physically. Having no idea if these things actually happen in the physical world, I speculated that there would be serious repercussions which would result. The literal calling forth of the Giant Stone Thrunk, as an example. Whatever it was that Cerebus or the magnifying quality within Cerebus did, it was just that disproportionate and created an equally disproportionate repercussion.
Q4 con't: Did Weisshaupt see anything in particular?
Dave: I assume that he did. What he would have seen would, I imagine, have been terrifically personal and terrifically powerful. It would be my guess that events that take place on an elevated plateau like that make use of one’s own personal imagery as a way of explaining what has taken place/is taking place. Particularly with Cerebus being right there, I would assume that what Weisshaupt saw—his context having been crushed as it was—would have been analogous to Cerebus seeing the Giant Stone Thrunk outside his window. Uh-oh would really understate the case.
Q4 con't: At the time you wrote the story, what did you intend that he saw?
Dave: Well, that was too complicated to get into. Remember, I’m trying to write the equivalent of a good, epic Russian novel. It’s already difficult enough to get the layers of complexity in the physical world to fit into place. If I started getting into the inner psyches of the various characters—apart from Cerebus—it would certainly be interesting but it would eat pages like nobody’s business. “Cerebus Dreams,” “Weisshaupt Dreams,” “Astoria Dreams.” I tried to incorporate that where it was relevant and to do so in such a way that it emphasized what was going on in the “real” world. But you go too far with that and the reader starts losing their grounding. I mean, I did that intentionally in Women, with the Sandman parody. Let’s really lose our way here when it comes to deciding what’s real, what’s a dream and what’s a “dream”. But on an ongoing basis when you’re already doing a very complicated story a little documentation on the elevated plateaus goes a long way and then it’s time to come back to earth.
Q4 con't: Also, how does this view fit in with Weisshaupt’s apparent knowledge that Cirin is an aardvark?
I would suspect, just judging from Weisshaupt’s reaction, that that would have seemed a good deal less important all of a sudden. I think his own uppermost reaches of his own spirit were suddenly aware of just how large the context was that he had previously considered to be sort of within his grasp, within his ability to control and manipulate. I have to be vague about it, because I only know this physical, material plane, same as you. But, I would suspect that human beings do get glimpses of the bigger picture which are enough to turn their hair white, like in HP Lovecraft’s fiction. I mean, my assumption is that if you ever actually did see God or even achieved an awareness of the smallest fraction of God you would probably just *plit* explode like a bug on a windshield.
Q4 con't: Finally (pushing the envelope of multipart questioning), how does Weisshaupt’s epiphany fit in with Cerebus cursing him to hell? (i76)
Dave: Well, that’s an interesting question. I mean, he calls Cerebus “Most Holy” and then he calls Cerebus “Tarim,” so obviously whatever he’s seeing is escalating Cerebus before his eyes and diminishing himself. Of course Tarim was (as I think I mentioned last time) both the name for God and the name of God’s prophet most analogous to Jesus in the pre-Rick Estarcion. So it’s not clear how high Cerebus is ascending as Weisshaupt’s life is slipping away. I would assume a secular humanist reader would say that Weisshaupt wasn’t seeing anything, or he was experiencing the same visual mirage everyone does when they die just because their brain is shutting down. Now, someone who believes in heaven and hell would probably be reading a more interesting story in a number of ways. To what extent is Weisshaupt’s deathbed faith, his deathbed vision capable of influencing his ultimate fate? If you believe the person you’re talking to as your life is slipping away is a deity or a near-deity and that person tells you to “Go to hell,” Do you? The answer to that question would also be apt to tell you what Cerebus’ ultimate fate was, too, right?
Q5: In Cerebus’ dream (i78/C&S I), he hears: "Astoria's changing the baby into another aardvark" - A hint that aardvarks are created magically?
Dave: Oh, heavens no.
Q5 con't: Where DO aardvarks come from? Are they born of women?
Dave: That’s a very Biblical Jacobean way of putting it: “born of women,” so thanks. Always glad to see more of that in the world.
Q5 con't: Is it a random event (to the extent that any event is truly random)?
Dave: Well, yes. I mean that opens another can of worms as to whether these aberrational forms actually exist in the real world. Apart from my speculations on the role of the Ancient Egyptians in producing literal monsters just because they could, do monsters like Cerebus appear naturally? I should probably digress a bit and mention that this came up in conversation with Billy Beach when I was over visiting him and his family a couple of months back (hello to Billy, Francesca, Kevin and Basta—sp?—Emily from Bahbee). This, it seems to me, was one of the hidden points of Cerebus, hidden even from his author until very late in the day. However Cerebus came to be, I think all you have to do is take one look at him to realize what a bad idea he is. In a larger sense (and because Billy had been kind enough to drive me around to innumerable religious churches and sanctuaries all adorned with oil paintings and frescoes—my first experience with seeing actual frescoes—I was able to make the point more immediately, tying it in with what we had both been looking at all day) this was very much something that concerned the Christian church in the Middle Ages, as the only one of the three monotheistic faiths to allow the rendering of representational religious iconography. Orthodox Judaism certainly doesn’t allow any pictorial representations of, not only God, but God’s prophets, man or any living thing in heaven or earth. Likewise with Islam. So the Christian church was always careful that picture-making and sculpting and what not were only allowed if the resultant art could be used to enhance the worship of God, as an assistance to prayer. Same thing with the music. And, arguably, we see the validity of the Jewish and Islamic argument everywhere. Once you allow the pictorial representation of the human form in religious iconographic art, the horse is out of the barn. Next stop, Robert Crumb.
Or, perhaps more perniciously, next stop Dave Sim.
Creating a half-man, half-animal character like Cerebus is not, thematically, that far removed from gene-splicing. Arguably, the fictionalized hybrid monster is the first step in creating a level of acceptance of the concept and arguably, that validates the Church’s concerns. The sleep of reason produces monsters. First comes the idea, then comes the portrayal—the speciality of artists who are “just f—king around” then comes the actuality, once the idea has been planted in the scientific mind. The abhorrence that I wanted to generate in the audience with the two-page spread of Sheshep in Egypt seemed to have worked very well, but didn’t extend to the comparable walking, talking abomination—Cerebus—they had been reading about for twenty-six years (some of them). Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Sometimes it breeds contentedness that can be just as appalling when you’re forced to stand back and look at it.
Anyway, all of this resulted from a question Francesca asked Billy, but damned if I can remember what the actual question was. Maybe Billy can help you out.
But, the overall idea of the natural generation of monsters seems to be something of a centerpiece of the theory of evolution, unless I’m misreading it. Don’t evolutionists believe that nature skips stages here and there and that natural selection can produce an entity better suited to the environment in the same way that plants develop different quirks depending on the soil they’re growing in, climate changes, etc.? I mean, no offence, but evolution just seems like a YHWH-vantage-point theory—the idea that all life forms are the same as plants, in the process of growing into something else. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think the evidence supports it. Animate life is just too complicated to have “grown” from lower life forms in the length of time the planet earth has been able to sustain life and there is nothing in animate life DNA that indicates the capacity to grow into another life form.
But, leaving aside that a Cerebus is a complete unlikelihood, I wonder if there are equivalents in the realm of spirit. Does spirit evolve or grow or generate itself spontaneously and then replicate? My best guess would be no. But it does seem to be an interesting thing to speculate on. Invisible aardvarks, basically.
WILDCARD Q: What WOULD you have done with Reuben Flagg Roach? Please go into an obscene amount of detail, including your thoughts about Chaykin and "American Flagg."
Dave: I’d be happy to go into an obscene amount of detail. Hell, I’d be happy to draw you ten pages of it, but I’m afraid time is sort of at a premium right now with the unexpected reaction from the Neil Gaiman website. Unexpected by me—considering that we got three responses to the 1,000 “Four More Years” packages we sent out to comic-book stores back in 2000 (and it’s always worth mentioning those three: the Laughing Ogre in Columbus Ohio, Casablanca Comics in Portland, Maine and Graham Crackers Comics in downtown Chicago). It’s put me two weeks behind on answering my own mail (to the point where poor Jeff S. phoned to find out what was wrong—the peril of timely mail answering as norm), and Ger and I have to do three covers for Following Cerebus 3 (you’ll see why when it comes out) and I still have to get back to the Cerebus Archive in the near future. Right now, I’m about two months behind where I thought I would be by September of 2004, so it’s back to the fifteen-hour-days to try and close that gap.
Howard Chaykin I always admired a great deal. Very intimidating fellow, very sure of himself. I was terrifically impressed back in 1982 when Deni and I had dinner with him and his then-wife Leslie on the first US Tour (see photo on the Beguiling website) that he was planning to do an on-going book called American Flagg whose theme he neatly encapsulated as “the future is the same as the present, only later and more so.” That’s awfully good. That’s very Howard. One good sentence can save you fifteen minutes of explanation, so come up with it, schmuck. It was particularly interesting for me because it was going to be a monthly book and I was already becoming conscious of the fact that there weren’t a whole lot of those in the new direct market age. Of course, to Howard we weren’t in the same league. I was still a strange kind of semi-pro fanzine publisher, which was the reaction to Cerebus and Elfquest. Being in the comic-book field meant living in New York and all that that entailed. Of course now it seems very natural to mention Cerebus and American Flagg in the same sentence, but not back then.
I have several Howard Chaykin stories that have stayed with me over the years. I already told one in the Synchronicity Triptych essay. Back in 1974 when I first met him doing an interview with him for Comic Art News & Reviews he had long hair down to his shoulders and mutton-chop sideburns. Very Neil Young. Overnight, at some point, he realized that this was a mistake. He was living in New York, he was a grown-up who was interested in having a solid career in comic books AND in commercial illustration and he realized that, in the latter category, you weren’t doing yourself any favours showing up for meetings with art directors looking like a Woodstock leftover. The sixties were ten years ago. Get over it. But that also put him in a “minority of one” situation. I can’t think of any comic-book creator of his generation in the mid-70s who didn’t look like a Woodstock leftover, and the community was (and, I assume, still is) particularly brutal with anyone who breaks ranks with the pack. But, I have to hand to him, he didn’t go halfway and get a 1964 Beatle haircut and just shorten his sideburns and start wearing new jeans. He got his hair cut very short—shaved on the sides—bought fashionable dress clothes beautifully cut and tailored and suspenders (which were just then coming into fashion in chic New York circles). The whole nine yards. And, at some point he had to be, you know, seen like this in a comic-book environment. And, again, I have to hand it to him. He didn’t try to put on some Woodstock disguise. This was the choice he had made, this was what he was going to look like. So, as the story goes, he walks into either Marvel or DC one day and sees (whoever it was—the first comic book person who was going to be exposed to the New Howard Chaykin), walks right up to them with a big grin and an outstretched hand and says (by way of introduction):
“Hi. Joe Nazi.”
I also remember having dinner with Howard and an excruciatingly young Frank Miller right around the time the first few issues of Frank’s Daredevil had come out. I’m pretty sure that this was pre-Upstarts, the studio that Howard and Frank later had with Walt Simonson. I was virtually non-existent at that dinner. As I say, I existed on Howard’s radar screen but somewhere between fanzine and professional, a quirky kid. It was a very interesting dinner, though, because it was largely an uninterrupted monologue/interrogation of Frank by Howard. What did Frank want to accomplish, how were things going with his editor, when the editor said that did it have this sort of tone or that sort of tone, is Frank aware of the pitfalls in, etc. etc. I remember Frank being very quiet through most of the dinner, mostly nodding, a lot of shrugging, but a very intense look on his face because he realized what he was getting for free here—a dense-packed education on the ins and outs and why’s and wherefores of suddenly being a Big Name in the comic-book field. Because it had nothing to do with me—as far as I could see I would never have to make my way through the labyrinthine maze/gauntlet that is a New York City comic-book career (otherwise I would’ve been making my own mental notes on every word out of Howard’s mouth)—I was able to observe the whole process from a greater remove and what struck me was Howard Chaykin’s sheer open-hearted generosity in doing this. Howard was far enough along in his career at this point that it was obvious he was never going to be in the category he was educating Frank about. That category happens overnight, the fact that it happens overnight is a big part of it. If you’ve been working in comics for five years you can’t suddenly make that leap. Neal Adams was in that category. Steranko was in that category. Wrightson was in that category. Howard was a very career-minded individual and ferociously competitive and, in context—particularly in the brutal world of the New York City Funnybook Industry—he could certainly be forgiven for taking a “sink or swim” approach to Frank Miller (there were always better-than-average odds that they might end up competing for a plum assignment somewhere up ahead). But, he didn’t do that. He went out of his way to give Frank the advantage of every scrap of information he himself had gleaned —since he had been Gil Kane’s assistant—about the situation in which Frank had suddenly found himself.
The only time I found myself in a comparable situation was in 1993 when Bonemania hit. As I told Jeff at the time, I was quite a ways away from ground zero when this happened to the Pinis and I was only marginally closer when it happened to Kevin and Peter (the only two comparable self-publishing success stories) but here is everything that I know about being an overnight skyrocket success in independent comics. Since there were a lot of self-publishers that I was helping at the time in various ways, there was always the temptation to give Jeff the same sort of limited access that I gave them (always having to bear in mind that I had my own monthly comic book to write and draw). If it hadn’t been for Howard’s example, I don’t think I would’ve given Jeff as much time as I did, dense-packing as much as I knew about the ins and outs and whys and wherefores of being an overnight hit in independent comic books.
Oddly enough, one of the few moments when I did enter the conversation (mentally, anyway) at that long-ago dinner was when Howard offered the opinion that the comic-book collector’s market was crazy because people were buying and selling the first issue of Marvel’s Star Wars comic book for (I think, at the time, it was around $20—it goes for around $60 now, according to the latest Overstreet Price Guide) and it wasn’t anywhere close to being Howard’s best work. Howard drew the cover of the first issue and pencilled the first ten. That was the first time that I had known Howard Chaykin to perceive something inaccurately. Which was understandable in a way. George Lucas had made no secret of the fact that Han Solo had been based to a large degree on the prototypical Howard Chaykin space and/or pulp hero, as typified by Cody Starbuck, the Scorpion and Monarch Starstalker. Sort of Gil Kane’s “laughing cavalier” with a lop-sided grin on his face. I’m pretty sure that this was the reason that Chaykin landed the assignment to do the comic-book adaptation (and the reason Al Williamson was tapped to do the newspaper strip. Whatever Lucas didn’t get from Chaykin, he got from Williamson, thematically and visually). But, I thought at the time that Howard was overlooking the obvious—the book was commanding those prices because it was Star Wars, not because of whomever was writing and drawing it. At the same time his reaction was understandable, one of those molar-grinding incidents of being at a one-step remove from a worldwide mega-hit. How could you do your best work when you could see that Han Solo wasn’t any sort of improvement on Cody Starbuck, but just a watered-down Hollywoodized version of same?
I have to admit at this point that I didn’t—and still haven’t—read American Flagg. I read, I think, the first three issues and just found the ironic “adult” tone uninteresting. No, that’s not fair. I did find it interesting, but, for me, it just suffered in comparison to The Scorpion: the previous example of Howard doing the whole package on his own for Atlas/Seaboard. From the splash page with its white handwritten captions and craft-tinted “photo album” panels, it seemed to me that The Scorpion was the book Howard had been born to draw. American Flagg seemed to me like a parody of The Scorpion—we’re all adults here, we don’t take this sort of material seriously. I really should read Flagg sometime. There’s no question in my mind that it is a better piece of material than the vast majority of what I’ve retained over the years. I understand there’s an anniversary edition of it coming out this year, so I’ll keep my eye out.
At the 1986 San Diego Comicon, Gerhard’s first experience with San Diego, I had told him about all the great parties that they had there and how you just went from one to the other all night. So, it was more than a little embarrassing when we checked into our suite and then went out to all of the primary convention hotels, literally going from floor-to-floor listening. You know, “Where de party at?” Finally we gave up and went back to our suite on the top floor of the Holiday Inn Embarcadero. “Well,” I said. “I guess we’ll have to have the party.” So, I made up a quick invitation and got the hotel to photocopy thirty of them. Nice sized party, I figured. Eventually two hundred people showed up, but there were only thirty invitations and one of them I had definitely given to Howard Chaykin. I had also printed up proposals for a handful of artists if they were interested in doing a book through Aardvark One International. I think I had four or five packages made up for people I knew were going to be at the show. One was Howard. Jaime Hernandez was another. But, anyway, the party was going pretty good when Howard walked in. “Howard,” I said. “Here. Just in case you’re ever looking for a publisher for a project.” He flipped through the proposal. “Dave,” he said, in his matter-of-fact tone, “Are you hustling me?” A little taken aback by the verb, I stammered something about well, yeah, I guess you could call it that. He said, “You’ve said some negative things about me in print which I don’t take very seriously because when I think of you I remember a pimply-faced teenager with stringy hair interviewing me for his fanzine. So, let’s resolve never to work together on anything ever.” He handed the proposal back and said, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and enjoy myself.” And he wandered off into the depths of the party.
What Howard was referring to was my “Declaration of Independence” in The Comics Journal No.105 where I described the “inverted pyramid” of traditional comic-book publishing. I wrote:
“The inverted pyramid is difficult to disguise…but then, little effort is expended in doing so. ‘First Comics! You can count on us.’ (this was the motto of First Comics, publishers of American Flagg among other titles) (This means you can count on Rick Obadiah, Rick Oliver, the production guys.) ‘We publish one of your favourite characters—American Flagg!’ (As Mike Gold says, ‘A great character is forever—a fresh approach is what’s needed, that’s all.”) “created and written by Howard Chaykin, Joe Staton artist.” (Doesn’t really matter who does it, right? A great character is forever.)
This approach is a betrayal of the fans, the readers, the shop owners, the distributors and everyone who had a stake in American Flagg!, emotional or financial. The back issues will decline in value, a slap in the face to those distributors and shop owners who now have boxes of dead or dying wood-pulp they will be forced to sell at cost or below. Chaykin’s assurances all along that “he can’t foresee leaving Flagg!” gave a false message to the marketplace in which economy functions (Flagg! Is, after all, a direct-sales-only comic). The fans feel betrayed because they had come to rely on Chaykin’s Flagg! month-in and month-out; and, more importantly, had been given no indication that this situation could or would change.
If, as I have heard, Chaykin planned it this way all along, we can chalk up another victory for the inverted pyramid. Had this been the ‘independent comic’ it had been declared to be (and I’ll get to my personal definition of that term in due course), it would have run its course over 20-some-odd issues and have left a legacy of a remarkable (I’m going to go out on a limb and add ‘brilliant’) and singular vision. With the replacement of Howard as artist on the series, First Comics and Howard declare themselves to be ‘business as usual’ and neither alternative nor independent.”
Well, you know, I still think I was right about this. But I can certainly see how it would rub Howard the wrong way but—as is usually the case with Dave Sim—it’s more important to me to discuss openly what we think is “good for comics” and what we think is “bad for comics” because the improvement of the medium and the business context within which it exists is more important than who has or hasn’t got bruised feelings about what was or wasn’t said.
I have no way of proving it, but I always suspected that the Black Kiss mini-series that Howard did for Vortex Publications in Toronto was directed at me, Howard at his most eloquent. “Is this what you meant, Dave? A small, prestigious project that will get talked about? Yes, this is the sort of thing I might’ve done through Aardvark One International if you hadn’t lit into me in print. So, instead, I’ve given it to one of your competitors, the guy just down the highway from you.” And then he called the collected version, Big Black Kiss. “And, see? You would’ve made money off of the collected version as well?” This was the reason that I called my 24-hour comic about a divorced wife (at this point Howard and I were both divorced from our wives) “Bigger, Blacker Kiss.” My reply to Howard being: there are larger issues at stake here which is why I wrote what I wrote about your choices on American Flagg! Larger issues that I think need to be discussed and need to have actual examples cited so that the next generation of cartoonists can make up their minds based on the two sides of the debate. The largest issue to me, now, would be, “How long has American Flagg! been out of print? How long has Big, Black Kiss been out of print?” Those questions are far larger than whether I did or didn’t get to publish them myself.
Anyway, I saw Howard at another convention a few years after this and made a bee-line for him. He was glad to see me. I was glad to see him. He said something flattering about the fact that I had figured out very quickly a few things it had taken him years to figure out which, braced as I was for a body shot, left me stammering in the other direction this time. It’s certainly something I would always say about Howard, too. Particularly Howard’s ability to encapsulate a huge argument in one pithy sentence. As you can see here, I just don’t have that aptitude. Howard not only had—and has—a very successful career in the ballbusting brutal confines of the New York City Funnybook Industry, he’s also had major successes in Hollywood career—and not just as a storyboard artist or as a scriptwriter—he’s actually risen to the executive level on the shows that he’s worked on, something which doesn’t happen unless you know your way around and have the ability to think fast and accurately on your feet in a pressure-cooker environment. Very, very rare qualities which Howard Chaykin has in spades. If Howard ever needed me for anything, he remains on a short list of people I would drop everything to help in any way that I could—un-work related, I would assume. He’d be my first choice of someone to have dinner with in just about any comic-book context I could think of. And a big reason for that is that I would never have to wonder where I stood with Howard Chaykin. He would never say anything behind someone’s back that he wouldn’t say to that same person’s face. As was the case at the Aardvarks Over San Diego party. He had something to say and he said it. It cleared the air so that I didn’t hesitate for one second before approaching him the next time I saw him.
Those are the sort of people I have always admired and whose company I have most enjoyed.
I notice in the latest Overstreet Price Guide that all of the back issues of American Flagg! are priced at between 3 and 4 dollars, even Alan Moore’s run from 21 to 27.