My History with Dave Sim

This is a response to a fan’s interest some weeks back:

I believe this is my first Cerebus comic.

Although my indirect history with Dave Sim is a long and simple one (I first started getting into comics with Cerebus back in the early 90s and now the only convention I appear at – S.P.A.C.E. – is one that Sim helped popularize), my direct history with him is fairly short and complicated.

I tried to find the letters that we sent back and forth so that you could have the whole story, but I couldn’t find anything.  So instead, we’ll have to rely on my imperfect memory.

I first sent Sim a letter when I was living in the-root-of-all-that’s-evil-California.  It was about that time that I was starting to get interested in his Issue 186/Tangent stuff, and I found some articles that I thought he might find humorous (I think something from Newsweek titled “Why Men are Funnier than Women” was one of them).  He sent back a pleasant letter, so I thought we got the ball rolling.

It was about this time that I had my ingenious idea of getting work as an inker at Marvel, then getting popular as an inker at Marvel, then branching out into my own book.  So I started asking Sim’s advice.  Most of it was pretty long-winded, but helpful stuff.  After about the third or forth letter, Sim basically said, “Listen, this is the third or forth time you’ve sent me a letter without actually doing anything about it.  Get you head out of your ass and get to making something.”  That’s about the time I finished my first draft of Tiny Life.

When I got back to Michigan, I decided to start actually making it.  From Tiny Life Demos:

Buy me! Bad art for $25!

Unfortunately, my (then) fiancé was living with her parents, I was looking for a teaching job, and because I was living with my parents, I had to help install a new roof and some new windows.  Needless to say, I didn’t get much done that summer: all told, I scripted two issues and drew five pages.  A year passed before I was able to begin again.

During this year I did a lot of homework on the subject.  I learned all about printing and publishing and soliciting and timeframes and self-deadlines… basically, I learned all I could about the business.  Before I even started drawing the first page I got a DBA (Doing Business As…), a website, a business phone, a fax line, and a P.O. Box.  In hindsight, this was the wrong thing to do.

I should have been concentrating on my anatomy.  I should’ve been figuring out the best way to do background behind a stick figure (if his body is always a line, and his head is always white, should the background be solid colors or cross hatch?  Stippling?  Zip-a-tone?).  I should’ve been figuring out how to letter a comic when my handwriting is next-to-illegible.

I asked Sim his advice on all of these things.  His response was basically, “I have a book called “Cerebus’ Guide to Self-Publishing.  It’s all in there.”

So, instead of his advice, I asked him more direct questions like, “You’re known for your lettering, what’s your process?”  Again, he sent me a letter saying that I should be concentrating on making something, not just asking questions.  I should start at issue 1, page 1, panel 1; there’s no more to it than that.  My response was something childish like, “If you don’t want to help me, then don’t, but you don’t have to be a dick about it.”

He returned my letter with no response.

But he was right.  I had to start.  Issue 1, page 1, panel 1.  And I continued for 148 pages.  I sent him a copy about 18 months later.  He said, essentially, that I needed to draw better and I shouldn’t concentrate so much on the negative aspects of being a kid.  He also said – and I remember this very well – that my main female character, the one Jed wants to get with (Sis.  I sent him an unpublished version of Book 4) should look sexually attractive.  He said that when people read it, they should find this drawing on this piece of newsprint arousing.  I always found that to be the oddest – and most true – piece of comic advice I was ever given.

His advice combined with two other things: advice from a manager at Diamond and advice from Eric Larsen.  Again, from Tiny Life Demos:

The manager at Diamond said that he had never been solicited by a book so well written.  He suggested that I find someone to team up with on the art for “this melancholy tale”.

The article by Larsen said that most of his advice for aspiring comic artists revolves around giving the audience a hook.  He said that most people don’t create anything for the audience to get behind.

These three events—which happened within hours of each other—merged in my head.  The event with [Sim] told me that the art should be better.  The event with Diamond told me that people who read comics are misinterpreting Tiny Life (it’s not supposed to be a sad book).  The event with the article told me that I may have nothing for the reader to get behind.

These all added up to the same thing: I had to start again.

So I scrapped all 148 pages, found Colacitti, and started over.

So that’s about all I have to say about the man.  He’s always been very cordial when I met him in person, but he’s always seem a bit stand-offish on paper (I might be too if I got a dozen letters a day asking “How can I make comics like you?”).

If you want the exact words he used for one of his responses, pick up Collected Letters Volume 1; I’m in there somewhere.


9 Responses

  1. what a dick

  2. A genius dick! Like C. Auguste Dupin, for example.

    Boy, I sure wish Sim still came to SPACE. It would be interesting as hell to pull you two into the same conversation. Maybe If I offered to put him up for the weekend, and pay his airfare, he could be enticed.

    Probably not.

    • Who is this Dupin? He sounds like a jerk.
      I don’t think a conversation between Sim and I would be too interesting. I’d probably question him about lettering, Gerhard, and what he would change about the whole Cerebus storyline if he had to do it over again.
      So, I guess, if you like to letter, make complicated pen-and-ink backgrounds and/or write decades-long stories, it’d be an interesting conversation.

      • I’d open l(a to the Reads section and ask him what he thinks of it. An interesting conversation might ensue.

        I bet he wouldn’t change the storyline. I bet he would correct some of the grammatical/punctuation errors in the early issues, and correct the few instances in which Cerebus says “I” or “me” instead of “Cerebus.”

        One change I’m well convinced he should have made was to move the footnotes in The Last Day to the end. Those things were damned intrusive, and had no business being on the actual comics pages.

      • Did you like that section? It was originally MUCH longer, but I pared it down to the essentials:
        1) A seemingly normal but mischievous guy writes a diary. The reader is amused.
        2) He gets a little crazy, maybe a little paranoid. The reader is amused, but for a different reason.
        3) He gets a lot crazy, maybe a lot paranoid. The reader is dismissive, yet somewhat intrigued.

  3. Dupin rules!

  4. he still sounds like a jerk
    id help you out

  5. I liked it a lot.

    I thought that the symbols that appeared on the covers of the volumes Dave was writing were perfect. I can’t really explain why I liked them so much. They reminded me a bit, aesthetically, of the work of Christopher Manson (author of MAZE, which sort of lingers on the border between cult classic and absolute obscurity).

  6. […] few months back, a fan wanted to know about my history with Dave Sim.  In that history, I talked about how I kept asking Sim for all sorts of advice.  I asked him about writing and […]

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