Simpathy For the Daveil
It’s hard being a Dave Sim fan. Every time I write about his work, I have to preface it with an explanation that I don’t agree with any of his worldview – I don’t think women are evil voids who telepathically spy on men while they’re masturbating and who are controlled by an evil transgender demiurge in the centre of the earth who is in fact the Biblical YHWH. That’s not a caveat I have to include when talking about Doctor Who or old Beach Boys records.
And after Sim’s most recent round of tantrums (when, after Glamourpuss #1 was ‘merely’ the most successful non-licensed non-big-four title of the month it came out, a lack of success obviously caused by evil women, he announced he won’t ever talk again to anyone who won’t first sign a petition saying he’s not a misogynist (except for those who, Captain Black-like, he won’t let sign his loyalty oath even if they want to)) I now also have to distance myself from those Dave Sim fans who think that calling Gail Simone a fat ugly cunt is the height of rational discourse.
So, before saying anything else, I just want to say that I abhor every single one of Dave Sim’s publicly stated views (with the exception of some of his views on rights for comic creators, his support of absolute freedom of speech, and his recent announcement that he’s decided the Holocaust wasn’t very nice). Take the exact polar opposite of Sim’s views on religion, society, women, homosexuals, transgender people, sex, the war in Iraq, evolution and… well, everything, and you’ll get my views. I think most of his views show signs of severe mental illness, and nearly all of them, including the ‘sane’ ones, are as close to a definition of evil as I can come.
But he’s also, by any reckoning I can come up with, the most talented comic creator in the history of the medium, and one whose work speaks to me in a way no-one else’s does. This puts me in roughly the same position as someone trying to defend Richard Wagner would be in, were Wagner still alive and saying “No, honestly, Hitler *did* have the right idea about my music. I think he was a good bloke. Don’t listen to my stuff if you disagree.” (It’s probably no coincidence that Andrew Rilstone has written so intelligently about both Wagner and Sim in the past).
In particular, he’s someone who knows more about the *craft* of comics than almost any other creator I can think of – he’s almost unique in being equally talented as a writer, artist and letterer (though he sees the praise for his lettering as a form of insult, to the extent that he’s now using computer lettering).
So I enjoyed Glamourpuss #1 immensely, not just because it was the first significant comics work from Sim in four years, but because it was a genuinely interesting comic. It seemed very much of a piece with my favourite graphic novels (or whatever Eddie Campbell thinks we should call them now) of recent years, Campbell’s The Fate Of The Artist, Campbell and Moore’s A Disease Of Language and Talbot’s Alice In Sunderland, along with things like Action Philosophers and Comic Book Comics A lot of creators of Sim’s approximate age appear to be having fun at the border between fiction and non-fiction, creating works which are the same sort of in-depth examination of their idiosyncratic preoccupations as books like Godel, Escher, Bach are in prose, but also acknowledging the inherently fictional nature of cartooning.
Sim’s own attempt at this was, in the first issue, a fascinating mixture of Mad magazine and Understanding Comics, combining a lecture in the art techniques of Alex Raymond with an attempt at satirising fashion magazines, and a quick demonstration of how it’s almost impossible to do a narrative using only photos traced from magazines (if only some popular comic artists would realise this).
So I was looking forward to the second issue, and very annoyed when four months later (the comic’s bimonthly, but I got the preview edition of #1 two months before it came out) issue two never arrived at my comic shop. Happily however, issues two and three arrived on the same day – Thursday of this week – so six months later I’m finally able to continue reading this. (Glamourpuss will work far better collected than in issues, incidentally, but I’m not at all sure that Sim will actually bother to finish the project, so I’m getting what I can when I can).
Glamourpuss #2 is more fashion-satire than comics-analysis, unfortunately, as Sim’s once-biting wit has become steadily more borscht-belt over the years. Having said that, there are some genuinely hilarious moments (‘Glamourpuss” analysis of a revolting advert featuring a puppy in someone’s bed – “Well, how desperately needy is that? Going to all that trouble and expense just to have something fur-covered looming over you drooling, and looking for ‘treats’ the minute you wake up and then calling it love? The foundation of Glamourpuss’ ‘who’s been sleeping/is planning on sleeping in my bed?’ theories is that if a piece of imagery exists nowhere in a Bronte sister’s novel… (i.e. in this case ‘fur-covered, looming and drooling’)… the odds are that someone — not naming any puppy names — is playing you for a patsy.”)
I also found the first half of Glamourpuss’ tirade against anti-depressants to be spot on – “When glamourpuss buys anti-freeze for her car, it’s supposed to make the water in the car ‘not freeze’. Which it does. If the water in her car freezes, glamourpuss gets her money back. So, same theory, if glamourpuss buys anti-depressants they’re supposed to make her ‘not depressed’.” Sim is, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who spent time in a psychiatric hospital a few decades ago, not completely convinced of the efficacy of psychiatric medicine (a scepticism which I share).
However, the second half of that rant works far less well, as Glamourpuss is portrayed as being a shallow, vapid, fashion model who nonetheless rants about ‘the patriarchy’. This simply doesn’t work as satire, and is Sim’s own unusual views leaking through into his character – Sim claims not to be a misogynist, merely to dislike feminism, but he doesn’t actually seem to understand what ‘feminism’ means, taking it instead to mean ‘anything at all feminine’ – in Sim’s world, Cosmopolitan and Andrea Dworkin are the same kind of thing, which of course makes a nonsense of his claims not to be misogynist.
However, even on these pages, the sheer density of information, and the number of ideas thrown in, make it well worth reading (for example the wonderfully-lettered ‘beep’ of the mobile phone on page 9, which may be a Comiccraft font but I suspect is a rare example here of Sim lettering).
The comics-history sections though are far more interesting – just seeing Sim tracing pictures by Schulz, Kirby, Neal Adams, Art Adams, Rob Liefeld and Bruce Timm to show where their influences came from, or talking about the influence of Milt Caniff on Alex Raymond’s work, is worth the cover price in itself.
Glamourpuss 3 redresses the balance, looking more at the comics and less at the fashion mags. Unfortunately, it’s by far the weakest issue so far.
The problem is that Sim sees a lot of the world in terms of people ‘sending messages’ to each other, and sees most people’s actions in terms of what they’re ‘really saying’ to someone else. He then builds elaborate narratives on top of this, usually without actually referring back to reality again except for some tiny detail that supports his line of thinking.
This way of viewing the world was immensely useful for Sim in Cerebus, where things did have these layers-upon-layers of meanings and subtexts, because Sim put them there himself – the fact that Sim actually thought the world worked that way merely meant that these incredibly convoluted plots had a conviction to them. Sim thought of Cerebus as his attempt to discover ‘the Truth’ and so every panel had an absolute conviction to it that meant that within the context of that fictionalised world Sim’s worldview rang totally true most of the time.
It doesn’t work so well when Sim tries to apply this to the real world though.
In this case, Sim takes the fact that Caniff once said in an interview that he didn’t especially like Alex Raymond’s work, the fact that they both started doing a new ‘creator-owned’ strip at around the same time, some similarities in Raymond’s later inking style to Caniff’s and a photo of the two of them shaking hands where Caniff appears to be squeezing a bit, and built a huge, elaborate rivalry between the two for which he presents no real evidence. The bulk of the issue is spent talking about this, and it’s to the issue’s detriment.
The ‘Skanko’ section at the back is getting steadily more unpleasant , being essentially an extended ‘yuk’ at the idea of female sexuality (this issue containing things like “Before I started Bikini Clubbing I could never get any of the guys who I’d infected with gonorrhea or syphilis to even call me back, but now I’m the most popular girl on the party circuit!”).
It’s still worth reading – it’s still more interesting, inventive and ambitious than almost anything else being published today – but this issue left more of an unpleasant aftertaste than the first two. I suspect that as long as this series continues it will be incredibly patchy – alternating between fascinating and appalling – and I’m willing to take the appalling to get the fascinating. It’s not something I’d recommend to everyone, and I don’t really feel very good about recommending it at all. But Glamourpuss is still far more than just ‘outsider art’, it’s genuinely interesting, intelligent and different.
I just wish it wasn’t by Dave Sim…