I would really appreciate feedback, especially from my politically-aware female readers, for this and the next few Cerebus posts, even if you don’t know anything about Cerebus. I am very aware of my white male privilege, and I am talking about works that are incredibly problematic in every conceivable way, but for which I have an absolute adoring love. I could *very* easily fall here into being That Bloke, and I don’t want to…
This is part one of what will, I think, be a three- or four-part series on Cerebus. I’ve noticed a number of comic bloggers recently start talking, rather cautiously, about Cerebus as one of the great comics again. For a long time very, very few people have publicly stated a liking for Dave Sim’s 300-issue story about an aardvark, and it’s gratifying to see that, now the series has been over for a few years, people are slowly starting to put it in its proper perspective.
For those of you who don’t know about comics, the problem with Cerebus is that its creator, Dave Sim, is incredibly, unbelievably misogynist. His widely-publicised views are so repellent that many people absolutely refuse to even consider reading his comic work, because they don’t want to give money to anyone who espouses those views (a stance I can absolutely understand – I boycott Nestle, try to boycott Coke, and where possible given their near-monopoly on public transport in this city I refuse to give money to Stagecoach (whose CEO has donated money to groups teaching creationism and trying to get rid of homosexual rights) so I quite agree that this is a perfectly reasonable stance to take). Others, less reasonably, refuse to admit that there could possibly be anything good in the work of someone with such repellent views.
For many comics fans, this misogyny is the defining feature of Sim’s views and work – a view not helped by the vocal coterie of online fans he has who seem to think that making public claims that women should be denied the vote, or going on to Gail Simone’s message board and calling her a fat cunt, are ways to increase public respect for Sim’s work.
But Sim presents a more interesting case than most for discussing whether it’s possible to separate the artist and the art. In the first place – and it’s a minor point – he’s not the only creator of the Cerebus comics. Gerhard, the background artist, has never supported Sim’s views (though he did, until relatively recently, tacitly support Sim-the-person) and did a huge amount of work which does deserve reward. In fact at the moment I think he’s getting all of the money from current Cerebus sales, as Sim is buying out his share of Aardvark-Vanaheim, their publishing company.
Also, Sim apparently lives a spartan life with little or nothing in the way of luxuries, and gives very large amounts of money to charity, so your money is very unlikely to be of any benefit to him anyway.
But these are minor points. The main question, in my view, is to what extent Sim is responsible for his own views. This is a trickier question than it might seem. Most comic fans just know of SIm as a misogynist, but this is primarily because the vast majority of people reading the comic dropped it after issue 186, where Sim first advanced his then ‘thesis’ that women were soul-sucking voids destroying the ‘inner male light’ that was the basis for all creative work and all civilisation.
And reading that essay, or some of the others he published around that time, it is quite possible to see Sim as just a misogynist arsehole, and even to see how he might have come by his views ‘rationally’. He was an intelligent man, but not particularly educated, and very interested in Big Ideas. Almost all his social life was based around comics fans and creators, who are a self-selecting group that is overwhelmingly male and (at least in the circles Sim was moving in, people like Rick Veitch, Chester Brown, Neil Gaiman and so on) more intelligent than average, while most of the women he socialised with were his girlfriends, chosen primarily for their physical attractiveness. You can see how someone in that situation could come to the conclusion that women are just less capable of thought than men. (This is not – NOT – to say it’s a defensible conclusion. Just that it appears to be one that one could come to while still remaining more-or-less rational, given Sim’s circumstances).
But having dropped the comic, most people didn’t see the evidence of Sim’s increasing mental deterioration. Sim had had a spell in a psychiatric hospital in the late 1970s, and later claimed that he spent most of the 80s ‘faking’ ‘normalcy’ – acting normal to fit in, while secretly holding many of the opinions for which he was later ostracised. He also, for the whole of the 80s and much of the early 90s, smoked *huge* amounts of cannabis.
Even without knowing these facts, though, it’s apparent in retrospect that SIm’s views on women are not the aberrant and abhorrent views of an otherwise rational man, as they appeared when he first went public with them. Since that time, he has announced that he has found a secret hidden meaning in the King James version of the Bible (and also in the Koran) which ‘proves’ that all of history is a conflict between God and a transsexual demiurge who is the YHWH of the Bible and lives in the middle of the Earth. This demiurge also caused the 2004 tsunami as a result of Sim revealing the ‘truth’ in his comic, as well as possessing many people around him and making them think he was mad. Sim also gave up masturbation because he believes YHWH gives psychic powers to women, which they use to read men’s minds while they are masturbating.
A typical example of Sim’s ‘reasoning’, from Collected Letters 2004, Vol 1:
I think YHWH’s contribution back in the early 60s was Peter, Paul and Mary. I mean it is a way of looking at Christianity; seeing Peter, Paul and Mary as the three cornerstones after Jesus. Of course, being YHWH her point was; if you have Peter, Paul and Mary, what do you need Jesus for? I think this amused God a great deal – to the extent that he countered with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Paul, of course,was actually James: James Paul McCartney. So John and James were the leaders of the band, like the sons of Zebedee, John and James, the brothers Boanerges, the sons of thunder[…] So it was a good joke that on the cusp of becoming famous John and James had ditched Peter, Pete Best, the drummer since this is basically what the biblical John and James had attempted to do with Peter the apostle[…] Now, having ditched Peter, that meant that you had three kings or a Ring of Stars (Ringo Starr)[…]The Beatles were the template that attracted their own disciples, the Rolling Stones, which was another play, in my view, on the fact that there had been a pool of disciples for the two Jesus’. There was Peter, Cephas, the rock or stone, but he rolled back and forth between the two Jesus'[…]
Both bands, by the way, noticed the James and John connection and were led to wonder: in that case, who was Jesus? The conclusion was Brian Epstein. Which conclusion, I think, led to the premature demise of the Beatles manager and the exiled member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones. And, of course, later on Monty Python with the financing of George Harrison incarnated the viewpoint[… etc ad infinitum]
Now, I have no formal psychiatric qualifications so wouldn’t want to speculate publicly on what diagnosis, if any, someone would give Sim based on this kind of thing, but I’ve had a lot of experience working with people with mental illnesses (I worked as a nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward for a couple of years fairly recently) and I’ll just say that this stuff sounds awfully familiar.
So how responsible is Sim for his views on women, and to what extent are they even ‘his’ views, as opposed to ‘his illness” views? Does that question even make sense? Should one boycott his work for his views, or would that be punishing someone for their mental illness?
This wouldn’t matter were Sim’s work the kind of ‘outsider art’ one normally associates with this kind of statement – reading Sim’s writings, one would get the impression that his work would be the comic equivalent of Wesley Willis or Wild Man Fischer or at best Charles Manson’s music – interesting far more for what it says about the mental state of the creator than for any quality of the work. But the fact is, Sim is the single most talented comic creator I’ve ever known of. I would take Sim’s work over the complete work of *any two* of, say, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Chris Ware, Eddie Campbell, Darwyn Cooke, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, J.H. Williams and George Herriman. No exaggeration.
So, can I possibly justify promoting work by someone who considers many – most – of the people I know, love and admire to be literally Satanic and subhuman? Or can I justify *NOT* promoting work that would significantly enrich the lives of those same people to a great extent?
I’m very torn about this… but I’m going to go ahead and look at Cerebus as a whole work over the next few days…