Why An Aardvark?

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…

Linkblogging for 17/01/09

I’m still far busier than I expected this week, so I’m still behind on my email correspondence – apologies to those who’ve emailed me recently.

Anyway, in lieu of a longer post, here’s some links:

Debi writes about Thomas Hariot – the most pioneering scientist you’ve never heard of.

Bobsy shows us his pants.

Over on Lib Dem Voice they’re talking about what the ‘liberal attitude to immigration’ should be. Some of the comments there make sense, but some are horribly, nastily racist. Let them know what you think…

People buying tube tickets will soon be automatically giving their consent to be searched by transport police. Well, that’s one more reason for me to avoid That London…

An interesting post about the Einstein/Bohr dialogue about quantum physics.

Cerebus: A Diablog continue their reading of the greatest comic series in history.

Andy Partridge discussing how Jack Kirby influenced one of his songs. (Surprising, because Partridge has always struck me as more of a DC person, and here he’s talking about Ant-Man. Still, it’s another example of XTC and comics, two of my favourite things, overlapping).

Free comic stories by Rick Veitch and Mark Evanier and Tom Yeates and some others.

And pillock has an excellent post on From Hell.

Linkblogging for 06/01/09

I’d hoped to do another proper post today, but exhaustion is getting the better of me (for some reason I didn’t sleep last night, and I’ve done a couple of longer-than-normal days at work this week). I also owe p(il)lo(c)k at least two comments and an email, which will have to wait until I’m coherent…

From the Grauniad – Vicar has ‘horrifying’ statue of crucifixion removed from church:

“We’re all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross.”

I’m sure I’ve heard that before

Amypoodle at the Mindless Ones has an absolutely astounding extrapolation of one panel from Batman #666, detailing the Joker of the future. Which reminds me, I must get back to my own thoughts on Batman – it’s been a little while again…

The great Rick Veitch has been posting drawings over at his blog. Here’s one of his dream comics (and I *must* write about those, too, at some point) involving Alan Moore, while here is Dave Sim’s cubist period.

The blogging platform Livejournal has just sacked half its staff. This is a shame, as LJ is in many ways the blogging platform/social network with the most possibilities, but it’s been consistently mismanaged for years – there’s a reason I’ve stopped using it, and rarely even look at my friends list any more (a shame as there are actually some great people on there, some of whom I’ve linked on my blogroll).

Kevin Church has an excerpt from ‘Marvels 3

And finally, there’s the Convention On Modern Liberty, which I would be promoting even were my mate Dave not organising the Manchester branch of the event (although watch out for the page if you’re on a slow machine – there’s a ton of embedded Youtube videos that slowed my old laptop down so much I had to drop to terminal mode to kill the browser). This looks like the biggest conference on human rights and liberty issues in the broadest sense for decades, bringing together every major group and publication from the liberal left and libertarian right. The main partners are NO2ID, Amnesty International, Liberal Conspiracy and Unlock Democracy, but everyone from the TUC to the sodding Countryside Alliance of all people is involved, by way of the Grauniad, the Fabian Society, Private Eye and the Campaign For An English Parliament. I may even go down to That London for this rather than go to the Manchester event – it looks like it could be a major, major event.

Best of the Year post

I always have difficulty when it comes to thinking about ‘best of the year’ lists, which most people seem to have no trouble at all with. With the exception of monthly comics, I don’t tend to keep track of what’s ‘now’ and what isn’t, and I often end up discovering things five or ten years after they came out (I bought my first Cerebus phonebook on the day issue 300 came out, though I didn’t realise that til later). So while I’m constantly acquiring new music, it’s for a rather flexible definition of ‘new’ that can include this year (the Passing Strange soundtrack album, That Lucky Old Sun) a couple of years ago (L.E.O.’s Alpacas Orgling, one of my favourite albums of ‘this year’), or decades ago (a compilation of banjo tracks by Uncle Dave Macon), and I don’t really pay attention to which is which. Same goes for books.

So I’m going to do top 5 lists only (because to do a top 10 would be scraping the barrel) for gigs and comics – everything else I can’t be sure what year it came out.

Best Comics Of The Year:

1 All Star Superman #10 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant.
This may well be the best single issue of a superhero comic ever produced, and it’s certainly the best Superman single issue since Alan Moore’s couple of issues in the mid-80s (and may be better even than them). It encapsulates all the themes not only of this series but of everything Grant Morrison has been working towards in his career, and the script is complemented perfectly by Quitely’s art.

2 Judenhaas by Dave Sim
Sim is my pick for ‘greatest comic creator of all time’. I can think of people who are his equals – but not his betters – at the individual talents he has (Alan Moore as a writer, J.H. Williams as an artist, Todd Klein as a letterer), but nobody who can combine do everything as well as he could – to my mind he even beats both Eisner and Kirby in terms of quality of work.Judenhaas is only a minor work by him, in comparison with, say, Jaka’s Story or Melmoth, but minor Sim beats major everybody else most of the time. I’m uncomfortable with this work, it seems to be ‘Oscar-bait’ – the message that the Holocaust is bad is not a particularly original or insightful one – but it’s executed so well… it also seems completely at odds with Sim’s own expressed views on women, which again brings up the fascinating (in a train-wreck kind of way) question of how *that* artist could also be *that* person.

3 The Amazing Fantastic Mr Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best
Eddie Campbell, like Sim, is another comic creator whose work I will always buy sight-unseen, because he’s never let me down (though I still don’t have a lot of his early material). The Fate Of The Artist and his collaborations with Alan Moore are among my very favourite comics of all time. This one is a lovely Munchausen-esque, vaguely Fortean story about the nephew of the inventor of the leotard.

4 Achewood – The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad
A slim volume, but a good representation of a great period in the most artistically interesting webcomic out there.

5 Sandman – Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
Not for Gaiman’s story, which, while competent, has been published before and is also the kind of stuff he can knock off in his sleep. But Russell’s artwork is just gorgeous – I don’t usually buy comics for the art, being more orally/aurally oriented than visually, but this stuff is stunning.

Bubbling under – Comic Book Comics, Batman, Final Crisis, and Glamourpuss

Best gigs of the year
1 Mike Love’s “Beach Boys” – Manchester Apollo
The touring ‘Beach Boys’ have come in for a lot of stick from a lot of people, not least myself , over the years, for doing boring ‘touring jukebox’ sets, often with shoddy musicianship. However, over the last few years they’ve got much better. Their tour in 2004 was superb, but this was phenomenal. Having replaced Mike Kowalski (the worst drummer I’ve ever seen live) with John Cowsill (who had formerly been the band’s second keyboardist) , and added in for the UK tour only Dave Marks (the rhythm guitarist with the Beach Boys on their first three albums) they sounded better and fuller than ever, and did a fifty-two song set, including not only all the hits, but tracks like Forever, Kiss Me Baby, Sail On Sailor and ‘Til I Die. The highlight of the set was a three-song mini acoustic set about Transcendental Meditation, believe it or not. Simply superb.

2 Leonard Cohen – Manchester Opera House
I’ve seen Laughing Len twice this year (once last week at the MEN arena and this one in July). This gig was a very odd experience – a friend of the family had just died, my in-laws (whose tastes run more to Peter, Paul and Mary and contemporary country radio) were visiting and came with us (as did my parents, but they’re both Cohen fans) and the whole thing felt very dreamlike. When my Dad said “Here’s someone you know” and I turned around and Jeremy Paxman was stood behind me in the queue for the bar, I felt like the next thing to happen would be my primary school headmaster riding in on a unicycle or something.
Cohen, surprisingly, has an immense stage presence, owing more to the crooners than to the folkie image he still has to an extent, and his voice has aged very well – huskier and mellower. It was more like watching Tony Bennett than any rock-era musician I’ve seen, and it was quite shocking to think he hadn’t toured in 15 years before that show. If you get a chance, go and see him, but I wish he’d stayed in the smaller venues – the arena gig was just as good, musically, but the MEN is a horrible venue.

3 Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick – The Lowry
Not much to say about this one. Either you like traditional folk music, in which case you know how special a gig this was, or you don’t, in which case you won’t care.

4 Mercy & Grand: The Tom Waits Project – The Lowry
This was a production put on by Opera North, with Gavin Bryars (the composer of Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Wait’s favourite record, and frequent Brian Eno collaborator) leading a ‘circus band’ (guitar, harmonium, tuba, double bass, woodwinds, accordion, violin, soprano singer if I recall) in a performance of Waits classics along with a couple of pieces by Kurt Weill, some Fellini film music and a couple of old English folk songs. To an extent it was Bryars remaking Waits in his own image – the song selection and choice of other music was clearly chosen to present Waits as part of a particular line of songwriters, and one could have done a very different but equally ‘true’ re-contextualising of Waits’ music by using songs by, say, Ray Charles, Captain Beefheart and Bruce Springsteen. Bryars clearly thinks of Waits in ‘art music’ terms, and that misses a lot of what makes Waits great. But having said that, the musicianship was superlative, Bryars’ arrangements were gorgeous and inventive, and you can’t go wrong with Tom Waits and a bit of Weill, can you?

5 Brian Wilson – Royal Albert Hall
It seems odd to be placing Brian Wilson at number five when Mike Love is at number one, but Wilson’s performance was more expensive, at a worse venue, shorter and had a much less interesting setlist. Since 2002, the interesting material has been steadily removed from Wilson’s sets, replaced by more and more of the earlier surf ‘n’ girls ‘n’ sun music. This isn’t so bad when (as in 2004 and 2007) he’s been premiering full albums of new material in order in the second set – the lighter, frothier, fun stuff sets off more difficult music like Smile very well – but it makes for a show which, while still excellent, is not as good as Brian and his band are clearly capable of.
Brian’s band are still the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s still BRIAN WILSON, and he’s still performing songs like God Only Knows and Heroes And Villains, and if I hadn’t seen this band do some of the very best shows I’ve ever seen in my life I’d have thought this was excellent. But it was like Brian and Mike had swapped setlists.
(Note for Americans – Brian’s US shows this year have been to promote That Lucky Old Sun and have included full performances of that album. None of the criticisms above apply to any show where that is the case…)

The Great Outdoor Fight – Webcomics And Slices Of Life

Chris Onstad’s webcomic Achewood is generally regarded as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – webcomics ever created. It’s certainly one of the few to have achieved any level of success while being closer in aesthetic to ‘art comics’ than to manga, and while dealing with subjects that have very little to do with the ‘geek’ interests that make up the subject matter of most popular webcomics. While most popular webcomics have to do with transsexual elves playing Playstation games while talking about Star Trek, or something, Achewood, insofar as it is ‘about’ anything, is about male bonding, and masculine friendships.

This, combined with Onstad’s odd aesthetic, can make it very difficult to get into – at its worst the strip can remind one of Kevin Smith at his most puerile, full of jokes about scrota and cruel humour at the expense of Philippe, the youngest character. The art is crude, and often any individual strip is as likely to leave a reader confused, wondering if it was any good or not, as it is to elicit a laugh.

However, the cumulative impact of several strips is impressive, and soon after starting to read through the archive you find yourself reading more, though unsure why. And a while later you realise that you love it, though you still couldn’t explain the appeal.

After a while, I realised that Onstad’s work reminds me, more than anything, of Dave Sim circa Guys (Sim’s own male-bonding story, which I plan to deal with in my next comic-based post), and that was also when I realised that Onstad is one of the first people to take full advantage of the webcomic medium’s potential for a different kind of storytelling – a kind that I’d previously only seen in Sim’s work.

Most comic stories (in Western comics – I know nothing of manga, and it may be that what I’m going to say is par for the course there, or that there’s some underground community of Indonesian cartoonists who’ve been doing what I’m talking about) tend to fall into two groups. They’re either totally self-contained stories, such as Jimmy Corrigan or When The Wind Blows or Transmetropolitan – stories that are a finite (though maybe quite long) length; or they’re what one might call serial fiction – self-contained stories about characters who are supposed to live through all the stories, but with each story essentially its own thing. You can read today’s Garfield strip without ever having read one before, and The Resurrection Of Ra’s Al Ghul doesn’t require you to have read Batman: Knightfall.

All these share one characteristic – they’re ‘stories’, with a beginning, middle and end, in a way that doesn’t happen in real life. Even in art comics there’s an imperative to smooth off the rough edges of life – Harvey Pekar’s tiny slices of life still don’t usually contain anything that’s not relevant to the anecdote.

There’s a perfectly reasonable artistic reason for this – if you read a comic and there’s no narrative thread, if there are elements that appear completely irrelevant, then you are probably going to wonder why they’re included. In real life, there are all sorts of loose threads hanging round – telephone calls that are wrong numbers, people you chat to one day and get the email address of, but then lose it before you get back in touch with them, things you meant to do but didn’t get round to. But you can’t include them in a self-contained story without that being the point of the story.

In webcomics though, you can include those elements. Because they’re happening in some approximation of ‘real time’, and because the reader can go back and forwards through the archive at her own pace to find out if something’s a narrative strand or just a random occurence, you can build up a picture of an actual real life, loose ends included, without sacrificing narrative momentum or coherence.

Dave Sim managed something like this with Cerebus, which shares a number of other similarities with Achewood, because he had nearly 30 years worth of story to play with and knew so in advance, because he was self-publishing, and because he made sure right from the beginning that every single issue of his 300-issue narrative would remain permanently in print. In other words, because he was taking the same publishing strategy as webcomics.

But most webcomics still think in terms of fixed story ‘arcs’ with a beginning, middle and end, or in terms of single gag strips. The Order Of The Stick, for example, actually has ‘freeze panels’ at the end of every story ‘arc’ for the trade paperbacks. Achewood, more than any other that I know of, completely ignores conventional narrative structure in favour of ongoing, stream-of-consciousness rambling that manages to sum up what real people’s lives are actually like – even when those ‘real people’ are stuffed animals and robots.

The Great Outdoor Fight epitomises this – it’s simply a chunk of Roast Beef and Ray’s life, albeit one in which something important happens (they win The Great Outdoor Fight). There’s a definite narrative there – one of the longest Onstad has attempted – but there’s only a middle. It begins in media res with something that has little connection to the rest of the story (Todd asking Ray for six million dollars to start a company to make fake dog-penises to hang on the back of cars) and ends in mid-conversation at the victory party. It’s actually like following two people’s lives through a chunk of time – just a chunk of time in which something extraordinary happens.

I’ve talked mostly about the formal qualities of Achewood, but the book itself, The Great Outdoor Fight is quite a wonderful little thing in itself. As well as the story (which has been re-edited and reformatted to flow better as a continuous narrative, while leaving the original daily strips intact on the website) there’s a history of the fight itself from the 1920s on, profiles of some of the most famous winners, excerpts from a Great Outdoor Fight themed cookery book, a glossary of fight terms, and blog posts by some of the characters. All of this adds to the creation of an entire complex, dirty, messy real world – the profiles of the winners, in particular, are beautiful things in themselves, little perfect short-story miniatures told in just over a page of text each.

The Great Outdoor Fight, like Achewood as a whole, is violent, funny, at times confusing, thought-provoking, and ultimately life-affirming. Just like life itself.

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…