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…

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10 Responses to Why An Aardvark?

  1. Jennie says:

    It is possible for some people to separate the artist from the art. For instance, Christopher Lee is a complete arsehole in real life, but I’d crawl over broken glass to see him in a film.

    I think it’s harder with a writer than an actor, though

  2. pillock says:

    I don’t believe it’s desirable to have hard-and-fast rules about how to separate artists from their art…for me it isn’t even possible, I see a continuum there that’s far more perplexing than even how to separate personalities from their politics! Sim is an astoundingly talented artist and letterer, as a comics writer his quality fluctuates wildly from excellent to sophomoric, as a prose writer he is…well, just not any good at all, he’s about as good as your average sixth-grader. The urge to mark his prose is hard to overcome…

    But it’s a bit like, there are lots of non-misogynistic people who believe the religious stuff that Dave believes, and there are lots of people whose beliefs are not as bizarre as his, who believe all the shit he believes about women. So I’m not sure how much cover either of these can be made to throw for the other.

    As to reading or not reading Cerebus…basically I found nothing to make the skin crawl in it (not that I remember noticing, anyway) up until #186 — though my interest in it had been declining sharply for some time before that, after Melmoth I think. After #186 I saw no reason to read it at all, if I was likely to run into the same sort of shit. Which I did judge likely. So it wasn’t a principled stand, it was just revulsion, and that’s what keeps me away from him to this day.

    Well, not at all what you asked for, but here I am: I saw two pieces of promo art for Glamourpuss, and one was interesting-ish but not beautiful, and one was gorgeous…but I don’t imagine I’ll ever again be a reader of Dave Sim’s work, though I’ll certainly look at it from time to time. But there’s no way I’m an audience for his philosophy…if one can call it that.

  3. One of the things I’m going to talk about in the next bit is how 186 is the *only* time that stuff actually affects the storyline (the weird religious stuff starts affecting it in the last-but-one book) so reading the trades is a very different experience from reading the issues – so long as you skip the ‘annotations’ in the last three volumes, anyway…

  4. Plok/Pillock makes a great point about having a sort of “spectrum” of being able to separate an artist’s work from his opinions. I know I’m able to with Sim, possibly because his philosophy is so bonkers that I can barely take it seriously, and his art is so good. A counter-example for me would be Orson Scott Card, who has said some terrible anti-homosexual things that make me completely uninterested in reading anything he has written (I have affection for Ender’s Game, but I haven’t re-read it in years, and Card’s opinions make me hesitant to do so). So it’s kind of a case-by-case basis, I guess, and it’s probably dependent on how much revulsion I have to the artist’s opinions, along with how much I value the art itself.

    And maybe this would be best saved for the next post, but here’s one point in which I thought Sim’s misogyny affected the series: The rape scene in Church & State was later somewhat justified when it was revealed that Astoria was goading Cerebus into raping her. Thus, it wasn’t really his fault, but a result of him succumbing to the devious schemes of one of those evil women. Of course, that’s only one way of reading it, but I couldn’t help but make the connection with Sim’s views.

    Oh, and what about the various characters in Guys who fall into the thrall of scheming, manipulative women? That’s definitely evocative of the Sim anti-feminism.

    Okay, I should wait to read your next post, and then see what I have to say. And I’m probably not the best Cerebus arguer anyway, since I’ve only read through Rick’s Story (I do plan to finish at some point though).

  5. pillock says:

    Another, simpler point to make is that when artists start loudly expressing their personal and/or political views, they themselves invite engagement with those views by their audience…and this can go well or poorly for them. No one’s under an obligation to be “up front” about their beliefs, as an artist, after all. Ordinarily, the work’s the thing, and that’s where it starts and stops. Part of my continuum, in this respect, is that it’s a continuum — there’s no “zero-point” on it, there’s no empty gap…if the artist wants to tell me his views, then that gets mixed in with my liking/disliking of the work, and I consider I’ve been invited to make that connection. Politics does matter, and no one’s free from that mattering…on Charles Stross’ blog I said that having the Olympics coming to my hometown is sensitizing me to how much I don’t support “Team Olympics”…and the more they try to coerce my support, the more I find myself hating what I once loved. An athlete came on there then, saying “yeah, but I’m an athlete, we just want to do our thing, it’s really hard of you to say these things”, and I replied “well, let me ask you…as an athlete, don’t you feel a little conflicted with the Beijing shit? Don’t you feel a little troubled by the way they use you as an excuse? Are you just by nature totally apolitical, you don’t care?” And he confessed that yeah…he’s not easy with it, it’s a problem for him.

    From this, or with the help of this, or in any case in some way somehow related to this…I conclude that IT IS OKAY to let the opinion of the artist influence the appreciation of the art, especially when they ask you to let it do so. It isn’t unethical; it isn’t even unfair. Show me the person who doesn’t wrestle with Pound…or rather, don’t show me: I don’t want to meet that person.

    We should wrestle with Pound. How are we not to?

    But Dave Sim isn’t Ezra Pound. He said: “this is the work, this is its true meaning, this is what is in it, that you’re supposed to notice…don’t overlook this!” It’s his own damn fault, then, if I don’t overlook it.

    I do appreciate him not trying to trick me…but what does he get from me, for that? “Not-overlooking”. That’s the outcome of whatever respect I have for him, for that. That I think it’s pretty heinous, and I’ll opt out of being his reader now. If he said of some future work: “look, this has nothing to DO with all that!”, well I’ve gotta confess, that’s what I need him to say, to become even a potential reader of it. His talent understood, but notwithstanding.

    Further: I think I am according him “not-craziness”, out of that very same respect. And, out of my own perceptions! Cerebus is simply not very interesting as a work of “outsider art”, at least not to me — there’s a detachment involved in appreciating the work of a person who (not that I know what “crazy” even means, so I’ll use another, less loaded term) is simply bat-loony…and no matter which way I turn Cerebus over in my hands, I can’t seem to arrive at that detachment. Artistically, in my judgement, “Reads” is not worth anything…it doesn’t speak to me. It’s a part of the strand of Cerebus that began with “Guys” that left me cold. I found Guys unfunny, a little off, weird, corrupted. My collecting-partner Ed liked it, but I didn’t…hey, vive la difference! But I still didn’t like it. Anyway whatever the inside of Dave Sim’s head is like to live in, Cerebus is a “rational” work, if that means anything…it is not supposed to be outsider art, and it doesn’t succeed in being outsider art…rather, it succeeds brilliantly at being art that is not outsider art…but in #186, Dave asks too much of me, and it’s not some lack of compassion in me that made him ask. I’m very tolerant of bat-looniness in real life: in art that fails to be outsider art I don’t think I ought to tolerate it, though. So I guess I’m saying I’ll hold Dave to his own standard, here. Before #186, I’ll read Cerebus, but not after. And as far as the Impossible Things Before Breakfast, he can straight-up kiss my ass: he sounds like an idiot.

    A rational idiot.

    Hey, the bit about Peter, Paul, And Mary vs. The Beatles, I’m cool with! That’s outsider art!

    But it’s funny: we wonder about how to separate the artist from the art, but in this one direction only…we wonder if Cerebus’ excesses are excusable because Dave Sim’s nutty. Why don’t we ask, instead, if Dave Sim’s autodidactic outsider religious path of hate is excusable because Cerebus is good?

    Or — and I put it you folks, especially you O Political Andrew — is it really that the first question throws us some cozy cover for the second?

    Because the answer to the second question is clearly, NO IT ISN’T.

    So why isn’t the answer to the first question automatically the same, all symmetrical-like?

    I don’t know –and neither do any of you — if Dave Sim is crazy. It’s possible he’s just extremely egotistical, and completely unschooled. Isn’t it?

    God, I wish I knew!

  6. Yeah, you’re getting into the area of Orwell’s Benefit Of Clergy there, where he talks about how if Shakespeare came back to life and was revealed to enjoy raping small children, we wouldn’t excuse that in the hope he’d produce another King Lear.

    I also think there’s a continuum of different Dave Sims with different sets of beliefs. Up to his religious conversion (around 1996 I believe) he encouraged ambiguous readings of the text, and the text *itself* encourages those readings – constantly revealing that things we thought we knew are completely backwards. To quote from the intro to Reads:

    “I would urge you to backtrack to your point of divergence, the point where your disappointment and sense of betrayal became palpable. Start from that point and find your own summit. Weave the elements presented into something that has meaning for you.”

    And finally, if Sim’s not mentally ill, then he’s the greatest performance artist of all time. You dropped Cerebus before this became completely obvious, but I’ve seen people who’ve been forcibly commited to psychiatric units for saying some of the stuff he says in the text pieces in the later issues of Cerebus…

  7. pillock says:

    Ugh, reading Dave Sim’s prose is like stubbing your brain…awful.

    It really got worse, huh? More text pieces?

    …Maybe he is nuts.

  8. Andrew Hickey says:

    Oh, it got much worse. He believes that Ancient Egyptians invented modern genetics and that their gods were YHWH-inspired human-animal hybrids. He believes that he has come up with the Grand Unified Theory that eluded Einstein. He believes he may well literally be the only person in the world not suffering from demon possession. He believes that the tsunami a few years ago was YHWH’s response to him…

    Until you’ve read Latter Days, where Cerebus goes through the first five books of the King James Bible and ‘explains’ every single sentence, including ‘explaining’ 17th-century spellings and idioms as subtle messages between God and YHWH, in very very small type, you’ve not experienced the full horror of Dave. And then there’s his multi-part essays “Why Canada Slept” (on the terrorist threat) “Islam, My Islam” (in which he explains his own unique religious views), “Mama’s Boy” (in which he talks about how there are no Real Men left) or “Tangent” (about how women are all creations of Satan). All of which were longer than the comics pages of Cerebus for several issues at a time…

    Basically, he sees the world as a huge network of interconnected messages that only he can see, with everything, large and small, having meaning in the ongoing dialogue between God and YHWH. But the difference between him and people like Moore or Morrison who see things in a superficially similar way is that he seems unable to stand outside this view and accept that he might be mistaken – anyone who tries to argue with him is demon-possessed. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s like when James Joyce was trying to convince himself that his daughter wasn’t schizophrenic, and said to the doctor “But I do similar things with language myself”, and the doctor replied “You’re swimming, she’s sinking”.

    I have *literally no doubt whatsoever* in my mind that Sim is suffering from some form of severe mental illness, not because of any one thing he’s said, but because of the cumulative impact of thousands of things. For more, if you can bear to look at it, see http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/Archive/Davewatch.htm (Andrew Rilstone’s ‘DaveWatch’ where he posted quotes from the last few issues of Cerebus) and http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/writing/comics/is dave sim mad.html , where he talks about Sim’s apparent mental health in more detail. But again, it’s not as convincing as just reading tons of the man’s writing in one go…

  9. Andrew Hickey says:

    That latter link breaks in some browsers because of spaces in the URL – go to http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/writing/comics/ and click on the appropriate link there…

  10. pillock says:

    Yikes. Ugh.

    It’s actually hard to comment, because of the way in which reading Dave’s prose is like having pieces scooped out of your brain with a tarnished teaspoon…at a certain point you just recoil from language. I’m actually quite interested (and somewhat professionally involved) with people who sort the information coming their way in a manner only partly “legitimate”…all the way from my fascination with Carlo Ginzberg’s “The Cheese And The Worms” to more recent encounters with people who attempt to sift through philosophy while (arguably) handicapped by autodidactic backgrounds. And many of the connections they throw up are original, even insightful…in the end it’s a compelling investigation: what are the boundaries that divide a useful or provoking philosophy that is nonetheless made in controversial and sometimes-suspect ways, from a more unsupportable philosophy of this type that is still worth reviewing as a sort of epistemological case-study, from the more pathos-inspiring sick pantomime of reason, which one senses contains self-hurt as its most essential ingredient, that tends to land people in hospitals and cemetaries rather than libraries? Part of a job I do is to poke around in such things, so reading about Dave Sim is extra-depressing — it’s hard for me to look at the material I work with without going “oh fuck, what’s the point”. So: blah. Downer. Weirdly, for me the real hair-raising part of it was the association of Obstructive Femaleness with Quebec…ah, suddenly there’s a new part of the puzzle! Because I hadn’t considered that the bigotry sometimes directed against Quebec in Canada might be a component of this nuttiness…but of course crazy isn’t crazy unless it tries to swallow the whole world, I guess. Suddenly I saw how the political geography of Canada might have played the role of ancillary “proof” in this misogynistic nonsense of his…a chilling thought, because it does make me myself, and my own life (though indirectly), a part of the complex that’s created this hateful little prick’s world-view. A friend of mine recently pointed out that Aristotle’s a good example of a proto-scientific thinker in that he’s not interested in answers, only in explanations…seems like Dave Sim’s a good example of how a little explanation’s a dangerous thing…

    In a word: yuck.

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