Interview with Dave Sim (2008)

Back in February 2008, on the eve of the release of his first major post-Cerebus endeavor (besides pissing off every woman on the planet), glamourpuss, Dave Sim actually took to the internet to promote the book. One of the sites he hit was MillarWorld, and as the saying goes, “I was there.”

Now, as much as I wanted to, I didn’t call him on his shit regarding religion and women, because he was pointedly keeping all that talk at Sequential Tart. However, I did manage to press him a bit about the (then-?) current state of independent comics, self-publishing, the death of the single-issue vs. trade paperback, etc. Some really enlightening stuff. He’s still the Grand Master when it comes to self-publishing and determining your own destiny. Even if he is a batshit insane kook too. Which is a shame, as Cerebus really was, and is, one of the reasons I’m doing this today.

Anyway, here it is:

[NOTE: The "Secret Project One" that Sim refers to in a few places was his since-released book Judenhass]

* So to get this party started, my first question to you is, what do you see as the chances of success at this stage of people trying to break in via self-publishing?

I think the chances are about the same although there has been such a dramatic shift in the structure of the field I think you have to be a good deal more organized and start earlier to make your book happen. Even in my case with a thirty-year track record of sales in the field I definitely needed to do a lot of advance work, sending out 100 advance copies of glamourpuss No.1 to stores in Canada and 200 in the U.S. and phoning each of the stores and talking to the manager or owner. I do think that’s important in this day and age. You have to go directly to the retailers in a one-on-one context because their days are so taken up with just staying current with PREVIEWS. They just get one order in and the next catalogue comes in. It also means you have to compete at a much higher level. The odds of fanzine-level work like the first few issues of CEREBUS finding an audience in the stores are far, far more remote than they were thirty years ago.

* Do you feel perhaps doing dry runs as a webcomic is a good first step?

Yes, I think there’s a good case to be made for that. There are problems, as I mentioned earlier. One of them is that print has a different physical look than a computer screen. If you get used to doing your comics for the idiosyncratic medium of the computer screen, it tends to make for pages that are a little “off” when you go to print. Learning to draw comics is a feedback/adjustment/feedback/adjustment process that is on-going. Unconsciously you learn to draw for the medium you appear in. Ger and I learned all the ins and outs of white newsprint and its idiosyncracies. Now I’m learning what slick paper does to my work and I’m making unconscious adjustments there, I’m sure.

* How do you see print-on-demand services such as Lulu.com or Amazon’s own version of it affecting not only the ability, but quality, of self-published work in the marketplace?

So far the retail community is very resistant which I can understand. Outfits like KA-BLAM have their own sales arms of all the books they print and those titles number in the thousands at this point. If those become seen as REAL comic books then that adds exponentially to the retailers’ workload (not to mention making Bob Overstreet’s life a living hell). Most stores have adopted an absolutist “No POD” policy. Personally I think that’s a little extreme and the example I like to use is David Pedersen’s MOUSE GUARD which started as a POD book (actually self-published since David was just using them as a printing service). He got 500 copies printed the first time out and any retailer could have bought all 500 from him just by cutting him a cheque (although because the per unit cost is much higher, they would probably have only gotten 30% off or so) because he could then have turned around and printed up another 1,000 with that money. Those POD MOUSE GUARD #1′s are now going for $300 or so according to WIZARD magazine.

So my point to the retailers is: don’t rule out POD, but limit it to, say, ten slots in your store where any POD publisher gets a week or two to prove he can move 10 books. If he doesn’t move 10 copies, he’s out of there and someone else gets his place. My argument is: if the 10 books sell out right away, you have a direct line to the source. Put another way, if POD on MOUSE GUARD had been viable at say 5 stores in his immediate area, I’m willing to bet those five stores could have made a fair amount of money before the Big Leagues beckoned. And I don’t see any reason not to believe that there aren’t a half dozen comics out of the thousands that KA-BLAM has on their website in that potential MOUSE GUARD category. You can’t find them there easily, but if they walk in your front door, hey, it can be Real Opportunity Knocking.

* You said above [in response to another poster] that “we seem to be sliding back down into representational work (the Image guys basically distilling Art Adams’ high water realism work into a series of quasi-realistic tropes), impressionism, primitivism” with regard to photo-realistic art. However, is that really still the case? When you look at a certain segment of the more known artists, i.e. John Cassaday, Alex Ross, Bryan Hitch, maybe even Steve McNiven to an extent (if you take a gander at this board’s Creative subsection, you’ll see examples by an Australian gent who I say definitely qualifies as photo-realistic!), and who knows else will be coming up, they’re considered top of the field, yet how does that gel with the “Realism Sucks” era [when referring to fine art] as you put it?

Well, I think the key to that is your “certain segment” qualifier. The Raymond School, as filtered through some primary adherents (it was said that Julie Schwartz used to say he wanted everything in his books to look as if it was drawn by Dan Barry) used to BE the comic-book field, and now it’s something of a specialized interest. And the more realistically you draw, the more time it’s going to take to do a page so you have a much higher “burn-out” rate than you do with guys a step down on the realism scale. How many times has Adam Hughes or Frank Cho done a monthly title and for how long? Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson probably never made more than $35 a page on anything they did with DC so they had to follow the dictum: first you get good, then you get fast, then you get good and fast. And to put food on their families’ tables, roofs over their heads, shoes on the kids’ feet, braces on their teeth they needed to produce x number of pages to Julie Schwartz’s satisfaction every month.

Compare that to today where a top name realist guy can make his reputation onthe X-MEN or something similiar, do four or five issues and then make a good living doing prints, commissions, selling his originals, living off his royalties from the five issues, royalties off the collected version. The way the business was set up made marathon guys, the way the business is set up now it favours wind sprinters.

No question: John Cassaday, Bryan Hitch — Alex Ross, to me, is in a different category since he’s a painter. Love his work to pieces, but the Raymond School is definitely black and white, brush and pen to me. Arguably the days of that style dominating the field, let alone being exclusively what the field is made up of are long gone. I consider it part of my job description on glamourpuss to talk that side up a bit and get as many people excited about Raymond, Prentice, Drake and Williamson as I can so we can have some more people working in that vein over the next few years and into the future. It’s a very SPECIFIC end of comics, with a very SPECIFIC aesthetic. Personally, I’m not prepared to say that RIP KIRBY was this weird fifty-year aberration. “We’ll not see its like again”. Well, maybe. But we can TRY, eh?

* How much of Cerebus was planned out in advance, and to what extent?

More and more as I went along. It’s a definite luxury as a writer to have twenty-six years to develop the ending on your story! The last year or so was pretty much just a transcription job of what I had been polishing mentally since the early 1980s.

I ask merely because I remember the indicia for “Church & State” when I was buying it in issue form way back when, and the ending suddenly shifted from issue 100 to issue 117 (or whatever it ended up being, working from memory here). That’s a year and a half’s worth of extra issues in the storyline. Obviously some fluidity is needed, but how much and how rigidly did you stick to your initial story plan for the book?

Oh, in that case it was the steep learning curve in writing a “phone book” (as opposed to a graphic novel). When I allocated 500 pages for HIGH SOCIETY, I thought I could tell the history of the WORLD in that much space. The original plan was to do half the political storyline and half the religious storyline. That was when I figured out that the political storyline alone would fit, but I’d have to dip into my bag of tricks. So, on CHURCH & STATE, I basically doubled the page count/issue count — 1,000 pages and fifty issues instead of 500 pages and 25 issues. Then I realized I was still coming up short by about 200 pages. Between those two experiences, I learned to LOWBALL the content and flesh things out rather than trying to fit as much in as I could. Everything worked fine from JAKA’S STORY on, except for the Hemingway Africa Sequence in FORM & VOID because I didn’t get Mary Hemingway’s diaries (nor did I know that I needed them) from the JFK Library until I was already started. Even doing the Chris Ware multi-multi-tiny-tiny panel trick, it still spilled over by about 10 pages and I didn’t have ROOM with 800 pages to go on the 6,000 page storyline. Back into the bag of tricks having Cerebus “come to” on the side of the mountain (having to skip how he and Jaka got up there).

The last three years on the book that was all I kept thinking: “That better not happen again.”

* Is the single issue a dying art? The business seems ever so more geared towards TPB/graphic novel/phonebook sales anymore, undoubtedly influenced by sales of everything from Sandman to manga to, yes, Cerebus. Despite releasing glamourpuss in issue form with a planned compilation release in 2011, do you think the Cerebus phonebooks may have contributed to the write/print-for-trade-paperback decompressed style, both creatively and business-wise, that has become the norm now?

Yes, and I may — in Robin Williams’ immortal phrase — have to “smoke a turd in hell” for my part in it. Secret Project One is a self-contained, beginning, middle and end 48 pages and it’s something that I’m pushing for and which I did in response to a challenge from Peter Birkemoe of Toronto’s legendary BEGUILING store for a “self-contained inexpensive squarebound book” that he could give to a civilian and say, “This is what comics are capable of.” It seemed a sensible goal so I went with that. The more I think about it, the more I think Peter is right. And I think we’d be giving the entire retail community a big “leg up” if more writers and artists would devote three months or six months to doing that. Forget super-heroes. In the real world, super-heroes are not mainstream. Do something that your average man or woman on the street can relate to. And hand it to them when they wander in with their comic loving relative or by accident on their own.

* Where do you see the next Big Thing from the self-publishing end coming from? It’s been quite some time since the runaway, mainstream successes of TMNT and Bone and there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon that can/will replicate that. What are your thoughts there?

Well, the key is that those were both enormous surprises. Even Ralph DiBernardo of JETPACK COMICS who bought 150 copies from Kevin and Peter back in 1984, he wondered, “I sure hope I can make some of this back.” Ninety bucks. Picture what 150 pristine mint copies of TMNT No.1 would go for today? Yeah, Ralph. Ninety bucks. Got you covered, boss.

And BONE. When Jeff gave me the first three issues at the Capital City Trade Show in ’93 and asked me to read them and give him any help I could, I read them in departure lounge at the airport in Madison and I thought, “Wow. Those were really good.” And then I thought, “But it’s kind of in the ‘all ages’ category. Will the indy crowd even LOOK at an ‘all ages’ book, let alone BUY it?”

Uh, yeah, Dave. That’s really not going to be a problem here.

It’s always unpredictable. MOUSE GUARD was unpredictable. CEREBUS and ELFQUEST were unpredictable.

Watch the skies! And the indy rack in your local comic store.

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