Update! A new response fro Kim Thompson! Scroll down for the amazing response!
All of this hoo hah seems to have died down so maybe it is not time to resurrect it, but for those who want a capsule recap, here’s the deal with Dave Sim and Fantagraphics. I have probably missed a point or two because I could only skim the most recent posts, but here it is to the best of my ability:
It all started about a month ago when Sim wrote an editorial in the final issue of GLAMOURPUSS that explained how hard it was to keep going as a cartoonist, with many sad facts and figure of the kinds below:
I was also slowing down in my ability to write and draw and I was trying to draw in a style that was really very far above my level of abilities. Bad combination in your mid- and then late fifties.
I tried selling both glamourpuss and Cerebus Archive as print-on-demand titles from ComiXpress, thinking that would help supplement my income. Not really. The built-in problem is how much it costs to ship individual books by mail in 2012. Too much, as it turns out. My royalties from sales of all the combined titles (38 comic books at the end there) was seldom more than $700 every three months or so.
Sim notes the Cerebus TV experiment and the slowed-by-fire Kickstarter for a digital HIGH SOCIETY as more projects to keep his brand out there, but…his end prognosis was grim, with time running out:
At the rate I’m going, I would guess I could get, maybe, another 15 pages done if my career lasts until November of this year or 30 pages if my career lasts until March of next year. I only have a rough estimate of how many pages I have left to go, but it is considerably more than 15 or 30 pages.
I’ve been dividing my twelve-hour working day into two segments: things I do to make money and glamourpuss. Now, I’ll be dividing my working day into things I do to make money and attempting to finish The Strange Death Of Alex Raymond. Then come November or March, I’ll be dividing my time between Doomsday Scenarios and attempting to finish The Strange Death Of Alex Raymond. Even if I get rid of everything and quit, I’m hoping the last thing I’ll be working on that last day as 1-800-GOT-JUNK hauls everything away, will be a page of The Strange Death Of Alex Raymond which will then be sent to… someone, I don’t know who… as the last page of Dave Sim’s last uncompleted work.
A real life version of Cerebus’s “alone, unmourned and unloved”? ending? Perhaps. But many in the comics community (certainly the large number that contributed to the Kickstarter fund) felt there had to be another way…Sim always thought the Cerebus phonebooks would be his retirement fund, and then suddenly, they weren’t a sure thing any more. And then Fantagraphics publisher Kim Thompson stepped in with an offer to re-publish the collected editions of Cerebus in new, up-to-date hardcovers.
And then things got weird.
Just a brief history recap: Dave Sim’s Cerebus was an early pioneer of the self-publishing model, running for 300 almost monthly issues from 1977 to 2004. The first two thirds are pretty universally admired for their humor, amazing storytelling and finely detailed world building. About 2/3rds of the way through, Sim executed a long-planned turn to a more philosophical bent which became very strange, less linear and included many anti-woman viewpoints which some have found offensive. Warts and all, it remains one of the great sustained works of recent comics, and deserves as much as anything to be kept in print and available for new readers. Sim kept the books in print in a series of thick “phone book” sized volumes which are somewhat outdated in today’s market. (And there are a lot more big giant graphic novels these days, to boot, so “phone book” isn’t as impressive as it once was.)
That all seems pretty straightforward. But then you remember that Sim is the guy who says he doesn’t believe in contracts and once obliged people to sign a petition stating their belief that he was not a misogynist in order to continue to communicate with him.
So you could say Kim Thompson is a brave man.
It turned out Sim wanted to negotiate the whole thing in public on the Fantagraphics message board (the above link). The final thread ran to over 700 comments, but A Moment of Cerebus has helpfully indexed the most pertinent posts here for the masochists.
Now what is the October Surprise of the title? Well, the whole thing is meandered on in a hundreds of messages long discussion about what volumes would be published first, Dave’s worry that if Fantagraphics would publish him the New York Times Book Review would think he wasn’t Ernest Hemingway, and other odd shit that resembled in terms of straightforward negotiation a bunch of stoned guys trying to solve Fermat’s theorem.
And then, after it had been going on for a few weeks, this week Sim suddenly pulled out an old grudge about how the Comics Journal had once, nearly 20 years ago, published a cartoon comparing him to Adolf Hitler. He called this “the elephant in the room.”
An elephant he hadn’t bothered to mention for nearly a month of message board postings.
So, I was certainly surprised when one of the individuals responsible for labelling me as being co-equivalent with a Nazi concentration camp commandant was suddenly — quite publicly — talking about publishing my work and breathing new life into it. It was, as I saw it, a lose-lose situation for me, as all of my situations relative to the comic-book field have been for the last 18 years. If I failed to respond, it would just be another example of my long, long shopping list of prejudices and bigotry and hatred. Here’s Kim offering to help me and because I’m a COMICS JOURNALphobe (as well as a misogynist and a racist) I won’t even respond.
And if I did respond then I would be reinforcing the legitimacy of me being depicted as a concentration camp commandant, 18 years later. Otherwise why was I negotiating with them/him? As James Thurber put it, “My World and Welcome to It.”
Whenever I read anything by Dave Sim I recall a message he posted somewhere to the effect of “no matter how much you think about this, I’ve thought about it more.” I also recall something he told me nearly 30 years ago when I interviewed him for Amazing Heroes, about his three favorite activities, “Thinking, drinking and drawing Cerebus.” Well, he only does one of those these days, but he sure does a lot of it.
As in every post about Dave Sim, you get to the point where you have to decide, “Am I going to talk about this on its own terms, or am I going to look at the bigger picture?” I will delicately suggest that perhaps Dave’s reputation has been damaged more by his own views and petitions than by a cartoon that no one but him thinks about every day. One person’s elephant might possibly be another’s teeny tiny tree shrew. As he himself put it:
I’d also like to correct another participant here: I’m not now and I wasn’t then emotionally hurt by the depiction. I saw it then and I see it now as an insupportable intellectual position which speaks volumes about the grotesque misdirection required to keep feminism from being examined dispassionately and on the basis of solid evidence.
Gary Groth supported the former view:
Consider this: TCJ, as has been pointed out, sold half of what Cerebus did. (That sounds about right: Cerebus probably sold around 20,000, the Journal around 9,000). Surely, a greater proportion of Cerebus readers cared about Dave Sim and Cerebus than that of Journal readers. It was Sim who first published a Dave-Sim-Is-Hitler analogy comment in a forum that would have far greater impact on Dave Sim’s livelihood than the Journal — his own comic, read exclusively his his own fans. Logically, then, Sim did far more to cultivate what he perceives as the Sim-Is-Hitler public persona that he believes currently exists (which, keep in mind, only exists in Sim’s head). So, we have several layers of lunacy at work here: the first is that there’s wide perception of Sim-as-Hitler (which there isn’t) and the second is that the Journal was solely responsible for this when it was in fact Sim’s own Cerebus that was, logically, far more responsible…..
But in the unlikely event that this were a deal breaker, he should’ve said so immediately rather than spending a couple weeks ”negotiating.” In fact, it looks more and more like Dave’s willingness to “negotiate” and his demand to do so publicly, was disingenuous from the getgo. Has anyone considered that if Sim is going to make an announcement about publishing a book with another publisher, that those negotiations obviously weren’t conducted in public? Why, if Sim were so mortally offended by the political cartoon, did he continue to work with the me and Journal, giving us the longest interview in his career, and writing essays for the magazine? It is a fact, albeit a peculiar one, that Dave and I have continued to have a civil relationship notwithstanding our divergent views on social and interpersonal matters.
Retailer Brian Hibbs stepped in with some pragmatic observations:
I personally believe that it is actually really difficult to “ruin” an artists “reputation”, because it is the ART, at the end of the day, that people remember. Dave’s got a marketing problem right this moment, but it has little to do with “controversy”, and a lot more to do with his last two projects not selling as well as anyone would have liked. THAT is how a *market* marks an artist’s “rep”.
As did Eric Reynolds:
The simple problem facing Mr. Sim is that the legacy of Cerebus rests in a short-memory direct market that is increasingly shrinking. Mr. Sim’s strategy as a self-publisher was absolutely brilliant throughout the life of Cerebus; he flat-out killed it. But the economy and market have changed. There is little doubt that the entirety of Cerebus could find new life in a series of collections packaged for a broader bookstore market. I think Mr. Sim, and Mr. Thompson, can agree on this. The question is whether Mr. Sim believes that Fantagraphics — or any other publisher — can offer him access to an editorial, design, marketing, promo, sales and distribution staff/network that will do his legacy justice. Forget The Comics Journal, forget Hemingway, forget Hitler, etc. Keep your eyes on the prize. Everyone wants the best, most fucking beautiful books possible.
Compounding some of the miscommunications here: Sim doesn’t use the internet and instead insists on having all the postings printed out and faxed to him; he then writes a response and has one of his helpers type it in to the interweb:
Right now, it’s just all of these scattered discussions which, as with a cocktail party, you just circulate and see if anyone’s saying anything of interest to you. It’s different for me because I’m getting all this in the form of faxes so I’m skimming through everything and making note of ideas that I think might be able to be made into something. Sometimes just an observation that rings a bell and I don’t know why it rings a bell but it’s worth writing down to see if it rings again at some point (it is difficult FINDING these bell-ringer points when it triggers something, I’ll admit: it’s quite a pile of faxes at this point).
At this point, another favorite Sim tactic emerged: his use of airing other people’s dirty laundry as he makes some other point:
Also, in a strange way, my initial response to Kim’s overture originates with Chet [Chester Brown], back when Chris at Drawn & Quarterly hired a full-time publicist. I asked him if he was comfortable with that and he didn’t know what I meant. And I said, well, Chris owes you a lot of money and he’s paying someone a full-time salary to drum up publicity. That’s where your money is going. (I should say now that I only mention this because it was at least five years ago and I have no idea what Drawn & Quarterly’s financial situation is like today. It was getting much better at the time that Chet and I parted ways. There was a weird time period when they were going to lose their Canada Council of the Arts grant because they brought in a new rule that publishers couldn’t get their grant renewed if they owed their authors money and that got solved by just asking for another grant to pay the authors. Which happened. So, I was glad of that as a fellow creator, less thrilled with it as a taxpayer.)
Yep, pretty irresponsible of a publisher to try to drum up more publicity to sell more books to pay their cartoonists. Shocking, in fact. Bad publisher!
There’s another thing that always pops up in Sim discussions: a wild-eyed acolyte who disrupts things with his defenses of Sim. As a long ago veteran of the Usenet wars, it is fascinating to see new recruits in the battles. And there’s also the faithful amanuensis, like the Moment of Cerebus fellow who annotates the posts. Sim has some loyal followers. He should be very proud of that.
Although the Comics Journal thread has been shut down, Sim is taking it up over on A Moment of Cerebus, and here’s the new bombshell—after a long, long discussion of shipping dates, clone tools, Diamond phone calls, work schedules and more:
Now, I know what everyone is going to say: SIGN A DEAL NOW AND FANTAGRAPHICS CAN DO THOSE BOOKS. Well, no. Those are the two best-selling trades. If I sign a deal for them, it’s not going to be a “First guy to cut me a cheque for $3K gets them”. Actually that wouldn’t be the case with ANY of the trades. I would definitely pitch every publisher in comics on them and look at what I was being offered and what made the most sense. I’m more than willing to negotiate for CEREBUS and HIGH SOCIETY but in the opposite of “in a hurry”.
Which is what I knew right away when Kim brought it up. Which is why I knew there was no need to hurry through this negotiation we’re doing here. I have NO idea when the next printing of HIGH SOCIETY is going to be done. I know I’m doing that one, because I’ve solicited for it and it’s a viable profitable proposition. Not even factoring in what will happen with HIGH SOCIETY’s sales after HIGH SOCIETY AUDIO DIGITAL and HIGH SOCIETY DIGITAL are well into serialization, or after serialization when there’s a collected version on the market. It only makes sense to wait and see what it does before making other plans. I have NO idea when the next printing of CEREBUS is going to be done.
Or if I’m doing it. I’m certainly open to negotiation. But the negotiation is going to be one book at a time unless someone can give me a good reason to do more than one book at a time.
In other words…he was just yanking Kim’s chain all along.
Observation: Dave Sim may be better off being a self-publisher.
Another observation: Perhaps the failure of GLAMOURPUSS was not due to a vast worldwide conspiracy, but because people did not know what to make of a book that was a parody of women’s magazines—by a man who strongly disapproves of working women—bagged with an examination of the life and death of cartoonist Alex Raymond. Maybe Dave Sim thinks a little TOO MUCH about all this?
Or as Ed Brubaker put it:
Anyway, it’s too bad this discussion ended up being about Sim’s views and an article from 20 years ago, instead of the new hardback editions of Cerebus I would have loved to support. And it’s sad to me to see a cartoonist whose work gave me so much joy acting like his career is over now, when there are clearly plenty of options for keeping Cerebus in print and publishing new work.
That Alex Raymond bio looks great and I would read it.
The Digital High Society is moving forward, despite the fire that destroyed much of the work on it, and so many will be able to experience it in a different way.
Sim is doing a blog tour and he’s answering questions here at the Beat in this thread. I believe it’s still open.
UPDATE: Thompson has responded with a concise, directed statement of issues:
For simplicity’s sake, and I hate to sound intransigent or curt but it seems to be the only way to focus this, there are three non-negotiable criteria on our end. (1) We will not start anywhere other than at or near the beginning of CEREBUS (i.e. no later than HIGH SOCIETY); the FORM AND VOID idea is DOA. (2) There is no “deep” examination of Fantagraphics’ financials, your opening demand, in the cards. (3) The misogynist/gender-issues/shunning-of-Dave aspect CANNOT be part of this discussion and WOULD not be part of the promotional context for the series if it were to come to fruition; bringing it up is a lose/lose proposition. So if any of those conditions present an insurmountable bar for you, the negotiations are stone cold dead and that’s it.
One further observation from me on all of this: Sim seems to be unable to process the concept that a publisher might have, as its base goal, a desire to partner with a creator for mutually beneficial reasons. I agree that history shows that such publishers are not always the norm, but I don’t think it’s impossible to figure out who’s who either.
Whew! Wasn’t that fun? Have a great weekend!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.