Thanks to the astounding generosity of duck2ducks — who has never met me, but nonetheless has lent me a big batch of "Cerebus" comics so I could get caught up before the series ends its 26-year run next month — I'm in the process of getting prepped for interviewing Dave Sim. Step one in the process was getting hold of everything of his I hadn't already read.
Step two involved calling him, and seeing if he was willing to do an interview. That happened yesterday. I ended up talking to him on the phone for about 40 minutes — about as long as I'd normally spend on an interview. I ended up wishing I'd taped the conversation, and just run that in the paper. Because it was fascinating, and also likely a lot more direct and concise than anything we're going to get from him for print.
Highlights of the conversation:
He initially thought I was putting him on. He accused me a couple of times of having a joke at his expense. He's familiar with The Onion, but not The A.V. Club — I've heard this one often enough that I don't even feel disappointed when I run into it any more — so he couldn't understand why a satirical paper would want to interview him.
I reassured him that we do long-form interviews. I offered to fax him copies of the interviews I've done with Alan Moore and Scott McCloud, so he could see what kind of stuff we do. I mentioned that we look for people who have non-mainstream opinions. He said that Scott McCloud and Alan Moore ARE mainstream. I said that they've been embraced by the mainstream, but that they don't necessarily express themselves in mainstream-friendly ways; for instance, Alan Moore claims that he worships a sock puppet. Dave said something about that depending on whether it's a feminist issue. I asked how worshipping a sock puppet was a feminist issue. He said "Same pus, different zit." I said "I'm not getting you." He said "Yeah. I know."
I told him we expected the interview to run about 4,000 words. He said that wasn't enough to get any kind of meaningful ideas across, and that after 25 years of producing a comic where he could publish 100,000-word essays if he wanted to, any sort of word limit was basically a limit to thinking. He said there was no way he could sum up his thoughts in 4,000 words. I said that we weren't trying to replace 26 years of work with one article, we were just trying to point people to his body of work. He said that this was of no use to him and he didn't expect to get anything useful out of it. I said "Over a million people read The Onion every week. You don't think any of them will be interested enough to check out your work after reading about it?" He said that he'd once done an interview with a major news outlet, on the condition that they publish his address, with the notation that anyone interested in reading a full copy of "Tangent," his 20-page essay debunking the "feminist/homosexualist axis," could write to him, and he'd send them a full copy. He said he got exactly one query, and it was from a teenage girl, writing on Spice Girls stationary.
He said that I probably had the attitude that everyone's heard of The Onion and no one's heard of him, and that I was right, but that The Onion still wasn't going to help him in any way. I said again that that was possible, and given what he believed, I wasn't sure that there was a point in arguing, but that given the percentage of The Onion's readers who look at it solely online, it was certainly probable that many of them would be hearing about "Cerebus" for the first time, especially since it doesn't have much of a web presence. He pointed out that there is both a rec.arts newsgroup and a Yahoo! Group devoted to the comic.
He said that we probably thought we were doing him a favor by coming to him, and that most news outlets thought they were being very generous to him by offering him a space in which to present his ideas, but we weren't. In fact, he would be doing US a favor by trying his best to compress his concepts into tiny, untenable spaces.
He said that he'd been approached by people wanting interviews before, and they always kissed his ass beforehand, when they were trying to get the interview, and then burned him in print later, in a vindictive way. I suggested that one problem was that news outlets involve a lot of people, and the person getting the interview wasn't the person editing the interviewer's piece, or approving it, or laying it out, and there were many stages at which his words could be abbreviated or altered. Since The Onion A.V. Club consists of about nine people, and only two were actually going to be involved in negotiating and editing his piece, I could assure him that the piece wasn't going to get taken out of my hands and then butchered. He basically said I should go to the other person and find out whether we could expand the paper, or do a special 10-part series, or something, and that the answer would be "No, Dave Sim isn't famous enough," and that that answer would be correct, but it still left us with him not having enough space to deliver his ideas.
I pointed out that over the course of our (at that point) 20-minute conversation, he'd already delivered a series of interesting and concise concepts without requiring 10,000 words of explanation, and that the conversation we were having could practically stand as an interview itself, on the nature of the media and independent creators and the transmission of ideas. He said that if I transcribed everything we'd already said, it would be 20,000 words long. I said I had to argue with him on that — I've been transcribing phone and in-person interviews for six or seven years now, and they tend to average out to about a hundred words per minute (i.e. a 4,000-word interview takes about 40 minutes of interview time, which is what I usually ask for when pitching interviews), so our conversation would actually come out to about 2,000 words. He said that yeah, he could probably give me a 4,000-word interview on why he shouldn't do an interview with The Onion, but he didn't think that was what I wanted.
He said he might be willing to do an interview via fax, and that I could fax him one question, and he'd see if he could possibly answer it in 4,000 words. We negotiated terms on and off throughout this entire conversation. What it comes down to is, he might be willing to answer our questions, but his answers must run uncut and unedited, and we have to assure him that we're going to run what he gives us — he's not writing on spec and giving us the right of refusal. I said that we couldn't operate without a backout clause; we weren't going to promise to run whatever he gave us, because if he really wanted to, he could send us 4,000 instances of the word "banana," and claim that we were obligated to print it. He said "I'm not going to give you anything unprintable." I said we'd need an opportunity to judge that.
He also said that it was certainly possible that a given question might not take 4,000 words to answer, if it was narrow and specific enough. I asked him if he'd actually find it remotely interesting to answer questions like that. He said probably not.
What I offered — and it seems possible that this is what will happen — was that I should send him a series of questions, maybe 10 or so, and he can decide whether those questions interest him and whether he can answer them, and then he can decide whether to do the interview, and decide how many of those questions he could answer in 4,000 words. He counter-offered that he could look at the questions and tell us roughly how many words it would take him to answer each, and we could pick what we wanted, given our space constraints. But…
…He wants all these terms in writing, so in case we screw him over, he has proof that we lied, so he can take it to the newsgroups and show them what asses we are.
I went over all the terms we'd agreed on together, to make sure I hadn't missed anything, and I told him I needed to get approval from my editor before we could proceed. I offered to talk to my editor and then just fax over a list of our agreed-upon conditions and the proposed questions. He said no, we should talk by phone again first, and hammer everything out. I said fine, I'd be in touch, once I'd gotten approval from my boss. He said, heavily, "Okay… but that's a funny way to live your life." And that was pretty much his final word in the conversation.
So I spent an hour today talking to my boss on the phone about the conditions, and whether we could meet them, and whether there was anything else we needed from Dave, and so forth. And it looks like we're actually going to meet his terms and see what he gives us. Now it's just up to me to make sure everything's negotiated correctly, and then somehow come up with 10 or so questions that are narrow enough that he can answer them, but broad enough to actually interest him, and simultaneously both broad and narrow enough to interest our readership, who by and large probably are media-savvy enough to have actually heard of "Cerebus" at some point, but very likely haven't read it. Simple! No problem! Right! I'm on it!
Okay, I'm not. But I knew this wasn't going to be easy when I got involved with it — I mean, I'm a woman, and I'm trying to have meaningful dialogue with someone who's spent the last 10 years of his career espousing, in great detail, the belief that women are inhuman life-suckers, responsible for everything wrong with the world. And I could have at any point said "This isn't worth it, get bent." So as usual, I'm not bitching — I have no one but myself to blame for my continued involvement at this point. I'm just observing, and wondering exactly what's going to happen next. I expect to talk to him again on Monday.
Maybe that is his angle. If he's really mean to people and doesn't cooperate then they write vindictive stories about how mean he is and he still gets free publicity but he gets to keep his curmudgeonly asshole street cred.
Harlan Ellison actually came up in the discussion with my boss. The A.V. Club interviewed him years before I came on board, and he was similarly difficult — he demanded to see the entire piece and edit it before it ran, and he was full of demands, such as "tv" had to be lower-case, and the paper had to run all ellipses as three periods rather than the ellipsis character ("…"), because he didn't like the way computers render ellipses, and so forth. However, the resulting interview is still one of my all-time favorites, which is one reason I'm interested in sticking with this particular project.
I have to admit I can't see anything good coming from proceeding with this, except perhaps an issue of Cerebus devoted defaming the Onion and specifically attacking you as a brain-sucking dyke. But it's not my business I guess.
Personally, I think the first book is slight but hilarious, and the series starts getting GOOD with the second book, "High Society." "Jaka's Story" is fantastic, still the high point of the series as far as I'm concerned, but it's not the first good point in the entire body of work.
I've met him, and I've met other people who've met him. The opinion is universal; he's a dick. The basic idea is that his ideas are too big to limit in any way. You just have to keep listening until he's done talking, and then will you reach enlightenment, grasshopper. Bullshit. I've read the first few phonebooks, and they're pretty good. But they sure as hell aren't that good. Later, when I worked selling comics I tried to read it as it came out. But after the issue that consisted (entirely) of Cerberus getting out of bed in the middle of the night to take a leak, I lost all interest. He said that people are always nice-nice when they're trying to get an interview and then burn him in print. That might be because when they're being nice they haven't really had a chance to learn what a dick he is. By the end of the interview, they know, and are not inclined to be very charitable. There's a thin line between Iconoclast and Solipsist. Leave him in the hell he's created for himself.
I've met him. And honestly, he was impossibly nice to me. Now, granted, this was over 10 years ago. I've heard through the rumour mill that he has gotten a little (more) difficult in the last several years. I've been reading Cerebus since issue #70, though I stick to the phone books now. I'll probably pick up issue #300, "just because". Even though he's taken a turn for the decidedly odd, I find the comic to be intensely fascinating, both as a piece of work, and as a self-portrait of a person's life (Dave's life), and the effects a project of this magnitude can have on a person.
I hope this works out, because I, for one, am dying to read the interview. All 4 million words of it. Somewhere in there, if you can find a date for the final phone book being released, I'd greatly appreciate it. :)
Sounds like the kind of individual whose lived his life without meaningful people skills, culmminating in a fifth grade crush that resulted in the girl kicking him in the nads. The resulting humiliation and inability to handle it properly has created a bitter adult who feels that humiliation everytime he sees a female.
you deserve great praise and respect for not telling this joker what to do with himself and the horse he rode in on.
My basic thought on such things is, there are thousands of people out there whom we could interview who could tell us what it's like to direct a film, or act in a play, or compose a song, and most of them would sound pretty much the same.
Dave Sim is the only person out there who can tell us what it's like to self-publish your own wholly idiosyncratic black-and-white comic book for 25 years straight while delivering massive polemics on esoteric issues, and from points of view that most people find indefensible. He's a wholly unique individual. And while you could argue that EVERYONE is wholly unique, and I'd have to agree, that doesn't mean they have wholly unique things to say. Dave does. So to my mind, it's worth wading through a lot of shit to get to that unique viewpoint. And I DO sometimes think that our list of potential totally-unique-viewpoint interview subjects has gotten pretty short.
Since this is a public post, if I feel like posting a link to it from the Comics Journal message board sometime, would you mind? I think a vast majority of readers of the magazine and the message boards think Sim is a loon and would get a kick out of this.
I'd prefer you wait at least a week, so we can find out how this comes out, without interference. In theory, I should have waited a week before posting it here, but it's way too easy for me to get backlogged and busy, and never post anything at all.
Anyway, it'll make a more complete story for outsiders if we get the interview and you can say "here it is, and here's how it happened."
I always assumed that shirt meant "I survived the intense emotion of 'Jaka's Story'" rather than "I managed to read all the way through the piece of crap that was 'Jaka's Story'." How do YOU translate the shirt? What burned you out on the series at that point?
El Numero Uno: The one part I hated the most about doing interviews with clebs (any type of celeb) was that they were automatically so full of themselves. Mind you my medium was mostly radio and that usually added fluff to their heads. Dunno why. Radio is dead right? No? Oh. Anyway, the one thing that would often get under the skin of most celebs was that I wouldn't kiss ass and was rarely "starstruck." It's hard to get like that when you run into Cher at the grocery store on a semi-regular basis.
II: Your handling of Sim was perfect. The summary was a funny read in and of itself. I say publish that!
The one part I hated the most about doing interviews with clebs (any type of celeb) was that they were automatically so full of themselves.
I personally find this to be much less true of authors and writers, unless they're super-celebs like Joe Eszterhas. In general, I think they spend most of their work time in isolation, and are more grateful for personal interaction than actors and directors and musicians, who get a lot of praise and human contact in their work, and may find Yet Another Interview mostly burdensome.
the one thing that would often get under the skin of most celebs was that I wouldn't kiss ass and was rarely "starstruck."
Really? Who are you talking about here? Most of the people I've actually been excited about interviewing did not seem to expect ass-kissing, and our interviewees are generally pleased that we're interested in their thoughts and opinions, not in who they're dating, or how much we want their autograph.
Your handling of Sim was perfect. The summary was a funny read in and of itself. I say publish that!
I'm sure you know this, but just in case you need reassuring: It's the hallmark of a bad writer that one cannot complete a thought in under 4,000 words. At some point between high school and growing up, you're supposed to realize that a longer paper isn't a better paper.
Feminist-homosexualist axis. I'm a little vague on the chronology myself, but I'll be damned if I'm going to reread "Tangents" to rediscover how it emerged.
Incidentally, Sim says in that essay that conducting interviews for "Mothers and Daughters" was the first time in his life he'd ever conversed with women without the express intention of trying to get them to go to bed with him. If true, it's (a) an incredibly sad admission and (b) support for the contention that his asinine views on women well predate his failed marriage.
Whew, 62 comments already, as I start writing this, and almost everything I'd add has been said. But even so I still want to concur that this writeup reads like a symphony on the theme of how to deal with a difficult interview subject. I really hope this interview works out.
And if it doesn't, here's another vote for Jack Chick.
I feel like I need to take a shower because now there's a definite connection between Dave Sim and myself. Even though it's someone I've only been in the same room as twice and it's been months since the last time. I need some serious salt scrub.
It'll be by fax, so no, I don't really feel the need to psyche him out by dressing up just to see whether it affects the tone of the fax. I suppose I could handwrite the whole thing in Sim-style big, black, ice-dripping letters, though.
Dave Sim is a barking moonbat. It's a pity you can't get a face-to-face interview with him: I would've slipped you my entire life savings in exchange for a good, solid hired kneecapping. I'd say go for his head, but the contents might scramble into the plumbing and infect somebody else.
What summed Sim up for me was this quote from Tangents:
It was really the first time in my adult life that I spoke to women who I found physically unattractive and the first time I spoke to women with any motive besides getting them into bed.
I once carried on an email correspondence with a guy like that, a guy who literally could not see any point talking to a woman if you don't think you have any chance of getting to fuck her. I ended up having a slap-fight with him in our respective blogs. No fun, and no point to it. Like teaching a pig to sing.
Yeah, it's really hard to get around quotes like that, because for me, they completely invalidate anything else he could possibly have to say. How could someone who only sees women as moist holes possibly have any insight whatsoever into anything about them?
This kind of thing also makes the idea of interviewing him particularly difficult. Not just because I'm a woman and I'm wondering what could possibly be going through his head when he talks to me, but because this indicates an alien mindset far beyond my ability to speak to or comprehend.
christ. i saw the thread on oni press site aboutthis and thought, hey, might be interesting, i haven't read cerebus for a long time... several clicks later, and i'm wondering...how can someone like that even be? i mean, what a dick head. you have my sympathy and empathy.
Wow. I went and found the thread you were talking about. You know, no matter how many times it happens, I just can't get used to the idea that something I say here may well turn up god knows where on the Internet and get propagated long past the point where I've forgotten about it.
I've seen that a lot of people misunderstood Sim here...
I understand that, actually, Dave is able to make concise answers without need to use thousands and thousands of words... I really don't understand why he is so prolix sometimes... Maybe, he just got used to answer questions trying to consider as many aspects of them as possible, in order to foresee possible "second meanings".
But in part, I think he's quite right not acepting to let the guys publish his answers edited... Indeed, every reader should be aware of journals that make cuts ("editions for space constraints") in the words of people they interview, since many times, they miss important points (or worse, they just write "in consonance with what they understood has been said")!
What I can say about Dave Sim is that he produced a great work (when looked as whole, not for single issues as someone pointed out... this is like someone read two pages of Moby Dick, don't like them, and by these pages measure the book). Indeed, he's a virtuoso in crafting Cerebus, a work for wich he devoted more than 25 years of his life and is, probably, one of the best in the medium. He surelly has unconventional ideas about our society but in the midle of them, there a lot of things that a lot of people agree, just don't like to exagerate them.
In short, he's a very talented guy but he's still a human being with mistakes and failures! Still, even though I've never met him, I already can say a lot of good things about him than I can I say about a lot of people.
I read two pages of Moby Dick, didn't like them, and ruled the book "not for me." I've since had those suspicions confirmed by people who read the whole thing. It is, in fact, possible to judge the quality of writing (or at least one's subjective interest in it) based on a sample.
Having said that, I hold Cerebus in extremely high regard. I started reading the book with issue 102, well into Church & State, and was instantly hooked. That novel and High Society remain my favorite works in the medium.
Having said *that*, reading the last 100 issues has been a slow, compounding agony. Viewing Cerebus "as whole," as you suggest, is no longer possible for me. I do not presume to counter Sim's philosophy here, such as it is, and that's not even what has disappointed me. The painful reality is that he tied up every interesting plot thread, and wrote off every interesting supporting character, in Mothers & Daughters. I cannot help but conclude that he had lost interest in his own story by that point, and was ready to write something else. That he chose Cerebus as his continued forum for his new writings was unfortunate. What few characters he did retain were drastically and unconvincingly altered, to illustrate his points. The text became denser and denser, until he had to resort to tiny print just to fit it on the page. A book that had once been defined by wit, satire and depth of plot and characters slid inexorably into a platform for a single idea. That the idea in question was presumptuous, self-important, and, frankly, not very complex, I could live with. That the idea was deliberately antagonistic, and that Sim's response to criticism usually amounted to repetitions of "everything you say just proves my point," still didn't bother me. What finally turned me off to this book, which I once held to be the apex of story-telling, was that it had become just plain boring.
Not unlike, as I have been told by readers more patient than myself, Moby Dick.
Contrary to public opinion, Mr. Sim is not a dick or an asshole nor even a misogynist. While his attitude towards interviews may seem a little odd, you need to understand that he is constantly burned by people who already have the lead paragraph in mind before they talk to him ("Nefarious misogynist and crackpot Dave Sim, etc. etc.) This has been going on for almost TEN YEARS. I think that helps explain his attitude. If you were a public figure and came out in favour of a Palestinian homeland and then were publicly labelled an anti-Semite for ten years, how many interviews would you do? I have met him several times and he is as polite and patient and generous as anybody I've ever met.
I'll just suggest this to rollick (it's a suggestion, don't take this as impugning your skills as an interviewer) and if you can get this right, you'll be miles ahead of almost everyone else who has ever interviewed him: Anti-feminsim is not misogyny, despite the best efforts of people who haven't read his work to portray it as such. I mean your own post above speaks volumes: "someone who's spent the last 10 years of his career espousing, in great detail, the belief that women are inhuman life-suckers, responsible for everything wrong with the world." Let me guess, you didn't say that to Dave over the phone?
And, as a final point, anytime an interviewee gives up time to an interviewer, yes, he is doing you a favour, not the other way around.
While I believe that people should be more careful about calling somebody a dick/asshole or whatever on the web, I also think that you're cutting Sim too much slack.
From Tangent: >>As an example, I firmly believe that feminism is a misguided attempt to raise women above their place, which I firmly believe is secondary to that of men. I firmly believe that homosexuality - not homosexualists themselves - belongs at the margins of society and behind closed doors.<<
Based on this comment, I think that your Palestina comparison misrepresents the situation. Calling Sim a mysoginist (or homophobic, for that matter) is more like calling somebody an ant-semitist who claims that jews are worth less than other people - accurately, that is.
I get the impression that he's quite full of bile.
Oh, and:>>And, as a final point, anytime an interviewee gives up time to an interviewer, yes, he is doing you a favour, not the other way around.<< For one thing, rollick never claimed that she was doing Sim any favors. And nope, he isn't. That whole thing isn't about doing favors. The interviewee's profile is raised by the interview and the interviewer gets paid. Both sides benefit. No one's doing anyone any favors.
Sim's probably extra reticent toward anyone calling from the Onion due to the fact that he thought that old Onion article about the gay pride parade was a real news story from a legitimate news source and cited it in one of his Cerebus rants. I dont think that after he found out it was satire that he ever publicly retracted or apologized or whatever you have to do in such a situation. My effort to interview him for The Comics Journal three years ago was just as much fun
Whoa. Never heard that one before. It's certainly happened often enough, though. One particularly vehement lady wrote to Reader's Digest, citing a made-up statistic from an Onion article about Harry Potter causing child Satanism as proof that, well, Harry Potter caused child Satanism.
Did you end up getting the interview? Doesn't he already have a huge grudge against TCJ, even though they're the ones who printed (and maintain online) "Tangent" in its entirety?