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The Dave Sim experience, part the first - Not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be
The Dave Sim experience, part the first
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.

I'm-a feelin': shocked very Dave Simmed

147 people still haven't weakened / Isn't it a great life?
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yendi From: yendi Date: February 13th, 2004 12:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, if nothing else, this would make a great story to publish in either The AV Club or even the Onion proper (crossover!).

Alas, this continues to prove that although SIm should be lauded for the effect he had on the comics scene, the market, and indies in general, he really is an ass.
zarfmouse From: zarfmouse Date: February 13th, 2004 12:29 pm (UTC) (Link)


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.
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rollick From: rollick Date: February 13th, 2004 12:31 pm (UTC) (Link)


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.
Re: - cdk - Expand
From: nobodys_baby Date: February 13th, 2004 12:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
fuck. that is just too demanding of him to require all these conditions for a fucking interview. he should be happy that you guys are interested in him, not the other way around.
sirmacncheese From: sirmacncheese Date: February 13th, 2004 01:13 pm (UTC) (Link)


That would unfortunatelyy require a concept of reality that Sim does not seem to share with the rest of us.
cassielsander From: cassielsander Date: February 13th, 2004 12:29 pm (UTC) (Link)


What a total and utter ass.

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.
shawnj From: shawnj Date: February 13th, 2004 12:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Eeeewww.

Sounds like free publicity for the half-dozen or so Cerebus readers left.
From: thelastrobot Date: February 13th, 2004 12:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
You have the greatest adventures.

I haven't read Cerebus. I tried to read the first book. It's very "Spider-Ham". But I'm told it gets good with Jaka's Story, so I'm probably going to pick it up again sometime.

I love Sim for being so crazy, though. You should ask him if he's going to eat a gun now that Cerebus is done. Or if he's just going to do crazy interviews for the rest of his life.

ALSO! Ask him a question about thin women so he can say, "This isn't a broad and narrow question! This is a question about narrow broads!"

rollick From: rollick Date: February 13th, 2004 12:43 pm (UTC) (Link)


Ugh, ugh, ugh. Are you here all week?

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.
polyfrog From: polyfrog Date: February 13th, 2004 12:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
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.
mollpeartree From: mollpeartree Date: February 13th, 2004 01:13 pm (UTC) (Link)


No kidding. I had a look at that "Tangents" essay, and the title does not lie. Four or five screens into it, he managed to present 1/2 of a coherent thought, and not an original one.
universal dick - (Anonymous) - Expand
orobouros From: orobouros Date: February 13th, 2004 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, Dave.

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. :)

sirmacncheese From: sirmacncheese Date: February 13th, 2004 12:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
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.
thefirethorn From: thefirethorn Date: February 13th, 2004 01:41 pm (UTC) (Link)


thus proving that all women are soul-sucking parasites and not really human.
From: drspectrum Date: February 13th, 2004 01:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I STILL think Jeff Smith could kick Sim's ass.
thefirethorn From: thefirethorn Date: February 13th, 2004 01:42 pm (UTC) (Link)


I REALLY REALLY want you to ask him the "who could you take in a fight" question. Or the "Is there a god?" question. Allbeit both would have to be answered in a 10-part series.
muckefuck From: muckefuck Date: February 13th, 2004 01:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
This post was more concise, interesting, and well-written than the last 100 issues of Cerebus--and I still couldn't bear to read it all the way through.

Has your list of interviewees gotten so short that you have dive into this particular smelly barrel and scrape?
rollick From: rollick Date: February 13th, 2004 01:16 pm (UTC) (Link)


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.
kent From: kent Date: February 13th, 2004 01:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

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.
rollick From: rollick Date: February 13th, 2004 01:43 pm (UTC) (Link)


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."
lllvis From: lllvis Date: February 13th, 2004 01:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
oh man...this would be an interview I would definitely read.

Although...I burned out on Cerebus right at "Jaka's Story". In fact, I've seen people at cons who have shirts that say "I survived Jaka's Story" if that gives you any idea.

Still...hope it happens. I know a few others who would look forward to reading it.
rollick From: rollick Date: February 13th, 2004 01:46 pm (UTC) (Link)


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?
masterrobyn From: masterrobyn Date: February 13th, 2004 01:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Two things:

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!
rollick From: rollick Date: February 13th, 2004 02:35 pm (UTC) (Link)


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!

Thank you. I appreciate it.
cdk From: cdk Date: February 13th, 2004 03:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
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.
thefirethorn From: thefirethorn Date: February 13th, 2004 06:28 pm (UTC) (Link)


At some point between high school and growing up, you're supposed to realize that a longer paper isn't a better paper.


But then again, the high-school teacher that taught you that was probably an emotional, anecdote-using female.
thefirethorn From: thefirethorn Date: February 13th, 2004 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
(1) Why did YOU get stuck with the job of asking The Man Who Hates Women Too Much? Did you loose a bet?

(2) Wait --- homosexualist axis??? When did this happen? Was it before or after the light-devouring non-human parasites arrived on earth?
muckefuck From: muckefuck Date: February 13th, 2004 11:33 pm (UTC) (Link)


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.
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