In 1977 Dave Sim was a young unknown Canadian comics creator who had mostly published strips and short stories in anthologies and had completed two full comics from start to finish (Phantacea #1 and Revolt 3000 #1) for other people. A highly independent person, Sim looked at his two completed issues and thought, “Why not just publish a comic myself?” Together with his then-girlfriend Deni Loubert they founded the comic publisher Aardvark-Vanaheim.
At the time, sword and sorcery was on an upswing (a late 1975 issue of a DC Comic I have promotes their then upcoming line of fantasy comics) and Howard the Duck (a comic that transplanted a cartoon-esque character in to different genres) was new and turning heads at Marvel, so Sim mashed the two together to create Cerebus the Aardvark, a parody of sword and sorcery featuring a funny talking animal.
His early goal was to make three issues and release them bi-monthly – every other month that is.* With three issues under his belt (completed ON TIME, no less), he could use it as a portfolio to show major publishers why they should hire him. The three issues were successful enough and Dave independent enough that he never ended up doing major work for other publishers (hopefully I’ll eventually get to his work for EPIC Magazine and maybe his issue of Spawn).
*that joke will make sense after issue 4
Whether intentionally or not, each of the three issues worked to highlight his skills. Well, what skills he had at the time. Because in 1977, “Dave Sim drew about as well as the second- or third-best artist in your high school, the guy you’d ask to do the cover for your heavy metal band’s album or airbrush the side of your van.”* Sim was a huge fan of Barry Windsor-Smith (the artist for Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian) and early issues HEAVILY emulate his art. Each challenge Cerebus faces is a challenge that an artist would face with drawing for a major publisher. (And yes, that sentence is cheesy, but I’ve got to reinforce that the series is also an autobiography about Dave and his views and interests.) The challenges feature a shadow creature which shows off his ability to work with ink, a skeleton which shows that he can draw human anatomy, a drug trip which shows his ability to draw warped perspective, and giant monsters because giant monsters are cool.
*Tim Krieder – “Irredeemable: Dave Sim’s Cerebus” – The Comics Journal #301 – a MUST read – this is one of the pieces that convinced me to read Cerebus. If you don’t have a copy (which you should – the Gerald McBoingBoing reprints in it are great), you can read the opening here.
The story is a pretty straight-forward sword and sorcery plot. The protagonist is enlisted to steal an object from a wizard, goes through the wizard’s castle to steal it, defeats a bunch of obstacles as onlookers go “wow, this dude is special, look at how special he is.” The ending has an obligatory and obvious, but still decent, twist. Instead of splitting the reward from selling the jewel, Cerebus only wants his pouch of gold. The jewel, of course, ends up being a fake, and Cerebus rides off in to the distance.
The issue is “funny” in a 1977-way. It, like most of what I’ve read of the series, feels dated. The humor is “hey look, it’s a Conan comic, but Conan is a talking animal.” I can see how that was funny at the time (especially with Cerebus in grey in front of “serious” black and white art), but that being the entire joke doesn’t really hold up 40 years later, especially since “adult stories with cartoony art” is the premise of a popular tv network. I’m also not sure how much the prose/dialogue is supposed to be a joke. The prose in early issues is heavily purple, and I’m not sure how much is him making fun of fantasy writings and how much is just his style of writing.*
*Sim is heavily interested in older, dated art, so it could be that he earnestly likes that type of writing. It could also be that prose isn’t his strong suit, which is quite likely based on his poetry in “Demonhorn.”
Still, I was expecting worse from this comic. His human faces are frequently inky messes and seem to change every panel and the plot is basic and cliched, but there’s an energy to the comic. The drug trip page is inventive and fun, that splash page with the monster is DOPE and utilizes black/white so well, and there are three instances of him breaking up a shot with panels to show the passage of time. I think the negativity I’ve seen for this issue is probably based on how his later art is more skilled.
Stray thoughts/closer looks/random observations/dumb facts I couldn’t fit in to the article.
- The cover is a wrap-around design, which was dropped for ad space with the next issue. Guess he really wanted that extra $200 in exchange for an ad for a South Park text messaging service. (Please let me know I’m not the only one with that mid-aughts Image Comics ad stuck in my brain.)
Original Cover Art linked from CEREBUS ARCHIVE NUMBER FOUR Kickstarter
- Some first issues have iconic, memorable covers. Cerebus has… this. At least it conveys that it’s a silly animal in a Barry Windsor-Smith world?
- While the Cerebus “phonebooks” (that’s the nickname for the large b&w reprint collections) are the easier way to read Cerebus, I’ll be reading it through single issues. Most of the early issues I have are reprints from the late 80s/early 90s that feature Deni’s note from the publisher, commentary from Dave, the letters column, all the original ads, and “The Single Page” (a one-page comic strip by guest artists; it starts in issue 6 and I’ll write more about it then).
- The “NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER” is a black page with white ink; later issues will be white with black ink. In this one, Deni jokes around about the silly concept and explains why they’re called A-V Press (a joke by her brother that backfired) and the Cerebus name (a typo of Cerberus). She writes about how there will soon also be a magazine called Cerebus which is the first of many times I will sigh sadly for her doomed hope for the future.
- The first page features a pretty fun panel with Cerebus riding a horse, establishing both that he’s a cartoonish animal in a world with “normal” animals and the running gag that he rides horses by bouncing on their backs.
- Cerebus is described as “five hands tall.” Later he’ll be described as three feet tall; those are some mighty large hands he was measured with.
- The second page features him slicing off the arm of a barfly that bothers him. Why yes, this comic WAS made several months after Star Wars came out. Why do you ask?
- The wizard’s death is great; he goes from shouting prophecy to muttering “…aw nuts…” This also shows Sim getting a grasp over lettering. He goes from bold and larger lettering to the reduced size for the last words. I enjoy that the wizard is a bit shit; people in power being incompetent is already established as an important part of this world.
- Dave Sim’s P’s and D’s look almost exactly the same and will continue to distract and annoy me.
- A recurring theme is swears involving Tarim and Clovis. This issue features Cerebus swearing, “by Clovis’ Beard!”
- Earth-Pig Born is weird wording we’ll be seeing a lot right now.
- Regarding “the way of these wizards” – “Cerebus has his feet in two worlds…” and “Though I was born to be a warrior, the ways of sorcery are not unknown to me…” I’m curious to see if this is developed further.
- There’s a “Coming Next Issue” page that features Cerebus in the mountains looking at shadowy figures in the distance.
- Aardvark Comment: There are no letters this issue, so Dave talks about the frustrations of producing a first comic. There’s no feedback, no idea if it’ll be successful, if he’ll go broke, if anyone cares (kind of like me with this blog!). There’s also a listing of other Canadian comic books for sale (Arik Khan #1, Phantacea #1, Fog City Comics #1, and Oktoberfest #1). Sim did art for Phantacea and Oktoberfest. Each comic was a dollar plus .25 postage.
- The back cover features an ad for Gene Day’s Star Wars Lucasfilm denied him permission and all non-personal copies were destroyed. The ad says there were eight plates, but there ended up being 10. The print run was limited to 250 copies and was to be sold for $8 each. You can see the art, along with Gene’s description here.