Dave Sim thought aloud to himself
Rereading Glamourpuss by Dave Sim.
The key question of Glamourpuss is answered twice within the series; once on the first page, once on the last. The first answer is a creative one. The second answer is a commercial one. Both are, within certain bounds, honest attempts to settle the question. But still, on every one of its 350-odd pages, the question is at the front of the reader’s mind: Why? What is this for? Who is this for? Why does Glamourpuss exist?
Running for 26 issues and four years, from July 2008 to July 2012, written and drawn by Dave Sim, self-published by Aardvark-Vanaheim, Glamourpuss is a test. There is no compelling reason to pick up the next issue after reading any one issue. There’s little continuity between them. There are characters, but each exists in a perfect vacuum, unable to communicate across the page to their fellows. There’s a throughline of a kind, but so convoluted and filtered that it’s difficult work to follow it and work that doesn’t pay off. There’s humour, but always tempered with the reader’s expectation of the deadening reactionary idiocy to come. There’s accomplished, technically even beautiful, art. None of it is even close to enough to answer the question of why? The question that the reader presents himself with in every issue, on every page.
Those answers. First, the first-page one, which actually appears on page five. Dave writes: “When people ask me if I have anything planned after Cerebus this is about all that comes to mind: cute teenaged girls in my best Al Williamson photo-realism style. If I think of anything story-wise (which isn’t likely to happen) I’ll let you know.” And the last-page one: “I began the book back in 2008 primarily as a means of helping me to pay off Gerhard some of the money I still owed him repurchasing his 40 per cent of shares in Aardvark-Vanaheim, something I had been doing through 2007 and 2008 and would continue to do until he was paid off at the end of 2011 as per our legal agreement.”
Drawing cute girls for money; this is not an unusual tale, for an artist. It’s one that stretches from the school years of most cartoonists to Frank Cho’s sketch covers. Adam Hughes has largely given up sequential art for cute girls in superhero costumes for variant covers and his career’s fine. Self-publishing a bimonthly comic with no other object than to draw cute girls is odder, but it’s not unprecendented. Jim Balent’s Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose only exists so he can draw the huge-breasted women he finds attractive, and it’s on its 95th issue with a cult following. But Balant was a) known for his girl art before he launched it and b) bothers to write plots and characters, however fetishised and nonsensical. And there should really be a c) isn’t Dave Sim. As in, isn’t primarily known for his misogyny to the exclusion of his other creative or artistic achievements, which renders Glamourpuss deeply problematic from the start.
The obligatory disclaimer which any writing about Dave Sim has to carry: yes, I believe he and his views on feminism are misogynist. When you state that “Women are inherently, self-evidently inferior beings,” and build your whole philosophy – your whole religion, your whole cosmology – around that, you’ve removed any possible doubt. I’m also one of those people who believes that Cerebus is an epically groundbreaking work that continually, over decades, imagined and pioneered new possibilities for the medium of comics, and that it can be read and enjoyed while ignoring the sporadic and unconvincing misogyny within. The how of that is a different discussion and a lengthy one. But, in my view, Cerebus itself doesn’t become protractedly misogynist until the final couple of volumes when ignoring that becomes a two-handed job. Glamourpuss, despite being launched as a commercial venture with Sim’s full knowledge that his views on feminism are decidedly uncommercial, was always on dangerous ground because it’s a comic about women by a woman-hater. Largely, this works out about as well as you’d expect.
Thus far I haven’t actually explained what Glamourpuss is, what you’ll find inside. There’s a reason for that: it’s more or less impossible. It changes. The first five or so issues alternate heavy-handed fashion magazine parody with Dave Sim narrating his attempts to draw in a black-and-white photorealist style, like a bunch of US newspaper strip artists I’ve barely heard of like John Prentice and Stan Drake and Alex Raymond, two of whom will become the crux of the comic later. Photorealism, meaning this particular brush-and-ink sector of it, is lightboxing and tracing but, as Dave says, the true art is knowing exactly how to translate the photograph. Knowing how to create suede of leather or chrome in a single brushline. Learning about this, talking to us about the process while it’s visible before us, is shallowly engaging. And on the fashion images, the cute girls we were promised, the first-person captions develop the idea of, create and are then handed over to Glamourpuss, a self-aware model (or avatar, or model of models, analogous to Fortunato in the Luba stories) who sardonically expounds on the vitality of her perceived life. It’s a weak line of satire. Not funny, but not unfunny either. And because we know it’s only there to bulk out a drawing exercise, we cut it some slack.
There is charm. But by #3 the photorealism half is minutely analysing a photo of Rube Goldberg, Alex Raymond and Milt Caniff to draw all kinds of conclusions about Raymond’s sense of his own standing among his peers. What Sim acknowledges as he’s writing is mere conjecture he then subsequently treats as diamond-hard fact, a solidifying of rhetoric which whole edifices of further conjecture are built on. Glamourpuss, who speaks in the same third-person accent as Cerebus, begins to drift over from mocking the world presented to us by fashion, a justifiable though easy target, and with the opening of #5 is mocking a socially conservative straw man of liberal families. Skanko, Glamourpuss’s twin sister who’d appear in the back with a reasonably funny take on being exactly the women men want you to be, disappears and never returns.
By the time Dave’s doing 10 Blonde Mensa Supermodels in #6, the sensitive reader’s hackles are raised. Broadly: there’s nothing wrong with satirising supermodels. They can take it. There’s nothing particularly wrong with satirising their perceived intelligence. A smart satirist might recognise that the accepted idea they’re all dumb is itself worth exploring, unchallenged assumptions always good for comedy, but it’s not where Dave’s focused. These pages would be okay if anyone else was doing them; not many laughs, but recognised comic territory. In Dave Sim’s hands, that avowed anti-feminist, it’s just uncomfortable. And by #10, the second annual swimsuit issue, all that dread is absolutely justified. Over two pages and six swimsuits – not a woman displayed, so credit to Dave for finding a new angle on the same old fixations – we’re taken through Woman as undereating uberbitch, woman as slutty animal, woman as cynical whore, woman as fat, deluded whale, woman as gross udderbeast, and older woman shaming herself, and society, by dressing like a younger woman. (Ridiculously, Halle Berry is the subject of that last one.) It’s a tour de force of misogynistic stereotypes, done with incredible economy.
This, roughly, is the problem with Glamourpuss for the first 21 issues. And it’s right there on the cover, where every model depicted has eyes crossed and tongue sticking out, like i-D’s trademark wink. Why? Because Glamourpuss, in an editorial, and Dave Sim in the world, has “a sudden overwhelming feeling that the model was making a face at her (‘Nyah, nyah! I’m thinner and more beautiful than you are and so are my clothes.’)” Because “if glamourpuss was that thin, that beautiful and that well dressed, glamourpuss would be mentally crossing her eyes and sticking her tongue out at every woman who looked at her, aussi!” Because Dave Sim believes there is a hierarchy of women, a clear progression from top to bottom that all women know and know their place within, and that fashion models are at the top of it. Which tells us, obviously, that he believes that a woman’s entire value is her looks and her youth. And those crossed eyes – often poorly done, the cartoonist mixed uneasily with the photorealist – tell us that women at the top of the hierarchy could only feel contempt for others. For women not as pretty as them, or for the men who have no option but to be their servants and bankrollers. There’s no empathy, or sense of career misplaced, or even the self-pity that even the most cursory study of models might imagine they struggle with. There’s only certainty and greed.
This is how Dave sees women. At the top, the young, thin and beautiful who look down on all other women and give men orders that men, helplessly enslaved by their dicks, have no option but to follow. Below them – beneath contempt – are the women not pretty enough, not thin enough, not young enough. Men despise them for not being the glamourpusses at the top of the hierarchy, and the glamourpusses despise them because they despise everything and everyone; the men of the world who only want one thing from them, the women of the world who only want to be them and their rival glamourpusses who loathe as universally as they do. The only emotion these women, the beautiful who are the only women of any worth, can feel is contempt, jealousy, hate. Because Dave Sim, in his self-limited imagination, can only ascribe those emotions to them. Glamourpuss, the character, is what Cerebus never was; the author’s reflection.
There were two Secret Projects, termed #1 and #2, that Sim worked on after Cerebus. To know which was which I’d have to dive into the archives of the Blog & Mail which I am not willing to do; 26 issues of Glamourpuss are work enough. One turned out to be Judenhass, Sim’s Holocaust book created in answer to a challenge years earlier to write and draw a short book that demonstrates the possibilities of the comics medium to newcomers. It doesn’t do that by a long way, and has many odd failings of its own, but it isn’t bad. You can see the point of it. The second was a Stan-and-Jack 60s Marvel parody which apparently progressed some way before Sim realised he’d have to take on the lunacy of feminism within its pages, that he had no option but to once again expose those obvious truths which make any man who speaks them a pariah, and was shut down. Because Dave Sim is still, in most of his dealings with the world, rational. And he knows that there is no audience for what he wants to say. He’s learned it by saying it, and watching that audience fall away. So for the first nine or so issues of Glamourpuss it’s all hidden, veiled behind parody or hyperbole. The misogyny is plausibly deniable; if a Sim fan wanted to argue it wasn’t there, he’s been given the tools. The model who addresses the reader as “microbe feces” and “paramecium vomit” in #7? Why, she’s just expressing the inexhaustible contempt that fashion magazines have for their readers! This isn’t personal.
But Glamourpuss the comic is nothing but personal. It’s nothing but an expression of Dave Sim’s psyche, of what’s going on in his head. So by the time we’re in double figures the facade falls away. The subtext becomes text. For #11 and #12, where the sections not about newspaper cartoonists deal with classic cars and a faux-naif artist Sim mocks, it’s like he’s trying to head himself off at the pass, the publisher distracting the polemicist. By #16, and the You’re Looking To Bag Yourself A Supermodel questionnaire, it’s all there on the page. Beginning with the bald statement that supermodels and mannequins are the same (to be fair, a statement frequently made in Helmut Newton’s photographs), Sim spends ten pages satirising supermodel feminism in which he demonstrates, once again, that he has no idea of or interest in what feminism is. Like the internet MRAs or #Gamergaters he has no idea he’d fit in so well with, Dave gathers up all the most extreme examples of feminism he can find – usually from the secondary source of the right-wing press that’s already stripped out all context and exaggerated for effect – and calls them mainstream feminism. So we get billionaire husbands whose supermodel wives refuse to have sex with their husbands, expect their obvious infidelities to be ignored (all women are unfaithful being a staple of the MRAs, the powerless, and oddly Dianetics) and a couple of pages going at Lindsay Lohan, who is important to women because Dave says she is. By #17, the opening note answers honour killings with an ironic pledge, for all immigrants to sign, that they will never disobey their wives or daughters and accept their prescribed role as “wife/mother/daughter ATM, buffoon, Court Jester and lackey and — most importantly — my status as a third-class citizen behind first-class citizens (my wife, wives in general, my daughters, daughters in general) second-class citizens (my mother, mothers in general) and, marginally ahead of fourth-class citizens (my sons, sons in general).” Which, reverse-engineered from the irony, takes us back to that familiar right-winger’s dilemma: they hate the Muslim immigrants trying to depose Western civilisation while being all about social systems in which men are boss and women are chattel. Islamophobia bumping up against Islam envy. Placed opposite an IMMIGRATION QUIZ in which models purported to be 13 and 15 are dressed up slutty and society’s unequivocal statement that this should not be interfered with in any way is mocked – a statement society has never made, and indeed in which the exact opposite is heard often everywhere – and we see that the uncensored outpourings of the Sim psyche are familiar for the reason that they’re talk radio regurgitated onto the page. They’re the anti-feminist man in every comments section embarking on an elaborate parody which nobody reads.
The apotheosis and final hurrah of this exuberant, fuck-the-critics right-winger misogyny is in the first half of #19, introducing The League of Extraordinary Hosebags. Some quotes: “CONVINCED! That polyandry should hold first place in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights!” “The Golden Dildo has recently modified her namesake to fire a concentrated stream of pepper spray with 100% accuracy at a distance of up to ten feet into the eyes of Tea-Party Republicans, Anti-Choice Protesters, all immediate members of Sarah Palin’s family, Muslim women wearing veils and anyone else she deems to be ‘scary’.” “17-year-old Ballin’ Chain Girl has already been married and divorced three times, earning every penny of her annual six-figure alimony the old-fashioned way.” “The only member of the League with an interest in fighting crime (What can we tell you? Her entire family votes Republican! EWWW!)” “Sadly, Asian Flower has insisted on remaining both a virgin and 100% faithful to her longtime boyfriend and so has been ‘on report’ since joining the League in 2009.” “Asian Flower’s baby sister… became Project One for the League’s World Hosebag Outreach Endeavour (WHORE), helping young girls get in touch with their ‘Inner Hosebag’.” These are Dave Sim’s fantasies, political and sexual, and they’re embarrassing in every sense. They’re shameful. All you want to do is look away.
Meanwhile, in the other half of the comic, something’s happened. Dave’s found a subject. The meandering musings on the lives and art of the newspaper strip photorealists, accompanied by recreations of their work, that occupy the comic up to #14 are never compelling but always readable. But there, once again, isn’t any structure. It goes, like most of Sim’s essays, wherever his thoughts go next, leaping from study of printing techniques to speculation about relationships between artists without ever placing anything in a larger context. Then narrative happens, and happens suddenly. In #13, Dave’s still pontificating on whether Raymond was using a Gillott 290 pen or a Windsor-Newton series 7 #2 brush for a particular Rip Kirby storyline. At the opening of #14 there’s a splash page, as if he’d out-of-the-blue remembered the grammar of comics and how it can be used, of a gull-wing Mercedes and a story begins. The story of Alex Raymond’s final day of life, September 6th 1956, when he uncharacteristically visited fellow comic-strip artist Stan Drake and the two went for a drive in Drake’s new Corvette. Raymond, a sports-car enthusiast, was at the wheel when it crashed. He died. Drake doesn’t remember what happened. Dave Sim, a very different kind of comic artist working more than half-a-century later, decides to reconstruct the whole thing. And in doing so, you’re reminded why anyone paid attention to Sim in the first place; because he’s good.
The story, later titled The Strange Death of Alex Raymond and the last thing Sim was working on, takes up roughly half – between 10 and 12 pages – of each issue from #14 to #26, the final issue. It isn’t interspersed with the Glamourpuss stuff anymore, but gets an uninterrupted stretch of its own. It isn’t, of course, without its late-stage Sim touches. As the last 30-odd issues of Cerebus proved, he was no longer capable of and/or willing to create comics that weren’t expressions of his personal philosophies. The authorial voice that’s been the only thing holding the photorealism sections of the comic together is still there. Raymond is left standing at a door, waiting for his knock to be answered, while Sim analyses signatures and cross-hatching in The Heart of Juliet Jones for seven pages. But there is now action to get back to, an actual narrative with propulsive force, that makes that analysis a digression with a point. And the art’s changed. The photorealism influence is still there in the cars and the objects, but for Raymond, Drake and the other characters Sim’s back to the cartooning he mastered over 20 years, figures and faces realistic enough but always with that expressive, rubbery feel that keeps them bouncing through the panels and the reader’s eye powerless not to follow. The return of panels returns Sim to the music of his art, using layout to play with perception and expectation and the flow of time like he used to. A fantastic cruciform page layout showing Raymond entering Drake’s office is an example of the vision, the fluency, a lifetime in comics allows you to do. A page in #18 showing Raymond and Drake from the back, the latter clearly flirting and the former seething, is poetic in composition, in detail, in heavy blacks and whisper-fine linework, making the words around it redundant.
Dave’s theories around what happened between and to Raymond and Drake that day are, of course, as idiosyncratic and implausible as ever. It’s all about women; Sara Jane or “Bunny”, Drake’s young assistant and later wife. Betty Lou Drake, the first wife his own age who he would leave for Bunny. And Margaret Mitchell, writer of Gone With The Wind who played a part in Drake’s script, The Heart of Juliet Jones. Her role discussed in a couple of earlier issues, Dave convincingly suggesting she was conned or blackmailed into providing a 30-page outline for the strip, she’s promoted without warning to the role of ethereal puppetmaster. The Margaret Mitchell Glamour is supposedly pulling every string from another plane, manipulating the two artists into their fatal joyride, pretty much identical to Yoowhoo from Cerebus for those few who made it that far. It’s suddenly referenced as though it were part of the story all along, a trick familiar from Cerebus but far more jarring in a 26-issue series than it was in a 300-issue one. In Cerebus, when Bear returns as the epitome of masculinity who the titular character’s always hero-worshipped, you roll with it and assume your own memory’s at fault until you check Church & State and realise he was always comic relief. Here, with only a handful of comics between Margaret Mitchell’s earthly reality and ghostly glamour, it’s far more jarring.
The last transformation of Glamourpuss, the comic, takes place in #22 with the excision of Glamourpuss the character. She’s replaced in her own title without even any renumbering, like a Charlton Comics superhero. Her appearances had been increasingly intermittent – #17 was mainly pictures of John F Kennedy and JFK quotes, #18 was Cerebus in the age of Mad Men, with the wheel-spinning feel of ten pages jammed out for a benefit book – but from #22 the front half of the book’s given over to Zootanapuss. She’s a zaftig Zatanna parody, for no good reason, who faces off against high-fashion models, a 18-year-old Canadian model called Kyla Nicholle and Cosplay Lass. Zootanapuss seems none too bright, though able to rise to the occasion. Her rabbit, who communicates only in thought bubbles, is bright and sarcastic. Dave Sim’s other skill at which even his detractors acknowledge he’s a master, lettering, returns. It’s a series of one-page gags, some of them funny and all of them with at least the structure of humour rather than bricks of angry politics wrapped in leaves of satiric tone. There are laughs, and the gags skirt anything truly queasy. It’s far more suited to Sim’s skills than the Glamourpuss pages ever were. I don’t have these issues, but I believe they had flipbook covers, so the back of #22 was Zootanapuss #1 and the whole idea was to boost sales figures. It was a last throw of the dice. It didn’t work. Glamourpuss ended with #26.
“I had arrived at my career end point,” Dave wrote in the back of #26. By then, the comic was down to 2,400 readers. I wasn’t one; I’d bought the first five issues but, going to comic shops infrequently, missed a few and gave up. I thought maybe I’d get the collection when it came out, a method of reading comics pioneered by Aardvark-Vanaheim and Dave Sim. In my absence the comic had devolved from a professional presentation, with variant covers and all, to something more closely resembling the fanzine scene where Cerebus began. Back covers were ads for back issues or the Cerebus Archive which ran concurrently. The Notes From Glamourpuss in the frontispiece had been replaced first by random reminiscences from Russ Heath then by unreadable letters from the comic’s only regular correspondent, Johnny McPhanbot. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, known as SDOAR at this point, is gathering momentum but everything else has visibly run out of velocity, interest, steam. “It was very weird and doomed to failure from Day One… but it was a lot of fun while it lasted,” is Dave’s final line. There seems little conviction in it.
There’s something simultaneously admirable and pitiable about Dave’s decision, when faced with financial adversity, to do exactly the same thing he did 31 years earlier. Launching a bi-monthly comic he wrote and drew with no real idea what the content will be worked the first time, so why not again? And the same miracle, arguable pre-disposed because of his work ethic and talent, does happen again; he finds something to write about, and a flailing mess of a comic gets a focus. But Dave was lucky enough in the 70s to launch into a market receptive to his kind of work, and that took shape in some part around it. In the 00s the comics audience wasn’t receptive to a black-and-white comic with no idea what it was saying or where it was going and it wasn’t receptive to a Dave Sim comic. The B&W independent comics hit comes via original graphic novels in bookshops, and everyone’s had enough of Dave Sim’s politics. He’s not the pariah he insists he is. A Dave Sim project could sell. But his curved psychology means everything comes back to his refutations of feminism, and nobody except a small coterie of superfans finds anything worthwhile in them. Jack Chick in a world without Christians.
One of the elements in Dave Sim’s famous revelation, the one where he decided to write and draw Cerebus for 26 years and 6,000 pages, was that he could put everything in there. He didn’t have to write different stories, different characters, different worlds, because everything he wanted to say could go into this. Neil Gaiman, in a tribute to Cerebus, remembered when he interviewed Sim: “I remember asking him what he’d do if there was something he wanted to write about, something he had to say that didn’t fit into Cerebus. ‘I’d use a big hammer,’ he grinned. ‘I’d get it in somehow.’” And he did, and he got everything in, unusual as it all turned out to be, and left himself without anything he wanted to write about. And that’s Glamourpuss.
This isn’t a good time to be putting the boot in to Dave Sim. Aged 60, he’s in an increasingly desperate situation. Cerebus has gone out of print leaving him with no income from his life’s work. He’s remastering and reprinting that, volume by volume with the help of Kickstarters, but it’s a costly process and the costs are all upfront. He’s also preparing for his death by packaging his house, his original art, his notebooks and all the rest of his archives up as a trust, so it can be open to the public after he’s gone. And he was continuing to work on SDOAR, which IDW were publishing as a OGN. That’s on the rational side. But he’s injured his hand so can no longer draw or even sign his name cutting off his only remaining income stream, and rather than accept medical opinion about how to fix it he’s had an MRI scan and is crowdsourcing opinion about what to do next. Through a mix of misfortune, principled decisions and irrational, harmful decisions, he’s in big trouble. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, a story about wealthy, successful comic-strip illustrators with their big houses and sports cars and younger wives, may never be finished. Much of Cerebus could become unavailable, perhaps permanently. The idiosyncratic story of a comic-book artist who broke all the rules, who pioneered a model of publishing that arguably changed and saved the industry, could end like all the other stories of comic book artists. Life imprisonment at hard labour in solitary confinement, as Wally Wood called it, ending with your work being forgotten and your money all gone. I’d perhaps heard of Alex Raymond because of Flash Gordon, before I read Glamourpuss, but none of the others were familiar until I realised Al Williamson was the inker on the superb Ann Nocenti-John Romita Jr Daredevil run. He was in his 60s at the time, and that run was printed on toilet paper and largely remains uncollected. All political careers end in failure, they say, and really all careers end in failure but the failure at the end of careers in comics is more acute than most.
Why Glamourpuss? Cerebus. It’s really the only answer available. It’s why Dave did it, it’s why I and the other few thousand readers bought it. The only reason for it to exist is its precursor, which over 6,000 wildly uneven pages – how many other works are there where you’re advised to skip the beginning, oh and also skip the end – did more with the medium than all the comics published in 2015. Exhausted by how inert Glamourpuss was, its stubborn refusal to come to life, I picked up Latter Days and was reminded, in those black pages where lettering climbs some stairs, of why I was reading it. Nobody should, really. Glamourpuss is an echo so faint, everything bad about Dave Sim present and perky and everything good scarcely discernable. A few panel layouts, a handful of decent gags. I’ve written about it, I realise at the end of 5,000 words, because I can; because I’d like to write about Cerebus but I’ll never have the time or commitment it deserves. Instead I wrote about this fraction, this underlining, this footnote to one of the great works of comics. A pale shadow that casts into relief what a colossal achievement Cerebus was.
Glamourpuss won’t ever be reprinted. The SDOAR bits might be, if the rest of it’s ever finished or if there’s enough interest in the unfinished version for a Kickstarter or something. But High Society, Cerebus’s second volume, has been and the two volumes of Church & State have been reprinted to a standard of reproduction they’ve never enjoyed before and which the work within deserves. Buy them, if you’re interested in Dave Sim or the comics medium or even just the prodigious effort of will they represent, an artist bringing forth a world. I can’t recommend Glamourpuss. I can’t, in a way, recommend Cerebus; it’s too big to say Hey read this or This is good you’ll like it. But be aware of it, be aware of the towering regard certain parts are held in by certain people, and if you’ve ever thought Maybe that’s for me then now is the time to dive in. Because it might not be there if you don’t.
Glamourpuss #1-#26 by Dave Sim, featuring covers and pin-ups by Russ Heath, Gene Colan and Mike Allred, are out of print. I bought #1-#18 and #20 from eBay, having lost my original #1-#5. If anyone has the issues I don’t (#19 and #21-#26) and is willing to part with them for a low, low price, comment below.