As long as we speaking in the Vulgar Tongue, I have no problem in saying that Mr. Dave Sim is crazy, cracked, loony, potty, insane, several land cards short of a Magic deck, nuttier than a fruitcake factory which is hosting the annual convention of the Cashew Appreciation Society. I have said so myself on many occasions. My only problem is with people who use 'He's mad' as shorthand for 'I can form a critical judgment about Cerebus the Aardvark without the bother of actually reading it.'
Earlier this year, Steve Bolhafner, stalwart of the Cerebus mailing list described me as:
The conflicted Andrew Rilstone who I think loves and hates Cerebus in equal proportions more strongly than almost anyone (there are those who love it more and hate it less, and vice versa, but he is very strong and articulate about both positions).
I believe that this was intended to be a flattering remark, and I took it as such. But I think that there is something a little off-the-wall about needing to describe me as 'conflicted'. I think that Cerebus is a masterpiece and Dave Sim is an idiot. What is 'conflicted' about that? 'Greatest living comic book creator and total asshole' is a sentence I am still rather proud of.
Having read Cerebus the Aardvark and the associated essays notes and letter columns and commentaries, I tend to experience Sim as a series of gobbets of total lunacy strung out like idiotic pearls on a string of interesting, creative and verbally inventive writing. People who gave up on Cerebus after Melmuth have largely experienced mad-Dave only via his most extreme and therefore most widely quoted remarks. (The Victor Reid material in Cerebus #181; 'Tangents', the bonkers interview in the Onion.) Obviously, my Davewatch thing contributed to this tendency. I don't say he doesn't believe the madstuff; but I do say that that isn't all he ever talks about.
It's a bit like discussing the Ring Cycle, the Silmarillion and the Bible. Long, inaccessible works: people who don't like them tend only to know them from a few isolated passages for the very good reason that the only people who can be bothered to encounter the complete work are those who are fairly sympathetic to it in the first place.
'So Andrew, what you are saying is 'I'm the only one round here who's slogged through Sim's writings, so I am the only one who is allowed to slag him off.' '
'You could put it like that, I suppose.'
When we go beyond this and describe Sim as mentally ill we appear to be talking about his behavior: his asceticism, his celibacy, his reclusiveness, as opposed to his gnosticism, his extreme anti-feminist theories and his alleged personal misogyny. (*) Of course, many respectable religions have a tradition of hermits and anchorites, to say nothing of vows of poverty and clerical celibacy. But I am happy to grant that cutting off your links with your family is not widely regarded as normal behavior. 'Dysfunctional', 'maladaptive' and 'unable to function in society' might be apt descriptions. This may be one of the things which is meant by 'mental illness'.
How is this 'mental illness' related to his strange theories? Without the whole case history before us, we can't know. Perhaps Dave came up with the idea YHWH was a ball of fire at the center of the earth and therefore ostracized his mother. Or perhaps it just so happened that he developed a bizarre theological theory, and quarreled with his mother at the same time. Or maybe the experience of living alone without any human contact caused him to produce these rather elegant and ingenious but entirely self-referential religious models.
The commentary on 'The Last Day' for the Yahoo mailing list was, I think, the single nastiest thing which Dave Sim has ever written. The commentary takes the form of a heavily moderated Q & A session. Someone implies that they think that Dave regards Cerebus' 'gospel' as a genuine addition to scripture. Sim responds:
'Also, nice try from the he/she/it side of the fence: slipping an accusation of blasphemy against me in under the fence. Obviously I don’t think 289-290 is divinely inspired.....Yes, I know you didn’t mean to accuse me of blasphemy, but that’s the nature of atheists. You’re empty vessels wide open for demonic possession 24/7.'
Someone else asks a rather geeky question about the dates of Cerebus' world and how they relate to real history. Sim's answer is that it's a mistake to assume that Cerebus' story is taking place on our earth. But it comes out as:
'My assumption is that everywhere in the universe planets roughly the size of YHWH all enact their various tantrums and plodding resistance to the truth and infantile he/she/itisms in roughly the same way (and for all I know bigger planets are no different in the same way that all he/she/its are the same), so Cerebus’ story could probably have been enacted on any of a trillion times a trillion little blue balls that think they’re God just as there are probably a trillion times a trillion of each of you everywhere in the universe all behaving exactly as you do, each of whom has chosen to turn his/her back on God. Or maybe out of the trillion times a trillions versions of you there might be one or two that are actually God-fearing, but that would surprise me if it was true.'
So: Sim is no longer the only Real Man in Canada or the only man on Earth who is not a feminist: he is now possibly the only God-fearing man in the universe.
A question about the politics of Cerebus' world leads to a rant about terrorism:
'In order to sustain itself as a political movement, he/she/itism in our society needs to convince people that the proper reaction to killing Islamist Muslims who are plotting violence against civilians is grief at their death and/or fear of the people killing them. The proper reaction isn’t grief and/or fear. The proper reaction is relief coupled with determination to kill as many more as it takes until Freedom is the universal condition of man.'
Note the straw doll. Who are these liberals who express grief when Islamist Muslims who are plotting violence against civilians are killed? What Dave has in mind is liberals who express grief when innocent Muslim civilians are caught in the cross fire; or else liberals like myself who are concerned when individuals who may or may not be plotting violence are arrested, imprisoned or killed without having been given a fair chance to defend themselves. If we could win the warren terra simply by shooting a few easily identifiable and clearly labeled Bad Muslims, then life would be much simpler. In Dave's world, you can, and it is.
And in passing:
'Guantanamo Bay doesn’t actually bother Democrats but they do see it as the way back into the White House (mistakenly, in my view).'
We then get on to theology. Apparently, you can still be tempted to sin after you are dead. In order to be on the safe side, when he gets to the Afterlife Dave will do nothing but recite his prayer until the Day of Judgment. He concludes:
'I think unconsciously I was documenting the loss of my soul which was pretty much a given until I started reading the Bible. It’s one of the reasons that concepts like “fun” really don’t resonate with me at all anymore. My only interest at this point is Not Blowing It Big Time and making it to the grave and Judgment Day without any serious slip-ups. Like allowing people to accuse me of blasphemy without refuting the charge. I am on high alert 24/7 for exactly those sorts of things. '
Now I can think of a lot of words to describe this writing. 'Fanatical' and 'Puritanical' come to mind. It's the kind of Bad Religion which sees life as an inconvenient distraction you have to get through in order to reach heaven, with all pleasures and human interaction being temptations which are best shunned. But it doesn't have any of the joy of the Lord or the sense of being part of a positive, self-assured community which can make both puritanism and fundamentalism very positive forces in some people's lives. I might also describe the writing as 'mean spirited' or 'just plain nasty'. But mad? The product of mental illness? I think this lets him off the hook too easily.
I still don't quite know what follows from any of this.
* I say 'alleged' because there is a widely disseminated tradition that he behaves as a perfect gentleman towards his girlfriends, and is quite charming towards any other women he happens to bump into.