Ken Jennings


October 28, 2006

The most interesting part of my presentation last night at the Great Salt Lake Book Festival was what happened before it.

I was scheduled to speak at 8 p.m. Friday night at Salt Lake City’s beautiful downtown library (currently featured in Archie comics!) And, speaking of comics, the presentation directly preceding mine was by comic artist Dave Sim. He was doing a reading from noon to 6 p.m. Yep, you read that right: a six-hour reading.

You’ve probably never heard of Dave Sim, so here are the basics. He’s the writer-artist of Cerebus the Aardvark, a 300-issue comic book series, published monthly, without fail, from 1977 to 2004. This is an unheard-of feat in comics, or indeed any medium: essentially a 6,000-page novel about his title character, a testy barbarian aardvark.


I was a huge Cerebus fan in the early 1990s, when Sim was doing some of the most complex and formally exciting work ever seen in comics, turning his odd barbarian aardvark parody into a sprawling epic of politics and religion, and leading an influential movement for self-publishing and comics creators’ rights. But today, if Sim is known for anything, it’s not the invention or longevity of his flagship series. Cerebus took an odd turn in the mid-90s, with Sim himself entering the comic proper to deliver a bizarrely misogynistic monologue in which he accuses women–unthinking female “Voids”–of seeking to quench his creative male “Light” (and perhaps sap his Precious Bodily Fluids).

Though the last decade of Cerebus had flashes of the early greatness, it read to me as if its woman-hating author was becoming swiftly unhinged. This was essentially confirmed by the final book of Cerebus, in which forty pages are given over to a kooky retelling of the origin of the universe, in which the creation account from Genesis is recast as a battle between the male Creator Elohim and the conniving female deity YHWH, whom Sim calls “Yoohwhooh.” And Sim made it clear that this story wasn’t just invented for the comic. He had recently undergone a drastic religious conversion (to a religion of his own devising, mixing elements of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and became convinced that his own odd cosmology was obviously capital-T true, and the only reason his crazy-sounding ideas weren’t catching on in scientific circles was because of the “feminist-homosexualist axis” conspiring against him.

That forty-page cosmology was what he was reading (and explicating) to true believers in Salt Lake. For six hours.

At 6 p.m., Dave was supposed to have wrapped up. I had shown up early for my own presentation, with my brother Nathan and his wife Faith, because we wanted to see the post-Yoohwhooh event: Dave’s brilliant artistic collaborator Gerhard talking about a gallery display of original Cerebus art. But Dave wasn’t done. In fact, at about six, Dave was only on page 22. I’m sure he would have talked right on through my event, if they’d have let him.

But Book Festival organizers finally shooed Dave and a few hardy remaining fans out into the hall, where he continued his lecture with a laptop. Someone had told Dave that I was a fan, and I was ushered up to meet him. I was a little wary. I loved much of Sim’s work and had spent hours and hours of my life reading it. But what do you say when you meet a certifiable genius whom you suspect is also certifiably nuts?

I was disarmed when Dave–a little leaner, a little less cocksure, a little twitchier than when I’d last seen him at a 1992 signing in Seattle–seemed to know exactly who I was and wanted a signed copy of Brainiac. I wasn’t sure what a reclusive religious ascetic hiding out from a vast feminist conspiracy would want with a frivolous, secular book about North American trivia culture, but I told him I’d love to sign him a copy. Was he just being polite? No, he seemed oddly gratified that I knew his work. He wanted to hang out.

“It’s always sort of odd,” he said, gesturing at the gathered comic fans, waiting to hear the end of Genesis, “meeting someone else that’s well-known and trying to talk in a situation like this.”

I’d quibble with that overly inclusive definition of “well-known,” maybe, but I wish I’d had more time to spend with Dave Sim. How often do you meet an personal idol-slash-fallen-idol and find out he wants to spend some quality time? But, on the other hand, maybe it would have turned out badly. I’d have been horrified by the psychological train wreck. Dave would have seen that I’d clearly been co-opted by the feminist-homosexualist axis, and accused me of trying to snuff out his Hard Gemlike Male Flame. The relationship was doomed from the start.

But I did feel an overwhelming urge to get home and reread some of my Cerebus comics. Maybe the masterful Jaka’s Story, or the issue where the funny old guy’s snowshoes say “wuffa wuffa.” You know, for old times’ sake.

Posted by Ken at 11:20 pm