Sunday, 1 April 2012

A Q&A With Eric Hoffman

Eric Hoffman is the editor of Cerebus: The Barbarian Messiah: Essays On The Epic Graphic Satire Of Dave Sim & Gerhard, a collection of critical essays focused on Cerebus, published by McFarland. Eric kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book itself as well his motivation for undertaking such a project. This short Q&A is essentially a post-script to Eric’s in-depth interview in Following Cerebus #12 published in August 2011, which is highly recommended reading for all Cerebus fans. Our thanks to Eric for taking the time to answer these questions.
A Moment Of Cerebus:
In Following Cerebus #12 you stated, "I'm not intending to put together an anthology of criticism that’s merely a round of applause" and that Dave Sim’s attitude would be, "Respect me enough to criticise me." Could you explore that idea a little more? What is it about Cerebus that makes it worthy of a book's worth of critical essays?

Eric Hoffman:
Cerebus is such a multi-layered, complex work that I think it is possible to approach it from a multitude of perspectives. I’m not generally interested in hyperbole, yet I think the argument can be made that Cerebus is certainly among the most intelligent and challenging comics ever produced, whether or not you agree with the intelligence on display there. It certainly warrants far more attention than the vast majority of comics past and present. For instance, you could examine Cerebus on a technical level, exploring Sim's expanding comics vocabulary (and its precursors). Or you could look at the comic within an historical context, within the context of the comics industry, Sim's involvement in the direct market, self-publishing, or look at it in comparison to other comics, how Sim uses the monthly comic format to tell an extended narrative, and so on. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There's also Sim's views on gender and religion to consider, on love, death, politics, you name it.

How did you go about gathering contributions for the book and was it difficult finding enough material of sufficient quality? Did you have a set list of subjects you wanted to cover or was it a case of shaping the contributor’s existing ideas?

Initially the project was to be a book about Cerebus written entirely by myself, but as I had just completed about a decade's worth of researching and writing on another subject, I was not interested in dedicating as significant an amount of time and energy. I had compiled some notes on Cerebus, discussing its overall narrative structure, inspired by some comments Sim made in his Yahoo Q&A and by Douglas Wolk in his Believer essay. The essay soon became quite lengthy and at that time I thought I could do a full book on it... I began contacting potential collaborators, but, regrettably, and perhaps wisely on their parts, no one was interested in the commitment, which was significant. However, I did sense an interest there; an acknowledgment that Cerebus is a work deserving of serious critical attention and from what I could tell about the only attention it had received was from The Comics Journal and Craig Miller’s excellent Following Cerebus. The next logical step was to do a book of essays and to publish it with a legitimate scholarly press. I put out a call for papers and solicited a few... what is collected in this book represents, to my lights, the best of the material I received, the most penetrating and insightful.
Six thousand pages of comics is a lot to cover in one book of essays. Are there any areas which you wish you could have covered in your book but weren’t able to?

Of course. Any project of any length is going to end up a preliminary work and there is always room for improvement or expansion. I knew this from the start and part of the reason for doing the book is to stimulate further conversation and perhaps provoke additional critical attention to a work that I obviously think deserves, even requires, such attention. I would have liked to have at least one female contributor, to get that perspective, yet I was regrettably unable to solicit any papers from women. I don’t think Sim’s technical achievement is explored as much as it could have been, though C.W. Marshall and Sabin Calvert’s essays are enlightening explorations of that aspect of Sim's work. And it goes without saying that after you turn in a final manuscript you always think of additional things, but at some point you have to cut the strings and let the work stand on its own.

Who do you think the book will appeal to - Cerebus fans, causal readers or academic scholars?

Both, hopefully. From the outset, I intended to produce something that could satisfy both readers and scholars. What you do as an editor is decide the tone of the work and structure the essays in such a way that this tone is maintained throughout. I did not want to have needlessly esoteric essays. I think the most esoteric is Mario Castro’s reading of gender in Cerebus through the lens of French social critic Pierre Bourdieu. But even that is done in a manner that is approachable and I think easy for any reader of moderate intelligence to grasp.

Was the book an 'easy sell' to potential publishers? Did your publisher, McFarland, need much persuasion to run with the book? Do you have a sense of how they view the wider comics environment and Cerebus in particular?

Nearly all of the contributors are academics and the proposal clearly emphasized the academic nature of the work. I’m not going to say there was a feminist conspiracy to keep the work from being published, but you have to realize that most universities are liberal bastions and so come with their own agendas. Actively promoting or taking seriously the work of an artist accused of misogyny may have had some impact. Dominick Grace mentioned McFarland, of whom I was aware but had not sent a proposal. I sent them the proposal and a few weeks later received a contract. They were very eager to publish the work and excited about it.
Are you planning a second volume of essays or any other Cerebus-related projects?

Yes, I do have an idea for a book of Sim interviews. With Barbarian Messiah and my other project taking up much of my time, however, I was interested in having some assistance, so I asked Dominick Grace if he would be interested in co-editing the work. He agreed, and we’ve been putting together a collection of previously published interviews. We sent a proposal to the University of Mississippi Press, who have a great catalogue of comics artist interviews as part of their Conversations series, including Alan Moore, Howard Chaykin, Dan Clowes, Harvey Pekar, Stan Lee, Milton Caniff and Charles Schulz, among others. So knock wood, we'll get final approval and get Sim onto that list.

Did you ask Dave Sim for his approval / blessing for the book? Has he read a draft of it?

I’m using about 70 images from Cerebus in the book so Sim's approval was absolutely necessary. Fair use provisions, particularly with images, are so ill-defined as to be non-existent so it is recommended you get permissions. I’d had some difficulties with permissions on another book and Sim was a 180 degree turn from that, absolutely easy to deal with and very generous with his time and energies. I didn’t send him a copy of the manuscript as that is not generally done unless specifically requested. In this case, he didn't request to review the manuscript. I think he's very much in support of artistic freedom and this extends to critical freedoms.

When did you start reading Cerebus and at what point did you realise that you needed to go beyond just being an ‘interested fan’ and actively start a project like this?

I first started reading Cerebus in 1990 but oddly enough it was via back issues and 'phonebooks'. Jaka’s Story was well underway but being a 13 year old interested for the most part in superhero comics, Ron at Dragon’s Lair Comics in Omaha, where I lived at the time, recommended I start with Church & State. I was heavy into Swamp Thing, so he pointed me toward the issues chronicling Cerebus’ first ascension. It was pretty mind-blowing for a 13 year old. I don’t think I quite grasped the satirical edge but the visuals were something else, particularly Gerhard’s backgrounds. 

I was just then getting into independent comics, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Nexus and Grendel and so on, so it was a year of discovery for me. I did a lot of growing up reading those comics. So much growing up that I left comics behind, ironically enough, and only returned to them after about an eight-year absence. So when I came back to Cerebus I had missed the whole of Mothers & Daughters, Guys, Rick’s Story. Sim was well into Going Home at that time and I was just blown away by how far he and Gerhard had developed as artists. I didn’t quite know what to make of the Hemingway storyline but the layouts and the illustrations were just incredible. By then my tastes had matured somewhat, so I was pleased to see that Sim had matured along with me. 

As far as starting this project, really it began with reading the letters fans wrote Sim after the conclusion of Cerebus, their testimonies and Sim’s letters and interviews post-Cerebus. Sim often countered criticism by saying "How can you criticize something that isn't finished yet" and now, since the whole of Cerebus is here to be dealt with, it seemed like the right time for a serious critical review of the work. The Comics Journal had a critics roundtable just after the last issue and a few years later Wolk wrote that Believer essay but it still seemed to me that something more significant and scholarly was due.
Do you have a view on how Cerebus will be judged in, say, 50 years from now - a masterpiece, forgotten, or somewhere in-between? Was it 'of it's time' or do you think it has something to offer future generations?

Well, it's difficult to predict these things with any accuracy, but if I were to place a bet I would say that when the history of comics gets written Cerebus will be something more than a footnote. But I suspect it will be more of a curiosity than anything. A useful comparison might be any other work of comparable size and complexity, say Pound’s Cantos. How many people, beyond PhD students, sit down and read the Cantos? It gets discussed, sure, but usually as a juggernaut of modernism and as an example of how extremist political views can mar an otherwise profound artistic achievement. I think Cerebus will receive much the same treatment. That is, the majority of comics readers will continue to mention it as a kind of curiosity and as an example of a time and place in comics publishing that has largely passed (the direct market, self-published black and white comic). By and large, Cerebus will be viewed as a work that, whatever its artistic merits, and there are many, was undermined by Sim’s extremist political and religious views. The last two major critical responses, by Wolk and more recently by Tim Kreiner in The Comics Journal, have largely viewed the work within this critical framework. 

Having said that, I do believe Cerebus will retain a small but devoted coterie of fans who legitimately believe it to be among the most fascinating comics ever produced, and certainly one of the most innovative. There’s very little else out there to which it can be compared. Cerebus is very much a curiosity in this medium. It runs so counter to what most readers accept to be a 'comic book' that it somehow transcends the term. And I think that is probably upsetting to Sim, who genuinely wanted there to be more comics like his, who believed, like Harvey Pekar, that the comics form is powerful enough and flexible enough to tell any story, not simply what goes on in Metropolis or Gotham or Riverdale.
Have you been reading glamourpuss and, if so, how do you think this sits in the greater scheme of Dave Sim’s oeuvre?

In 2001, nearing the home stretch on Cerebus, when asked by The Comics Journal what he was going to do after Cerebus. Sim said that was like asking a prisoner what he was going to do after getting out of prison three years before his release date. Gerhard, from what I understand, was having stomach problems near the end. When Sim announced his 300-issue project in 1978, he could not have foreseen the implications of that decision. I think it became apparent to him around the halfway stretch. You get a sense of impending exhaustion in his interviews from '92, '93 and '94, around there. After that, it is quite evident that it became a matter of crossing off dates on the calendar. It leaves me with the mental image of the prisoner counting his days by carving notches into the wall.

That's not to say that Sim and Gerhard didn't give it their all; what is abundantly evidenced by Gerhard's increasingly baroque backgrounds and Sim's maturation as a caricaturist and letterer is that they wanted to produce an excellent product and to continue to challenge themselves and their audience.

With glamourpuss I have no doubt Sim is doing exactly what he wants to do... He said somewhere before Cerebus ended that after he finished he wanted to draw pretty women, so in that sense glamourpuss is a kind of wish fulfilment. It also gives him a chance to explore some comics artists he admires, in particular Al Williamson, Alex Raymond, Neal Adams and Stan Drake. I think glamourpuss is the culmination of Sim's fascination with realism, that is the link between the fashion magazine satire and the comics history. That's pretty much the only link from what I can see...

When the first issue came out, it was a bit shocking, but in retrospect it seems the logical successor to Cerebus. After all, Sim did some similar 'tracing' work in the 'Fruitcake Park' section of Latter Days and then in a short he did for The Comics Journal back in 2001 or 2002, as well as his brief biography of the Canadian actress Siu Tua and Judenhass. I think glamourpuss is a culmination of these efforts. 

So as odd as it is, I think in that sense glamourpuss is the logical successor to Cerebus. That being said, I think with glamourpuss Sim wrongly eschews narrative, one of his greatest artistic strengths. Lenny Cooper has said something similar to this, that this seems to be what glamourpuss is missing and why it seems so different from Cerebus. Then again, after telling a 26 year story, over six thousand pages in length, I can forgive Sim for wanting to eschew narrative in favor of something a bit more free-flowing and less deterministically rigid. 

I don’t much like the fashion magazine satire; to me, it seems mean-spirited and the humor is not all that inspired. Fashion magazines are an easy target. I do enjoy the second half of the book, if only because Sim clearly loves the artists’ work and conveys that admiration successfully. In that sense, it’s far more convincing and enjoyable. I enjoy his pen work immensely... and the slick paper format really helps define the quality of his line work. If anything glamourpuss is evidence that Sim is one of the medium's great craftsmen. His page composition is impeccable. I would like to see more hand-lettering, particularly because he is so good at it. But perhaps after Cerebus he'd had his fill of doing hand-lettering, so who knows? The latest issue (#23) features some hand-lettering (see The Sound Of A 1956 Corvette) and it's like a breath of fresh air. "He's still got it!"

And finally, which comics are you reading at the moment and/or would recommend to a Cerebus reader?

As for what I would recommend to someone who enjoys Cerebus, that’s a tough one. I’d probably point to some of the work Sim has most directly influenced, like Bone or Hepcats. Right now, I’d probably direct them to stuff like IDW’s fantastic reprints of Rip Kirby, The Heart of Juliet Jones and X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan because of glamourpuss. I’ve been reading those works and damn it, Sim is absolutely right, it’s really, really excellent stuff. In fact, most of what I’ve been reading these days is reprints, as it’s a veritable golden age out there right now: Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, Frank King’s Walt and Skeezix, Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips, Carl Barks Duck stories, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Schulz’s Peanuts, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Doug Wright’s Nipper, Frise’s Birdseye Center, the list goes on and on...

I'm a wildly unpredictable reader. I jump from subject to subject as my interests take me, so my reading habits are really all over the place. I don’t follow any current comic religiously. To a large extent, the medium has really passed me by. I’ll still read anything with Alan Moore's name on it, or Peter Bagge's, or Sim's, for example, and I really enjoy a good comics anthology - Mome is good, Kramers Ergot, or even Dark Horse Presents. That’s usually a good place to find new work. Jason Lutes’ Berlin continues to fascinate me, if only he would put the book out more regularly that once every few years. Actually, that seems to be a common problem among many of the comics artists whose work I enjoy - Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Seth (George Sprott was one of the best comics I’ve read in a long while), Chris Ware - they’re all abysmally slow but when they do come out with something it’s always fascinating. So I guess that’s a question of quality over quantity. Hell, not everybody can be Dave Sim and put out a high quality book on a monthly basis year after year.

Cerebus: The Barbarian Messiah edited by Eric Hoffman is published by McFarland and is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. You can also visit the Cerebus: The Barbarian Messiah  Facebook page.  Following Cerebus #12 (August 2011) featuring an in-depth interview with Eric Hoffman is still available from Win-mill Productions.

The illustrations accompanying this interview were selected by Eric Hoffman. We asked Eric to select his five favourite Cerebus images, a task which Eric described as "very difficult":
Church & State Vol 1 - page 585
Reads - page 22-23
Minds - page 98
Going Home - page 321
Cerebus #146 - cover

2 comments:

Margaret said...

Great interview! I'm about 1/2 way through the book and enjoying it.

Michael A Battaglia said...

Wow, great stuff here. I'm having to quickly map the "Eric Hoffman" terrain in my mind, as I had no clue any of this existed until I saw the clip from Cerebus TV. Really enjoying Eric's perspectives, overarching intentions and grasp of the scope of the material.