Oh, it’s Dave Sim time again

Heidi’s post yesterday has kicked off another debate about Dave Sim, particularly relating to his new book Judenhass. For the record, I pretty much agree with her.

Skimming through the (108 at this writing) comments, Charles Hatfield weighs in:

Me, I’m not inclined to see this as a question of “separating the art from the artist.” Making that separation would impoverish my understanding of the art.

The Lovecraft example in the thread is apropos: racism not only informed Lovecraft’s life, it also informed and shaped his art. (For evidence of this, see, e.g., “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” a.k.a. “The White Ape.”) I read Lovecraft, when I read him at all, knowing full well that he was an ardent racist and in no way anxious to defend him from that charge. The dread of otherness that informs Lovecraft’s fiction is a symptom of his racism, though it also makes for interesting, intense, nightmarish fiction that can be read from a variety of other perspectives. I’d say this applies to Sim’s stuff, certainly during the second half of CEREBUS (though I confess to having read only a part of it). For this reason I don’t think Sim’s “philosophizing” is separable from his art. I’d say we’ve got to take it all, the whole package, and read the art against the artist, and vice versa.

That’s very well said. Lovecraft’s cosmic terror and racial anxiety are definitely related (although I wouldn’t call one symptomatic of the other, but rather categorize them both as manifestations of a general fear-of-Other). And Sim’s artistic output should only be seen as a product of the person he was at the time he created it.

Lovecraft, who once owned a cat named Nigger-Man
Lovecraft, who once owned a cat named Nigger-Man and wrote it into “The Rats in the Walls”

Elektra, in another comment, offers a fairly common rationale for distinguishing between historical bigotry and contemporary bigotry:

I’m not a Lovecraft fan either, but I can excuse the bigotry of a man born in the 19th century in a way I can’t excuse it in a man living in the 21st century.

But here’s the really interesting and ironic part: Judenhass appears to be Dave’s plea that we accept responsibility for the Holocaust in some way — that we stop being bewildered by the question “how could it have happened?” and acknowledge the latent judenhass that lies within each of us. It invites us, I assume, to consider the Holocaust as a manifestation of fears and desires that are inherent to ourselves.

Inevitable?
Inevitable?

As Heidi points out, there’s an irony here. It’s not only that Dave is eager to analyze the xenophobia* that led to the Holocaust while oblivious to the xenophobia that underlies his own attitude toward women. It’s also that we in the comics community seem to be throwing up our hands and saying “how could Dave have happened?” in the same way that Dave’s new book demands that we not do toward the Holocaust. Rather, he demands that we look within ourselves and see that repulsive act as merely an amplified incarnation of anxieties that are fundamental to our society’s (or species’) collective mind.

It’s an open question whether Dave’s demand is fair or not. But if we accept the premise that “the Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum but is part of a long tradition of anti-Jewish sentiment,” we ought to be consistent and ask whether “the nasty bits of Dave Sim’s frauenhass did not arise in a vacuum but are part of a long tradition of anti-female sentiment.”

Is Lovecraft excusable because he wrote from a culture of bigotry? Is Sim culpable because he doesn’t? (Doesn’t he?) I don’t think these are sensible questions, because we shouldn’t be in the business of “blaming” or “excusing” artists. The question is whether the artist has anything to teach us. To my mind, the answer is clearly “yes” for both. But what they intended to teach us is almost always a very small fraction of it.

*”Xenophobia” here used in its broader sense, “fear of those who are different”

5 Responses to “Oh, it’s Dave Sim time again”


  1. 1 BillZilla February 29, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Very interesting point of view, not one I had entirely considered. I like it. Of course I haven’t read Judenhass.

  2. 2 James Robert Smith July 6, 2008 at 8:05 am

    One thing that I don’t understand is Sim’s inclusion in some lists as a top talent of comic book artists. He does not deserve to be included in any such lists. His one claim to comic book “fame” is the 300-issue bore-fest we know as CEREBUS. There’s nothing of worth in it. The keys to understanding any of it are locked within the various superhero comic book fads of the immediate day in which each issue was (poorly) constructed. Show these lame books to a non-comics fan and they don’t understand them. At all. “Moon Roach? What the hell is this?”

    Yeah, he did a 300-issue comic book. Good on his crazy ass. Would any save a few fanboys bother to read that crap? Hell, no.

    When I was a retailer of comic books I went through a brief period during which I thought Dave Sim was an important creator. I got older, and wiser, and long since abandoned that erroneous idea.

  3. 3 Jamie S. Rich July 31, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    I’m with James here as far as being confused by Sim’s status as an important creator. People always hold up the fact that he completed 300 issues as evidence, though I have only met a couple who have actually read the whole thing. Great, you accomplished your goal of 300 issues, but wouldn’t it have been more impressive had you kept people reading it the entire time? Quantity should only matter when quality backs it up.

  4. 4 Leigh Walton July 31, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I don’t know about “people,” but I certainly wouldn’t put Sim in the pantheon because of the LENGTH of his work. It’s the TECHNIQUE (of issues 50-300) and CONTENT (of 25-200 or so).

    Speaking of Cerebus, I’ve got a project in the works. Keep you ears open for an announcement.


  1. 1 Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Feb. 29, 2008: @#$% is a four-letter word Trackback on February 29, 2008 at 1:49 am

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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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