|Cerebus #186 (September 1994)|
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(from The Idler, Spring 2004)
...Circulation of the monthly book grew steadily over the first ten years, settling at between 30,000 and 37,000, and remaining in that range for most of 1986 and 1987. Black & White comics went through a major recession in the years that followed, and Cerebus sales suffered as a result. By July 1989's Cerebus 124 - the last issue in which Sim carried a circulation figure - sales were down to 24,500. Some of the lost readers would have simply started buying the phone book collections instead, but others must have abandoned the title completely.
There have been times when Sim seems to have gone out of his way to alienate readers - most memorably with the notorious issue 186. Sim summed up his argument in that issue's essay with an image of "the female void and the male light". Men, he said, represented reason and women represented emotion. Reason was a far more reliable tool, and yet had been comprehensively defeated by emotion to form a world where what one thought was accorded far less importance than what one felt. Men remained the main source of "light" in the world - that is, of creativity, discipline and rationality - but many had cravenly abandoned these virtues in return for the promise of sex.
No good could come of this. Any man who succumbed to "merged permanence" - Sim's term for marriage or long-term cohabitation - would find his spirit drained away by his leech-like female partner. "If you merge with that sensibility, you will share in its sickness," Sim wrote. "No matter what you pour into it, it remains empty; no matter how much you reassure it, it remains afraid; no matter how much of yourself you permit it to devour, it remains hungry. If you look at her and see anything besides emptiness, fear and emotional hunger, you are looking at the parts of yourself that have been consumed to that point."
Sim knew full well that Cerebus was one of the very few comics to attract female fans, so he must have realised also that the essay would cost him readers. His decision to plough ahead regardless reveals a heroic degree of bloody-mindedness. It's impossible to say how many Cerebus readers quit the book as a direct reaction to 186 and the furore that followed. What we do know, however, is that by the time Sim wrapped up issue 300, he had a total of only 7,000 Cerebus readers left to thank.
When all the dust has settled, Sim's greatest achievement may be seen as his success in maintaining complete independence for so long. By ensuring that the lion's share of the book's income comes directly to the people who create it he has managed to parlay a small but loyal readership into absolute artistic freedom and a higher standard of living than most conventional comics artists could hope for. Cerebus has never been a top-selling book, but that has clearly never been Sim's measure of success...