When Dave Sim’s epic Cerebus series finished with #350 in October 2003 – three years ahead of schedule after an astonishing late burst of productivity – the Canadian artist revealed one of the great secrets about his series: The utterly human character Cerebus initially started life as a furry animal.
Cerebus has become one of the great iconic characters of modern comics, with his furious visage one of the most recognisable faces in the medium. In the initial issues of Sim’s mega-epic, the character looked exactly like Barry Smith-Windsor’s Conan, before later taking on more of an idiosyncratic look. (Sim went on record in 1982, stating that he based Cerebus on Peter Tork from The Monkees, but he was very, very high at the time.)
But in a career-spanning interview with Gary Groth’s Newsarama in 2005, Sim revealed this his initial intention was to have a very different lead character.
“At first I thought I had to make something a bit wacky to make it stand out,” Sim told Groth, “and I was going to make Cerebus an anteater or antelope or something stupid like that. But then I realised I’d spend the rest of my career being asked ‘Why an anteater?’, and that would probably have driven me crazy.”
It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if Sim had stuck to his initial idea of Cerebus being a talking animal. It is unlikely the title would have lasted 350 issues, or that most of the last decade of the comic would be totally concerned with the 100-issue Battle For Iest. Sim might never have got to his final, transcendent 50-issue Peace For Iest storyline, which climaxed with the highly emotional #350, with Cerebus on his death bed, surrounded by an entire kingdom who would all gladly give their lives for him.
(On the positive side, it also might not have resulted in the appalling 1987 adaptation of Cerebus, starring Dolph Lungren as the barbarian hero, Brigette Neilsen as Jaka and Bob Hoskins as comedy sidekick Oscar Wilde, but some cinematic atrocities can’t be erased that easily.)
Sim broke new ground with his Church & State storyline in Cerebus the Barbarian, but abandoned a brief dabbling in sexual politics after Jaka’s Story, and pulled back to focus on Cerebus’ existential dilemmas on the battlefield, with the title character unexpectedly finding the meaning of the universe in the lamentations of his opponent’s loved ones. This story, which ran in the ‘Love’ storyline from issues #150-200, was a nakedly emotional plea for understanding from Sim, that only the hardest of hearts could resist.
This new direction towards a kindler, gentler barbarian was not in the initial blueprint for the series, as Sim revealed in an interview with Hero Illustrated in 1997: “The initial plan was to really get into the relationship between men and women, before moving into some deep religious allegory, mixed with Three Stooges slapstick and musings on the 20th century’s literary giants.
“But then I thought nah, fuck that, and went back to telling stories about adventures and girls with big tits.”
He also revealed that a noted British writer had a major influence on his new direction.
“Michael Moorcock wrote me a lovely letter in the late eighties, talking to me about the dubious sexual politics he saw in the title at the time. He said it in the nicest possible way, and I just felt like a bit of a dick, so I stepped away from all that kind of thing.”
Sim has remained busy since Cerebus ended with the universally-acclaimed #350 – his SimWorld message board system is the fourth biggest comic board on the internet, with ‘Dave’s Love Corner’ responsible for more successful relationship than all the others put together, while WW2 revenge epic Judenhass was the second biggest selling comic book of 2007.
And Sim has jumped back into the monthly grind with Glamourpuss – a Modesty Blaise meets Millie the Model pastiche that has already racked up more than 40 issues, with Sim promising a shorter run this time and an anticipated ending somewhere around #100.
After that, Sim has signalled that he will retire from comics and let his work speak for itself. In the unusually introspective follow-up interview with Groth, he talked about settling down with his second wife Colleen – who he has now been married to for more than 20 years – and enjoying life with his four kids.
But he also spoke of one great regret in his work, and – surprisingly – it was that he didn’t stick with his initial plan to make Cerebus a furry animal.
“I know it was a stupid stoner idea, but I kinda wish I had stuck with my guns on that one. If I hadn’t made that first initial compromise, who knows what could have happened?”