Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dave Sim's blogandmail #85 (December 5th, 2006)

For the next two weeks, the Blog & Mail revisits


In honour of Steve Ditko's 80th year coming up in 2007 and in the hopes of drumming up a little business for his post-Marvel work published through Robin Snyder's RSCOMICS.

Order direct from Robin Snyder at


Or write to him at

3745 Canterbury Lane #81, Bellingham, Washington 98225-1186

Tuesday December 5 -

The nice thing about doing a really lousy tracing paper drawing as the last thing on a given day is that you know whatever you're going to do the next day is going to be an improvement. I'm convinced that a part of you works on it unconsciously in the interim and that would seem to have been the case here. I basically reversed the process I had used for the ectoplasmic ballet dancer and moved the head up. Whenever his ectoplasmic self left his body, Dr. Strange would look even more wooden than usual, so I thought I would emphasize that with Berni Wrightson-style deep sculpted shadows on his eyes and under his nose. I also decided to use the later cape that Ditko came up with at the end of Strange Tales #127. Ditko had obviously had a lot of trouble with the part of the cape that stuck up in behind the head (what do you call that, by the way?). Sometimes it was flat and sometimes it was curved, sometimes it barely came up to ear level and sometimes it loomed over his head. For an issue or two he put little blobs of ink on it as trim and then just as quickly eliminated them.

[It's always interesting to get little insights when you actually have to study something for drawing reference. In this case a) the Dr. Strange cape is where the Spawn cape originally came from and b) I learned how to do those little ornate squiggles on Cerebus' papal scarf and his Cerebus the candidate vest from what Ditko had come up with for the trim on Dr. Strange's cape]

I don't know if Stan Lee finally told him to make up his mind what the cape looked like (it's just the sort of thing you would get letters about) but, evidently, Ditko finally sat down and designed the whatever-it's-called to be distinctively Steve Ditko in nature with a plausible but largely contrary scalloped front view and side view with inlaid swirls and then also designed a definitive circular amulet. And then Stan Lee wrote them both into the story ("From this moment forth, you shall have a new cape and a more wondrous amulet!").

This was one of the reasons that I was glad that Sean M. wasn't stuck on any particular Dr. Strange, because it allowed me to mix and match various elements. The eyebrows and mustache and oriental look (and there's no doubt in my mind that at least in his first two or three appearances, Dr. Strange was oriental) I took from the earliest incarnation of the character. As I did with those little round black dots on the back of his gloves (which is one of those things that you're only going to do for a little while when you realize exactly how time-consuming and largely unnoticeable they are). The winged creature (or whatever that is on his chest) I just sort of modified to suit the drawing—Ditko has a number of different looks for it. I also stuck with the old square amulet with the round centre.

I had brought my ruler upstairs to be able to do a quick assessment of whether I would need to reduce the two images. So far, so good. They were taking up a little less than the 17 inches I had to work with and made an interesting tall and thin central composition. I had to get the ectoplasmic figure up high enough to see his ballet feet. I also realized that I needed to have him yelling "By The Lightness of Nuryev's Loafers!" or something similar. His mouth wasn't open wide enough. So I think I'm going to go and fix that right now.

I also enlarged the right eye (these directions are all reversed, of course, when I transfer the image to the illustration board). I have no idea what he's going to be staring at, but that brings me to the other good reason to do this commission: Steve Ditko's otherworldly backgrounds. And here I have my work cut out for me. At John's place I immediately started flipping through the Marvel Masterworks volume, looking for the most distinctive Steve Ditko otherworldly backgrounds. It is usually the case that you will find that an artist repeats himself within specific set parameters when it comes to alien environments. Steve Ditko? Not so much. Just about every page had a distinctive approach to an alien environment (Nightmare's realm, the Purple Dimension, The Other Side of Nowhere, the Eternity Dimension) and what was more, each of those distinctive approaches could be identified as specific to Steve Ditko from a mile away. That's no small point in a field where 99% of the battle is imagination, being able to visualize something that you've never actually seen and commit it to paper in a way that makes it plausible.

This plausibility—the fact that Steve Ditko's renderings of the realm of nightmares are so distinctive and yet so various—also intrudes upon my earlier allusion to the fact of what was (possibly) actually being done and which centers on the standard question addressed to artists and writers: Where do you get your ideas from? The honest answer is "I don't know." There is certainly something to Steve Ditko's backgrounds that provokes just such a question most especially from his peers and successors: how do you come up with this stuff? How do you make The Most Otherworldly backgrounds in a field that specializes in the otherworldly? And, I would assume, the honest answer is "I don't know." And that brings us (if we allow ourselves, which most of you won't) in the direction of invocation. If you are doing a comic-book story about black magic and drawing things whose origins you have no idea about or if you're doing a comic-book story and writing things whose origins you have no idea about and you continually reiterate, as Stan Lee does, "the Dread Dormammu…the all-seeing eye of Agamotto (again, a blasphemous assertion since only God is All-Seeing)…the Hosts of Hoggoth…the Vishanti, The Crimson Circle of Cyttorak, also called the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, the Vapors of Valtorr, the Seven Rings of Raggador" (if you're just making it up then why stick with the same names over and over? And why actually come up with a Dormammu character later in the day?) then how do you know for fact that you aren't, indeed, invoking something you would never in a million years invoke if you had a conscious awareness of what you were doing? It's an interesting mix: these distinctive Steve Ditko backgrounds, visual motifs and visual tropes coupled with Stan Lee's words, written motifs and written tropes. "May the hosts of the Vishanti smile upon you—may the mighty Dormammu be your slave," concludes one of the stories. We've already seen that Stan Lee was narrating on at least two different levels—there was the story itself and then there was the sales pitch addressed directly to the reader—and that this was pretty unique in the annals of comicdom. The only precedent being the three EC horror hosts of the previous decade who addressed the reader directly, as Stan Lee does here, at the beginning and end of each story. What is the net effect of unconscious and careless invocation? I think the implicit answer is that—if there is a net effect, and I assume there is—it is both unknown and unknowable.

Anyway, there's a lot here to pick from in the way of backgrounds, so many different variations that they would be impossible to even bookmark and then subject to a process of elimination. All I can do is flip through the book and then dive in on tracing paper. One recurring motif is the dripping pathway and then the reiterated doorway cut directly into the page and also the cage which is usually composed of energy or something similar and which is disintegrating on one side. I think the first thing is to get the figures…

Hang on, I just ran across a great shot of the "all-seeing eye" coming out of Dr. Strange's amulet. I've got to put that into his corporeal figure before I forget. Okay. There. I'm back.

Okay, I think that's as far as I can go just sitting here next to the photocopier with my tracing paper pad. Time to transfer the two figures and see what they look like.

Viewers of the www.cerebusart.com website have probably noticed by now that the calendar has been taken down. It turns out that two commissioned pieces a month is going to be a little optimistic over the next while. So, instead, I'm inviting interested individuals to contact me by phone (519.576.0610) to discuss any commission that they are interested in. When you phone, I can let you know what the current high offer is for the next commissioned piece after Dr. Strangeroach is and which I will be beginning probably after Christmas or early in the New Year (so I can get some uninterrupted working time on my secret project and commentaries on Mark). If you want a Gerhard background, you can let me know on the phone and then negotiate with Gerhard separately. The best rule of thumb on a Dave Sim commission is that you will get the best results if you are paying roughly $400 to $600 per figure. That is, a $1,000 commission of Cerebus and Jaka is going to look better than a $1,000 commission of Cerebus, Jaka, the Roach, Lord Julius, Astoria and Konigsberg. If you let me know what you're interested in, I can let you know what part of your picture is going to be the most time-consuming and then leave it up to you as to whether you want to stick to your original request or modify it in order to get more picture for your money.

That number again is 519.576.0610


If you wish to contact Dave Sim, you can mail a letter (he does NOT receive emails) to:

Aardvark Vanaheim, Inc
P.O. Box 1674
Station C
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N2G 4R2

Looking for a place to purchase Cerebus phonebooks? You can do so online through Win-Mill Productions -- producers of Following Cerebus. Convenient payment with PayPal:

Win-Mill Productions

Or, you can check out Mars Import:

Mars Import

Or ask your local retailer to order them for you through Diamond Comics distributors.