In November, Diamond Digital, the digital comics program of Diamond Comic Distributors, began releasing all 25 chapters of Cerebus: High Society, the second volume of Dave Sim’s (and artist Gerhard’s) groundbreaking self-published graphic novel series, on a weekly basis that will continue through March 2013. This is the latest of several publishing moves around Sim and the Cerebus series and includes a successful Kickstarter campaign; a deal with IDW to release a new print edition of High Society, as well as an offer from Fantagraphics Books to bring the series back into print.
These are the latest in a series of recent developments aimed at bringing Sim’s 6,000-page saga into the digital age, where it may find new life after years of diminishing sales in print. Along with it may come a renewed interest in the series from a new generation of readers likely to be unfamiliar with the work and its significance, or have perhaps found it unapproachable because of the series’ formidable size.
Published monthly from 1977 to 2004 by Sim’s own Aardvark-Vanaheim publishing venture, Cerebus began as a Conan the Barbarian parody starring Cerebus, an ornery aardvark warrior who advances to the level of pope. The series often espoused Sim’s own polemical commentary on a range of subjects including art, politics, feminism and religion, while also satirizing figures from history and literature like Oscar Wilde and Margaret Thatcher. Like the ascension of its titular character, Cerebus grew in its narrative and artistic purview, building a loyal following of readers and earning the industry’s top honors. Unfortunately, towards the end of its run, Sim’s writing became increasingly erratic and controversial, scarring his reputation and much of the series’ accomplishments. Despite this, the series still represents an unprecedented triumph in self-publishing and is one of the earliest examples of independent publishing success, planting the seeds for the current wave of creator-owned independent and self-published comics.
Since the publication of its final issue in 2004 though, Cerebus’ prominence has waned, along with sales of its 16 collected editions. Referred to as “phonebooks” due to their large page count, the oversized trade paperback collections were once regular sellers for comic shops, but now seem more like products from another era. Indeed, as the comics industry shifted out of the 1990s, the series’ over reliance on the shrinking direct market (aka the comics shop market, a network of about 2000 comics shops serviced primarily by Diamond Comics Distributors) as well as the series’ absence from the conventional bookstore market (not to mention Sim’s eccentric and often polarizing positions) damaged its shelf life, while other influential and contemporaneous works such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Art Speigelman’s Maus, sustained interest and demand.
Now the industry is shifting again with a recent surge of creator-owned independent and self-published work, as well as new avenues of distribution through digital platforms like Comixology, or funding/self-publishing services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. It is here that Sim, an industry maverick, sees opportunity.
In May, Sim and partner John Scrudder announced “Cerebus: Digital High Society,” a Kickstarter project that aimed to digitize the “High Society” storyline, commonly seen as one of the series’ high points, allowing users to download the individual issues for 99 cents each. The campaign was overwhelmed with support and met its goal (aiming for $6,000, the campaign raised more than $63,000) and then some within days, proving there is still a sizable and passionate Cerebus following willing to invest in the series. Scrudder, a longtime Cerebus fan, knew Kickstarter was the right way to go, explaining that it was “fantastic for comic creators” since it gave them control of “their own projects,” which is crucial for someone like Sim. When asked how he felt about how a new crop of readers would receive Cerebus, Scrudder described the series as “timeless” and able to “resonate with each new generation.” So far the project has released eleven chapters and can be found here.
The success of the Kickstarter campaign also brought about a deal with IDW owner/CEO Ted Adams to release a print version of Digital High Society (through its IDW Limited division), as well as two to four books collecting all 300 Cerebus covers. While the exact details regarding the collected Digital High Society are yet to be specified, Adams, like Scrudder, touts the series as being “unarguably on of the most important and influential comics books ever published.” He too is excited about the series’ prospects in today’s market saying that “great work will always find an audience,” and that Sim’s wealth of heretofore unseen supplemental material offers something new to longtime fans.
Roughly a month before the IDW deal, Fantagraphics v-p Kim Thompson expressed interest in repackaging Cerebus after Sim had announced the possibility of ending his comic career in the final issue of his newest on-going series glamourpuss. The two have had a rather contentious relationship in the past, and Thompson’s offer seemed to indicate some attempt at making amends, or certainly showed a respect for the work beyond any personal animosity. Thompson suggested making the series more inviting to new readers, mostly blaming the “phonebook” format for the series’ low backlist sales. Thompson also lamented that Cerebus – which he holds in high regard, describing it as “sui generis” – has not achieved the status and readership it deserves to due to its current presentation. Sim’s response was less than enthusiastic, saying Fantagraphics would not be a good fit, but without completely ruling out the publisher as a future home for Cerebus (although at this point Fantagraphics participation seems unlikely).
Finally, Sim made the deal with Diamond Digital to release all 25 original periodical issues of Digital High Society for purchase through individual downloads from comic stores and websites. Bill Schanes, Diamond v-p of publishing, originally reached out to Sim who was initially hesitant, but later agreed wholeheartedly to the offer. Schanes reasoned that Diamond Digital is a “perfect fit” for Cerebus since it’s “comic book store-centric” and fits with Sim’s preference to sell his work via traditional comic book vendors. He also describes Cerebus as one of the “most important independent comic books,” and is excited for a new generation to discover the series through both Diamond Digital and IDW.
Asked about his hopes for Cerebus’ revival and its new publishing ventures, Sim was hopeful and blunt: “the same as everyone else’s in the Internet age: that somehow it goes viral.” If Digital High Society in its various forms is successful, other Cerebus books are likely to follow, bringing Sim closer to his goal of digitizing the entire series. For that the author still has a long and uncertain way to go, but as he says, “Anything’s possible.”