Recent Dorkiness

Wild Formalism: Dave Sim and the Art of Letters

So it’s been a rather busy week here on the nerd farm, and we haven’t quite had the time to go off on the in-depth look at Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men we had planned heading into this week’s final issue (though, holy crap, this new status quo he’s set up just feels like something that’s going to collapse in the nastiest possible way before he’s done with these characters, and I can’t wait to see how it happens).

At any rate. Pressed for time as we are, I thought that instead I’d finally do an art gallery post on something I’ve been meaning to talk about for ages: the lettering of Dave Sim.

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A controversial figure, Sim has been a bit of a pariah in the comics industry for something like 20 years now. Just past the halfway point of his epic 300-issue series Cerebus, Sim had a breakdown / breakthrough / epiphany / religious awakening that saw him developing some pretty unpopular opinions about women, men, and the battle of the sexes. Opinions that he wove, increasingly, into the Cerebus story, and in the process lost a large chunk of his readership. Labeled a misogynist, Sim found himself increasingly ostracized, and Cerebus, formerly a critical darling with a large cult following, was seen by fewer and fewer people.

Which is too bad, really, because – putting his beliefs aside for a moment – Sim’s mastery of the comics form really reached its peak after everybody stopped reading his work. Always a formalist, Sim started experimenting with the comics storytelling form pretty early in the run, with one early high point being issue 20’s “Mind Game” montage. The issue is about a drugged Cerebus wandering around in the landscape of his own mind, and when you put all the pages together in the correct sequence, they form one large image of the title character:

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But we’re gonna talk lettering. Most comics use lettering, to some extent, as a visual shorthand. Sound effects, in particular, are usually drawn in such a way that they reflect the noise being made. But Sim (following in the footsteps of Will Eisner and, to a lesser extent, Walt Kelly) would sometimes extend that idea to dialogue. It starts off kind of simple, and not too far outside the comics lettering norm.



(That last example is actually from the back half of the series, but Sim had been using the icicle-dripping word balloon trick for ages by that time. This was just the best example I could find on short notice. Plus, you get his caricatures of not only Mick Jagger and Margaret Thatcher, but also Ringo Starr. Bonus!)

Sim gets bolder with it over time, though, to the point that the lettering becomes an integral part of the artwork, making a horrific moment more horrific…

…or action scenes more dynamic.

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That one’s particularly impressive to me. The psychic shouts from the Cirinists (the burly ninja nuns on the left) add incredibly to the tension of that scene. And it’s already pretty tense.

That scene comes just past the halfway point of the series, and Cerebus’ actions, breaking out of a 12-issue semi-catatonic state and going on a killing spree, mirror Sim’s own personal breakthroughs at this time. This is Cerebus unchained, and not long after this, we’ll get Sim unchained, too. That leads to the afore-mentioned loss of readership and respect, but also a genuine flowering of creativity. Sim’s caricatures get bolder, and his embrace of lettering as art explodes upon the page. Eventually, we’re getting stuff like this:





Insanity? Perhaps. But beautiful insanity, from an immensely talented cartoonist who had decided that he just didn’t care anymore what anybody thought. And even though I often found his views abhorrent, I was still mesmerized by the work.

Sim’s use of word balloons and fancy lettering became much more pronounced here, as well. Cerebus winds up spending 20 or 30 issues essentially being held prisoner in a bar, and the story becomes largely about his own inner monologues as his suspicions, resentments and self-loathing bubble up under the pressure. And that’s where Sim really goes to town on the lettering.




Two more, and I’m done.

First, I couldn’t do a column like this without showing off what I consider to be a genuine stroke of lettering genius. Later on in the series, stand-ins for the Three Stooges become major supporting characters. They’re strange religious fanatics (which explains all the theeing and thouing), but what Sim does with Moe’s word balloons is one of the most perfect things I’ve ever seen.

Black balloons with icicles dripping off them. That just… Wow. Perfect. The Stooges slapping effects are pretty great, too, of course. But Moe… SO good.

The other thing I wanted to share is an ugly moment that demonstrates how terrible a person Cerebus really is. He’s finally been united with Jaka (his One True Love, ever since somebody fed him a love potion back in the earliest days of the series), and they’re camping out with an Ernest Hemingway stand-in. Jaka criticizes Hemingway, and Cerebus lashes out at her with startling anger. He’s done far worse things in the history of the series, but that moment of emotional violence shows us that he can’t even treat the one person in the world that he genuinely loves with respect. It’s a watershed moment in their relationship, and one that makes me feel bad even now.

But I’m showing it to you for the lettering. Because Sim takes a single large image, puts a few panel borders into it, and tells you the story with sound effects.

That he closes the scene out with a joke is both due to Sim’s comic timing, and Cerebus’ inherent shallowness. But it’s brilliant cartooning, and a very good place to stop.

Since suffering a wrist injury that’s prevented him from drawing, Sim has developed and used some digital lettering fonts in his Cerebus in Hell fumetti comics. And those are good, as far as computer lettering goes. But it doesn’t match the artistry on display in Cerebus. I wish more artists took the time to do this kind of thing, but that’s not the comics world we live in. The Cerebus lettering was really something special, and I miss it.

About Mark Brett (575 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at

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