Cerebus’ Six Deadly Sins
The Animated Cerebus
The First Fifth (Click Image For Larger Version)
This was a recent discovery in unearthing the Cerebus Archive, several complete sets of The First Fifth series of prints which Ger and I did in the unsettled days when Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc. had just been permanently divided into my Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint and Deni’s Renegade Press imprint. Among the various clauses we had mutually agreed to: I agreed not to contest or compete for any of the services of the cartoonists or of the books we had been jointly publishing to that point; I agreed to assume all of the debt incurred in the publication of The Animated Portfolio [a copy of the Animated Portfolio is also included with this month’s auction items see fill in the blank] (roughly seventeen thousand dollars owing to my serious overestimation of the incentive value of a low price, $12.00 for 45 colour plates) and we agreed to divide the cash-on-hand between us. This essentially allowed Deni to start with a clean slate and encumbered Aardvark-Vanaheim with a debt-to-assets ratio of about three-to-one. To give you an idea of what we were facing, Jan Strnad (who I doubt was even marginally aware of the debt Aardvark-Vanaheim was carrying and the precarious position in which we found ourselves) had written a piece in the Comics Journal not-so-delightfully entitled “Comics Cadaver Derby” handicapping the odds on which would be the next independent comic-book publishers who were likely to go out of business as part of the wave of bankruptcies sweeping the field. The analogy he had come up with for the new Dave Sim administration at Aardvark-Vanaheim was that it was comparable to turning General Motors over to “Big Daddy” Roth—he of the “Rat Fink” cycletoons notoriety— and rated our chances as “not good”. (Years later in a Journal interview Gary Groth mentioned that no one had ever accused me of being a bad businessman. Even reminding him of the Strnad piece did no good. The new Journal philosophy was that Dave Sim was an astute businessman but a lousy creator and there was no way to budge Gary from a political position once he had established it for himself even if it was at odds with a view previously expressed in his own magazine). This was far from a rare occurrence, at the time. Even in the real world, a number of companies we owed money to came down hard on us with Deni’s departure. One of the reasons that I instituted the “Note from the President,” replacing Deni’s “Note from the Publisher” was to remind everyone that I had been—and continued to be—the president of Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc. (Deni’s official title had been secretary of the corporation). I certainly wasn’t a genius as a businessman (witness the Animated Cerebus fiasco) but I was far from the clueless artistic flake I was commonly perceived to be.
So, one of the first things I chose to do was something I had been loathe to do from the beginning: to essentially reverse the structure of the Animated Cerebus (an excessive number of prints, 45, for a dramatically low price, $12) and to rush into production a modest number of prints, 6…
(Historically, this had come to be the accepted size of the average portfolio which was, at the time, in the midst of a renaissance, largely because of the participation of Pacific Comics which had achieved a certain presence in the comic-book field, first as a back-issue dealer; which they had then parleyed into a distributorship of new comic books in the fledgling years of the direct market; which had then led to their becoming the primary publisher of comics, comix and fantasy-related portfolios—under their Schanes & Schanes imprint; which had then led to their becoming the third- or fourth-largest publisher of direct-market comic books; which had led to their, er, filing for bankruptcy. I’m not sure how Jan Strnad had handicapped Pacific Comics at the time, but I’m sure they had better odds than Aardvark-Vanaheim did in 1985. In 1981, anyway, they were the publishers of the first Cerebus Portfolio, Cerebus’ Six Deadly Sins [a copy of the Six Deadly Sins portfolio, 1981 numbered #...out of 1750 is included with this month’s auction items as well]. Cerebus’ Six Deadly Sins—at the time, for Cerebus, “lust” had not yet become either an “acquired taste” or a “terrible analogy”—had been offered to the comics-buying public early in 1981 as a six-plate black-and-white-in-a-black-and-white-illustrated-oversized-envelope portfolio in an edition of 1200 copies each selling for $12 (from which I was to receive a percentage of the revenues). The initial response to Six Deadly Sins had exceeded their expectations (perhaps because we ran an ad for the portfolio on the inside back covers of issues 26 through 30 inclusive) so they added another 550 copies to the run—which was good news for me because I got paid more and bad news for me because they decided, unilaterally, to “upgrade” the package from their second-string format of an oversized, illustrated black-and-white envelope to a cardstock folder to which they also, unilaterally, added the most nightmarish combination of electric blue and an even-more-hideous incarnation of a reddish-purple-something-hue (which still defies accurate definition) as an acknowledgement that Cerebus belonged on their A-list. It was one of the few times I would have (fervently!) preferred being treated as second rate. Six Deadly Sins is a good example of my style at the time that I was still immersed in a brush-and-brush-imitation look—with elements of the pure pen-and-ink look I would adopt “peeking through”. As I noted on the inside back cover of the portfolio in the “Artist Profile” section,
“As a learning experience it was immensely helpful. The endless repetition of pen strokes, to indicate variously, depth, regularity, irregularity and mood forced me into new pen motions more natural to my own hand. I let the pen do more of the drawing, adding and reducing pressure in response to the way my eye was feeling the page.”
whereupon I went in (I might have added) with a too-thick series four brush and ruined a lot of the new effects I was achieving by trying to add a layer of brush-work to everything which then needed to be touched up just about everywhere. This is particularly intrusive in the outline around Cerebus on plate 2 (“Envy”) the front of Cerebus’ left leg and the underside of his right arm on plate 3 (“Avarice”), the outline around Cerebus on plate 4 (“Gluttony”), the caped figures on either side of the eyepatch-wearing gentleman on plate 5 (“Anger”) and the cape of the approaching centurion and the ghastly shadows on the groveling citizens on plate 6 (“Pride”). The fact that I was taking a disproportionate amount of time drawing these huge pictures—a fact which I didn’t exaggerate in the Artist Profile—illustrated for me just how inherently bad I was at working with a brush. Even with all the time in the world, I was unable to place the areas of solid black accurately or—where I was able to—I wasn’t able to keep the resulting edge clean and sharp enough, with the result that my necessary touch-ups would automatically shift the end-product edge always a fraction of an inch out of whack. Whereas with the pen strokes, the more time I took the closer I was able to approximate the image and density I pictured in my head (see virtually everything besides the outline around Cerebus on plate 2).]
…for a cost of what I considered at the time and still consider today to be an excessive amount of money, $100; $300 for Gerhard’s hand-coloured version (of which there is only one copy of the original 30 sets in the Cerebus Archive and, no, you can’t have it): in this case a series of six prints, each of which would represent ten issues of the 60-issue “First Fifth” of the 300 issues we were shooting for. Print one, issues 1 to 10, print two, issues 11 to 20 and so on up to issue 60. They sold well enough to pay off many of our most pressing debts and to pay down a chunk that was owed on the Animated Cerebus, bringing our debt-to-assets ratio down to something more manageable, in the range of 1-to-1, rather than 3-to-1.
At the time, I really didn’t think much of the series—probably a residual impact resulting from the unattractive motivation in doing them in the first place—so I was surprised to find how much the ensuing two decades or so had brightened them up in my eyes. They are, quite distinctly, in Ger’s and my mid-eighties style which is something I obviously just couldn’t see in the mid-eighties as anything but the style I was looking at every day on the wall as we produced the monthly book. It was one thing to do over-sized ambitious works like Cerebus’ Six Deadly Sins when it was my own time I was occupying, quite another thing to shoot for something that ambitious with someone who was still getting used to a monthly schedule (Ger, I mean, who already had his hands full with the trial-by-ordeal of producing 30 hand-coloured editions of the set). Looking at them now, I can see that I was gradually losing my late-seventies early-eighties over-rendered brush style—where I was using a lot of brush (as I’ve already mentioned, rather ineptly) and attempting to imitate brush effects (equally ineptly)—and was, instead, coming to accept that I was a Hunt 102 pen-and-ink guy through-and-through and that I was, by 1985, learning to deal with the pen nib on its own terms as its own instrument and not as a brush substitute or a means of imitating a brush line. And Gerhard—just about a year into his work on the book—was quickly losing his choppiness and uneven densities which were better suited to the illustration schools of the previous century and was starting to understand how sharply defined the parameters of a picture needed to be in the comic-book field. The combination of our styles was still coming into and going out of focus…
(critically speaking: on plates 2, 3, 5 and 6, I’m going too far into the simplified and stylized Sienkiewicz pen line that I didn’t have the artistic knowledge to carry off but which was, at least, permanently weaning me off my brush and Gerhard is still oscillating between a balanced series of textured pen lines on plate 1 and 3 and an overuse of “pebbly” letratone on plates 4, 5 and 6 which he could probably have done more pleasingly with pen lines in the space of time it took him to cut out all the individual rain tracks and leaves)
…but it was more often in-focus than out of focus by 1985.
Anyway, it was with genuine gratitude to the art-buying Cerebus readership (many of whom are still with us and still bidding on Cerebus pieces today as they come onto the market) that The First Fifth “worked” in the way it very much needed to if Ger and I were to have a fighting chance of making it to the mythically-distant issue 300. We sold out virtually all of the black-and-white series and the colour edition in a little over a month and were able to pay off a sufficient number of debts to ensure that all we had to focus on was keeping the book as good as possible and on schedule.