Review by Luke Williams
Where to begin?
Dave Sim is known for making life hard for himself. He set an incredibly ambitious target of 300 self published issues for his magnum opus Cerebus The Aardvark, only getting assistance when Gerhard joined on backgrounds from issue 65. A funny animal Conan knock off that became a dense, political and social satire, Sim and his creation inspired a mini self publishing boom in the early 1990s, spawning Martin Wagner’s Hepcats, Terry Moore’s Strangers In Paradise and Jeff Smith’s Bone and, along the way, upset a lot of people with his opinions on a whole range of topics.
After the completion of Cerebus, Sim took a short break before returning with Judenhaas, a one shot comic about the Holocaust. He followed that with Glamourpuss, a weird fish of a comic. It was part satire of the fashion industry and part comic history, specifically Sim’s first stab at The Strange Death of Alex Raymond. Glamourpuss ended after 26 issues, torpedoed by its very select appeal and schizophrenic content.
Undeterred, Sim announced his intention to complete the Strange Death. Originally proposed as a four volume series to be published by IDW, it faltered. With failed crowdfunding attempts, it seemed fate had conspired against the project, the final straw that Sim is now unable to draw, without severe pain.
However, finally, The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is here in a single volume, courtesy of publisher Living the Line.
If it had to be categorised, then Strange Death might be described as a history of comic art. Specifically photorealistic comic art. But there is more to it than that. Initially exploring what he proposes as three schools of photorealistic art, Sim splices it with commentary and an exploration of the circumstances around the instigator of one of those three schools, Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, and his death at the wheel of fellow artist Stan Drake’s gull wing Mercedes. He delves deeply into the three photorealistic schools, replicating the work of the artists he features in the book.
But what initially appears to be an Understanding Comics-styled exploration and deconstruction of the medium becomes something far more dense and strange.
Sim appears in the book, featured as the tortured artist; determined to complete this project, and to explain his thought and creative process. He outlines his theory that comics have metaphysical properties, that they influence reality. In a warren of rabbit holes, he attempts to demonstrate that the lives and fates of Raymond, his rival Stan (The Heart of Juliet Jones) Drake, creative luminaries such as Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, intertwine… but were forecast or determined by comic strips.
Sim’s financial and health problems meant that the book would have been left unfinished, if it wasn’t for Carson Grubaugh assisting Sim from around two thirds in and Grubaugh then going solo for the last the last 31 pages. But Grubaugh, a truly great artist in his own right, makes no concessions to Sim and uses what has gone previously as a springboard into completing it the book in his own way, and spends the last few pages offering his own opinion on Sim’s theory on metaphysics.
Comparisons with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics are inevitable, but a better comparison would be with Bryan Talbot’s huge and equally ambitious, meta textual and criminally underrated Alice in Sunderland, that explores similar themes.
It’s an incredibly ambitious project. It isn’t an easy read, though not without humour. Arguably, Sim overreaches and the project begins to it collapse under the weight of his ambition. You may come away from it with the conclusion that Sim is a nut, and still be unsure as to what metaphysics actually is, but Strange Death should be appreciated for the beautiful art, if nothing else. It’s a magnificent piece of work and should be read by lovers of the medium. But put a few days aside to read and process it.
Be awed by the art, dazzled by the ambition and baffled by the theory.
The Strange Death of Alex Raymond will be available as a deluxe oversized hardback, published by Living the Line, run by writer, illustrator and musician Sean Michael Robinson. Living the Line have been working with Dave Sim on digitally restoring the 6,000 page Cerebus epic since 2014.
• The Strange Death of Alex Raymond (ISBN: 978-1-7368605-0-2) will be available from comic shops in July and bookshops from 3rd August 2021. Diamond Order Code FEB219102 | US Independent Bookshop Finder Service
Read a preview of The Strange Death of Alex Raymond
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Brought up on a diet of Commando, British Boys Annuals and Asterix, Lucas Williams’s day job limits his reading time. Luckily for everyone else this also restricts his writing time.