“One too many cold beers one night, wrapped himself around a telephone pole”
Dave Sim is, perhaps, one of the most polarizing comics creators ever, if not in the pole position for that dubious title. He’s undoubtedly an amazing creator, but his personal statements have made him a bit of a pariah, even if they’re not so bad that people abandon him completely (like, say, Gerard Jones, who’s not polarizing because everyone – rightly – has turned against him). Sim is far more talented than, say, Ethan van Sciver, so people can feel fine about abandoning van Sciver despite liking his work than they do about abandoning Sim. And into this polarized comics community comes The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, which Sim started and Carson Grubaugh finished and which, after several years of stops and starts, has been published by Living the Line. It’s … well, it’s a thing, certainly.
There’s no doubt that this is a masterpiece, a work of staggering genius by a creator who knows a thing or two about creating great comics. It’s also perhaps the most insane thing you will ever read, and I’m not sure it hasn’t driven me mad. It certainly seemed to drive both Sim and Grubaugh mad, as they appear in the book, and even if you don’t get into the weeds that they do, it’s still a profoundly weird reading experience. I love it as an exercise, I’m a bit horrified by it as an exegesis, and I’m saddened by it as an unfinished project that goes off on so many weird tangents that it feels like it could be double the length and still not be finished. It is truly and unabashedly unique, and we will probably never see anything like it again.
Sim began the story of Alex Raymond in glamourpuss, his fashion comic of 2008-2012, when he became fascinated by photorealistic artwork. He also became interested in the death of Alex Raymond, who slammed a car into a tree on 6 September 1956 – a car that belonged to Stan Drake, who did not die in the accident and continued working for decades afterward. Raymond is widely regarded as the best comics artist of all time, and Sim wanted to bring his work to a modern audience while examining his death and the odd circumstances surrounding it. Raymond, Hal Foster, and Milton Caniff are regarded as the three pillars of comic art, creating “schools” that most modern cartoonists fit into in one way or another, and they were rivals for the audience in a time when having your own newspaper strip was the pinnacle of the field. Raymond created Flash Gordon, then did Rip Kirby before his death; Foster is famous for Prince Valiant; Caniff created Terry and the Pirates and then Steve Canyon, and they were all very popular and jealous of the others. Sim goes into the ways they stole from each other (consciously and unconsciously) and how they took shots at each other in their strips. He does this with a framing device in which an employee at a comic book store in Ontario, who had not heard of Raymond, reads each “issue” (the story originally was a back-up in glamourpuss before Sim expanded it) as it mysteriously arrives on her counter. Sim does a lot on how Raymond worked, clever tricks he used to make his art so good, and how he evolved over the years. It’s extremely interesting if you’re into the comics creating process, which I am, but even if you’re not, Sim makes it much more soap operatic than you might expect.
Then things start getting weird. It’s very hard to describe it without getting into the minutiae that Sim himself gets into, but it involves Margaret Mitchell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gone With the Wind, who was killed in 1949 when she was struck by a car. Sim finds connections (like that one) to Raymond and almost everyone in comics (Kirby, for instance, has a small but crucial role in this book) and goes down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, going backward in time to George Harriman and Krazy Kat and all over the world, linking the tiniest details in the artwork of the newspaper strips with … well, to tell you what he links them to would be spoiling things, and I really don’t want to, because it’s something, all right. This book is just over 300 pages, and it is stuffed with weird stuff. Sim talk about the “metaphysics” of the comics, and that takes on several new layers with the way he tells the story. He puts himself in the book, “talking” to the audience and he goes through all this stuff, and then he invents the comic book store employee, who is presumably fictional, although it’s clear someone modeled for her (she says as much), and then she finds out she’s in a comic, and then, and then, and then … it’s a lot.
Of course, then Sim couldn’t finish the book. After he completely revamped the stuff from glamourpuss (he redrew everything, apparently), Sim famously had a wrist injury of some kind in 2015, so work stopped on the book. In stepped Grubaugh, a painter and teacher at a community college in Tuscaloosa. Apparently he contacted Sim to find out what was going on with this book, and eventually, he took over completing it. Sim drew about two-thirds of the book, it seems, which isn’t bad. So that adds another layer of “metaphysics” to it, as Grubaugh used Sim’s notes to “finish” the book, doing art that apes Sim’s aping of Raymond and others. Then in 2020, apparently, Sim said he had run out of money and that the project was dead, but when Living the Line said they would publish it, Grubaugh was able to “finish” it by, basically, throwing up his hands and walking away. So the levels of this book are staggering, and that’s just with the way it’s presented. When you get into the Margaret Mitchell stuff, and the Ward Greene (the writer of Rip Kirby) stuff, and the Aleister Crowley stuff (oh yes), it’s dizzying. This is why I can’t really give a great review of this, because it is really, truly bonkers. And, of course, there’s Sim’s somewhat famous “woe-is-me” persona, which is also present in this book, so he’s kind of bemoaning the fact that people don’t want to read this book … but the only people who will read that are those who actually do want to read the book. It’s just odd.
“But,” you say, because you know this about Sim if you don’t know anything else, “is there misogyny? We come for the dude dying in a car crash, but we get outraged about the misogyny!!!!” Well, yes, you jackals, there’s a little. He points something out that he finds “anti-masculine” in the book and immediately has a sense of humor about it, saying he was just pointing it out, not creating it, but then later, he goes into female movie stars of the 1950s and there’s a little bit that makes you think, “Really, Dave?” But then he moves on and doesn’t mention it again, so it’s not horrible, just a bit strange. It’s like he’s really trying to stay out of that quagmire, because he has so many other weird quagmires to get mired in!
Obviously, the art on the book is marvelous. Sim trained himself to draw in a photorealistic style, and when he’s writing and drawing about the cartoonists and their influence, it’s fascinating. When he gets into his weird theories, the art is still amazing, just in service of stranger thing. Grubaugh trained himself to draw like Sim drawing like Alex Raymond, and in some of his pages, it appears he draws in what I can only assume is his natural style, and while it’s rougher than what Sim does, it’s still excellent and expansive, turning each page into a vast work of art rather than a succession of panels (panels and this book do not get along very well). This is an artistic tour-de-force, and even if you can’t follow Sim down all the bizarre paths he treads, at least the journey is attractive.
Honestly, I haven’t even scratched the surface of this book. There’s so much going on that it would take many more words to dive into everything, and I don’t have the resolve for that right now, because this is just a brief review. This book is a masterpiece – a flawed one, to be sure, but still – and it’s something that probably every comic book fan would love, despite Sim claiming that they wouldn’t. Even if you’re someone who just likes … I don’t know, only Spider-Man comics, don’t you think the art on a random Spider-Man comic was influenced by something? Comic books have a rich history, and it’s very cool that that history seems to be studied with a bit more seriousness these days. A lot of publishers have recreated these strips from what original art they can find (Sim goes into the reproduction problems from original art to strip art, because of course he does), and that’s great because so many of these old artists are being discovered by new audiences. Sim wants us to remember these people, and if he can indulge some insane theories about Raymond’s death, all the better! So this is a brilliant, weird, possibly demented work of genius. What more could you want?!?!?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆