There’s another endless thread on the TCJ message board about Dave Sim. I was kind of interested in a side-note by Mike Hunter on this page, in which he notes in reference to Sim:
“Echoes of “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick”! (As least Dick was far more widely learned; and some supernatural revelations he experienced – borne out by outer-world events – indicated that, in places at least, he was not playing “spiritual Solitaire.”)”
Sim’s relation to PKD is something I’ve thought about before. Obviously there are a lot of similarities — they’re both cranks with paranoiac tendencies. Both had relatively sudden revelations which led them to create complex, private cosmologies, and both incorporated these cosmologies into their art.
Still, as far as the difference between them, I don’t think Mike’s quite got it. Dick was an extremely learned man in many ways…but Sim’s a smart guy and seems to have read widely. Moreover, Mike seems to argue that the difference between them is that Dick’s revelations were “real” — that he really had tapped into some sort of spiritual force. To me, that sort of thing is really impossible to judge objectively. Personally, Dick’s religious experiences, though less ideologically repulsive, seem every bit as nutty as Sim’s. But just because I rationally find them ridiculous isn’t an effective argument against them; after all, such experiences are by definition not rational. In fact, as religious experiences, there’s no way to validate or invalidate them one way or the other.
Still, I think there is a bid difference between the way in which Dick used his experiences and the way Sim used his. Dick seems to me in a great tradition of artistic cranks. At least since the Romantics made art and personal vision synonymous, there have been creators who have turned their private, often nutty, theological convictions into works which managed to speak to a wider audience. William Blake is the ur-example: his religious beliefs were complicated, idiosyncratic, and more than a little goofy, but he managed to use them to fuel poetry and artwork which, to me at least, is beautiful and moving and even morally complex. Henry Darger is another obvious example.
What these folks and Philip K. Dick have in common, I think, is an essentially poetic temperment. They’re private concerns may be intricate and alienating, but they have a sense of metaphor and beauty that makes them more broadly meaningful. Even before his religious experiences, for example, Dick wrote about the holes and fissures in reality; his books, for all their pulp trappings, seem like transmissions from dreams, with inexplicable erasures and a pervasive sense of sadness and disjunction. His revelations confirmed and extended his artistic personality, but they didn’t change it.
An interesting counter-example is Alan Moore. I think that as an author much of his strength really lies in plot and character — he’s a great story-teller. His crankier, explaining-the-world-through-private-systems moments are generally the ones I find least interesting, from “Rites of Spring” in Swamp Thing through the Kabbalah-lite of Promethea. But he’s also got enough perspective on his crankishness — and enough committment and love of his pulp sources — that, despite his other obsessions, he’s still able to write stories that play to his strengths. And he’s also tried various interesting and ambitious ways of combining the two, most successfully, I think, in From Hell. So, basically, for him, his reveletory insights have cut a bit against his artistic abilities, but he’s tried gamely and admirably to integrate them.
Dave Sim is another matter. Admittedly, I’m not any kind of expert on Sim’s work — I read the first two phone books. Still, I think that’s enough to get a sense of the kind of creator he is. I thought his first bookwas brilliant; Sim has a real gift for satire and silliness. Combining Elric and Foghorn Leghorn was inspired, and the Bug is one of the best super-hero parodies out there. The parody of the Beguiled is great fun, as is the Swamp Thing/Man-Thing riff. The second book, High Society, had a lot of fun moments, but overall did a lot less for me; Sim’s shift to a more character-based narrative is hampered even this early on by his stereotypical approach to his female characters (Astra the bitch, the scantily-clad, voluble, comforting elf; Jaka as weepy, needy, barely-there mother figure). And as a moralist, he’s — even here — simplistic in a very irritating way. Basically, it’s greed bad, lust for power bad, politics corrupt, etc. etc. There’s not a whole lot of subtlety.
Anyway, the point is that he seems at bottom to be a satirist and a moralist. And the thing about a satirist is that, while you can certainly write fantasy (like Swift), you also have to have a firm grounding in social or public reality. The success of satire depends on having a clear-eyed view of society. It also depends on a good sense of perspective — often your exaggerating, but you need to have an ability to figure out what to exaggerate and what not to in order to produce comic or moral effects. It’s also, essentially, a prosaic genre — it’s about, or references, or interacts with reality. Metaphors may be used for hyperbole or humor, but they’re not generally the point in themselves.
Don’t get me wrong — I love satire. Swift and Shaw are two of my favorite writers, and, as I said, I very much liked Sim’s first volume. But I think that satire is a form particularly ill-suited for crankish private revelation. If you’re going to come unmoored from reality, you really need, as an artist, to do it poetically. If you stay prosy and continue to treat your revelation in the same way you’d treat a political election, you lose the bite of satire and just end up sounding like a hectoring bore. I think “Reads” is really emblematic — Sim throws up his hands and refuses to even try to convert his mystical experiences into art, instead just going on, and on, and on. That’s why when D.H. Lawrence does misogyny, its infused with emotional power, terror, hysteria, even a sense of redemption. When Sim does it, there’s no depth or resonance — it sounds like a pop-psych book written by a grad-school drop-out with a grudge. His failure isn’t that he’s a crank, or that his revelations aren’t real, but rather that, in becoming a crank, he ceased to be an artist.