Friday, 4 March 2022

A Review of 'The Strange Death of Alex Raymond'

This is a bit of a mad one but there is s fragment of info here for those who paint with sable brushes, see below; 'The Useful Part'.


Dave Sim is Schizophrenic, and really good at comics.

He got big in the 70s for creating one of the first self-published comics, 'Cerebus', about an Aardvark in a fantasy land.

It was good, then got very good, then got weird then insane. Sim either _went_ insane or revealed his madness. It was a hell of a ride to be honest.

I read almost the entirety of the then-available Cerebus in the early 00's. Liverpool Library had the whole set, Sim published them in hugh hardback 'phone book' volumes. They were there, (old even then), ranked up on a bottom shelf, looking weird and mysterious, being wierd and mysterious, because when you open them you find this intensely realised, visually intensely precise, quasi-medieval world, and this cartoon Aardvark hanging out in it, and then what is the Aardvark doing? Running for office, becoming pope, being a religious figure, dying in a bar? Huge books they were, densely realised complex politics, fictionalised visitations and analysis of literary and cultural figures, a weird matriarchal religious cult.

It's difficult to describe to people, when the craft of comics, not just the images or the writing, but the synthesis, is not deeply attended to, just how really intensely fucking *good* at comics Dave Sim was and is. I'm talking here about something that if it were broken down would be difficult to recombine in the minds as anything but a combination of minor and greater talents, lettering, conversational dialogue, portrait art, expressive art, the flow of time through panels, panel arrangement, composition, world building, but if you see it go as-one, it’s simply a different order of thing. People who knew about comics, the obsessives, all knew about him and as time went by they all knew he was nuts but still a genius.

Ok there's no way to tldr this but; Aardvark, acid trip, religious visitations, personal breakdown, misandrist feminist cult, alienation of former friends and lovers, self written into comic, protagonist encounters Sim as godhead, Sim encounters actual ("actual") godhead, structure of comic breaks down or changes hugely, turns out Dave Sim may be prophet of new (old) religion and also if I recall correctly modern culture is an act of vampirism where the female void preys upon the divinely inspires male light, Sim essentially forms his own religion from some combination of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I suppose he is a one-man pure son of Abraham, and still carries out his devout observances today.

I don't know if Sim has ever come out directly and said he has been visited by the Godhead but I am pretty sure he believes he has.

Anyway, old story BUT, I happen to be visiting family down south and happen to wander through the nerd section of town and happen to see this strange book 'The Strange Death of Alex Raymond', by Dave Sim, and behold its only a single book, not an infinite series, and I, possessed by the spirit of Capitalism, take it home.


The boon of a ferocious mind. Alex Raymond, master of brushwork and the hyper-realistic style; in particular he performs what Sim calls 'Nightingale Lines', with a sable brush (Raymond uses nothing else), he creates these flows of ultra-ultra-ultra fine and precise brushwork, so fine in some cases they don't even show up in reproduction. All his contemporaries are amazed. Not just amazed but intimidated. Some decide to ignore brushwork themselves as they feel they can never match up. How does/did Raymond do it?

*simply by looking at the comics* Sim has worked it out

(or almost certainly worked it out, I judge his analysis here as more accurate than any of his "wilder assertations" in the book)

This is the most useful thing in 'The Strange Death of Alex Raymond' and, since Sim is Sim, and even its description is an act of beauty, I present the images below)

Ok that was the useful part.


"The Strange Death of Alex Raymond" is, or starts out as, a deep, deep, deep investigation of the photorealistic comics style of, primarily its three titans, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), Alex Raymond, (Flash Gordon) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), who ruled in a great age of newspaper strips from the 30s to the 50s.

These guys were popular in ways that only 20th Century creators could be popular. The early age of mass production, but before communications tech advanced enough to splinter the market. We're talking millions and millions of readers. 

The book is centred on what Sim calls 'The Strange Death of Alex Raymond', (he died in a car crash), which Sim makes the central mystery of his investigation.

He never actually gets there. The book remains uncompleted, at least by him, due to either, or both, a wrist injury which cripples his drawing hand and Sim himself becoming utterly lost in his own web of connections.

But its also about something Sim calls 'Comic Book Metaphysics', which, to boil down that which cannot be boiled down, because Sim describes it in fragments and staring inferences, is what he thinks is the interrelating patterns of people, persona dramas, crises, imagined entities etc which weave between the work of the photorealistic school and their actual lives.

And not just them but everyone connected to them, and not just those connected to them personally but everyone who may be connected to their ideas, anyone whose ideas fed into theirs, anyone their ideas fed into.

Sim knows these things two ways, by study and my inference.

His study is that he has read every goddamn one of these comics, memorised every element, researched every life-line, looked up interviews, checked histories, examined timelines. 

His inference, which he would not separate from study, remember the level of attention and analysis it would have taken to first perceive the problem of Raymond’s 'Nightingale Lines' then to have, *within the pages of the comics themselves* devised and understood the solution, but to Sim, he can "read" the lives of these men from their work.

Which, because Sim is Sim, are largely about sexual jealousy and malfeasance, invisible power struggles, manipulation, cultural decay and, ultimately, as we go waaaaaay past the event horizon, actual witchcraft, the attempt to resurrect the Klu Klux Klan via sympathetic magic and the direct presence of the devil in the affairs of man, the devil here, operating though the sexual desires of women and the weakness of men.

He has no evidence for these things.

Lets take a look at one, very early, very mild example of Sim being Sim

These are from page 81 and 82, Sim argues that for a few years Raymond had been copying or adopting the style of Caniff, as an act of domination of course, because for Sim, everything is domination and submission, then Raymond wins becomes the president of the National Cartoonists Society, he is photographed shaking hands with Caniff.

Sim takes this moment and over several pages goes, well, this...

Obviously (OBVIOUSLY) this is an act of mental and moral warfare between the two men and obviously Raymond has been defeated, destroyed, revealed for the weak man he is by the superior and more purely manly power of Caniffs handshake...

Try to avoid laughing at this. Like with anything Sim-related, elements of high skill, deep perception and subtle analysis segue seamlessly into foolishness and into madness.

Remember how clever he was with the brush thing. Could anyone else have done that? Well this is just the other side of that.

Having a high IQ doesn't really help much with Schizophrenia. 

Imagine the pattern recognition of the mind firing and firing and firing, as it does in your mind, but more so. But with the Schizophrenic there is no, or only a weak, opposing synthesis. No voice or silent bar to so "no, this connection is bad, it doesn't make sense, it doesn't match with how reality works".

And under all that is fear, and an overwhelming sense of drive, of purpose, of importance, not just importance but of sacredness. To be in the grip of such power..... Well, if you've read the old testament you get my drift.

Think Sim hyper-analysing an awkward photo isn't really "nutso" enough? By around page 200 he's proved that Margret Mitchell, writer of 'Gone With the Wind' was either a witch or a direct servant of Satan and a descendant of witches, and was part of a plot, or a dark conspiracy to.. 

I'll just show you;

Think about the level of clarity, of talent, think of the carefully acquired skill. When he began drawing Sim was considered pretty bad, by the end of Cerberus he was thought of as excellent, by this point he's reproducing, warping, remaking, some of the greatest pages, the greatest illustrations from the high point of Photorealistc Comics, riding with the masters.

This is high art in many ways. What a beautiful, incredible capacity to perceive and create, and what an absolutely awful, really a nightmarishly pathetic man.

Think in real terms about what Sim has done through the whole of this book. Pried, or imagined he has pried into the personal lives of these figures light-years away from him. Secretly opened the secret boxes of their hearts, these real people who really lived, and tipped them over to show the foulness and shit within.

But none of it is real. He made it up.

He will never really understand that he made it up. To him it was revealed. 

In fact he was just trying to save the world from the conspiracies of the Devil. When he prays he may even pray for your forgiveness for, in thinking him mad, you know not what you do.

Its inspiring and wounding and wearying and ultimately like taking a beating, or listening to a man rant you can't get away from. (Yet he is ranting in visual music). It’s pretty much the same feeling I got reading Cerebus all those years ago. Its nasty and viscerally unpleasant. The mans heart is a sewer. Yet he is an innocent. He doesn't know, after all, and never will.


  1. I definitely preferred the early and middle Cerebus. To me they were the great days, far, far better than reading the sameness and narrow angst of Marvel or DC.
    Interestingly I was given Fentanyl after a car accident and your description of how Schizophrenia works is very similar to how I experienced Fentanyl hallucinations. When I looked at something new my mind would grab the first explanation that surfaced no matter how wildly improbable it was and the identifications were stable, I couldn't change them even when I knew they were wrong.

  2. It is a genuinely fascinating melding of one kind of artistic skill and another kind of artistic skillessness--like the nightmarish cousin of Ditko's Mr A, whose highly effective art and dynamic scene composition is welded to trite Objectivist didactics. Or like if Francis E Dec happened to also be the greatest opera composer of the 20th century and set "Communist Frankenstein Computer God" to music.

    Going to be thinking about this for a long time.

  3. Something similar can be done in watercolours, I believe, but because water + paints behaves differently from the ink, you'd probably have to reshape the brush every time.
    Synthetic sable brushes are pretty good nowadays as well.

  4. Honestly, this book sounds quite fascinating and incredible, regardless of whether Sim is schizophrenic or not.