On the afternoon of September 6, 1956, famed cartoonist Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, took fellow artist Stan Drake’s new Corvette out for a spin through rural Connecticut. Raymond lost control of the car and smashed into a tree. He was killed instantly. Drake survived, though spent months recovering from his injuries.
Those are the facts at the center of one of the most intense and obsessive graphic novels ever created, The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, by Dave Sim and Carson Grubaugh, released this week from Living the Line Books. That this book is seeing print at all is something of a miracle, considering the financial, physical and psychological cost it exacted from nearly everyone involved over the past decade.
First some quick background: Dave Sim made a name for himself in the comics business in the late 70s and early 80s as a pioneer in self-publishing. His series Cerebus began as a spoof of then-popular sword and sorcery comics, but soon became a sprawling epic encompassing social, political, philosophical and literary themes. Sim also pioneered the now-standard practice of collecting back issues into trade paperbacks so fans could catch up on the series or read story arcs in their entirety. In its mid-80s heyday, Sim’s Aardvark Vanaheim publishing enterprise had some of the biggest sales in the business and Sim was lauded as a champion of creator rights. But in the early 1990s, Cerebus began to lose readers due to increasingly obscure and slow-moving storylines and Sim’s embrace of a particularly pointed brand of anti-feminism. By the time Cerebus reached its landmark 300th issue conclusion in 2004, it died – as Sim himself has prophesied of his character – alone, unmourned and unloved. Since then, Sim has labored more or less in obscurity, rehashing bits of Cerebus mythology for a shrinking cadre of fans from his perch in southern Ontario.
In this context, it’s fairly easy to understand why the story of a popular and influential cartoonist at the peak of his career literally slamming full speed into a tree might hold some fascination for Dave Sim. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in this endlessly complex and fascinating work.
SDOAR began as a serialized feature in the back pages of a comic called Glamourpuss, which Sim published in the late aughts. Sim had become fascinated by a style of comic art popular in the 1950s and 60s known as photorealism, which used meticulous linework with the pen or brush to simulate the visual dynamics and detail of photography. Alex Raymond pioneered this style with his noir-style detective strip Rip Kirby, and it was soon taken up by other cartoonists such as Drake, Al Williamson and Neal Adams, who added their own refinements.
Sim centered his exploration of this art style on the story of Raymond’s untimely death and some unanswered questions about the relationship between Raymond, Drake and his fellow cartoonists. Through a very close reading of the strips, some historical details about the era and minute examination of the artistic techniques necessary to achieve the effects, he wove an oddly compelling story suggesting an intense rivalry among this group of cartoonists played out in the pages of comic strips running day by day in the pages of the nation’s newspapers.
Glamourpuss petered out in the early 2010s, leaving the story unfinished. Sim promised to collect and conclude his saga as a graphic novel. Unsatisfied with the artwork from the earlier strips, he decided to redraw everything duplicating the techniques of photorealism that he had mastered. IDW Publishing entered into an agreement to release the book and paid Sim a large advance. However, in 2015, Sim was stricken with a painful condition that prevented him from holding his pen for more than a few minutes at a time. Work stopped dead and it looked like SDOAR would never see the light of day.
Several attempts were made to revive the project through crowdfunding, but that also appeared to be a dead end. Then word came earlier this year that a finished edition would be published, with the final pages completed by artist Carson Grubaugh from Sim’s layouts and notes. However, those expecting a collection of the previously-serialized story were in for a surprise.
The graphic novel surrounds the story’s initial premise with additional layers of meta-commentary and speculation, rendered in an elaborate art style bristling with details and visual references. The new work is less of a straightforward investigation into a historical mystery and more of a wide-ranging examination of connections between art, ways of seeing, and the world. These meditations amplify into a fever-dream vortex that threatens to consume Sim, and eventually Grubaugh. SDOAR is ultimately a cautionary tale about staring too long at the little lines that make up our picture of reality, and what happens when those lines start staring back. Reading the book’s 320 densely-packed pages, it is easy to see why it broke its author(s).
Sim’s original serialized story was disjointed, complex and full of digressions, but it is a model of clarity compared to the graphic novel. The new framing structures that Sim has grafted on to the narrative self-consciously play with his reputation, his pariah status, his awareness of his own obsessive and alienating tendencies and the madness-inducing quality of his work. Every panel poses additional challenges to readers trying to untangle the plate of spaghetti Sim has strewn in front of them, with Sim’s insistent narrative voice ranting on in the background about synchronicities and weird convergences.
Those willing to grapple with all the bullshit are rewarded with something that is possessed by genius. Sim’s intellect runs at a very high rev, even if it is often careening off the road and crashing into trees. SDOAR is crammed with erudite references that draw random events into crazy patterns, and the art deliberately mimics the work of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other cartoonists in the course of elaborating on Sim’s thesis. Its pages are so dense with text and lines they would repel water. The closest literary equivalents are Joyce’s Finnigan’s Wake or the philosophical writings of Martin Heidegger, and as with those notoriously difficult works, you must be prepared compartmentalize what you know about the author’s persona and ideology to appreciate them.
These days, that’s a bigger ask than usual. Sim remains a polarizing figure in comics. His work in general, and this book in particular (for different reasons), are not for everyone, and this review is by no means an endorsement of him or his beliefs. The fact of the matter, though, is that Sim, love him or hate him, has created a work of incredible virtuosity and ambition, one that commands our attention even as it teases, aggravates and confuses our efforts to make sense of it. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is not a perfect book, but its imperfections make it fascinating: As fascinating as a car crash.
The Strange Death of Alex Raymond (hardcover, 320 pages, $39.99) by Dave Sim and Carson Grubaugh, with an introduction by Eddie Campbell, is available August 3, 2021, from Living the Line.
Publisher Sean Michael Robinson and artist Carson Grubaugh discuss the making of The Strange Death of Alex Raymond with Rob Salkowitz at the Graphic Novels Lost and Found panel of Comic-Con @Home 2021, starting at 25:00 in the clip below.