Okay, let's get down to brass tacks: Dave Sim gets lazy. I mean, I get it. Taking three decades of your life and putting it into a public project, it's understandable. We all get lazy. Dave Sim can be one of the most expressive and insightful cartoonists, and he can turn around and be one of the laziest and ugliest. I have cringed at some of his character drawings. Pages later he has the mastery of some of the funniest faces in the business.
Hey, it happens.
But somebody who was along for almost the entire ride NEVER got lazy. His name was Gerhard and his artwork is simply stunning:
Behind Sim's stiff and studied art is a lush, immaculate and enticing world. There is such a sense of place in Cerebus, and it is ALL because of Gerhard's art.
Gerhard sort of appeared and disappeared. I haven't found any info on what he did prior to Cerebus. Two years after the series finished he sold his shares to Dave Sim. I haven't seen any mention of work he did since the completion of Cerebus. Like some stranger in an old western, he rides into town and leaves with the sunset without a trace. And nobody mentions his name, it is always eclipsed by Dave Sim's mad genius.
When he began working on Cerebus the equation was suddenly complete. It became iconic and inviting in this incredible way. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks a little about the super-cartoony character in a world of detailed rendering and how that juxtaposition invites the reader even further into the comic. I won't get into specifics, but Cerebus is one of the comics where that is absolutely true.
Compare this. It is all (early) Dave Sim:
To this... All Gerhard:Yes, the draftsmanship gets better and better with both of them, but even late in the game, Dave Sim would simply draw crap and it really sticks out over Gerhard's "backgrounds."
Now this is where I think the weirdness begins. Why do so many comics artists have this chasm between characters on this screen of a stage, the "background" just filler for their characters? I feel this too in my work. I'm not saying it's a particularly bad thing. Many greats couldn't be bothered with anything but white space behind their characters... and it works! But are we so vain and bored with the world around us that we treat it as noise? It's a weird phenomenon and so prevalent in many types of art (in music, we favor the voice, the singer over everything, flip through a magazine and see elaborate frames for bodies, dance of course, etc).
What Cerebus does is a little different. It creates and awkward space with its confrontational ugliness both spiritually and physically.
This misogynist zip-a-toned aardvark and other characters are ugly, sometimes honestly, sometimes just poorly drawn. So Cerebus creates this weird inversion that forces you to stop looking at the characters and go further into the world. You find yourself politely staring at the wallpaper or averting your eyes. You shouldn't point or whisper.
Later as the series was nearing its end, Gerhard began taking photographs and using them for the covers. Perhaps this is mistaken for laziness, but photography is no simple feat (this is before digital, keep in mind). This was out of his element, and with all the variables that could go wrong with light, exposure, framing and so on, it was probably more difficult that cranking out more cross-hatching and architecture. I think this is actually more of the awkwardness, the confrontation. It was a weird landscape photograph in muted colors in the midst of flying fists and space races and mutants. It was anti-comics. It was elegiac.
It was no longer trying to tell you something.