Cerebus Vol 6: Melmoth (1991)
Art by Dave Sim & GerhardGRAPHIXIA:
(from a review by Brenna Clarke Gray posted at Graphixia, 20 March 2012)
I love Oscar Wilde.
Of course, who doesn't? Announcing an adoration for Wilde is about as controversial as declaring that sunshine is pleasant or cookies are delicious. Are there Oscar haters even out there? I can’t imagine it. But I’ve aways felt a particular affinity for the man, and for a short period in my life considered being a Victorianist exclusively so I could work on Wilde (and then I saw all the other stuff I’d have to read and thought again).
So when we decided we were doing a Cerebus cycle, I knew immediately that I was going to focus on [volume] 6, Melmoth.
By the time Melmoth comes along, Cerebus needs some downtime. He believes Jaka is dead and, basically, he's catatonic. And in his state, he ends up at a café near the hotel where Oscar Wilde is living out the last days of his life. "Melmoth" was the alias Wilde lived under in Paris after he was released for Reading Gaol, and that’s where the title of this issue comes from. In Cerebus's monomythic cycle of the hero, I suppose this issue fulfills the role of an apotheosis; Cerebus is resting up for his return to battle (though he doesn't know it in the moment). As a result, we get an exquisitely beautiful and touching interlude about the final days of Oscar Wilde's life.
Dave Sim intersperses excerpts from Robert Ross’s letters about Wilde's declining condition with images of Wilde's suffering body and Cerebus's catatonia. One of the most striking things about this is the way Sim constructs the dying Wilde to be, well, frankly grotesque. Which is, one supposes, as it should be; Wilde is wasting away as he dies slowly and painfully of meningitis. But how often do we see cultural representations of Wilde looking ugly? It's jarring to see a representation of our favourite aesthete brought degraded and low.
This choice to make Wilde look, well, human and fallible in his death is an interesting one, as is the choice to have this story told not by Cerebus (the protagonist of the larger story) or Wilde himself (ever the performance artist and protagonist in the drama of his own life), but by Robert Ross. Ross, a Canadian journalist and critic, was Wilde's companion in his final days (and off-and-on through his life); Ross is a side-kick figure in the historical record, known more for his role as Wilde's literary executor than for any of his own works. I think this is important. With both our protagonists fallen silent for a time, Ross fills in where neither Cerebus nor Wilde is able.
Wilde rendered both silent and ugly is a drastic departure from his cultural role. But it's an important one, given that Sim seems to parallel Wilde's death with Cerebus snapping out of his catatonia. Indeed, it is not until the epilogue that Cerebus finds both voice and action, the very things that Wilde has been robbed of throughout the text.
When people talk about the resurgence of interest in Oscar Wilde, especially in the 1990s, they often talk in terms of a resurrection; not a biblical one, of course (though imagine!), but a resurrection of reputation. Wilde was great, then brought low, but is now pretty much universally thought of as great again. His death, paradoxically, became the first step towards his reparation. Likewise, Wilde's death becomes a catalyst for Cerebus's own reanimation; not until after Wilde dies is he able to snap out of his disconnected state. In fact, he sits and witnesses the funeral procession but immediately afterwards drifts off to sleep, seemingly for the first time since his arrival. Wilde's death releases Cerebus into sleep; when he awakens, it is to overhear a conversation that jolts him into deadly action and he is back on his own quest. But Wilde's death spurs on that rebirth, much as it spurred on his own.
If you love Oscar Wilde, Melmoth is puzzling and upsetting but ultimately quite moving. Sim forces us to renegotiate some of our ideas about who Wilde was and what his final days were like. There is little of Wilde's wit and whimsy here, and a whole lot of tragedy and sorrow. But it's a choice that both humanizes Wilde and mythologizes Cerebus, allowing them to share in the power of the death of Oscar Wilde.
Graphixia is 'A Conversation About Comics' hosted by Brenna Clarke Gray, Scott Marsden, Peter Wilkins and David N. Wright.