Biography lends to death a new terror – Oscar Wilde
Melmoth, the sixth and shortest of the separate ‘graphic novels’ that make up the work Cerebus, is, at two hundred pages, described by its author/co-artist Dave Sim as a ‘short story’, because it takes so little time to read in comparison with his longer, more obviously dense works. Melmoth is a huge departure from everything that Sim had done before in Cerebus, not advancing the plot of the main series at all until the epilogue, but rather telling the story of the death of Oscar Wilde through the letters of the friends who were with him in his last days.
On the surface Wilde may seem a strange subject for Dave “the feminist/homosexualist/islamofascist/Marxist conspiracy are reading my mind when I masturbate” Sim, but Melmoth is the work of a very different Sim to the one we have today – a man who had recently contributed a story to Alan Moore’s GLAAD compilation (a benefit comic to attack anti-gay laws in the UK), and who dedicated this work to a cousin of his who had recently died of AIDS. And Sim treats the subject with the respect that it deserves.
After the emotional climax of Jaka’s Story (still, to my mind, the single greatest graphic novel ever created, by quite a long way) Sim had a year to kill before getting back to his gigantic political-religious conspiracy plot, and so he decided to keep the title character sidelined (Cerebus himself had not appeared for a year at the start of Melmoth, having gone off to buy a bucket of paint at a crucial moment and missed the climax of Jaka’s Story), having Cerebus appear for a handful of comic relief pages each issue, completely catatonic after the shock of Jaka’s Story‘s ending, while Sim told the real story – the story of the death of Wilde, drinking himself to death under an assumed name in exile.
And it’s done beautifully. Other than some dialogue in the early pages, every detail of the story is taken directly from the letters of Wilde’s friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner, both dialogue and caption narration, with the only changes being the replacement of real-world place names with their comic-world equivalents (and the letters are reproduced in full in the end notes). We see Wilde slowly dying, starting off with him clearly ill but able to walk and converse, and ending with him emaciated and incoherent. Along the way he’s clearly trying to pretend, to himself as much as his friends, that he’s OK, but he looks visibly more distraught in almost every panel, as the realisation of his imminent death hits him, while also so tired he clearly almost welcomes death.
With little in the way of real writing to do, the story has to be carried by Sim and Gerhard’s art, and luckily they were both at their peak here. Sim, in particular, while he’s not doing the formal experimentation of earlier or later stories, manages to use an art style that is distinctly his own but also very strongly hints at Wilde’s contemporaries (some panels look to me exactly like Beardsley, though he denied any influence when I asked him about it in a chat on the Cerebus mailing list).
But it’s the fact of Sim not writing – as such – this story (about a writer who’s no longer able to write), that points to its deeper ‘message’. As much as Melmoth is about Wilde, in the wider context of Cerebus it’s about the impossibility of writing a true biography.
While Sim has always used real people in his stories (Mrs Thatcher, Mick ‘n’ Keef, Groucho Marx), Wilde is the only person who has become three separate characters in Cerebus. The character of ‘Oscar’ (no surname) appears in Jaka’s Story and, it’s later revealed, is the narrator of the bulk of the story. At the time of Melmoth‘s publication it was left ambiguous as to whether that Oscar and the one here were one and the same, though they’re physically dissimilar (‘Oscar’ was a baloonish caricature, while the Wilde here is a far more naturalistic drawing) and Wilde (in one of the few bits of original dialogue here) praises “Daughter of Palnu” (the book-within-a-book written by Oscar in Jaka’s Story). That ambiguity was later cleared up by an appearance of ‘Oscar’ in a couple of panels, still alive, but at the time of writing Sim thought the ambiguity an entirely good thing.
A third Wilde, under the name Lord Henry Wooton (to whom many of Wilde’s anecdotes, and Sim’s own pseudo-Wildean epigrams, are attributed), appears several times as well in Cerebus, but Wooton is a creature of text – he’s never drawn, we never see him, he’s just written about and talked about, and we draw our impressions of him from what other people say he said.
And this is the real crucial point about Melmoth, because what it’s really about is only apparent in the context of the wider work of which it’s a part, although some clues are given in the foreword and appendices to the collection, where Sim says:
Each biographer selects those elements of Wilde’s life he finds pertinent and, not incidentally,which reinforce whatever thesis he brings to the story.
It was only when I began drawing the last day, together, of Ross and Oscar Wilde that I became suspicious of his narrative…The fact that Reggie and the nurse had been asked to leave (I asked the nurse not to exist myself) meant that Ross was free to describe their good-bye in any way he saw fit
Sim was very deliberately fictionalising a narrative he already regarded as unreliable. But to understand why, you have to look at Jaka’s Story and Mothers And Daughters, the two longer graphic novels that come either side of this story. In Jaka’s Story, almost everything we think we’re being told in flashback turns out to be a novel written by ‘Oscar’, based on stories told him by Rick, who heard them from Jaka, who may be lying or misremembering herself – the supposedly-omniscient narrator is in fact giving us third- or fourth-hand fictionalised versions of the truth (except that there is no truth, of course, because it’s still a work of fiction). The one character who contradicts Oscar’s version, though, Jaka’s old nurse, is such an obviously-biased person that her word can’t be taken as truth, either.
Meanwhile in the next story, Mothers And Daughters, David Victor Sim introduces three new characters – two of whom are, like Henry Wooton, only known through text. The first is Viktor Reid, who is friends with Wooton and who lives through a very-vaguely fictionalised version of the early-’90s comic scene. The second is Victor Davis, who writes and draws a comic called Cerebus, and whose views on women made the majority of Sim’s readership disappear, and who makes public in the text of the comic the extra-marital affair of at least one prominent then-married comic writer, among other indiscretions. And finally there’s ‘Dave’, a voice from the void who, in the couple of panels at the end of the story where he’s seen, looks like Sim, and who can converse with Cerebus and has complete control over his world (the similarities to Morrison’s Animal Man climax are probably due more than anything to both having seen Duck Amuck).
So Sim is almost using Wilde as a ‘fiction suit’ – both as a foreshadowing of the big scene fifty issues later where ‘Dave’ and Cerebus finally talk, but also as a way of reifying the view Sim took until he got a religious component to his mental illness – that there is no single truth, but a plurality of part-truths, and all we can do is examine everything that’s presented to us and try to see things from as many angles as possible.
Wilde’s death is also, of course, the half-way mark of Cerebus, and Wilde’s death – estranged from his family and most of his friends, his reputation in tatters, incoherent and unable to write – is presumably meant to mirror Cerebus’ death at the end of the full 6000-page story, with Cerebus dying ‘alone, unmourned and unloved’. One can only hope that Sim’s own rejection of nearly all human contact won’t lead to the same fate for him, no matter how much he may appear to wish for it.
Because for all that Sim’s work at its peak argues there is no true truth, there still really was a man called Oscar Wilde, he really did die in a manner something like the drawings in this book, and as the book makes clear, it wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t poetic, it was a lonely man rotting away from the inside. And it’s a tribute to the book’s strength that for all its cleverness, its fictional setting, its deliberate lies and misreported facts, and its larger point, that truth still comes through and makes us care for a man who died more than a hundred years ago, represented by a few ink lines.
I would really appreciate feedback, especially from my politically-aware female readers, for this and the next few Cerebus posts, even if you don’t know anything about Cerebus. I am very aware of my white male privilege, and I am talking about works that are incredibly problematic in every conceivable way, but for which I have an absolute adoring love. I could *very* easily fall here into being That Bloke, and I don’t want to…
This is part one of what will, I think, be a three- or four-part series on Cerebus. I’ve noticed a number of comic bloggers recently start talking, rather cautiously, about Cerebus as one of the great comics again. For a long time very, very few people have publicly stated a liking for Dave Sim’s 300-issue story about an aardvark, and it’s gratifying to see that, now the series has been over for a few years, people are slowly starting to put it in its proper perspective.
For those of you who don’t know about comics, the problem with Cerebus is that its creator, Dave Sim, is incredibly, unbelievably misogynist. His widely-publicised views are so repellent that many people absolutely refuse to even consider reading his comic work, because they don’t want to give money to anyone who espouses those views (a stance I can absolutely understand – I boycott Nestle, try to boycott Coke, and where possible given their near-monopoly on public transport in this city I refuse to give money to Stagecoach (whose CEO has donated money to groups teaching creationism and trying to get rid of homosexual rights) so I quite agree that this is a perfectly reasonable stance to take). Others, less reasonably, refuse to admit that there could possibly be anything good in the work of someone with such repellent views.
For many comics fans, this misogyny is the defining feature of Sim’s views and work – a view not helped by the vocal coterie of online fans he has who seem to think that making public claims that women should be denied the vote, or going on to Gail Simone’s message board and calling her a fat cunt, are ways to increase public respect for Sim’s work.
But Sim presents a more interesting case than most for discussing whether it’s possible to separate the artist and the art. In the first place – and it’s a minor point – he’s not the only creator of the Cerebus comics. Gerhard, the background artist, has never supported Sim’s views (though he did, until relatively recently, tacitly support Sim-the-person) and did a huge amount of work which does deserve reward. In fact at the moment I think he’s getting all of the money from current Cerebus sales, as Sim is buying out his share of Aardvark-Vanaheim, their publishing company.
Also, Sim apparently lives a spartan life with little or nothing in the way of luxuries, and gives very large amounts of money to charity, so your money is very unlikely to be of any benefit to him anyway.
But these are minor points. The main question, in my view, is to what extent Sim is responsible for his own views. This is a trickier question than it might seem. Most comic fans just know of SIm as a misogynist, but this is primarily because the vast majority of people reading the comic dropped it after issue 186, where Sim first advanced his then ‘thesis’ that women were soul-sucking voids destroying the ‘inner male light’ that was the basis for all creative work and all civilisation.
And reading that essay, or some of the others he published around that time, it is quite possible to see Sim as just a misogynist arsehole, and even to see how he might have come by his views ‘rationally’. He was an intelligent man, but not particularly educated, and very interested in Big Ideas. Almost all his social life was based around comics fans and creators, who are a self-selecting group that is overwhelmingly male and (at least in the circles Sim was moving in, people like Rick Veitch, Chester Brown, Neil Gaiman and so on) more intelligent than average, while most of the women he socialised with were his girlfriends, chosen primarily for their physical attractiveness. You can see how someone in that situation could come to the conclusion that women are just less capable of thought than men. (This is not – NOT – to say it’s a defensible conclusion. Just that it appears to be one that one could come to while still remaining more-or-less rational, given Sim’s circumstances).
But having dropped the comic, most people didn’t see the evidence of Sim’s increasing mental deterioration. Sim had had a spell in a psychiatric hospital in the late 1970s, and later claimed that he spent most of the 80s ‘faking’ ‘normalcy’ – acting normal to fit in, while secretly holding many of the opinions for which he was later ostracised. He also, for the whole of the 80s and much of the early 90s, smoked *huge* amounts of cannabis.
Even without knowing these facts, though, it’s apparent in retrospect that SIm’s views on women are not the aberrant and abhorrent views of an otherwise rational man, as they appeared when he first went public with them. Since that time, he has announced that he has found a secret hidden meaning in the King James version of the Bible (and also in the Koran) which ‘proves’ that all of history is a conflict between God and a transsexual demiurge who is the YHWH of the Bible and lives in the middle of the Earth. This demiurge also caused the 2004 tsunami as a result of Sim revealing the ‘truth’ in his comic, as well as possessing many people around him and making them think he was mad. Sim also gave up masturbation because he believes YHWH gives psychic powers to women, which they use to read men’s minds while they are masturbating.
A typical example of Sim’s ‘reasoning’, from Collected Letters 2004, Vol 1:
I think YHWH’s contribution back in the early 60s was Peter, Paul and Mary. I mean it is a way of looking at Christianity; seeing Peter, Paul and Mary as the three cornerstones after Jesus. Of course, being YHWH her point was; if you have Peter, Paul and Mary, what do you need Jesus for? I think this amused God a great deal – to the extent that he countered with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Paul, of course,was actually James: James Paul McCartney. So John and James were the leaders of the band, like the sons of Zebedee, John and James, the brothers Boanerges, the sons of thunder[…] So it was a good joke that on the cusp of becoming famous John and James had ditched Peter, Pete Best, the drummer since this is basically what the biblical John and James had attempted to do with Peter the apostle[…] Now, having ditched Peter, that meant that you had three kings or a Ring of Stars (Ringo Starr)[…]The Beatles were the template that attracted their own disciples, the Rolling Stones, which was another play, in my view, on the fact that there had been a pool of disciples for the two Jesus’. There was Peter, Cephas, the rock or stone, but he rolled back and forth between the two Jesus'[…]
Both bands, by the way, noticed the James and John connection and were led to wonder: in that case, who was Jesus? The conclusion was Brian Epstein. Which conclusion, I think, led to the premature demise of the Beatles manager and the exiled member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones. And, of course, later on Monty Python with the financing of George Harrison incarnated the viewpoint[… etc ad infinitum]
Now, I have no formal psychiatric qualifications so wouldn’t want to speculate publicly on what diagnosis, if any, someone would give Sim based on this kind of thing, but I’ve had a lot of experience working with people with mental illnesses (I worked as a nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward for a couple of years fairly recently) and I’ll just say that this stuff sounds awfully familiar.
So how responsible is Sim for his views on women, and to what extent are they even ‘his’ views, as opposed to ‘his illness” views? Does that question even make sense? Should one boycott his work for his views, or would that be punishing someone for their mental illness?
This wouldn’t matter were Sim’s work the kind of ‘outsider art’ one normally associates with this kind of statement – reading Sim’s writings, one would get the impression that his work would be the comic equivalent of Wesley Willis or Wild Man Fischer or at best Charles Manson’s music – interesting far more for what it says about the mental state of the creator than for any quality of the work. But the fact is, Sim is the single most talented comic creator I’ve ever known of. I would take Sim’s work over the complete work of *any two* of, say, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Chris Ware, Eddie Campbell, Darwyn Cooke, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, J.H. Williams and George Herriman. No exaggeration.
So, can I possibly justify promoting work by someone who considers many – most – of the people I know, love and admire to be literally Satanic and subhuman? Or can I justify *NOT* promoting work that would significantly enrich the lives of those same people to a great extent?
I’m very torn about this… but I’m going to go ahead and look at Cerebus as a whole work over the next few days…