Melmoth is the sixth 'phonebook', and fourth or fifth story arc (depending on if you count the first 25 issues) in the Cerebus series by Dave Sim and Gerhard. This was the first shorter collection, being only 248 pages plus appendices, as opposed to the 600+ pages of the earlier collections, leading to it being subtitled "A short story" (a fact that Sim made much fun of in the 'notes from the president' section of the monthly comic, given the typical length of a 'graphic novel'). But it reads like a short story - you can read this in an hour, but like the best short stories it's worth reading and rereading.

While this ran for 11 issues in the monthly Cerebus comic, Cerebus himself is a bit player in this story, as in the previous arc, Jaka's Story, in which Cerebus appears in two panels of the last 194 pages of the story. In this case, Cerebus takes a back seat as the story turns to the death of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar (no second name given) had appeared in the previous story arc, Jaka's Story, as the narrator of much of the book and as a writer of 'Reads' (the equivalent in Cerebus' world of comics), who ended up serving two years' hard labour for writing without a licence . To Sim, although he at this time hadn't developed the homophobic attitudes shown in his later essays, Wilde's downfall was a case of 'society vs artist' rather than 'society vs homosexual'. To quote from the foreword to the Jaka's Story collection:

I was asked by one of the dimmer bulbs in comics journalism if this was my first use of a homosexual character in Cerebus. The question is ill-founded for I never considered Oscar a "homosexual character" per se (though homosexualist he is). First, last and always (to me) he is an Artist and the tragedy which befell Wilde, I can't view in any other context than 'Society vs the Artist'

Oscar had been a minor character in Jaka's Story, a parody of Wilde, constantly repeating bon mots about people out of earshot, and exhibiting the most extreme snobbery. The Oscar in this story may or may not be the same character. Both characters bear an obvious physical resemblance to Wilde, but bear little resemblance to each other, not enough time had elapsed in the story to account for Oscar's release from prison, and the Oscar in Melmoth speaks of a book written by the Oscar in Jaka's Story in apparent ignorance of the author.

From Dave Sim: The Usenet Interview:

That was left intentionally ambiguous. If you go by the length of Jaka's hair between issues 75 and 114, Cerebus was on the moon for a longer time than it appeared, or was wandering around dazed for two years. The Oscar character in "Melmoth" refers to the author of "Jaka's Story" as a separate person. This was one of the instances where I was ambiguous with a capital 'A'; manufacturing two separate, irresolvable interpretations. Nothing frustrates me more than the twentieth century adherence to the notion that you can find out what 'actually happened' and that it is necessary for fiction to set out a linear, quantitative and absolute reality for the readers consumption and assurance. I think EVERYTHING is like the Kennedy assassination(s); riddled with inconsistencies, false trails, overlapping stories and considerations; distortions wrapped inside fabrications and coated with lies. The sooner we get over the idea that reality isn't like this, the sooner we'll be able to put together a world that fits our circumstances as they are; not as they never were and will never be. I'm not holding my breath.

There is also the fact that in the next volume, Flight, a character called Oscar is heard from - but never seen properly - in a prison. This character is not given enough dialogue for us to be sure if he is the Oscar from Jaka's Story or a second/third character of that name.

Whether they are the same character or not, Oscar is treated very differently in this story. The bulk of the text comes from letters by Wilde's friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner (reprinted in the appendices), with only place-names (and the name of the dominant religion) changed, and a few references to 19th century inventions such as the telegraph excised. The story covers the last few days of Wilde's life, told in mostly-silent black and white images, with very few images per page. Early in the story, while Oscar is still comparatively healthy, some dialogue and scenes are made up, but from page 45 onwards all the 'Oscar' scenes have narration and dialogue taken entirely from the letters.

And this is beautiful stuff. The scene of Wilde's last words to Robert Ross, with just three panels on the page closing in on his sagging, ill face as he talks about getting better, while we can see in his eyes he knows the truth about his condition, and with his words getting slowly smaller in the speech bubbles, is a triumph for Sim as an artist and letterer, while Gerhard's backgrounds are themselves miniature masterpieces. This is a true rarity in comics, a real person, dying a real death, in a touching yet dignified manner. One is tempted to misquote Wilde's own views on the death of Little Nell - no-one could laugh at this death scene, protracted over 11 months in the original comic - and it just shows how far Sim had come from the poor Conan parody of the first few issues, a decade earlier.

Cerebus, meanwhile, the nominal star of the comic, is barely in evidence. He exists in a subplot, totally separate from the main plot, in which various regular characters (Mick 'n' Keef, Normal Roach etc) feature briefly while Cerebus is still near-catatonic from shock at the ending to Jaka's Story - that is until a few pages before the end, when he hears two people who were responsible for Jaka's fate talking, and guts them before running from pursuing Cirinists. But he is really there as comic relief in what is otherwise a bleakly beautiful meditation on death, art, and wasted lives, Oscar's final illness showing deliberate parallels with AIDS (Sim's cousin Ron, who died of AIDS,is one of the book's dedicatees).

This book was the end of the first, 'feminine', half of the 300-issue Cerebus story, finishing in issue 150. Many people consider that the comic began its downward spiral directly after this storyline, with the beginning of the 'masculine' half of the story, and the subsequent emphasis on Sim's misogyny and homophobia. I have yet to read the last half of the story (I will node those books as I read them), but even if this was the last good book Sim did, it's a work of art that has yet to be equalled in the comic medium.

Previous 'phonebook' - Jaka's Story
Next 'phonebook' - Flight

Jaka's Story (Dave Sim & Gerhard, Aardvark-Vanaheim, collected 1990)
Melmoth (Dave Sim & Gerhard, Aardvark-Vanaheim, collected 1991)
Dave Sim: The Usenet Interview -

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.