|Phonebook Volume #6|
|Collects Issues: 139 - 150|
|1st Printing||410 copies|
|Date of 1st Print||October 1991|
|# of Pages||248|
Comics Interview #107
Dave on the basis for Melmoth
Dave: "Cerebus in MELMOTH was very autobiographical. I don't usually s tray too far over into autobiography per se, but certainly the sort of stunned quality that he had in MELMOTH. . .I had just come out of a particularly troublesome relationship where, basically, I went to Peter's Place just about every night and sat and started at the wall full of bottles and drank my beer. That's the club that is owned by Dino. Janice worked there up until last week. Doris works there. That was about as close as I had ever gotten to autobiography. I wasn't clutching a doll and a sword but I might as well have; in a figurative sense, that's exactly what I was doing. People knew me well enough not to come up and talk to me and that went on for months. Aside from that, I just worked."
Death in Melmoth
Steve B: "Yeah, MELMOTH was an amazing meditation on mortality." Dave: "It was a lot of little deaths. I was trying to show how, over the course of our lives, we die a lot of times in a lot of different ways before we get the big enchilada. Things expire out of your life that aren't going to be there anymore and they can be as small as an acquaintance or a s big as your basic faith in yourself, whatever it is. And death tends to be abrupt. Death tends to be be the inner part of the vortex. it's not a lazy, swirling, circular motion. It's a rapid rotation just before bye-bye. I tried to portray that as accurately as possible. It was nice to sort of slide that one in there, a quick 12 issues with exactly that kind of meditation feel to it. Because t hat sets up for Birth and Re-birth."
12/04: Q1. Given that Melmoth was the first Cerebus story-arc to incorporate large amounts of story from other sources (which of course happened quite frequently later on), how much did you have to change your writing techniques/style/practices to incorporate outside material, and what effect, if any, did doing that have on your overall writing style?
DAVE: Well, my primary experience was that the Oscar Wilde portions of Melmoth didn’t really constitute writing in the conventional sense, it was more of an illustrated journalism. The late Will Eisner (God rest his soul) when I gave him a copy of Chet’s Louis Riel before our three-way “graphic novelists” panel at Torontocon this past June made the excellent point that Riel can’t be considered a graphic novel, because it isn’t fiction. He suggested graphic narrative as the encompassing term which would include both fiction and non-fiction graphic stories. Of course, that still leaves open the question of whether there is a non-fiction counterpart term to the term graphic novel. That is, the term “graphic novel” is to the term “fiction” as “graphic narrative” is to the term “book” and as the term “x” is to the term “non-fiction”.
I had to change the narrative tone of the book to make it work, so the biggest challenge was—as it was pretty much all the way through the Cerebus storyline—to ignore the cries of “This sucks!” and the steadily declining circulation and to keep telling the story the way I thought it needed to be told. Things like the street-sweeper dusting Cerebus off. I’d start trying to do it in two or three panels and think, No, that’s not the way you do it, you have to slow it down. Because the Cerebus story and the Oscar Wilde story might as well have been taking place on different planets—the only things that linked them were the unhappy content and the glacial slow pace—I was able to alternate the textures of the two different ways of telling a story, the one of which was very familiar and the other of which was not familiar. It was a lot easier than incorporating Oscar Wilde into Jaka’s Story, let’s say. There I had to make Rick and Jaka and Oscar Wilde and Cerebus seem as if they belonged together on the page which was tough because I had never seen it done successfully. Usually in a comic book story, if you introduce a real-life person the real-life person sticks out like a sore thumb, they’re drawn more tentatively to try and achieve a likeness and their dialogue is usually very mechanical both of which seem to stem from an unnecessary level of reverence. Doing Oscar Wilde as a good character in Jaka’s Story is a very different ambition from doing a reverential treatment of Oscar Wilde.
Q2. To what extent did the artistic style in Melmoth dictate the subject matter, and vice versa? Many pages seem to be very Beardsleyesque in quality - did the desire to do some pages in that style come first, or was this purely due to Wilde's association with Beardsley?
DAVE: I’d be interested in knowing which pages you found “Beardsleyesque”. I was certainly aware of Aubrey Beardsley’s work through Jaka’s Story and Melmoth but he had too much of a core perception of the “illustration as the totality of the narrative” to be a touchstone for a sequential narrative, in my view. There’s certainly a sense of everyone being “rooted” in their place in the page—partly as a means of slowing things down—which might be thematically linked with Beardsley. I considered using some of his flourishes and affectations but there was always the problem of making it fit with what Gerhard was doing in the background that would compel me to stick to much narrower parameters of the literalism “straight and narrow” than “doing” Beardsley would have allowed, I think. If I was to show Gerhard Beardsley’s Salomé pictures, as an example, and say “here’s what we’re doing on this page” the reaction would be that it was wrong. The perspectives and the proportions are off because Beardsley was doing the Whole Picture in a fine art sense, rather than a composed picture in a geometric sense. Beardsley’s picture’s design was the content was the shape was the point was the outline was the relationship of black to white was the perspective was the proportion, was the idea, was the net effect etc. etc. To communicate that to Gerhard bearing Gerhard’s working methods in mind I’d have to find some analogous background “look” with structure to it—probably Virgil Finlay. Finlay was the logical outcome of Beardsley’s approach if you’re looking at the style from Gerhard’s side of the fence. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I steered Gerhard toward pointillism in the course of the book. He’s so thorough that that just constitutes needless cruelty unless you have a solid motivation for it: like the single instance of showing in The Last Day how blurred Cerebus’ vision had become. I had to do one panel on my own to show him “Go deep into the page, but not too deep, about this deep—don’t hurt yourself.” If I just said “Cerebus’ vision is really blurry so do that whole end of the room in pointillism,” he’d do it and it would be mind-boggling but it would take him five or six days and he would need stomach surgery by the end of it.
I’d say if there’s anything that I took away from Beardsley it was his artistic irreverence for Wilde since, as I say, a reverent treatment would have been the kiss of death. He did Oscar as one of the figures in one of the Salomé pictures and it sure wasn’t something Oscar would have put on his Christmas cards that year. He had a very low opinion of Wilde and Wilde had a low opinion of Beardsley. One of Wilde’s letters concerns the scandalous number of telegrams they sent each other when they had their famous “set to” over Wilde’s critiques of Beardsley’s drawings for Salomé. I think it was Salomé, anyway. Trying to get the last word in at each other so that the telegraph company was delivering message after message after message which would certainly be enough to attract the wrong sort of notice in Wilde’s Chelsea neighbourhood. Wilde considered Beardsley’s work Byzantine and thus inappropriate for illustrating his own work. Wilde still saw pictures through Whistler’s eyes—faux Orientalism was his forte. Beardsley either wasn’t far enough East, for Wilde, or he was too far East depending on which way you were traveling. They were, as Old Joe put it in A Christmas Carol “well met”. There was an intrinsically grotesque quality to Beardsley’s work that suited the degradation Wilde had embarked upon and which he was attempting to wed to his inherent love of beautiful things. Beardsley is arguably the prettiest illustrator of grotesqueries from that or any other time period. The fact that everyone else thought the grotesque look of Beardsley’s work was very well suited to what Wilde was writing should have set off warning bells for Wilde, but didn’t.
Q3. Please discuss the use of a similar, yet slightly different Oscar in Melmoth and how you see him in relation to the other Oscar Wilde “echoes” you've brought up, including Jaka's Story's Oscar and Reads’ Sir Henry Wotton?
DAVE: “Sir Henry Wotton?” I thought. “What the hell is Sir Henry Wotton doing in Reads?” I had to go get a copy and flip through it. I had completely forgotten that part. Had myself snickering pretty good reading it aloud. “Many…satisfactory dealings.” That’s a good instance of being partly autobiographical at least in the observational sense. Jeez, no wonder all these guys just trying to make a living in the comic-book field hate my guts. I mean, there’s the danger. If you are as fortunate as I am—and was—not to have to go out and ‘turn tricks’ to put food on the table, it’s certainly—at one level or another— amusing to watch the mating rituals between publishers and creators. It’s a little less amusing to have one of them come sniffing around your crotch at a convention or a trade show when you’re a self-publisher and you don’t “do” that, but it’s also incredibly insensitive to document it as a thinly-veiled fiction. The fact that I chose Oscar Wilde to deliver the monologue—Sir Henry Wotton, as I recall, is the name of the Oscar doppelganger in The Picture of Dorian Gray—should’ve set off warning bells for me, but didn’t. I was still trying, good-naturedly, to point out the inherent danger in living that way. Whether you’re flattering yourself that you’re a ‘gun-for-hire” or facing the fact that most publishers, like johns, use up creators as if they were five-dollar hookers and throw them away like used Kleenex; and, seriously, no offense intended, just a friendly warning…except there really is no “friendly” way to warn someone about a foundational circumstance like that. The warning itself is completely “unfriendly”—like my choice to be warning guys about how Draconian post-1970 family law is. I’d better stop talking about this now before everyone gets offended again. The answer to the question is that Sir Henry Wotton was intended as Victor Reid’s fictionalized version of Estarcion’s Oscar from Jaka’s Story or the Oscar from Melmoth—he could be either one—and Victor Reid met him exactly the way it’s documented here.
The “Two Oscars” problem is attributable to the fact that I had made the decision to use Wilde as a character in Jaka’s Story before I was too many pages into Ellman’s biography and the character took shape around the pre-debacle Oscar, including the “no artistic license” gag at the end. Of course, once I read the end of the book, I realized that that was going to strike a particularly sour note if it was left as the last that we see of Oscar Wilde. It would be like fictionalizing JFK and Jackie in the summer of 1963 sailing off Hyannis Port and having as the last line Jackie saying, dreamily, “How splendid the second term is going to be…how very…splendid.” It goes beyond irony and intrudes upon the willfully (sorry for the recurrent term) grotesque. I wasn’t prepared to throw any part of Jaka’s Story overboard because of those kinds of sensitivities, so that meant that I had to address it in the little Metaphorical Death book that concludes in issue 150. I toyed with the idea of making it the same Oscar but I thought that would stretch credibility to the breaking point. If you already know your character is going to be sitting in a catatonic trance for a year’s worth of issues, it’s very difficult to start that year-long storyline with a caption that reads “Meanwhile…Two years later…” I was already working out mentally just how slow I could make the story and how few genuine incidents I had to have take place to sustain the narrative. That one caption would have required an increase in the number of incidents taking place because the uppermost question in the reader’s mind would have been, “He already said ‘Meanwhile two years later…’ why are we seeing so much of Year Three when nothing happened then, either?” (everybody sing) “This SUCKS!” The only other solution was that they were two different Oscars which, in the way I saw the world at that time, was less far-fetched than it would seem on the surface. The emotional cataclysm in Cerebus’ life and its effect on the whatever-it-was-that-was-inhabiting-him would’ve functioned as a gravitational force—nature abhors a vacuum—and would naturally draw people into proximity to him in an attempt to fill the gap that was left and to replace what’s now missing. There’s no more Rick, in the story. Instead, Rick is represented by normalroach who’s only there for an issue and is gone. That’s basically what Rick is going through off-stage somewhere, that level of anger and fear and most of it directed at Jaka, Mrs. Thatcher and women in general. Jaka’s there, only now she’s much smaller and she’s now a waitress instead of a dancer—Doris. Pud’s there, only he’s much sleazier—Dino. Oscar’s there, but he’s much older and he’s down the street and he’s dying. The fact that Oscar is the closest proximity to one of the Jaka’s Story characters—he’s a writer and his name is Oscar—indicates that the entire storyline has skewed off in a largely grotesque direction from where it had been.
And it’s not actually that grotesque—certainly not as grotesque as I thought it was at the time. The death is a pretty basic death. It isn’t a writer’s death or a homosexual’s death or a societal pariah’s death or a victim of injustice death. He’s just old, he doesn’t believe in God, he knows he doesn’t have much time left and he just gets variously depressed and giddy, angry and terrified, he obsesses about minor things, makes really bad choices—like continuing to knock back the champagne—because it really is too late unless last minute absolution from the Church actually works. In my early thirties that just looked grotesque. Now that I’m just this side of fifty, it’s more of a There but for the grace of God go I. It seemed grotesque in my early thirties because a part of me still believed in love or still believed in sex and the pursuit of happiness, anyway. What I didn’t recognize was that I was documenting someone who held those beliefs and still wouldn’t let go of them even though he had one foot in the grave. In his mind he’s still the bon vivant man about town, celebrated playwright, maybe he can write something new. But at a certain level his mind knows that the body is telling him it’s much, much later than that. At the age of fifty, I’m aware of my body starting to run down and—because I pray now and believe in God—what I’m aware of is that at some point this rotting carcass that I inhabit is going to run down and my soul will be released. It’s not the Unthinkable Catastrophe that it was when I was an atheist and in my early thirties when I was in denial about the reality of death and that my own death was going to be here before I knew it the same way that before I knew it I was thirty-four. Before I knew it I was thirty-four, before I knew it was almost fifty and someday before I know it I’ll be dead. It’s the destination that was stamped on my ticket when I got here.
Q4. Given the need for a second Oscar to tell the story of Melmoth, and the somewhat tricky shoe-horning of the story of Wilde's death into Estarcion, would it be fair to say that the main arc of Melmoth was not really a Cerebus story but rather something separate inspired by your research for Cerebus?
DAVE: Mm, no, I don’t think that’s true. As you can probably see from my previous answer I view the story differently now than I did then but that was at least partly attributable to the basic insight that I have about what things I know and what things I’m completely clueless about. I knew enough to know that a guy in his early thirties doesn’t know squat about death—even though I discovered my landlord dead in his office the morning after I had been at his Christmas party when I was twenty, Gene Day died when I was twenty-seven and I had watched my maternal grandfather die, holding his hand, just before I did Melmoth at the age of thirty-something—so I had to find an authentic death and stick as close to the documented facts as I could because all of my relationship to death were external at that point. There was a certain value in actually seeing the livid quality of the dying flesh in my grandfather’s face and actually hearing the death rattle and seeing how tense all of his muscles were. But that was all still external. If there was any part of me saying “I’m going to be going through this myself before I can say Jack Robinson” it was a very small part.
Q4. Commercial realities aside, would you have preferred to stop Cerebus for a year to tell the Melmoth story without having to tie it into the ongoing Cerebus milieu?
DAVE: No, definitely not. That’s one of those unhappy accidents of journalism that the Comics Journal suggested in their review of Jaka’s Story (I think it was) and then it just becomes received wisdom that I wanted to stop doing Cerebus and do something serious and important like Melmoth. It said so in the Comics Journal so that’s what it was. Dave didn’t have the artistic integrity to abandon the comic book about the talking aardvark and do Something Meaningful and how sad that is. Well, depending on your point of view, that may be terribly sad, but no, Melmoth was the Death book, the other side of Jaka’s Story which was the Love book. Jaka’s Story & Melmoth are my best try at Love & Death. It was very important to me to keep the Cerebus and Melmoth parts of the story separate because I thought that made an important point about Death. Cerebus is going through a metaphorical death, a death of the spirit and Oscar is staring Death in the face and they’re completely unaware of each other. Everyone around Cerebus is unaware of Cerebus—of what he’s going through: you face a metaphorical death alone. Sebastien Melmoth has Robbie Ross there. Couldn’t ask for a more devoted friend, someone with his best interests at heart, but he’s still facing Death alone. He can’t explain it to Robbie and Robbie doesn’t want to hear it. The doctors don’t want to tell Robbie, he doesn’t want them to tell him and he doesn’t want to tell Oscar. He has no more of a “support system” than Cerebus does. I wanted to convey how universal a thing facing death…and Death…alone is. Wherever you’re reading this you’re only a few miles from a hospital where that’s going on. Someone is dying alone in a bed and someone else has fifteen weeping relatives out in the hall and another three at his bedside, but they’re both going through it Alone. Your wife can climb into bed with you if she wants, you’re still dying Alone.
Q5. How much time passed between Cerebus' arrival at Dino's and his killing of the two Cirinists he overheard talking about Jaka?
DAVE: That one I had to leave an open question. Since the whole point of Cerebus in Melmoth is how irretrievably “out of it” and Alone he is, for me to have any notion of the exact chronology in my mind would undermine the point of the story. The same with Melmoth’s death. You can get a copy of The Letters of Oscar Wilde and make an educated guess as to the time frame from the dates on Robbie Ross’ letters, but the point of the story wasn’t Robbie Ross who was still aware of minutes and hours and days and weeks and tick, tick, tick. It was Melmoth where those things had lost all meaning. You could tell him what day it was and it wouldn’t mean anything. That’s one of the first things that dies, I think, temporal sense. When they announce your plane is boarding you start to forget where the airport washrooms are, your Gate number, the flight number. It just doesn’t apply anymore. Airport reality is going away and soon there’s only plane reality.