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[Retrospective]6: Melmoth

Bobby DerieBobby Derie regularRegistered User regular
Previous threads:
1: Cerebus
2: High Society
3: Church & State Volume I
4: Church & State Volume II
5: Jaka's Story

tl;dr:
1: Cerebus is an anthromorphic aardvark Conan the Barbarian
2: Cerebus gets into politics
3 & 4: Cerebus becomes pope
5: Cerebus hangs out with Jaka

Language Warning on this one. Can't be helped.

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This is the start of the "smaller phonebooks." The first five Cerebus trades are massive, 500-600 page beasts. The next seven are comparatively smaller, ~250 pages each. Still a lot thicker than your average TPB, but, y'know, relatively smaller. They're all part of the same continuous storyline, but they make up smaller individual arcs within that storyline, which means that - well, for some of them at least - they can be picked up and enjoyed almost on their own.

The name Melmoth is taken from Oscar Wilde; we saw at the end of Jaka's Story how "Oscar" - based on the real-life character of Oscar Wilde - was hauled off to prison for writing without a license, in parallel to how the real-life Wilde was hauled off to prison for suspicion of sodomy. When Wilde got out of prison, he traveled for a bit, using the name Sebastian Melmoth - based on the Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. This phone book concerns, among other things, the fate of Oscar-the-Cerebus-Character after he got out of prison, so it's a fitting enough title.

If all of this seems like a little more literary allusion and reference than is typical for your average funny-book...well, that is exactly correct. This is the start (more or less) of Sim's more literate phase. Again, he didn't need to pander to the typical delusion that comic fans are subliterate teenagers that only want action, blood, and the occasional bare nipple (although that would be nice); he's operating under the context that readers are the type that might pick up a book every now and again, as people are wont to do. Even more than that, though...well, let me let Sim tell it:
The text pieces in Melmoth are taken directly from: Robert Ross' letter to More Adey of 14 ecember 1900, twoo weeks after Oscar Wilde's death (pages 32 through page 108 and pages 189 though page 228) and Reginald Turner's letters to Robert Ross of 26 November 1900 (pages 109 through page 128), 27 November 1900 (pages 129 through 148) 28 November 1900 (pages 169 through 168) and 28 November 1900 (5:30 p.m.) (pages 169 through 188). References to telegraph wires and other modern features as well as place names have been changed to suit the fictional city of Iest (Paris, in this case), Lower Felda (England), etc. On the ensuing pages are reproduced photocopies from the Epilogue to the Collected Letters of Oscar Wilde to give you, the curious reader, a look as some of my modifications

Today, this would be frontfaced with the words "Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Masters in Graphic Arts." But of course there was no such thing when Sim was doing it.

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We start off at a Parisian-style cafe, where the Roach - dressed as nerdily as possible - tries to keep bottled in his misogynist rant while an oblivious waitress mostly ignores him. It's...ah, how to put this...okay, if you did, hypothetically, have a murderous and controlling conservative matriarchal fundamentalist regime move in, I suppose a little anti-woman bias might slip into the rebellious undertones; it's the equivalent of somebody shouting "Fuck the Man!" - but it reads very badly when somebody is going on about "Fucking cunts." It's shit like this which makes Sim comes off as misogynist. Anyway, the point is a) to introduce the scene, and b) to introduce some of the population tension in Cirinist-controlled Iest before switching to Oscar.

(This isn't actually the Oscar from the last volume, or at least I don't think it's intended to be - Sim wanted to show his Wilde character pre- and post-imprisonment, but the timing is such that I think he realized having Cerebus sit on his ass for 2+ years wasn't workable within the context of the story. So this Oscar, who drinks absinthe in little cafes in the Lower City, has the same name as the character from Jaka's City, but is in fact a different character.)

The scene shifts to an older, bloated, broken Oscar ("M'sieur Melmoth") with a bandaged ear and his companion Robbie, talking about literature, reads, and "Daughter of Palnu" (the editor's title for the Jaka's Story read of the previous volume); there's some worldbuilding there with regards to Cirinists and censorship, and the sort of public that buys the violent, bloody, sexually explicit, and implicitly seditious "reads" - which you can take as a nod against the grim 'n' gritty comic books of the era, or even underground comix and baby boomers, though I don't think either was the explicit target, more of a convenient parallel or example of the social commentary that Sim was talking about through the mouth of Oscar. Long story short, Melmoth is the more serious side of this book; tracking in painful clarity the decline and finally death of this second Oscar.

Cerebus, in a bit of shock after the aftermath of the last book, and with little more but his sword and Jaka's doll "Missy", strikes a deal with the owner of the cafe from the prologue - he gives the owner a gold coin, Cerebus gets room and board for life. He spends most of the book sitting at the table outside the cafe staring into space or watching familiar characters stroll by. Some of whom talk to him, but Cerebus mostly gives one-word answers ("Aye" or "Nay") and eating raw potatoes.

But the better part of the book (in a lot of respects) is dedicated to Oscar, and in a better universe this would have been the start of Sim's career as a biographical graphic novelist, sort of like what he's doing with the non-Glamourpuss bits of Glamourpuss. There are stretches of the book which are fantastic, inspired as they appear to be from contemporary Victorian illustrations, like something you could see etched, all vague skeletons-in-mist with subtle crosshatching; the closest I can compare it to is Gary Gianni's kind of work.

Part of Cerebus' time is taken up reflecting on the events of the last few books, and part of his attention is taken up by a new waitress, Doris, who does that girlchat thing talking about her relationships and clothes and whatnot while Cerebus mostly just sits there and listens.

The death of Oscar/Melmoth is a bit of a business-like affair - as it is, I know from experience. You go from having a living person to the shell that has to be disposed of with all proper ceremony and regulation, with the various palms greased as you want to do things right even as you want to get on with it. The last page of the main story proper is a photograph of Oscar Wilde's tomb statue (back when Sim took the picture, you could still make out the tie.)

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Then there's the epilogue. Cerebus has been dozing outside the cafe, when he hears some Cirinists bragging about how they had mistreated Jaka when she was in prison.

Which is all Cerebus needs to jolt him out of whatever blue-screen-of-death he'd been stuck in, and we get some pages of bloody action as he kills both Cirinists. And he remembers back when he was a mercenary, talking to another mercenary named Bear - who we have seen before, he's just a minor character at this point - who is telling Cerebus how the Cirinists are linked together. Hurt one, and they all know it - and all of them in the region will come swarming in. So Cerebus just killed two of them, and he knows they're coming. He puts his sword up to his own throat, thinking of Bear's advice, on how if you hurt one of them you'd do better to just end it quick...and he remembers the Judge's words on how Cerebus will die alone and unmourned...

...but he doesn't kill himself, and as the Cirinists start to swarm, he starts to run. End of book.

Melmoth is, as I have said, a relatively short book - made all the shorter for Sim's style of slow pacing, and the excerpts from letters. It's a brief episode, and from a metaplot standpoint, Cerebus doesn't do anything. From his perspective, it's about a paragraph of his story, and the rest is a bio-comic on the death of Oscar Wilde. It's well done, but it's definitely an aside to the main story in some respects, though parts of it will be picked up later, and it's not devoid of humor - but again, it's one of those books where Cerebus isn't the main actor; he's damn near immobile through most of it. It's the epilogue which is really important, where Cerebus kills the Cirinists and starts running, as it sets things up for the next book. But, we'll get to that in a bit.

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  • XaquinXaquin regular Right behind you!Registered User regular
    edited December 2014
    I liked Melmoth a lot

    Somehow I never realized that it was supposed to be a different Oscar Wilde

    I just figured that 2 years of hard labor really really took its toll

    Also, I liked Doris

    edit:

    I still chuckle at Mick and Keef using plumbing fittings as wedding bands for the 'bum sisters'

    Xaquin on
  • Bobby DerieBobby Derie regular Registered User regular
    Well, I don't think Sim wanted the two-year timeskip that would imply - but yeah, if you go back there's a panel at the beginning where "Melmoth" is looking for a copy of the final chapter of Jaka's Story and talks about how the author has the same name as him, so I do think it's supposed to be a different guy in the Cerebus 'verse.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
    Xaquin
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