Melmoth can seem an enigma upon its first reading.
Essentially two separate and slow moving stories, one functions as a coda to Jaka’s Story and the other as a prologue to Flight. The stories share a setting in time and place and little else. It is a testament to the skills of Dave Sim and Gerhard that two such disparate stories manage to, if not exactly complement each other, then at least bridge the years between the adjacent volumes of Cerebus, though not in an altogether satisfying way.
Cerebus, in a near catatonic state, has procured room, board and the occasional ale, and spends his days sitting outside his rented residence, either content to allow the world to pass by unnoticed or perhaps unable to process all but the most insistent stimuli. That he continuously clutches Missy, Jaka’s treasured childhood doll, found by Cerebus after her arrest by the Cirinists, is an indication of the emotional trauma he has suffered. In fact. that he took and kept Missy at all speaks volumes about the changes he underwent during his time as Rick and Jaka’s houseguest.
Sim and Gerhard use repeated images to illustrate the passing of time and the monotony of Cerebus’ existence. These are broken up from time to time with the sort of comic turns we’ve come to expect from Sim, but with a twist. Cerebus almost never responds in the way we’ve come to expect from him. He suffers silently at the hands of an incompetent and unpleasant waitress. He sits so still and unmoving that workmen renovating the bistro he frequents simply cover him with a dropcloth. That either of these situations fail to illicit aardvarkian rage is telling. These episodes create a subtle tension in the reader despite their gentle comedy.
Cerebus slowly (everything in Melmoth happens slooowly) begins to respond to his surroundings under the ministrations of the bistro’s new waitress. Her obvious infatuation with Cerebus, her delight at his slightest response to her, and her ever so slight resemblance to his lost Jaka illicit signs of life from the earth-pig. One fine morning we even catch a glimpse of the old Cerebus as he angrily threatens an old man who fails to return his salutation.
But the guards come down, literally and figuratively, when Cerebus overhears a pair of Cirinists’ conversation in which one recounts her abuses of Jaka while she was in her charge and waiting for her death sentence to be carried out. What happens next is violent in the extreme, but cathartic for the reader and Cerebus, and sets the stage for Flight.
The character of Oscar is a sympathetic one, as were all the characters in Jaka’s Story, save the Cirinists. Caught up in the raid at Pud Withers’ pub, he was off-handedly sentenced to two years of hard labor for having “no artistic license.” Released from prison and gravely ill, Oscar, with only one or two friends at his side, awaits his death in his rented room. The reader is forced to linger at his deathbed, mourning his loss even before Oscar’s actual passing. It is an emotionally powerful series of passages, but it is terribly one dimensional and adds nothing to the ongoing story.
This thinly veiled account of the last days of Oscar Wilde is Dave Sim’s first attempt at biography in the pages of Cerebus and, while it won’t be his last, it distinguishes itself from the others by its isolation from not only the ongoing story, but from the world that Sim has created for Cerebus. Swapping real city names for fictional ones and changing “telegrams” to “letters” was nearly all that was necessary to shoehorn this story into the world of Cerebus. But to what purpose?
Melmoth sheds no light on the character of Oscar as he was portrayed in Jaka’s Story. It informs us not at all of the political, social, or economic changes that have occurred under the Cirinists’ regime. It does nothing to move the story forward.
Why then did Dave Sim include this story in Cerebus?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do have a theory. It is entirely my own and subjective to the point of absurdity, but it is what I think Melmoth is about.
I think in Melmoth Dave Sim gives voice to his fear.
Consider that Meloth ends with issue #150, the halfway mark of the comic’s run. At this point in time Dave Sim is a ROCK STAR in the comics community. A big fish in a small pond to be certain, but a big fish nonetheless. He has accomplished much of what he has set out to do and, failing some catastrophic event, he and Gerhard have only to stay the proven course to reach issue #300.
But Sim had already shown himself prone to taking chances. The rape of Astoria and the anti-climax of Church & State, the marginalization of Cerebus The Aardvark, the long text passages and single page illustrations of Jaka’s Story, all had as many detractors as enthusiasts. And while the next volume, Flight, is a return to form in many respects, the following volumes of the Mothers & Daughters storyline, and in particular the infamous issue #186 is four years away as Sim & Gerhard begin Melmoth.
Dave Sim knew he was going to make waves when he made public his views on feminism. He thought those waves could and probably would affect both his livelihood and his standing both inside and outside of the comic community. He struggled with the decision for some time.
Note that Melmoth begins with the bespectacled Normal-Roach, meek and subservient to the Cirinists, his hands often between his legs, presumably protecting his manhood, muttering under his breath as he looks frantically around for the “Cunty cunty cunts,” terrified that they may hear him and punish him for his words. Note also that Melmoth ends with Cerebus, after years of inaction and repression, pushed to the breaking point, striking down two Cirinists and then considering, if only for a moment, suicide as a means of escaping their inevitable and overwhelming reprisal.
In between these two scenes we have the story of a well respected literary ROCK STAR of his time whose refusal to deny himself or recant his thoughts or his actions led to his imprisonment, first literally and then figuratively, and whom died, penniless, a social pariah, his artistic works rejected by all but a few devotees.
Swimming beneath the placid surface of Melmoth is the story of an artist wrestling with his conscience, trying to decide whether to keep giving the punters what they want or to express himself truthfully and perhaps suffer consequences as dire as he can imagine.
Just a point- The Oscar who is dying is NOT the Oscar from Jaka's Story. He makes mention of "the author of Daughter of Palnu" and even mentions them sharing a name. It's confusing, but clearly a different guy.
I have more to say and will do so when the shop is less busy, but I had to point that out ASAP
Hooray! We finally disagree.
I know the Oscar of Melmoth mentions the "the author of Daughter Of Palnu," but he he follows that up with, "The title isn't his. I'm certain of that." Not, "I doubt that," but "I'm certain of that." Remember that the Oscar of Jaka's Story argued often with his publisher for the title of the read to be "Jaka's Story."
In addition to their given names the Oscar of Jaka's story and the Oscar of Melmoth share the same sense of humor, manner of speech, body frame, taste in clothes, hair style and, perhaps most telling, taste in cocktails.
To be sure the Oscar of Melmoth has aged significantly and his body is withering on his frame, presumably due to the harsh conditions he endured wile serving two years of hard labor for his "crime."
Which brings us to the fact that to all but his closest friends the Oscar of Melmoth is known as "Sebastian," the alias Oscar Wilde used during his own exile. I think it a fair supposition of the reader to assume that there was a stigma, as there is today, attached to being an ex-con, certainly in the circles in which the Oscar of Jaka's Story traveled. It is possible that the Oscar of Melmoth's few current friends knew nothing of his prison stay or his published works. Or if they did know, then they pretended they did not to spare him embarrassment.
Add all of this up and I I think you have an artist aware that his days are numbered who wants only to know what has become of his final work, Jaka's Story, taken from him by the Cirinists at the time of his arrest.
There seems little point to follow the one Oscar with another, Jaka's Story to Melmoth, unless they are the same man, especially given their similarities. I'm not aware if Dave Sim has given a definitive answer as to whether the two Oscar's are one, but I do know he has at times been intentionally vague about it.
I interpret that vagueness in the light on my interpretation of the Oscar Wilde portions of Melmoth being Dave Sim’s voicing his personal fear of the consequences of being true to his artistic self. It is possible that the Oscars of Jaka’s Story and Melmoth are both the same and not the same, in that the Oscar of Melmoth is no longer the man he was in Jaka’s Story, denying his own name and artistic works, and thus no longer himself.
I think the central issue here is time. It has never occurred to me that the full two years of Oscar's incarceration had passed between the end of Jaka's Story and Melmoth... I mean, I have other points that, to me, indicate this is a different Oscar, but, Like I said on Twitter, no time to write them out.
Alright.... I have tons to do so I am going to just quickly through out my arguments about "The Two Oscars" and then next week we can start in on Flight.
1. Time- According to LJ's theory, AT LEAST a year has passed since Jaka's Story and this is an Oscar who has been released from prison, wherein he suffered so greatly that he appears to have aged 30 years. I say "at least" because I guess you want to say that he got off for "good behavior" or something.
This just doesn't fit! Cerebus has been wandering around for a year before he reaches this pub? We see him slowly come out of his daze over the course of a few weeks... nothing else did this until then?
2. Melmoth's debts. Oscar, in Jaka's story, seems to be fairly well-off, and even adroit at getting money from his publishers, yet WHILE HE WAS IN PRISON he racked up massive massive debt?
3. Reggie and Ronnie- When did he have time to amass these followers, not to mention all the people mentioned who came for the funeral? Jaka's Story Oscar was a, at best, respected writer- Melmoth Oscar is something far more than that. When did this happen? While he was in prison?
4. His children and family- absolutely NO mention of them in Jaka's Story?
To be clear, these two gentleman are both obviously supposed to be Oscar Wilde at different points in his life, with the same experiences and memories. Sim just seems to so badly want to discuss the death of the art(ist) that he is willing to have TWO Oscar's in his world. Melmoth, of course, is a fan of Jaka's Oscar... No surprise there.
I know you can actually answer more than one of my points fairly easily, but it seems to be TOO MUCH WORK to do so. The easiest, most narratively clear, solution is that the two Oscars are different. Occam's Razor isn't frequently used in Literary Criticism and that's a DAMN SHAME, says I.
Thanks to everyone for waiting over the madness of the holiday season, we should be back on track now!
And a Happy News Year!
Dave Philpott Added by: EscapePodComicsI always thought it was the same guy. They look like the same guy. I cant think of any reason you would introduce a character on his death bed. I do think there should have been some reference to time passing . Glad to see I am not the only one who gets confused around here.
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