“Six… I have no wordplay for six…” Cerebus: Volume Six – Melmoth
As Salaam-Alaikum, Shalom Aleichem (narcissism with respect to minor differences, methinks), Namaste, and indeed, hail fellows, well met. Be it by accident or design you’ve stumbled into my review of the sixth volume of Cerebus the Aardvark, the frankly massive comics epic helmed by Dave Sim and ably aided and abetted by fellow Canadian and artistic powerhouse, Gerhard. Running to three-hundred issues, collected (for the most part) in sixteen phonebooks/volumes which I was reviewing at a varyingly arduous and glacial pace of one volume per calendar month. Unfortunately this plan is now in tatters… since you’re getting two instalments this month. That reveal would have been better if this post weren’t bound to the naming conventions of these Cerebus reviews, but it didn’t seem to merit a “special announcement”-style preamble. On the plus side, this slight and temporary acceleration means we should be done before 2012 so, y’know “yahtzee!”… For those of you with a masochistic streak or anal retentive difficulty in jumping into a series in progress you can find the entirety of this project’s previous posts under the category of “Cerebus Stuff” in the sidebar. It does make more sense if you start at the beginning, but who’s got that kind of time these days? Also, by fortuitous coincidence (if this is the point at which you’re joining us) Melmoth is in some ways the most isolated chapter of the ongoing Cerebus story so far.
From the possibly overlong ramble of last month’s Jaka’s Story essay I should be able to do Melmoth a similar injustice in a far briefer space. The prologue concerns the taming of moveable parody character The ______Roach into a Normalman spoof, marked only by small antenna on his glasses. Intimidated by the threatening hand of militant Cirinism, which as of Jaka’s Story had moved into the vacuum left by Cerebus’ ruinous premiership and later papacy, he is forced to destroy those too, illustrating the strength of the new fundamentalist regime. After this there is an introduction to Oscar Wilde, though it is deliberately ambiguous as to whether or not this is the same character as the Oscar Wilde of Jaka’s Story. While he acknowledges the author of The Daughter of Palnu (the diegetic form of Jaka-Oscar’s version of Jaka’s Story) as another writer he is shown to be suffering the after-effects of a punishment similar to that which his potential double was last seen being sentenced. The bulk of the narrative is taken from sources, namely the letters exchanged by Wilde’s friends, lovers, supporters and confidants in Robert Ross, Reginald Turner and More Adey which Sim is quoted as taking from the Collected Letters of Oscar Wilde. Coming across as more an illustrated biography than the continuing fiction of Cerebus the bulk of the book is given over to following Oscar’s gradual but brutal decline in health and the fear and sadness of his friends as they are alternately reassured and forewarned by fool doctors. It is also, significantly when we consider Oscar’s Melmoth as compared to Cerebus’, a story about Oscar as a man, rather than as an artist. In the meantime Cerebus is shown almost throughout, and only intermittently, as a broken figure, clutching at Jaka’s childhood doll in an unfeeling near-catatonic fugue and barely speaking as he sits at a café table, seemingly waiting to die.
In fact, despite some prior knowledge, for a while I wasn’t wholly sure that Cerebus wouldn’t die by the end of the volume, since Sim had already proven that the series could be sustained perfectly well with only his tangential involvement in the plot. Where Oscar’s story is narrated in terms of care and concern, in the words and the worries of his friends, Cerebus’ burdens are carried silently and alone, intruded upon only by the pragmatic business of scant survival for which he relies on the impositions of the innkeeper’s employees. It seems likely that Sim is foreshadowing Cerebus’ eventual fate in The Last Day which is presumably, though it is referenced and teased in Melmoth, where the warning that he will “die alone, unmourned and unloved” will be realised. The parallels and contrast with Oscar’s death which is seen and further implied, even in its fictionalised form, to cause such terrible pain and harm and implies that Cerebus’ eventual death will be its reverse, passing briefly and barely noticed because of the choices he makes and not some ineffable or inescapable celestial machinations.
Melmoth also marks possibly the first time when the serial format has made sense for the series since the beginning of High Society. As the shortest volume to date the torturous and protracted nature of Oscar’s decline and death are still covered in less than two-hundred and fifty pages but for its first readers this story played out over twelve issues, an entire year’s worth of comics. Since Cerebus himself is marginalised by his grief and his shambolic self-pity, the whole of our focus is on Oscar. Read in monthly issues these must have acted much like the letters they quote, like the latest missives of friends, keeping us abreast of Oscar’s latest problems, the minor and momentary convalescences and his eventual fate. In its collected form the art of Melmoth must perform the duty of slowing the story down to its proper processional pace and it takes over the responsibility solemnly. Both Gerhard and Dave Sim have worked to create a style for this book which matches the earlier volumes of Cerebus whilst also providing a level of detail and richness which really focuses the reader. Where Jaka’s Story traded largely in light panels and text lost in white space Melmoth gets darker and darker as we approach the end of Oscar’s story which, despite lacking the depth and the detail of the letters Sim is sourcing, is in some ways a more affecting retelling of Oscar Wilde’s final days for being made so visual and, well… graphic.
But this is still Cerebus’ book, and lest we and Iest forget (that’s LEST and IEST) Melmoth’s last chapter has Cerebus overhearing a Cirinist prison guard boasting about how she beat Jaka, then tore out a chunk of her scalp to keep her quiet, pliant. As Cerebus is stirred to rage and action, almost without a breath between them, the art changes. Cerebus, having been presented as small and cowed throughout Melmoth, is suddenly filling the page with fierce visage and bloodied sword. As their black blood fills the panels completely Cerebus recalls a warning of what fate befalls a man who harms a Cirinist, and briefly falters, faced with inevitable death and fearing he has met the conditions of his prophesised doom, before fleeing. This brief return to Cerebus that marks the end of Melmoth is everything the rest of the book has not been. Where The _____Roach vibrated with contained rage, where Cerebus had sat stock still in resignation and where Oscar’s energy slowed to an amble before ceasing entirely this section of the book is kinetic and abandoned. It is visceral in a brutal, inconsequential and somehow detached, fantastical way, marking the end of a quiet and emotional story and the advent of a temporarily more barbaric (I suspect) Cerebus.
This was supposed to have been posted on the 16th, which would have nicely bisected the month with Cerebus and meant that I hadn’t rear-loaded March with comics stuff. Oh well, the best laid plans of fools… Next up is Reads and an essay in which I’ll be attempting not to make read Reads/reads Reads jokes. Maybe now that we’re more than half way home, in terms of individual issues at least, Cerebus might have something to do in this one. I’d forgotten about having to change the end of this, I’ve sullied it with my impatience. See you at the end of the month, usual aardvark-time, same aardvark-channel.
…That doesn’t scan at all.
EDIT: Next up is actually Flight… Not quite sure how I got that so very wrong. Apologies.