(This review is slightly out of narrative order – to be clear, Melmoth fits between Jaka’s Story and Flight in the overall Cerebus narrative).
Throughout Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim had faced a barrage of complaints that there wasn’t enough Cerebus / action / advancement of the overall storyline / mystical woo (delete as appropriate). So, ever cognisant of the needs of his audience, he gave them twelve issues of Cerebus clutching Jaka’s doll and sitting almost catatonic outside a cafe while, up the hill, Oscar Wilde is slowly and painfully dying. That’s it. There are cameos for passing characters from Church & State while Cerebus is occasionally dusted, but Oscar’s death is the focus of this one. It’s told in the same text panel and image style as the “Daughter Of Palnu” extracts in Jaka’s Story, using actual letters from Robert Ross and Reginald Turner describing the last days of the real Oscar Wilde. The mood of the book is stately and sombre. It is a study of a man on the edge of the abyss, unflinching without being graphic or voyeuristic. As you might expect, it is dark and disturbing, with all the emotional heft a serious consideration of the subject deserves. That’s not to say there is no light relief. Mick and Keef are back for a few pages, and the Roach’s latest incarnation as normalroach is an hilarious study in repressed anger, but you won’t be closing this one with many chuckles.
Given that this story takes us up to the exact halfway point of the saga, it’s easy to draw comparisons with what we know about Cerebus’ death, which at this point Dave had been promising for several years would occur in the very last issue. In his final days, Oscar is far from alone, unmourned and unloved. A great deal of the emotional power of the book is in the sadness and confusion of Robbie and Reggie, and their helplessness in the face of the inevitable. With the text taken from other sources, Dave can concentrate on the art, which is just wonderful. The character sketches are superb, and Gerhard has upped his game even further on the backgrounds. For such a slow, small story, there is a real cinematic feel, a sense that the events on the street are being viewed through a camera which simply records what it sees, sometimes panning up and down the hill, from Dino’s Cafe to Oscar’s hotel and back. A powerful, haunting work.
This is, believe it or not, where I started reading Cerebus. Probably not the best jumping on point, but even with little knowledge of the background, the quality of the work was evident. It was autumn 1990, and I’d just started at Nottingham University. There was a basement in the Virgin Megastore with a comics concession in, and I eagerly fell on it, as exactly the sort of thing I’d been starved of growing up in the deep South West. After I’d been in a few times buying pretty much whatever DC put out with a Mature Readers tag, the bearded guy behind the counter said “you might like this”, and slipped a random issue of Jaka’s Story into my bag, explaining that the new storyline, Melmoth, was starting imminently. I read it, didn’t really understand what was going on, but liked what I saw, and started buying the monthly issues regularly. That was Mark Simpson. Over the next few years, he, and his co-worker Stephen Holland, introduced me to so many great comics. After that, Mark and Stephen went on to open Page 45, and blew me away with their vision of what a comic shop could and should be. I kept in touch once I’d left the East Midlands (Mark and Stephen both ended up coming along on my stag night), and I’ve bought my comics from them for quarter of a century now. Well, only Stephen for the last ten years or so. One night in 2005, Mark went to sleep and just didn’t wake up. As if this book wasn’t suffused enough with death, I’ll always associate it with Mark, just for that simple act of kindness (which, let’s face it, was also a pretty good business decision, as it led directly to me spending hundreds and hundreds of pounds on the rest of Cerebus). There’s a nice piece about him on the Page 45 website: http://www.page45.com/world/about/mark-simpson-1968-2005/ . Rest in peace.
My usual random observations
– Something that struck me this time is the sequence where Cerebus sees the chained Astoria in the middle of the road, and then seems to swap places with her again, as happened in C&S. This is a pivot, and it’s after this vision that he starts to (slowly!) emerge from his catatonia. It also seems to have affected things in the outside world – it’s after this, for instance, that the waitresses change, which I don’t think is otherwise explained or commented on. I’m not entirely sure what is going on with this swapping. Any ideas?
– those are some very pigeony pigeons.
– what an epilogue. After almost forty issues of Cerebus doing very little, this explosion into action kickstarts the second half. The next couple of books are Cerebus back in high gear, and it starts here.
– In the afterword, Dave talks about having to excise one of Oscar’s comments, as he could find no workable equivalent for “Jew” and didn’t want to face a deluge of mail questioning the existence of Judaism in ancient Estarcion. Just remember that when we get to Latter Days.