This is the sixth of my posts about Cerebus, the alternative comic that ran from 1978-2004. As usual, it’s full of spoilers for the book in question, the whole run of Cerebus and in this particular case, the life story of Oscar Wilde.

Previously: Dave Sim switched focus from his large-scale fantasy plot to tell a more intimate, theatrical story about Cerebus’ lost love Jaka, against the backdrop of rule by a fascist matriarchy, the Cirinists. One of the supporting cast was a fictionalised version of Oscar Wilde at the height of his literary powers.

Melmoth is the first of the really ‘difficult’ books of Cerebus, a dual narrative in which Cerebus sits outside a bar, almost catatonic (at one point a character literally dusts him) while Oscar Wilde dies. The Wilde scenes are drawn from – and narrated with – the real letters of Wilde’s friends, written as he lay dying in Paris. Dave Sim doesn’t alter the names but he changes geographical and religious details to fit Cerebus’ world. In some parts of the story, Cerebus is prominent – we even see a few old characters from Church And State, like Princes Mick and Keef or Bishop Posey. In others, the comic is entirely given over to the Wilde material, which is told mostly in the style Sim was coming to use more and more – text laid alongside beautifully composed illustrations.

I put ‘difficult’ in scare quotes because Melmoth’s reputation as a tough read mostly dates from when it was coming out monthly, across an entire year of the Cerebus comic. As a 240-page graphic novel (novella, purist Sim might protest) it’s a bizarre, unique work but an entirely digestible one. In fact, both the ‘comics’ and ‘illustrated text’ halves are less daunting than their Jaka’s Story equivalents. The Cerebus portions are a return to the way Sim was working during the first half of Church And State – a series of short comic or tragicomic vignettes which patchwork together into a story. The Oscar segments use considerably larger text and less flowery language than the extracts from “Daughter Of Palnu” we just sat through. Of all the sixteen Cerebus phonebooks, Melmoth might be the fastest to read.

Even so there’s rarely if ever been a ‘graphic novel’ more unsuited to monthly serialisation, and this was at a point where Cerebus’ overall reputation was glowing. Sim’s personal profile in the comics industry, as godfather of a creator’s rights movement and as hard-partying convention regular, was also sky-high. And he was putting out a comic in which, month to month, almost nothing happened.

The sheer inertia of reading Melmoth monthly is impossible to recapture, which is in some ways a shame for a book about the horror of helpless waiting for something to happen, even when it’s not something you want. There are definite thematic links between the Cerebus and the Oscar material but, as is often the case with Sim, the ties are also on the level of pacing and the reading experience. The characters in the Oscar half are in agony, a familiar one to anyone who’s been up close to a nasty death. They’re reliant on confused and contradictory diagnoses of a patient whose worsening condition includes moments of heartbreaking lucidity. Robbie and Reggie, Oscar’s companions, clutch at occasional straws but ultimately must resign themselves to the barely endurable wait for their friend to die.

Sim knows most monthly readers won’t be empathising with Wilde’s friends, but they can experience those feelings themselves as what they most want to happen (Cerebus to get up and do something) is similarly withheld. They get the catharsis they want in the Epilogue to Melmoth, but only after Oscar’s story has run its course.

For most of this post I’ll be exploring that story, and its place in Sim’s wider conception of Cerebus. But if the Oscar story is the heart of Melmoth, the Cerebus material has its own joys. Melmoth is, in essence, a filler arc – in an interview Sim candidly admitted he didn’t know exactly what it would be or even be about until the idea fell into place when reading about Wilde’s death. His original concept seems to have been an arc in which the dead-inside Cerebus acts as a kind of foil or sounding board for other passing characters – an idea which had the advantage that it would take as long or short as needed for Sim to get to #150 and the halfway point in the comic.

You can see traces of this in Melmoth as it exists – the scene with Prince Mick, for instance, probably the funniest in a book that’s not as short on laughs as you might imagine going in. There are visions and dreams which let Sim stretch out a bit from the straitjacket he’s put himself in with the rest of the story and nudge readers into recalling characters like Astoria, who will be important again soon enough. But most of the Cerebus part is the story of Cerebus’ stay at Dino’s Cafe, based on Sim’s own experiences as a regular at a Canadian bar in between relationships.

This phase of Sim’s life is also what he’ll draw on later for Guys, and the easy-going vibe of Dino himself feels like a dry run for some of the characters in that book. (In the chronology of the whole, Mothers & Daughters covers a few days in 48 issues, bookended by months and years Cerebus spends largely in the pub.) Dino is also the anti-Pud: no more intelligent, perhaps, but free of demons, more focused on his business, and bolder. Pud is terrified of Cerebus’ gold coin; Dino sees it as his chance to turn the Cafe into the absurdly fancy Dino’s Bistro Continentale. There’s very little movement or variation in the Oscar parts of Melmoth, so – even though Cerebus spends the book largely immobile – the Dino parts are a chance for Sim to enjoy himself with scenes that are often full of light and motion, like the sequence where workmen demolish the old front of Dino’s with rhythmic hammer blows.

Sim’s concept of alternating between the Oscar and Cerebus sections, and of letting some of the connecting tissue be Gerhard’s wonderful visualisation of a single Iestan street, is one of his best creative decisions. Without the Cerebus sections, the Oscar Wilde material would be a formal exercise in solemnity: sad and well-crafted, but unrelenting. But as it is, Sim generally knows exactly when to spin away from them and return to Dino’s. Equally, several issues of only Dino’s would have been too frothy to convey the depth of Cerebus’ collapse at this point, and might have made his recovery too swift. 

The counterpoint between the two is the storytelling answer to the very reasonable question: what on earth is a retelling of the death of Oscar Wilde doing in the middle – the exact middle – of a fantasy comic about a talking aardvark? But there are other answers too.

Oscar isn’t the first time we’ve seen a real world character lightly fictionalised in Cerebus. It’s not even the first time we’ve seen this real world character. In the next book, Flight, Dave Sim will make clear that there are two Oscars, but this is left tantalisingly ambiguous in Melmoth itself – Jaka-Oscar received the real world Wilde’s two years’ hard labour sentence, and Melmoth-Oscar’s stout defense of the literary merit of ‘Daughter Of Palnu’ could read as poignant self-justification. (It could also read as Dave Sim telling off those readers who disliked the prose elements of Jaka’s Story) At the very least, some of Sim’s beloved synchronicity is at work.

But Oscar in Melmoth – from now on I’ll just say “Oscar”, and specify if I mean the first one – is qualitatively unlike any previous real world borrowing in Cerebus. Most of the others – even the previous Oscar – are an opportunity for Sim to do a bit. They’re a comic foil (or a villainous foil in the case of Mrs Thatcher) for other characters to bounce off and a chance for Sim to show off his gift for pastiche. Oscar marks a significant advance in Sim’s technique, a further weakening of the boundaries between character and real-life model, in two major ways. 

First, Oscar is the first major borrowed character whose biographical details match his model’s: Lord Julius is not a comedian and film star; Prince Mick is not a singer. But Oscar – both of them – is a writer, and the circles he moves in are identifiable as the real ones he was part of. This is the model Sim will come to use for a series of writer and creator analogues later – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, and others, overlaying literary and artistic biography directly onto the narrative of Cerebus.

The vehicle for doing this is the concept of “Reads” – the pamphlet-length serialised works of fiction which stand in for books in Cerebus’ world. Writers of fiction, in Cerebus, break the skin of the wider fiction they’re a part of. There is a whole metafictional sub-story beneath the surface of the longer work in which these writers are reading, commenting on, and reacting to one another’s work – Oscar in Jaka’s Story mentions meeting “the author of Church And State”, a droll in-joke which reads rather differently after Mothers & Daughters. The intrusion of real writers into the narrative of Cerebus anticipates what’s going to happen in that novel.

Which makes the conversation between Oscar and Robbie Ross in the first episode of Melmoth one of the most important in the whole of Cerebus. The two men are talking about “Daughter Of Palnu”, with Robbie expressing disbelief that its author (the Jaka’s Story Oscar) got away with so many implied criticisms of the Cirinists – mostly, we know as readers, via the character of Nurse, who turns out to be upsettingly different from the ogress Oscar writes her as. Au contraire, says Melmoth’s Oscar, the Cirinists have in fact allowed almost complete artistic freedom, because they understand that most dissent is simply fashionable contrarianism, admired for its daring but powerless to effect change. No licensed writer – nobody within the existing editorial system – will challenge the genuine power structures operating above and behind the factions of politics.

Oscar’s view of the Cirinists isn’t the gospel truth – the fact that Mothers & Daughters opens with Cirin selecting books to be burned implies that she, at least, cares what’s in them. But Oscar’s argument is important, because the things it suggests about what Dave Sim thinks about art and dissent are major flags as to what’s coming up in Cerebus itself.  

Oscar’s argument does not make a lot of sense as applied to the Cirinists, or indeed to any real-world authoritatians you could mention. Censorship of literature is, in general, pretty high on the agenda of tyrannical regimes, or of people who are hoping to lay the ground and rally the troops for future tyranny. But the argument is still a familiar one. It’s very much the line of reasoning used by people who think that Canada, or the USA, or Britain or France or any other Western ‘liberal democracy’, is in fact a tyranny, one so invisible and entrenched its citizens don’t realise they are doing its bidding. This is the position Dave Sim will indeed end up at, even if he isn’t there already at this point – in his view the “marxist-feminist-homosexualist” axis that governs Western culture is so powerful it won’t be shifted for tens, if not hundreds of years.

The idea that there is some genuine dissent which is culturally forbidden is a very attractive and very deep-rooted one, partly attractive because it’s obviously true. There are a lot of opinions in any society which sit outside, or uneasily on the borders of, an existing political consensus, and people aligned with that consensus will reject them if they can. Step outside it and you may well feel embattled, because very often you will be embattled.

The problem, though, is that stepping outside that consensus may or may not be right, but it’s very likely to feel right. That applies even if you haven’t actually transgressed anything. Casting yourself as the heroic figure who stands up and says “this is wrong”, the one who Just Asks Questions, is an incredibly strong temptation, and it’s no surprise a lot of people put on that rhetorical armour to defend positions which are actually deeply mainstream, or interest groups who are, in fact, doing just fine. (Very often they know exactly what they’re doing – casting yourself as the underdog is basic PR)

One consequence of feeling in the right – especially once you’ve convinced yourself you’re at war with an inescapable cultural tyranny – is that attacks on your position can become a kind of proof you are in the right. In the run-up to Reads and Dave Sim’s grand presentation of the “male Light / female Void” theory – and I think we’ve been in the run-up to Reads since the end of Jaka’s Story at least – he is continually dropping coy little hints that he’s about to be a Very Naughty Boy and get in a lot of trouble. This turns out to be true, and he’s laying the groundwork for his application of this circular logic when people do, not surprisingly, object to being told they or their loved ones are brain leeches. “Sounds like the kind of thing a marxist-feminist-homosexualist would say” becomes an infallible counter-argument. If dissent is tolerated, but people want to cancel Dave Sim, why, he must have stumbled upon the truth.

What does all this have to do with Melmoth? People might point to this book and say, look, why would a bigot like Dave Sim write this tender, haunting, deeply humane portrait of a gay man’s final days? I think the answer may be the same as the answer to “Why does Dave Sim write an “I Am Not A Feminist” editorial in Cerebus #140, running next to the excerpt from the trial judge’s verdict on Oscar Wilde?” Sim is preparing the ground for his own social ostracism, his self-fulfilling martyrdom and exile.

So that’s one, very cynical, answer to what the death of Oscar Wilde is doing here. But it’s an answer that also recognises something important: Melmoth really is a tender, haunting, deeply humane story, a graphic novel which mixes like no other comic a requiem – the pale, slow processional of the Oscar material – and a wake – Cerebus’ gradual emergence from his own mental collapse. This culminates in his active rejection of his own death, albeit standing over several fresh corpses. And this is where the second big difference between Oscar and previous real-world imports comes into play.

Most of the other import characters exist for Cerebus to react to. But not Oscar. In fact, neither Oscar ever actually meets Cerebus: the aardvark has not taken up residence at Dino’s when Oscar walks up the street on his final night out, and when the two stories do cross, Oscar has died. Oscar in Melmoth partly replaces Cerebus as the protagonist, like Jaka did in Jaka’s Story. But that was a story about Jaka in which Cerebus was a supporting character. In Melmoth, the Cerebus story and the Oscar one exist in parallel. They are, in a way, the same story.

We know that Cerebus will last until issue 300. We know the comic is about his life. We know how that life ends – “alone, unmourned and unloved”. So Sim is in the unusual position where he can tell a story at this point in Cerebus which foreshadows something later – in the way the end of Church And State foreshadows the end of Mothers & Daughters – but this time all the readers know what it’s foreshadowing and why. Oscar is a version of what Cerebus will become. The end of the first half of Cerebus is a pre-echo of the end of its second. 

So what Melmoth has to say about death is important in that wider storytelling scheme. In one way, you can see Oscar’s death – shabby and premature as it is – as a ‘good death’ compared to Cerebus’ prophesied passing. Oscar, surely, is not alone, unmourned and unloved.

I’m not sure this is what Dave Sim is driving at, though. Oscar is certainly loved and mourned – the main story of the book ends with his funeral, and it’s largely told via verbatim extracts from the letters of his lover, friend and literary executor Robbie Ross. But just as the Cerebus part of Melmoth is a slow return from spiritual death – at first he’s only able to say “aye” and “nay” – the Oscar part is a story of gradual but inexorable separation from friends, from consciousness, and finally from life. Oscar’s last recorded words are nonsense, his last sound a terrible, drawn out death-rattle. For the mourners, Ross and Turner, Oscar does not die alone. But for Oscar?

In a Bluesky comment on the Jaka’s Story post, the critic Andrew Hickey summed up a theme of the story beautifully. I hope he won’t mind me quoting him: “Jaka’s Story is, for me, a book about the lies we tell ourselves about who we really are, and about the lies we tell to and about other important people in our lives, and how it’s never truly possible to know anyone.” This is very much a wider idea of Sim’s – people and events are unknowable, there can be no ‘definitive’ account of anyone or anything.

And I think Sim carries this from Jaka’s Story into the still more pessimistic – though often very beautiful – Melmoth. What Melmoth is telling us about death is that subjectively we all die alone, unmourned, and unloved, cut off from the people around us physically, unable to see, hear or no them. There will be no ferryman on our voyage into the dark.

Read as a 240-page whole Melmoth is one of the more accessible parts of Cerebus, even if a new reader wouldn’t exactly know where everything fits. The pacing of the Cerebus sections is beautifully done, with almost nothing changing month by month but a slow arc towards awareness and awakening showing through the whole. The Oscar material works too as a formal experiment, a sombre high point in Sim’s realist mode, and it helps enormously that the language feels (and is) genuine, rather than clever Sim pastiches.

There’s one more reason to do a literary biography of the death of Oscar Wilde in the middle of your aardvark comic, though, and it’s the simplest of all. Because you can.

Sim was preaching self-publishing as the only way to ensure complete creative freedom for artists – that’s what Oscar’s digs about editors are getting at, and the whole idea that the established publishing system produces “good sheep”. (Another way in which this all prefigures Reads) All around him, meanwhile, cartoonists and writers were tackling their passion projects, helping cement the sense that Sim was part of a wave of outrageously talented alternative creators with no obvious limits to the ideas they might try and realise. 

Alan Moore, for instance, was starting up From Hell. Peter Bagge, a cartoonist Sim greatly admired, had chosen precisely the right moment to do a comic about dead-end kids in Seattle. And most relevant for Sim’s future directions, his friend Chester Brown had turned half his comic Yummy Fur over to a played-straight adaptation of the Gospel of Mark. Meanwhile, Dave Sim was committed to his 300 issue comic about a talking aardvark. 

Melmoth is the moment where Sim sets out to demonstrate – to his own liking, if not the market’s – that “a 300 issue comic about a talking aardvark” really can include absolutely anything he wants it to. He proved the point: Melmoth is one of the high watermarks of Cerebus. Even if nobody in 1992 understood what “Cerebus can include anything Dave Sim wants” might really entail.

If they’d read the Prologue and Epilogue, they might have had more of a clue. If you’re reading Cerebus for the “plot”, you can actually skip the whole Cerebus at Dino’s and Oscar Wilde sections – the main ten parts of Melmoth – and just read these. In the prologue, the Roach sits outside the cafe in a ghastly suit – he’s parodying Jim Valentino’s already-a-parody normalman – and mutters under his breath about “fucking cunts” while turning into a cringing heap every time a Cirinist looks at him. 

In the epilogue, Cerebus overhears a Cirinist patrol talking about torturing Jaka. He snaps out of his trance, slaughters the women, remembers his friend Bear telling him that Cirinists are a telepathic hivemind and begins to flee. Covered in flecks of blood, the panels shrinking to slivers, he starts his desperate run into metaphor, madness and Mothers & Daughters. It’s one of the most exciting cliffhangers in the series. If you wanted to stop there, and make it a Butch And Sundance style finish, nobody could blame you.