The artwork in the “Melmoth” sequence of Cerebus is meticulously rendered and puts one in mind of woodcut artists such as Lynd Ward. Coming on the heels of the Jaka’s story sequence and the desolation it creates in Cerebus, who takes up residence at Dino’s and stares into space clutching Jaka’s doll, “Melmoth” is a good, albeit, arbitrary starting point for a discussion of the aesthetics at play in Cerebus.
The focus here is on the covers for the “Melmoth” sequence and how they reinforce several aesthetic markers for both the narrative and the characters. Taken together, the covers signal different character and temporal foci while at the same time suggesting the recurring thematic and structural markers for the storyline.
Given the subject-oriented focus of the other “Melmoth” covers, the above two covers might seem like an odd starting point, but they introduce two key components of the artistic iconography: the first is arcs over doorways or windows and the second is close ups that signal a relationship between the iconography and character–in this case, Wilde and flowers. These aesthetic templates repeat themselves throughout the storyline, appearing in nearly every panel in one form or another. The covers then “set the aesthetic tone” for the reader, introducing the key iconographic repetitions into the narrative—one has only to think about the role of the repeated “happy face” in Watchmen for successful applications of such iconographic symbology in constructing narrative sequences in comic books.
The above covers, while maintaining the characteristic rounded doorways and windows, and clustered close-ups or obscured frames, focus on characters in the act of contemplation. Itself a major theme in “Melmoth,” contemplation is of course something the readers of Cerebus must do as we try to penetrate the sometimes restrictive detail of the interior artwork. In short, the cover suggests a reflective narrative that turns inward, signalling Cerebus’ contemplation of Jaka’s death. Of course, the primary figure of death in “Melmoth” is Wilde and the act of contemplation is something he desperately wishes to avoid throughout the narrative. The cover images themselves demand our contemplation, and when taken in concert provide a parallel narrative to the story, suggesting iconic linkages where the story provides literal and allusionary linkages.
Much like the covers that depict characters in the act of contemplation, the covers above suggest exteriors that are tilted and shift according to temporal shifts between Cerebrus’ present and Wilde’s past. The recurring iconography of curves, crossed windows, and gas lamps continues, but the covers expose the different atmospheric conditions of the storyline. At times dark, light, close, far, and empty the covers juxtapose the parallels between Cerebus’ Dino’s Cafe and Wilde’s Hôtel d’Alsace, the presence and absence of humanity, longing and anxiety, bringing the two main characters of the overall sequence into closer relief while at the same time emphasizing similarities in psychological states.
The above covers focus on Wilde and the immediate surroundings of his hotel room. They iconography, at once bright and colourful in contrast to his sickly presence and failing health and dark and shadowy symbolizing his own secrecy and denial. The cover images also bring forward the curved windows and panelled doors, in this case bringing them inside, and set in place the connection between Wilde and flowers (both an allusion to Wilde’s dandyism / sexual orientation and his death). They also vary the perspective of Wilde from cover to cover–close up, from his point of view, and far away from above. The covers represent Wilde’s fractured psyche while carrying forward the essential symbology of the narrative arc and the notion that death sets one free, where one can look down on the elegant scene. The repeated iconography crosses over settings when we take the wallpaper into account (the source of perhaps the most famous Wilde quote of all: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to death. One of us has to go” (Ellman 546)). Bringing forward the colour scheme from Wilde’s room, the birds traversing the sky and casting shadows over a contemplative, imbibing, Wilde recall the dominant iconography of the wallpaper and his fast-approaching mortality.
The double-page spread above that dominates the middle of the final episode in Wilde’s narrative arc solidifies the iconography of the covers by bringing together the dominant motifs of the cover images (settings, curves, squares, sitting figures, compressed frames, and a downward walk instead of upward struggle) as it also brings together the two central characters of the broader narrative arc, effectively closing off the Wilde storyline and rejuvenating Cerebus’ storyline.
Sequences such as “Melmoth” remind us that covers play an essential role in establishing the iconography central to reading comics. Covers are often teasers—the Cerebus covers are in colour, something the interior is not—both distorting and foreshadowing the content of the book it buttresses. At the same time, they set the important symbology of the narrative, coaxing us to read the content in a particular way, keeping relationships between symbology, the characters, and the narrative they all work to enact.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York. Knopf, 1988.
Sim, Dave and Gerhard. Cerebus: Melmoth: A Short Story. October 1990 – August 1991. Issues 139-150.