Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part Seven: Victorian Cameos

Posted by on May 25th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six.

Perhaps the best comics illustration of Dorian Gray is Kevin O’Neill’s, featured in the ephemera from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  A color-by-numbers gag cartoon appears twice, once in its “original” form, and then again painted in with absurd detail.  The uncolored version shows the young, handsome Dorian, a fastidious dandy possibly modeled on Wilde himself.  The colored version is corpse-like in its countenance, withered and aged beyond its years.  It seems literally rotten with corruption.

Over the years there have been numerous single-panel Dorian Gray gag cartoons. Most of these are not particularly funny or well done. They feature tag lines like “The Photocopy of Dorian Gray,” and “The Bus Pass of Dorian Gray,” — or else, “If Dorian Gray Lived in a Modern Condo.”  A few spectacularly miss the point of the story.  For instance, “Dorian Gray’s Website” shows a sleazy old man posting a handsome, youthful photo.  Conversely, “The Warhol of Dorian Gray,” shows several images in different colors — but all still resemble their model!

One of the rare, funny Dorian gags comes from Gary Larson’s Far Side:  “The Portrait of Dorian Gray and His Dog.”  At first glance, the joke seems obvious.  But Larson’s artwork is disarming, and the execution is more subtle than it first appears.  His cartoon shows a painting of a wrinkled, hunchbacked old man, next to one of an equally wrinkled, snarling dog.  Outside, in the background, a much younger man, and jumpy, panting puppy happily play a game of “stick.”  In part, this cartoon may succeed out of pure dorkiness.  But beyond that — and beyond the self-evident absurdity of Dorian’s dog having a portrait, and it undergoing an identical magical transformation — there is also the incongruity of the foreground wickedness of the paintings and the utter innocence of the action in the background.

Larson’s cartoon works less by introducing the laughable into the horror story, than by pointing out the ridiculousness that is there already.  For surely Dorian did not only commit crimes and cultivate his vicious character.  He must also have done some perfectly harmless, ordinary things — playing with a dog, for example.  But the idea of it is really quite funny.  Its image is so out of alignment with Wilde’s story.  In the novel, Dorian experiments with exotic perfumes, he reads volumes of decadent poetry, he brawls with sailors, he drinks absinthe, smokes opium, exploits prostitutes, corrupts young men, attends the theater — but we cannot imagine a chapter of Wilde’s book in which Dorian Gray plays with a puppy.

Stanislas Gros has produced a humorous comic strip depicting Dorian’s further adventures. Titled Le Petit Dandy Illustre, it is drawn in a style deliberately imitative of Aubrey Beardsley’s.  More interesting, however, is Gros’s depiction of Basil Hallward, the morally serious artist who paints Dorian’s picture, in Le Portrait de Dorian Gray.  Gros draws Basil dressed as a dandy, with an elegant suit, a careful necktie and fashionable gloves.  His manners are effeminate, his hair long and wavy.  He is a little stout, and he has a large oval face.  He looks, in short, like the young Oscar Wilde.

This is more than clever; it’s a comment on the author’s deeper nature.  As Wilde himself acknowledged:  “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.”

References both to Dorian Gray and to Wilde himself appear somewhat regularly in the work of Alan Moore.  Dorian’s portrait (signed Basil Hallward) hangs in the secret annex of the British Museum in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  (The movie version tried introducing Dorian as one of the League, but only succeeded in making nonsense of the whole idea.  If, as the film suggests, the spell will be broken if Dorian looks at his image, how exactly does he know that the painting is aging?)  Dorian and Lord Henry Wotton also appear in Lost Girls.  In true Wildean style, Lost Girls contains a book within the book; this White Book includes an apocryphal, pornographic chapter from Dorian Gray in which Dorian and Harry visit a bordello.  Melinda Gebbie’s illustrations of the scene are heavy with color, especially the yellows and browns of nicotine, creating a moody atmosphere.  One has to guess at which figure is Dorian, and the painting itself does not appear at all.

Wilde puts in a brief appearance in Moore’s From Hell. He’s hosting a party, where James Whistler and Walter Sickert are discussing the Ripper crimes.  In the space of nine panels, Moore manages to work in two genuine Wildeisms:  “It’s tragic how many young Englishmen there are who start life with perfect profiles and end up adopting some useful profession”; and, “no crime is vulgar. . .  although all vulgarity is crime.”

Moore is a genius

It seems that Wilde has influenced Moore’s comics, not just at the level of character and plot, but also that of ideas.  Both Lost Girls and V for Vendetta connect aestheticism and anarchism in just the way that Wilde advocated.  But Moore also seems to have been influenced by Wilde’s philosophical idealism, specifically by his idea that Life imitates Art.  Discussing his views on magic, Moore told Jess Nevins in an interview:

In some senses the world of fiction, the world of imagination, in some senses it is real. . . .  I think most of us would agree that thoughts are real.  We have them.  They pass through our minds.  And if those thoughts are real they are real in a different sense to the way that physical things are real.  And it is in that same different sense that it seems to me that our fictional landscapes and our fictional characters are real.  They have an affect upon us, like in the instance just quoted, with this fictional character Zanoni inspiring a real person [S. McGregor Mathers] to try and act like him and in doing so setting up one of the most important magical orders in the history of Western occultism [The Order of the Golden Dawn].  These fictional people actually have an effect upon the real world. . . .  We create these ideal characters and we carry them around in our heads, we try to measure up to them, they affect our behavior.  They have an effect upon our lives and thus upon our world.  That would seem to me to grant them a certain reality. . . .  (Heroes and Monsters, 238).

Or, as Wilde wrote in “The Decay of Lying”:

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. . . .  The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers. . . .  The boy-burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct.  He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is, with trying to reproduce Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale throughout the whole of life. . . .  Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau as surely as the People’s Palace rose out of the debris of a novel.  Literature always anticipates life.  It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.

Wilde’s influence is similarly evident in Grant Morrison’s steampunk adventure comic Sebastian O.

Sebastian O

Though a dandy, Sebastian does not physically resemble Wilde.  But he is, in a sense, named for him.  In exile, Wilde lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth; and “Sebastiano” is the Italian name for St. Sebastian, long associated with homosexual martyrdom.  Sebastian does also paraphrase Wilde: “It is our duty to be as artificial as possible,” he says, slightly altering of one of Wilde’s Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young.  And Wilde receives a mention in Sebastian’s back-story; we are told, in the timeline included in the 2004 trade paperback edition, that in 1890, “Sebastian O returns to London. . . .  The evenings are spent at Jimmy’s or the Cafe Royale, trading wits with Whistler and Wilde and sweet Weirdsly Daubery.”  (Weirdsly Daubery was a pseudonymous Punch cartoonist, parodying Aubrey Beardsley’s style.)

Wilde also appears once in Rick Geary’s Treasury of Victorian Murder, just as a means of establishing the period.  More interesting, Wilde references find a place in Alison Bechdel’s magnificent comics autobiography Fun Home. In a chapter titled after one of Wilde’s plays, An Ideal Husband, Alison’s father is caught consorting with a teenaged boy.  Alison, meanwhile, helps her mother rehearse her role as the snobbish and priggish Mrs. Bracknell in a local production of The Importance of Being Earnest. “My enjoyment was unencumbered by any knowledge of Wilde’s martyrology,” Bechdel notes.

David Sim used the letters of Wilde’s friends to reconstruct the poet’s final days — staying true to the facts while transporting them to the fictional world of Cerebus — in the 248-page long “short story” Melmoth. Cerebus sits despondently in front of a cafe, while a short distance away Oscar Wilde grows ill, becomes delirious and dies.  Sim’s Wilde is a sympathetic figure — intelligent, amusing, affectionate and pitiable.  He is also physically gross in both senses of the word:  he is very fat, and his body is producing symptoms that are undeniably disgusting.  As Sim draws him, Wilde’s face is so massive and slack that it seems almost to melt onto his shoulders.  But the real masterpiece of this book is the haunting, yet strangely noble, portrait of Wilde on the cover.  The image shows an open bottle of wine and a near-empty glass in the foreground, ornamental wallpaper in the background.  Wilde is in between, almost entirely in shadow.  Half of his face — the half away from us — looks tired and gaunt.  In the other half we see the outline of a skull.

Melmoth (Cerebus, Volume 6)

Next Time: More Beardsley

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