Saturday, October 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #279: Sebastian O/The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, and Jon J Muth

What do you do with the quirky minor failures of a major creator?

Well, you can ignore them, and that's what happens most of the time. You can also try to spiff them up a bit, and get them walking two by two, in hopes that they'll look more impressive in company. If the creator is major enough and his backlist extensive enough, you might find yourself doing that.

In this case, you did -- if "you" are DC Comics and "the creator" is writer and self-proclaimed chaos magician Grant Morrison. And you probably made a bit of money out of it, which is the whole point of the exercise.

But these are still quirky minor failures, even twenty-five years later, and perhaps at this remove even more clearly show Morrison's characteristic failure modes: a reliance on high concepts even when they don't make narrative sense, a tropism to stylishness as an end in itself, an unwillingness to actually explain anything that might make his worlds actually plausible, provocative dialogue that neither sounds like human beings talking nor has any solid meaning, and, above all else, the love of flash over substance.

The book is Sebastian O/The Mystery Play. The two things collected are 1993's three-issue alternate-Victorian serial-killer [1] frivolity drawn by Steve Yeowell (who also did the much better Zenith with Morrison) and the 1994 spooky, sophomorically "philosophical" bad detective story graphic novel drawn by Jon J Muth (who later fled comics for illustrating children's books, possibly because of tripe like this).

Both of them are stylish in their own ways; both are entertaining on their own levels. Both also fail on basic levels of plausibility, much like other Morrison works up to his famous JLA run. So maybe his fans will love these oddball early-90s stories, but I tend to think they're not the right kind of weird -- no superheroes, not set in a cool version of the modern world, not obviously transgressive.

Sebastian O is set in a steampunky alternate-Vistorian world that doesn't seem to have any real reason to be alternate. The title character, a melange of Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Jack the Ripper, is supposedly a genius, but we only see him run around, murder people, and talk about his clothes. He escapes from jail at the beginning of the story, where he was incarcerated for what seem like vague and trumped-up "being gay and subversive" reasons. We readers would thus be on his side, if not for the randomly violent ways he does escape, and rampages through the secret gay-cult society that apparently betrayed him.

I say "gay," because the narrative makes that clear, though in the usual Mauve Decade euphemisms. But neither Sebastian nor the people he chases show much affection for anyone who is not themselves, and their choice of sexual partners is not particularly important for this thriller-chase plot. Like so many Morrison stories, it seems like an affectation or a signpost rather than anything intrinsic to the story.

Anyway, Sebastian murders his way out of prison, murders his way through his former friends, and finds the fiend behind the whole thing, who frankly seems somewhat unpleasant but not nearly as bad as Sebastian. There is a Shocking Revelation at the end, which, as often with Morrison, doesn't actually make any sense, and which is ignored anyway. So we're left with the story of the murderous rampage of a Victorian dandy -- if you're looking for that, you are in luck.

The Mystery Play is more sedate and grounded. The small Yorkshire city of Townley, struggling for whatever reason, is putting on a large-scale production of traditional medieval mystery plays for the Christmas season, dramatizing what seems like most of the Bible for the entertainment of tourists. On the night of the debut of the first play, someone murders the actor playing God.

And, yes, every single person in Townley who talks about this event afterward refers to this as "the death of God." Not the death of a prominent local doctor, who they all knew, but an amateur acting part that he just took and died in the middle of. And it is Ontologically Important to every single one of them. Morrison's greasy thumb is particularly prominent with this element, and it overwhelms the entire story.

A single Detective Sergeant is sent from vaguely somewhere else, with no driver and no lines of reporting back to his superiors and no paperwork and no connections to the local coppers. This is of course A Whopping Great Clue, and only the dimmest readers will miss it. It's also entirely stupid, and wouldn't actually work for more than five seconds, even before "Detective Sergeant Frank Carpenter" spends all of his time in philosophical musings about God and the Devil.

Eventually, there is another play performed "on-stage" in the story, and it of course is the very end of the mystery cycle, in which Jesus is crucified. Nudge nudge wink wink!

It's unfortunate that the story is such bullshit, because Muth delivers stunning work here -- moody painted pages with stunningly real faces, a fantastic mix of levels of abstraction. Every single page here is absolutely gorgeous, and a masterpiece of the comics art. Shame about the words thrown on top, though.

So Sebastian O is an answer to the question "What if Oscar Wilde was a man of action?" and The Mystery Play similar investigates "What if God were killed during a mystery play?" Neither of those are particularly good questions, and Morrison's attempts to imbue them with deep meaning fall flat. This is probably why they were quietly out of print for much of the last twenty-five years, and why they will probably slip back into that abyss once the stock of this 2017 omnibus are depleted. Morrison has some little-known gems in his backlist -- I mentioned Zenith before, also with Yeowell, for one example -- but these are not among them.

[1] Morrison's main character is a serial killer, and a deeply unrepentant one. Some of the people he kills "deserve it," but he's also happy to just slaughter anyone in his way. Since he's incredibly shallow otherwise, it's the defining characteristic of his personality.

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