Monday, May 7, 2012

Indulgence: Teleny and Camille

Teleny is a novel that was written in secret by Oscar Wilde and his young circle of writer friends. It's rich and challenging both as a work of literature and as a work of erotica. Jon Macy, a cartoonist who's been making comics for twenty years, decided to try to adapt this novel to comics as Teleny and Camille. A veteran of drawing gay porn and horror comics, he would seem a natural fit to illustrate Wilde & company's frequently florid and sometimes horrific prose.  However, this adaptation has a number of major problems. Some of that lies in the source material. As the clever introduction indicates, Teleny was written serially by Wilde and his anonymous friends; each addition to the manuscript was delivered to a trusted bookseller. However, the result is all over the place.  Some writers are interested in focusing on the romance between a Victorian-age gentleman and a charismatic, foreign-born pianist. Others seek the liberating power of depicting gay sex as explicitly as possible on the page, knowing that if this work was exposed to the public that they ran the risk of hard labor in prison. After a while, it seemed like each writer was trying to top the next in writing elaborate, charged and extremely explicit sex scenes. The bigger problem is that the main characters suffer as a result, feeling more like vessels than vividly drawn, realistic men. Trying to piece together the romantic and explicitly erotic stories and their sometimes jarring tones was undoubtedly not an easy task for Macy.

Macy struggles to create a book that's consistently interesting on a visual level. Certainly, he's up to the task of depicting the book's many sex scenes, up to and including the sensational orgy scene that ends in tragedy. He does a fine job in balancing the beauty and emotion of sex with the raw animal passion of the act, depicting scenes with an expressionist flourish and intricate decorative touches. In the scenes that feature hallucinations or nightmares, Macy's horror background also serves him well, especially when one character dissolves into another. However, virtually all of his other scenes are boring and feel rushed.  Unless two characters are having sex or kissing, he doesn't have a great grasp on how bodies relate to each other in space, nor is his body language very expressive.

Macy drew his own introduction where he talks about how hard it was to adapt this work, especially in terms of what to keep and what to omit. In a moment that recasts that introduction into a moment of self-indulgence, he says "I think Oscar would approve".  After he finishes the book, he bemoans that so many gay-themed stories end in tragedy. His friend tells him that the book already has four or five authors, so why not add yourself to the list? This results in a ridiculous bit of self-indulgence as Teleny and Camille are rescued by a friend and run away to Paris. Frankly, it flies directly in the face of the characters as written; they didn't come to a tragic end simply because they are gay, but rather because of Teleny's pride. Afflicted by debts, he repeatedly refused to let the love of his life help him. Instead, he lied to Camille and slept with Camille's mother, who paid his debts in exchange for sex. Sure, it's a melodramatic ending, but it was clear that this was the direction in which the book was heading. It's very much a standard Victorian-era tragedy, where true loves are prevented from being together. Instead, Macy inserts what feels like fan fiction, complete with dialogue that is anachronistic at best and didactic at worst. While I understand that this was an attempt at self-empowerment after such a grueling adaptation ended on such a down note, it felt like something that belonged in a sketchbook, not as an alternate ending in an otherwise faithful adaptation. It simply didn't make sense and was one of many reasons why Teleny and Camille is a failure, albeit an ambitious and well-intentioned one.

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