Oscar Wilde and the Graphic Novel: [The Picture of Dorian Gray]

The following post is an excerpt from my seminar paper written for my class on Wilde and Synge: Art as Subversion, offered by Dr. Declan Kiberd at the University of Notre Dame (fall 2012). In this paper, I evaluate the artistic merit of literary comics adaptations using Wilde’s views on aesthetics. I then perform a series of close “readings” in order to assess how comics adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray take advantage of the conventions of the comics medium in order to offer a standalone artistic expression. This excerpt displays my analysis of Basil Hallward’s death as depicted in the comics adaptations I selected.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

– – –

ACTION versus PASSIVITY: The Death of Basil Hallward

Basil’s death is a key moment in Dorian Gray, not only because it is the novel’s climactic point of no return, but also because it is the moment that Dorian truly obfuscates any light he had remaining in his soul. Part of what makes this instance so memorable in Wilde’s novel is that he certainly had no reservations in illustrating the graphic and violent nature of Hallward’s death. Everything from the sounds of Basil choking on blood, to the repeated stabbing motions delivered by Dorian, are emphasized by Wilde in his uncensored version of Dorian Gray:

He rushed at him, and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again. There was a stifled groan, and the horrible sound of someone choking with blood. The outstretched arms shot up convulsively three times, waving grotesque stiff-fingered hands in the air. He stabbed him once more, but the man didn’t move. (Wilde 223-224)

Perhaps the overt violence in this passage can be approached as gratuitous, but on the other hand, it emphasizes the rage and the loss of sanity that Dorian was undergoing at the moment. Surprisingly, despite how descriptive Wilde was in this passage, adapters of the novel tend to diverge in terms of how Basil’s death take place, and the adaptations differ drastically in terms of the grotesqueness and detail that characterizes the murder. I will first focus my attention on John Coulthart’s adaptation of the text, in which he combines quotes from the source text with pen and ink drawings of the actions taking place.

Coulthart’s depiction of Basil’s death (see Figure 1 below) is nowhere near as explicit or overt as Wilde’s text is. Rather than depicting Basil’s death or focusing on the depiction of Basil’s lifeless body, the comic shows an image of Basil looming towards the painting, raising his candle in the air as he stares in horror at the disfigured painting. Interestingly, in Coulthart’s collages of Dorian Gray, the decay of the painting is not shown until the very end—an interesting choice when considering that the degeneration of the picture is one of the most vivid and concrete images that Wilde portrays in his novel. Coulthart develops a sense of anticipation and avoids showing the monstrosity of the painting until the final reveal at the end of his collage sequence. Coulthart’s interpretation of Basil’s death illustrates Dorian’s arm and hand approaching the shocked victim with a knife in hand, suggesting the murder rather than directly illustrating it. Note that the image alludes the idiomatic expression of ‘stabbing someone in the back,’ strengthening the element of betrayal present within the narrative.

Coulthart’s images are known for depicting Modernist, decadent, and intertextual elements. Close attention to the squared background of the image reveals that it is divided equally into back and white colors. However, the parameters within these boundaries of space are not respected; not only does Basil’s candle provide illumination into the darkened area of the background, but the white side of the background melds into the darkness with the prominent splatter of blood (which foreshadows Basil’s death). This can be interpreted as a sign of transgression, in which certain limits and socio-cultural parameters are not respected—thus forcing the decoder to rethink the image of innocence that Dorian initially projects. This use of imagery can also be interpreted in a moralistic sense, for we see that although Basil is trying to provide some illumination to the darkness present within the scene, it is darkness that ultimately prevails.

019

Figure 1. “The Death of Basil Hallward—The Graphic Canon Edition.” Designed by John Coulthart. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012). 481. Print.

The intertextuality at play in this image is quite stark as well. In the upper corner of the image, emphasis is put on the curtain that is draping over the painting. When thinking of curtains within the context of a stabbing, it is nearly impossible to avoid invoking the image of Prince Hamlet stabbing Polonius as a consequence of invading a private space[1]. The connotations of this invasion of privacy and its murderous consequences are eerily similar to those that take place in the murder of Basil. The other objects depicted in the painting, such as the candle stand and the book holder, also emphasize the lavishness and decadence present within Dorian’s lifestyle. Note that within the context of the original novel, these objects seem out of place because the painting is supposed to be located within Dorian’s childhood room. Their baroque nature and depiction of nudity certainly creates a clash with the simplicity and the purity that is typically expected within a child’s room.

Coulthart’s suggestive and subtle interpretation differs immensely from the artistic direction that Roy Thomas and Sebastian Fiumara take in the Marvel Illustrated adaptation (see Figure 2 below). Thomas and Fiumara certainly invoke the graphic and brutal nature of Basil’s death in Wilde’s novel, and unlike Coulthart’s version of the death, these adapters want their decoders to be disturbed and shocked by Dorian’s violent and transgressive act. Mirroring the description offered in the source text, one can observe a knife being pugnaciously jammed into the vein behind Basil’s ear. Blood gushes out of the puncture would in a hyperbolic fashion—accompanied by the onomatopoeic word “SHUNK,” which verbally simulates the sound the knife makes as it punctures Basil’s flesh. The image also places emphasis on the fact that Basil is choking on his own blood, as evidenced by the streams of scarlet spewing from his mouth, and the disturbing sound effect that accompanies this ghastly discharge.

016

Figure 2. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Marvel Illustrated Edition.” Adapted by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008). No page number available. Print.

The image is not only meant to shock, but it also demands pause and careful observation. It is not a coincidence that this image is not placed alongside other comic panels, but rather, the artists use an entire page of the comic to depict Basil’s death. The use of color is particularly effective in this panel. Unlike the bulk of this comic adaptation, which makes use of vivid colors and tones in most of the panels, this image is depicted with an opaque crimson hue, further adding to the aggressive and ferocious nature of the act taking place. Basil’s expression also denotes an element of shock and surprise—his mouth is wide open and his pupils are positioned upwards as if he were mirroring the reader’s reaction towards Dorian’s slightly unexpected transgression. His eyes are quite reminiscent of a martyr’s countenance during the moment of sacrifice—looking upward as if they were surrendering themselves to God. This interpretation definitely fits within the context of Wilde’s work. Recall that Basil implores Dorian to give up his evil ways, and to embrace piousness as a form of salvation. As Basil beseeches in Wilde’s uncensored version of the novel:

“Pray, Dorian, pray,” he murmured. “What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.” (223)

This plea greatly mirrors the narrative of most martyrs, for after they implore a non-believer to be reverent and to turn their faith into a higher power, they are then sacrificed under the hand of the non-believer. Although this sense of martyrdom can be implied by the Wildean text, Thomas and Fiumara make this notion overt with their visual depiction of Basil’s countenance. Dorian’s act was violent, but in this case, the artists focus on Basil’s self-sacrificial attempt to save the remnants of Dorian’s soul—an attempt that failed miserably.

Alex Burrows and Lisa K. Weber take a subtler approach to Basil’s murder (see Figure 3 below). As mentioned previously, their adaptation is part of the Graphic Classics series, which similar to the Classics Illustrated series, is aimed at a younger audience. With this in mind, the violence and aggression in this adaptation has to be more subtle than that which is seen in the Marvel Illustrated edition, yet it has to be less abstract and open to interpretation than it is the case of Coulthart’s collages. In the images depicting Basil’s murder, none of the panels represent the actual insertion of the knife into the victim’s body. Rather, the decoder is offered a silhouette image of Dorian mounted over Basil’s lifeless body with a bloody knife in hand, preparing to stab the body once again. The inversion of black and white in this particular panel forces the decoder to pay close and sustained attention to the action occurring in this image. The panel that follows in this sequence depicts Dorian in a raged and infuriated stance, covered in blood. The final panel in this particular sequence depicts Dorian hunched over Basil’s body, vis-à-vis the cursed painting—which now portrays Dorian gray in a decrepit and grotesque fashion reminiscent of the crypt keeper[2].

011

Figure 3. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Graphic Classics Edition.” Adapted by Alex Burrows and illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde (Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009). 31. Print.

The greatest difference between Burrows and Weber’s interpretation of Wilde’s text, and the other adaptations discussed previously, is their choice of subject for the murder of Basil. Whereas Coulthart and Thomas/Fiumara approach the victim as the subject of the murder, Burrows and Weber place more emphasis on Dorian Gray and the heinous deed that he committed. This difference in subject has resounding interpretive effects—Burrows and Weber’s interpretation pushes the decoder to attribute agency to Dorian, thus enforcing an understanding of the climax based on an actual change within his persona. This adaptation approaches this point as a moment of transformation, for although he was partially responsible for other deaths in the narrative, this is the first death that he is directly responsible for. This notion of change is capitalized when Dorian himself is forced to come face to face with the decay of the painting. On the other hand, the other adaptations offer a sympathetic interpretation that focuses on Basil as a victim—thus reinforcing a reading centered on the grotesque nature of the act itself rather than its transformational effects on Dorian Gray. It all comes down to the issue of passivity versus activity: Does one focus on the fact that Dorian murdered Basil, or does one focus on the fact that Basil was murdered by Dorian? Despite the superficial similarity between these approaches, they do manage to highlight different concerns and issues that affect the interpretive possibilities of the novel.


[1] I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Leanne MacDonald, for pointing out this possible allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as we were scrutinizing the imagery used in my selection of comics.

[2] See HBO’s television series titled Tales from the Crypt.

Works Cited

Burrows, Alex. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde. Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009. Print.

Coulthart, John. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon. Ed. Russ Kick. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012. Print.

Thomas, Roy. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition. Ed. Nicholas Frankel. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Advertisements

One thought on “Oscar Wilde and the Graphic Novel: [The Picture of Dorian Gray]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s