The Picture of Everything Else #1: Painting the Town Red

The picture of Dorian Gray is famous for the story of a beautiful young man whose moral corruption occurs on canvas rather than in life. Meanwhile, The Picture of Everything Else focuses on everything else. In particular, the comic focuses on Basil Hallward – the painter of the infamous portrait. (Understandably, Watters takes liberties with the original novel.) The comic book’s main characters, Marcel and Alphonse, battle artists / art thieves who accidentally encounter a series of violent murders. At the center of it all is Basil – he paints handsome men only to kill them by destroying their portraits. “There was love in every line and there was passion in every touch,” says Basil of the portrait in Dorian Gray, and the same goes for Watters’ writing in “The Picture of Everything Else”. Soaked in alcohol, guts and homoerotic longing, it feels like an ode – and loving vivisection – to the aesthetics of the 19th century and especially to Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel. If the recent drama plaguing art circles raises questions about the legitimacy of digital art, the turn of the 20th century faces a similar dilemma – one on which everything else is focused – that traditional art, including portraiture, faces with the rise of the Photography falls out of favor. Watters also wonders what happens when artists put too much of themselves into their art and whether artists shape the world or are shaped by it. What does it mean to treat one’s life as art?

While it is certainly an “idea book,” the image of everything else is also a nightmarish and passionate thrill. Looking beyond its obvious literary inspiration, the plot is reminiscent of the manga / anime Death Note, the serial killer who in this case kills by painting and destroying portraits instead of writing names in a book. The bloody paintings are also reminiscent of the 19th century horror video game Layers of Fear. That sounds like a strange mixture, but it works wonderfully.

Unfortunately, the book has some setbacks. Watters’ plot undoubtedly includes the homoeroticism of Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray (an uncensored version of the text won’t be published until 2011 – almost 200 years after the novel). However, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the first edition’s kiss (between Marcel and Alphonse), while gay, is also drunk and not reciprocated, which makes approval doubtful. While the book’s focus clearly seems to be on unrequited love, hopefully Watters’ gay characters will be granted future moments of passion that are a little less burdened.

Portraying an elderly Basil – here a serial killer – as disabled and the author’s choice to include the word “cr * pple” can leave a bad taste in the mouth for disabled readers like me. The horror genre is unfortunately full of skill, and disabled bad guys are generally worryingly common, as is the amalgamation of physical impairment with moral failure. The use of the Cr-Slur can fly over the heads of non-disabled readers or lazily excused as “historically correct”, but it is still irritating. Watters may simply take up Wilde’s own imagination in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but it would be nice to see the conventional portrayal of physical impairment as a sign of moral failure that is challenged rather than reinforced.

Given Wilde’s assertion in Dorian Gray’s foreword that “all art is utterly useless,” it might be tempting to put aside analysis of Watters’ writings and focus solely on Kishore Mohan’s art. It is wonderful. Rich gold and red tones dominate Mohan’s watercolor and acrylic work and fill the book with warmth. Saturated with lamplight, every hour seems like a golden hour. While the plot is often dominated by blood and fire, Mohan’s warm palette also reflects the predominantly passionate mood. While faces aren’t always consistent, their expressiveness – melancholy, tenderness, terror – is wonderful. Alphonse’s drunken gay catastrophe resembles Wilde, which is delightful and adds to the metafictional bias of this book.

The cover (also by Mohan) miraculously reflects the bowels of the book from the outside: The logo and the border are reminiscent of the typography and design of the Belle Époque, while the bloody hands line the artist and take out the canvas-mud atmosphere.

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