Guilt, Forgiveness, Toleration
in Sebastian O and The Mystery Play
by Travis Hedge Coke
While many works of entertainment can age badly when it comes to morality and moral choices, by hanging themselves on the coatrack of ethics, by presenting us with easy outs that do not ring wholly true and razor-lined mazes of complicated toleration that seems a bit too real, Sebastian O and The Mystery Play cannot easily age out of their moral relevancy. Published in 1993 and 1994 by DC Comics, under the then-new Vertigo “adult reader” imprint, these two comics, both written by Grant Morrison, immediately concern themselves with guilt, perceived and unrecognized, condemned and tolerated, persistent and transmuted.
Both comics begin with a man escaped from an asylum for the mentally ill, one (the titular, Sebastian O) into a fussy, coiffed, clockwork world of conviction, the other (who we know as Detective Sergeant Frank Carpenter), is tossed into a dulled, fuzzy-logic world of anxious uncertainty. One is a world and character excessively atheistic, the other a fearfully Christian architecture.
Sebastian O is a dashing action story that runs, murders, and laughs through an admixture of arts and money that reflects the Beats, the Decadents, Pre-Raphaelites, the Warhol Factory, and New Hollywood. Cacti, roses, and rape. The comics opening line is, “Hypocrite reader, do not seek to avert your eyes,” and from there onward, Sebastian dabbles with, dines with, argues politely with pedophiles and lesbians without any real condemnation. Now, let us look at that once more: pedophiles and lesbians. Set sometime after 1895, but with a seemingly living Queen Victoria, homosexuality, as well as crossdressing, were in England as criminalized and socially scorned as the child rapist, in courts if not in all public. That is unjust, and we know it, but Sebastian, for all he may enjoy pretending to be greatly enlightened, is simply flipping the expectation and tolerating, or only slightly judging. To the pederast in question, he only makes the lightest of jokes.
On the other hand, Sebastian murders police and bounty hunters, politicians, sometimes with comedic bravado.
Though framed as an action adventure tale, Sebastian may not be the classic action hero, nor is he a celebration of some kind of bohemian arts virility. He is a rich aesthete who shoots people. And, has pedo friends. Hahaha.
Now, the question arises: How real is this world? Queen Victoria alive after her recorded death is our first clue that this world is not our own, in addition to the quaint but science fictional technologies, but there is, in the oft-unread frontmatter, explicit reference to, “a world of perfect, flawless artifice.” This is the goal of the cast Sebastian visits, one by one, after his escape from asylum, and by all final accounts, one they accomplished before he makes that escape. So, if this is an artificial world, if this is the Matrix, but set to Victorian times, are the boys the Abbe promises he is not sexually assault, hahaha, they laugh, but he promises, real, living boys? And, does it, if we are at this level of re-creation and recreation, matter?
The artificiality is never properly defined or quantified. How close to blood, flesh, and soul can replication get before it is no longer only art, but real, and in being real, ethically condemnable?
Central to the mysteries of The Mystery Play is the revelation that Detective Carpenter, who may or may not be an incarnation of Jesus Christ, is by legal name and identity, a schizophrenic man convicted of raping and violently murdering a young girl. When this is revealed, this confused, desperate to be helpful man who is clinically unwell and incapable of processing the world sanely, is crucified. (He may have escaped.)
If Sebastian O is about what we can get away with, The Mystery Play is a gallows walk of what we get hung with. Is rape, the rape of a child or an adult, forgivable because the rapist is mentally unwell? Is it tolerable, in the sense of toleration. Do we stay our hand and not throw the stone even if we want to, because they are unwell? Where is the line, in deliberate physical actions, between willing and incapable of not being unwilling?
Sebastian seems unafraid of anything, in this world where “primordial, oozing squalor” has been made a curtain in the backdrop, while Detective Carpenter is terrified, assaulted by the world. Seemingly sane, collected Sebastian, locked up for what he understands to be political reasons, does not care much for helping anyone, while Carpenter wants so badly to be of use, and perceives everything as an overcomplicated assault against him and nature.
The outline art and relatively flat colors that make up every panel of Sebastian O, are deftly struck by Steve Yeowell and Tatjana Wood, who was for years, for me, the finest colorist DC employed. The lettering, by John Workman has a calligraphic roundness to each letter, but remains simple, direct, ungilded.
The Mystery Play is awash in watercolors by Jon Muth and the slanted, pressing lettering of Todd Klein.
Where Yeowell and Wood render the world in planes and fields, lines and swoops, the world Muth paints is the gristle in the meat, the dew on the grass, the bad stitching at the coat pocket. We forget to judge, sometimes, in Sebastian O, because it looks and draws our eye over like a pattern, a cartoon, a wallpaper fresco reproduction. We feel in our gut, behind our eyes, the pain and viscera of The Mystery Play, because it is made to look and feel real in the way that realness is thickness pressing against thicknesses. It is in helping us to forget to condemn, however, that Sebastian O draws the judge out of us more keenly in retrospect, a cumulative and delayed appraising. The Mystery Play, combining a sense of realness with a sense that we will never of anything be sure, with its brutality and intensity, teaches us a sharp lesson in at least the craving for care and empathy.