A story of gay erotica often traced to Oscar Wilde has been made into a luscious graphic novel, courtesy of Nefarismo illustrator Jon Macy.
No one knows for sure who wrote Teleny, a novel generally considered to be a collaboration between Oscar Wilde and several friends. Wilde at least guided the project, and his stamp of Aestheticism is undeniable; incidentally, it’s also widely renowned as the first gay erotic novel. In its history, the novel has been edited, embellished, and translated into French, its setting moved from London to Paris. A book this mutable and communal seems destined to continue its evolution, most recently into a graphic novel adapted by underground comix champ Jon Macy.
Macy, whose work helped define the underground comics of 1990s San Francisco, is a fitting illustrator for this work of underground erotica. Macy brought the world Nefarismo in all of its perverse grandeur. Whereas his earlier work reveled in horror, Teleny and Camille confronts sexuality with innocence: All things are gilded and voluptuous—the male and the female, the natural and the artificial, the intimidating and the alluring.
Like much of the artist’s previous work, everything between the covers is black and white. This is exceptionally effective for a story that drips with embellishment, artifice, and spectacle—color might push it over the edge from sumptuous to gaudy. The artwork is dynamic in its balance between simple silhouettes and textured details. Macy eliminates the original, redundant introduction in favor of illustrating bookseller Charles Hirsch’s historical account of Teleny‘s beginnings. Instead of an artist’s preface, Macy draws himself in as a frustrated man figuring out how to adapt such an idiosyncratic novel. The writing here is a bit clumsy, but he quickly makes up for it in his discerning selection of passages from the original text.
The first actual chapter, establishing the titular lovers’ psychic connection, cascades through a dream sequence of history, mythology, and classical homosexual love. Macy renders the opulent descriptions and male bodies of Egypt and Rome with simultaneous flair and refinement. The aestheticism is intentionally overwrought but stays elegant: Think art nouveau rather than rococo. Macy delivers Bryancourt’s symposium (read: orgy), Teleny and Camille’s first lovemaking, and Camille’s first dream of Teleny, each with the gorgeousness described in the original text. Sex doesn’t merely occur, it develops from the story and contributes to the narrative: Teleny and Camille isn’t a porn comic; it’s erotic art at its best.
Most impressive is Macy’s attention to detail and historical accuracy: plant life, architecture, absinthe spoons, doorknobs—he conducted extensive research in order to give his work such intricacy. The sex scenes between Teleny and Camille are succulent and sinless, but elsewhere, as in the original, the novel delights in the grotesque. Macy brings to vibrancy the troll that prowls London’s gay cruising ground, a hollow-cheeked character sucking his fingers in invitation to the young men looking for trade. Macy adds his own nasty embellishments, riffing on a dream sequence of Camille’s in which he imagines a poodle watching him have sex. The visual of this poodle is both comical and utterly frightening, and it reappears any time straight sex occurs—standing in for prostitutes in a brothel, evolving from a bear skin rug, etc.
The brothel sequence is the most horrifying, and Macy retains Wilde’s sense of Camille’s and Teleny’s attempts at heterosexuality as embarrassing, tragic, violent, or all three. Counterintuitively, seeing the scene illustrated is not as excruciating as imagining it from text alone—but this is not a failure on Macy’s part. It’s a horrifying sequence, and Macy deftly edits it down to something harrowing rather than nauseating. Macy’s drawings of women, even the prostitutes, are impressive, and, although the story rarely casts women in a positive light (typical of Wilde’s half-sarcastic misogyny), the illustrations present most of them as beautiful. Their circumstances or motives may be bleak, but they are usually lovely.
Of course, so are the men. Nearly all of the male figures are physically fit, but there’s some variety of male beauty: slim to muscular, hairy to smooth, youthful to mature, even a transvestite character directly from the book. There’s no shortage of rumps or erections; phalluses abound, inscribed into the very architecture. What’s missing, believe it or not, is penetration. Whereas Teleny describes this in no uncertain terms, Teleny and Camille offers beautiful bodies in embrace, but the intercourse is presented either in shadow, silhouette, or distance.
The book closes with a new epilogue that may disappoint purists and die-hard Wilde fans. Macy makes it clear how resistant he is to the original ending: yet another tragic and emotionally broken gay love story (perhaps the very story that established this cliché). So why not add his own final chapter? This is a collaborative story, and Macy has revitalized this book with his adaptation. The art is so delicious, the visual storytelling so deft, that Macy earns the right to add a chapter of his own. It may be unclear who created Teleny, but Teleny and Camille has been created by a consummate artist.