Do you remember how and when you discovered the existence of Teleny?
A friend of mine would give me strange old porn; books like Beardsley’s Tannhaüser, and The Story of the Eye. It must have been in the mid nighties because I was still working with Winston Leyland on his Meatmen anthology. I even approached him about doing a graphic novel version of Teleny, but he refused. I went on to do Nefarismo, but when that was finished I returned to the idea of doing an adaptation.
What attracted to the idea of adapting the novel?
The language is gorgeous. Not just gorgeous, but amazingly dense in the descriptions, and there are hallucinations that are pretty astonishing. It took a few readings to totally soak it all up. I mean that when I started a chapter I would go back and read again for imagery that I might have missed, and I’d find mentions of lightning and fiery energy that just add another worldly layer to it all. It was this kind of uplifting sensuality in the sex scenes that made me so awestruck. I wanted to see it myself and the only way that was going to happen is if I made it happen. Also, the book can be a bit disjointed- what with it having several writers. I think there are four in all if you include Wilde. There were many tangents and back stories, and I felt they detracted from the main love story. Maybe I’m wrong, but I know that as a reader I wanted that to be the main focus. I wanted a passionate love story between two men, and so I thought that maybe I could trim things away, and bring that out of it.
Do you personally think that Wilde had anything to do with the novel?
Yes. I can see him writing the first chapter and then giving it to his inner circle to elaborate on. Of course it’s all based on a statement made by Charles Hirsch that is repeated in the preface of the first edition, but it makes sense. Hirsch did have a book shop that Wilde went to. Hirsch did trade in porn, and the whole idea that Wilde and his friends used his shop as a secret place to hide the manuscript does makes sense.
Teleny was published by Wilde’s own publisher Leonard Smithers. And the timing is right, it would have been written right after Dorian Grey, and I can totally imagine Wilde and his friends talking about “what if” he could have written what he really wanted to write. So much of Dorian Gray is merely alluded to obviously and even so Wilde was viciously attacked for it.
Also, the language of the first chapter is very much in keeping with how Wilde describes things. Everything is jewel toned and lustrous with scents and flowers mixed with ancient Greek male lovers and grotesquely beautiful beasts. Some of the passages remind me of “The Fisherman and his Soul” where “her hair was like a golden thread in a cup of glass” or something like that. Teleny is full of Wildean ideals like sipping amber champagne in green glasses and everything is lugubrious and vermilion.
There are a lot of people who get angry and say Wilde would never write porn and that he was always funny, well I’ll tell you as someone who does write porn it is not a witty play to entertain you it is a sensual assault and it dares you to go on the ride. Actually after growing up with modern Gay porn I found Teleny to be a wake up call. All modern porn makes sex volcanic, erupting or surging, but in Teleny, in a time before the word Gay was even coined, they had no language to express these actions. So, in the text you get some really original words and phrases. The roles of top and bottom are baggageless and you don’t find either the active or passive partner worried what anyone would think of them they just enjoy it. That was refreshing.
Did you use a specific edition of Teleny to work from? I’ve read the Gay Sunshine Press edition, and it’s quite complicated to decide what was originally in Teleny and what wasn’t.
I used two. The Gay Men’s Press for the John McRae introduction, but the Gay Sunshine Press edition was the one I wrote in and marked up. That is one battered and beat up old book now and I’ve lived with it so long that it’s a treasure to me. I think the big choice was whether to set the story in Paris or London. I chose London because I felt that since the book was written by British Gay men, about Gay men, and in their own words, it should be in their own city. The whole reason to place it in Paris was to not shock the English public, but of course now that’s exactly what I want to do. I think Teleny is something of a cult book and very well known in Europe, or it seems that way to me. I’ve talked to people who adore that book, and one was even in a stage version, but in the US it is rather unknown. That is good and bad; good because I have the opportunity to bring it to a wider audience and bad because it shows how backward things are here. Young Gay men are not reading classic Gay literature. I blame it on the demise of the Gay book stores. The internet has killed them off and they were important because they used to be more of a community center than a retail space. I remember my own baby steps out of the closet and finding A Different Light in the Castro and having a wise old queen showing me what to read. I think sites like The Gay Comics List are bringing that back. You have a more important role than you think.
How did you work on the adaptation? Did you layout everything first, or did you prepare the text beforehand? I can see you’ve done some changes, but the text is mostly what’s in the book.
I started by going to cafe’s with a pencil and a highlighter and just marking up my copy. Foolishly I thought I could just highlight the dialogue and just work my way through the book to the end, but it didn’t work out. The first three chapters were done like that, and then when I reread them I realized how static and wooden they were, and had to go back. I discovered that an adaptation had to be a living thing and that you can’t just illustrate it–so I went back and started to mess with it. Every word in the body of the book (well, not counting the extra scenes with me and the alternate ending) is found in the novel, but it’s not linear. I grabbed and searched the whole book for just the right words, whether they were from the scene I was doing on not. I’ll probably be hauled in front a Wildean tribunal for my crimes, but it was the only way I could make it alive and really say what was needed to say. Besides there were some juicy juicy bits that would have not been included and I just had to find a spot for them somewhere.
It was by chapter four that I really started changing things. My old friend Nathan Kibler was basically acting as my editor and he commented on how I was drawing yet another scene set in an opera box. He had me redraw the whole scene set in a hot house and that was what set my mind free. After that I began to bring in elements that Wilde and his circle had in their own lives which is what Teleny is all about.
How did you decide on Camille’s look? Teleny is described, but, if I’m not mistaken, Camille isn’t.
You’re right there is very little. Camille is said to be very like Teleny, so much so that they could be brothers, but that Camille has a darker complexion. Teleny is also said to have dark hair, but he powders it to look blonde, and he has a little moustache. Obviously I did not follow this. I made a decision to have Teleny dark haired and Camille blonde. It was purely economical. I did have more fun coming up with Bryancourt’s look, he is an amazingly fun character. I originally had him with short hair, but it was confusing when he and Camille were in the same scene, so I went back and gave him the long poet hair that Wilde himself had when he was younger, and I think that was a good choice for him and the book. I also spent months looking for a picture of the actor Bressant whose hairstyle Teleny is supposed to have, but when I finally found it I chose not to use it. It was very short curly hair except for the back of the head. I’m sure it was hot back in the day, but I couldn’t make it sexy so I dropped it. All the characters had to have a rather generic hot guy look, not so much to appeal to as many people as possible, but I thought so that you could see yourself in them. There are certainly very grotesque scenes, this isn’t a Merchant and Ivory film.
Art Nouveau motifs (and some Art Deco) are present throughout your adaptation, in the décor, the layouts, even in the outline of dialog balloons. It seems to me the swirling and fluid shapes from that aesthetic add to the otherworldly atmosphere of your book. Am I mistaken, or was that (at least partly) your goal?
Oh yes, Art Nouveau has always been about art above nature and it has always had a dream like quality to me so given the hallucinations in the novel it could not be more perfect. You are also right about there being Deco elements which don’t really belong to the time, but Teleny is not subject to any rules or preconceptions and I felt infected by a bit of their rebellion. I added some Deco flourishes as well as Macintosh furniture and design because I felt that the aesthetic movement was so far ahead of Victorian design and art that I had to show it somehow. Visually that would mean taking the environments ahead a few years. I gave the morgue scene a heavy dose of poured concrete curves and asymmetrical whip lash design. Deco really is merely a minimal version of the Art Nouveau whiplash. A direct descendent and really just as Gay. I will say that if I ever do another adaptation is will not be Victorian. The gingerbread is just too thick and hard to draw. I think I would have gone insane if I had not pulled back and given the book a harder less frilly edge. And you know what? I think that is exactly how Wilde and his cohorts felt as well. The fussy lace covered nightmare of ornate wall paper and chintz reached its peak in the late 1890′s and something had to give. It was a visual code for the oppressive layers of rules and hypocrisy that they were trying to over come. The Aesthetes wanted the white marble and purple robes of Rome.
You’ve used descriptions of Camille’s visions in your version, but you’ve also added your own imagery, including some striking ones, like the bodies of the two men, skinless, flowing into each other, or faces melting. What made you choose such imagery?
One of the strongest feelings I got from reading Teleny was that desperate urge of wanting to kiss and hold your lover so tightly that it’s never enough. You roll in bed and you just can’t get close enough to them. You want to be inside their skin. You want to share their organs and feel that you have only one blood. I was trying to bring that with the images of men sharing a single heart. The skinless bodies just came from a feeling of being totally exposed, but also that under our skin we all have the same body no matter if we are skinny or fat or of a different race it all disappears in the heated dark. The faces melting was a leap for me even after Nefarismo which was a very perverted book. The text describes their bodies bickering after sex like the tides retreating from the shore…it’s just so cool! Where else would you find sex described like that? I wanted to show the after glow of such mind-bending sex that what you felt was even in question. Was I touching my lover or am I feeling what my lover feels when he touches me? A long time ago I woke up to find my arm had fallen asleep. I picked up my numb and lifeless hand and sort of rubbed it over my body. It was a chance to feel what my lover felt when my hands were on them. I never forgot that disconnect and I think I have always chased it ever since.
It seems to me that compared to Fearful Hunter, your pages for Teleny have a far higher quotient of blacks compared to whites. You also parsimoniously use negative spaces, which I think are very effective to create a wholeness in the layouts. Did you think about all this very precisely, or did you arrive there simply because you thought it worked well with the story and characters?
All the chapters of Teleny are different. Since I was using black and white I had limited choices to give each chapter have a different look and feel. In some I used borders and in some there were none. That is all very thought out, but there are other things going on that I did not realize until much later, or had it pointed out to me by others in comics. From start to finish there is a gradual decline in ornamentation. In the first chapters there is a lot of Victorian design and aesthetic, but as the story progresses that drops away and by the end there are places where you find the figures of the two men are almost alone floating in white space. I think that’s because I was so focused on their emotions that I had stopped thinking about doing a period piece and I was hard set to show only a love story.
I learned a lot about technique and also about myself doing this project. I had to challenge myself to show really sappy love drenched moments, and let me tell you, for someone doing comics in the 90′s, where it was so dark and evil, this seemed like a whole new scary frontier of cartooning. When I started it I was a bit obsessed with the darkness of the book. There are some really evil things happening. The whorehouse scene was a particular problem for me and I almost cut it. I had to go to a friend who is an authority on social politics and gender issues, Cid Pearlman, just to see if what I was doing really meant what I thought it did. I mean what the underlying messages were. She gave it her blessing saying that it was grotesque but not misogynistic, but in a larger sense she really gave me the confidence to not shy away from these topics. The women in the novel are treated horribly and at first I was afraid to touch it like I would be somehow condoning this, but then after reading the Oscholar’s reevaluation of Teleny I came to the conclusion that the misogyny is not a hatred of women at all, but the Victorian Gay male commentary on heterosexuality.
Now, working on Fearful Hunter, the things I learned from Teleny have made me a stronger story teller. I also learned so much about Gay history and Oscar Wilde that I feel like a stronger Gay man if that makes sense. I thought I knew what they were all about, but I had no idea how subversive they were. All those green carnations were huge acts of rebellion and they were all very brave. I remember watching the activism of the late 80′s, but somehow what Wilde and his friends did was stronger, maybe because they had no role models. They are the role models.
[Readers, spoilers ahead. So skip this question and its answer if you don’t want to learn too much.]
You mentioned earlier your alternate ending. Apart from the obvious, what made you choose to add it? Was it, at least partly, a willingness to position yourself among the brotherhood of the authors of Teleny?
My only concern was that I felt sad about the ending. If you asked me in 1995 if I had any problem with a tragic end I would have said no, but when I was reaching the last chapters I began to have a huge problem with it. I know that a lot of love stories have tragic endings Victorian love stories especially. It was quite common for main characters to commit suicide and to be bittersweet, but I felt like I couldn’t add to that. It twisted my stomach with feelings of being smothered by self loathing, I just couldn’t let it stand. Luckily my friend Gary Ellis, who is a straight cartoonist, and an old friend, gave me the push I needed to make such a huge change. The conversation we had was really not too far off from what I put in the comic.
It is a huge leap and I hope nobody is offended. I even put words into Oscar Wilde’s mouth in the front piece and now I’m daring to write a new chapter and have the last word on one of the greatest erotic novels ever written. Who am I? But I’ll tell you, I have to admit it was a lot of fun. I got to use some of the research I did and fill it up with as much as I could with real events, such as the “yacht at Erith in Kent” is a reference to a real offer by a friend to smuggle Wilde to France that I found in Robbie Ross’ biography. I got to bring back Bryancourt and let him be redeemed as the rescuer. I got to paint a more hopeful exit to France than Wilde got and leave him pictured as he was in happier days. I can go down as “that awful upstart” who touched the untouchable, but I have no regrets about seeking out a bit of happiness.
As a reader, Teleny certainly brings me a sense of history, of being linked to these men who had to completely hide their true desires in society, but who created such a beautiful piece of erotica. Do you think working for such a long time on Teleny has brought you something as an artist and as a gay man?
I’ve lived with this book for so long that it will always be a part of me. I purposely started my next project before I finished Teleny because I was worried that I would get depressed after I was done. It has certainly caused me to learn more about Gay history and where we come from, and realize there are things that make us all the same. We still hide ourselves but slowly that is changing and I think the way society changes is through its stories. Maybe there are not as many books or movies as straight ones, and Gay creators will sell only to thousands of readers not millions, but those that do give us a voice. Personally I’m not satisfied anymore with translating gender pronouns in my head when I read. I want stories about men loving men with no apology and this book paved the way for me and others to write them.