I’m always curious to hear about unique and interesting concepts for new comic books, and I have to admit that Vault Comics’ The Picture of Everything Else did immediately catch my eye for that reason. The very first time I read the title of this book, it stood out to me, and I thought to myself, “is that… is that a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray?” If their target audience is gay nerds like me whose brains go directly do Dorian Gray upon hearing their title, then they did a good job speaking to their demographic, because it is indeed a reference to Oscar Wilde’s only novel.
The Picture of Everything Else #1
Aditya Bidikar (letterer), Kishore Mohan (artist & colorist), Dan Watters (writer)
December 15, 2020
Let me set the scene. The setting is Paris, just before the turn of the century. Alphonse and Marcel are a pair of starving artist friends who appear to get by on the proceeds of trinkets they steal from the homes of the wealthy socialites they rub elbows with. As artists, their paths are fated to intersect with that of a mysterious painter known only as “the Englishman,” who has been the talk of the town as of late—and this changes their lives more than they could know, as they discover the identity of the murderous Paris Ripper.
Of course a murder mystery set in Victorian Paris could easily make for a compelling story, and it does use that setting beautifully. (The issue starts out with a spirited debate about whether or not photography can be considered art, which was a hotly debated topic around the turn of the century, and it was a perfect introduction to the setting.) But my first instinct was to ask why it had to be an Oscar Wilde tie-in story? Why accept the baggage—the responsibility—that comes with linking your work to a classic like The Picture of Dorian Gray? Why volunteer to try living up to something that well loved? And of course the natural next question is: well, did it succeed?
Let’s start with some of the good stuff. First of all, the art is beautiful and expressive. It really captures the vintage Victorian feel, particularly with the gorgeous watercolor-style colors, which just feel so right for a story about painters. It feels decadent when it needs to be decadent, and scary when it needs to be scary.
The original characters, Alphonse and Marcel, are the most compelling piece of the book to me. There is absolutely nothing I love more than two men in Victorian Paris pining for each other, and after a single issue, it’s pretty clear to me that’s what’s going on. (I thought they were an explicit couple after a dramatic kiss near the beginning, but it turned out to be one of those “makes your relationship awkward” types of kisses. But Marcel’s reaction to the surprise kiss is classic MLM pining, and later Basil Hallward, whose pining for Dorian Gray is one of the driving forces of the original novel, identifies Alphonse as loving Marcel after interacting with the two of them for approximately 45 seconds.) Alphonse in particular has enormous Oscar Wilde energy—he talks at length about how everything he does is living transgressive art, how he uses his own life to “paint with broad strokes on the canvas of the world itself.” Wilde shared this sentiment, that his entire life was an elaborate piece of performance art, famously writing “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Having a character in the story to represent Wilde himself is delightfully meta, and it certainly endeared Alphonse to me as a Wilde fan.
I don’t want to spoil too much about the mystery of the story, but since its in the synopsis for the book, I think it’s safe to touch on the fact that the Paris Ripper is none other than Basil Hallward, the painter who created the famed immortal portrait of Dorian Gray. And this… distresses me. Basil is the clear victim of the Dorian Gray story. He did not set out to create an infernal painting—its supernatural qualities were caused by Dorian’s wish. He was rejected, quite cruelly in fact, by Dorian when he confessed his feelings to him. He was killed by Dorian for trying to connect with him. (Um, spoilers for The Picture of Dorian Gray I’m afraid, but in fairness, you’ve had 130 years to get around to reading it.) I have a real fondness for Basil, and I don’t like seeing him painted as the villain of the story. I could see a path from which he transitions from the mild-mannered fellow I know and love into someone who has been deeply twisted by the many tragedies that have befallen him. But without being shown that development, it’s mainly just unpleasant to see a character I care about turned into the wantonly cruel villain that he appears to be in this debut issue. I am curious to find out more about what has happened with Basil since his death at Dorian’s hand, and it’s possible it will be fascinating and win me over. But it’s frustrating to be immediately put in the position where I need to be “won over” in order to enjoy this major facet of the plot.
And thus, I’m having a little trouble determining who the target audience really is for this rather niche premise. It seems to me that having strong feelings about The Picture of Dorian Gray should enhance my enjoyment of this series, in the form of small references and easter eggs meant for the avid fan—and there is some of that, particularly surrounding Alphonse. But it also detriments my enjoyment in other ways that would probably not bother more casual readers, like the characterization of Basil and discrepancies with dates. (Dorian Gray is set near the turn of the century and 18 years pass over the course of the book. The Picture of Everything Else takes place in 1897. Do the exact dates really matter that much to the story? Not really. But does it bother me as a Wilde fan? I mean… yeah, a little, kind of.)
Despite all that, I am curious to see how the mystery continues to play out. It’s definitely an enjoyable read, especially for anyone fond of the Victorian era. I’m already attached to Alphonse and Marcel and invested in seeing them reunited. And honestly, you don’t write a comic that ties in to The Picture of Dorian Gray unless, like me, you care deeply about Dorian Gray, so I’m hopeful that the story will come around in a way that feels satisfying.