The Picture of Everything Else #1 is the new horror title from Dan Watters, Kishmor Mohan and Vault Comics. Inspired by the character of Basil Hallward from Oscar Wilde’s one and only novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray, this macabre tale takes place in the vibrant, decadent city of Paris the end of the 19th century and during a period of great artists development. I caught up with Dan for a cozy Christmas chat and asked him all about this new series:
Olly MacNamee: A Picture of Everything Else #1 comes out this week, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. From your work on Luicfer for DC Comics to this, it’s clear you’re a fan of the classic Gothic era of the 19th century. So can I ask, what makes this novella a particular favourite of yours? Especially as this era produced so many literary classics.
Dan Watters: I do love the whole atmosphere and imagination that was alive in that era. Most of those stories have been revisited frequently, which simply hasn’t been the case with Dorian Gray. I think because the book lacks an open and obvious monster – it’s more insidious than that. But I’m still surprised Dorian Gray hasn’t really been folded out in many directions when it has been revisited. The themes, and the character of Dorian crop up sometimes, but don’t tend to be all that expanded on. Which I think is strange, as the book leaves so many corners unexplored. And I guess as a writer, seeing that untrod land, you can’t help but beeline straight towards it.
OM: Straight to the point, maybe, but we need to talk about Basil Hallward. He should be dead, right? Plus, this Basil behaves far more independently and confidently here in Paris? What’s going on?
DW: Last time we saw him, he was being stabbed to death. So that has the habit of changing one’s perspective on a few things, I should think. We will get into all of that, as it’s part of what I’m interested in; but I’d also note that Dorian Gray is a jumping off point to tell our own story. Basil is present, but that’s not the only thing that’s going on here. He’s such a tragic character, and was torn down by his own desires, just like Dorian was. And just like Wilde was, when his relationship with his lover Bosie ended in scandal, prison, and exile. Wilde’s book was so unnervingly prescient in that respect. I think that’s part of its appeal for me, too.
OM: From the dialogue, to the period details, intermittent horror and a hint of the supernatural, it certainly captures the spirit of the original. So, was this an intimidating series to develop knowing it would draw comparisons?
DW: Well, first off, thanks very much! And secondly, I used Caliban and Sycorax from The Tempest extensively in Lucifer over at DC, so I guess that would have been the time to collapse under any anxiety of influence, ha! But I don’t see any of it as competing with Wilde (or Shakespeare, for that matter). I’m writing 120 odd years after he last put pen to paper- so it’s a case of using his material as… well, material, pretty much. Weaving it into new pieces of art. And I think that’s something he would have loved, especially if you read his essay on the role of the critic. He thought art critics were artists in their own right, and the art they critiqued, their medium.
One of the things I love about storytelling as a tradition is the building on and repurposing of myths and stories into new forms, call and response across decades and centuries and even millennia- Madeline Miller’s Circe was one of the best books I read last year, and she’s riffing off a book that’s nearly three thousand years old. We really take that in our stride, we’re used to playing with the classics, but that’s such an insane, exciting thing for us to be able to do. I think that’s part of the reason I end up returning to art and artists as subject matter more than I really intend to.
OM: I take it the choice of what seems to be watercolours by series’ artist Kishmor Mohan was a deliberate aesthetic choice too?
DW: Oh, absolutely. We’d been wanting to develop a project for ages, and when I came up with this idea, I called him up immediately. The things we’d been working on before weren’t watercolor- Kishore is far more versatile than people probably realise at this stage – but he’d posted up some wonderful watercolour pictures he’d done, and I asked if he’d considered doing comics in that style before. It turned out he’d already done at least one, so I take no credit for that one. But I think we both thought the idea of having a book about painters actually painted by one was just too interesting to pass up. Writers love to write about writing, so why not paint about painting for a change?
OM: The setting of Paris in a comic series about art seems a no-brainer in hindsight. And we get to see it through the eyes of French art thieves Alphonse and Marcel. What can you tell us about their very complicated relationship?
DW: Alphonse and Marcel are native Parisians, artists who rent an apartment and studio together in Montmartre, the arty part of Paris – it’s where the Moulin Rouge is and was where Picasso and Matisse lived and worked. It’s also where the red-light district is, and things like that. Alphonse and Marcel aren’t making enough off their paintings to live yet, so they moonlight as art thieves… for who would know what’s worth stealing better than other artists? They both know they’re living on the cusp of something. It’s the dawn of the 20th Century, technology is changing exponentially, but art is growing stagnant. They want to redefine it. They might, or they might just end up in prison, who knows? Well, I know. But that’s less fun, isn’t it.
OM: The explosion of art movements coming out of France at that time must be a very exciting and fertile landscape to toil?
DW: Yes. Although the stuff that I’ve been really interested in started a bit later. We’re telling a story about the death of the Victorian era, and Cubism didn’t really start kicking until around 1906, really. That whole trajectory, through Dada towards Surrealism, has always been what I’ve really enjoyed. You can trace the story of the 20th Century there, and all its confusions and tragedies. Our characters are really staring down the barrel of that, in The Picture of Everything Else, and we’re looking backwards at them, knowing everything they cannot. Which is quite a melancholy feeling, really. Paris was so full of hope for the 1900s, with no idea just how much war was on their doorstep.
OM: And then there’s photography. You make mention of it a couple of times in this first issue. Its invention brought about the Impressionist movement, and the debate still rages on in your series. Should this be something the reader should keep in mind?
DW: I’m interested in photography, possibly more as an act than as a practice. I’m generally bewildered when I go somewhere natural and beautiful, or somewhere ancient – I spent a fair bit of time in Greece last year – and everyone around is snapping dozens of pictures. I’m not miserable enough to begrudge people their shots, but the need to view the entirety of something through a screen feels excessive to me. I sound grumpy, but I’m fascinated by it. We’ll take photos of places that professionals have taken better photos of – I guess because we want to interact with it in some way ourselves? But that’s a very synthetic interaction. I don’t know, I can talk myself in circles here. In the era The Picture of Everything Else is set, it was becoming apparent that photography was about to become accessible; and when it did, it was believed realism in painting would be rendered obsolete. So there was a sort of panic that fueled Impressionism, with people going, ‘we’ve spent all this time learning how to create art, now what the Hell is it actually for?’ I think we’re still asking that question, really.
OM: As it’s nearly Christmas, can you gift us any hints as to what coming up in future issues?
DW: Absolutely not, I will cheerfully go full Scrooge. Bring on those three ghosts. I’ll probably just end up writing a story about them too.
But now I think about it, I can probably tease that the title can possibly be taken more literally than people might assume. What would be the point in an unambitious artist, after all?
OM: Many thanks for your time, and seasons greetings you you and yours, Dan.
DW: Thank you, Olly, and likewise! I will be having a very Tier 4 Christmas with my partner, cat, and an abundance of mulled wine. Stay well and safe.
The Picture of Everything Else #1 is out Wednesday 23rd December from Vault Comics