Sebastian O by Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell is a steam punk story, featuring a dandy escaped from prison and looking for payback. He has somewhat super-normal physical capabilities, rather like the Batman. I wrote a more detailed summary & critique of this one, so there are SPOILERS ahead.
Sebastian O #1 of 3: “The Yellow Book”
Morrison opens the story with a description of Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam. He implies that it’s going to be a rough ride, and we might want to think twice before continuing. The opening sequence introduces us to Sebastian O, as he’s discussed by a pair of guards. Sebastian is in the hospital/prison due to some vague moral crimes; the description is along the lines of the Marquis De Sade (who shows up later as a character in The Invisibles), or Oscar Wilde (to cite a closer British example). We see the first piece of out of place technology, an electronic hand scanner (this in a setting that otherwise appears to be Victorian, although no date is given). S seems to be absent from his cell, the guards go in to investigate, and we next see a guard walking away. We’re not sure it’s S until he answers another guard’s request to “Give us a hand” by tossing a severed hand at him (from the ring, we know it belongs to the guard who had activated the hand scanner earlier). Lord Lavender is shown speaking to Queen Victoria via a video screen. He tells his nephew that S cannot be allowed to interfere with his plans, but expects S to return home and be handled there. The police are watching the house, using another bit of steam punk technology, a helicopter-like air ship.
As S primps with the aid of a pair of half-naked maids (“it is our duty to be as artificial as possible”), the police arrive. The house delays most of them with labyrinthine devices. When the sergeant leading them finally finds S, S shoots him and departs to visit some old friends, seeking retribution. When Lavender hears the news, he sends a message to a group of assassins called “The Roaring Boys.” One of them speaks a kind of surreal gibberish reminiscent of one of the old Doom Patrol villains.
While I was reading these issues (this is my second time through) I wasn’t paying much attention to the issue subtitles. I can’t figure out what “The Yellow Book” means. If it’s a reference to Sebastian’s offending book (the one that got him sent to prison), I didn’t see anything about the title or color of it.
While poking around looking for an answer, I ran across a blog with another good summary of this issue, which emphasizes some things I left out:
“Set in a steampunk version of Britain where modern day technology exists in Victorian times, Morrison’s Sebastian O is an analog or inspiration of real world Oscar Wilde. Like Wilde, Sebastian has been imprisoned for his debauched morality resulting from a raid on Club de Paradis Artificiel. A judge deemed O immoral based on a small book of poems and essays he’d written based on the theme of Uranian love (see below note). While others had been arrested during the raid, only O and a young man named Arnold Truro were sent to prison. O was put into solitary confinement from which he escapes by resorting to a gruesome means.
Lord Lavender, whose first name is Theo, was involved in the scandal following the club raid. He emerged from the scandal with his reputation intact. In fact, he rose to a place of power as Queen Victoria’s chief scientific adviser while he threatened others or had them maimed or murdered. Upon learning of O’s escape, Lavender and his nephew Piers plot his capture.
Meanwhile, as befits a self-styled dandy, Sebastian has returned home to clean up. A small contingent of police push their way into O’s home determined to apprehend the man. The house as designed by architect Lord Carhaix has hidden rooms and other devices that engage the police until O is dressed and ready to confront the police. After shooting the sergeant, O escapes into the sewer system. Lord Lavender decides to use extreme measures and sends a young servant boy to enlist the services of the ruthless Roaring Boys to capture O.”
Sebastian O #2 of 3: “Against Nature”
I’m going back to that blog entry for the summary, because writing summaries drives me nuts:
“O dispatches the first of the three Roaring Boys with a bullet in the head while travelling through the sewers. As expected by Lord Lavender, O makes his way to the estate of Abbé , another Club regular, who became a model prisoner, offering the Lord’s guidance to other prisoners. Abbé offers O hospitality and champagne, but O wants to know how Lavender was able to buy Abbé’s silence during the Club scandal affair. Before O can learn anything from Abbé, the two remaining Roaring Boys burst into the mansion intent on capturing the dandy. O survives the encounter with cunning and luck while Abbé is not so fortunate. He barely is able to utter the words “magic lantern” as a clue to Lavender’s plans when O realizes the police have spotted him from one of their flying gun ships.
On the run, O has the good luck to run into George and Phoebe on an impromptu hunt. George is a woman who dresses in Victorian male drag, and Phoebe wears a grand hoop skirt.”
The Abbe maintains another miraculous piece of steampunk technology, a Mechanical Garden which imitates the appearance and behavior of a natural garden. It’s another instance of this group’s commitment to artificiality. The Abbe says that Theo Lavender has “pursued our creed to its extremity” but then the discussion is interrupted. The title of this issue would relate to that, as well as the Abbe’s sexual proclivities.
Sebastian O #3 of 3: “The Queen Is Dead”
“In George’s study, O recounts the story of the club raid, his suspicion the charges were trumped up by Lavender for unknown reasons, and of Arnold Truro’s fate in prison. George shares that she and Abbé were blackmailed into silence and cooperation with Lavender. George reveals his plan involved the use of magic lantern technology (virtual reality), but for what purposes she does not know.
Still on the hunt for O, a half dozen police arrive at George’s estate. The two women hand in hand greet the officers. In a small gambit, George admits to knowing who Sebastian is, but cautions the officers about entering with the confession the she and Phoebe “suffer” from tribadism (see below note), and it cannot be guaranteed the “disease” will not be carried back to their wives and loved ones.
The penultimate scene finds O jumping onto the roof of a train car as the train enters a tunnel. Sebastian enters Lavender’s private compartment while the interior lights are momentarily out, and deftly dispatches nephew Piers with a quick slash to the throat. Sebastian informs Lavender he wants a full pardon. Pushing a few buttons on his Victorian-era computer, Theo states the pardon is granted. In that statement, however, a greater truth is revealed: Queen Victoria has been dead some months and it is he that rules England through the use of computer generated imagery of the deceased monarch. A fight ensues when Lavender thrusts a blade tipped cane at O. The altercation continues on to the train car roof. The matter of Lavender’s treachery is settled when Sebastian fires a bullet into the man, loosening his grip, and sending him to his death on the pavement far below.
Sebastian eludes the bumbling police a final time, and upon returning home, is confronted with the last of the Roaring Boys. Thankfully, O dispatches this last threat in very little time before settling back into the debauched routines of his old life.”
Before I forget, these are the notes referred to in the summaries:
“Additional notes – “Urning” is a term coined in the 19th century by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, considered to be the first modern theorist of homosexuality. “Tribadism” is a precursor to the word lesbianism. Tribad corresponds to lesbian.”
I’ve never encountered those terms elsewhere, and they didn’t seem significant enough for understanding the story to bother investigating. Thank you, mighty Internet!
This is a very tightly plotted little series. I think more happens in these three issues than in most other miniseries twice that length. Certainly this was published well before the phenomenon of “writing for the trade,” which Vertigo is at least partially responsible for. I see echoes of both Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, which I hadn’t read when I first read it (The Invisibles hadn’t been written yet). You can see some resemblance to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as well, although of course without the literary mash-up. Sebastian is very much an anti-hero. We’re meant to identify with him against the authorities, who are presented as hypocritical and rigid in their thinking. But he’s a cold-blooded killer who could be described as a sociopath (“I have, after all, killed only the VERY dull”). That kind of moral ambiguity isn’t unheard of with Morrison; I’d point to Kill Your Boyfriend as another example. You can’t get free of conventional society without breaking a few eggs. Oh, and the title obviously relates to the fact that Queen Victoria is in fact dead, present only as Lord Lavender’s computer simulation. I think it refers to Lavender’s death as well, since he was the Queen’s puppet master. Sebastian’s triumph over the establishment that put him in prison is complete.
One other detail in issue 2 I meant to mention. The first Roaring Boy says “nice and smooth” after shooting Sebastian while down in the sewers. Later that becomes a favorite King Mob phrase in The Invisibles. I guess Morrison liked it so much he had to use it again!
In many ways this miniseries is a brief rehearsal for The Invisibles. There are certainly many common themes. It made much more sense to me this time, with The Doom Patrol and The Invisibles under my belt. I would have originally read this sometime in 2001, when I first got into Vertigo heavily. But it was one of the first early miniseries I read. I remember finding it quite strange. It still is, but I think I had a head start this time.
The Sebastian O miniseries is one of the very few holes in my Grant Morrison library, sadly.
If you do any bargain bin hunting it’s worth looking out for. A trade paperback collection came out in 2004, so you might run across it that way.