Dave McKean, an artist best known for his work on Batman: Arkham Asylum and frequent collaborations with Neil Gaiman on Sandman and the film MirrorMask, breaks away from the mainstream with Celluloid, a finely-tuned and erotic graphic novel.
Erotica can be a fickle, alienating genre. In American culture, it's generally something to be shied away from, typically in favor of far more obscene acts of violence. Improperly crafted, it can turn away more people than it can attract and may end up being more embarrassing than stimulating. As such, it's a risky venture for a well-known, mainstream artist like Dave McKean to turn to. Many may immediately dismiss his latest as a work of puerile deviancy, but those sorts likely wouldn't even bother examining the book before casting such aspersions upon it. Although it is most certainly, and openly, erotic, Celluloid manages to be so much more than its label implies.
The book portrays a sexual odyssey in which a woman discovers an old film projector in her apartment. She is surprised to find it loaded with a pornographic movie, but as it plays, it begins to open a door into another world. Curious, she steps through and discovers a fantastic cityscape populated with phantom couples making love, along with another film projector that pulls her deeper into this new world.
What follows is a story of sexual growth and empowerment. She begins the story as a voyeur, but as she embraces the newly revealed and expanding worlds of physical pleasure, her self-confidence grows and she finds the strength to not be a subject of voyeurism herself. The landscapes and colors of the world change around her as she grows bolder in her participation, and McKean's artwork gains greater dimensionality as his central character grows more assertive.
Without any dialogue or captions, Celluloid is strictly a visual narrative. It has a very film-like feel to it, which is appropriate given the MacGuffin that launches both the readers and the book's character on its journey. The book unfolds like a spool of film, each page like frames in the reel. The pace of the story is left up to the reader, but McKean has created such lush visuals that many will want to linger and examine the intricacies of the imagery presented. One particularly compelling page comes early in the story and presents the nude woman watching the film while ghost-like hands and arms reach out toward her from nowhere. It's an impressive, striking piece of art on multiple levels.
McKean combines several artistic mediums in order to tell his tale. His characters are stylized sketches, but as the story develops, he begins to create collages that merge his drawings with digital paintings and photographs of models and still-life objects. Without any words to give us clues as to what the female lead is thinking or feeling, McKean relies on distorted perspective and abstract visuals to project emotion and to create a shared sense of journey between the readers and the woman. The artwork becomes an incredible thing of beauty that showcases the interplay between light, shadow, and color, taking on surrealistic and expressionistic styles. The story is inflected with supernatural metaphors, while characters are paralleled and juxtaposed against photographed objects. By combining these photographs with illustration, the story rises to a new level, creating an increasing sense of dimensionality that exhibits the woman's growth as a sexual being.
While Celluloid is certainly an adults-only venture, it hardly seems fair to label it pornography, a title that has become akin to the dirtiest of words in American groupthink. It is rife with sexual imagery, but it is so well crafted and artfully composed that it would be shameful for the book to be lost amongst lesser, smuttier works. Rather than being raunchy or demeaning or exploitative, McKean has taken the high road and created a work that rises above the genre of simple erotica and rests comfortably on an artistic level. Many of the pages are so well crafted in their surrealistic imagery that they could easily hang beside Picasso. McKean has boldly stepped away from the confines of mainstream comic books with this endeavor, and the result is a masterpiece of eroticism that relies heavily on intellect and emotion, rather than just mere arousal or titillation.
Reviewed by Michael Hicks on July 6, 2012