Review: Celluloid


Celluloid is Dave McKean’s first erotic graphic novel. Its narrative, told without dialogue or words, follows a woman who enters a fantastical, erotic world after playing a pornographic film reel and discovering the boundaries between reality and representation have blurred. As each scene in the story changes, McKean utilizes a distinctly different visual style, from his well known digital photo-montages to his exquisite, Schiele-esque line work (whose work is directly quoted multiple times). The result is over 200 pages of McKean’s flights of visual fancy (click on photos below to enlarge).

With so many different visual styles Celluloid runs the risk of fragmenting the narrative flow, but it achieves a level of cohesion nevertheless. Throughout the comic, regardless of style, there is a dark, angular and lush visual voice that is undeniably McKean and that gives the impression of the deep introversion I find in much of his work. Like crushing heavy bruised-ripe stone fruit in your palms and licking the juice that runs down your wrists to your elbows because it’s dark and no one can see you doing it.

So yes, introversion, which stands in contrast to much of mainstream pornography today. I find the vast majority of visual pornography to be extroverted and expository, in which the persons involved are not only stripped physically, but stripped of their inner selves: their motivations, their history, their aspirations. I would even say that because they’ve often been stripped of all narrative context, they’ve been stripped of desire. Maybe they’re putting in a hard day’s work to get you off. Maybe they’re thinking about their grocery lists or the last great book they read or that cheating ex who was always so good in bed. Maybe you’ve never given a shit about what they’re thinking at all.

Celluloid might seem like it would lend itself to the kind of superficial pornography I’ve just described because of its lack of dialogue or any kind of text. It doesn’t shy away from hardcore imagery, albeit digitally altered or illustrated. However, because of its introverted feel and its focus on the perspective of a woman who is viewing a pornographic film, I found that I empathized with the female protagonist in identifying with her gaze, rather than simply objectifying her.

Personally, I enjoy having the specificity in a narrative that you can only gain through text and dialogue and I admit that in this regard, Celluloid left me wanting. However, considering how difficult it is to write good erotica, perhaps this omission was a wise decision. I would recommend Celluloid to readers who enjoy McKean’s artistic sensibilities and fans of his work will relish page after page of pure visual fantasy. However, if you are looking for easy titillation or something psychologically complex, you’d do well to look elsewhere.

I bought Celluloid from The Beguiling but this comic, published by Fantagraphics, should be easy to obtain online or in other comic retailers.