Comics Time: Celluloid

Dave McKean, writer/artist
Fantagraphics, June 2011
282 pages, hardcover
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From a reviewer’s perspective, the nice thing about erotica is that, as with humor, there’s a clear threshold of physical response a work must cross to be judged successful. With humor comics, the key question (there are others, but this is the sina qua non) is “Did it make me laugh?” With erotic comics, it’s…well, let’s just say it ain’t laughter we’re after. And on that basic measurable (ahem) level, Celluloid comes up short (ahem ahem). McKean’s art is as otherworldly as ever, bathed in luminous gold, and until the final section it manages to avoid the “Hey, wanna watch some Sandman covers fuck?” photo gimmickry I was afraid of. But isn’t it kind of odd that of all the palettes McKean could choose to convey the film-projection-as-mystical-sexual-gateway metaphor that is at the heart of our nameless, speechless female protagonist’s “strange erotic journey” (to coin a phrase), he chose gold? Is that what you think of when you think of the shaft of light beaming from the projection booth to the screen, or the light the screen bathes you in in turn? Maybe if you’re Gordon Willis, but not if you’re me. The book is filled with weird little just-off details like that, from our young-ish heroine’s weirdly craggy body and her nose that seems to grow to Cyrano proportions at random depending on the angle McKean’s drawing her at, to the deeply unsexy choice to make our heroine’s foil in a lesbian sequence wear a garland of grapes that’s echoed by her (count ’em) fourteen breasts, leaving me to wonder if one of them was gonna get plucked off and eaten throughout their tryst. Working mostly with full splash pages and spreads, McKean is able to pull off striking isolated images here and there — off the top of my head I remember our heroine’s shocked face as she discovers a plaza full of copulating couples, a dramatic first kiss between our heroine and the grape goddess staged at a scale that makes it look like the sky is tenderly kissing the earth, and (one of the few actually hot moments in the book) her (non-sexual) removal of her top to take a bath right near the beginning of the book. But with the exception of the stunning black, white, and red sequence in which the protagonist sucks a demon’s totemic red dick until it ejaculates milky semen through the void like a spaceship floating by in 2001, isolated images are all they are. They get lost in a melange of homages to Picasso, Ernst, and “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans”-era DalĂ­, combined with McKean’s usual soft-focus multimedia wizardry and angular cartooning. What’s more, the whole affair has a didactic feel to it, as “let’s prove a point about the artistic legitimacy of erotica”-type comics often do. We’re clearly supposed to be proud of the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery, but all we have to go on to know such a journey is even required is a quick phone call at the beginning with her boyfriend — it’s an unhappy-seeming call, sure, but the impression it gives is that they’ve simply had a rough day at work, not that there’s some sexual void in their shared life that she’s filling in on her own, and certainly not to the point where the events of her magical journey into the sexy celluloid world make sense as a gauntlet to be thrown before the dude, as they are at the book’s end. That final sequence begins when the boyfriend returns home and turns on the mysterious projector that kicked off the woman’s journey. But by the time I closed the book, unfortunately, that projector was the only thing turned on. And that’s the heart, and other organs, of the matter, isn’t it?

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