July 2011

Peter Bebergal


Celluloid by Dave McKean

Turning the page of Celluloid, Dave McKean's new graphic novel and seeing a full-page spread of an ejaculating penis is disconcerting, no matter how mature and sophisticated the medium has become. McKean is best known for his surreal and often macabre cover collages for the seventy-five issues of the beloved comic Sandman. His work has always been interested in the visual language of fantasy and dreams. Here, McKean is attempting to subvert hardened notions of both comics and pornography. It's a book that gets the blood racing just as it raises questions that just won't go away about the nature of art, porn, and the male gaze.

Celluloid is also about dreams and visions, in this case, about the sexual fantasies of his female protagonist. The plot, which is mostly there to frame the fantasy sequences, follows an unnamed woman who discovers a movie projector in her home threaded with an erotic film. She becomes aroused as she watches the movie, and suddenly the light of the projector opens up a doorway into a sexual wonderland where she can, in explicitly uninhibited ways, enact her fantasies. Celluloid is wordless, and depends entirely on McKean's facility as an artist to convey not only the sexual acts, but what the main character is feeling. With each successive fantasy -- being caressed by anonymous hands, making love to a multi-breasted goddess, performing oral sex on a devil with a monstrous erection -- our heroine is at first unsure, but ultimately gives into what is an essential part of her. Eventually her husband comes home to find the same projector, this time a film of her, a portal opens, and the cycle begins anew.

Each fantasy is done in a different style: Dali-influenced surrealism, cubism, and McKean's signature collage work utilizing photographs of live models. The opening and closing sequences are drawn in pen and ink. Sketch-like, they are the loveliest and most evocative despite their simplicity. These moments, which narrate the discovery of the projector, first by the woman and at the end by her husband, are the least explicit but resonate the most deeply. They are a reminder that being capable of wild flights of sexual fancy is very human.

Comic books (and by extension the graphic novel) and pornography have had a long uneasy relationship. While comic book creators have always challenged convention regarding violence, sex has always been treated in a much more modest, albeit puerile, way. With sex, unlike violence, it seems easy to know the limits. One false nipple and you're out. The underground comix of the sixties changed all that. With deliberate and often explicit references to sex in all its myriad permutations, underground artists pushed the artistic envelope with raunchy and dirty images. Stories about incest, sadomasochism, and copulating anthropomorphic animals were not to titillate as much as to say "no one can stop us." Sex became synonymous with rebellion and with satire. Some comix, however, were interested in exploring sex as a real thing that real people do, and using the conventions of comic book language, there was a way to mold stories around the explicitness, as in the case of the cult comic Omaha the Cat Dancer. By the late seventies there was a market for just the sex, no satire or underground sensibility required to give energy or purpose. Like it has in all forms of media, porn found a home in comic books and graphic novels, sold through the mail or at specialty comic book shops, often distributed by the very best of the comic publishers such as Fantagraphics and Last Gasp.

In Celluloid, McKean attempts to subvert this by drawing on the tradition of fine art as a vehicle for erotic vision. By painting an erotic sequence with a surrealist's brush, McKean reveals the raw sexual current that underscores all pornography. Despite the simulation inherent in dirty movies, real people are still having real sex, and McKean sees something undeniably erotic here. But porn is also made by people with lives beyond the camera lens, and the making of these films might be a detriment to the performers' actual lives. Comics are free from all this. The characters exist only in the frames of the graphic sequence. Sadly, like most porn, very little is written or drawn by women, and most is driven by male sexual fantasies. Despite the medium, porn comics still seem to be consumed by the audience that most traditional comics are: men.

As an artist who has transcended the juvenility of comics, McKean takes what is puerile about comics and porn and shows that putting them together under the right conditions might give you a graphic erotic fiction that is wholly non-exploitative, while remaining rigorously and explicitly sexual. The small but not inconsequential inclusion of photographs adds an unsettling autobiographical motif. People let McKean take their photographs, but this only heightens the erotic energy in way that continually skirts the tension of how much this ambitious work is still a work of a male artist.

Celluloid by Dave McKean
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN 978-1606994405
232 pages