Celluloid - Dave McKean (w/a)
Fantagraphics, $35, 978-1-60699-440-5
Fantagraphics, $35, 978-1-60699-440-5
The Wolf - Tom Neely (w/a)
I Will Destroy You, $25, Buy it here
I Will Destroy You, $25, Buy it here
When we think of silent films, the very name indicates to us that something is missing, so to refer to these two recent graphic novels as “silent” would be entirely selling them short — not to mention that the word also carries connotations of quietude that doesn’t quite fit either. Yet, the fact that Dave McKean and Tom Neely chose to tell their stories without dialogue, narration or words of any kind still leads us to look at them differently. When the author refuses to present us with anchoring text — and, in the case of these books, a conventional plot — it can often feel like being cast adrift, treating every image as a puzzle to be solved and somehow jigsawed together with the adjoining pieces. Rather than work against them, though, that feeling seems almost an integral part of these comics, which deal in their own way with very similar themes of transcendence, transformation and sex.
In McKean’s Celluloid — his first long-form comics work since 1996’s Cages — a young woman, finding herself unexpectedly returning home to an empty house, decides to watch a reel of film that sits in a projector, ominously placed on a pedestal. The film that unfolds seems to show her having sex in a darkened room, which we presume to be a home movie, and she begins to masturbate. At the film’s — and her own — climax, the reel stops and the celluloid melts. Rather than white light, what remains on the projection screen is a door. When the woman, of course, opens the door she finds herself taken through various sexual tableaux, each one rendered in a distinctly different mixed-media style by McKean, and shifting ever more towards realism until the book becomes pure photography in its final scene.
Neely’s The Wolf is a similarly hallucinatory nocturne. A man’s night-time transformation into a wolf sparks an exploration of his identity and a sexual journey of uninhibited desire. Alongside the male and female protagonists, who each go through their own transformation, he brings into play the images of skinless creatures and anthropomorphic trees that have featured in his work before. Neely seems less interested in a plot than using his players to riff on certain universal themes and to delve symbolically into the human psyche.
The body is a primary concern for both authors. Given that these are, in their own ways, erotic narratives, we find ourselves frequently confronted with the naked body. This was a feature of Neely’s previous work The Blot, although the overtly cartoonish style of the work made it quite jarring; here in The Wolf, his style is much more aggressive and representational, lending itself well to exploring the human form. The bodies of his two leads, especially the wolf, are impossibly gangly which lends an awkward creepiness their movements. When it comes to love-making, the overextended limbs make the act seem more protean and balletic, rather than animalistic. But the body is also a source of horror, spilling forth nightmarish creatures from its guts — the aforementioned skinless ones — who, for the wolf, seem to reprimand his baser urges, constraining and devouring him; for the woman, they appear to taunt her with a memento mori of the ageing to come: sagging breasts and withered flesh. They become an outward manifestation of their inner doubts and fears that must be overcome in order to be happy.
McKean’s treatment is much more traditional, however. The young woman of Celluloid begins as a mere pencil sketch on the page and rarely do we see a full-figure view of her. The body becomes compartmentalized — a finger, a nipple, lips, legs, vagina — like an infant’s view of the world. As she progresses through the first door, she become solid and corporeal, but merely an observer of the carnal acts going on around her in the fantasy wonderland, until she reaches its second tier. It is here she encounters an “earth mother” figure, haloed in fruit and with fourteen breasts. Unlike Neely’s work, the abnormalities here are presented as beautiful, and as the woman consummates her meeting with the goddess, the resultant imagery throws some interesting analogies between fruit and the body (there is even some poetic visual rhymes, as a physalis becomes a clitoris). The result is that the flesh is constructed as something enticing, without any guilt or doubt surrounding its enjoyment. This makes her next foray with an engorged incubus seem perfectly natural, and their frenzied oral copulation simply another facet of sex.
This treatment of sex and eroticism as an engagement with nature, and an almost spiritual act, is reflected in the way that McKean has his protagonist change through each scene. Initially, it is a sketchy figure who watches photographic images on film, and as her journey progresses, she moves further and further towards the photographic image herself while her partners become increasingly abstract. By the end, it is an indistinct shadow that she finds herself taking pleasure from. The underlying theme that sex makes us whole and has the potential to change our image of ourself is also a concern in Neely’s book. Given the nature of the work, it is ambiguous whether the transformations that the man and woman undergo are supposed to be symbolic, hallucinations, or part of the surreal fabric of his fictional world. Nevertheless, the transformations are central to the book’s working, seeing the male character become more wolflike as he sheds his inhibitions and indulges instincts of not only desire, but also devotion and loyalty. The female metamorphosis in The Wolf is curiously evocative of McKean’s earth-mother figure, with the woman undergoing a literal blossoming from flowers, to branches and leaves until she becomes a tree entirely — a living embodiment of life itself.
For all the pell-mell of the mindbending plots, the creation of altered states and surreal fantasies would be for nothing, if it were not for the sheer virtuoso talent of both creators. McKean has long been established as a master of multimedia imagery and Celluloid represents possibly his finest work. The clarity and seamlessness with which he combines photography with drawings and paintings makes every scene entirely convincing. It’s this hyper-reality that encourages us to submit to the dream-logic of the story. It’s all the moreso with The Wolf, though, as Neely deliberately breaks the connection to reality with his visual quirks. When the skinless creature first emerges, he wears the mime-gloves of old Disney cartoons as a telling sign that the rules of reality no longer apply, and we are in the realm of elastic physics. This allows Neely’s expressiveness to play and amplify the world of the story — the introduction of full colour is later used to indicate the passion between the two central figures and, much like McKean’s world, the characters become fuller and more realised the further they indulge their passions. When they finally do have sex, right at the centre of the book, the art descends to pure expression — swirls of colour collide, lashed by inky black strokes and water splashes — Jackson Pollock with a dildo up his arse.
It’s difficult to compare these books with other work simply because they are so unique and the artists have such idiosyncratic styles that, really, these stories could only be told by them. By losing the words, the art’s connection to the story is drawn so much tighter. Perhaps comparisons with silent cinema are not so uncalled for after all, as when else has cinema paid quite so much attention to the singular image, or been unafraid to break boundaries of convention? That same spirit rests in both these books which are two extraordinary examples graphic storytelling.
-- Gavin Lees