is one of my favorite modern artists and his comic book works are astonishingly beautiful and haunting. His unique visual sensibility makes this text-less graphic (very graphic) erotica completely original. In terms of wordless graphic novels, I've only read a few and this one is intriguing since it incorporates fantasy elements with reality and with no textual explanation. Like all of his work it is wondrously imaginative and slightly unnerving, yet in a way that is never gratuitously titillating or disturbing, at least not by my own standards. Celluloid
is a work of art that creatively explores rather than cheaply exploits human sexuality. Whether it will be viewed as such or not remains to be seen, but this is indeed a groundbreaking effort in a medium that is still perceived by many to be just for kids. To have erotica available within such a medium could be potentially very controversial, but it could also be an important stepping stone along the path to cementing the fact that graphic literature isn't just for children; that it can be artful, complex, and as adult-oriented as any other storytelling media.
The book, which is 232 pages, reads (or views rather, since there is no text) very quickly as a work of erotica should and I found that instead of examining each page and the details of the artwork for a long duration, I went through it quickly. I then read/viewed it again. In some ways, the experience of reading the book was similar to that of watching an old silent film, which may very well have been intentional as McKean has stated numerous times that he loves old European silent films and that they were an early influence on his visual style. (In fact McKean is currently working on an evocative series of multi-media paintings entitled Nitrate
which are an homage to some of the masterpieces of the early cinema).
The story tells the tale of a woman who becomes disappointed when the man she lives with isn't able to come home and make love to her because he's busy with work. So, she resorts to taking a bath and then pleasuring herself on the sofa. But she ends up finding a film projector and curiosity takes hold of her. As the images begin to explode on the wall she realizes that the film is of a sexual nature but before she can absorb the details of the film the reel burns out and in the place of the projection is a set of ornate doors leading into another world. She walks through them and finds herself in a strange, somewhat eerie, and very sexual fantasia where people make love in public view. The woman comes across numerous film projectors in this strangely sensual world and with each viewing of the film she is transported to another locale where she makes love to a startling vivid and intriguingly bizarre character. During these sexual encounters she makes love to a woman with fourteen breasts and grape vines for hair, a very well endowed demon whom she satiates orally, and then finally a benevolent shadowy figure who emerges from a vulva-like structure in the ceiling.
Meanwhile the woman's lover back in the real world comes home to their apartment and discovers the film projector and plays the reel of film... at which point it is revealed that the couple having sex in the film is the woman he lives with and the shadowy figure. Their eyes lock and the question remains: is this reality or is this a dream? And if so, whose dream is it - his or hers?
Regarding the art, the book encompasses many styles that shift and flow seductively from stylized photography to expressionistic pastel drawings, from colorful surrealist paintings to simplistic sepia-toned illustrations. In fact, from a critical standpoint, some of the pictures are gorgeous and would be welcome additions to modern art museums as stand-alone works.
McKean was smart to label the book as pornography since many of the images are indeed very graphic in their anatomical depictions of sexual behavior ranging from voyeurism to masturbation, from oral sex to intercourse. Despite their vivid imagery and provocative nature, I never found them to be disturbing or vulgar (though others will have a different reaction, I'm sure).
Normally, I have little to no interest in pornography or explicitly graphic erotica (although I do love John Cleland
's Fanny Hill: Memoirs Of A Woman of Pleasure
and the illustrations of French artist Édouard-Henri Avril
). But I consider this to be a mature and artistic approach to the subject matter and at no point did it seem to denigrate sexuality, or devolve to purely exploitative depictions of either gender, nor does it wreak of the overtly misogynistic commercialism of more mainstream - if that word can be applied - erotica and pornography. This work isn't exploitative smut to be viewed at with shame. It's a celebratory expression of mutual pleasure; a sensual reverie to be shared.