by on Jul.19, 2011, under Comics

Dave McKean is best known as a cover artist (for Sandman and various CDs), but some time ago he did a couple of big comics that became highly prized collectors’ items. Both (Cages and Pictures That Tick) have been reissued by Dark Horse over the last couple of years, and I guess that’s created enough momentum for him to sell this new book.

Cages, I loved. It retained a fair amount of narrative structure, even as it made some Surrealist gestures. Pictures That Tick, I was more ambivalent about, though because the pieces were shorter I was willing to deal with them as poems I didn’t quite get. It edged a lot farther into straight Surrealism, and there he’s tried to remain in Celluloid: An Erotic Graphic Novel.

There is no text at all in Celluloid. A woman enters a hotel room, carrying a suitcase, and speaks to a man on the phone, maybe a boyfriend. She takes a bath and masturbates. Her body is drawn in lanky pen and ink, and all the pages arrest her in the midst of a motion or an expression. Dave McKean, in case you didn’t know it, is a phenomenal illustrator.

She emerges from the bath and finds a film projector and a strip of pornographic film. She watches and masturbates, and then steps into the frame; we see intercut photo stills from a porno movie and drawings of her fantasy. The film runs out and she steps into the square of white light on the wall, and now drawings of her masturbation alternate with photos of fruit, as she imagines herself having sex with a grape-headed, many-breasted goddess. She falls asleep and is visited by an incubus, and when he ejaculates she’s projected into a dream of Cubist photomontages. The drawings have now all been replaced with photographs, and she is having sex in front of a group of men wearing Eyes Wide Shut devil masks. Finally we see the man from the phone in the first panels enter the hotel room with his own suitcase, I think we’re to assume for a tryst, and discover the film projector instead of our heroine. We see from a reexamination of the film that she’s vanished into the porno movie.

All this reminds me of the animated shorts art students make when they’re learning to manipulate computer effects. It looks cool, and in E.M. Forster’s most basic sense they tell a story—that “tapeworm” of the novel,” as he calls it, made up of a repeated “and then, and then…” But they have no plot, in the sense of building a chain of causation.

Celluloid is beautiful visual art. The photomontages in particular are lovely nudes, and I quite liked the fruit too. But it’s pointless. It attempts to follow the thought structure of fantasy, a classic Surrealist gambit, yet good Surrealism reaches for the associative language of dreams to evoke strong responses—originally to startle bourgeois audiences out of complacency.

And as artists who considered themselves revolutionaries, the original Surrealists were exquisitely aware of social context. I’m not sure Dave McKean is. Why, in a world of unlimited internet porn, is this woman’s fantasy experience centered on an old strip of film on a big projector? Is this a period piece? If so, why does she have a cell phone? Are we supposed to have the sensibilities of a celluloid-era audience? Because you can’t shock today’s audience with garden-variety porn, nor make a comic lurid enough to arouse us. You have to settle for a laid-back, uninvested artistic appreciation of this “erotic” work.

In other words, I can’t beat off to it and it’s not making me uncomfortable. It just sits there being beautiful. Is that what Surrealism is about?

Preview here.


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