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Dave McKean’s Celluloid

2011 October 27

Celluloid cover artAs a big fan of Dave McKean’s rich and haunting art and illustration, I was intrigued and admittedly a bit excited to hear he was producing an erotic graphic novel earlier this year – Celluloid.


I’ll get my position down as briefly as I can here so I can get on with the post. I wouldn’t say I’m ‘pro-porn’ because I’m dead against the unsafe and exploitative (like many industries, it must be said) mainstream porn industry. I find a lot of it distressing and unpleasant to watch. But I don’t accept the argument that violent porn has any causal link to violence against women beyond the fact that it re-inscribes the values already at large in our society. Symptom not cause, I‘d say.

I have no problem with porn in theory. But mainstream heterosexual porn and all its cliches has become so dominant and so widely accepted that it has become the ‘norm’ against which the bodies, fantasies and sexual experiences of real people are judged. We need positive, progressive sex education and much greater diversity, acceptance and openness about sex and representations of sex.

Back to Celluloid

Anyway. Here’s a brief synopsis I pinched from this Comics Alliance review:

Celluloid is the story of a woman who, during a moment of sexual frustration, discovers a film projector and reel of film that depicts a couple having sex… this woman finds herself traveling from our world into a dreamlike realm of sexual fantasies that’s presented in the artist’s trademarked style(s)…. The woman begins simply as a voyeur and eventually graduates to full participant in various activities with the entities she encounters.

And here’s a Flickr slideshow of images from the book so you can see what they’re talking about. It’s terribly beautiful, which to be honest I have come to expect from McKean. But the whole thing left me with a sadly unsexy feeling of ‘meh’.

Tickle my Intellect

Of course, reviewing an erotic work is tricky because what flicks your switches is such a personal matter, but even setting that aside I found I was disappointed. It didn’t turn me on. But it didn’t interest me either. In this Comic Book Resources interview, McKean outlines some of his aims behind the project:

Most pornography is pretty awful. I mean, it does the job at the most utilitarian level, but it rarely excites other areas of the mind, or the eye. It’s repetitive, bland and often a bit silly. I was interested in trying to do something that… tickles the intellect as well as the more basic areas of the mind.

Yay for intellect-tickling! That sounds right up my street. But I don’t think Celluloid delivered. I realise now that what I was hoping for was something that felt as different to mainstream porn as Black Orchid was from most 1980s superhero comics. And of course it is different on its shimmering surface, but the fantastic situations and sensual artwork are resting on some conventions from mainstream pornography that hold no allure for me.

For example: the female protagonist is inevitably thin, white, and able-bodied, with long blonde hair. She’s apparently bi-curious heterosexual. After having a bath in her empty house, she decides to put her high heels back on. The situation that frames her sexual journey is that she comes home and calls her boyfriend/husband/playmate, but he’s still at the office, so she’s stuck with a pout, a bath and some self-pleasure. I was half expecting her to order a pizza and get it on with the delivery man. One reviewer, who I won’t grace with a link, even described her as a ‘bored housewife’. It just feels so clichéd, and for me that undermines the eroticism of the art and the originality of the project.


Visually the weakest section (in my opinion) is what I’m going to call the Boobfruit section, in which the protagonist:

…encounters an “earth mother” figure, haloed in fruit and with fourteen breasts… as the woman consummates her meeting with the goddess, the resultant imagery throws some interesting analogies between fruit and the body.

Double page spread from Celluloid: a naked woman seen from behind stands in a forest and a spectral nude goddess approaches

The beginning of the Boobfruit episode. The 'earth mother' character is wearing some grapes on her head. Image © Fantagraphics, 2011

I don’t know what Graphic Eye find so interesting about the analogies between fruit and the body. Fruit as a symbol of sex and fertility, and particularly cis female reproductive organs, is pretty much as old as art. Here’s some extremely luscious fruit conveniently dropped into a painting of a youthful Elizabeth I, painted at a time when her fertility was a subject of international political speculation. And what could Frida Kahlo possibly be referencing here? You get the picture.

There’s also a cliché-within-a-cliché of fruit being used as a sensual reference point in descriptions of lesbian sex. I just couldn’t take this episode seriously, especially as the fruit pictures look like they’ve been cut out of an M&S advert.

Subject or object?

In the Comic Book Resources interview, McKean says:

I also thought it would be more interesting coming from a woman’s perspective, and for it to be essentially fantastical, a series of sex dreams, allowing for a more impressionistic view, trying to express the feelings of each stage, rather than just showing you literally what happens…

Double page spread from Celluloid showing close up drawing of woman's face

Image © Fantagraphics, 2011

But although the story ‘stars’ a woman, it’s not really told from her perspective. I mean, you follow her on her surrealist sex adventures, but at no point do you get any real idea of her feelings or thoughts. She is stereotypically passive; she wanders into situations and things happen to her, and she embraces them, but doesn’t act or take the initiative.

Although the woman begins as an observer and becomes a participant, it’s just a trade of one kind of objecthood for another, we have no sense of her interior life, to the extent that I find it a bit creepy. She is even drawn in a remarkably dead-eyed, expressionless way.

I still admire Dave McKean as an artist and illustrator, and I don’t intend this review as an attack on him; he seems like a thoroughly nice bloke. I understand that he didn’t produce Celluloid with me in mind as his target audience, and perhaps he never intended to challenge all (or any) of the conventions of mainstream porn. But I wish he had, since for me that would have turned a mildly interesting and attractive book into something extraordinary.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    October 27, 2011

    I felt the same about Alan Moore’s LOST GIRLS. I loved that he’d done it, I respected the attempt to mix those subjects with a plan to make genuinely adult erotica, but… it wasn’t sexy. Or very naughty. Maybe I’m way off the norm, but it didn’t do it for me.

    And I don’t know why I’m doubly disappointed when comics fail to deliver sexiness. Enough people find Milo Minara’s work stimulating, it must be possible to do.

    Anyone out there found an artbook or comic which succeeds at being hot? Or at including mental aspects as well as depicting physical?

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