Despite a growing mainstream acceptance, X-rated comics remain a tricky endeavor. Go too far in one direction and you run the risk of alienating your audience by becoming too raunchy or worse, exploitive. Head in the other direction, you come off as embarrassingly tentative and twee, or fall back on tired cliches. Either way, you’re publicly exposing a segment of yourself — your desires, your sexual preferences — that most people would prefer to keep to themselves.
None of which has stopped Dave McKean from releasing his latest creation. The artist (“Arkham Asylum”), author (“Cages”), filmmaker (“Mirrormask”), musician and graphic designer, best known perhaps for his work with Neil Gaiman (“Violent Cases,” “Mr. Punch,” “Black Orchid” and various “Sandman covers), is about to publish — through Fantagraphics — “Celluoid,” a wordless tale about a young woman who, through the viewing of a movie, enters a sexual fantasy world and moves from voyeur to participant.
CBR News spoke with McKean about the challenges he faced in putting this book together — his first solo graphic novel since “Cages” — and the problems/challenges he faced in dealing with sexually explicit material.
CBR News: To start off, what made you decide to return to making comics again? It’s not like you’ve truly been away — you’ve done lots of illustrations and covers, etc. for various comics-related projects — but this is the first big comics project you’ve done since you completed “Cages” way back in 1998. So why now?Â
Dave McKean: I’ve never been away from comics, they are still my first love. There are panel-to-panel elements in “Wolves in the Walls,” “The Savage” and my project with Buckethead. I slipped comics into the autobiography of John Cale [“What’s Welsh for Zen”], Heston Blumenthal’s “Fat Duck Cookbook” and CD packages for Bill Bruford. I also compiled a book of short stories called “Pictures That Tick” that Dark Horse released in paperback together with “Cages.” In 2009, I did a narrative exhibition and book called “The Coast Road” and last year another, more interactive one, at the Pumphouse Gallery in London called “The Rut.” Both of these, plus many other short stories, will be in a second collection of short comics that I hope will come out next year.
I’ve had three longer stories in my notebooks for many years now; an “end of the world story” which I’m taking my time over working through, a reworking of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” which I’m working on at the moment for Abrams and this erotic book.
Why erotica? What drew you to this particular genre?Â
The depressing majority of comics seem to be about violence of one sort or another, yet how much violence does the average person have to deal with in their everyday lives? Unless you live in BogotÃ¡ or somewhere similar, mostly it’s pretty petty stuff; the odd drunk looking for a fight, the odd crazy shouty person, the odd mad taxi driver, maybe. And I just don’t enjoy violence. I can see that narratively it is often a powerful spike in a story, but I certainly don’t want to dwell on it. I don’t want it in my real life, I don’t find violence entertaining in and of itself, or exciting, or funny.
But sex is happily part of most people’s lives, and crosses the mind most days, I would say, even if it’s just watching your partner get out of bed in the morning. All my stories tend to be about things that mean a lot to me and may be fragmented through dream imagery, or metaphorical settings, but basically, my stories are just about the people and places in my life.Â
I nearly put a full sex scene into “Cages.” In the last chapter, my couple goes up to the roof and makes love — I didn’t want to be shy about it, it’s perfectly natural. But in the end, for the sake of five or six pages out of five hundred, it would have made the book an X-rated graphic novel, and I thought that would have been a shame. So I looked away, and wrote a scene involving her “god” (or conscience) looking down on them, and commenting.Â
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 has an aesthetic beauty to it if possible, and something that tickles the intellect as well as the more basic areas of the mind. Maybe that’s not possible, and as soon as you start to think too much, it stops working as pornography. I don’t think so, but I guess it’s in the eye and mind of the viewer.
I didn’t want any dialogue, or captions. The scenario I had in mind didn’t need it, and unless you have a very specific idea to cover in dialogue, I think the conversation surrounding sex scenes is usually pretty ridiculous. So I was after a more sensuous experience, closer to music than literature. 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 — what photography probably does better.Â
Given that a lot of pornography is pretty awful, were there any works of erotica, particularly comics, that you used as a reference point, even if it was the case of “this is an example of what I don’t want to do”?
Not really. There are obviously some European illustrators who make interesting erotic comics, but not along the more expressionistic lines I had in mind. There have been a few films, some of Borowczyk’s earlier films, “The Lickerish Quartet” byÂ Radley Metzger,Â the silent film “Ecstasy” by Gustav Machaty.Â
Erotic and beautiful photographs or drawings are much more plentiful and inspiring. Surrealism began with an explosion of fetishistic images, especially the French wave. So it’s much more the strange and beguiling images of Hans Belmer or Jan Saudek, or even Picasso’s late period drawings that I’m most intertested in.
When you were working on the book, were there any restrictions or rules you placed on yourself as far as what you would or wouldn’t show or draw?Â
Plenty. There are lots of areas I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to simply be descriptive, to show sex scenes at face value, there had to be something else going on. There’s too much porn around to just add to the pile with nothing new, and preferably a little more nuanced, to add. The whole area linking sex and violence, even play violence, I wouldn’t go near, because for me, these impulses negate each other. I think there are strong arguments to both un-censor yourself, and to take responsibility for your own work. I’ve tried to strike a balance. For some people maybe the book is too trivial and prurient, for others it may be too restrained. For me it’s about right.Â
You break the book down into different “chapters,” with each chapter getting its own unique visual style. Without giving away too much of the story, can you talk a little bit about what led to these different artistic choices?Â
Most porn films are predictably repetitive, with the sex scenes themselves running through the same sequence of positions and action. I thought it would be more interesting for each scene to deal with just one aspect of sexual encounter — just masturbation, or just oral sex — and for each section to have its own color scheme, style, sensibility that would best express those actions and feelings. Also, the scenes move from very simple line drawings towards photography as the woman at the centre of the story progresses closer to being part of the “film.”
Along the same lines, can you talk a little bit about your color choices for the book? Why, for example, did you use a tan/brownish tone for the opening sequence?Â
[The art is] very simple and neutral to begin with, so color is only used when it has a job to do. Red is very important in one scene and acts as a stain or splash of sexual excitement as well as the color of one of the characters. The green and blues of one of the sequences merges the characters into the landscape and the natural world.Â
Sometimes in X-rated comics, the creator puts himself or herself at risk of embarrassment or exposing the reader to aspects of themselves or their desires they’re not always 100 percent comfortable in sharing. Did you have any experience like that while putting “Celluloid” together? What was the biggest challenge or difficulty you encountered in making the comic?Â
It very much feels like a private project, so just doing the book and going public felt very strange. But I think all my personal work has become a way of looking at, explaining, analyzing my own life. Maybe that’s all any writer or artist can do. I don’t gravitate towards documentary subjects, or escapist stuff that has nothing to do with me. Sex is a part of my life, it should be represented. Having decided to represent it, I want to be honest and direct about it, not coy or embarrassed.
I think my only concern is to make sure it is not confused with my children’s books. I think it fits into the body of work that includes “Pictures That Tick” and “Cages,” my books of photographs and with my short films. But it’s obviously not appropriate to mix it in with my kids books with Neil, David Almond and SF Said.
“Celluloid” follows a woman who moves from watching various sexual occurrences to allowing things to happen to her to gradually taking part in them as she becomes an active participant. Were you trying to say something about the nature of voyeurism or was it just a natural progression for the character and the book?Â
There is always a voyeuristic aspect to creating a story, any story. It’s a strange feeling, playing god with fictional people’s lives. Killing someone on a whim, or putting them through terrible stresses or incredible highs. When the story includes a sexual component, you can’t get away from the feeling of watching something private and secret. So including this idea in the heart of the book seemed most appropriate. The woman starts by being the voyeur, and through a series of events that strip away her self-consciousness, she becomes the subject of voyeurism, but stands up, confronts that and exits.
You use photography and live models in a few sequences in the book. Did that prove challenging at all since you had the models posing in rather explicit — or at least very suggestive — ways?
No, it was very interesting. I used a studio and models who usually make much more explicit images than the ones I asked them to pose for. They were completely as ease with the nudity and had worked together many times before. It’s a strange, outsider world, but they were thoroughly professional, helpful and easy to work with. I think they enjoyed doing something more suggestive and subtle.
Can you talk a little bit about the design of the book jacket? It’s interesting that you opted to forgo the usual biographical details and summarization that you usually find in more traditional books, even erotic ones.
The images are of a woman pressed against a rubber sheet, pressing against the thin barrier from one world into another. I was originally planning to have no text at all, not even a credit. I didn’t want my name on the book, or even a title. Maybe a pictogram instead of a title. That was when I was going to self-publish it as a secret project, maybe a couple of hundred copies. But Guy Delcourt offered to publish it within his erotic line after I did a short story for him, for the book “First Times.”
Of all the different styles you use in “Celluloid” — photography, paint, pen, collage, etc. — is there one method you enjoy utilizing more than others? Is there a particular working method or art style that you found worked best for depicting the type of sensuous eroticism you talk about than another?Â
Not really. I like the differences. I tend to get bored if I have to stick to the same style for a long time. If it’s important for the story to do that, then of course, I must. But these different chapters seemed to cry out to be expressed in a different way each time. There is something about a simple line drawing, the pen or pencil exploring the outline of the form with one line, which is particularly sensuous. After photographic elements always feel more voyeuristic than drawn ones. The oddest element was the fruit, which started in one image — the headdress of grapes — but then expanded throughout that chapter to include fruit appearing everywhere. There is something very specific about the shapes and textures of fruit that resonates with the touching sensations of sexual contact.
How long did “Celluloid” take you to put together? Did you have any trouble figuring out which style would work with which particular sequence and why?Â
I laid it all out very quickly in my notebooks several years ago, but never quite got around to doing the final book. As I say, I was thinking of making it a private book, one that you had to somehow know about to find. I like this idea of secret work, a world of passwords, inside knowledge, private invitations and word of mouth. I was also unsure whether I should really do a pornographic book. But it seemed like the right time last year. I really loved doing the book; I’m very much looking forward to doing another one in a year or two’s time. The style of each chapter was dictated by the story, so no problem there.