It’s weird, if you think about it. Comics are a completely static medium. Other than the occasional motion comic or Marvel AR that presents a semi-animated panel, comics pages show static moments in time juxtaposed against each other. We never actually see a person running at lightspeed, or throwing a punch, or kissing someone. Instead we see a series of images strung one after the next, delivering the illusion of movement.
None of what I say is news for anyone who’s read their Scott McCloud, but I was reminded of this fact when reading Celeste, the dreamlike solo graphic novel by former New Deadwardians artist I.N.J. Culbard, published by SelfMadeHero. Culbard’s unique take on the world is quiet and moody, with complex emotions seemingly oozing from of each gorgeously colored and wonderfully designed page.
The book begins with a sequence that slowly brings the reader down to the Earth from space, as if we’re floating down like some kind of interstellar leaf willowing and wending its way to our planet. As we wander into three different cities, we meet several people going about their daily lives. Manga artist Yoshi is smoking in apartment and contemplating suicide; two London commuters catch sight of each other on separate trains, their eyes fatefully finding each other in an instant that will last forever; a middle-aged man in Los Angeles is sitting in endless freeway gridlock when his cellphone rings with news from the LAPD.
Just as we start to witness the conflicts that are driving these characters’ lives and providing them deep internal pain, everything stops. And everything begins. All living creatures on Earth have disappeared aside from our main characters (and one or two other people — and other surprising creatures that I won’t spoil for you). That is where the dreamlike space of Celeste begins, the place in which things are in upheaval and are unpredictable. This moment is when the fugue state begins and the reader begins to wonder what Culbard’s intent is in this book: is it parable? Is it intended as a dream? Is it a science fiction tale told obliquely or a slice of life tale told very obliquely? Or is it the kind of work that provides no easy answers by design, a story that is intended to force the reader to do some work interpreting what he or she is seeing? Is Celeste as much about the journey as about the arrival?
I think my questions above hold their answers. Of course it’s all about the journey. One of the joys of reading a story like Celeste is that nothing is spelled out; that in its odd narrative of clear events set against a vague backdrop that provides no clear answers, readers are left with a book that haunts and nags, in which Culbard’s images stick in your head: the albino woman flying into the sky; the Japanese man in a nest of skulls; the shock on the face of the man in LA as he arrives at his house to find blood all over the floor.
Pulled out of context, the panel above encapsulates what I see as the real theme of Celeste: when we’re stuck inside our own heads, we isolate ourselves from the world around us, from the important events that surround our tiny, insignificant selves. In showing readers what happens when we open our eyes and allow the space aliens inside ourselves to come awake, Culbard is both creating the illusion of action on the page and filling in the spaces inside the reader’s head. He’s playing with the nature of this glorious static artform and delivering a waking dream that reflects the strangest reality of all: the panoply of human emotions. Celeste is a deeply thoughtful graphic novel that helps to remind readers what it means to be fully alive.