By I.N.J. Culbard
Much anticipation for this one, Culbard’s first original graphic novel in a career already littered with great works, whether as artist collaborator (with Ian Edginton for Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray and Brass Sun, Dan Abnett for historical zombie tale New Deadwardians, and Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer for jazz horror Deadbeats) or as the talented and incisive adapter of Lovecraftian works including The Shadow Out Of Time, At The Mountains Of Madness and The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward.
Here with Celeste, Culbard is taking his obvious skills in a different direction, although one that still relies on his ability to create a mood of trepidation, of a creeping, frightening realisation that all is not right with the world, and one that above all else, relies on Culbard’s delivery of a storytelling masterclass, controlling pace and mood so expertly.
This is a science-fiction creeper, of the more cerebral mode, something akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, one that leaves spaceships and rayguns way behind and concentrates instead on the very nature of human existence, a meditation on our place in the universe. It’s also one that will find many readers scratching their heads at its end, questioning what they’ve just read, confused at the ending. This isn’t a story to satisfy those looking for simple narrative with easy interpretations, but for those that enjoy epic, questioning sci-fi that explores the inner workings of the human mind as it also explores the vastness of space, then this will be something you’ll adore.
The work is all about the very nature of society, of isolation and its effects on people and the vastness of space where we may have to accept that isolation is a big part of our wider place in the universe.
We open with eight truly beautiful pages, spectacular scene-setting, establishing our minute role in the cosmic scheme of things, slowly zooming in from a position way out in space, the blackness broken only occasionally with pinpricks of light, distant stars perhaps long since extinguished, in further where white switches to yellow, to colour, nebulous gases give way to planets, a ringed giant, an asteroid belt, a star ever larger, ever brighter, until we settle on what looks very much like our Earth, approaching it via the surface of the moon, until we open out into a double page spread where the sheer scale of our planet is made clear, the biggest object we’ve managed to send into space dwarfed as we blink at the sunrise in the background.
Alone, isolated, absolutely miniscule in the cosmic scheme of things, that’s where Culbard begins, with us alone in our Universe, no matter how many people we surround ourselves with, no matter what we do to persuade ourselves otherwise.
Now, time for an art break….
Oh yes, that’s just the opener, that’s just us setting the scene, getting our place set.
Swiftly, we meet our cast. In London, commuters Aaron and Lilly spot each other across a crowded tube, and instantly every other person vanishes. In Los Angeles, Ray answers his phone in gridlock on the freeway, the LAPD officer on the other end telling him something about his wife, but he’s cut off, and just as in London, everyone around Ray disappears. Everyone apart from the beaten and bloodied man tied up in the boot of an adjacent car. In Japan, comic artist Yoshi ventures out into the demon-haunted Aokigahara Forest to take his own life but things will not go to plan here either.
From the eerily deserted streets of London and Los Angeles to the spirit haunted forests of Japan, we follow these lost souls, watch them explore themselves, each other, and the new, unfamiliar landscapes they exist in. Why does everyone vanish? Conspiracy? attack? alien invasion? No-one, especially the cast and the reader, is ever sure, but Celeste is less about these events and more the reactions to the events. We switch from one survivor to the other, each exploring a facet of their world, a few pages spent in each location and then switch. It keeps the story moving, keeps things fresh. The narrative may be slow to unfold, but there’s never a sense of moments dragging, or of boredom.
Ray and the blood-stained man attempt to unravel personal and worldwide mysteries, Ray desperate to get home and uncover what has happened to his wife, the thing the LAPD officer was unable to say before the world vanished. A surprise connection between the two adds further spice to their particular mystery, almost a thriller. Aaron and Lilly’s tale is the romance, a snatched little love story, more exploration and boundary testing perhaps, two girls wandering alone in London, able to do whatever they want, a real Land Of Do What Thou Wilt. They run through the landmarks, daring the other to do more, whether it’s champagne breakfasts taken or naked exhibitionism in the Royal Park. Finally, if Ray’s tale is all mystery, Lilly and Aaron an off-kilter romance, then the unamed Japanese man’s tale is the magical fantasy portion of Celeste, full of spectres and oriental demonic forms attacking from all sides.
There are so many genre boxes ticked here in Celeste, the epic sci-fi, horror fantasy, body horror, psychological drama, mystery, magical realism, a tentative romance. It could have felt cluttered or muddled, but never does, Culbard controls all, creating a work that questions, a mystery without resolution, a drama that unfolds tantalisingly slowly in front of the reader.
To end, we’ll head back to the beginning, to a moment just after the zoom from deep space to gigantic moon-rise. The next twelve pages, as three sets of double page spreads, introducing the three main characters are simply perfect.
The motif of a rose petal, we’ll assume that’s what it is for now, repeats across all three lives, the first thing we see after our journey to Earth. Each story is introduced in the same visual fashion, a double page of landscape beauty, with a single strip of panels, three per page, running across the bottom, first contact, of the character with the petal and of the reader with each character. The repeating motif, of petal, of panel layout, it’s a perfect example of how clever storytelling is often simple, the panel layouts here aren’t what make the pages impressive, it’s the symbolism, the simplicity, the beauty, the power of the imagery. Lesser artists take note… less is so often more, why shout so loudly with brash, nonsensical layouts done for artistic self-indulgence when you can create something more beautiful, more expressive, more powerful with simplicity itself. Culbard knows this, and throughout Celeste, its employed to perfection.
In the words of Alice… curiouser and curiouser.
Culbard’s slow pacing and exquisite storytelling make this compelling to the point of hypnotism. What does it all mean? Truthfully, three reads in, I’m still not sure. That’s a great thing. Is the petal symbolic, a mere linking device, something more sinister, something alien, something controlling even, a symbolic offering of another chance?
Celeste is less about delivering those answers and more concerned with posing the questions. What does it all mean?
This may well be Culbard’s first graphic novel where his name stands alone on the cover, but it certainly shouldn’t be his last. It absolutely wont be for everyone, and some will no doubt react strongly against a perceived absence of any real resolution. But for those of you who relish this sort of thing, for those of you who enjoy the challenge of leaving a work with more questions than answers, Celeste will enthral, fascinate and unsettle. That’s exactly the response I’d imagine Culbard was after.