I know that they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but in the case of Celeste – the first original graphic novel by INJ Culbard who has made a name for himself in recent years adapting HP Lovecraft books for the publisher Self-Made Hero (we reviewed his At the Mountains of Madness and Shadow out of Time a wee while ago) – we think we can make an exception: a spaceman, a spaceman wearing a wristwatch over the spacesuit, is wading through a dark red river, the lighter wake of his journey stretching behind him (across the front cover and then over on to the back cover), whilst overhead gravity seems to be running amok and a whole host of cars, trucks and school buses seem intent upon flying to the moon. Oh yes and there is a large Fuji-like mountain reflected in his visor. What does all of this tell us about what to expect when we break back the cover of the book? Well, not so much from a strictly narrative point of view – but a great deal in terms of juxtaposition and our willingness to engage with things that might not make a great deal of sense.
We are travelling, quite possibly at terrific speeds, through space. You read the first nine wordless pages of Celeste and you’ll quite possibly hear Richard Burton in your head (if you’re of a certain age) saying, “Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets / and yet across the gulf of space / minds immeasurably superior to ours / regarded this Earth with envious eyes / and slowly and surely / they drew their plans against us.” And yet the alien life contained within the pages of Celeste is, to say the least, somewhat oblique. We see what looks like a rose petal blown this way and that upon the wind. It lands at the foot of a pug nosed man in Japan, appears to observe an albino lady as she showers, is swallowed by an American man asleep at the wheel. Each of these three people are then united – albeit unknowingly – by a strange series of phenomena. The Japanese man goes to hang himself in a forest but is disturbed by all manner of out there craziness (including a pair of one eyed Midwich Cuckoos). The albino lady and the American man find themselves suddenly alone – except for one other person (the albino lady has a romance of sorts, the man chances across another man who may or may not have murdered someone). It is all very curious and yet for all that subtly compelling. The art is also very good, perhaps among the best of Culbard’s career so far (the Japanese man up to his shoulders in what looks like overstock from the Parisian catacombs is particularly good). There are parts of the book that look like Studio Ghibli animation, parts of the book that look like Mike Mignola’s BPRD and parts of the book that reminded me of nothing so much as Marvel’s Secret Wars 2 from way back when (most particularly, when the Beyonder stepped outside of reality).
Do I know what to make of it all? I don’t think I do. Does the rose petal represent some playful alien lifeform with powers beyond our limited ken and an ability to send everything swerving off to crazytown before then restoring what fragile balance existed before? Are the characters truly changed by what happens? Or is the reader the only one who gets to remember what has gone on? I genuinely can’t answer. I did take a look back over The Shadow Out of Time, though, and there was a frame there that seemed to sum up what Celeste is all about (or what, perhaps, the experience of reading Celeste is like:)
If you can ponder an abstract object and take pleasure from it without having to have all questions answered (in fact would rather have all answers questioned), then Celeste is quite possibly for you. I’m not quite sure where I am with it all. If we take the pic above as a sort of working diagram, then I would say I am probably floating somewhere between the man and the strange crystal. But that is not a terrible place to be and more than anything probably suggests at this early date that Culbard has sunk his strange talons into my brain and I’ll be re-reading Celeste in the coming weeks and months to ponder further.
Any Cop?: We tentatively recommend this on the strength of Culbard’s previous work and the fact that those two kids with the single eye keep looking at us, no matter where we sit in the room, even if the bloody book is closed. Bloody kids.