I. N. J. Culbard, Celeste (SelfMadeHero, 2014). $24.95, hardcover.
As a big fan of Culbard’s earlier work, especially his masterful adaptations of the works of Lovecraft, I was very much looking forward to the release of his first original graphic novel. In some respects, the book lived up to my anticipation. Freed from the constraints of adaptation, Culbard was able here in Celeste to open up his pages and show off some virtuosic graphic storytelling moves. For example, early in the book, there is a splendid two page spread in which the three central characters each engage in the act of tying—shoelaces, a necktie, a noose—in three tiers layered over a space-eye view of the earth and moon. Like so many pages in this book it is beautiful and reveals a talented and thoughtful visual storyteller with tremendous potential. Unfortunately, in Celeste, Culbard does not have a story that lives up to that potential.
For me at least, the story itself felt contrived, unconvincing, and overwrought. It is not that the theme—the temptations and perils of solipsism—is not a worthy one, but in the end, the script felt like an odd mashup of an after-school special and a scifi horror that did not wholly succeed as a strong entry in either genre. I could not help but compare it to Frederik Peeters’ recent Pachyderme (also published in English by SelfMadeHero), which similarly works with a story that is often obscure and heavily dependent on symbolism, and which could be read as similarly resolving itself into a fairly conventional “message” (in Peeters’ case, one having to do with the central protagonist following her repressed dream of pursuing a creative life). Why did the one work so effectively for me on all levels while Culbard’s equally ambitious and challenging book seemed to show its seams and its eagerness to be ambitious? At its core, such a question lead us into the places where creative alchemy does its magic—or fails to do so—and a lifetime of thinking about storytelling has convinced me that no efforts at reverse-engineering will ever deliver the recipe.
That said, I do think that in Culbard’s case it is possible that too much time in the Lovecraft trenches has held back his own storytelling voice and vision. As I have written elsewhere, I admire Culbard for taking a writer I find overrated at best and cringe-worthy at worst and transmuting his work into powerful and effective narratives. But too much time staring at the purple prose and occultist stagecraft of a second-rate author is not a healthy diet for any author. Celeste reads like a first book by an accomplished artist, which is exactly what it is: a work of storytelling juvenelia by a very mature artist. I look forward to watching his skills as a writer catch up with his artistry in the (I hope) original graphic novels to come.