Even as fully grabbing onto the narrative proves difficult, I was really knocked out by the manner in which I.N.J. Culbard depicts uncomfortable closeness as well as the passage of time in his debut original graphic novel Celeste (SelfMadeHero/Abrams, 2014). The book — a meditative and cinematic science fiction story a la Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps 2009’s unsettling Moon — seems to have a lot to do with time, so in relation to how everything else is plotted here, it makes sense that so much of Culbard’s attention is spent on positioning what would ordinarily be considered an insignificant couple of minutes. He shares every tick of the clock in lieu of conveying the natural haste we’d associate with foul play, or with a sloppy suicide attempt, for example. Mapped-out in two eight- and nine-panel pages, a woman showers, dresses, puts in her contact lenses, and waits on a train platform. Forty seconds of palpable distrust between two men on a jammed although tranquil highway get sharp focus, broken down over carefully stacked imagery.
In Culbard’s clean lines and a reliably superb pairing of colors (note the interplay between the London Underground’s pale greens and barn reds during Aaron and Lilly’s first exchanges, and how the same palette returns as a romance evolves against a grassy meadow), Celeste‘s wordless panels are a bit reminiscent of Adrian Tomine’s New Yorker work. And there is a lot of cause for uncomfortable silences here. Culbard’s cast of players are, by happenstance, total strangers to one another. An inexplicable suspension of reality lumps two pairs of people together that hadn’t yet met (in London and on the West Coast of the US, respectively), on the basis of there suddenly not being anyone else around. Another man, in somewhat of a dream-state in Asia, mulls his worth and encounters otherworldly, dangerous beasts. It’s pretty cosmic-feeling and seems to hinge on a stoppage in time (maybe?), and it’s altogether a bit confusing and unresolved, particularly if you’re looking for a more linear trip like Culbard’s recent H.P. Lovecraft adaptations (see my 2013 essay on Lovecraft and on the UK creator’s wonderful The Case of Charles Dexter Ward at The Comics Journal).
We’re held close to the beat of Celeste‘s abstract narrative, and Culbard explores human nature in the way that good science fiction writers do. Each moment is organized so that even as the action takes shape at different corners of the globe, we’re not missing anything, and Culbard links his characters’ discoveries — and frustration — in clever visuals. Knots, for example, are tied simultaneously but for different reasons in separate locales. They’re emblematic of the unrest and likely the unexpected couplings at the center of the story. Culbard slots them in a grid across two pages, overtop clusters of the stars and planets that are so often integral to the background, or to the comic’s stirring opening and closing passages. Celeste tends to feel about as in-reach as those spacescapes do, but there is an eerie beauty to what the figures back on Earth are experiencing. Fortunately, Culbard wants to show us every second of it.
All images © 2014 I.N.J. Culbard Buy the book from SelfMadeHero/Abrams.