IN J Culbard
The Celeste creator explains how it developed into a triptych of tales
hen Ian “INJ” Culbard unexpectedly fainted on the tube two decades ago, he probably didn’t think that it would provide the inspiration for his first original graphic novel for Self-Made-Hero after several literary adaptations. But now the Nottingham-based artist has channelled that disturbing experience into Celeste, a phantasmagoric exploration of the end of the world that spans the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere to the intimate depths of inner space.
“I’d never experienced anything quite like it before,” he recalls. “I was on the District line travelling through Earl’s Court when I passed out. It was rush hour and the carriage was packed. I felt this peculiarly hot sensation on my lips and every breath I was expelling felt unusually hot and then I had this horrific pain in my gut.”
Overcome by nausea, Culbard was transported back to a traumatic childhood memory. “In the moment of my collapse, I blinked and the carriage was empty,” he continues. “Stood at the far end was what looked like a captain from World War 1. When I was little, I used to have a recurring dream/ nightmare of being a captain in the First World War and having my guts blasted out by a shell. My brain must have been digging deep through my dream vaults for anything I’d associate with horrendous abdominal pain. After that, I distinctly remember the sound of screeching train wheels and him looking at me. I then came to on the platform as someone had helped me off the train. I could feel the cold sweat of having passed out so I deduced I’d been there for a while. I have no idea what happened to me but this momentary hallucination was my brain’s way of saying, ‘Sorry about this, but here’s an idea for a story by way of compensation.’”
From there, Culbard has weaved the tale of a very personal apocalypse, which has more in common with the experimental oeuvre of European comics masters such as Moebius than it does with more conventional armageddon scenarios. “Essentially, you have the removal of society and the influence of those around us on the choices we make, which to some might be seen as the end of the world or, as one of the characters in the book says, it could be the beginning of a new one,” he says. The narrative is divided into three interlinking storylines. “The story set in Los Angeles is the story of the mind, the story set in London is the story of the body and the story set in the Aokigahara forest in Japan is the story of the soul. So you have a mystery, a love story and a quest.”
Initially Culbard intended to concentrate solely on the London romance between Lilly and a male protagonist called Aaron before opting to change
the latter’s gender, although not their name. “Once I got into the idea, I decided that I wanted to say more than I could with just Lilly,” he reasons. “I also wanted to show it as a global phenomenon and not just an event that has affected one city. And a lot of the things they talk about actually come directly from my own experiences including Lilly flooding her fears in the reptile house and Aaron’s story about swimming too far out off the coast of Daytona and getting lost in the sea.”
Celeste gets its title in part from the French word for celestial, but also alludes to the infamous 19th century French sailing ship which was inexplicably found abandoned. “It refers to how the moon figures in relation to the Earth throughout the story,” he explains. “There’s also this thing called the Overview Effect that I’d read about: astronauts who go into space who look back on Earth and experience a cognitive shift.”
Beginning and ending with a bravura outer space sequence that eventually zooms in on a lone floating cherry blossom, Culbard deftly blends cinematic techniques with the distinct visual language of comic books. “All that stuff is informed by film,” he admits. “I’ve always loved the way Luc Besson’s movies open with a forward tracking shot, whether that’s running along rain-drenched streets with a group of punks dragging a body, over the waters towards Manhattan or through an asteroid field. It’s such a great way to take someone into a story.”
Culbard purposely keeps any exposition to a minimum, meaning that the plot unfolds almost
My brain must have been digging through my dream vaults for anything I’d associate with abdominal pain
I really wanted to convey the space that an empty world would suddenly have
entirely through the pictures. “As I was experimenting with layouts, I found myself using these little square panels to tell the story which allowed for more acting than talking,” he explains. “The dialogue was always being stripped because I really wanted to convey the space that an empty world would suddenly have.”
Goi ng It Alone
Having previously teamed up with Dan Abnett on Vertigo series The New Deadwardians and with Ian Edginton on 2000 AD’s Brass Sun and numerous Self-Made-Hero publications, such as their version of Sherlock Holmes adventure The
Sign Of Four, Culbard insists that he doesn’t drastically alter his working methods for his solo ventures. “Because the script has to be written before I start drawing, there’s not really a great deal of difference other than the obvious matter of it being me who has to write it,” he reasons. “So I write the script and then I take a little time off and do something else. That way I can come back to it with fresh eyes as ‘the artist’ and get to work, looking to tell the story with a second voice. But I guess the main difference when I’m writing for myself is that I leave the ‘artist me’ a ton of stuff to play with. I don’t designate panels all the time and I don’t try to over-visualise action scenes. I literally send myself ‘they fight’ notes and leave that to the ‘artist me’ to figure out, unless of course I have a very specific idea of how I want that to play out.”
Along with IDW repackaging the first two series into a six-issue miniseries for the US market, Brass
Sun – Culbard’s quirky collaboration with Ian Edginton – returns for a third outing in the pages of 2000 AD in May. “I love that universe,” he says of
Brass Sun’s esoteric clockwork reality “I love getting Ian’s scripts because they’re bonkers and always exciting to read. It’s very much a combination of both our visions, and simply because of that it’s become much more science fantasy than steampunk.” Having previously turned the likes of At The
Mountains Of Madness and The Shadow Out Of Time into graphic novels for Self-Made-Hero, Culbard is currently working on a comics version of another haunting HP Lovecraft tale in the form of The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath. “I do love adapting books,” he says. “There’s a huge catalogue of works I’d dearly love to adapt, just as there are ideas for books I’d like to write myself, but there are only so many I can do a year. I’ve got a second book to adapt after this and I also have an idea for another original story, which I’m quite fired up about, so we shall see.”
Celeste is out now through Self-Made-Hero. Brass Sun is published by IDW on May 28 and Brass Sun 3 begins in 2000 AD in May.
Eyes in the back of
his, um… arse?
It’s a tale of three cities.
The day starts just like any other…
The Aokigahara Forest looks grim.