Nicolas de Crécy, the renowned French cartoonist’s Celestial Bibendum is a 200 page graphic novel, translated from the French and released in hardback, large format in full glossy colour. It tells the story of Diego, a wandering seal equipped with crutches and one shoe into which his tail is stuffed, who arrives in New-York-on-the-Seine and begins to explore this “capital of all excesses”. He is almost instantly besieged by various figures, some infernal and some possibly not, but all of whom intend to use the beleaguered Diego for their own ends. The tale is introduced to us by a vaguely repulsive decapitated head (who will eventually seduce a huge sow…don’t ask), which perfectly establishes the sheer bizarreness of the book. The book veers wildly away from standard narrative and is therefore sometimes hard to follow, especially since the illustrations are so intrusive and twisted.
Our heroic seal is apparently wanted both by the devil, for some strange design, and a group of academics who wish to offer Deigo a prize; the Nobel Prize of Love. The devil appears as a firey little chap in checked trousers, and is actually one of the cutest of the book’s characters (‘cute’ appears to be a significant word in the Celestial Bibendum for some reason or other). Diego himself is a very maggot-like creature I found to be deeply unsettling. His pale, bulbous ugliness, surrounded by various Skeksis-like creatures – all sharp angles and bony frailty – is where Crécy loses me.
The book’s palette varies between near monochrome and a vast array of bright oranges, yellows and reds – the two contrasting starkly against each other – and it conjures a kind of hellish atmosphere that follows Deigo in every panel. I imagine it is what a serial killer’s brain would look like on the inside.
Although highly imaginative, intricate and amazing images are obviously Crécy’s forte, they are all actually rather gross and repellent. He has an evident technical skill and the illustrations are remarkable in the sheer variety of style and execution; ultimately, however, I find them ugly and quite creepy. This, coupled with the utter absurdity of Diego and his bizarre adventures, meant that I can’t say I enjoyed the graphic novel – it almost made me feel dirty reading it, for some reason.
An overwhelming mix of grotesqueries, The Celestial Bibendum is very far from a light hearted read. Although there is a definite humour to it, this is overpowered, for me, by the nonsensical and disturbing nature of the graphic novel and its imagery.