Interview with Dave Mckean
by Mike French
Dave McKean was born in Taplow, Berkshire in 1963. He attended Berkshire College of Art and Design from 1982-86 and, before leaving, started working as an illustrator. In 1986 he met author Neil Gaiman and since then have collaborated on many projects including Black Orchid (1988), Signal To Noise (1990) and Mr. Punch (1975). Dave also contributed all the cover illustrations and design for Neil Gaiman's popular Sandman series of graphic novels. Arkham Asylum (1989) written by Scottish author/playwright Grant Morrison, the most successful graphic novel ever published, was also illustrated by Dave. Between 1990 and 1996, Dave also wrote and illustrated the comic novel Cages, which won the Harvey Award for Best New Series in 1992, the International Alph Art award and Italy's Pantera di Lucca Award in 1999.
Dave's illustrations have graced several children's books including The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman, and today Slog's dad is released marking a return of the award-winning team of Dave and author David Almond. We caught up with him shortly before the release date.
Hi Dave thanks for agreeing to talk to us. First off I think a full disclosure: I’m a big fan and have been since the Sandman comics first came out so excuse me if I come over all fanboy like! ( clears throat ) Many in the literary world still haven’t woken up to the importance of art in literature, do you think attitudes are changing and do you think there will ever be a day that we see a Booker Prize going to an illustrated novel?
Well, an illustrated novel maybe, a graphic novel, no I don't think so. They are different mediums - the equivalent would be a 12-part tv-series winning best film at the Oscars. But I do think the hard line against imagery in books is melting.
Do you aim to re- interpret the author’s work or provide images that match the text or a mixture of both?
It depends on the book, they all have their own demands. As a general rule I don't really like illustrations that just literally show a selection of scenes from the story. I think the pleasure of a book is seeing those scenes in your own mind. However, if you can find a way to create a mood, a feeling, or emphasise the drama, then that's usually a good start. Even better, if the imagery has its own job to do, then that is the ideal. Slog's Dad is an extreme example of this, where the images don't illustrate the story, they illustrate interpretations of the story, and in doing so, completely rewrite the book. You need a brave author for that sort of thing, and David Almond is very excited by the possibilities of adding a layer of meaning through images.
Can you set the scene for a typical day – do you work from a gothic castle with a moat full of crocodiles – are there images pasted all over your floor and walls?
Well, okay, not really.
I work at home. There are turrets, although they are really the rather more mundane, oast house roundels, and there is a moat, again, rather more mundane fish pond with rickety bridge over to my studio. Some people prefer to be surrounded by their own work, others prefer to look at other people's. I'm in the latter category. I try and keep the place pretty clean and sorted. I find it hard to work, or think, in a mess.
Are you constantly on the lookout for images that interest you or are you able to drive to the shops without mapping the world about you into images that you’ll use later?
I tend to shoot everything and sketch a lot when I'm away from home. But locally, no, I slip back into routines that help me think, plan out, and just get on with long term projects.
Each time I meet David, or read something new by him, I admire his way of writing, and what he writes about, more and more. He writes from a very deep and personal place, with a disarming simplicity of style, and a strangely compelling slippery attitude to fact and fiction. Iain Sinclair is similar, but maybe in a more calculatedly literary way. David's stories tackle these very tough subjects, but in a way that allows children (and anyone really) to engage with them immediately.
Having said that, I usually just read the text, and react. So far David has been happy for me to go my own way. Slog's Dad is a difficult story to get your head around; one scene, one apparently supernatural event. I couldn't deal with it on face value, so proposed a parallel narrative in pictures only, that would gently offer alternative readings of the scene. By the end of the book, the truth is unclear, but we are left with a very strong sense of how much this boy misses his father.
Out of the blue. Editors from Walker Books came along to a lecture I gave at English PEN at the Guardian offices in London, and afterwards gave me the manuscript and asked me to read it. I loved it immediately, and before I'd finished the final page, could see the book clearly in my mind. It's colours, it's style and it's blend of comics and prose.
Patrick Insole and the Walker Books editors and art department have been absolutely brilliant to work with. They are there with advice and help if I need it, but mostly they support my work, and find ways to make the books work out there in the real world. Rather than be led by book buyers or what has been successful in the past, they look at the work for its own merits, and treat each book as a unique piece.
Why do you think Slog’s dad has been the success it has?
It's a similar theme to The Savage, but approached in a different, even more direct way. The way the images and text work together is, I think, unique. I can't think of another book like it. I hope that it stays in the mind, as readers put the words and pictures together in their heads afterwards.
Do you think we should be exploring the themes of death more in art and literature as it is often a taboo subject in adult conversation.
Not obsessively, but ultimately all art and writing is about death to a degree. It's the final deadline. It can only do good to open these tough subjects up for discussion and the imagination in young readers. That's what stories and art are for, to deal with these kinds of emotions in a safe place. To see that we do come out the other side of fear, grief, shock - that we can carry on. They are rehearsals for adult life.
Can you tell us a bit about Luna and when we might expect to see it?
Not really. It's a long process to fully finance a film in the current economic climate, and then to edit and create the animation on a shoestring. Next year I hope. It is completely shot and mostly edited, and I'm happy with it so far. It is an adult drama, with a strange, dream-like, fantastical parallel narrative running through it.
What was it like to work on the Harry Potter films?
It was fun visiting the sets and talking to Alfonso Cuaron and the design team. Ultimately though, you are just a tiny cog in a huge machine, so it's a pretty thankless task. I'm much happier designing and creating my own films.
Are you fed up with people asking you what Neil Gaiman’s like to work with and how much do they airbrush him these days!?
No, I've had a long working relationship with Neil, so he always comes up.
And yes, it is amazing what you can do with photoshop these days.
What’s Neil Gaiman like to work with?
Do you know if there are any plans to turn Sandman into a film and if you’re likely to be involved?
No and no. There have been many plans over the years, with lots of good (and not so good) creators involved in developing it. I have a feeling Neil hopes it never happens. I think I feel the same way. Sandman was of its time and worked very well in comics form. Rather like Northern Lights (Golden Compass) the things that made Sandman interesting were not necessarily cinematic things. His Dark Materials is so extraordinary because of the subtleties of interpretations of meaning in the prose. Sandman is a remarkably quiet, conversational comic.
Is there anything you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to bring your distinctive look to?
Live theatre would be interesting to work with, something that fuses projections, a real setting, live actors, sound and music.
Pet hates? Things that drive you nuts?
People mostly. Too many of them. Queues. Tourists (why can't they just stay home and send money?). General bigotries and belief systems. Middle men, grey men, money men, marketing departments. Pushy parents. People who drive cars while wearing hats, people who drive in the fast lane all the time, or undertake on the motorway. Just other drivers generally really.
I watched The Omega Man, and thought Charlton Heston had a pretty good life.
Can you tell us what you’re currently working on?
A huge book with Richard Dawkins called The Magic of Reality. I've just finished an erotic wordless novel for a French publisher. A third book with David Almond (Mouse Bird Snake Wolf). A new book collection of short comics (Pictures That Tick 2), a book of paintings and drawings inspired by silent cinema (Nitrate), and just starting a new graphic novel (Caligaro).
And trying to finish Luna.
There are other things as well, but I think that will do for now.
Can we have a signed photo and picture for the office wall ?!
Of what? Neil, I assume.
(laughs) - thanks a lot for talking to us Dave.
Slog's dad for readers 7+ is out in hardback today (6th Sept) published by Walker Books
Illustrations shown by Dave Mckean for Slog's dad.
For Dave Mckean's website click here.
MirrorMask, McKean's first feature film as director, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005. The screenplay was written by Neil Gaiman, from a story by Gaiman and McKean ...