An Interview with Dave McKean
Dave McKeanís artwork is instantly recognizable to anyone who reads comics -- and to many others who donít. Heís perhaps most famous for his various projects with long-time collaborator Neil Gaiman, including the unmistakable covers of the celebrated Sandman series. Heís illustrated childrenís books, designed album covers, and provided art for offbeat superhero fare like Batman: Arkham Asylum. Heís transferred his visual style to the screen, too, notably as director of the dreamy fantasy film MirrorMask.
In the early 1990s, McKean was writer and artist of his own magnum opus: a ten-part comic about artists, gods, and creativity called Cages. Itís bizarre to realize that itís been out of print for so long -- especially considering the swag of awards it won -- but itís newly available in a remastered and redesigned softcover from Dark Horse. I hadnít read Cages in more than a decade, and was surprised at how many of the images it contained were still familiar, snap-frozen down in my unconscious.
Dave McKean and I spoke over email about Cages, compromises, thought balloons, and the crime of pretentiousness.
The collected Cages is a truly epic book. Did you know itíd be a project of this scale when you conceived it? And do you still remember how it felt when, six years later, it was done?
It started as a series of short stories, but all the characters seemed to know each other; they all seemed to be living in the same city, even the same building, and they all lived within a disquieting, Kafkaesque atmosphere, so they become one large book. I did know it would take 500 pages to tell the story in the way I wanted to, but I didnít think it would take six years. I remember drawing the last page. I think itís the last project I did where I actually went out, celebrated, took time off, and relaxed before starting the next. Since then, theyíve all run into each other.
Where were you when you decided to begin Cages, in terms of your career? Did you feel like it played to your strengths, or was a dangerous creative risk?
I was very frustrated. I had done a first book (Violent Cases) that I thought was maybe along the right lines as a statement of intent, even though my illustrations were very tentative and derivative. But then I had done a book I was really embarrassed by (Black Orchid), and another that was illustratively better, but just not me (Arkham Asylum). Both commercially successful, but creatively, well, frustrating. So I took a bit of time out, travelled, and made plans to do a book on my own, just to see what would happen.
I also decided that painted comics were a dead end, and painted superhero comics were a dead end I shouldnít have even been driving down. It often takes seeing someone else doing what youíre doing to really open your eyes. So I thought the storytelling should be much more fluid, and the drawings should be gestural, personal, expressive. So Cages came out of all these thoughts. As soon I started the third issue, I felt I had made a positive step forward.
What was it about Black Orchid that made it particularly embarrassing?
It's a compromise project. It's trying too hard to please. It's an essentially silly character given a rather self-important treatment. And it was my first proper job out of art school, so I was in a very weak position to argue for something else. Neil suggested several other DC characters to [DC editors] Dick Giordano and Karen Berger when we met them, but all the ones that were at least interesting to draw were taken. I spent a year on it, and tried to give it some ideas, but I should have been doing something else really. That said, it did give me a solid first year's income -- these are the compromises you make, or at least, I made, starting out.
Rereading Cages now, it struck me that one risky decision mightíve been opening the book with so much prose. Did you feel like an artist-who-writes, rather than a writer and artist? Do you still? Or is that distinction not as, uh, distinct as it might seem?
I never questioned the opening. For some reason, I just knew it should start like that. I realize some readers have not liked the opening, but you have to go with your instincts. I certainly felt more confident drawing than writing, but Iíve always written bits and bobs, and have a clear taste for some kinds of writing, especially dialogue. Iíve always tried to write believable dialogue. I like narrated stories, or stories that are entirely told in dialogue and/or pictures. I donít like descriptive blocks of text, thought balloons, sound effects, and other paraphernalia of mainstream comics.
Why is that? Do you feel things like thought balloons and sound effects are too intrusive, too distracting?
Mainstream comics evolved a language in the first half of the 20th century, but then froze for the second half. And it was a language for children. Nothing wrong with that -- I'm a big supporter of comics for children. It's important to get the next generation reading, and reading comics has always been a way in. But if you want a mature language as subtle and nuanced as film, theatre, the novel -- you have to be prepared to strip away the stuff that doesn't matter, or work, or screams ďkids stuff!Ē too loudly. Comics are essentially: imagery (non-specific), and words (but not necessarily, and not forgetting that words are also images), arranged in a linear sequence to tell a story (non-specific, and in the digital realm, ďlinearĒ is up for grabs as well). That's all. No mention of ink and line, word balloons, etc. These things don't define comics, they are ticks and mannerisms you can use or lose, like ďthe fade out,Ē ďthe voice over,Ē ďthe jump cutĒ in film.
Letting us see the sketches made by Leo, Cagesí fictional illustrator, seems like a way of showing the reader your own sketches -- like weíre seeing your work-in-progress as well as the finished product. How much of the bookís plot and style were mapped out at the beginning, and how much did you discover as you went along?
I plotted out the entire book first, and then left myself room to breath and experiment as I travelled between plot points. I stumbled on this way of working for Cages, and Iíve written everything else Iíve done in the same way. Only a few scenes radically changed when I came to write them. Better or more concise ideas came up, or I knew the characters better and felt they would react differently.
Do you see it as a story of questions, or of answers? Should a good story be one or the other?
Iím chasing answers. I think the point to a story, or any creative endeavor really, is to work through your questions and try and reach some sort of conclusion. Even if itís oblique, or fragmented, or confusing, I see the purpose of creative endeavor as a process of offering the world a point of view. Others can agree or not, or elaborate on your work, but in that sense, I donít see that art is any different from science. We build our knowledge of the world by constantly offering possible answers, or visions of the world, and pass the baton on to the next generation.
The shifting styles you use -- line work, painted work, photography and more -- must make for an endless parade of decisions. Usually artists find a style for a book and can stick with it, but something like Cages requires choosing a style for each section, each page, sometimes each panel. How do you decide?
The atmosphere or emotional content in any given scene, or image, dictates the style. I hope they are suited to each other. Pencil drawings have a particular weight, heavy black ink has a different effect. Rounded smooth line drawings feel different than jagged angular ones. Photography comes with a whole set of expectations that paintings donít etc. Itís all in the script.
I love the way that, no matter how philosophical the conversations in Cages become, thereís always someone to cut it down to size. One character talks about how people donít want all this abstract discussion of art. They just want ďa good tune,Ē ďsomething to tap their feet to, yeah?Ē Were you worried that Cages didnít provide an accessible ďbeatĒ?
Itís a balancing act. Obviously I wanted to talk about the ideas that excited me, but I grew up in the era of punk and the NME. The worst crime you could commit was to be ďpretentious.Ē Actually this criticism is rather silly, as most performance is a pretence of some kind. You are pretending all the time to be the voice in the script, of the character on stage. You use other peopleís visual and musical language all the time, pretending that they are yours.
Anyway, I didnít want to be pompous and dour, and humor is important to me. I think it can cut to the heart of a subject in a way that sometimes a serious conversation canít, so I tried to put these different points across in different ways, sometimes humorously, sometimes sarcastically, sometimes directly. Iím not interested in just telling another story, just to tell a story. It has to be about something that is important to me, and that I feel Iíve found an answer, an observation, a point of view, that maybe others havenít. A naÔve hope, I suppose, but I have to try.
Youíre an artist who has worked in single, standalone images -- book covers, album art, even stamps -- as much as in sequential art. At the risk of asking an enormously stupid question: whatís the difference in your approach between the two? Is sequential art just a series of those single images, or something else altogether?
I tend to think in sequences, on developing narrative. Even the still images usually have the feeling of a story running through them, so there is not as much difference as you might think. I suppose a single image tries to crystallize a moment, or thought.
A pet hate of mine is when people think comic books are indistinguishable from storyboards for films. As you move further and further into a career as a director -- how was that transition? What skills carry easily between comics and films, and what did you have to learn from scratch?
They are different. Or at least, they should be different. They fulfill different functions, and the language of comics is far more subtle, varied and subjective, than storyboarding, which is basically a development process, one of the ways a director and crew can start to ďsee the filmĒ before itís been shot. There are some skills they share, and it can be helpful to transfer lessons learned in one form to the other, but really, they are different.
In this (very handsome) new edition of Cages, your art has been remastered. Did you go back and reread it for its publication? Was there something in the book that you thought worked much better than you remembered, or something that made you wince?
There are a few pacing issues I would change. A few bits of conversation could have been improved, always, but overall, it is what it is. Itís of its time, in fact I think it was a little ahead of its time. Itís a general fiction graphic novel with a novelís ambition -- a much more common animal now than then. What can I say? Itís my first child.
Cages created an ominous mood throughout, but it ends with resolute optimism -- the idea that creativity is perhaps more of a ďcaressing, loving GodĒ than others. How would you characterize your relationship with creativity today?
The same. Iím currently working with Richard Dawkins, so if anything, my passion for creativity, and my distaste for organized religious belief systems, has deepened.
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslutís regular comic book columnist.