Dave McKean Interview: The Comic Book Revolution

Artist Dave McKean’s work seems to span the entire cultural spectrum, but this month he shows his literary side at Manchester Literature Festival. He tells us why attitudes to art in literature are changing

Artist, writer, filmmaker, musician, sculptor and photographer – Dave McKean is something of a creative chameleon. His diverse talents have fed an eclectic career that includes making cover art for authors such as Neil Gaiman, David Almond and Richard Dawkins, to commissions for Heston Blumenthal and concept art for the Harry Potterfilms. He also has a series of his own graphic novels, including Violent Cases, Cages andSignal to Noise, and has directed motion pictures MirrorMask and Luna. We caught up with him ahead of his slot at Manchester Literature Festival this month.

The Skinny: You were part of the revolution of comics in the late ‘80s alongside names such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison. What was that period like for you?
Dave McKean: It was wonderful. It’s a very rare opportunity for an artist to be a part of the medium they love whilst everything about it is changing and developing. I got to see the old and more commercial stuff transition into something new, and I tried to make the most of it. Because very often, when new art becomes popular, the companies that own them decide they’re the ones that have the power to steer the work rather than the artists. At that point, the creative process gets blocked up, lost and corporate again.

Many people in the literary world still haven’t woken up to the importance of art in literature – do you think attitudes are changing?

Attitudes have changed over the last couple of decades. There’s been a hangover from a very British, Victorian idea: when they believed having pictures alongside words meant you were reading a children’s book. These ideas are being broken down now, and comics, as a means of expression, are going through a wonderful golden age. People are becoming much more visibly literate and accepting of unusual imagery and different ways of telling stories.

When given a brief for a book project, do you have to follow the story faithfully or do you have creative freedom?
I’m a great believer that the text in a book should live on its own and I don’t see the point in simply illustrating a story straight. Readers create characters in their head, which is often better than a clustering of lots of very literal images over it. I think if the pictures are going to be there, they have to be adding something, playing with the text, maybe undercutting them or perhaps acting as an environment to the words. There are all sorts of ways imagery can interplay with text without being quite so pedantic.

You use a lot of digital technology in your work method. How do you feel about the digital distribution of books?

Certainly it has affected my work. There is a lot less room for cover artists and illustrators to create. Fortunately there are still publishers around and the impact of e-readers seems to be levelling off. I think books with images, where the physicality of the book is so important, will have a longer life. Distribution online is opening up all kinds of interesting possibilities to reach your audience directly, but it is also having many other implications. It means as an artist, you probably spend less time creating and more time having to be a showman online. It’s very hard to say how it’s going to play out – we are nowhere near the end of it yet.

Can you tell us what you are currently working on, and what we can expect from you next?

I’m currently doing a lot of work for Heston Blumenthal. My post is ‘Director of Story’ – I’m not entirely sure what that means! There’s a whole narrative element to the launch of Heston’s restaurant The Fat Duck; I’ve been doing maps and all sorts of imagery, and taking care of the storytelling aspects of the brand. I’ve illustrated his books in the past and so I feel all our work is coming together for this project.
I’ve previously written a play called A Wolf’s Child, which I’ve recently been shooting lots of footage for. I’m building a film from that – it’s sitting on my computer ready to be edited. Stuff with Neil Gaiman and David Almond is always ongoing too; there are always books to be doing.

The Skinny, 2015
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