Dave McKean on Black Dogs: the Dreams of Paul Nash

They say war changes people. British landscape artist Paul Nash certainly adhered to that truism, as his post-World War I artwork morphed into more surreal, impressionistic vistas that captured the turmoil of his wartime experiences and the mood post-war English countryside.

14-18 Now, a cultural program marking the centenary of the first world war, approached Dave McKean, the legendary cover artist of “Sandman,” author of “Cages,” and illustrator of “Signal to Noise,” “Arkham Asylum” and more, to breathe life into a Paul Nash art exhibit that is part biography, part celebration of artistic brilliance, and part tour of Nash’s turbulent dreamscape. The result is as visionary as one might expect from two artists of such caliber.

The Dark Horse Comics brings “Black Dog” to life for American audiences as a graphic novel.

CBR News exchanged emails with McKean to discuss the importance and meaning of Nash’s illustrations, how to incorporate another’s artwork into your own, and why we may be seeing more comics from McKean sooner rather than later.

CBR News:Dave, when did you first discover the work of Paul Nash?

Dave McKean: My initial connection with Nash was through Stanley Spencer. I grew up very near to Cookham, so he was our local artist, and I really liked his expressive figure drawing and strange symbolist paintings. He gave me a starting point from which to get an idea of when and where he lived, and how he fitted into art history, and British art history in particular. So it didn’t take long to get to Nash, and I immediately loved what turned out to be the influence of the vorticist movement in his work – strong compositional lines, a great feeling for abstract shapes, sculptural, very expressive. He was buried a few miles down the M4 in Slough.

As I started my own professional career, I moved out to the middle of nowhere in South Kent, and so now I’m very close to Rye, Dymchurch and Iden where Nash spent his years after the first world war, but also the English countryside has become an important part of my work and life. I’m not a great fan of the traditions of landscape painting in England, but Nash’s work stands out to me as something quite different. They are dreamscapes really, and even though there are no people in his work, you sense that you are inside his mind, rather than standing at an easel looking out at a reported view. Everything has been internalized and transformed, his trees and rocks become characters, and in his war work, the landscape is morphed into flesh, bone and blood. Even as his work after the war became more pastoral, he never seemed to shake the strong sense that we humans force our will onto the landscape, whether with bombs or with the artist’s desire to capture it and crystallize it into an interpreted moment on a canvas panel. His war experiences still echoed in his work decades later.

The bibliography is fairly extensive. How much did you know about his life beyond his paintings when you started this project?

Not a lot. I knew he had been a war artist in both world wars, and I knew he was essentially a landscape painter. I knew of his local connection to me and was familiar with many of his key images, from the Menin Road to the Dymchurch drawings, and on to his final sunflowers.

So it has been wonderful to immerse myself in his time, the war, the experiences of those around him, and of course his life, his letters of which there are many, and his work.

The combination of his artwork and writings, with the biographical elements, creates a collage-like view of his life, rather than a straight-line linear telling, which works amazingly well to capture an impression of Nash as a complex person of life experiences, philosophical views and artistic accomplishments. When you started to arrange these elements as a narrative, was it difficult to find the right approach to conjure that balanced view of Nash’s life and world?

I chose to deal with his life in dreams for a couple of reasons. His images all feel like dreamscapes to me, he talks about dreams in his autobiography, and almost the first thing he writes about is his earliest memory – a dream of a black dog guiding him out of a maze-like tunnel. There are many books and documentaries about Nash, so there didn’t seem to be any need or point in a straight biography. I wanted a more imaginative response to Nash. I wanted to try and discover for myself why he stopped painting people; I felt that having this neutral dream territory, a no-man’s land, where he and I could meet, would make for an interesting way of discussing his choices, his experiences and fears, and his relationships with his family, friends and the soldiers around him at Ypres. It all came together as a structure very quickly. But I kept it very loose through the whole working process. This is something I’ve learned having done two long projects with Wildworks, the Cornwall based site-specific theatre company. They allow the content to grow and change, and continue the dialogue of what it is and what it could be right up until they have to perform it. I’ve loved this rather chaotic, improvisational way of working, rather than the rigid and controlled way I used to work. It’s kept the whole thing alive and fresh right up to the final page.

Did you realize right away that you’d be integrating Nash’s own writing and artwork into your own? I can’t imagine a more impactful method of showing readers the philosophical impact of the war on him.

I was a little wary of including Nash’s work. I certainly didn’t want to reprint it directly, and I didn’t fancy trying to do the whole book in his style. But quoting certain works made sense to me, only if the quotations offered an insight into the work, if it occurred at a point in the narrative where a reference to a particular painting directly would deepen the understanding of how an artist takes from his own life experiences events and feelings and boils them down to a single image, a symbol. Something that also makes a much more universal connection with everyone.

This work was originally commissioned by 14-18 Now as a gallery exhibit, correct? When did they approach you and were you at all surprised?

They approached me through the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, and yes I was surprised, and immediately challenged to be part of 14-18 Now and the extraordinary breadth of work that they’ve initiated. I was very happy to get the humble comic book involved as a medium, and also really interested to spend some time with such an important subject. I think I had barely put the phone down and immediately felt I wanted to explore how an experience as shattering as war affects one person, the mind of one person, not so much the big numbers, the tech, the tactics, the history, just one person going into the war, going through hell, but also experiencing all the social changes of attitude that took place, and the bonding and the intensity of it all, and then returning to ordinary life, utterly changed, struggling to understand what on earth just happened.

The exhibit is still running, but I assume you all knew early on that this would make an excellent book as well. When did Dark Horse get involved and how involved were they?

It was always first and foremost a book, with some performance aspect, which was not specified in the brief. As I had just finished work on a commission from the Manchester Jazz and Literature Festivals called An Ape’s Progress, which had been a narrative expressed in song/music/performance/projections/film, and which I’d really enjoyed working on. I had in mind that this could also be a song or music cycle, with the book turned into projections, so from the start I wrote some of the chapters with the sense that they would become songs.

I’ve published several books with Dark Horse, so I got them involved early on, and we’ve also sorted out a French publisher as well. The exhibition in Rye and Kendal is secondary to the book really.

Does Nash have any estate remaining? Did they have any input on this project?

Honestly, I have no idea. I didn’t have input from anyone connected with his family, but I worked closely with the experts at IWM.

You used so much of Nash’s artwork in this project. Do you have any favorites of his that did not fit into the book for any reason?

Well, I quoted from them; I didn’t actually reproduce any directly. The final WW1 paintings are extraordinary and raw. I love any work where you can see the artist suddenly find their voice. I think his paintings from the '40s are much better, a much more experienced hand, but I loved getting to know these early works as he goes from a rather wishy-washy symbolist in the Blakean manner to a strong, angry, committed expressionist. He toyed with most of the voguish movements of the time, but his particular mix of English pastoral and interior surreal expressionism is really close to my heart.

Why can’t we get more comics from you, and what else are working on these days?

I’ve never stopped making comics; I just stopped working for DC and doing mainstream comics. I still love the medium, and I’ve made many short stories, collected in volumes called “Pictures That Tick.” I’ve enjoyed getting comics into unusual places, into Heston Blumenthal’s cookbooks, into John Cale’s autobiography, into CD designs and advertising projects. But I’ve also enjoyed doing many other things: films, theatre, music, design and gallery work, and actually now feel very inspired by the current golden age of comics we are living through to get back to my first love and make more books this decade. But they will be my own books told in my own way. My next novel is for Abrams and is called “Caligaro,” inspired by the German silent film Dr. Caligari.

"Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash" ships to stores in early October from Dark Horse Comics.

Green Lantern Cover Gives Clear Look at Hal Jordan's New Blackstars Uniform

More in Comics