SDCC: Dave McKean Discusses His Films, Books & More

Dave McKean arrived for his midday panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego accompanied by agent and confidante Alan Spiegel. Greeting a half-full room of people who'd waited over an hour to hear him talk, and apologizing for the speed of his "late 18th century computer" (a Mac PowerBook from about 2 generations ago), the legendary artist began to share slides of his recent and future work.

10 minutes into the panel, the doors to the room slammed open and a crowd of people rushed in. McKean grinned and, as everyone found seats, he joked, "That's nice! I thought I was really unpopular -- now I'm just moderately unpopular!" As the room laughed with him, he continued, "It's a lovely feeling actually when people come to see you. If you took depressed people, tell them to start in a room with just a handful of people and make them talk, and then you let a crowd in, it's a lovely feeling! There we go, see, I'm cured -- now I'm a raving egomaniac. Welcome!" Laughter filled the room and McKean graciously began his presentation once again.

First on display was an image all the attendees had seen; the cover for this year's Comic-Con souvenir book. "This was done, obviously, because of the Sandman 25th anniversary. I just wanted a quiet moment with the Sandman." McKean said. "I remember seeing Milton Glazer, [who] did an Elvis Presley cover, and it was Elvis as an innocent, which was unusual because Elvis is usually not so innocent. I just like that idea of doing something unexpected. The nice thing about doing that is that I've been talking to DC Comics again. I never really quit DC, we just drifted apart."

Spiegel asked, "Where did you get that image? Did he come out of your head or did he come to the front door?" to which McKean replied, "No, a guy posed for it, and the covers I've been doing for Sandman, I just think he looked the part. I found a guy I would cast in the movie, if it was going to be a movie, and took photographs of him. So it's a painting and a digital composition. They're actually my wife's hands, and the shawl is digital as well, it's actually a piece of sculpture that's in the Victoria & Albert Museum."

McKean then announced the upcoming publication of two oversized books of "Sandman," (including the new covers he's created), and previously unpublished book of the "Sandman" related covers and dustjackets. "I did lots of covers for 'Sandman' and so there will be now a sort of souped-up, large, edition of covers -- one of those books you can kill a burglar with. I've always wanted to do a collection of all the other covers," including over 110 pieces of art he created for the books connected to Sandman, books like "Sandman Presents," "The Dreaming," "The Corinthian," etc. "I was actually happier with 'The Dreaming' covers than with the 'Sandman' covers," he explained. "I'd gotten more used to using a computer."

While current reprints of the "Sandman" series use McKean's artwork, they are no longer designed by him. "There's been so many redesigns of them that I've lost track... I've done it eight times, so they've got someone else to design them, now, and use my art."

Another upcoming anniversary book is McKean's first collaboration with Neil Gaiman, the graphic novel "Violent Cases." "[It's] coming out from Dark Horse as a properly, digitally remastered directors cut (I don't know what you'd call it) book. To be honest, it was never printed very well. It was bleached out and never scanned well, and then all the artwork was sold and lost to the ether, so it's been reconstituted, with all of the colors."

Early next year, volume two of "Pictures That Tick" will be coming out, also from Dark Horse. McKean's favorite work, it's a collection of short stories based on his narrative exhibitions. McKean noted "Black Holes" is the only story within the book he didn't write himself. It is, instead, written by "an anonymous, young, Chinese journalist. S/he had to stay anonymous in case there were reprisals from the Chinese government." There will also be a "little story which I drew for my 40th birthday, for myself. I've never published it. I was alone in a hotel Paris and I thought, 'I'm alone, it's my birthday -- I'm going to draw myself a little comic strip!'"

The artist next described a project he worked on which stemmed from "a very complicated interactive exhibition," originally shown at The Pump House Gallery in London. "There is a story [about a fight between a young boy and a gang], an actual factual story. But the truth of it is really for you to decide by following these three routes. I was trying to create something genuinely interactive, where you have to create the story yourself."

Next, McKean shared some photography and drawings from the most recent exhibition "The Blue Tree." The collection was published as a small book in a limited run of 100 from Spiegel Arts, and was also included in "Pictures That Tick." "'The Blue Tree' is really me. I had this idea of a tree root ball, (because it looks like a brain stem already) that it starts to generate conscious thoughts, with such complexity that it starts to think! It grows out into the world and explores us and tries to make sense of what we do. So that was the story of the show, but on the morning of the first viewing of it, Alan [Spiegel] and I ran around (almost got arrested, again!) my local town at 5:00 in the morning, planting these blue branches with little blue baubles on, and in each bauble was a little saying or a little quote. It led up to the gallery. These things were everywhere -- some of them lasted for the whole exhibition, a lot were confiscated." He shared photos of the shocking blue branches standing out against the environs of natural trees, hung with glass balls clearly holding notes.

Moving on to another project, McKean presented his favorite of Gaiman's short stories, the long awaited "Smoke and Mirrors." "I've been on this book for most of my life. For some reason, it's just taken forever. Years have gone by -- but I've nearly finished!" Displaying the dark and moody pieces, he noted that it would be out from Subterranean Press either late this year or early next. With over 30 drawings, he described the final piece as "a super limited edition box, (it's called 'Smoke and Mirrors') with a mirror in and a panel on the side with transparency, so that daylight will project through the box onto the mirror."

McLean also provided the illustrations for Gaiman's new prose novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane." "It's quite personal, because I know Neil so well, I'm sure anybody can see that it's personal on one level, but I can see a few levels of how personal it is. It's a lovely story." The special edition slip case is illustrated with McKean's organic, photographic manipulations and comes out this month in America. While it is primarily a prose book, there are pages where the visuals bleed through and take over the page.

Continuing his illustration presentation, McKean announced the completion of his third work with writer David Almond, "Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf." He spoke enthusiastically of his first collaboration with the author, calling it "a very heartfelt story. I just fell in love with it -- it was one of the most beautiful stories I've read and immediately saw what it would look like."

After seven years, "Phoenix," by SF Said, is another of McKean's collaborations finally ready to be released. "[Said is] another wonderful English-Iranian writer, [who] previously wrote a book about cats called 'Varjak Paw,' which I illustrated. This different. This is about a boy with a power of a star inside him." He showed his first book trailer, an atmospheric and haunting short film designed to whet the audience's appetite for the story. McKean also shared a small sampling of the illustration work from the book, elegantly hard-edged, yet simultaneously flowing, in stark black and white, "all created using a combination of drawing and a computer program which creates fractals."

Showing wonderfully chaotic, disturbing, Ralph Steadman-esque illustrations from a Brazilian anniversary edition of "Clockwork Orange," McKean noted that the publishers simple contacted him via Twitter to ask if he'd like to do it. Collaborating with two other artists on the book, he said, "I took the first section -- I got the violent bit."

A project for British chef Hester Blumenthal included not just a beautiful book and slipcase (of historical recipes re-imagined for a modern palette), but also Christmas crackers, wallpaper, and even murals for his London restaurant. Explaining the celebrity chef for the largely American audience, McKean said, "He's one of these people who I think is touched by genius. It's such an overused word, but he makes huge jumps in his thinking. He used to be known as a molecular chef, but he hates that word now. He has a scientific approach, but don't let that put you off. Cooking is science. He has this very wonderful way of analyzing the structure of food. The reason why lamb and mint go so well together, or fish and fennel go well together, is because they share compounds. So he looks at food and finds things which share compounds then tries them together, and very often, they're extraordinary!"

"The answer to 'Will Dave work for food?' is 'Yes!'" Seigel joked, with McKean happily confirming that this is absolutely true.

Next up on display was his ominously atmospheric artwork for Roy Harper's new album "Man & Myth." McKean explained, "I've done about 150-170 album covers, for all sort of music, usually heavy metal-ey, I'm not sure why."

Moving to another medium entirely, McKean also shared imagery from the various plays and films he has developed -- and is in the process of developing -- with the Welsh theater group, Wild Works. "The Gospel of Us," featuring actor Michael Sheen, is available on iTunes, and currently in development is a show with the working title of "Callisto and the Wolves," is a retelling of the Greek myth of Callisto.

In speaking of the benefits of these kind of projects, McKean said, "These are not huge Hollywood films, so they actually get made. They're made incredibly cheaply, made with tens of thousands of pounds instead of tens of billions of pounds. I shoot, we have a tiny crew, Canon D5 cameras, no lights, no cranes, none of this stuff, no hotel rooms. We all live in the wood, then I can edit the films at home, I can do a lot of the effects at home and I work with people who do 3D animation to do spots as well."

His long awaited film, "Luna" is finally nearing completion. "It's taken 5 years, so far -- we shot it in all good intention of doing it in 8 months." McKean said before describing his personal connection to the story. "The idea for this film came from something that happened between me and a friend in art school. My friend and his wife went through a terrible two years, they lost a baby and he retreated in a storm of grief. Slowly, two years passed -- so we finally got back together as friends again. It really stayed with me and affected me. Those feelings of being lost in grief, the moment when you finally bury the child and never forget, but you start to be able to look into the future a little bit. [There was] something about that I really liked, and so this film is based on that moment."

Asked by an audience member, "Who were your influences as a young man when you were just getting started?" McKean replied, "My influences were nearly anybody, really. You can find something in anything if you look. There have been maybe a couple of people whose attitude in their work was really important. There's a New York artist called Jim Dine who I really love; there's an English illustrator called Ralph Steadman who I like. Every line in a Ralph Steadman drawing is describing and expressing the emotion in the character, not just what they look like."

Seigel added, "If you've ever spent half an hour with Dave, it's everything. Everything catches his eye. Most of his stuff is based on something he's seen or something he does."

"I love writing stories, but I couldn't write a story about anything. Neil [Gaiman] is a professional writer, he can write you a story about anything. You want a story about a lemon? He'll write you a great one. I really need the lemon to have some personal commitment, I need to have slipped on a lemon, or choked on a lemon and had a near death experience, at that point I can write a story about the lemon, but I couldn't just conjure it up. I've written only a few stories, but they tend to be about personal things."

"So besides working for food, if someone came to you with a job, what would make you want to take it or not?" Seigel asked.

"It would be like with 'The Savage,' you know?" McKean replied. "I sat down with 'The Savage' expecting to read it, enjoy it and say 'no thanks.' But I was so touched by it, because it's about a boy who lost his father when he was young, and those feelings have to come out creatively, somehow. I lost my father when I was very young, so it absolutely ran to me."

"If it's just one illustration, [like] with heavy metal covers, you can have an emotional reaction to it. I spend a day listening to it and do something."

"I couldn't do an album for a poppy band like 'One Direction' or whatever, but I can do an album cover for 'Stabbing Westward' or 'Fear Factory' because you just have an emotional reaction to it. I can get some paints out, make some marks and the feel of it comes out. I get an interesting day out of that. I wouldn't want to spend a whole year like that, but..."

Speaking of projects that take years, McKean shared some elaborate, beautiful paintings he's been working on for over a year, all based on the silent film "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari." They will eventually culminate in a graphic novel he plans to finish in a couple of years.

Finally, and somehow fittingly, McKean closed his visual tsunami of a show by treating the audience to a look at his elaborately crafted cover for the "Sandman" prequel, "Overture."

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