In the 14 years since his first Pictures That Tick collection, Dave McKean’s work has continued its evolution. One thing that hasn’t changed is his incredible gift for creating intriguing narratives and jaw-dropping imagery.
When Dave McKean erupted onto the comics scene in the late 1980s, one of the innovations he brought with him was the incorporation of sculpture and other three-dimensional objects into his work, as seen on his Sandman covers and long-form work such as Mister Punch (with Neil Gaiman).
So, more than two decades later, it seems fitting that he’s taken the trend full circle, moving his sequential art off the page and into a gallery setting. As a highly accomplished musician, composer and film-maker as well as a comics – ahem – auteur, it’s no surprise that his restless creativity can’t be contained in one format for long.
This volume – a long-awaited follow-up to his original Pictures That Tick collection (published by Dark Horse in 2000) – is subtitled ‘Short Narrative Exhibition’, and at its heart are four works that were displayed in galleries between 2009 and 2012, highlighting McKean’s restless experimentation and his appetite for breaking out of the comics ghetto and bringing his work to new audiences in new ways.
‘Black Holes’ is probably the simplest of the four, but the most disturbing and eye-opening in terms of its real-world ramifications. Produced in collaboration with an anonymous Chinese journalist for the Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption exhibition at London’s Lazarides Gallery in 2009, it reveals the distressing reality of life for China’s rural AIDS patients.
Personal testimonies reveal how the country’s government quashes any kind of dissent and plays its part in a cycle of corruption that leaves patients unable to access treatment for a condition that, in a terrible irony, many of them contracted through a botched official blood donation drive.
The two shows that were staged at Rye Art Gallery, near McKean’s home in the south-east of England, were both considerably larger in scale and ambition.
‘The Coast Road’ (2009) is by far the more affecting of the two, following a woman’s physical and psychological odyssey around the south coast as she seeks clues to the whereabouts of her missing husband, who walked out, leaving just a letter.
However, in an intriguing metafictional twist (with an unexpectedly touching resolution), the people she encounters on the trail, including real-life figures such as an artist, a sculptor and even the writer Iain Sinclair, also become entwined in the story, with their work subsequently appearing in the gallery show.
The other show, ‘The Blue Tree’ (2012), is much simpler in form, comprising regular illustrated text in a comparatively straightforward style. However, it highlights what I find to be possibly the only real weak spot in McKean’s creative armoury: a tendency to try slightly too hard to be literary and poetic in his writing, to the point where things get a bit ‘prog rock’.
The work was sparked by McKean having worked in rapid succession on a book with high-profile atheist Richard Dawkins and then on a film based on a Christian passion play (The Gospel of Us). In it, the tree of the title acts as a sort of life force, looking for meaning behind the world’s dualities. However, despite the beauty of the illustration, there isn’t much for the reader to really hang on to in the intellectual investigation, despite the genuine enquiring impulse behind it.
The most ambitious of the four exhibitions recorded here – and perhaps the hardest to recreate in two dimensions on the page – is ‘The Rut’, a site-specific installation that formed part of the Hypercomics exhibition at the Pump House Gallery in London’s Battersea Park (2010).
Drawing on its surroundings and McKean’s recollection of an incident from his youth, the work is built around what appears to be a dialogue between an ex-prisoner and a counsellor, alluding to a violent assault that took place in a park some years earlier.
While the core of the story was presented in fairly conventional comic ‘panels’, they were arranged in a three-dimensional array across the floor and walls of the gallery. The space also included large-format photographs of a statue – the violently fractured head of a human figure – as well as other pieces of sculpture, including antlered masks that invited the visitor to view the scene through their eyes, from a particular perspective.
There were also paintings on the windows, superimposed on the landscape outside and linking the park’s former status as a deer enclosure with the story’s theme of young men clashing violently, like stags in the rut of the title.
However, there’s more to the book than just the gallery pieces. It also collects other, more conventional comics pieces, again defined by McKean’s breathtaking illustrative virtuosity. The most substantial – in terms of page count – are two creation myths, which sprang from work the artist did for the Jim Henson Company, towards a new series of The Storyteller.
They again exemplify his approach perfectly: he blends imagination, craft and technology to produce page after page of stunning imagery. And if they’re sometimes a little over-written, they’re always redeemed by the magnificence of the illustration and storytelling.
His work is at its most effective when he lets the images bear the weight, as exemplified most literally in his short fable ‘The Weight of Words’ and the minimal photography-and-paint travelogue ‘Words Fail’ – a study in simple, evocative mark-marking to try to capture the essence of the Scottish coastal landscape
Amid all the fantasy and visual alchemy, I actually found one of the most affecting stories in the volume to be one of the most personal and low-key: McKean’s recollection of the difficult time around his 40th birthday and his experience of judging at a short film festival in France. While the imagery is characteristically expressive, the revealing narration strikes a much more resonant chord than some of the other, more mythic work.
Although his contributions to the form are all too rare, this volume proves that Dave McKean remains one of the most extravagantly talented individuals to grace the comics world. This collection may have taken 14 years to appear, but it was worth the wait.
Note: I wrote the bulk of this review from the PDF preview version, but nothing could have prepared me for the full, irresistible splendour of the large-format (9 inches x 12 inches) print edition when I came across it.
Dave McKean (W/A) • Dark Horse Comics, $29.99, July 2014