McKean eye for detail

Dave McKean, whose work is on show in Wolverhampton, divested action heroes of their tights and took comics into dark depths, says John Cranmer

THWACK! Long-johned comic book heroes are helpless before that most dastardly of villains, adulthood. POW! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s the graphic novel – the book-length comic for mature readers. It was an Eighties invention, with less emphasis on costumed action and more on the psychological and surreal. Dedicated to this new species was a new wave of British talent, and chief among them Berkshire-born artist Dave McKean.

McKean’s first publication was Violent Cases (1987), the first of many collaborations with writer Neil Gaiman. It marked a watershed in the genre. His atmospheric and moody visuals perfectly echoed Gaiman’s story – a recollection of boyhood memories about an osteopath who had known the gangster Al Capone. McKean’s work was sumptuous, an amalgam of graphical styles. His panels flowed and turned each page into a work of art. Almost every project since then has been rightly hailed as ground-breaking and has extended the vocabulary of the comic medium; the Black Orchid series, the covers for Sandman and his strip for The Face magazine Signal to Noise (since collected and released as a paperback) to name but a few. He has reaped countless awards and accolades, including the Eisner award for Signal to Noise.

He reached the pinnacle of his early style with the phenomenally successful Arkham Asylum (1989). This is a deep and very, very dark tale of the lunatics taking over the asylum for the criminally insane and summoning the Batman to trial.

McKean’s visuals blur and sharpen in response to the overtones of the narrative, which veers between psychotic and tragic. The publisher, DC, got cold feet over McKean’s portrayal of the Joker clad in high heels and basque teasing the Batman “Aren’t I just good enough to eat?” and had him redraw the character, but look closely and you see stilettos in a couple of panels.

McKean has since progressed from traditional paint and collage into the binary world of digital media. He has combined his eye and sensibilities with the Mac and now resembles Matisse let loose with Photoshop. He layers and pastes drawings and photographs into disquieting subtle and crafted montages. The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mister Punch (1994), again with Neil Gaiman, is a neurotic return to the theme of childhood, with a young boy recalling an encounter with the sick and savage world of Punch and Judy. These pages are gorgeous compositions of objects found and objects made with paint, pencils and paranoia. They bring to mind the boxes of artist Joseph Cornell and the photographs of Joel Peter Witkin. McKean also designed, with Emigre, the accompanying typeface.

McKean is an all round designer and illustrator, and his work includes multimedia, numerous book covers and record covers, including a collaboration on the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge. For Neil Gaiman’s recent programme Neverwhere on BBC1 he made the end title sequence, apparently with just a Hi8 camera and a Mac. However, it’s for his work in graphic novels that he has reached and moved his widest audience. In a 1994 interview McKean said: “I think it’s pretty obvious that humans need art and stories. I think it’s because we have a conscience.” Perhaps, and it’s McKean who’s pricking it with his art and stories.

David McKean: Comics, Illustration, Photography, Design is on at The Light House, Fryer Street, Wolverhampton until 28th February.

Tel 01902 716055 for details.

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