SDCC ’13: An Artist That Ticks – A Chat with Dave McKean
A follow-up to the award-winning first volume released in 2009 which collected McKean’s short comics stories from the 1990s and early 2000s, this second volume collects its stories from a different method of initial presentation.
“So this one, Pictures That Tick 2, their largely exhibitions…they’re narrative exhibitions,” says McKean. “So they are essentially comics, but they were originally presented in a gallery situation…”
These short-narrative exhibitions include The Coast Road, The Rut, Black Holes, and his most recent, Blue Tree, in which McKean and his agent Alan Spiegel employed a unique promotional tactic by painting blue trees around town and hanging enigmatic statements from their branches as the lead up to the exhibit’s debut.
It’s that sort of divergent thinking that fans love about McKean and a large reason why his approach to creating art continues to engage comic book readers demanding something beyond the pale of the medium. Without a trace of pretentiousness or authority, McKean strikes a humble figure with an immense passion for trying to reveal the truth in life through his visual and written stories.
When he initially created the stories that went into the first volume of Pictures That Tick, McKean noted in the foreword that “the comix industry seems to be pathologically afraid of change.” With more than a decade elapsed since he started the first volume, instigated by McKean trying to make a book he would buy, his original sentiment about the comics business has shifted but not too much.
“It’s always interesting watching it change,” says McKean. “It never quite changes in the way those things have got to change, but essentially, while I hoped it would be, and what I was worried about at the time, I think it stayed pretty consistent.”
At the same time, McKean conveys a gratitude for the positive things happening in comics.
“It seems like comics are going through a real golden age at the moment,” says McKean. “There are book publishers putting together really beautiful lines and graphic novels, and there are comic publishers realizing it’s worth investing long-term development in authors, not characters. I think that’s really helpful. Not simply from my point of view, but the publisher’s side and comics in general. You know? The superhero movies. The Marvel movies. Stuff like that, it’s been exploding. It shines a spotlight on the medium and that sort of thing. You can’t begrudge that. That’s great.”
Relegated to low brow or juvenile status for years, the medium of comic books has seen a rise in acknowledgement that brings on a unique twist in the conversation about what separates ambition from art when it comes to comics.
“I think everybody’s aware of comics now and accepts it as another medium like movies and like television…,” says McKean. “With the explosion of the medium, it’s obviously exploding in lots of different directions, some in more pop culture directions, some in more artistic directions, so there’s been the discussion about whether comics are another art form or what does an artist go by if he wants to pick up a graphic novel and say this one represents the avant-garde, cutting edge of art where as a Batman graphic may be a very entertaining and very fun, but it’s not art. It’s popular culture…”
Coming from the man who had a strong influence on elevating the comic book medium by collaborating with Grant Morrison on Arkham Asylum, which remains one of the best selling and most critically acclaimed graphic novels of all time, that is a bold, but honest statement. Pointing this out to him, he shrugged it off like a parent being praised for simply doing their job.
“Thanks, but I think I have a problem with a book like Arkham because the ambition was high – two young guns we were at the time – but the foundations…,” says McKean. “I mean, I think a Batman comic should be a Batman comic. It’s entertaining, and it comes with its own limitations. It is what it is. To try and make it into an artistic statement is kind of pretentious. Just my point of view. That’s not to say a comic strip, a comic story, a graphic novel can’t have the ambition of an original novel, or any good artistic piece of work.”
Drawing off of McKean’s foreword to the original Pictures that Tick volume, his ambition seems to focus on revealing honest observations of life by sweeping away any of the pretentious grandeur that seems to clutter the landscape of the so-called avant-garde. His stories are simple, but powerfully expressive.
“The stories are quite different, but almost all of them, are very personal to me,” says McKean. “I don’t write a lot. I’m not a professional writer in the sense that Neil Gaiman‘s a professional writer. You can give Neil any subject and he can write a story about that. I don’t think I can do that. It has to be something that means something to me…it’s about my observations of growing up, growing older, having kids. or something that’s happened to a friend of mine that’s really affected me. It has to be something like that for me to feel like I can invest the time into writing it and feel like I know enough about it to write about it.”
One of the standout stories from the first volume of Pictures that Tick is the first story Ash. While he’s no Neil Gaiman (who really is except for Neil?), McKean clearly is McKean. Consider the beauty of this classic line about life from the young Ash’s point-of-view.
And sometimes Ash wished she could change the life that grew through her, but these occasional thoughts were fruitless.
Just as his art shows unconventional points of view, McKean’s writing largely operates on that same insightful expression.
“That’s really all about watching my kids and watching their feelings about growing up,” says McKean. “You notice these little things and they become quite big things, and then you start to say ‘I wonder if anyone else thinks this.’ Of course every parent has noticed this. But for you and yourself, you want to say well I’ve noticed it, and I’m going to plant my flag and say ‘well this is how I envisioned it.'”
These straight-forward, but unconventional perspectives on what essentially becomes his art are what makes McKean’s work a constant source of conversation, even in a medium where Batman is still king. It’s also what makes talking with McKean about art and life an experience unto itself.
Dave McKean’s Pictures that Tick: Volume 2 is due out in February of 2014 from Dark Horse Comics.