Dave McKean, journey through the career of a genius

Eclectic and multifaceted artist, designer of Arkham Asylum and the covers of Sandman, film director and musician. The British author talked about himself during a masterclass organized on the occasion of the TOHorror Fantastic Film Fest

Getting into the mind of a genius can be tricky even when he is your guide. The masterclass that Dave McKean held in Turin on the occasion of the TOHorror Fantastic Film Fest, where he presented his film for the first time in Italy moon, unpublished in our country, is a journey through the thousand identities of a visionary, eclectic artist with an unmistakable style. Cartoonist, illustrator, writer, screenwriter, film director, musician: in whatever Dave McKean does his idea of ​​art appears unmistakable, something that goes far beyond the graphic sign of one of the most influential designers of the British Invasion.

The journey starts from the present, from the latest graphic novel written and drawn, Raptor: A Sokol Graphic Novelthe story of a man who seeks help in the supernatural to reunite with his missing wife and the parallel story of a monster hunter in a feudal context, to the illustrations for the trilogy of Gormenghast by the painter and writer Mervyn Peake.

Work during Covid

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“In recent years I have worked a lot – says McKean – while the world was trying to get used to the restrictions of Covid, I was lucky enough to do a job that already of his, normally, forces me to self-isolate”. A decidedly productive self-isolation that led him to collaborate with Heston Blumenthal for a narrative cookery book and that gave him new opportunities, such as that of building a virtual digital path for the visitors of one of his exhibitions in Belgium in which he could not participate. in first person.

“If I sleep? Occasionally, ”McKean jokes when it is pointed out to him how much he has produced in his career. And then he goes back, to the beginnings, he starts again from Violent Cases, the first graphic novel built with Neil Gaiman. And McKean gives a first to the audience: the rights to that primeval and seminal work have been acquired to make a film with Ben Kingsley.

Photo: Isabella Quaranta

Arkham Asylumthus a masterpiece is born

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Sandman, the comic from which the new Netflix series is based

Violent Cases paves the way in DC Comics for both Gaiman and McKean. This is how it comes Arkham Asylum, a totally experimental Batman story turned myth and classic, written by another early British author at the time, Grant Morrison. “I’m not much of a superhero type – explains McKean – I wasn’t interested in talking about a guy who dresses up as a bat to go around beating criminals. At the beginning it was a very classic story, there was also Robin, then, during a lunch with Grant, I presented my idea to him: I wanted to work on the man-animal relationship, on the totemic meaning of the bat, on the psychology of the character ”. And so, from the collaboration between two great artists, a masterpiece is born.

From Sandman to Mr. Punch

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McKean projects his slides on the screen: you go from the covers of Hellbalzer to those of Sandman, and here we take a leap forward, we go back to 2022 and the artist tells of his involvement in the series: “Netflix asked me to make a long animated sequence, then they told me that everyone would skip the credits anyway. , so they asked me for a shorter one… It was quite frustrating. In the end who knows who will have seen them ”.

New leap to the early 90s, back to the collaboration with Neil Gaiman, this time to talk about Mr. Punch: “A much more his story, while perhaps Violent Cases it’s more mine. Mr. Punch is a character that everyone knows in the UK but no one knows his story. An extremely violent story, that of a murderer unable to manage his anger, who at the end of the story, however, is presented as a positive character. It sounds a bit like a metaphor for the British political situation, ”McKean jokes.

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Photo: Isabella Quaranta

Cagesthe debut as a single author

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Cages it is instead the first book that he writes himself, a return to origins since he wrote as well as drawing at the art school. “I was and am happy to be able to use different media and styles: painting, illustration, photography. Everything always at the service of history “. Black Dog, a comic about Paul Nash, a World War I painter, is his favorite. “I have been working on a series of dreams, since Nash’s work is highly dreamlike. I shot episodes and paint and for each of them I used a different style. The whole thing was then transformed into a series of animated shorts with a soundtrack written by him. McKean then says he is also particularly fond of the work he did with Richard Dawkins for Reality is magicalan introduction to science and critical thinking, “two topics that are particularly close to my heart”.

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Photo: Isabella Quaranta

The genesis of Mirrormask

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The cinema, therefore. An adventure that began with two shorts, A week before And Neon, the latter of the two particularly appreciated by Lisa Henson, film producer and daughter of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. “She liked her a lot and she gave Neil and me 4 weeks and a limited budget to make a feature film – says McKean-. We spent the first two weeks brainstorming, we presented a draft of the subject, we hoped they would give us more time to develop it better and instead they asked us to shoot it like this, without a real script “. Today that movie, Mirrormaskit’s a cult, but when he thinks back McKean has a regret: “I think we could have done it better with a little more time to dedicate to writing, although I’m very proud of the final visual rendering and the work of the whole crew” .

2012 is the year of The Gospel of Us, transposition on film of a live theatrical event that lasted 3 days, with Michael Sheen as the protagonist, shot live, without the possibility of second takes, with the operators hidden in the audience. A contemporary reinterpretation of the Passion of Christ: “It all started at dawn on a Wednesday, with 4 people and a dog as spectators. It ended with the crucifixion scene, two days later, in front of 20 thousand people ”. In 2014, Luna was released, a film inspired by the story of two friends who lost a child.

The discovery of artificial intelligence

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McKean returns to the present, to current events, and turns his gaze to the future. “In recent months I have accidentally discovered the images drawn by artificial intelligence. So I tried to design the cover for a musician friend’s record. I put five keywords into the software and it gave me a shocking picture… I liked it and most of all it looked like I drew it. And I didn’t explain why, my name wasn’t among the keywords, a neighbor who works with technologies told me that probably the app had found my name based on my ip address … If it’s not enough to make you believe in conspiracy theories… ”.

Jokes and irony aside, the discovery struck him: “I spent a day of depression, wondering if I would have a job anymore, telling myself that maybe I would have done better learning to fish. Then I took this depression and turned it into creativity, in 12 days I wrote a book, Prompt. Conversaitions with AI, in which I put this software to the test by challenging it to translate the epic of Gilgamesh and the front pages of newspapers into images, and I talked to it. I have since added it to my working methods. I think it is a powerful tool that involves a redefinition of the concept of art and creativity ”. And a new world to explore, just to never risk getting bored.

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Dave McKean, journey through the career of a genius