Neil Gaiman on Dave McKean

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Neil Gaiman on Dave McKean

I was twenty six when I first met Dave McKean. I was a working journalist who wanted to write comics. He was twenty three, in his last year at art college, and he wanted to draw comics. We met in the offices of a telephone sales company, several members of which, we had been told, were going to bankroll an exciting new anthology comic. It was the kind of comic that was so cool that it was only going to employ untried new talent, and we certainly were that.

I liked Dave, who was quiet and bearded and quite obviously the most artistically talented person I had ever encountered.

That mysterious entity which Eddie Campbell calls "the man at the crossroads", but everyone else knows as Paul Gravett, had been conned into running advertising in his magazine Escape for the Exciting New Comic. He came to take a look at it himself. He liked what Dave was drawing, liked what I was writing, asked if we'd like to work together.

We did. We wanted to work together very much.

Somewhere in there we figured out that the reason the Exciting New Comic was only employing untried talent was that no-one else would work with the editor. And that he didn't have the money to publish it. And that it was part of history...

Still, we had our graphic novel to be getting on with for Paul Gravett. It was called Violent Cases.

We became friends, sharing enthusiasms, and taking pleasure in bringing each other new things. (I gave him Stephen Sondheim, he gave me Jan Svenkmayer. He gave me Conlan Nancarrow, I gave him John Cale. It continues.) I met his girlfriend, Clare, who played violin and was starting to think that, as she came up to graduation from university, she probably didn't want to be a chiropodist.

People from DC Comics came to England on a talent scouting expedition. Dave and I went up to their hotel room, and they scouted us. "They don't really want us to do stuff for them," said Dave, as walked out of the hotel room. "They were probably just being polite."

But we did an outline for Black Orchid and gave them that and a number of paintings anyway, and they took them back to New York with them, politely.

That was fifteen years ago. Somewhere in there Dave and I did Black Orchid and Signal to Noise, and Mr Punch and the Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. And Dave's done book covers and interior work for Jonathan Carroll and Iain Sinclair and John Cale and CD covers for a hundred bands.

This is how we talk on the phone: we talk, and we talk and we talk until we're all talked out, and we're ready to get off the phone. Then the one who called remembers why he called in the first place and we talk about that.

Dave McKean is still bearded. He plays badminton on Monday Nights. He has two children, Yolanda and Liam, and he lives with them and with Clare (who teaches violin and runs Dave's life and never became a chiropodist) in a beautiful converted Oast House in the Kent countryside.

When I'm in England I go and stay with them, and I sleep in a perfectly round room.

Dave is friendly and polite. He knows what he likes and what he doesn't like, and will tell you. He has a very gentle sense of humour. He likes Mexican Food. He will not eat sushi, but has on several occasions humoured me by sitting and drinking tea and nibbling chicken in Japanese Restaurants.

You get to his studio by walking across an improvised log bridge over a pond filled with Koi Carp. I read an article once in the Fortean Times or possibly the Weekly World News about Koi exploding, and I have warned him several times of the dangers, but he will not listen. Actually, he scoffs.

When I wrote Sandman Dave was my best and sharpest critic. He painted, built, or constructed every Sandman cover, and his was the face Sandman presented to the world.

I never minded Dave being an astonishing artist and visual designer. That never bothered me. That he's a world class keyboard player and composer bothers me only a little. That he drives amazing cars very fast down tiny Kentish backroads only bothers me if I'm a passenger after a full meal, and much of the time I keep my eyes shut anyway. He's now becoming a world class film and video director, that he can write comics as well as I can, if not better, that he subsidises his art (still uncompromised after all these years) with highly paid advertising work which still manages, despite being advertising work, to be witty and heartfelt and beautiful.... well, frankly, these things bother me. It seems somehow wrong for so much talent to be concentrated in one place, and I am fairly sure the only reason that no-one has yet risen up and done something about it is because he's modest, sensible and nice. If it was me, I'd be dead by now.

He likes fine liqueurs. He also likes chocolate. One Christmas my wife and I gave Dave and Clare a hamper of chocolate. Chocolates, and things made of chocolate, and chocolate liqueur and even chocolate glasses to drink the liqueur from. There were chocolate truffles in that hamper and Belgian chocolates, and this was not a small hamper. I'm telling you, there was six months' of chocolate in that hamper.

It was empty before New Year's day.

He's in England, and I'm in America, have been for ten years and I still miss him as much as I miss anyone. Whenever the opportunity to work with Dave comes up, I just say yes.

I was amused, when Coraline came out recently, to find people who only knew Dave for his computer-enhanced multimedia work were astonished at the simple elegance of his pen-and-ink drawings. They didn't know he could draw, or they'd forgotten.

Dave has created art styles. Some of what he does is recognisable enough as his that art directors will give young artists samples of Dave McKean work and tell them to do that -- often a specific art style that Dave created to solve a specific problem, or a place he went as an artist for a little while, decided that it wasn't where he wanted to be, and moved on.

(For example, I once suggested to him, remembering Arcimbaldo and Josh Kirby's old Alfred Hitchcock paperback cover paintings, suggesting to him that the cover of Sandman: Brief Lives could be a face made up of faces. This was before Dave owned a computer, and he laboriously photographed and painted a head made of smaller faces. He's been asked to do similar covers many times since by art directors. And so have other artists. I wonder if they know where it came from.)

People ask me who my favourite artist is, to work with. I've worked with world-class artists, after all, heaps of them. World class people. And when they ask me about my favourite, I say Dave McKean.   And then people ask why. I say, because he surprises me.

He always does. He did it from the first thing we did together, and a couple of weeks ago I looked at the illustrations he's done for our new graphic novel for all ages, THE WOLVES IN THE WALLS. He's combined paintings of people, amazing, funny-scary line drawings of wolves, and photographs of objects (jam, tubas and so on) to create something that is once again not what I expected, nothing like what I had in my head, but better than anything I could have dreamed of, more beautiful and more powerful.

I don't think there's anything Dave McKean cannot do as an artist. (There are certainly things he doesn't want to do, but that's not the same thing at all.)

After sixteen years, some artists are content to rest on their laurels (and Dave has shelves-full of Laurels, including a World Fantasy Award for best artist). It's a rare artist who is as restless and as enthusiastic as he was when he was still almost a teenager, still questing for the right way to make art.