DAVE McKEAN: RAPTOR

Let’s go back to 1989. Up to that point I’d been drawing all my life, but had had it drilled into me that I’d best shelve any ideas about having a career in ‘the arts’ and accept my fate as an office drone. Then I met my future wife, also an artist, and I was introduced to professional drawing tools and materials, as opposed to the felt tips and bog paper I was used to. Suddenly my still-crude efforts looked vaguely like something you might see in a proper book, and it gave me notions of perhaps seeing if I couldn’t get my work published somewhere. At that time, my favourite artist was Dave McKean, whose painted covers for Hellblazer and The Sandman has a huge effect on me. I tried to copy that style he used at the time, using the Radiograph pens and decent drawing card I’d bought, and I developed quickly. By 1990 I was seeing my work published in zines, and it was through that I came to the attention of Stephen Jones, editor of many a title and, at the time, putting together the ongoing fiction anthology series Fantasy Tales. He sent me a Neil Gaiman short story to illustrate, which was pretty remarkable for me, as it was Gaiman who was McKean’s main collaborator. The illustration I did for the story – ‘Foreign Parts’ – was pretty good, even if I say so myself, and was published in #7 of that series, in 1990. By then, I was more seriously looking at doing comic strips, and had done a couple of short strips in the style I had established, but somewhere along the way I succumbed to other influences and changed my whole approach. I stayed tuned in to whatever McKean was doing though, and watched his own style evolve and change over the subsequent decades. Some of the results I liked, some I didn’t, but what always impressed me was the imaginative enthusiasm, the constant experimentation and the restlessness to explore all possibilities. As my own work become more rooted in realism and rigid techniques, McKean was using seemingly anything that came to hand to produce his images, and I could only watch on enviously. But it wasn’t until he published Black Dog: the Dreams of Paul Nash in 2016 that I really came to appreciate his approach to the comics medium itself. I’d been interested in Nash for some time, and in Black Dog McKean had focussed on those aspects of Nash’s life and work that were the most interesting – growing up in the black shadow of his mother’s depression, his vivid dreams full of Jungian symbolism, and his sense-shattering experiences during World War 1. This rich prima materia inspired some impressive approaches, shifting between styles and techniques to heighten the sense of a fractured mind trapped in an increasingly frail and damaged body. It’s a great book, exemplifying what I always thought the comics medium was capable of, and after it I wondered what McKean might do next.

Which brings us to Raptor. I don’t think this book would exist without the breakthrough of Black Dog. In many ways, it’s a companion piece, as once again it focusses on a genuine historical figure, but uses their experiences as a portal into another, more fantastical world. That figure is Arthur Machen, one of the premiere figures in British weird fiction, whose most famous work is the novella ‘The Great God Pan’. First published in the late 1890’s, at the height of the Decadent fin de siecle era, it’s been subsequently reprinted in who knows how many ‘horror’ anthologies, and that’s where I first came across it in my teens. I later learnt more about Machen himself from Alan Moore, who used elements of the man’s life and work in his spoken word performance Snakes & Ladders. Machen’s wife died of cancer in 1899, after which the man was plunged – in Moore’s words – into “an abyss of grief.” He wandered the streets of London, utterly planet struck, the barrier between “reality” and his fictions becoming porous, to the extent that he began seeing his own characters wherever he went. McKean focusses on this period in Machen’s life, but explores it in a different way while, intertwined, he introduces us to the character Sokol, a man who inhabits a bleak and ruined neverwhere that could be a vision of our future, or an alternate reality where some disaster has befallen the world.

Sokol is accompanied by a large bird of prey, the symbology of which you surely don’t need me to explain, but McKean uses it to great effect, whether as avatar, psychopomp or manifestation of something beyond conventional explanation. It’s a motif that recurrs throughout the book, flying through the membrane between Machen’s world and Sokol’s, often depicted in splash panels that in the book’s large format makes for truly striking images.

To be honest, all the artwork throughout is remarkable. Confident and visionary, but done with a playfulness and a desire to find new ways to express his ideas. Digital manipualtion is at the core of virtually every image, but strip all that away and you still have strong drawings and a boldness of intent. Influences such as Lorenzo Mattotti are visible, but McKean’s been at this for long enough now to have been able to successfully assimilate those influences into his own style. There’s more of an emphasis on spot blacks in this book, which gives deeper, stronger contrasts. Sokol’s world is defined in this bold ink line, giving it a heightened sense of drama, whereas the scenes in Machen’s world are rendered in pencil and digitally enhanced, allowing for a faded effect, like old Victorian-era photographs. Interspersed are passages in watercolour and thickly-applied acrylic, highly effective and deployed with a level of restraint that is the mark of someone who knows what they are doing. I read my copy on my birthday while listening to ‘Mogwai Fear Satan‘, which was the perfect accompaniment, and as soon as I was finished I went back and re-read it. It’s easily McKean’s best book, managing to say a lot about art and the human condition without being overly didactic. Every time you think you know where it’s going he subtly shifts the narrative, looping back, bring forth echoes from earlier pages, creating a scyring glass effect where you ultimately see what you want to see and take from the book what you will, which will be different for every reader. The depictions of what some refer to as ‘the natural world’ are carefully observed, especially the birds of prey that are a favourite subject of mine. McKean’s captures their physical form extremely well, whether perched, lifting off, or swooping in for the kill. This can sometimes be a simple gestural line or a blur of watercolour, but it works. All in all this is a tremendous book, one of the best I’ve read in a while, exemplifying the best of what comics can do. As a film it would have cost millions. As novel it would have been bereft of the incredible visuals. But in this form it achieves the perfect synthesis, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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