BLACK DOG: THE DREAMS OF PAUL NASH

Last year I gave high praise to Dave McKean’s Raptor. All of the stylistic techniques he deployed in that book were established in this earlier title, first released in 2017 and now republished in 2022 in an expanded second edition. I’ve detailed my history with comics and won’t repeat it here, suffice to say that McKean was the artist I most admired when getting back into the medium in the late 80’s, after a few years lost in the teenage wilderness. Nowadays he’s one of the few comics artists and writers I really pay any attention to. The radical change to his style that he made in the early 90’s was one I took a while to attune to, having got so comfortable with his photo-referenced dark fantasy tableaux, but the results have come to speak for themselves over the subsequent decades, and for the narratives he prefers, where dreams and ‘reality’ often blur, they’re really the only viable way to achieve the results he’s after:

Pencil, ink, acrylic, photography, collage and a lot of digital electrickery, all used with confidence and an obvious delight in the degree of experimentation and expression it offers.

The subject of this book is the Neo-Romantic artist Paul Nash, whose relatively short life has always interested me. He’s an artist whose work I admire more than actually like, simply because his technique is a little too raw for my tastes, but I appreciate the vision behind the brushstrokes and fully recognise the gravity of his influence. But his back story is fascinating and McKean does a great job of extracting the most vital details and using them to bring all his skill and experience to bear in creating visualisations of Nash’s inner turmoil, especially in relation to the absolute horror show in the trenches of World War 1.

What a fantastic page this is. The confidence in the distortions of form and proportion is remarkable and heightens the sense of profound personal crisis that Nash was experiencing. McKean is familiar enough with the Nash back-story to know that it was The Great War that served as a hinge point in the man’s life. There is the Nash who went to the Slade to study art, and then enlisted to do his duty for king & country, and then there is the Nash who returned horrified by what he saw, famously writing to his wife: “I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.” That sense of outrage fed into the canvas that made his name, titled with caustic irony, ‘We Are Making A New World.’

The war wrecked him psychologically and physically, with exposure to the chemical weapons unleashed by both sides settling into his lungs, initiating the long slow health crisis that would eventually finish him off. But before all that, when he was still a child, he was exposed to his mother’s debilitating depression, which shaped his perspectives forever after. McKean uses the potent metaphor of the ‘black dog’, hounding Nash throughout his life, functioning somewhere between a harbinger of ill omen and a symbol of that thing within him he could never outrun. Moving with apparently effortless confidence between pencils, inks, acrylics, photographs, collage and digital, McKean is using the comics medium in a way I’ve seen very few dare to, and it’s the way I always hoped it could be done.

I mean, look at this beautifully designed page, with its expert use of colour and tone. The dread and tension of Nash facing down his bete noire through bloodstained eyes is released by the establishing shot of the robin outside, his redbreast glowing the same shade of scarlet. So simple, and so effective. A cinematic technique applied to a comic book that defies by it’s very nature any attempt at a film version. Note to Hollywood: don’t bother. The book is all that is required. Nash would have, I think, been impressed with McKean’s art, recognising in it the dream imagery and surrealistic flourishes that were evident in his later work. This new edition includes 15 pages of new material, mainly ‘out-takes’ of first attempts at images that were revised for the finished pages of the book, but it’s very interesting to see how McKean develops his ideas and is unafraid of abandoning finished work when he thinks of a better way of doing things. Highly recommended, even if you know nothing about Paul Nash, because just for the display of an artist operating at the top of his game, it’s worth the price of admission.

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