Tag: Dave McKean
This episode we begin by discussing a few great new resources like The Tiny Report, a new source for information about micro-presses by Robyn Chapman; Radiator Comics, a new publisher and distributor headed up by Neil Brideau; Nick Bertozzi’s fundraiser for the new Rubber Necker, and let’s add in Festival Season, a new self-publishing review platform from Kenan Rubenstein. (We didn’t know about that last one yet at the time we recorded.)
We also review some great new comics, specifically:
In this episode we are joined by Karen Green, the Ancient & Medieval History and Religion Librarian at Butler Library at Columbia University–and the driving force behind their graphic novels collection. We talk about her path to becoming a librarian and creating the collection, and also her recent work with the Society of Illustrators. We also discuss:
Sacrifice by Sam Humphries (writer) and Dalton Rose (art)
Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot.
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
Dungeon by Lewis Trondheim
Captain Goodvibes by Tony Edwards
Cages by Dave McKean
Dave McKean is best known as a cover artist (for Sandman and various CDs), but some time ago he did a couple of big comics that became highly prized collectors’ items. Both (Cages and Pictures That Tick) have been reissued by Dark Horse over the last couple of years, and I guess that’s created enough momentum for him to sell this new book.
Cages, I loved. It retained a fair amount of narrative structure, even as it made some Surrealist gestures. Pictures That Tick, I was more ambivalent about, though because the pieces were shorter I was willing to deal with them as poems I didn’t quite get. It edged a lot farther into straight Surrealism, and there he’s tried to remain in Celluloid: An Erotic Graphic Novel.
There is no text at all in Celluloid. A woman enters a hotel room, carrying a suitcase, and speaks to a man on the phone, maybe a boyfriend. She takes a bath and masturbates. Her body is drawn in lanky pen and ink, and all the pages arrest her in the midst of a motion or an expression. Dave McKean, in case you didn’t know it, is a phenomenal illustrator.
She emerges from the bath and finds a film projector and a strip of pornographic film. She watches and masturbates, and then steps into the frame; we see intercut photo stills from a porno movie and drawings of her fantasy. The film runs out and she steps into the square of white light on the wall, and now drawings of her masturbation alternate with photos of fruit, as she imagines herself having sex with a grape-headed, many-breasted goddess. She falls asleep and is visited by an incubus, and when he ejaculates she’s projected into a dream of Cubist photomontages. The drawings have now all been replaced with photographs, and she is having sex in front of a group of men wearing Eyes Wide Shut devil masks. Finally we see the man from the phone in the first panels enter the hotel room with his own suitcase, I think we’re to assume for a tryst, and discover the film projector instead of our heroine. We see from a reexamination of the film that she’s vanished into the porno movie.
All this reminds me of the animated shorts art students make when they’re learning to manipulate computer effects. It looks cool, and in E.M. Forster’s most basic sense they tell a story—that “tapeworm” of the novel,” as he calls it, made up of a repeated “and then, and then…” But they have no plot, in the sense of building a chain of causation.
Celluloid is beautiful visual art. The photomontages in particular are lovely nudes, and I quite liked the fruit too. But it’s pointless. It attempts to follow the thought structure of fantasy, a classic Surrealist gambit, yet good Surrealism reaches for the associative language of dreams to evoke strong responses—originally to startle bourgeois audiences out of complacency.
And as artists who considered themselves revolutionaries, the original Surrealists were exquisitely aware of social context. I’m not sure Dave McKean is. Why, in a world of unlimited internet porn, is this woman’s fantasy experience centered on an old strip of film on a big projector? Is this a period piece? If so, why does she have a cell phone? Are we supposed to have the sensibilities of a celluloid-era audience? Because you can’t shock today’s audience with garden-variety porn, nor make a comic lurid enough to arouse us. You have to settle for a laid-back, uninvested artistic appreciation of this “erotic” work.
In other words, I can’t beat off to it and it’s not making me uncomfortable. It just sits there being beautiful. Is that what Surrealism is about?
I didn’t know about Dave McKean’s Cages when it first came out in ten issues in the early 1990s, and when the hardcover collection was finally published in 1998 it had a cover price of something like $50, so I couldn’t have it. Then one it went out of print you had to shell out even more to buy a copy and I threw up my hands.
It’s finally back now in a softcover edition for the more livable price of $30, and at that price it’s a steal. Cages is a masterwork by an immensely creative young artist/author, written at a time when graphic novels were only just starting to realize their creative potential.
It centers on three artists—a painter, a jazz musician/poetry slammer, and a writer—who share an apartment building. The painter is at a point of transition, trying to rediscover his abilities. The writer’s last book, called “Cages,” so incensed the public that he’s now on the run like Salman Rushdie, under the protection of goons who confiscate everything he loves. The musician is touched by God, as they used to say, and tunes stones when he’s not awing audiences in the nearby cafe.
It would do the book a serious injustice to try to describe its plot any more than that. It’s basically a series of linked meditations on creation, some fables, some monologues, some poems. Even the poems are good, and none of it holds the reader’s hand. I called graphic novels a middlebrow art form in a recent post, but what McKean is attempting—and succeeding at—is decidedly highbrow, with real intellectual heft to it.
The art is as varied and powerful as the text, as you’d expect from the guy who did all those beloved Sandman covers. Most of the basic story is told with black-and-white ink drawings, but there are glossy color interludes in many different styles, including some photomontages that I have to think predate Photoshop or other software tools that would today make them easy to assemble and yet probably suck the life out of them.
I think I’ve only unequivocally recommended buying two comics this year. Cages makes a third. Order it now, before it goes back out of print. It’s that good.
The preview at the Amazon page was the only one I could find.
I’ve hesitated to review Pictures That Tick, a reissue from Dark Horse Books of Dave McKean’s short comic collection, originally published by Spiegel Fine Arts in 2001. The original became a collector’s item, selling for as much as $500 for a first edition.
McKean is best known for painting all those stunning Sandman covers that were inevitably better than the plodding emo stories inside, and Pictures That Tick shows him stretching his creative wings. The art is amazing, miles beyond what most comic book creators can dream of doing. He often works in collage, combining painting, photographs, drawing, and typography in ways that seem descended from Marcel Duchamp or Hannah Höch.
But, and this is embarrassing to admit, a lot of the time I feel like I’m just not getting it. I’ve mostly decided to think of these as comic poems rather than stories, because that way I don’t have to worry about puzzling out the full sense of the narratives in a literal sense. And that, I suppose, is how I would recommend taking them.
With the critical vocabulary I’ve learned for poetry I have ways to describe when work is ill-formed, sentimental crap or finely balanced, careful, and beautiful. Unfortunately, I don’t have a similar critical vocabulary for comic book poetry, so I can’t really do the same here. Various parts of it strike me each of those ways. I recommend picking up in a store and flipping through to see what you think yourself.
A few isolated pages below the fold.