“‘T’was a dark and stormy night,
The rain the heaviest I’d seen,
And yet in their dozens they came,
To see Mister Dave McKean.
He gave us all visuals to delight
And soon we forgot the wet, chilly night.”
Apologies, I’ve been looking over some old William McGonagle poetry again, I should know better at my age… But it was indeed a dark and stormy night, more like October than August, our unpredictable weather switching sudden deluges on and off like a giant shower tap. But it didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the book lovers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at all as they entered the gardens in the middle of Charlotte Square in what we like to refer to as the ‘New Town’, despite it being two and a half centuries old (time is reckoned differently here), a mere stone’s throw from the Georgian splendour of the First Minister’s official residence. And for only the second year in the EIBF’s long history some of the damp but happy crowd crossing back and forth on the rain-slick covered walkways between the marquees are at the world’s largest book festival to hear about comics.
More specifically they were there last night to hear and see Dave McKean – musician, photographer, film-maker, artist and comics legend. As with last summer’s graphic novel events the audience ranged from the obvious comics contingent taking advantage of a chance to meet Dave to older ladies, the sort you might (perhaps wrongly as it turns out) expect only to attend panels discussing the works of Muriel Spark or Alexander McCall Smith. That’s one of the great things about having comics-themed events in the Book Festival – there’s that chance to reach out to a wider audience, people that may not have read a graphic novel and who probably never set foot in a comics store. People who do love books in many forms though and those people read the broadsheets at the weekend, turning to the book review sections where increasingly they are reading about these strange ‘graphical fictions’. Result – windy, often very wet night in an Edinburgh packed to bursting with Festival and Fringe diversions where anyone, local or visitor, could have their pick of literally hundreds of shows to go to and yet here at a busy Book Festival (rain has not dampened events, staff told me) we had a complete sell-out capacity for Dave McKean. Now I call that a result. And it ain’t too shabby for our local, friendly, neighbourhood FPI too as my colleagues in the store noted an increase in interest for all things McKean.
(Dave signing my old copy of Signal to Noise in the bookstore tent of the Edinburgh International Book Festival; click the pic for the larger version)
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Dave’s work to learn that the event largely took the form of a multimedia presentation. We started off with a short show reel of work from a variety of Dave’s projects, including MirrorMask and several of his short film works. We even had sound thanks to our friendly geek contingent; as a silent reel ran Dave fiddled and commented, it was working a few minutes ago, until someone pointed out the video player’s volume bar had been turned down. “I have used computers before, honest,” quipped Dave as normal service was resumed and we enjoyed a cacophony of wonderful imagery and sound, some I was familiar with and many I hadn’t seen before.
And that really set a template for the evening; as the rain drummed gently on the marquee roof the audience were transported away from damp, humid Edinburgh to somewhere different, somewhere special, like stepping through the back of the wardrobe and into a more fantastical realm (although, of course, I feel bound to say that Edinburgh is in and of itself often something of a fantastical realm), taking the readers along with him. I’ll confess a total bias and say that I have been an enormous admirer of Dave’s work for so long I still had hair when I first read him; Signal to Noise remains one of my all-time personal top ten graphic novels, for its touching, emotional story, for its beautiful and (especially for the time) very innovative layouts and artwork, a book I still go back to again and again, sometimes just sitting there and admiring a page. So I thought I was fairly familiar with a reasonable amount of his work – but as he progressed through his illustrated talk I was surprised and delighted to see many images I’d never seen before.
(the recent new Bloomsbury edition of Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean)
Some were sketches – Dave told the audience he had really only gotten his confidence in straight sketching in the last few years, which was surprising for such a famous artist. He showed some of his city sketchbooks which I know some of our readers will be familiar with (the most recent being Postcards From Barcelona, but for those who haven’t come across them these are a result of Dave’s travels, usually with his family, to drink in the artwork he most loves in various cities like Vienna, Paris, Barcelona. To keep his kids occupied he suggested each of them take a sketchbook and do their own versions of the paintings they most liked in each gallery; a rather nice side effect of this, he told us, was that his kids now remember far more about their trip.
Naturally Dave discussed his love of film work, cheerfully telling us of how after years of collaborating with long-time friend Neil Gaiman they discovered that working miles apart on a comic or book was one thing they were good at but trying to work in the same room as one another to write a film script? Nope. Radically different approaches – Dave likes to write out his ideas and characters and scenes on cards, spread them out, re-arrange them, a very visual method of constructing the story and working out plot holes or mistakes. Neil, however, likes to get up, have a cuppa and switch on BBC Radio 4 – “talk radio!” as Dave exclaimed and yet he can sit there and just put two characters on a page without knowing where it is going just to let the characters work it out. So on MirrorMask they ended up working at opposite ends of a very large house. It must have worked because I enjoyed the end result enormously and its a fair feat given the tiny budget. Then again, as Dave explained, Henson’s knew he had made his short movies with practically no budget so they probably figured even a miniscule budget was a step up.
(one of several album covers by Dave for Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, borrowed from Kevin King’s fine Dave McKean art site, which has a huge amount of artwork for you to browse)
On the film front I was curious to know what happened to plans to adapt his and Neil’s Signal to Noise; when Dave did a Q&A after the screening of MirrorMask at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2005 (see back here on the blog) he mentioned that was a project he would love to do, and since its one of my favourite works I was rather excited at the thought of a McKean-directed version of it. Well the bad news is that it hasn’t been made; the good news is that he has been looking into it, plotting out strategies and working on a script which far expands the original story, so the project is still very much in his mind to do. Meantime he is just completing work on another film, Luna, about two couples meeting up for a break for the first time since one couple lost their young child, with glimpses of the life the child never had growing up seen through the film, some in dream sequences, some simply in strange occurrences; the brief glimpse we got showcased Dave’s trademark visual flair and I look forward to seeing it (a contender for next summer’s Film Fest, maybe?).
On the books and comics front Dave showed us some work he did for David Almond’s YA novel The Savage, about a feral child; instead of a cover and a few static page illustrations he did what he says he likes to do whenever possible and work comics into a project because he still loves them. The result was a prose novel by Almond (who I have never read but some friends have told me is a brilliant writer for younger readers and quite enjoyable for the older ones too) but with interesting, dynamic images by Dave compimenting the story rather than just a single, small static image slipped in every few pages. And talking of books, did you know Dave had collaborated recently with one of the more unusual TV chefs, Heston Blumenthal? I didn’t until Dave showed us some of his work for the Big Fat Duck Cookbook. And, as you might expect, it doesn’t stop at just providing cover artwork – Blumenthal is a pretty unusual cook and he decided the book would also be autobiographical as well as containing recipes. He wanted a more fantasy look to it and Dave obliged, creating interior art for the book and, as he added with a smile, enjoying some rather good food in the process.
(one of Dave’s illustrations for Heston Blumenthal’s Big Fat Duck Cookbook, published Bloomsbury)
And there was more – so much more, in fact, that the gig slightly over-ran and left few times for questions from the audience, but that didn’t seem to matter because everyone was leaving with a smile on their face. And many of that sold-out audience then queued up in the bookstore tent for the best part of an hour afterwards to get some books signed by Dave (nice to see more graphic novels on offer there this year, in addition to the works by authors who are appearing), including some who I don’t think had really touched graphic novels before. And despite the rain, the lateness of the hour and the long queue of readers Dave happily sat there with a smile on his face cheerfully talking to each person in turn and signing their books. All in all a terrific night and I must thank the very nice folks at the Book Festival for sneaking me in and Dave for letting me take a couple of pictures.