Two stories weave in and out of each other in Dave McKean’s new graphic novel Raptor, due out from Dark Horse this month. In the story, Sokol is a mystical monster hunter; Arthur is a writer, living in Wales at the end of the 19th century, who turns to Spiritualism in hopes of catching a glimpse of his dead wife. Although they are in different worlds, their paths cross and their stories touch each other.
McKean has brought his dreamlike, richly textured artwork to a variety of acclaimed comics stories. He was the artist for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, and he collaborated with writer Neil Gaiman on two graphic novels as well as designing the covers for Gaiman’s run on The Sandman. His original works include Cages and Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash, and he also has done extensive illustration work, including creating album covers for Alice Cooper, Tori Amos, and others. PW talked to McKean about his creative process and his approach to building the story of Raptor.
Publishers Weekly: How did you develop Raptor? Did you start with the stories or the characters, and did one come before the other?
Dave McKean: Like most of my projects, they start as different notes, interests and observations in my sketchbooks, and slowly they start to gather together and connect. I love the new strain of nature writing around at the moment, reclaiming edge and wastelands in the subtle distinctions and local namings of their features – a political act as much as one of natural and social science. I got interested in the Welsh writer Arthur Machen, and particularly his involvement with the spiritualist Golden Dawn order after his wife’s death – a desperate desire to see her again. I, like many I think, felt powerless and frustrated by recent political decisions, and the only positive thing I can do is put those feelings into my work. I liked the idea of creating a character trapped between two worlds, fantasy and reality, fact and fiction, human and animal – I thought that was an interesting place to explore many of the arguments and ideas I’m interested in. So slowly these all seemed to be part of a possible story, or series of stories. The twin narratives and worlds separated by a veil that can be penetrated under pressure – breakdown, grief, love, creativity – seemed like an interesting structure for this book.
What is your drawing/painting process?
The Raptor story is drawn in black ink, the writer’s story is in pencil. The brown and blue tones are added in the computer from additional drawn artwork. There are some painted sequences, punctuating the story as dreams or visions. These are acrylic and paper collage, trying to find the right palate and tone for the emotional and atmospheric quality of each scene. Sometimes a simple line will do the job better than any amount of overdrawing. Sometimes complexity works.
I felt like this book really engaged me as a reader because the story wasn’t linear, and it wasn’t always obvious who was talking or how the pieces related to one another. How do you approach storytelling? Were there pieces you took out or added in as you went along to keep the story from being too obvious or too enigmatic?
I was hoping to keep the dialogue and narratives overlapping, so you always had a sense that they are commenting on and talking to each other. I hope in the end it is clear who is saying what, even though at the time there is a little confusion. I hope that the reader is intrigued enough to work out how the two narratives work together, and not frustrated by the experience. I’m sure I’ll get both. The script and layout changed constantly. I’ve done a couple of large theatre and film projects now with Bill Mitchell of the Wildworks Theatre Company, and he’s had a huge effect on my working methods. Everything is kept open and loose and available to change and reshaping right up until delivery. It’s a way of keeping the whole thing alive to new ideas and exciting to make. Bill sadly died a few years ago, I miss him.
Raptor is subtitled “A Sokol graphic novel.” The publicity material described this as your first creator-owned character – I assume this is a reference to Sokol? Will there be more Sokol stories?
Maybe. At the moment I’m doing other things, but his territory feels like a place I can play and explore. I’d like to do another couple, keeping the Sokol world as a center, but then breaking into our world at different times and for different people. Maybe a story set in the middle ages, or early man, or in a hundred years?
While I can’t see Raptor as being anything other than a comic, your work looks very different from the other comics artists I’ve seen. How did you first decide that comics were the right medium for you, and what does it allow you to do that other media do not?
Comics were my first love, and I’ve not lost that buzz of putting stories and pages together and seeing the finished book. They make good use of what I can do. I don’t think comics have to look a particular way, or tell stories in a particular way. They are essentially just narrative (non-specific) and imagery (non-specific). I like that they don’t give you all the information. Motion is implied but is not actually there. Sound is implied but they are silent. If it’s a good comic you should start to hear that dialogue in your head and see those drawings gesture. I think that’s why people love comics, they invite you to participate in the experience, to be creative.