McKean, Dave

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Dave McKean

Born December 29, 1963 (Taplow, Berkshire, England)
British author, illustrator, musician, filmmaker

British artist Dave McKean has dramatically elevated the quality of graphic novel illustration since he began working with author Neil Gaiman (1960–; see entry) in the mid-1980s. His best-known works are collaborations with Gaiman on Violent Cases (1987), Black Orchid (1991), Mr. Punch (1995), and eleven volumes in The Sandman series (1991–2003). McKean also illustrated Grant Morrison's (1960–; see entry) 1989 Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum, the best-selling graphic novel ever published in the United States. McKean acted as both author and illustrator on the award-winning graphic novel Cages (1998). McKean's innovative, computer-enhanced multimedia artwork incorporates drawing, painting, photography, collage, digital art, and sculpture.

"I love the feeling of a book.… At its best, I think it's sort of like a handwritten note, like music or something—it goes straight into you."

In addition to his work in comics, McKean has illustrated, photographed, and designed more than 150 music CD covers for musicians such as Tori Amos, Alice Cooper, and the Counting Crows. He has created television ad campaigns for Kodak, Nike, and BMW Mini and production designs for the second and third Harry Potter films. Though his work is very popular among young adults, its content is often mature, with direct and sometimes explicit treatments of violence and sexuality.

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels

(With Neil Gaiman) Violent Cases (1987).

(With Grant Morrison) Arkham Asylum (1989).

(With Neil Gaiman) Black Orchid (1991).

(With Neil Gaiman) The Sandman (cover artist). 11 Vols. (1991–96, 2003).

(With Neil Gaiman) The Tragical Comedy, or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1995).

Cages (1998).

Children's Books

(With Neil Gaiman) The Day I Swapped Two Goldfish for My Dad (1997).

(With Neil Gaiman) Coraline (2002).

(With SF Said) Varjak Paw (2003).

(With Neil Gaiman) The Wolves in the Walls (2003).

Films (as art designer)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).

(And writer and director) Mirror Mask (2005).

Begins artistic partnership

Born in Taplow, Berkshire, England, in 1963, Dave McKean attended Berkshire College of Art and Design from 1982 to 1986. It was there that he began working as an illustrator. In 1986, McKean met the comic book writer Neil Gaiman, and they quickly discovered that they shared a passion for comics. They began working on their own comics, a partnership that has endured for twenty years. In his article "Neil Gaiman on Dave McKean," posted on the Neil Gaiman Web site, Gaiman recalled their first meeting: "I was twenty-six when I first met Dave McKean. I was a working journalist who wanted to write comics. He was twenty-three, in his last year at art college, and he wanted to draw comics.… I liked Dave, who was quiet and bearded and quite obviously the most artistically talented person I had ever encountered." In 1986, an editor at Escape magazine offered them the opportunity to create a five-page strip for the magazine. McKean and Gaiman developed the project that would eventually become their first graphic novel, Violent Cases (1987). Their work caught the attention of Karen Berger, an editor at DC Comics who was eager to bring British talent to the United States.

Karen Berger and Dick Giordano (the vice president of DC Comics) met with Gaiman and McKean to discuss working on projects for their company. Berger and Giordano proposed that McKean and Gaiman create a graphic novel to relaunch Black Orchid, a short-lived series from the early 1970s. Black Orchid was published as a four-issue miniseries, and this new version received great critical acclaim. In his introduction to the trade paperback edition, Mikal Gilmore noted: "Though the pair had collaborated on a couple of earlier projects (chiefly, a strange and haunting volume entitled Violent Cases), it is with Black Orchid that McKean arrived at the matchless blend of photolike realism and dreamlike expressionism that would characterize his later work on Arkham Asylum." To help promote Black Orchid, Berger felt that the unknown McKean and Gaiman needed greater exposure with comic book readers and offered Gaiman the chance to write a regular monthly series, The Sandman. McKean was asked to do the covers for The Sandman and the illustrations for Grant Morrison's graphic novel, Arkham Asylum.

Arkham Asylum

McKean's next project for DC Comics was to illustrate Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989), a dark and disturbing tale about one evening when Batman is trapped alone in an insane asylum with a group of his enemies, led by the Joker. In an interview with Tasha Robinson on the A.V. Club Web site, McKean recalls working with Grant Morrison on Arkham Asylum: "Grant had written the script, and it had a lot of elements that I liked, and a lot that I didn't.… So we talked about it, and he was really keen to rewrite it, to make it much more symbolic, much more like some strange Alice in Wonderland story. And that was just perfect timing for where his head was at. So that's what we did." The story opens with a quote from Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which aptly sets the mood for this surrealistic horror story, "'But I don't want to be among mad people,' Alice remarked. 'Oh you can't help that,' said the cat. 'We're all mad here. I'm mad, you're mad.' 'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice. 'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't be here.'" The original hardcover graphic novel sold more than 182,000 copies (and another 85,000 copies were sold in paperback), making this the best-selling American graphic novel to date.

The Sandman

Originally published as a monthly comic book, The Sandman series debuted in 1989 and ran for seventy-five issues; it was collected into eleven volumes of graphic novels. Neil Gaiman's scripts combined elements from literature, mythology, fantasy, family drama, meta-physics, and horror to create a unique blend of storytelling that had never been seen in comics before. Every issue of the series, as well as the graphic novel collections, featured McKean's innovative collage-style covers. In "Neil Gaiman on Dave McKean," Gaiman describes McKean's process for creating the covers for The Sandman: "When I wrote Sandman, Dave was my best and sharpest critic. He painted, built, or constructed every Sandman cover, and his was the face Sandman presented to the world." The Sandman gained an international following and quickly became one of DC Comics' most successful series, for which McKean was honored with a World Fantasy Award for his cover illustrations.

In addition to The Sandman, McKean has also collaborated with Neil Gaiman on The Tragical Comedy, or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1995). In Mr. Punch, McKean and Gaiman draw on the British tradition of the Punch and Judy puppet show to create an unsettling story about the cruelty of life as seen through the eyes of a young boy. McKean's use of painting, photography, and multimedia collage created one of the most unique experiments in the world of graphic novels. In 1995, McKean was one of the winners exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum for the National Book Award for Mr. Punch.

McKean's ambitious graphic novel, Cages, is considered by many to be his masterpiece. This critically acclaimed graphic novel was originally released as a ten-part serial between 1990 and 1996. In Cages, McKean drops his trademark photorealism collages to focus on black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings, a style he would later use to illustrate Neil Gaiman's children's book, Coraline (2002). The story shifts back and forth as it tells about the lives of four people living in an apartment building, and McKean uses symbols and visual motifs to link the stories together. Time magazine comics critic Andrew Arnold claimed that "McKean, with remarkable talent and nerve, has succeeded in making a comic like no other. Cages has all the qualities of a real universe—sprawling yet contained, chaotic yet organized, mysterious yet discernable, comedic yet serious." For his work, McKean was honored with the Harvey Award for Best New Series, the International Alph Art award, and Italy's Pantera di Lucca Award.

Works on children's books

Sustained by his success in the world of comic books and graphic novels, McKean began to produce art in a variety of other areas. In 1997, he collaborated with Neil Gaiman on the humorous children's picture book, The Day I Swapped Two Goldfish for My Dad. The success of this book led to further collaborations on Coraline (2002) and The Wolves in the Walls (2003), both New York Times bestsellers. McKean used black-and-white drawings to illustrate Coraline, a children's horror novel about a young girl who discovers a dark and strange parallel world that exists on the other side of a door in her house. Neil Gaiman commented on McKean's illustrations for Coraline: "I was amused, when Coralinecame out recently, to find people who only knew Dave for his computer-enhanced multimedia work were astonished at the simple elegance of his pen-and-ink drawings. They didn't know he could draw, or they'd forgotten." He would return again to this black-and-white style to illustrate SF Said's children's fantasy novel Varjak Paw (2003), winner of the Smarties Gold Award, a British book award chosen by children.

McKean's Influences

In an interview with Joseph McCabe, McKean was asked to name the illustrator he most admired. McKean responded: "The one I still really love—and I just think is amazing—is Winsor McCay. I think he is really brilliant." Born sometime around 1867 (some sources say 1869 or 1871), Winsor McCay was a pioneering American comic strip artist and animated filmmaker. He is best known for his influential comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland that ran in the Sunday New York Herald from 1905 to 1911. The strip focused on the bizarre and often frightening nighttime dreams of a six-year-old child, Little Nemo. Describing McCay's technique on Little Nemo, art historian Roger Sabin has suggested in Comics, Comix, & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art that "its use of perspective and colour (sic) were astounding, as was the way in which panels were structured in a cinematic fashion." McCay used a full-page, color comic strip format to illustrate Little Nemo that developed new forms of layout, such as the use of stretching a horizontal frame to allow characters to break out of their own frames. A number of other artists have also cited McCay as an influence, including Art Spiegelman (1948–; see entry) and Maurice Sendak (1928–), whose In the Night Kitchen is an homage to McCay's Little Nemo. McCay died in 1934.

McKean returned to his trademark collage style to illustrate the atmospheric The Wolves in the Walls, about a young girl, Lucy, who must battle the wolves that have taken over her family home. In her article on McKean, Barbara Gibson describes his process for creating the illustrations for The Wolves in the Walls: "To create illustrations for Neil Gaiman's text in The Wolves in the Walls, McKean built collages using everything from charcoal illustrations to photographs of bits of map.…" To build the illustrations, McKean begins with "endless drawings." Then he paints the one he likes onto a backboard of color photographs and paper collages. "The basic canvas," he explains, "has a life to it, with interesting textures, colors and shapes. Then I paint the characters into all of that." The Wolves in the Walls was selected as the New York Times Book Review "Best Illustrated Book of the Year" and was short-listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal, the British equivalent of the American Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the best American picture book for children.

Television and film work

In the mid-1990s, McKean began working in television and film as an art designer and director. He directed the title sequence for Neil Gaiman's first TV series, Neverwhere (1996). He also contributed promotional work for the films Alien Resurrection (1997), Blade (1998), and Sleepy Hollow (1999), as well as production designs for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). In an interview with The Onion, McKean described his work on the Harry Potter films: "Well, on Azkaban, I designed the, um … What were they called, the floaty screamy guys? The dementors. And I did a bit of work on the hippogriffs, trying to convince them to get the legs to bend a certain way. And then on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I did the spiders. But the dementors came out very, very close to my illustration." McKean's career continues to move in interesting directions, including producing covers for magazines and performing in musical productions.

McKean contributed many illustrations to magazines, including The New Yorker. In 1996, he composed and performed the music for the BBC Radio adaptation of his graphic novel (with Neil Gaiman) Signal to Noise. His artwork has been exhibited in America and Europe, including solo shows at The Four Color Gallery in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid. McKean's first feature film as director and visual designer, Mirror Mask, is a children's fantasy that combines live action and digital animation. The screenplay was written by Neil Gaiman and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005. In 2005, he began designing sets for the Broadway musical Lestat, a theatrical adaptation of Anne Rice's (1941–) novel The Vampire Lestat.

McKean lives on the Isle of Oxney, England, with his wife and studio manager, Clare, and their two children, Yolanda and Liam.

For More Information


Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999.

Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1995.

McCabe, Joseph. Hanging Out with the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2004.

Sabin, Roger. Comics, Comix, & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art. New York: Phaidon, 2001.


De Freitas, Leo John. "Dave McKean Interview." The Comics Journal, no. 155 (January 1993).

Web Sites

Arnold, Andrew. "Life, the Universe and Sequential Art." Time.,9565,344791,00.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Gibson, Barbara. "Dave McKean: Illustrating the Imagination."Apple Pro/Design. (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Robinson, Tasha. "Interview: Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean." A.V. Club. (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Silverman, Jason. "Dave McKean Works Digital Magic." Wired News.,1284,69015,00.html?tw=rss.TOP (accessed on May 3, 2006).