Een webarchief van stripjournalist Gert Meesters

Dave McKean

This interview took place in November 1997, as a preparation for an article in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen about the collected Cages, published in August 1998.

In some stories you made together with Neil Gaiman, you focus on childhood. Was that the idea from the beginning, when you started working together on Violent Cases?

Violent Cases focuses especially on memory. We wanted to make four books about childhood. To make things interesting, we wanted to focus on four different ages. In Violent Cases the child is a certain age when you're not afraid of anything. You just think everything is wonderful. Mr. Punch turns out to be our second childhood book. The child in there is a little bit older and is afraid of everything. He thinks adults have all sorts of secrets and even very little things become dark and disturbing. If we would ever make another childhood book, maybe it would focus on a teenager. That would open new possibilities.

There are no plans for new books with Neil Gaiman?

Not at the moment. It is practically the first time since we started working together that we don't have a project in planning.

For a specific reason?

No. Or yes, to a degree. We're both interested in making films. But we've chosen a totally different way. Neil now lives in America and has chosen the Hollywood route. It looks like there's going to be a Neverland movie. It looks very positive, but we'll see. I'm doing my own little, more intimate projects in Britain, with Channel Four. I can edit and control every image at home on my Mac, you know. I feel very nervous about handing over my project to a crew, to lots of people with lots of money. I like to have control.

Because big studios change the projects.

Yeah, there's nothing like money to exert strange gravitational forces on projects. Somebody who puts a lot of money into the project, wants to say something about it. It's just too time-consuming. You put too much love in these projects to have them screwed by somebody else.

The brothers Hernandez told me so last year too. Kind of 'I've got the money, you're the genius, so show us you're a genius and we'll see what we can do'.


Am I right to say that you've also ripened as a narrator, that this may be a reason why you're telling stories (in film or comics) on your own now?

That's true. I feel much more comfortable about writing myself. I was very happy to work with such a good writer as Neil in the beginning and I would still like to work with him. I like the change. But a writer is not a necessity anymore. There are definitely some stories I want to tell.

From the very beginning, the stories with Neil were very different from the American mainstream stories. Was that a conscious decision?

I suppose so. A conscious decision to be different. Our backgrounds were very different too. Neil comes from the publishing world, he's always written prose. I came from illustration and video, that's my background. We both like comics, but that's not our sole purpose in life. I'm not interested in making just another superhero book. We were interested in all kinds of good fiction, just good stories. So it was obvious we were never going to do 'normal' comics.

Can I say that in your comics work there is an evolution from illustration to more comics-like work? I mean: Violent Cases is illustration+text, Cages is a comic book.

Yeah. But I think every project needs a different approach. In a new book I just weave the text through illustrations, it's like collage, so it's just choosing the right thing for the right story. When I made Violent Cases and Arkham Asylum, I was convinced that you could put any image in a comic. I still basically think that, but I admit that there are heavy illustrative kinds of drawing that could attract too much attention to the image itself and slow down the story. For Cages I wanted a style that would serve the story, that would stress the dialogues, the body language, the human interaction and not the painting, the gloss, the slickness of the art.

panels from Cages Some parts of Cages remind me of José Muñoz's art.

Yeah. And the artists that influenced him. German illustrators of the thirties and during the war, with thick black lines. Wonderful stuff. Muñoz is wonderful, Mattotti is wonderful.

Did the illustration techniques for Violent Cases come from your art school background? Or did you think heavily about what kind of art to use.

A bit of both actually. I was doing a lot of collage in college, but for a story like Violent Cases it looked like a natural technique: it's about memory. So cutting and pasting seemed to fit that story well. When we made Mr. Punch, my feelings about memory had changed. I don't remember things in little fragments, I remember little pieces of film, that keep playing and playing over again. By now my earliest memories have degraded so much that they bear no relation to the real event. So that is why we started Mr. Punch with those little pieces of film.

Was Cages your way of telling a very intimate, personal story?

Yes. Of course. I love doing stuff with Neil, but that's his world. It's great. But when I started doing Cages, I wanted to tell what my world was all about. I started telling short stories, because I thought that would be a good exercise, since I hadn't really written anything before. But then these stories all seemed to be set in the same world, with the same kind of characters and the same themes. So it became one book. I put off the trade paperback, because I wanted to redraw some of the early pages and I didn't want to have two 40$ books on the shelves at the same time. Dust Covers and Cages.

Speaking of your Sandman covers, why didn't you draw a story in the series?

I didn't have the time. I didn't need to.

Need or want?

(long silence) I wouldn't have minded. We were thinking about a standalone book or possibly one of the short stories in the second half. And then suddenly it was over. It seemed like it would go on and on, but it didn't. For the last stories, artists were slotted almost a year in advance. It was over quickly.

Would you agree that -leaving apart Arkham Asylum - Black Orchid is the least of your works and Cages the best?

Yeah. That's probably fair. Black Orchid suffered from lots of things. We tried too hard to please. It was our first professional, properly commisioned book and I think we both sort of panicked a bit. There were a lot of postmodern clichés going around which we kind of felt obliged to buy into. We shouldn't have, but we were inexperienced really.

What do you mean by postmodern clichés? The reactions to mainstream?

More storytelling techniques really. The last panel of the first scene is the first panel of the following scene. And dialogues, bringing in other characters, all that stuff. And the rather mannered grid of six panels I felt obliged to do, because Watchmen had just come out. What I'm still proud of in that book though, is that it doens't end in a big fight. The character says 'No I'm not going to do this'. That was good. It sold the story to me. That one little idea made it viable for Neil to write. The rest of it is pretty dreadful and a lot of the drawing is really bad. It's immature stuff, which is fine. We needed to do it. We had to learn what to do and what not to do. The other thing I like about Black Orchid is that there are real people in the book. You can see that I drew a lot of people from photographs. People I know. That was basic for me. Most characters in comics are abstracted from what real people look like. If they're angry, they do this. If they're sad, they do that. It was a way of saying: remember what real people look like. This is what people really do when they're frustrated, when they smile. Arkham pushed the drawing a little bit more, Signal to Noise still a little bit further, and so on.

Is working on illustrations very different from working on comics?

Well in a way. There are obvious differences. In a comic, a picture is there to get a scene, an idea, a story across. Illustrations for books, or record covers grab a creative mood, an atmosphere. But they're not so very much different actually. In both cases I write myself a brief with what I have to achieve. In a story I specify what will be told on that page, for a cd cover I write down what the music is like, what the band wants to achieve, whether they would like to change direction. In both cases I have to come up with the right images to achieve the goal.

I would have thought that you started from sketches or collage things.

Well, it's a mixture. The brief can consist of little doodles and found objects, sketches too.

I always thought that your comics would fit well in the French market, because in France aesthetic pleasure and artistic values are much more common in comics than in America. Are there translations of your work in French?

There are a few. We found it pretty hard actually. As far as I can tell, the French comics industry is very self-protective and insular. If there's a huge book like Arkham, they'll translate it, but almost with contempt you know. Their kids want it. It's that sort of a thing. I don't have much confidence in French publishers. The American industry is not perfect by any stretch, but there are connections between the comics industry and the music industry (Fantagraphics is based in Seattle). There are connections with the Manhattan art scene as well. A lot of the bands I work for, see my work on other occasions as well and I like that.

But comics in America are confined to a ghetto.

Yeah, but trying desperately to get out of it. It's very difficult but there are various successes. Newspapers and television programmes will review the books. It's a slow process. We don't have to come up with good books only, we have to change the public's opinion about what the form is. It's almost worse trying to change people's opinions than doing it from scratch. I'm doing a lot of work in multimedia. Nobody knows what that is, but that's fine. Nobody has any preconceptions, but in comics it's a nightmare.

But it's been destroyed for fifty years.

Yesterday we were looking at a Winsor McCay book. He made his newspaper strips more than seventy years ago and he did it way better than any American comic now. Nothing has happened in these seventy years. It's just been screwed up.

Are comics an artform?

Yes. It definitely is an artform. Unlike design. There are a lot of people currently, probably designers, who are trying to convince other people, probably designers, that design is an artform. But it isn't. It's a creative process, you're dealing with form and content, but someone else has created the content. Don't kid yourself. If you've got some typesetting to do, you're not an artist. Comics is an artform. Whether there are comics who have been made who are art, that's a different question. The potential is there, but the artform is very immature. They are stuck. They have been around for say seventy years and they have maybe had one year of development.

Is it important for you to do all kinds of different things: comics, multimedia, illustration, film?

I like the differences. I don't like to know exactly what I will be doing next week.

What are your plans now?

Dust Covers comes out soon, the Cages tpb next year, a book with photography spring next year, a cd also next year, short films.

I didn't know you were making music.

I play the piano and program a lot. I've written some songs and Neil's written some of the lyrics.

I'm curious.

Gert Meesters

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