Comics on the Web

Dave McKean Interview
Roger Sabin

Dave McKean has been one of the worldís premier division comics artists for over a decade. His titles include "Black Orchid," "Arkham Asylum," "Signal to Noise," "Cages," and "Mr Punch." He has also illustrated a number of covers for DC Comicsí Vertigo line (notably "Sandman"), as well as some critically acclaimed book covers. Here he talks to Roger Sabin about his work in the fields of web site design and interactive media.


RS: When did you start using computers?

DM: About three years ago, but mainly - then - as a tool for still images. Computers are great and powerful tools, but they donít "contribute" much. Itís not like a photographic process or a chemical process. You just tell the computer what to do, and it goes ahead and does it.

RS: That sounds quite different to your experience working with photocopiers.

DM: Yeah... Photocopiers try to reproduce something, but they canít. And itís where they canít that interesting things happen. You can force the machine to do things itís not supposed to do, and get interesting results. Thereís some kind of dialogue going on. But with a computer, you just get an "error" message.

RS: But then, computers have qualities that compensate for that.

DM: For sure. In the real world, you have to complete things on time, and itís lovely to be able to save an image and start again. You can be fearless with a computer because you can save versions. For example, Iíve recently done a book with Iain Sinclair which involves levels of image and levels of text, and the computer has been great for that.

RS: What about actually trying to tell stories on a computer? Tell me about your web site.

DM: I did the site for a year. It was something called Club Salsa, and it was an experiment for me. The download time was so slow that ultimately Iím not sure that it actually works. Anyway, it consisted of a series of images, and a certain amount of animation. It was serialized every two weeks, and the fun was to create a linear story that was also, in some way, interactive. Thatís tricky because youíve got two opposing forces. Interactivity means you come at the plot from any angle - you leave viewers to piece the raw materials together. But at the same time it needed to be linear: it was essentially a murder plot, in which viewers found themselves charged with the murder, and then they had to trace back through time to piece together the clues as to why theyíd been charged. Every image that came up was time-coded, so the interactive bit was that you could come at each bit of time from any angle - plus you discover that there are 15 minutes missing. So you have to track down the missing 15 minutes, and so on. It was all highly choreographed, and the murder weapon was a poison chili!

RS: So the hardest thing was to crack the tyranny of linear storytelling?

DM: Yeah. But you know, in life, things arenít linear. You can choose which way to go. The world is a collection of resourcesÖ

RS: Do you think of that ĎClub Salsaí experiment as being a Ďcomicí?

DM: Ummm... I donít know...

RS: It is sequential images...

DM: Yeah, but I tend to think of a comic as linear and static. The comics that I love are great, traditional, linear stories that make use of the fact that theyíre static images. Theyíre not trying to be films or anything else. But if itís not linear, and itís got sound, and text, and whatever, then itís really a whole other medium. I donít think you can really tie them together. Theyíre very different skill-sets: some of the comics Iíve seen on the net have just been horrible hybrids - comics that just move around a bit. They wouldnít have Ďmade ití as a traditional comic, and they donít make it as anything else. By the same token, Club Salsa was a way of trying to tell a story that couldnít be told any other way.

RS: I know that youíve also been adapting certain of your comics onto CD-ROM for a company called Artemis. Can you tell us about that?

DM: Mr. Punch is still being worked on - itís linear pieces of story that are woven together, so it breaks the linear thing a bit. But the problem is financing the thing: the whole CD-ROM market has gone through the floor. Itís not a movie tie-in, and itís not a Rolling Stones vehicle, or anything like that. Itís just this very odd story, and itís hard to get backers.

RS: Are you trying to sell it as Ďcomputer comicsí?

DM: Thatís basically the route that weíre going. But the money still isnít there. The projectís been expensive because it takes a lot of time, and because many of the things we wanted to do were not covered by existing software. So we had to employ programmers, and they are expensive people. The three or four deals weíve had lined up have all fallen through.

RS: Tell us about the technology you use for that kind of computer work. I presume you use a tablet and an electronic pen.

DM: Yeah, on a Mac system. Some of the multi-media programmes we use, though, are for PCs - for rendering - which we then convert into Mac. For printing, the Mac is still king.

RS: So, knowing what you know now, is there any future for comics on the net?

DM: Well, itís a great distribution system - plus you can get to a whole new audience. Itís inexpensive because you donít have to print books, plus it must be great for self-publishing. Thereís no down-side if you can stand reading things off-screen or from a print-out. But thatís where the problems start. Itís miserable reading off a screen, and if I get a print-out done, itís dreadful quality. My problem is that Iím too in love with books, and if I want to read something Iím sure as hell not going to go over to my studio and switch on my computer...