“Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash”, A Reader’s Experience

The cover of Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash by Dave McKean
The cover of Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash by Dave McKean

Created by Dave McKean
Publisher: Lakes International Comic Art Festival and Hourglass (the Artist’s Book, limited edition of 300 – a graphic novel edition will be published by Dark Horse in October

Let me start this item by saying that this is neither a ‘Preview’ nor a ‘Review’. What this is a recounting of the responses I felt reading this book on a warm night, late off from work, on a ghost-filled commuter train.

Firstly, when this book arrived, I felt uncertainty on how to examine a book full of eclectically-gathered styles and of such brilliantly observed examinations of the life of artist Paul Nash, regarded as one of the most original British artists of the first half of the 20th Century.

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash - Sample Art

This graphic novel is the start of the road that will eventually lead to its launch on Saturday 28th May 2016 in Kendal Town Hall, along with musical collaborations, feature projections, animated illustrations, live music and narration. All created and conducted by the mighty Dave McKean. It was co-commissioned Lakes International Comic Art Festival14-18 NOW, the UK’s official arts programme for the First World War centenary and On a Marche sur la Bulle, and the graphic novel will be released in two editions – a limited edition in May, to tie in with the premiere, and a full publication in October at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (14-16 October 2016).

“Paul Nash 1889 – 1946 Artist Lived here”

Nash was an artist who was thrown into World War One as initially a soldier and latterly as a War Artist. This book follows all aspects of his life, love and the Post Traumatic Stress that followed.

As I started to read this book, darkness fell outside my dirty windowed train. Immediately, I was struck by the herculean task that was set out in front of me in trying to fully understanding such a layered creation. Tired, and not a little bit emotional, I began to read. But as the story sucked me into its inks, colours and brush marks I forgot the loutish Lutonites and their drunken bellowing occurring elsewhere in my carriage. I soon realised that this is a book that is worth the effort. It is worth taking time and finding the right venue to read its pages.

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash - Sample Art

McKean deftly weaves his arty sorcery on each and every inch of page space. Black Dog is an exercise in the shifting sands of style and technique, from dark esoteric panels to satirical cartoonery. It is alternatively human, alien, horrific, sad, abstract, trippy, funny, violent and most especially dream-like. Each turn and view will rake at your eye balls. It is also a book of both thought-provoking depth and densely packed reading. The rhythm of the story will wash over you as you marvel at the many subjects covered. The beauty of the artwork is also often counterpointed by McKean’s trademarked nasty and often nightmarish sense of humour.

“With no pretence…”

This book is still nagging at my thoughts and anxiety through its rawness, even as I write. It is emotionally draining in both the sharply observed visuals and the striking dialogue and narration. One image that has stayed with me is of a soldier in uniform, head bowed and standing on a dirty and muddy single wooden walkway. That single image screams of the futility of war and the loneliness of the men who fought in it.

In the narration, McKean compares this image to the act of drawing and redrawing. This repeated action being akin to trying to remember a dream and that in giving it added accuracy you lose the true meaning of that moment. In trying to remember our dreams, we forget them.

This is strong stuff. Observations that sting.

“….finding those glints of elemental truth within the noise…”

Unreality and reality clash and intermingle. Nash dreams of meeting Margaret, a woman who lived down the road when he was young who would later be the love of his life. He dreams of flight and transformation. Of meeting her for the first time with freedom and ease. A captured moment that he hangs onto whilst caught up in the terrors of the front.

 

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash - Sample Art

McKean breaks the book into distinct chapters that pull the reader backwards and forwards through Nash’s life. One of my favourite sequences is in a chapter full of craft and nasty caricature. We get a viciously sarcastic attack on the art scene of the time (and I suspect of this time as well?). We see a preposterous conversation by overblown art dealers and critics who see war only as an annoyance. It’s beautiful work, at counterpoint to the more painted brushy pages elsewhere.

As I read further, questions rise and fall about the artist in the pages and the artist creating those pages. As much a book about the craft and necessity of experimentation as about the subject matter. The Black Dog reveals its nature in different sequences. At one point he is a vicious toothed protagonist and in another a doctor with the head of an Egyptian god  treating Nash’s measles.

For me, it is a sequence of a man investigating a forest of red thorns that steals the artistic prize. Nash is caught in a prickly maze and sights a Kingfisher sitting on a vine. He reaches for the bird and steals one of its blue and pulsing eggs. The colours in this sequence are breathtaking. The vines coil out of the page towards the reader, alive and life threatening in their realism.

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash - Sample Art

As with life outside its pages, this book is both a mess and a mass of themes and issues. McKean takes the reader to the edge of life and back again. He makes you look over the edge of sanity and pulls you back by your ankles, suddenly shocking you from moment to moment. The shell shock of Nash in the story is mirrored in the chaotic trip you as the reader takes. Conscious and unconscious moments mashed up together, what is real and what is not are incoherently represented with glorious effect.

 

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash - Sample Art

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash is, most importantly, an experience. I found it profoundly affecting and hugely inspiring artistically. It is also the devastatingly sad account of a man’s life. The back of the book shows a little of the research taken by McKean in its creation, and we’ve documented this pioneer of modernism briefly here on downthetubes.

There are few artists who could manage a work of this type and standard. I am hugely humbled that I was able to read and write about it. My advice to you is to take your time when you buy a copy. Even reading a few pages at a sitting with result in a satisfying reading experience. Reading this in one will play on your mind for days – trust me.

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash – the Artist’s Book, limited edition of 300 – will be available at the multimedia premiere of Black Dog, published by Lakes International Comic Art Festival and Hourglass. A graphic novel edition will be published by Dark Horse in October

• Tickets for the world premiere in Kendal on 28th May 2016 are available through the Brewery Arts Centre box office (tel: 01539 725 133) or website. Additional performances will be held in France over the summer before the performance returns to Cumbria for the graphic novel launch in October

• Author Dave McKean will be giving a talk and signing the limited edition Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash at the Brewery Warehouse cafe on Sunday 29th May 2016 at 3.00pm (until 4.00pm). Admission free but space limited

• For more about 14-18 NOW visit: www.1418now.org.uk | For more about Dave McKean visit: www.davemckean.com

• The fourth Lakes International Comic Art Festival will run from 14-16 October 2016 in Kendal, Cumbria, celebrating great comic art from across the world. It is the only one of its kind in the UK taking over the whole town of Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District, for a weekend. Web: www.comicartfestival.com

• There’s more about artist Paul Nash and his work during on World War One in particular at www.firstworldwar.com/bio/nash.htm

Many thanks for reading.

Antony Esmond

Antony Esmond

Antony Esmond is a comic reviewer and writer – his hips don’t lie.

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