“If you want your work to have any value in such a chaotic world,” says a cartoonishly proportioned art critic at the onset of the First World War, “you’re going to have to engage with it. Comment, criticize it, take it apart, and remake it in your own image.” The words appear in a translucently white talk balloon—only one of the innovations Black Dog introduces to the graphic novel form as artist Dave McKean actualizes his character’s apocalyptic advice.
Comics fans likely know McKean from his The Sandman covers, though his collaborations with Neil Gaiman began earlier with their 1988 Black Orchid mini-series and arguably peaked in 1989 with the graphic novel Signal to Noise. McKean also famously paired with Grant Morrison for Arkham Asylum the same year, before venturing into his solo series Cages. Black Dog: the Dreams of Paul Nash is an even more successful solo venture, one commissioned by the UK to commemorate 100-year anniversary of the First World War. Paul Nash enlisted at the start of the war, served two and half years, was injured, and returned home to become a Modernist painter renowned for his surreal battlefield landscapes. The Tate recently featured an exhibition of his four-decade career.
While no imitator, McKean shares kindred tastes, creating a fictionalized memoir and dream journal of Nash’s experiences. The 15 chapters range from 1904 to 1921, pivoting in time between Nash’s childhood and the war years, while always opening with a photo-based frontispiece on the left-hand page. Though chapter lengths vary, they average five pages before later chapters intensify the use of two-page spreads. The orderly structure is welcome. McKean often follows standard comics layouts, but the effects of his arrangements are strikingly non-standard. This is partly due to the book’s 12×9 inch dimensions—atypically large for a comic but common for an art book—as well as McKean’s eclectic approach to image-making.
The novel incorporates pencil sketches, full-color paintings, paper cut-outs, photographs, digital art—often transforming at chapter breaks, but at other times with page turns, within a single page, and even within a single panel. When McKean writes “the scene shifts”, the literal fabric of reality shifts too. While expressing the world-altering chaos of the Great War, the continually changing multi-media styles also suggest Nash’s own search for the right materials to realize or at least evoke the otherness of his dreams.
The novel opens with a first-person account of Nash waking from his earliest dream and attempting to draw it as the impressions fade and are replaced by a succession of later sketches that inevitably both refine and distort. McKean’s images accordingly shift in levels of refinement and distortion too. After two opening chapters of finely textured gestural paint strokes and flat Matisse-like cut-outs, he shifts to a fittingly cartoonish mode as the third chapter begins with Nash’s father’s attempt at dream analysis (“Well, I should have thought it was obvious. YOU are the black dog”), as the two sport slightly enlarged heads and features.
Human figures grow grotesquely disproportionate as German bombing interrupts Nash’s wedding and a two-page zeppelin morphs into a painterly precise fish above a cityscape devolving into gray-green abstractions. McKean’s figural exaggerations peak with a violent bully of a teacher who literally towers above the adolescent Nash before slapping him into a sequence of blood-red panels suggesting the war carnage yet to come. When Nash falls injured into a trench, his body combines cartoonish proportions with the fine detail of naturalism—a discord that defines the novel if not McKean’s style generally.
After a sniper attack, a young soldier’s corpse morphs panel by panel into Picaso-esque abstraction While McKean depicts the warfare along widely fluctuating stylistic spectrums, a middle chapter juxtaposes panels of warped but largely naturalistic images with the pure abstraction of watercolor strokes in adjacent columns. Because the superimposed text describes grass growing between the sandbags in the trenches, the otherwise non-representative green swirls and splashes evoke new life. According to Nash’s narration, even nature “is dynamic, constantly changing, fluxing, complex chaos.”
While digitally rendered words are another of the novel’s media, Nash states in the second chapter: “words fail me”, suggesting that language cannot capture his nightmares either. The book’s words are also appropriately dwarfed by the artwork surrounding them, as if the pages but not their print expanded to fit the book’s dimensions. When he doesn’t incorporate printed text directly into the art, McKean frames it in translucently colored talk balloons and caption boxes that don’t fully block the images digitally layered underneath. While visually effective, the technique also suggests that even when literally forwarded, words are not the novel’s primary language.
When Nash’s brother imagines the skull of a German soldier speaking to him, its talk balloons are computer-rendered outlines; when his brother dies and his jawless skull speaks to Nash, the outlines become roughly hatched circles; and when Nash next turns to look at a skull in a war-ravaged dreamscape, McKean gouges an empty circle above it, its paradoxical silence speaking volumes.
Some graphic novels read like illustrated narration, but Black Dog is comfortable with an eight-page wordless sequence, and though words appear on the vast majority of pages, their meanings mingle with the artwork, as when a roughly cross-hatched Nash balances uncertainly along a trench boardwalk and his narration describes “the artist’s balancing act” and the danger of tipping into metaphorical mud. When he later describes feeling “the texture of the air” in his childhood woods, the referent is also the imagined texture of the collaged image beneath the words.
McKean’s image-texts are examples of the “hybrids” and “collisions” that also describe Nash’s dreams. His pages often feature two worlds, two styles, colliding. When Nash dreams during his recovery, he wanders from the subdued greens of his hospital room into the thorny reds of an internal forest of capillary-like tendrils. When Nash recounts his first dream about his future wife Margaret, their figures are composed of different elements; though Nash’s cut-out self holds Margaret’s finely detailed hand, the image also suggests their separation, the impossibility of the two ever fully coming together. When Nash dreams of his estranged parents, McKean evokes their literal and emotional distance through an exponentially expanding chessboard, the black and white squares combining and dividing a puzzle of family fragments.
The novel creates the “sensory overload” that a war vet describes as “shellshock”. It is also its own cure, “expression as catharsis”, as when Nash’ brother takes up sketching to cope with life in the trenches. “When you draw,” he says, “or just look at the world with an artist’s eye, you detach, you abstract.”
Ultimately, Nash chooses to abandon the abstractions of his dreamscapes and awaken from a coma to rejoin post-war life. His reunion with his wife concludes the narrative well—but as narrative, Black Dog is less fully realized. Though we follow Nash through his vacillating dreams, as he in turn follows the black dog of his nightmares, an evolving metaphor for himself, the war, and his isolation, the cast of mostly unnamed characters don’t achieve the psychological depth of narrative realism. That flatness arguably suits Nash’s broken psyche, while further emphasizing the novel as a tour de force of McKean’s artwork—that is a sequence of self-consciously constructed images on paper. I only wish that, for a work responding to a painter’s rich body of art, Black Dog included an afterword to discuss and reproduce several of Nash’s actual paintings.