Dave McKean on designing the Sandman comic book covers

Dave McKean on designing the Sandman comic book covers

By David Barnett 17/02/14

Best known for his work on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Dave McKean has also illustrated a children’s book by Richard Dawkins, designed 150 album covers and worked as concept artist for the Harry Potter films. He talks to David Barnett about the difference between working with digital and analogue...

You were part of a revolution in comics in the late 1980s, with names such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison and more coming to the fore. What was that like?

In almost every creative industry there are golden moments in time... you get a medium on its uppers when a new generation of people who love the medium stand up and say what they want to do and suddenly the lunatics have taken over the asylum. That's what it felt like.


Image: Wake cover by Dave McKean

Image: Sandman: The Wake cover by Dave McKean


How have advances in technology affected the way you work?

The Sandman series ran from 1989 to 1995. The interior artwork changed with each story arc so, doing the covers, I was the visual anchor for the book, but I also felt I needed to express that constant change on the covers as well.

The first Sandman covers were all made by hand, often involving collage. Bits of doors or bottles were lodged into large physical artworks, butterflies or decorative eggs into small-scale boxes. This was before I had a computer, and before the Mac became ubiquitous. I played with double exposures and multiple printings; anything to add a layered translucency to the image.


Image: Game of You cover by Dave McKean

Image: Sandman: Game of You cover by Dave McKean


I used various machines to achieve interesting textures and effects. The Game of You covers [see above] were created on the first colour photocopier I found. The great thing about these analogue machines is that they try and give you something; they don’t just send you an error message. By moving things on the surface of the copier, shining lights into it, or generally abusing it, you find interesting imagery you’d never normally create.

Halfway through the series I bought a Mac Quadra and started experimenting with Photoshop 2.5. Suddenly I could make images that were closer to what I had in mind. The precise image editing that Photoshop allows became important. 

Last year you turned your comic work into a live show at Sydney Opera House. How?

Since we were in such an extraordinary venue, I wanted to do more than just a reading. I performed in bands in my teens and I've recently been performing again and writing songs. A lot of this material and some older comic stories went into the show. I made films – animated, live action and some manipulating still artwork. On stage I had a string trio, a jazz trumpeter and percussionist; I played piano. We’re looking to perform the piece again in June at the British Library as part of an exhibition I've designed on the history of British comics.


Image: The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes cover by Dave McKean

Image: The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes cover by Dave McKean


You’re currently working on a feature film, Luna. Tell us a bit about that.

It's billed as “fantasy, reality and the place in between”. It’s based on something that happened to friends of mine who lost a baby – [it’s about] the storm of grief and slow process of the dust settling. I'm grading the film now; most of the FX work is done and the music is being recorded this month. The plan is to place Luna in the major film festivals and release it as a DVD with an original art book.

With all these other strings your bow, would you still describe yourself as an artist?

I've been lucky in that if I wanted to do book covers, I've done book covers. If I wanted to do film, I've done film. The same with comics, album covers, audio-visual. I think I would like to be called a “creativo”; Federico Fellini used to call himself that and we don't have an equivalent [in English].


Image: Sandman Overture cover by Dave McKean

Image: Sandman Overture 1 cover by Dave McKean 


In Focus: Designing the covers for The Sandman Overture

Revisiting Sandman after nearly 20 years has been a strange, rather alarming experience.

The original series was created without any expectations. I didn’t really look up until it was over. Only then did I realise it had become popular and would go on to become something of a classic.

So coming back to the covers for Sandman Overture, I suddenly had stage fright. The covers became about my ongoing conversation between analogue and digital media.

They started as drawings, they were scanned and then I created digital textural backgrounds that were printed. I painted in acrylic onto these prints, and added collage and textural elements – varnishes, soil, leaves, papers –  to end up with a physical analogue image. This was then rescanned and touched up, design elements added.



For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Art & Design hub. 

All images courtesy of Dave McKean.

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