Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Art is an empathy machine. Art allows one to look through a fellow human's eyes."
Art - when derived from studious and subtle observation - can not only allow one to look through another individual's eyes but to communicate what you see there, to pass on those perspectives.
In that endeavour as in so many more, BLACK DOG is a clever, profound and eloquent beast.
With sympathetic skill Dave McKean has succeeded not only in communicating to a new audience and a new generation Paul Nash's vision and visions but, in doing so, furthered Nash's goal to "bring back words and bitter truths" to remind us of the horrors and insanities of war which show no sign of stopping, and to counter those who would perpetuate them.
"I hope my ochres and umbers and oxides will burn their bitter souls."
Good luck with that one, the pair of you. But they can instil in the rest of us, prone to forgetfulness, a renewed revulsion in order to speak out against these repugnant warmongers and their godawful obliteration of lives, of individuals, they leave in their wake.
That was the vocation discovered by Paul Nash, and the whole raison d'être of the commission by 14-18 NOW, the Lakes International Comic Art Festival and On a Marché sur la Bulle: to blast back into our consciousness the very real, specific horrors of World War I during its centenary years.
Dave McKean has delivered on every front, but he has done so in ways that are far from obvious. For a start, it is not just through the queasy deployment of "ochres and umbers and oxides", much in evidence during the gruelling sequence setting sail from Southampton Docks along with its sea-slick of blood, but in contrasting them with the most spectacular colour: with that which is other and bright and beautiful; with that which is natural and which should be instead.
One of the most vivid chapters is Nash's dream, whilst convalescing, of a viciously sharp, scarlet-thorned briar which impedes his progress towards the shimmering blue light of a kingfisher, thence its elusive clutch of tiny, fragile, life-giving eggs.
"How can this delicate perfection exist in the same world as a 14-ton howitzer firing 1,000 kg shells that propel hot metal shrapnel into soft human tissue, into minds protected by perfectly proportioned, frangible shells?"
Three shells, then: the brain's, the bird's and the bombs'. It is in gently compelling us to compare this absurd contrast in our own minds that the truth seeps out: the first's content is creative, the second's procreative, while the third's sole goal is destruction and death.
It is the power of the mind - as well as its vulnerability, to be sure - which is evoked as much as anything during this intense graphic novel. Nash sees colour in the unexpected green shoots amidst trenches when few could see through their desolate, limb-numbing, mind-flattening, seemingly never-ending nightmare to any form of future at all. I wouldn't be able to without McKeans' help here. But once again, it proves part of what Nash wanted for the future: a tsunami, a revolution of thought "breaking over our ossified society, tabula rasa, wiping the cant and lies from English life." Sure enough, following the juxtaposition of life-giving green and bleak brown trenches bursting with a spray of white butterflies, there rises an almighty tidal wave that is thunderous.
There will be more time spent in the trenches - with Nash's brother, just once, when they discuss the distraction and abstraction of the artistic process which may go some way to explain Nash's later, problematic detachment - but this narrative stretches far further thematically, both backwards and forwards, to what else might have made this man, including the "sadistic discipline" of a school "which was ideal training for an infantryman's life in the trenches." He continues:
"It taught me nothing worth speaking of, it answered none of my questions, it required only a kind of desperate obedience, and a stoic acceptance of the constant threat of sudden and terrible violence."
The grotesque, gap-toothed giant of a martinet towers over young Nash, barking out garbled, mathematical commands as nonsensical as those which would follow, and as impossible to answer with any sane response.
The person who does teach him something worth learning is his grandfather who is by contrast "a man of infinite calm and discretion", nurturing Nash's love of art. It's a scene played out against a chessboard, another battle arena around which Nash and his perpetually distant father keep their distance from each other like any pawn and opposing king lest their contact prove fatal.
"The kings checks his position
"As the pawn moves towards promotion
"Hoping not to be seen
"And neither of them comment on the absence of the queen."
The first page consists of four square panels; the second of nine; the third expands into that fully fledged chessboard of similarly black and white squares. Across this are drawn multiple, fractured images of Nash's distressed mother, oscillating between the darkness and light, representing her turbulent, chequered present. Something extraordinary occurs.
"The dog didn't return to my dreams
"For a very long time."
Up until this point we've said nothing of the titular black dog, as I think is right. But its shadow has haunted him from the beginning and it will hound the painter almost until the end in a very telling sequence. At times it is ferocious, at others a bounding spirit he pursues. But its presence is pervasive and it goes by another name which is just as revealing.
You need know nothing of Nash before embarking upon this, but his paintings are referenced throughout both in the language and images ('We Are Making a New World',''The Shore (at Dymchurch)', and I see 'Wood on the Dawn' in the boy's early trees). Often I find engaging in a work like this without prior knowledge a boon. It will surely prompt a wave of its audience to embark on research afterwards and subsequent readings will then spark satisfying flashes of recognition.
Visually the storytelling displays a complete command of dream logic and that "hypnagogic" or indeed hypnopompic state wherein you're not quite sure what is real and what is imagined. It is in constant flux, morphing from one medium to the next, from light to dark, with subtle sheens, bleeds or explosions of colour. "The fog of war" which drifts over St. Martin-in-the-Fields church to overshadow Nash's wedding day is terrible to behold, casting a pall over the proceedings: "A confetti of embers and ash approaching the church ahead of the leviathan." And wait until you see that coelacanth monstrosity.
But it's this lyrical deftness I came away admiring the most. McKean manages to find exactly the right word, time after time again, to pair one thought with another, to throw a startling new light on our expectations or twist the natural order of things, as when Nash is advised to "fight to live another day".
For it's not just the battles with bayonets and barbed wire and bombs that one fights on the field, but also hunger and disease and madness and memory, both then and thereafter. Nash sought to evoke this in his art and so McKean too seeks to peel back the layers, to get beneath the skin and comprehend the complexities which lie beneath. To examine not just a life but what is 'lived' - which is something altogether different.