He also illustrated Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novels The Graveyard Book and Coraline; he designed and directed the fantasy film MirrorMask; he has illustrated and designed many CD and book covers. Oh, and he was a concept artist on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!
We asked him for a few tips for aspiring cartoonists and illustrators.
UNBORED: What’s the difference between a comics artist and an illustrator?
MCKEAN: A comics artist has to think in narrative, whereas an illustrator is usually dealing with a single stand-alone image—or a series of them.
Comics guide you through time and space—like good film storytelling, you have to understand the spatial relationships between characters. You have to express how they move and talk, how the characters relate to each other. You can also express how they are feeling, and how those feelings change over time. You can express all of this within the content of the image—and also formally, that is, by using the composition, style, size, colour, and proportion of the panels and the images and type within the panels. When used to its full extent, the comic can be a complex form.
I don’t want to suggest that illustration is a lesser form at all. The ability to compact a novel, or a CD, into a single cover image is a real challenge. It takes real skill and empathy. But the sheer scale of expressing a whole life of emotions in a graphic novel—while not only maintaining the technical storytelling requirements, but creating beautiful and challenging images—is more daunting. There are very few people who can really do it.
UNBORED: Should a beginner carefully plan each panel of a comic before starting to draw, or just get started?
MCKEAN: Everyone should evolve a working method that works for them. There are some who prefer to dive straight in, and feel that the immediacy of that method pays dividends. I prefer a more thoughtful approach, so I like to plan everything. Not in very great detail, but I need a plan. I need to see rough doodles on paper before I can make a judgement as to whether they work or not.
UNBORED: In addition to doodling on paper, do you use a computer?
MCKEAN: I don’t like to use a computer. There is an organic energy that is often very important to keep in a pen-and-paper design. With a few exceptions, as soon as you start using computers, everything becomes gridded and constricted and lacking in humanity.
UNBORED: What role does curiosity play in telling your stories?
MCKEAN: Telling a story is all about curiosity! I can only write a story if there is something there that I need to explore, and if I feel that the subject is compelling enough that I need to show it to others. As the story evolves, I leave each day’s work open-ended, so that I’m discovering where I go with the story each day.
UNBORED: Our book encourages kids and their grownups to collaborate on fun projects. You work with a lot of writers—what do you enjoy about doing so?
MCKEAN: I like getting to know that person, getting to wander around their mind for a while, live in their world and see through their eyes. It’s an empathic exercise, to understand their worldview and help express it. But the best part for me is coming up with ideas to start with. That’s when everything is fresh and could be perfect. Realising these ideas is when the compromises start. But when you first start throwing ideas on the table and piecing something together, that’s pure alchemy.