Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash

Dave McKean

Dark Horse Books, 2016

Paul Nash was a British artist famous for his paintings inspired by his experiences on the frontline during the First World War: first as a soldier, and then as an official war artist. Dave McKean had long been fascinated by Nash's work, so he jumped at the opportunity to create this book on commission from the UK art program for the First World War centenary.

McKean created an impressionistic biography (as one would expect from his past work). The account progresses chronologically, but does not attempt to tell Nash's entire life story in detail. Instead key events are illustrated, capturing Nash's internal emotional state as much as the external action.

Nash was born in 1889, but the first chapter takes place in 1904. Nash recalls his first dream, which is also the first appearance of the titular black dog. Nash fought depression his entire life, but clearly the dog is meant to symbolize far more than that. The dog recurs in different ways: in Chapter 6 he appears in a military hospital as a doctor.

The final chapter (Chapter 15) is set in 1921, in the Queen Square Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. Nash is still recovering from the effects of the war. A doctor tells him to wake up (a scene I found oddly reminiscent of the opening of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series, where McKean made his first big splash as a cover artist). Nash comes to, recalling Hawk's Wood, the forest of his childhood.

It's a lovely ending. Nash went on to a further artistic career--including another brief stint as an official World War Two artist--before his death in 1946 at age 57. But McKean's choice makes perfect sense as an artistic statement. It is the final resolution of Nash's World War One experience, the event with which he is most closely identified.

I confess to have completely overlooked this book until it was nominated for an Eisner Award. But no fan of McKean's art will want to miss it. It is as stunningly beautiful as anything he has done, which is truly saying something. He seems to have found a most inspiring subject here. He applies his usual mixed media approach to great effect: a combination of drawing, painting and collage. It's a frequently bleak subject, but McKean finds many brilliant uses for color. There are some wonderfully memorable images: I was especially struck by a spread of an airship in the form of a fish, highlighted by spotlights above a city at night. It is appropriate that the book is presented in an oversized format, similar to European comics.

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Thanks for the review, Mark. I'd not heard of this.

You're welcome. McKean has never done a nonfiction subject before (that I know of), but his fantastical visual language is here in full effect.

Luke Blanchard said:

Thanks for the review, Mark. I'd not heard of this.

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