Interview: Dave McKean on illustrating a beautiful new hardback of Neil Gaiman's American Gods

The artist tells us about his new artworks for The Folio Society's edition of American Gods, just before a TV series based on Neil Gaiman's celebrated novel comes to Starz and Amazon Prime.

The words of Neil Gaiman are inextricably linked to Dave McKean's art. Though they've rarely collaborated since the 1990s – Neil writing the script for Dave's 2005 feature film MirrorMask – Dave created the covers for Neil's iconic Sandman comic series that first made him famous and still have a huge cult audience.

It's fitting then that Dave has created illustrations for a new edition of Neil's most highly regarded novel, 2001's modern mythology American Gods. Released by The Folio Society just before a US TV version of the novel comes to Amazon Prime (in the UK) and Starz (in the US), it's as lusciously designed and produced as you'd expect from the imprint.

The new American Gods edition is a hefty hardback that sits inside a solid-feeling slipcase. The case has two full-colour illustrations, with the hardback inside featuring debossed gold versions.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's American Gods costs £75. You can buy it direct from The Folio Society.

Read on for our interview with Dave about the book.

The illustrations on the front and back covers show the book's different worlds. Over email, Dave says that the front represents the 'real' world inhabited by book's protagonist Shadow, and the back the mythic world of the gods – but themes and elements reveal how the are intertwined.

"The front cover as a symbolic image of Shadow, the in character in the book," he says. "The back cover features a shamanistic buffalo god head made from
wood, nails, iron and clay. Inside this talisman is a tiny version of the front cover image and – if you look carefully – the shadows on Shadow's back look like a the buffalo head with horns."

The covers of Folio Society books are different from most as, being for collector's editions for well-known novels, they don't need to sell the book as well as representing it artistically. However, Dave says this wasn't a factor in how he created the art – except that he didn't have to allow for space for the author and title.

Illustration by Dave McKean from The Folio Society edition of American Gods – © Dave McKean 2017

Each of the internal illustrations is based on lines from the book, in this case where the book's protagonist Shadow meets Mama-Ji – who is the Hindu goddess Kali. “Shadow saw the old woman, her dark face pinched with age and disapproval, but behind her he saw something huge, a naked woman with skin as black as a new leather jacket, and lips and tongue the bright red of arterial blood."

Advertisement. Article continues below

Dave also wrote a short introduction to the book about how he created the illustrations. It it he says that his artwork should "create an atmosphere, an off-kilter, unrealistic place, where perspective doesn't work and elements become flattened-out textures, shapes, concepts. I think a limited palette would be good – maybe two colors for two realms – and one of those colors is unworldly."

(We'll forgive the American spelling of colour, as the novel is also in American English – it is American Gods after all). 

I asked Dave if the illustrations would have been different if he'd created them in 2001 for the first edition of the book – and if that would have been because his style had changed or what he thought of the book had changed. It turned out he hadn't read American Gods until now.

"I only read the book in preparation for this project so my view of it hasn't changed," he says. "I think my work generally has changed over the last 15
years, so I doubt a cover I would have done in 2001 would look like this current Folio cover."

Illustration by Dave McKean from The Folio Society edition of American Gods – © Dave McKean 2017

Dave says doesn't have a favourite of the artworks, but seems particularly pleased with this artwork, which sits across a spread and is also available as a print from The Folio Society.

It's based on the line "He climbed on the back of a creature with an eagle’s head and the body of a tiger, and held on tight.”

Advertisement. Article continues below

Dave ended up creating too many artworks to fit into the book, but found another home for one of them – as an alternative cover for the first issue of a comic series based on the novel by Dark Horse.

"This image was the only one that didn't fit neatly into the pagination of the book," explains Dave. "The colour plates need to be spaced in between the signatures. I liked
this image and was sorry to see it go from the book, so it was pure luck that Dark Horse wanted a cover as well."

The edition uses Neil's 'preferred text' (from 2003) and includes a new afterword by the author.

Neil also has a new book out that takes a more traditional look at the Norse gods, called Norse Mythology.