By Erin Bank
Bruce McKay is a San Francisco native with deep roots. His family has lived here since coming from Scotland in 1829.
When McKay started a writing project in 2005, he wanted to honor his family’s heritage and celebrate San Francisco, especially the western side. The result is his fantasy graphic novel, “The Tengu: Thirty Vignettes.”
McKay has created a vibrant world of bird people, inspired by the tengu of Japanese folk religion. They are capricious tricksters with both human and birdlike characteristics. McKay’s bird people live in a sort of parallel universe of a San Francisco uninhabited by humans.
His characters are based on avatars from many different religious and cultural traditions and mythologies. There are stories of gods and villains, tribal conflicts and alliances, and the threat of humans with greedy intentions encroaching on their world.
McKay uses some of the 10,000-12,000 pictures he has snapped of San Francisco landmarks – from the Beanery on Ninth Avenue to Sutro Tower – and draws his characters within them. He hopes locals will recognize their favorite haunts and takes all readers away from the usual tourist locations to the San Francisco of those who live here. In one image, a character sits atop Grand View Park, looking over the City. In another, two different bird tribes meet at the footbridge at Lake Merced
“I’m in a little of all the characters,” McKay said, pointing to the pages spread before him.
McKay himself is a character of San Francisco and the Inner Sunset. He grew up in a 1910 Queen Anne Victorian across from Mission Dolores, which he remembers fondly as he talks about the area as his playground. After he left home, it is fitting that he ended up in the Inner Sunset, because one of his first memories of the power of art happened in Golden Gate Park, along the Music Concourse, a place his grandparents would take him often.
“I knew the California Academy of Sciences was the place I was gonna go to learn about the world as it is, the natural world. I would go across the way to the de Young Museum to see the world as some people abstract it,” McKay said.
McKay was hooked on illustration from a young age, influenced by Charles Schultz (creator of the “Peanuts” cartoon) and the concept of Duckburg, the fictional Disney city in which Donald, Scrooge, and the other Disney ducks live.
He has two older brothers; one got him interested in writing and the other got him interested in drawing.
McKay was pulled into a career in engineering through an apprenticeship, which first brought him to the Inner Sunset. His first journeyman job in 1983 was right next to the Academy of Art College in Union Square.
“I started taking up illustration,” McKay said. “That’s where I met a whole bunch of friends I’m still in touch with today.”
During his 40-year career as a building engineer, McKay always dabbled in art classes when he could fit them into his unpredictable shift schedule. He also learned on the job; he was able to study birds during a job at the California Academy of Sciences. That experience inspired McKay to create his bird people with many of the true physical and behavioral characteristics of the bird species after which they are modeled.
McKay was able to take a sabbatical in the early 2000s and work towards his BFA at San Francisco Art Institute, focusing on computer graphics and sculpture.
McKay had been thinking about the basis for “The Tengu” for a long time. He wanted a project that would combine his interests with the techniques he had learned over the years, and to honor his family’s heritage in San Francisco.
During a trip to New Zealand, the concept of his bird characters and their world finally came together. He had the idea that would allow him to create a story of family and San Francisco, while also creating an allegory for some of the changes the City has seen – identity politics, corporate culture, and the climate crisis.
“It’s a study of a society at the brink of falling apart,” McKay said.
But instead of a depressing, apocalyptic story, McKay hopes readers will take away some important, uplifting messages: that we can be proud of groups we belong to without losing our individuality; that we’re all human and can bond together to break down the structures that divide us – especially to find ways to combat the climate crisis – and the impermanence of objects and importance of the land and resources.
When he retired, McKay threw himself into completing “The Tengu.”
“This is my reason for being,” he said.
McKay is looking forward to an August self-publication date for his book, which will be the first of three in a series.
To learn more, go to McKay’s Instagram account: @bruce.mckay.754.