Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s ‘Violent Cases’ Launched The Careers Of Two Comic Book Icons [Review]
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have each earned a level of success that goes way beyond comics. Gaiman is practically a household name these days, to the point where even my grandmother is familiar with his work. Dave McKean’s art is known throughout the western world. But it doesn’t have much to do with comics. It’s the other stuff that’s gotten them where they are -- the prose novels, Doctor Who, children’s books, advertising, album covers, and film projects. There are plenty of people who know of Gaiman or McKean but don’t know anything about comics. Comics can only provide some fame, and the levels of notoriety that Gaiman and McKean have surpass the borders of our little area of popular culture. But it began with comics.
Specifically, It began with Violent Cases.
Violent Cases came to be in a rather roundabout way. In the mid-1980s, Gaiman was working as a journalist and had a non-fiction book about Duran Duran under his belt (no, really), but was eager to break into comics. Around the same time, McKean was finishing up art school while self-publishing a book called Meanwhile…. They each got word of a new publisher eager to print unproven creators in a new anthology, and met in the offices of the telephone sales company that had absolutely nothing to do with comics.
Predictably, the fly-by-night publisher didn’t actually have the funding, and the anthology never came to be. But as a result of that meeting, Gaiman and McKean connected with Paul Gravett. As co-editor of Escape Magazine, Gravett published the cream of the British crop, including Paul Grist, Shaky Kane, Rian Hughes, and Eddie Campbell; he’s the one Campbell calls “the man at the crossroads.” Recognizing Gaiman and McKean’s talents, he offered them the chance to collaborate on a five-page story for Eclipse.
They asked if they could do a 44-page original graphic novel instead. Rather than telling them to sod off and flipping them the two-fingered English bird, Gravett published the book and launched their careers. In rapid succession, Violent Cases begat Black Orchid, Arkham Asylum, and The Sandman, and Gaiman and McKean were well on their way to becoming the icons they are today.
Originally a prose story Gaiman wrote for the Milford Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Violent Cases explores themes that have since become commonplace in his oeuvre: childhood, stories, and the magic of misremembered things; the substrata of danger beneath the humdrum; and one of his favorite themes, Sometimes Parents Can Be Awful (See Sandman, American Gods, Coraline, Mr. Punch, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane). But there’s an edge of violence to Violent Cases that hits harder than the rest of Gaiman’s bibliography. Almost all of his books seems to radiate some low-frequency that induces a sense of dread; The Sandman and Neverwhere got into cruel territory, and even in his children’s books there’s an element of darkness. But the other books are fantasies, clear fictions. Violent Cases is presented as a memoir, and the harm in its pages is more real, the impact more profound.
The first words of Violent Cases are “I would not want you to think that I was a battered child,” spoken by Gaiman himself, as narrator of his own story (It’s doubtful that readers in 1987 would have recognized Gaiman by sight, but it’s clear that the author is appearing). This immediately puts the idea in our heads that this is a biography, that all we’re about to read is fact. But the narrator soon wipes that away with the admission that memory, and thus the narrator, is unreliable, and the story’s relationship with reality is never clear. It lies somewhere in between truth and fiction, left for the reader to sift through the evidence and determine the “true facts.”
As a child, the narrator’s arm is dislocated by his father, and as a result, the narrator visits an osteopath who once worked for Al Capone. Between the osteopath’s stories of Capone, the narrator ambles off into connected memories of family, and the violence laced so subtly into the fabric, you almost can’t see it. The story jumps from childhood to adulthood, flips back and forth from the recollection to the narrator, blends the real and the imagined, and corrects itself, reconstructing misremembered things that have already been portrayed. The story leaves the reader resting in a limbo where everything is vague, but one thing is undeniably true: peel back the skin of the mundane and you will find something horrible.
Utilizing multimedia and switching up styles frequently, McKean constructs a trip down memory lane that feels... authentic. The narrator’s childhood memories are tilted, sketchy, less distinct; dimension and perspective are thrown out of whack. Moments that are more real, memories that are easier to retrieve are sharper and more substantial. McKean floats from realism to expressionism, choosing whatever style, whatever medium would best convey that particular scene. In addition to being one of the most skilled artists of the modern age of comics, McKean is also an accomplished jazz pianist (he’s one of those people, who’s so good at several things you want to choke him with his talent), and he takes that improvisational approach to his art, going wherever the melody takes him, riffing on themes of memory and menace.
The new Dark Horse printing of Violent Cases is hardcover, with a new cover and some additional coloring by McKean. Digital previews aren’t always enough to go off of, but it looks like this will probably be the best printing of the book: it brings a new level of fidelity to McKean’s art; the coloring remains spare and subtle, but the blues are softer, the browns richer, and the one change I noticed on the first page improved the look significantly. After being out of print for several years, Violent Cases seemed to be fading from readers’ memories (hey, just like in the book). Dark Horse’s beautiful presentation of this classic should put a stop to that.
The connection that Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have is a special one. Though each of them have done powerful, memorable work with others and on their own, I’m of the opinion that their best work is with each other. Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, and The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch are three of the best comics of the last thirty years, an emotionally complex triptych that could only be made by these two men working together. Each has gone on to achieve an iconic status individually, but they wouldn’t have gotten there so quickly, so dramatically, without each other.
It’s as if they were ordained to meet -- very Gaiman/McKean-like -- in the offices of a comics company that didn’t exist.