Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, and Memory – Part I

You’re certainly heard me talk about Neil Gaiman, probably both here and in person.  Yes, I don’t shut up about it.  Sorry, but I love the man’s writing.  You may or may not have heard me gassing about Dave McKean, though, and that’s honestly a mistake.

A fantastic artist in his own right, Dave McKean can seemingly work in any media.  McKean most famously worked with Gaiman on Sandman, providing covers for each issue of the comic, but their relationship, and their collaborative work, extends back even before that and has, thankfully, continued to our current decade.

You know Dave McKean’s work.  You just may not know it.  But you say, “James, you know I don’t read those funny books with those strange picatures.”

And I say, “Wow, you speak funny.  Oh and, you idiot, he doesn’t just do comics!”

In addition to his vast comic work, McKean created the covers to many CDs from the 80s, 90s, and 00s, including This Desert Life by Counting Crows, Darkest Days by Stabbing Westward, pretty much everything by Fear Factory, and dozens of others.  He has also had illustrations featured in The New Yorker, Playboy, and other magazines of ill-repute, not to mention featured photographs all over, art shows here and there (here being America and there being Britain), and his own group of graphic novels such as Cages, Pictures That Tick, and Celluloid.

But my favorite work that he has done will always be in collaboration with Neil Gaiman.  Here’s just a few to start: The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls, The Graveyard Book, Coraline, and Black Orchid.

Most importantly are three graphic novels that the pair teamed up to do in the late 80s and early 90s, which the greatly brilliant Prince of Stories refers to as “The Memory Trilogy” are as follows:

Violent Cases (1987)
Signal to Noise (1989)
The Tragical Comedy of Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (1994)

To call these comics is a bit of a disservice.  And I can tell you that I really don’t mind calling comics “comics” when they are indeed “comics.”  Watchmen, Y the Last Man, even Gaiman’s own brilliant opus Sandman, these are all comics.  And that’s ok.  But this trio of put forth by Gaiman and McKean are truly graphic novels.

Violent Cases
words by Neil Gaiman
pictures by Dave McKean
American Edition published in 1991 by Tundra Publishing Ltd.

The core of all three books is (obviously) memory.  In Violent Cases (not Violent Gasses as some inept data entry person at Powell’s Books had it listed as) , the narrator (familiar to most readers as Gaiman himself) recounts stories of growing up.

The narrator is injured by his father and is taken to see a doctor.   The author recalls the violent incident with a bit of uncertainty (not the last time the narrator’s memory is muddled or confused), but can say that his arm was injured when his father was trying to drag him upstairs to bed while he [the narrator] was attempting to go down.

Immediately after retelling this incident, the narrator says about his father, “He was my rock and my refuge.  But when I read stories of giants… the giants always looked like my father.”  I’ll let you read into that what you will.

The narrator’s father takes him to an old osteopath who, it turns out, once worked for Al Capone.  The unnamed narrator and the unnamed doctor converse while the bone is set, the doctor regaling with stories of parties while the narrator complains of his distaste for parties.  Children fighting over cheap trinkets, knock about games of musical chairs that almost inevitably end in violence, or (horror of horrors) adult parties where one must be polite and perfect.

Here again, the narrator’s inability to recall exact details are shown.  Maybe the doctor looked like Einstein.  He relies on his father’s memory for a tangible picture of what the doctor looked like.  As the narrator and his father leave, the narrator recalls the doctor saying, “I’ll see you before I go.”

When he asks his father in the car what the doctor meant, his father accuses him of making it up and then pulls out the old threat of “If you are going to start saying things like that, you can get out and walk” which sparks yet another memory of  when his father really did force him out of the car after being, “goaded beyond endurance” (and the text box that holds that caption is paired with a frightening image of his father’s father, in a demon-like scowl).

McKean’s art is perfectly suited for this type of narrative.  The memories are hazy in the mind of the narrator and so we, too, get a slightly soft-focused view through much of the book.  The doctor’s face changes based upon how the narrator is remembering him and other details skip in and out of frames and panels.

We next find the narrator as a child, at yet another child’s birthday party, all trussed up in a new coat.  We eventually find him hiding behind the stage curtain, somewhat afraid of the magician, only to turn around and come face-to-face with the osteopath again.  This time in the narrator’s memory, the osteopath is younger, more resembling a character from a noir film (once again, the narrator cannot quite equate the truth from the fiction in his memories).

Once again, the nameless protagonists converse.  The narrator’s memories of the party.  The crux of these memories is a game of musical chairs that ends with a final, empty chair and a scuffle between the final two children.

Simultaneously, the doctor remembers a similar scene of his time where Al Capone had tied up several people he had in his pocket… bootleggers, suppliers, even a high ranking police official, all tied to chairs in a big circle.  But the only winner is Al Capone, as he systematically crushes the skulls of each chair-bound people.

After this disturbing scene, the narrator returns to the party to watch the magician, a mythically huge man (carrying the giant theme on from earlier).  After the magic show, the magician retires behind the curtain and when the narrator peeks behind again, he sees the magician conversing with the doctor, like they’re old friends.  Until the doctor breaks into tears.  Then, three men carrying baseball bats come in and carry the doctor away, while the magician closes the curtain the narrator peeks through.

Later, months after the party, the narrator is fairly certain he saw the men again, all three situated comfortably in the front seat of “the biggest, most stately automobile I’d ever seen” with a impossibly large man in the backseat.  Ah, the implications.

Thus, the book ends, with the narrator watching the car disappear into the distance, wondering why no one wears hats any more.

Violent Cases is an early work from both Gaiman and McKean, before they came to prominence in the United States.  Despite the age of the title, copies are readily available from your favorite retailer and well worth tracking down if you have even a passing interest in either graphic novels or the work of either Gaiman or McKean.

Look forward to (slightly shorter) bits on Signal to Noise and Mr Punch in the coming days!

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