Saturday, March 13, 2010


I don't think I've mentioned it here recently, but I really like my work.  Not only because of what I do, and the people I work with, but the environment itself is very stimulating.  Among the many things I love about my office is the preponderance of comic book: we keep an enormous supply in our bathrooms (too much information!), and I've been able to, for example, work my way through the entire run of Transmetropolitan in little 4-page chunks.

I just recently discovered a secondary trove: on the same bookshelf where we keep some of our reference books (PHP, Java Servlets, Java ME, etc.) are a bunch of comics that I hadn't noticed before.  And I was delighted to see that, along with some titles I didn't recognize, were two that I have wanted to read for a while but haven't been able to track down.  One is Ghost World.  The other is Violent Cases.

Violent Cases was Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's first collaboration.  It's a wonderful little tale, just over 40 pages long.  It takes the form of a reminiscing monologue, told by a man in the present (judging from his dress, probably the contemporary 1980's), recounting memories of events from his childhood (England in the 1960's), which focus on tales he hears about gangsters (from Chicago in the 1920's).

The story itself is really nice - it doesn't have the mythos or the sweep of Gaiman's later work, but it's quite compelling, with a shot of ambiguity that keeps things intriguing.  However, I have to say that McKean's artwork steals the show here.  It's just as weird and compelling as the seminal covers he did for Sandman, and displays some of the same instincts - a lot of collage, a lot of shadowy shapes.  However, where his covers are mainly impressionistic, here he carries the story.

Basically, what he does is draw the scenes as they would appear in the mind's eye, and not as they occurred.  It's a little hard to describe without pictures, but I'll do my best.  To start with, there's great variation in detail; the things that a four-year-old boy would be most likely to notice are sketched in great detail, while other objects are only hinted at with rougher lines and shading.  So, for example, we get a really detailed rendering of an outstretched hand, but the face behind the hand is shown all in shadow.

Even better, he plays with memory in the art.  A major character in the story is an osteopath.  The narrator confesses that he doesn't remember what the osteopath looked like; he has his own vague idea of what he looked like, while his father has a more detailed memory that does not line up with the narrator's own.  So the osteopath's form shifts around as the narrator tries to decide what he looks like.

Other touches are just gorgeous or brilliant.  The osteopath is described as having a nose like an eagle, and the next panel displays an incredibly well rendered diagram of an eagle's beak, superimposed over a dictionary opened to the definition of "England".  In another, the osteopath mentions a scene where a man is carrying a baseball bat.  When he realizes that the boy doesn't recognize the word, he describes it as "Like a cricket bat, but smaller and heavier."  And, for the remainder of the scene, the men are carrying things that look like cricket bats... only smaller.  It's a subtle touch, not played too obviously for the joke, but certainly made me smile.

The biggest problem with Violent Cases is that it's over too soon.  On the other hand, I can't imagine how you could make it longer.  Its power comes from its limited scope: a fragment of memories, artfully presented and pondered, attempting to reclaim something from the past.

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