Neil Gaiman uncovering three decades of ‘Violent Cases’

Three decades ago a juvenile writer and artist met in the offices of a telephone sales company. They were both novice talents in search of a way to break into the comic book medium. In this case, they were following up on reports that members of said phone firm were considering backing an exciting new anthology spotlighting fresh creators. As is often the case with such ventures, the anthology never panned out, but it did provide the occasion for the writer and artist to have a chat. They decided they would like to work together, and, after a near miss or two, produced a graphic novel. First published thirty years ago.

‘Violent Cases’ opens in a seemingly straightforward statement: “I would not want to gloss over the true facts. Without true facts, where are we?” These words are spoken by the narrator, who has a strong resemblance to Neil Gaiman, though nothing in the text confirms this to be the case. Regardless, the narrator wishes to tell a story and in order to provide context, he needs to cast his father in an unsympathetic light. One day when he was four, the narrator’s father injured the narrator’s arm. In the first sign of memory’s unreliability, the narrator admits to no longer recalling precisely how such an injury occurred. One night he was resisting being put to bed, his father applied too much force and the child’s arm was dislocated. The narrator does stress, however, he does not wish to be viewed as a battered child. Still, he controlled an uneasy relationship with his father who towered over him like a giant. In fact, whenever fables would announce the presence of a giant, the child would imagine his father “fee-fi-fo-fumming” through the enchanted scenery. Later scenes would reinforce this impression of the father as a man possessing a short-fused temper. Yet, despite, all this, he remained the narrator’s “rock and my refuge.”

This segment is evocatively illustrated by Dave McKean who demonstrates from the beginning he is more interested in conveying impressions that narrative incident. The first page is composed of a series of meagre panels. The initial row belongs to the adult narrator and is mostly taken up with white space or the silent act of lighting a cigarette. In such a way, Dave McKean suggests stillness that often precedes a story, along with a bit of hesitation from the storyteller. This use of negative space repeats at the bottom of the page. The panels are overtaken with black from the father’s sleeve. At first glance, the reader thinks of the child on the stairs from his injuries. Closer examination suggests that the father has lapsed into a state of shock at the consequences of his actions. From this tightly confined grid, Dave McKean opens up the layouts with a double-page spread. The left-hand register depicts the towering figure of the father from a child’s perspective, while the middle depicts the boy stretched out on the floor, head tilted upwards. It is over these pages of father and son interaction which the narrator muses on the gigantic, reassuring personage who was his father.

This theme of violence and the making of excuses for those who commit it is at the core of ‘Violent Cases’ narrative. The incident on the stairs is a piece of history to explain how the young boy entered into the care of an osteopath who claimed to have been a physician to Al Capone. The osteopath observes how people always want to hear the Al Capone tales of glamour, filled with sexy dames and stylish parties. Or they want to hear about the tax bill. They want the legend of a suave operator, defying authority so that others might revel. The doctor easily slips into a wistful tone when describing those fabled Chicagoan nights.

Al Capone was a gangster and there was a reason the narrator’s older relatives are leery to discuss Al Capone’s trade around an impressionable child. It is one thing for Hollywood’s public enemies to grind grapefruits into the faces of their molls, yet what actually occurred in those darkened rooms was another matter entirely. This tension of how the past is often recalled through a cinematic glaze is one of the book’s subtexts. McKean repeatedly (and especially in one late scene) litters the background with movie posters for classic films. The narrator confesses that his mental image of the doctor keeps shifting in his mind, at one point taking on the visage of Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon. Of course, memory being what it is, the narrator needs to fact check that Sam Spade’s partner does actually appear in the film prior to his untimely demise.

Later in the book, the osteopath does drop the curtain on Capone’s less appealing behaviour. An enraged Capone has several prominent men brought to him at gunpoint and tied to chairs. Capone then proceeds to beat each of them brutally with a blunt instrument. If Capone had any motivation or justification for these violent acts, they are left unsaid. Instead, they are presented as pure savagery. Gone is any semblance of the gentleman bootlegger, replaced instead with the vicious thug who takes pleasure in humiliation and violence.

This tale is inter-cut with a game of musical chairs at a child’s birthday party. As the number of contestants whittles down, the mood grows tenser. When the birthday girl herself is eliminated, she “stomps away… her lower lip trembling.” The doctor adds a postscript to his chronicle of violence, explaining how Capone ordered a massive amount of flowers for his victims’ funerals. More than Queen Victoria had received at hers. In the osteopath’s eyes, it was a sign of contriteness. Employers of casual brutality often believe their acts are easily absolved through superficial signs of affection, essentially no different than how excessively nice the narrator’s parents are after the father nearly abandons the son by the side of the road. McKean links all this together beautifully with a page full of flowers. Poking out from beneath the cascading blossoms are the final two musical chair contestants savagely pummeling each other for the honour of the victory. The veneer of civilisation might be lovely, yet it is also quite thin.

McKean has one of the most unique styles in comics and it is clearly recognisable in this early effort. His interest in collage and loose-lined drawing reoccur throughout the book, which in this instance highlight the vagaries of memory. His expressionist, at times almost abstract, art is a natural fit for Gaiman’s ruminating text. In addition, McKean does an excellent job of portraying a child’s perspective. An adult party is memorably evoked by a figure’s back occupying nearly the entire page. Over his shoulder two faces are glimpsed, their expressions inscrutable. The air is full of the grey haze of cigarette smoke. It is an image rich in resonance for the adult reader, while still conveying the befuddlement of a four-year-old. Adults are sometimes viewed through narrow slits, their bodies seen in fragment rather than a whole. Elsewhere, everyday individuals such as a tailor or a party magician take on an otherworldly, somewhat sinister glow.

What the child does not experience, they explain the best they can through imagination. Sometimes these flights of fancy create deeper impressions than more mundane realities. And so, the face of the osteopath remains variable in the narrator’s memory. The narrative culminates with a shadowy incident the child could have witnessed or just as plausibly could have been an imaginative blending of experience and fantasy.

Soon after Violent Cases, Gaiman and McKean took a leap over The Pond to DC where they produced their Black Orchid limited series for editor Karen Berger who would play a key role in introducing their talent to a larger audience. Thirty years later, their work is still closely tied to each other’s (on Wednesday McKean will be providing a variant cover for Dark Horse’s adaptation of Gaiman’s American Gods novel). Violent Cases is a striking debut for their rich, distinctive partnership.

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