Thursday, 13 September 2012

Books: Signal to Noise


Signal to Noise
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Dave McKean

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

On the right hand side of the screen: down past "Artists," past "Authors/Artists," past "Authors," past all those "Books" (334 and counting!), past "Events" - you'll get to "Genre." (There. Do you see it?)

Just between you and me: back when I first started this blog I had high aspirations to create a comics database that cross-referenced everything with everything else: so that you could click from book to book like a superhero jumping from world to world [1]: and so - yeah - towards the start there I did get a little bit carried away with the tagging. Not for me fussy old categories like "Crime" "Fantasy" and "Horror" (altho I did have those too) - nah: I was gonna be a little bit more ambitious [2]: which is how we ended up with Genres such as: "Animals" "Surreal" (which I must admit I have since grown quite attached to: so much so that I now think that every library should have a "surreal" section) "School" (since discontinued) "Growing Up" (also discontinued: I mean hell - talk about vague - pretty much every story out there is about "growing up") "Vigilantes" or "Vigilantism" (sorry: I can't quite recall which one - but it was there because (back when I was being way more precious) I didn't quite think that things like Batman and The Punisher counted as "Superheroes" seeing as they didn't actually have any superpowers - and so I used Vigilantes" or "Vigilantism" to shuffle them off to the side where they wouldn't bother all the Supermen and women - until I realised that maybe (just maybe) I was being a little bit too literal about things...).

Anyway: that sort of willful disregard of normal rhyme and reason is how we ended up with "Apocalyptic" as a genre. I mean - looking back I can see how it came about: Y: The Last Man, Just a Pilgrim, DMZ, Crossed and Wolverine: Old Man Logan are all quite different books - but there's a certain sort of - well - flavor that sits between the Science-Fiction and the Horror that I couldn't quite put into words until I thought : hell "Apocalyptic" is a good word - so why not go with that [3]? Except - well now - "Apocalyptic" means more than just Mad Max style running around and smashing things up. And while most of time we like to conceive of worldwide apocalypses: there's also the personal apocalypse that strikes much closer to home: when it's not about the end of the world - it's just the end of our lifetime: it's just the end of us (like they say in the book: "The world is always ending for someone. It's a good line.")

Signal to Noise has gone through quite a few different iterations since in first appeared: a stage play, a radio play and a even "a possible film project" (altho so far there's still been no sign of it) but at it's core it's all about the various forms the end of the world can take: and how we deal with the idea of impending death. So while it doesn't have all of the same sort of feeling as the other books I've labelled with the "Apocalyptic" tag  (no bands of marauders or fun little survival tactics here I'm afraid): it actually gets much much closer to what apocalypses mean - for societies and for individuals: and the various ways they end up dealing with them [4].

Checking the back cover [7] it's marked as: "Graphic Novel / Literary" and - yeah - it's coming very much from that period in time where if you wanted to write a comic and have it be taken seriously then you very much had to put on a very serious face and try as hard as you could to come across as being - well- yeah - that word: "literary." So there's not much in the way of jokes and there's not many moments of levity: and more characters making remarks like: "We live in a world in which the only utopian visions arrive in commercial breaks" [8] and literally asking the reading questions: "How do you make sense of your life? Signal to noise: What's signal? What's noise?" [9]: and - oh well - not that much in the way of action or people actually doing stuff - it's all interior monologues and fixed shots of X-Rays (with speaking off-camera), sitting in chairs [10] and reading (Reading is good. Writing is good).

Yes - it feels very much like a period piece (that period being the early 1990s when it first came out [11]) almost as if it were written now and Gaiman and McKean were trying their upmost best to write something that summed up that particular moment in time (I was tempted to say that you could very easily imagine some of the characters from BBC's This Life appearing in the background - but checking the dates - This Life didn't happen for a few years afterwards - oh well): there's even bit where someone uses a public telephone box - (hell do those things even still exist ?) - and there's that sorta of dingy squalor slightly-depressive 1990s atmosphere that sorta stuck to everything - as if the 1980s were a giant party and the everything else after was the glum hangover: where everyone is trying to be a little bit grown-up and a little bit more clever than they used to be [12].

And it pulls of the impressive trick of both tapping into that once all-pervasive sense of premillennial dread [13] ("The Year 2000 - the distant future" [14]) and rendering it toothless and a whole lot of fuss about nothing. (That line again (hell - it is a good!): "The world is always ending for someone."). And then at the end - 11. Millennium - (which was especially for the written for release of the radio adapation in 2000 and is included as a sorta bonus little bonus - a final verse of a song that you thought that you knew [15]): it makes this explicit but in a way that doesn't feel shoe-horned in - more like it's just someone making conversation - always really to undermine itself whenever things run the risk of getting too ponderous ("I said that in my interview but they cut it out"): "The impression the documentary gave was that he had predicted millennial doom when in fact he had predicted the opposite: humanity continuing much as before, no grand apocalypse, just a procession of tiny personal apocalypses, one for each of us."

But forget all the fancy words: because in the end it's Dave McKean's bewitching images that will stay with you. The way a audience member will switch from man to a (hawk?) in the blink of an eye, the way that a collar can turn on it's side so that it resembles, an arrow, a beak, a knife or just the simple way that someone waves goodbye to someone as they drive off in a car (slightly crouched down - one hand tucked under the arm). And it never sticks to just one way of composing an image - there's so many lovely effects and beautiful moments - scattered throughout the book - leaping around from one style to the next as the thoughts of Terry Reed flutter around like a butterfly: one of the many highlights (hell - every page is highlight - but yeah) is the layers of photos spread out one on top of another as Inanna leaves down the stairs... [16] and the beautifully haunting constant repetition of images (lots of clocks) - slowly fading in - and slowly fading out into the white.

[1] A little unnecessary Tom Strong reference for you to enjoy there (you're welcome).

[2] If you want me to be a little bit pretentious about it: then it was in order to show the connections between things that maybe people would otherwises maybe overlook. But if you want me to be a little bit more truthful: it was just because it was fun to tag the hell out of stuff.

[3] Even reading the Wikipedia entry for Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction kinda gives me a warm glow inside: "Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that is concerned with the end of civilization due to an existential catastrophe such as nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgement, climate change, resource depletion, or some other general disaster. Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in an agrarian, non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain. There is a considerable degree of blurring between this form of science fiction and that which deals with dystopias.The genres gained in popularity after World War II, when the possibility of global annihilation by nuclear weapons entered the public consciousness. However, recognizable apocalyptic novels have existed at least since the first quarter of the 19th century, when Mary Shelley's The Last Man was published. Furthermore, the subgenres draw on a body of apocalyptic literature, tropes, and interpretations which are millennia old."

[4] Plus - you know - the way that we're all in the process of sifting through the noises our lives generate - trying to find the signal. Well - at least - that what it's supposed to be about (you know - with that title and all) - but all that stuff feels a little like thematic icing that never really properly sinks into what's actually going on. No matter how much the bits in between the chapters may try and squeeze themselves in (from one of Dave McKean's introductions [5]: "Colour copy spreads with random computer-babbled text which some reviewers thought were obscurist rubbish and others thought were the most important parts of the book" (I think I agree with the first group: there's a Roland Barthes quote that hits the nail much too firmly on the head ("Everything has a meaning or nothing has. To put it another way, one could say that art is without noise.") and the rest is just crazy gibberish (although there is one bit which manages to encapsulate things by saying: "Thank you. Yeah. Arty stuff.").

[5] And - oh my god - I have never read a book (comic or no) with so many introductions: Jonathan Carroll [6] - 1992, Dave Dave McKean - June 2000, Neil Gaiman - June 2000, Dave McKean - June 2006, Dave McKean - August 2006 (Dave obviously likes writing introductions).

[6] Jonathan Carroll - I've never heard of this guy before - but according to his website he apparently writes something called "hyper-fiction." His introduction is a little bit worthy - but I guess it was written at a point in time when comics were still something that you had to make excuses for - so I'll allow him. Especially because (talking about comics and graphic novels) he comes up with a prefect little thought: "I wish someone would dig a little deeper and come up with a right name for them." (But I guess we're still waiting...)

[7] But - oh dear - then the back cover gets marked down for the way it plugs Signal to Noise as coming from the creators of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Wall which - great as they are - are children's books - and - Signal to Noise is anything but. In fact - it would have made more sense if they had referenced Violent Cases or The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch which are much more in the same "Graphic Novel / Literary" category: but - hell - maybe those books aren't as popular (ah well). (But then - hey - at least it isn't as bad as the DVD to Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgetten Dreams which proudly proclaims that it's "From The Director of Bad Lieutenant" which is wrong for two reasons: 1. Bad Lieutenant is actually by Abel Ferrara (yeah - it's that film where Harvey Keitel waves his wang around). 2. The film they're thinking of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (god - I sound like this guy) where Nicolas Cage does pretty much every crazy thing possible except waving his wang around (watch out old ladies!)and: well (stating the obvious) it's very much not the kind of film that is going to appeal to people who like Cave of Forgetten Dreams (and vice versa). One is a thoughful and mediative documentary about the Chauvet Cave in southern France and consists of footage filmed inside the cave as well as interviews with various scientists and historians and the other - well - the other has stuff like this).

[8] Which - hey - is a great quote to put on your tumblr if you're that way inclined.

[9] Side-note: I've always really hated that old hoary cliché that goes: "this is a book / film / album / play / installation / sandwich that asks (or "poses" - whatever) the reader a lot of questions." I guess: it's a silly thing to say and because asking questions is a piss-easy thing to do (as if the only point of - say - Inception is to ask questions about "was it all a dream?"): I mean - I like things that know how to be ambiguous - but most all of the time - the stuff that's really good is more about (if we're sticking with this whole question dynamic) - well - providing answers: even if that answer is - I don't know or: "We made ya 'cause we could."

[10] There's two pages that are devoted to people sitting in chairs - both of which look amazing (the kind of thing you could cut out and frame on your wall).

[11] And - oh my goodness - it was apparently first serialised in The Face - and - well - how much more 90s can you get?

[12] Of course - it's very possible that the 1990s were nothing like that - and this is all just coloured from my own personal remembrances of what it felt like growing up back then. So I dunno - just don't trust anything I say...

[13] Yeah I'm looking at you guys.

[14] And which - you know - might just be my favourite bit of the book. Maybe because I used to have a copy ( that looked more like this) - and so it's just nice to have that extra treat at the end. And I like the different - more abstractly looking style - (there's that great image that greets you when you start of giant heads staring out from a blue background  - that feels like dream-like and half strangely threatening and half kinda calm and blissful) that's less anchored in reality and more like being plugged directly into someone's thoughts: and the black writing in red boxes makes it pop against your eyes in a kinda nicely violent (I dunno) and the voice is spot on too: "A little bit Sufi, a little bit rock & roll"

[15] No - sadly: That's not a quote from the book.

[16] Marcel Duchamp: eat your heart out.

Links: Shelf Abuse Review.

Further reading: Cages, Violent CasesThe Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, Murder Mysteries, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days.

Profiles: Neil Gaiman.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

Jonathan Carroll was basically doing the same sort of things in prose is the 80s and 90s that Gaiman was doing in comic books. Some of his stuff is great, in fast disposable read kind of way. 'The Voice of our Shadow' is a very nasty ghost story in a similar vein to 'Don't Look Now' and 'Outside The Dog Museum' about an architect building a modern day Tower of Babel is also worth a look...

Islington Comic Forum said...

Interesting... I love Tower of Bable stuff (there's a story about something called The Axletree by Alasdair Gray in a book called Unlikely Stories, Mostly which is worth tracking down....): so might have to give Outside The Dog Museum a go (if I can find it...)