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Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise was written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean—I don’t want to say ‘drew by’ because McKean, as usual, does much more than draw. The story originally ran in 1989, in the magazine The Face—the fashion marrow of the 80’s—to communicate what the new decade would mean.

It’s the story of a film director who, as he knows he’s dying, composes one last film in his head. The film is set in the year 999 AD, on December 31, when the people of Europe are convinced the world is going to end. So, as people will do, most of them go to the high places—a neighboring mountain—to wait out the last few hours while the priest chants the Mass and a group of ascetics flagellate themselves.

It’s not their best work together—that’s Mr. Punch—but Signal to Noise is still beautiful. I love Dave McKean’s sketchy style—the skewed and melted shapes; the people and objects distilled to blocky slabs of tone; the painted, blended texture; the way he conveys movement. Some of it’s a bit dated—the love affair with computerized collage, for example, has never been my favorite part of McKean’s work—but he’s out there, and he’s experimenting, and that’s enough to carry it. In 1989 all that was fresh, after all. I’m trying to see it as if the Photoshop-cholera bomb hadn’t hit, and the late nineties never happened.

For me, the story is king, and Gaiman comes through. It’s not his best work, but it’s still a story worth telling, and he tells it so I don’t say, “so what?” at the end. Good stories are evocative; they linger and echo. I can still see the hunchback with his wine, dancing through the abandoned streets, calling out, maybe singing a waltz in a minor key, and that image alone makes the reading more than worth it.

It’s about death and entropy, things ending and what we leave behind—if I can be so pat about it. It’s about how to die, and what comes after—not for you, but for those you leave.

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  1. A Well of Ignorance › Cages on Friday, August 15, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    […] read Cages, which is written and illustred by Dave McKean, right after Signal to Noise, one of his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman. Cages is McKean on his own, and it shows, in new […]

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