Review: Signal to Noise

signal-to-noise-cover-gaiman-mckean-dark-horse

Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman (writer) and Dave McKean (artist).

Originally released in 1999, Signal To Noise tells the story of a dying film-maker who is writing a script for a film he will never make. The script tells the story of a village facing the previous millennium. As his thoughts become more erratic and his need to finish the story more urgent, the two events begin to merge inside his imagination, so that by the end of the comic, the film-maker is on the hill behind the village and the people around him, the villagers, represent his successes, his failures and his fears. That’s my interpretation, anyway.

It’s a concept comic. There is a story, but in the words of the writers, it’s up to the reader to separate the signal from the noise and there is plenty of noise. There are introductions, forewords and prologues, many of which feel a bit like performance art or a poetry reading. I’m not a fan of either; so I’m sitting in a smoke-filled room, listening to words that don’t seem to fit together. I don’t dare leave my seat, though, because I’m trying to impress my date. I pretend to understand, I pretend I am gleaning something from the words floating through the smoke and maybe I do, but when I get outside and take my first draught of fresh air, the spell dissipates and I re-enter reality.

I’m simple folk. I like my stories simple, too. Thankfully, after pages and pages of noisy graphics, the story does take hold and the pages of chaotic images begin to make sense when taken as part of the whole; they really do help illustrate the mindset of the film-maker. The story wavers, too, the thread of it thinning and thickening.

I did like the story. I liked it very much. The film-maker’s vision of the end is so bleak. For him, death is a lonely exercise. He’s also angry and jaded, which is understandable, given that he’s dedicated his life to making films that attempt to peel back the skin of the world. So, his last story becomes much more personal than he intended. One does have to wonder if it was always going to be such a personal project, though. Perhaps we are all walking around making movies in our head. Composing stories, constructing scenes. Wishing it could be like that, until the movie becomes a reflection of what we are actually trying to create our way out of.

This edition of Signal To Noise is sure to please fans of both Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. It’s a good collaboration, not one of convenience. The graphic novel has a seamless feel and really fits together and well illustrates the style of both.

I haven’t talked about the art. It’s amazing. The first page features a distorted image, as if the signal is noisy. That feel continues throughout, with messy drips of signal dotting the pages and spilling across margins. It also pervades each panel of the comic. Faces are twisted, every scene has a murky shadow and the shading is stippled and hatched. But the images are completely clear and precise. Expressions are perfectly nuanced and with a few pen strokes, an entire scene conveyed. It’s clever art. Some of my favourite panels didn’t feature people at all, but photo-realistic scenes from the present. A car, a room, a tyre-clamp.

Signal To Noise has a long and varied publishing history, which is detailed in the introductions. This particular volume has the feel of a collectors’ edition. It’s one for the fans, definitely, but it also makes a great stand-alone introduction to both Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. If I hadn’t already explored a lot of their other work, I’d be out there looking for it now.

Written for and originally published at SFCrowsnest.

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