The Best Reprints of 2008: Signal to Noise


If you’ve seen my pull list, you know that I don’t read a ton of current comics. Every week I go to the comic shop, eager to pick up the 3 or 4 books that are in my file, while my friends come away with 20 or 30 comics (none of which I want). I suppose I’m pretty picky, and a lot of the time none of the new stuff really screams “OWN ME”, so I don’t bother with it. This meant that when the time came to write some kind of year-end, 2008 review, type of article for iFanboy, I was stumped. It just didn’t seem like my cup of tea, and I had a really hard time getting excited about it, until I realized that the bulk of my purchases weren’t actually created in 2008, they were just reprinted then. It made sense then, to write for you about my favorite reprints of 2008. Obvious this is a luminous and stellar list of books, and in my opinion, each book deserves it’s own 1000+ words. And so this is the first in a series of articles to discuss some of my favorite books, ones that weren’t actually created in 2008, but were bought by me that year.

Signal to NoiseMy first pick for this dubious honor is Signal to Noise. After many years, I stumbled across a reprint of this book. Although strictly speaking it wasn’t reprinted in 2008 (it came out at the end of 2007), I didn’t know about it until 2008, and so, by the skin of it’s proverbial teeth, it makes it’s way into this list of my bestest reprinted books of 2008. This comprehensive reprint includes the germination of the story; a two page Dave McKean piece published in 1989, plus two more short stories, and then the culmination of these experiments. To cap it all off, it ends with the Millennium chapter, from 1999. Altogether it spans quite a bit of time, and perhaps this is why such a slim volume manages to carry weight and intensity at moments. On top of this, the 5 different introductions (all from the various reprints of this book) are rather fun, in a sort of time-capsule way. While they don’t add anything to the actual story, they made me like the author’s a lot more.

Over the years, there have been comics that changed the medium entirely, they merged art, expressionism, and social commentary. No one could fly. No one wore spandex. There were no bright, flashy colors. No one had a code name. Nobody was saved, not in the usual sense of the word anyway. Signal to Noise was one of the most interesting examples of these genre-breaking comics. In my opinion, this is the quintessential work of its creators. If you’re interested in Neil Gaiman or Dave McKean, go out and buy this books. You can buy their other works, and you will enjoy most of those too, since these are talented men. But I will always see this book as the embodiment of what they did to break the genre. They built bridges between mediums, and in doing so they changed things.

Way back in the 80’s I was a narcissistic, self-indulgent, bored, teenage, art student. Of course I read The Face. Have American’s ever heard of The Face? It was a magazine. The magazine. For a large chunk of time in then, there weren’t really any other good magazines, not ones that were aimed at me, and I was a teenager in London, so what else mattered? It wasn’t like now, there was no internet, no universal resource catering to every tedious human with nothing better to do. Nowadays there are all sorts of magazines, (all of them essentially redundant, since all the information you ever wanted is online anyway), there’s something for everyone. But back in the 80’s, there was only The Face. It had a little of everything; music, fashion, design, news, style, gossip, fiction, art, but all with the tone of irreverent, bitter sarcasm, and (it seemed at the time anyway) the broadest view possible. So it encompassed a massive realm of things, like a huge grab bag of international culture, thrown at you every week. On top of this roaming content, Neville Brody’s stark red and black design was groundbreaking, and eventually that aesthetic completely overwhelmed much of the ’80’s. So even if you never read this magazine, you’ll know what I mean because for a while, everything was a bit like it.

The FaceSo there I am, a pointless art student. I liked American comics, but was completely at a loss as to how this related to my everyday life. Then one day I opened The Face┬áto the most marvelous two page spread by Dave Mckean. Of course I’d heard of him, I’d bought copies of Violent Cases for a whole slew of people in an attempt to get them hooked on comics (“it’s like a book, a real book. Honest, try it!”). But here was art, art made from words and imagery, and in my favorite magazine too. He’d done something totally different, and he’d done it outside of the comic world, exposing himself to an entirely different demographic of fashion victims and style fascists. It was wonderful and my own work would never be the same. In retrospect, this is around the time that my tutors began complaining that my artwork was “too much like design, too filled with graphic”. I never really knew what they meant, but it certainly didn’t hurt when I began to move towards graphic design instead. I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect the story seems to have less to do with the bold angles of Brody’s 80’s design, and more connection with the expressive word forms that were being explored by designers like David Carson in Raygun. But it would be years before I’d discover Carson, and meanwhile McKean was changing my understanding of what words could do.

A little later, The Face┬ácommissioned a complete, serialized story from McKean. Neil Gaiman wrote it while Dave McKean illustrated. At least that’s how it was billed, but actually, the two got together and gave birth to something. They made a life, by introducing a brilliant filmmaker just as he is handed a death sentence of cancer, and then allow us to observe as he retreats into the internal world of his own creative process, imagining the last film he would have made, if there had been time.

When my grandmother was dying of cancer, she complained that she couldn’t sleep. She said the worst part was the boredom, just lying in the dark wishing she could sleep. I wanted to help, but knowing that nothing would really do the trick, instead I told her what I do to make my sleepless time fun instead of frustrating. I like to lie awake and imagine making things, an item of clothing, or a sculpture, or painting, or some home improvement. I imagine every aspect of the process, and in this way, the being awake is like a fantasy of life, a time when I can actually create the things I don’t have time for in my waking life. I think grandma thought I was kin d of insane, as she asked if this didn’t wake me up more. I really hadn’t ever thought of that, since it was so fun, it didn’t matter to me whether I was awake or not, I just found it relaxing. So I told her; the priority for me is just moving on from the frustration and boredom, being rested is a secondary consideration. I have no idea if she ever tried it, but I hope it took her mind off things for a bit.

Thus Signal to Noise speaks quite intimately to me, clearly I have a personal investment in the narrator’s habit of creating in his mind a a precursor to creating in life because I like doing that too. But still, it isn’t just that I understand this concept, I think this would be a very intimate peek into a life for anyone reading this because Gaiman and McKean have done a superlative job of weaving his story. It’s difficult to imagine that they created this man, rather than stalking someone and, through some esoteric process, recording the inside of his head. This feels like an intimate and realistic look into a director’s mind. His imagined film will never be seen by anyone but us, it exists solely in his fantasy. Like flies on the walls of his life, we peer into his mind and as outsiders, we see all of the ways that this simple film embodies everything he is experiencing as he succumbs to the cancer.

This comic is as close to expressionist art as I’ve seen any combination of art and literature get, using every tool available to convey mood and emotional texture. Reading it is deeply satisfying.

Next week: The 2008 reprint of Paul Pope’s gritty vision of the future — Heavy Liquid — makes me squirm with joy.

 


Sonia Harris is a British graphic designer and comic book reader, happily ensconced in her San Francisco home. Yesterday she finally found the perfect color to dye her hair — it’s called Nuclear Red. Send your exciting hair dye discoveries to her at sonia@ifanboy.com.

 

Comments

  1. They are making a reprint of Heavy Liquid?!  YES, I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of that for years!!  And I don’t even know why because I never read it so I don’t even know if it is good or not!!  An original copy goes for nearly $40 on Ebay though. looks like that might change now though.

  2. Did you get any super powers when using a hair dye with the word nuclear in it?

  3. I saw the reprint of this. Very profound, moving work. Maybe Gaiman’s best short work, and that’s saying a lot. I remember going through hell to find an imported version of this about ten years ago.

  4. I haven’t read Signal to Noise yet I plan to.  2008 was the year I discovered I really really like Neil Gaiman.  For those who have never read, go pick up Gaiman and McKean’s Mr. Punch.  It’s Gaiman’s personal favorite of all the work he’s done and I’m inclined to agree.

  5. I found Heavy Liquid at a library, and it filled my little heart with joy

  6. I was really happy when they reprinted this in the nice handsome hardcover. It kind of seems like the lost, or underexposed gaiman/Mckean book. So many people who come into my shop and are big fans of those two have never seen or heard of Signal to Noise. Probably didn’t help that it was so hard to find for a while. It’s such a gorgeous piece of work…good call!

  7. Nuclear Red makes me think its the same color as Mountain Dew’s Code Red.  I don’t know why…

    By the way, excellent write up.  This sounds like a really cool book. 

  8. I love Dave McKean’s art, but didn’t come to reading Signal to Noise yet. Did someone read "Cages" by him ?

     

  9. Yes, Cages is great also! A lot more pencil and ink stuff than he is generally known for. It’s nice to see. Some people I know have complained that the story is a bit light, but I disagree, I thought it was great all the way through! Sadly the complete thing only exists in a $50 HC and that has been out of print for a while now…

  10. Agreed! The story just sidetracks sometimes, but that makes the book so deep. These are really the best parts of the book. And a shout out to my libary for having them in 8 separate issues!

  11. this looks pretty good. i think i just might try it out. good pick Sonia

  12. This book, which I bought when it came out, is an interesting mess.  What I mean is, boy, by itself, its just not a good book.  But its an interesting set of experiments, and when you take into account what these creators did later, its sort of a fascinating excercise.  But there’s much more interesting stuff out there, so I could never reccomend this to a friend unless I knew they were already VE big fans of G and M.  Better to recc Stray Toaster Bill Sin-keh0vitch.

  13. The only point I’d agree with is that this has shades of Stray Toasters in a stylistic sense. But in terms of content it’s very different book. Perhaps when you bought it, you didn’t read it very closely?

    Signal to Noise is a fairly linear story; a man’s inner journey as he prepares for his own death. Whereas Stray Toasters is far more of a crazy science fiction/horror/fantasy advetnrure, so I have a hard time seeing why you’d recommend one instead of the other. They’re entirely different.

  14. "Perhaps when you bought it, you didn’t read it very closely?"

    Maybe YOU didn;t read it very closely?

     

    See?  Not very nice is it, nor does it make a lot of sense if you’re trying to make a coherent argument.

     

    In terms of what both books were doing for the form at the time, they are VERY related, and in fact, all creators involved discussed at the time how each others work was influential.

    That’s a perfectly valid point of view, if I want to recc something from that period that was shaking up the artform at the time.

     

    The main thrust of my statement, which you ignored, is that Signal to Noise is not a very good book in terms of a story.  As I seem to have to remind people who insist on being rude to people guilty of no other crime than disagreeing with them, thats only my opinion, which you’re free to disagree with.

     

    Snarkiness not necc. 

  15. Oh dear, no intention to hurt your feelings. I’m sorry that you were hurt.

    I meant no snarkiness, but I was too brief and will expand my thinking here: I was responding to the fact that you said you got this book when it came out. That’s 15-19 years ago. In that time, the way I interpret and read comics has changed dramatically, and I’ve forgotten a whole lot of things. This is the kind of "close reading" I’m referring to. We change over time, and what we understand and relate to does too.

    It’s important that you don’t feel that I’m ignoring your point. I will try and be more explicit about my thoughts on this.

    I agree that people compared McKean and Sienkiewicz at the time, I clearly remember the discussion of the two artists. However, I disagree that this means that the books are now comparable. Signal to Noise is written by Neil Gaiman, who is one hell of a short story teller. He does a very different thing from Sienkiewicz.

    In terms of comics that shook up the form, I’d actually recommend Elektra: Assassin, (which I’ve covered before in another column). But Signal to Noise did something else, it shook up the medium outside of the form. It wasn’t published in comics, but in magazines which reached a very different readership (unlike Stray Toasters, which was published as a comic).

    I adore Stray Toasters (and won’t go into it too far here, because after too long out of print, it was finally re-issued last year, and so will be talked about in a future column because I’m SO DAMN EXCITED). But while I agree that the art styles are similar, the storytelling couldn’t be further apart. 

    So, to echo my earlier point, I disagree that they’re comparable. Although they look slightly similar, the story and thrust couldn’t be more different, and so it’s unfair to paint them with the same brush. They’re equal, but different. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I think even Sienkiewicz would agree that Gaiman is a very different kind of author from himself.

    Finally, I disagree with your assertion that this is not a very good book. As I said before, it’s a fairly linear story. It’s evocative and introspective which I enjoy. In addition, I also disagree that Stray Toasters is better, it is equally good, but is a very different kind of story. Just because two things look similar, does not make them comparable.

    Naturally you’re entitled to disagree with me, no one said that you couldn’t. You can do whatever you like, it’s a free country after all (to a certain extent). Now I’m continuing to disagree with you right back…

    Unfortunately, you haven’t yet presented any argument to change my mind, but merely stated your opinion. Tell me what you liked and didn’t like, give me something to work with here. Did you read the new edition with the epilogue? What did you think about the evolution of the book? Did you dislike it because it was too mournful or wistful? And if you’re a reader of this kind of work from way back, what did you think of Blood, (which was another painted comic that came out in that era), I think it had a similar apocalyptic atmosphere, but took it all back to fantasy with it’s sad vampires. In the late eighties/early nineties so many books were exploring this "end of the world with a whimper" concpept, is your problem that you feel that Signal to Noise did it too literally? I can go on asking questions, but I don’t know why you think what you think. I like talking about comics, just tell me more.

  16. Thank you for clarifying your point.  I have no  problem with your disagreeing with me.  You may not have meant offense, but you must see that simply telling someone they "may not have read it closely" is an intensely dismissive and patronizing assertion.

    My goal, in my initial comment, was not to change your mind.  You stated in your column that you felt that this was a good title to reccomend.  I was simply stating my disagreement.  Signal to Noise, in my opinion, is boring, doesn’t build to anything, and is, again only in my opinion, nothing more than interesting indication as to where these two creators went to later.  It’s a waste of time to dissect it, since I don’t really feel the book merits it.  Ironically, what I think, unless Im mistaken, is an earlier work, Violent Cases, holds up better.

    Im ot sure whether being a linar story has anything to do with my opinion, since I enjoy books that are more linear, and others that are more disjointed.  Thanks!

  17. Violent Cases is the first comic either of them ever wrote. Apparently neither of them ever considered comics as a career, one was an illustrator and one a writer. They’d joined a writers group to look for direction/inspiration and met there. Violent Cases was their collaboration and when it came out, they both said that they weren’t even thinking of it as a comic. I think it’s just wonderful that it got them into comics. I’ve bought it for many people.