Sunday, February 28, 2021

Violent Cases (1987).

Sometimes books can have teeth.  You'd be surprised how many of them can come at you like a slap in the face once you turn to the first page.  For instance, here's Alan Moore's introduction to what has to be the first graphic novel to ever put Dave Mckean and Neil Gaiman on the map.  See if you can catch where the slap comes in.

"For the past forty or fifty years, comic books have muddled through their infancy at a slow and sedentary pace.  So slow, in fact, that it sometimes seemed as if it would last forever.  Though the infant would frequently show signs of early promise, if not indeed genius, its physical progress never seemed to get beyond the crawling stage.  This deceptive sluggishness often tended to mask the slow and occasionally painful process of maturation that the poor tyke was going through.  Those of us in charge of minding the baby were so resigned to its eternal and unchanging state of mewling immaturity that even when the first bumps, swellings, sproutings, and secretions began to make their presence felt, we remained oblivious to what was actually going on.  Then, one day, all of a sudden - Bang!  It's puberty!  Since then, comics have been changing so fast that we scarcely recognize the snub-nosed toddler that we used to call "Freckles."  In its place there's something spotty and gawky and strange looking, that's asking a lot of awkward questions about sex and politics, while striking unfamiliar attitudes and dressing itself in colours nobody over twenty-five would be seen dead in.  Its utterances range from the unbearably crass to the undeniably brilliant, and though its self-consciousness may prove irritating every now and then, it's still possible to catch glimpses of the confident and fascinating and adult persona that it's struggling toward (49)".

Did you catch it?  I think the slap comes right near the end, when Moore talks of the adult persona that comic books are struggling toward.  He then goes on to offer the following summation: Comics are starting to be viewed as a vibrant and viable art form, rich in unexplored possibilities and hidden capacities.  As a result, new talents that might otherwise easily have drifted into films or fine art or literature are starting to find their way to the medium and enriching it considerably by their presence.  As this process gathers momentum, comics find themselves on the verge of a quantum leap in which all the old barriers are shattered and the territory becomes strange and different, entirely without landmark (ibid)".  At least, that's what he said back then.  You've got to admit, at least it sounds nice on paper.

Perhaps the nature of the slap in the face can be elucidated like this.  Not long ago, I came across a bitof a debate about the latest issue of a Wonder Woman comic.  The way it drew the greatest super-heroine of modern times raised quite a bit of uproar from the fans.  My own two cents on the issue is to be pedantic.  Correct me if I'm wrong, however I always thought the character herself was based off the original figure from Greco-Roman mythology.  This can be seen in her very name, Diana, the ruler of the moon, leader of the great hunt, and very much a warrior in her own right.  In short, Wonder Woman is (or at least she was more or less meant to be) something of a goddess.  The way she was drawn on the issue cover I saw probably doesn't do her character any favors.  I've heard it described as the hill DC Comics is ready to die on.  It's the latest in an ongoing series of complaints that have grown in volume recently.  For my part, I think I can remember the moment I mentally checked out.  It was when the company tried to take Moore's Dr. Manhattan and use him as a scapegoat or villain explanation for various creative missteps and bad decisions.  I'm afraid just don't read much comic books anymore.

Meanwhile, here is where Moore's thinking on the medium rests today.  “To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence...It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times (web)".  At the same time, most of the other talents the ex-graphic novelist mentioned above have instead "(drifted) into film or fine art or literature".  The medium that helped put their names on the map, meanwhile, seems to be nearing a state of collapse.  In retrospect, it's interesting to consider a time and place when this might not have been, like a road not taken, or something valuable that wound up misplaced.  That's where the real slap in the face comes in.

Books can also have teeth in a more positive sense, of course.  It all comes down to the quality to be found in the final product.  The old graphic novels I'm thinking about used to be pretty good at it.  This was back around the time when Moore was singing the praises of guys like Gaiman and Mckean.  It was before the industry moved on and began what turned out to be a slow, yet glaring decay.  With this in mind, the best I can do is turn attention to one of the efforts that started the whole last hurrah.  It's a neat, concise, and nasty little piece of work called Violent Cases.  Hank Wagner can give a pretty good overview of how this little old gem came about.  "In 1986, Gaiman and Mckean were working for a magazine called Borderline.  Gaiman was a young journalist; Mckean was still attending art college.  After they met and hit it off, Gaiman suggested they work together on what became Violent Cases, based on a short story he had written as part of the Milford Writer's Workshop.

"We were intoxicated by the potential of the medium, by the then-strange idea that comics weren't exclusively for kids anymore (if they ever had been); that the possibilities were endless," writes Gaiman, in his introduction to the U.S. edition from Tundra Publishing (155)".  It was a start, at least.  They pretty much had nowhere else to go at that point except up.  Another good word for their little joint venture is to call it a very risky gamble.  That's not a word that deserves to be tossed off lightly.  The fact of the matter is they were kind of taking their livelihoods in their hands with this idea.  The very fact that the graphic novel itself still exists to decorate the bookshelves is something of a minor marvel.  They both got pretty damn lucky in that sense.  Perhaps the situation for either of them wasn't quite as precarious as it would be if they tried this stuff today.  If they were still young turks trying to make names for themselves, I'm not sure we'd ever hear of them in today's climate.  

The initial comic brand that offered to publish their work wound up having to turn them down, and they still managed to get it out there by a combination of word-of-mouth and sheer, stubborn willpower.  It's probably a sign of just how different the market was back then.  In the 80s there was still a window of space left open for the maverick to try their hand at leaving their mark on the world.  These days the whole industry just tends to come off as some kind of weird, stacked deck.  Even if that's the case, then there's still a lot to be said in the stand-alone issue's own favor.  Perhaps its time to give this old first effort a dusting off, and then hold it up to the microscope once again, and see how it stands in comparison to all that came later.

The Persistence of Memory?

The publication of this graphic novel was a first for Gaiman in a more thematic sense.  It's often regarded by fans and critics as the first installment of what was for a long time thought of as an informal sort of trilogy.  With the publication of The Ocean at the End of the Lane in 2013, I almost want to suggest that the trilogy deserves to be updated into a kind of quartet.  Each of the stories I'm thinking of (the last one included) all seem to share this one element in common.  They are all structured around the idea of a random narrator trying to recall bits and pieces of his past.  In effect, each story becomes a narrative recalled in retrospect.  There's nothing all that novel about this particular creative choice.  Gaiman is far from the first writer to employ this kind of device.  Daniel Defoe seems to have been the first modern novelist to tell a story that was framed as a memory, in the form of the journals of one Robinson Crusoe.  J.D. Salinger did the same thing when he led his readers inside the mind of a troubled young man named Holden Caulfield.  While Gaiman's approach may not be the most original, it can be said that he has found one of the most interesting ways to employ this device.

Some people's live are interesting for the level of detail they reveal about their subjects.  A writer like Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, liked to not just record and set down, yet also map out the contours that his own personal journey had taken.  He was always particularly amused by the way events in his experience had a way of rhyming up with each other several years down the road.  For instance, a distinguished gentleman playing parlor tricks with a collection of matches is called away before he can complete the magician's sleight-of-hand.  Years later, this same would be sorcerer catches up with the writer's father by walking up to him and asking if's he's got light for a cigarette.  Nabokov loved discovering these little spiraling patterns.  They helped him keep track of who he was, where he'd been, and how the combination of the first two might help him learn where he needed to go.  That's not quite how things work out for the main character at the center of Gaiman's story.  Rather, let's say that if the same types of patterns are there, they're a lot harder to see than they might have otherwise been.

The trouble facing Gaiman's protagonist is that the past is like an unexplored country.  If you wanted to do like Nabokov, and try to map out and plot the lay of the land, then all such efforts might prove frustrating.  The expedition might just fall apart before it even had a chance to get off the ground.  All that can be observed, as far as the eye can see, is something like an almost empty canvas; a sheet of blank white, in which a few meager crags and peaks poke out here and there amid the unknowing empty spots on the map.  Then again, maybe I exaggerate.  Perhaps the map isn't that blank after all.  It's just that you have to squint a lot in order to make out the detail of the mountain tops that reach out from the veils of mist.  It's the haze that colors of lot of the main character's past.  As the narrator himself observes, "There are those bits of one's memory that simply do not work - or do not work in relationship to the rest of it anyway (29)".  That's why the story he has to tell us comes off an awful lot of the time as hearsay.  The sort of rumor that might happen to the friend of a distant relative, let's say.

Gaiman's narrative starts off on an ominous note, when the lead actor makes the following confession:  I wouldn't want you to think that I was a battered child.  However...I wouldn't want to gloss over the true facts.  Without true facts, where are we (1)"?  It's this same note of literary ambivalence that takes the reader by the hand, and steers it down a treacherous series of labyrinthine passageways, where very little can be trusted, and not all is what it seems.  To start with, our narrator broke his arm.  It's hard to tell if he just took a bad slip and fell, or if his father might have had something to do with it.  The storyteller himself doesn't seem all that able to recall.  He only knows that whenever he reads of giants in old fairy tales, they often look like his old man.  In any case, he gets taken to an osteopath in order to treat his bad break, and it's here that the main crux of the story begins.

The way Gaiman weaves the narrative around the figure of this old medical practitioner says a lot about how the character is presented to us.  He's one of the few adults in the story whom the narrator feels like he can almost rely on.  That is shown mostly by the type of interactions the two have together over the course of the book.  In that sense it really does come down to the sort of informal friendship which develops between an older and younger man. It's also the one element of the story that I can see some readers finding as problematic in today's climate.  I'm not sure if the answer I can give to those misgivings does anything to help out.  All I know is that a lot of the strategy of Gaiman's story begins to make a bit more sense the moment you stop taking it in isolation, and begin to see it in terms of other narratives with similar setups at their heart.  Specifically, I'm thinking of a trio of stories penned by Stephen King.  These also feature a young boy coming under the influence of an older man.

Two of them, Mr. Harrigan's Phone, and Hearts in Atlantis, offer positive spins on this particular plot device.  In each of them, the main protagonist is able to come away somewhat enriched from their experiences from older men who almost turn out to be these kind of mentor figures.  The third such story, on the other hand, entitled Apt Pupil, displays the same setup in a very negative light.  There the Old Man figure turns out to exert a very parasitic influence on the young main character, and the result ends badly for both of them.  When we compare these three examples to that of Violent Cases, it really does seem as if Gaiman seems to be charting a strange sort of middle course between the two types of examples that King provides.  The old Osteopath at the heart of this story doesn't seem to deserve a title like bad guy, or villain.  On the other hand, there is a lingering sense of threat that hangs around him.  The novelty of Gaiman's story is that he doesn't allow the sense of threat to come from the medical practitioner himself.  The real danger is implied to come from elsewhere.  

This is what makes the friendship at the heart of Gaiman's story so precarious.  The Osteopath is presented to the narrator's sight as a wizened old man, someone with a great deal of knowledge which might be worth passing on.  At the same time, the doctor's exchanges with the young boy reveal someone who acts and behaves as if he's realized the dirty little secret at the heart of all parenthood.  It's that the very concept of the adult has, in the final and ultimate resort, always been something of a dodge.  Little kids may grow older, or at least their appearances change over time.  However, that's not quite the same as growing up now, is it?  Indeed, this is a notion that Gaiman's narrator seems to cultivate and hold onto throughout the course of the graphic novel.  It's on of those unspoken ideas of childhood wisdom that acts as an underground form of common knowledge and that you don't dare say out loud for fear of giving the game away.  Once you do that, then the wolves might come out of the walls, and then it's all over.  This appears to make the Osteopath unique in the narrator's experience.  It's not just that he's one of those big kids known as adults who are pretty good at being sympathetic listeners.  It's that young and old man seem to share in this unspoken secret, and it allows them a greater level of confidentiality than he is able to enjoy with his own preoccupied parents.

The trouble is this bit of good news seems to have an unhealthy dose of bad ladled into it.  This is down mainly to the element of guilt that stems from the bone doctor's checkered past.  If he'd spent his early years engaged in, say, serving as part of the medical staff for Warner Bros. Termite Terrace, that might have been another matter altogether.  The lessons the Osteopath could have taught the kid would be positive, mercurial, and life affirming.  Instead, one of the first thing's the old man tells the young boy is that he once knew a guy named Al Capone back when he lived in America.  When to boy tells his father about this, the old man blurts out that the gentleman in question was a gangster.  "What's a gangster (11)"?  It's a question that the big kids seem to want to be evasive about.  His Dad won't tell him, and neither will his grandparents.  It's in passages like these that the reader begins to get a better sense of the narrative technique Gaiman utilizes for his story.

We, as readers, are being given information, yet the author's choice of narrator means that a lot of it has to be filtered in to us at an almost secondhand remove.  There is a kind of pitfall lying in wait for any of the mavericks out there, the ones who think they've got enough experience under their belt to try and tackle this particular narrative device.  The whole trick lies in knowing just how unreliable the narrator has to be in order to generate the necessary amount of narrative interest and suspense.  As far as I can tell, it all seems to come down to a proper sense of common description, and how much do you keep in or leave out.  I'm not sure if I've run across any general rule of thumb on the matter.  The best course of action in scenarios like this (at least as far as I can tell) is to not under or overdo it.  Perhaps its best not to let the narrator's voice become so cryptic as to make what he's saying sound downright unintelligible.  If you do that, you're apt to run the risk of making the words sound like an odd bunch of ciphers spoken in a foreign tongue that doesn't even exist.  You can tell the audience everything, of course, most of the best writers out there take this route.  The trouble is once that happens, all your left with is mere straight-up prose.  It's recommended nine times out of ten.  However, it's also not the same as the speech of an unreliable narrative.  The information in this type of story depends on finding that happy medium between the vague and the overt.  

The good news is that Gaiman seems to have found this golden mean, and stuck to it like flypaper.  The story's main character is an adult, yet in conveying his childhood memories, he often sticks to a method of speaking that is not really the same as a child's level.  Though it does succeed in bringing across an idea of the childlike.  The voice itself is mature, and yet it is able to convey the sense of a mind that is still learning to grasp the world that exists all around.  This allows the author to present everyday, mundane tasks and places from a vantage point that allows settings and character to take on a perspective that might be called twice life-size.  This is perhaps the most fitting representation Gaiman could have found for presenting an idea of reality through the almost fairy tale perspective of a child.  We are no longer dealing with an objective setting, but the land of memory.  It's still very much a land of far away and long ago, yet it also tells us something about the seamier facts of life.  This is where Mckean's artwork comes into its own.  His style in this books always puts one in mind of those old German Expressionist silent films from before the 1930s.  This in itself might be a fitting choice, as it matches the style of the classic Hollywood gangster film, the sort of picture that was popular in the days of Al Capone.

He is also the individual who acts as the hub around which the events of the narrative turn.  As a result, while keeping his subject well within the realm of fantasy, Gaiman also has it centered around a very true aspect of real life.  This seems to create a fine sense of narrative frisson, as the facts of history allow the author to spin a fantasy around it, one that is very much a part of the kind of romance and mystique that guys like Capone, Dillinger, or Bugsy Seigel were able to generate in the society of their day.  It's this gangland world of the 1920s that make up the memories of the Osteopath.  This is where the real heart, or core of the book comes into play.  From this point on, the old man more or less takes control of the main narrative as he regales the young boy with his memories of working for the former kingpin of American crime.  

It's at this point that the author seems content to let fact and fantasy intertwine.  This is less a criticism, and more of just a general observation.  Gaiman handles these passages with a sure hand, and this allows the scant amount of description to fly off the page and plant pictures in the reader's head.  A lot of the heavy lifting is helped here in no small part by Mckean's pen-and-ink brushstrokes, combined by the by now familiar surrealist collage style paneling that has made him a kind of cult household name.  For this story, Mckean finds ways of letting his drawings shade ever so imperceptibly into a series of real life photos from the era of the second main lead's memories.  A lot of these images are the speakeasys and tenement boulevards of Old Chicago.  These are the parts of the city that are still left standing around even today, and have cemented themselves in the historical memory of the town, as well as the wider culture at large.  They remain a healthy hub of crime right up to the present moment.  This is another creative decision on the part of both artists that helps pull the reader in.

What's important to note about it is the method of Gaiman's narrative strategy.  If the writer and the artist are willing to utilize captured moments of the real past for their story, they are by no means content with just a dry recitation of the facts.  It's true that the gangland photos Mckean uses are all very real.  They also stop at being just that.  Without Gaiman's narration to pull them all together, they would be little more than broken fragments from other, separate, and differing skeletons.  Gaiman's twin narrators are able to take these images and stitch them together into something like a new, fictional, hybrid re-creation of history.  The Al Capone we meet in the pages of Violent Cases is unique in the sense that he is something of a borderland figure.  On the one hand, he is, or was, a real life flesh and blood human being.  This is something the reader can discover for themselves if they go on places like YouTube and type in the mobster's name, along with a helpful tag like newsreel footage.  There it's possible to meet the legend in life-size flesh and blood.  It's easy to know he's real then, that should be obvious enough.

However, once you've seen him, the attentive viewer may also be struck by a very interesting fact.  There's a kind of lingering aura around the guy.  He's one of those old time toughs who just seem to have this mystique to them.  This is something that carries over into his very appearance.  Go and take a look at any of the photos where he's gazing right back at the camera.  It's got to be something you can see in the eyes.  There's a look in them.  It's a combination of steely flint, mixed in with a touch of barely contained rage, like a dog on a leash.  This is ladled in and mixed with a warped sense of humor, and perhaps maybe just the faintest sign of guilt.  One look at him and you can tell this guy's not normal.  Or if he ever was a Regular Joe, then it's a quality that must have got lost or misplaced somewhere down the line.  This guy's seen and done things, a lot them weren't pretty to look at.  If you study just those head shots long enough, you soon might reach a realization.  This Al Capone was not a nice guy.  You also might find something else.

I've said just now that Capone had and displayed a larger than life personality.  That's true so far as it goes, yet it really just admits the surface.  What it misses is the quality of that personality, and how it dominated others within its orbit.  It takes a certain amount of charisma, and yet there's also the fact of what it means in terms of how people perceive gangsters like him.  Whether it's a matter of fate or intention, ever so often you come across people who, like Capone, have this style or look about them that, it can't really be called abnormal, there's nothing deformed about them, or anything like that.  At the same time, it's almost like there's something just a bit too on-point about them, almost caricatured.  Like for instance, am I the only one who realized all four Beatles in their prime could have been characters who act as if they walked straight out of a Dickens novel; a pair of Sketches by Boz somehow brought to life?  It's at that moment you realize there are some actual people out there who manage to straddle some strange line between the mundane facts of reality, and the heightened quality of fiction.  Al Capone was someone like that.  I think it's this ability to walk the tightrope between fact and fiction that allows Gaiman's finished product to give off an aura of gritty realism tinged with myth.

The stories the Osteopath regales the boy with are a heady mixture of Jazz Age Romanticism featuring wild parties that always have a lingering sense menace lurking somewhere in the background.  It's like being led into a room where you know there's a live tiger stalking about, yet it's also full of things you just can't say no to.  You've probably taken your own life into your hands in the dumbest way possible. Though damn if it isn't fun on the way down.  These are the two interlaced ideas of worldly wisdom that the doctor tries to hand down (whether intentional or otherwise) to the young guy.  At first, he goes with (what he hopes?) is relatively safe territory, sticking to amusing anecdotes involving speakeasy parties and the borderline antics that went on there.  It's obvious in these passages that the Osteopath is trying to give the kid a sympathetic ear, and also provide what the reader has to assume is something interesting to occupy his time.  The doctor does seem to realize, perhaps in a way the protagonists doesn't, that his home life doesn't give him much in the way of mental stimulation, and that it may be more troubled than the audience is told.

Childhood, Adulthood, and Guilt. 

However, this doesn't quite explain everything.  Why, for instance, would an ostensibly responsible adult, one whose a medical caretaker as well, ever dare to introduce a child to all that?  Looked at from the perspective of a concerned parent, it just makes very little sense.  I suppose the Osteopath could have replied that Prohibition was an experiment with very little commonsense to it as well.  He may have a point, though that's still little better than just a vague hand wave at the issue.  The question that needs asking is one that Stephen King posed in his own stories that tackled this basic setup.  What would make an old man want to tell a child about all this gruesome stuff?  I think Gaiman is able to provide readers the answer during the coarse of the last encounter the narrator has with the Osteopath.  They meet just three times over the course of the story, and I guess it's true what they say.  It's the third time that proves the proverbial charm.  Although there appears to be something laced about this particular incantation, and that might be the whole point.  

The last time the boy meets the Osteopath comes about almost by pure accident.  He's attending a birthday party where no one is his friend.  It's being held at a fancy a hotel he can't quite recall the name of, and he's not having any real fun.  The boy wanders away from the festivities and heads into the hotel bar-and-lounge, where he runs into the old man, who appears well into his cups.  Perhaps it's the fact that his normal boundaries are down and impaired that allows the old doctor to share one last story with the boy.  This one is different from the glamorous party animal night life of his earlier recollections.  This last story deals with the dark underside that the whole gangster edifice was built on.  The whole sequence winds up being the most brutal in the entire book.  It's also the best sequence that demonstrates Gaiman's ability of blending fact with fiction.  We are told of a fateful night when Scarface rounded up all his old partners and rivals, tied them to chairs, and then entered the room with a baseball bat.  I think I recall reading something like that happening in real life.  It might have been at a dinner party, or some other public function.  I do know for a fact that Brian De Palma had Robert De Niro recreate something like it for his 1987 film The Untouchables. It's a very brief sequence in the film.

Gaiman takes that single image of a mobster with a bat, and then decides to crank the volume up to eleven.  Aided by Mckean choosing to illustrate the whole ordeal in an illustrated series of reverse negative photo flashes, the viewer can choose to look on as the Osteopath reveals how that night played out.  Mckean's art in this sequence shows a fine sense of artistic restraint.  We are never shown all the gory details.  Instead, like all the best moments of Horror, we are given just enough for our imaginations to work with, leaving the audience's imaginations to do all the heavy lifting.  It bears repeating, however, that the whole sequence itself is a mixture of fact and fiction.  There is a general idea that Capone once attacked an opponent with a bat, yet the details remain forever sketchy.  This is no real trouble for Gaiman, as it allows more than enough room for his imagination to takeover and run wild.  We are not given the facts, but rather a myth about a supposed fact.  This helps to lend the sequence an air of just plausible enough verisimilitude.  It turns what could have been an ostensibly gory sequence from mere schlock into an artistic expression of brutality that somehow manages to avoid being prurient and sophomoric.  Instead, I always find those panels to be an experience of what the ancient Greek's used to refer to as cathartic.  

I think at least part of the reason for that has to do once more with the kind of mythos that's built up around Capone throughout the various decades.  He's no longer just some local crime boss, he's now become like the ultimate Capo in people's minds.  The only other figures who seem to outshine him in this regard are none other than Dons Vito and Michael Corleone.  The big difference is he was for real, while they were both just names on a piece of paper.  The one aspect of it that bears singling out is how people view Capone, just as a character.  Here was a guy with great organization skills.  He was able to create an entire organization, almost single-handed.  Here was a guy, in other words, with all the skills of a natural born leader, and yet what does he do with it?  As far as I can tell, all he did was dig his own, slow filling grave.  The real life Capone came to a very ignoble end, dying alone of venereal disease, all his power and influence wasted away.  I think it is this aspect of the man's character that gives this gruesome passage in Gaiman's text it's almost pitiful quality.  We're seeing the remains of someone who could have been a great man as he lets himself spiral down the drain.  It's the same kind of aesthetic response you get from watching guys like Macbeth fret his hour upon the stage.

Another part of what makes this sequence work is the way Gaiman intercuts the memories of the old Osteopath with the narrator's own recollections of the disastrous birthday party he's forced to attend.  The writer does a neat little double act trick here.  He let's the story's A plot weave in and out of the B sections.  As the doctor's narrative begins, the birthday party in the background starts to grow less fun and more competitive as a game of musical chairs commences and grows more heated as each player is forced to leave the circle.  Even the main birthday girl gets tossed from the arena, and she stomps off in a put out, "no fair" huff.  Finally, as the Osteopath reaches the moment where the baseball bat comes out, a fight erupts behind the old and young man as the birthday girl wrecks her party by getting into a fight over the last chair standing.  

Gaiman seems to be making some kind of a point in these panels.  It all seems to hint at what was said above, that adulthood is often a facade hiding the faces of the children that always really seem to lie underneath.  The problem is what do you do if you're dealing with so-called "problem children"?  Another thing to keep in mind is what happens when you carry on the the childhood playground scrapes well into adulthood?  The answer seems to be that while the scrapes might remain, their fundamental nature requires a better definition.  As a so-called adult, we label them as street brawls, or bloody altercations, at best.  The points seems to be all about what happens when issues like this aren't addressed properly.  It's the kind of result you get when no one is willing to be the adult in the room.

All of this might sounds thrilling, however there's still a troubling question that lingers in the air.  Why would a grown man think it's okay to expose a young child to all this stuff, anyway?  I think it's the Osteopath himself that provides the audience with the closest thing they will ever get to answer.  At one point before he begins his final story, the bone doctor blurts out the following curious statement: "So I didn't stick it out.  Is that a crime?  Is it?  So I left when they busted him, went west.  Is that so evil?  What could I have done - waited around sixteens years for the man to die?  I had my own life.  I'm a person in my own right.  I know my rights (29)".

The whole thing is noteworthy because its the only time the doctor comes close to explaining himself, or at least trying to.  The character that's revealed to the reader in that moment just comes off as something of a lost little boy, one of those runaways from home who winds up falling in with a bad lot.  It's yet another instance of Gaiman highlighting the relationship between adults and children in a way that ironically just serves as a moral statement without ever having to be strident about it.  In fact the whole thing is delivered so effortlessly, that it might almost qualify as blink and you'll miss it moment.  The doctor seems to realize himself as a man whose guilty past has finally caught up with him, and has just discovered a concept known as regret.  In these passages he reminds of another narrator from the end of Graham Greene's The Quiet Man.  Like the other guy, the Osteopath seems to wish he had someone to confess to.  I think that's the real reason he told the boy everything.

Conclusion: A Worthy Opening Act.

I think that at it's heart, Violent Cases seems to center around a concern about the relationship between adults and children.  Gaiman's focus in the story always seems to be drawn back to the behavioral patterns of both the young and (supposedly) mature adult.  It's a concept the graphic novel keeps picking away at constantly, like a annoying itch that can't be scratched.  Childhood and Adulthood are both taken as facts of life, and then placed under a thematic microscope for the majority of the story's runtime.  This allows the book to become almost a sort of parable of the idea that the child can sometimes be father to the man.  The idea is by no mean original with Gaiman.  The phrase, in fact, dates all the way to the 1800s, and the poetry of William Wordsworth.  Even then, all that the older poet was trying to say is that often how we behave at the start of our lives plays a great part in how we act as grownups.  It's one of those statements or observations that always manage to appear so simple that we accept it as a truism, and leave it at that.  What I think a lot of people miss is the implied sense of criticism in Wordsworth's maxim.  There is something of an ethical bent to the idea that is expressed with such subtlety that it shouldn't come as all that surprising when most of us fail to notice it's there.

Wordsworth's maxim acts as a kind of double-edged sword.  On the one hand, the whole idea sounds innocuous, even sensible.  The trouble begins when it occurs to some of us to ask a question that lays implicit in the  statement.  What's the difference between a good child or a bad man?  The question can also be phrased vice versa, or even in a more unified language.  It all makes very little difference except in terms of clarity.  The issue, or implicit challenge remains the same.  How can you tell when both child and man are (in the never to be forgotten words of Tricky Dick Nixon) "well screwed on"?  What's the fine line between sanity and its opposite.  Here's an even better question.  Is the trouble less noticeable when a little, pre-teen kid does it, rather than an adult?  It wouldn't surprise me if the answer has to be yes, because often as adults, we often train ourselves to overlook the behavior of the young pitchers in our midst.  I suppose part of it can almost be excusable.  A lot of the times kids just really do say little more than the darnedest things, and its easy enough to not take that all too seriously.  What happens if they come to us with a burning problem, however?  

I'm sure many parents reading this will say they know better than than to make the mistake of not being there for their kids.  If you are one of this fortunate lot, then what I'm about to say has no applicability to your circumstances whatsoever.  You are therefore free to skip, if you like, what I am about to say next.  My real concern (and perhaps Gaiman's as well) is with those adult out there who often find reasons to go out of their way for ignoring the child in their midst.  These are the types of parents who on occasion, for whatever reason, find themselves wishing they didn't have to deal with their children at certain times.  Is there a sudden rush of desperation to escape?  Would you give anything to be on an island somewhere?  Is that true?  If so, why is that, do you suppose?  Bear in mind, I can only go by what I've seen or heard of such circumstances.  And besides that, the kind of parent I'm thinking of would most often be likely to reply that it's none of my business.  The catch there is that it always can be, if you insist on taking things past a certain level.  Many so-called adults will do just that, in fact, always provided that just right straw can be found that will break the camel's back.  Once that happens, all bets are off.  Of course, if that's the case, then it's sort of a mistake to believe we were dealing with a responsible adult now, isn't it?

This seems to be the best possible catalogue I can provide of the interrelated issues that Gaiman appears to be preoccupied with in the course of his story.  The whole thing reads like a concerned parent asking who is willing to step up and be the adult in a room full of big kids pretending to be grownups, and who are currently engaged in abdicating from their very positions of responsibility.  In that sense, I suppose you could argue its what makes short stories like this as much troubling as they are timeless.  "So I didn't stick it out", the Osteopath protests, "Is that a crime?  Is it"?  The answer appears to be that it all depends on what you are talking about?  If it comes down a question of the safety of, and safeguarding the future for children, then perhaps the best word to describe my own response is curious.  For whatever reason, I find that I am unable to shake off, or get rid of the conviction that ignoring stuff like this will tend to carry a lot of serious consequences, more often than not.  That kind of stuff has a bad habit of catching up with you if you're not careful.  Look at what happened to the old bone doctor.  It's in that brief moment of confession where I think the story has the old man act as a stand in for all the unspoken, selfish sentiments of the adults surrounding the narrator.  They are immature children who have never quite grown up, and his ultimate fate appears to be Gaiman signaling the consequences of such life choices.  All this makes it sound like a grim slog, yet the book is surprisingly full of life.

Gaiman is able to take a dour situation and find just the right sort of meat to put on its bones.  He's helped in no small part thanks to Mckean's contributions.  Together they are both able to create yarn that is filled with both grit and wit by turns.  Also, if Gaiman's story chooses to highlight some of the perils that can befall the state of childhood, that's not to say that the tale shows no awareness of at least the potential for the rich, imaginative, inner worlds that often typifies the more positive aspects of childhood.  Even when the situation is grim and dour, Gaiman somehow manages to let perspectives of childhood wonder still peak out from around corners here and there.  The child's face might be just a bit frightened, yet the expression is the same kind of fearful glee that some of us got from hearing a really fine thriller told to us around a campfire at night.  It is also just possible that Gaiman takes this more typical sense of wonder and allows it have its own place of expression in the story.

There's one moment, somewhere near the end of the book, when the narrator almost brings the proceedings to a halt in order to relate some other thing that happened to him.  He's walking home by himself one night when he noticed a light blinking in the sky.  As he continued to watch it, the star (if that's what it was) began to grow brighter with each pulsating blink.  Soon the light in the sky became dazzling, until he had to shut his eyes against the glare.  At last it seemed to consume the vast expanse of the heavens, every detail of the field and country lane the narrator stood in was outlined in detail, as if it were daytime at night.  Then, just like that, the light gave one final blink, and it was if it was never even there.  The whole sequence itself reads and plays out like a lot of what we've come to expect from the writer over the years.  That moment sounds a lot more like the Neil we know and like to take off the shelf every once in a while.  It might have some part to play in the rest of the graphic novel, or else it's just its own, weird, standalone sequence in which the possibility of wonder is offered as an aspect of life.  Either way, I tend to take it as a sign that Gaiman knows that he's writing more of a fairy tale.

That's not too much of a surprise, when you think about it.  It's sort of what he does best.  It's the style and genre of writing that got him hooked first as a reader, and then later as a legit artist in the craft.  It shouldn't be all that big of surprise, then, when the author takes a moment to just leave the door open a bit for the unknown and the marvelous to stake its claim.  It is just possible that some will argue it detracts from what appears to be this gritty, realistic crime drama told in retrospect.  To this I'd reply that such an outlook misjudges the kind of story Gaiman is telling.  I was being honest when I said that the story itself was really more a fairy tale, rather than any kind of naturalist drama.  It has too much of a wide eyed sense of amazement about it to ever really fit in with the likes of Dashiel Hammett.  This reads more like what the Bros. Grimm would concoct if someone explained to them the idea of urban magical realism.  A lot of that may be Mckean's fault.  His style of drawing and painting is pretty much content to toss all sense of realism out the window, and not give a tinker's damn about what anyone thinks of it.  If you've got hangups about that sort of creative decision, then maybe this isn't for you.

I found the whole thing enchanting, and I'm pretty sure that's the effect both storytellers were going for.  In addition to being a darn good read, this little graphic novel is also something of a landmark.  It was the first time Gaiman and Mckean ever collaborated together, and it was the first time either of them managed to make an imprint in the world of comic books.  That was all a long time ago, and it may be hard for post-millennial readers to even know what all the fuss was about.  You're just going to have to take my word for it.  When a book like this came out during the late 80s, it really did have the effect of a new territory being discovered.  In terms of the way the story was told, and how it looked, it all tended to come off as something no one had ever seen or thought possible before.  Everybody who read it was convinced it was a turning point, that comic books where about to take the next leap in the literary stratosphere.  I suppose it was true enough, once upon a time.  However, current woes needn't detract from the story itself.  Whatever else happens to the medium, you can't erase the fact that Violent Cases was a grand first entrance to a pair of the most talented artistic lights of our generation.  And even in retrospect, it still remains a story well told, and more than worth a read.


  1. (1) That Alan Moore bit at the beginning is awesome. I don't have an official list of favorite authors, apart from Stephen King being the clear #1. But I think Alan Moore is in strong contention for the silver medal.

    (2) "For my part, I think I can remember the moment I mentally checked out. It was when the company tried to take Moore's Dr. Manhattan and use him as a scapegoat or villain explanation for various creative missteps and bad decisions." -- I read that Before Watchmen series DC did a decade or so ago, and it was ... alright. Just fan fiction, but I've read worse. I've purposefully kept up with zero of what they're done with the Watchmen characters recently, though, because the hell with that. (I say this despite having watched and mostly enjoyed the HBO sequel.) This doesn't make me feel I have done so hastily, that's for sure.

    (3) "It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by" -- If you were to conclude that sentiment with "Stephen King," I'm afraid Mr. Moore has gotten close to summing me up. So in an intellectual sense (to the extent that applies!) I'm afraid I have to confess that the hypothetical DC fan's willingness to shrink into the comfort of simplistic stories of people in tights punching each other makes a certain amount of sense to me. I agree with Moore's sentiments, but I do also find them churlish to a certain degree. Overall, though, I'm on his side; even when I can't rise to his level, which is the vast majority of the time.

    (4) That trio of King stories you mention *might* qualify as a quartet now; "Later" has some of these same aspects. Not as pervasively as the others, but it's in their vicinity, at least.

    (5) Man, that photo of Capone is something! Wouldn't you love to know what Ralph Roberts would see looking at that guy? I suspect he'd regret seeing it.

    (6) "What would make an old man want to tell a child about all this gruesome stuff?" -- In some cases, the answer is probably no more complicated than this -- because he realized that he could.

    (7) "The only other figures who seem to outshine him in this regard are none other than Dons Vito and Michael Corleone." -- I'd argue that Tony Soprano has joined them.

    (8) I'd never heard of this, but it sounds good. Another piece of evidence that I need to get familiar with Gaiman someday!

    1. (1) My way of listing favorite authors is ironically similar to the way I rate King's books, just on a smaller scale. For instance, favorite author: Dave Barry. Beyond that? Umm, King, I guess, or Mark Twain? Yeah, after that one obvious choice, things become so un-simple that I just ahve to say I can't choose one over another past a certain point.

      (2) For me, it was just like a moment of automatic unplugging, like, okay, guess this means I'm through here. I've been back rarely if at all since. The most interesting thing I've run across on the Al Moore front is a trailer for something called "The Show:

      For whatever that's worth.

      (3) What can I say, those words are what they are (shrugs). Doesn't mean there's no room for improvement, I guess (and boy could the comics industry sure use some of that!).

      (4) Sounds intriguing, hope to pick up a copy, as soon as I can find the time in a busy schedule, that is.

      (5) For some reason, it's easy to imagine the Ralph-vision image of Capone with hundreds of small, Gollum like demons peeking from behind his shoulders. Heaven help you if they noticed they were being watched, AND THEN ALERTED CAPONE IN YOUR DIRECTION!

      (6) That does sure sound like an alternate worst-case scenario, no doubt about that.

      (7) You might be right.

      (8) It might be one of the handy gateway entry points to his oeuvre. Another good one to get started on the Gaiman canon, I think, is a short called "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch". The whole thing reads like the author introducing the reader to a brief beginner's sample of his own secondary world, and promising that this is just the beginning.