Like a special treasure tucked away for safe-keeping, Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean has been pulled out of the trunk, dusted off, and re-issued in its entirety by Dark Horse in a single, stunning volume.
Originally serialized in the 1980s in the avant-garde fashion magazine The Face, Dark Horse pulled together the segments of this sobering tale of a filmmaker who learns he has a terminal illness and may never complete is magnum opus and first released them as a graphic novel in 1992. The story, however, takes on a completely different tone in our post-Y2K-crazed world than it possessed before, and that tone only helps to strengthen the message contained within.
Gaiman’s filmmaker envisions a work about the perceived Apocalypse that was feared to arrive on the last day of the year in 999 A.D. In his screenplay, villagers pack their belongings and journey with their families to a nearby mountain to wait for the end of the world””an end that never arrives. Each slow and painful turn in the filmmaker’s idea for the film is punctuated by a slow and painful decline in his own health, so much so that he fears he is wasting his already limited time dreaming of a creation that will never be seen on the screen.
The parallel of a dying man and an almost-never-realized work of art is beautifully crafted in a way that perhaps only Neil Gaiman could deliver. The reader is not dragged along by the hand and simply fed information, rather he is encouraged to absorb the story alongside the surreal and ghostly imagery from the mind of Dave McKean, a combination that makes Signal to Noise a completely different (and almost esoteric) reading experience than most graphic novels are able to achieve.
Yes, the message in this tale is one that is deeply emotional and at times quite dark, but the way in which the message is delivered is breathtaking. Gaiman and McKean prepare readers for this heavy story by first sharing three short stories (two by McKean, one by Gaiman and McKean) to help acclimate them to the dreamscape of Signal to Noise. The combination of all of these elements left me feeling strangely satisfied and even a bit optimistic by the last page, something I had certainly not expected from a book with a main story of a man dying from cancer.
All at once, Signal to Noise is visually striking, emotionally rich, and thought-provoking on a “big picture” kind of scale. If history is any indicator, I’d advise picking up a copy from Dark Horse before this one goes back for another long stay in the attic.