Examining Gaiman's "Violent Cases" with Peter Sanderson

Wed, February 7th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Edward Carey, Contributing Writer

At The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art comics historian Peter Sanderson gave his last lecture in the series, "1986: The Year That Changed Comics," oddly enough with a book that was published in 1987, Neil Gaiman's "Violent Cases." Why would Sanderson include a book from 1987 in a lecture series about 1986? He said that Gaiman wrote "Violent Cases" in response to the groundbreaking comics of '86; books like Alan Moore's "Watchmen," Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," and John Byrne's "Man of Steel" which were already covered in the series. This was a time when people were beginning to take comics more seriously and the stories being written dealt with more mature themes and issues. Comics professionals, many writers, entered the comics scene in the '80s with "new innovative methods" to explore these themes.

"The audience that grew up reading Stan Lee in the '60s entered comics in the '80s with the same approach to characterization that Lee did, to write stories for more mature readers," said Sanderson.

"Violent Cases" was the next step in the evolution of what began with Lee and which the books of 1986 took to the next logical step. Sanderson recaps the now familiar story of how Stan Lee was ready to quit comics in the 1960s when his wife told him to write stories for himself. With characters like Spider-Man, Lee ushered in a new era of costumed characters with real-life problems that existed in our world (so to speak) and comics that appealed not only to kids. In the '80s, it became apparent that the average comic reader was not a kid, but considerably older. Nowadays, comics are not only found more often on the big screen with faithful adaptations, but as Sanderson points out, in the classroom and displayed in museum galleries. As a matter of fact, a two-part exhibit called "Masters of American Comics" just ended at The Jewish Museum in New York and at The Newark Museum across the river in New Jersey. At the time of the lecture they both had one week left. Sanderson covered both in his column "Comics in Context."

In Gaiman's intro to the 1991 U.S. edition of "Violent Cases" published by Dark Horse, he even makes reference to the comics of 1986. "Those were heady times . . . comics weren't for kids anymore," said Gaiman.

"Violent Cases pointed the way, constituting what came after 1986 with more development in other genres, and led the way to books like 'Persepolis,'" said Sanderson.

Throughout his lecture series, Sanderson showed why he picked the books he did, drawing on similar themes and ideas that ran through all the books.

"What we see in 'Violent Cases' is the continuation of certain themes, like reevaluation of the past," said Sanderson.

In books like "Elektra: Assassin" by Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, and "The Dark Knight Returns," the characters were forced to reevaluate their past quite literally. "Elektra: Assassin" tells the story of how she became an assassin through the use of flashbacks, while "The Dark Knight Returns" shows how Bruce Wayne must once again confront the death of his parents to take up the mantle of the Batman once more in order to find purpose in his now dull, empty life of retirement. Sanderson ties the books together nicely with recurring themes and ideas.

Writers in 1986 were reevaluating their past, the superheroes they grew up with and in the stories "reevaluated the superhero genre" in books like "Watchmen" and "Squadron Supreme." Both were stories about "superheroes in the real world" and how they would act, turning against society instead of protecting, supposedly for a greater purpose. In "Squadron Supreme," writer Mark Gruenwald took themes Stan Lee dealt with and extended the ramifications by imagining how real superheroes might act if the power went to their head. "With great power comes great responsibility." The superheroes in his story decide to take over the world after a nuclear disaster, in order to bring peace to a chaotic world as part of a benign dictatorship. Moral compromises lead to not only a disgruntled populace, but also the fracturing of the superhero rulers themselves and finally a revolt led by one of their own.

"Violent Cases" doesn't fall into the superhero genre, but shares more with '86 books like Art Spiegleman's "Maus" and Will Eisner's "The Dreamer." Sanderson said all three are biographical/autobiographical in nature, though how much is true is left open to doubt. "The Dreamer" follows Eisner's thinly fictionalized account of his early career in comics, while "Maus" is an account of Spiegleman's interviews with his father, who gives an account of his time as a prisoner in a concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II. There are multiple layers to "Maus," "a story within a story within a story," said Sanderson. Though both these stories are presented as true accounts, obviously the biases of the author tend to intrude upon the truth. Eisner presents himself in an "idealistic" light, romanticizing his role as an artist, though he gives a straightforward account of his early life and the facts are believed to be basically true. "Maus" fictionalizes Spiegleman and his father's account by portraying all the characters as mice and the Germans as cats, much relying on the memory of his father, though the facts are presented more or less as truth.

"'Maus' is Spiegleman's attempt to connect with and understand his father, though it is clear from the narrative that Spiegleman believes he is beyond full comprehension, of truly understanding his father," said Sanderson.

The narrator of "Violent Cases" is a young man who closely resembles Neil Gaiman, recalling his childhood, particularly the time when he was 4 and his father broke his arm (either by accident or by force remains unclear) and the subsequent narrative of an aged osteopath who treated his arm and was once a doctor for Al Capone. Three narratives are mingled throughout the book, but the perspectives of the kid and the osteopath relies on the flawed memory of the narrator. As the narrator begins: "I would not want you to think I was a battered child. I wouldn't want to gloss over the true facts. Without true facts, where are we? The truth is this . . ." He insists upon "the truth" and assumes ahead of time what the reader is going to think, a defensive position that immediately casts doubt on the narrative to follow, as Sanderson points out.

"The big difference in 'Violent Cases' from 'The Dreamer' or 'Maus' is that everything was up for question and Gaiman is purposely gilding the lily with the truth," said Sanderson.

When Titan Books first published the book in 1987, the reader would not know Gaiman looked like, but anyone reading it now would easily recognize him as Sanderson said. The reader then would not necessarily connect the narrator with Gaiman.

"Gaiman has since become an iconic figure, easily recognizable in his leather jacket and dark sunglasses, so the modern reader may think it is based on his life," said Sanderson.

One of the big themes in the book, Sanderson tells us, concerns the transience of memory and how the memory can play tricks on us. Trying to recall the memory of the osteopath, the narrator remembers him both as an "old man" who looks like Einstein and then on the next page as a slightly younger man who resembles Humphrey Bogart's partner in "The Maltese Falcon." These images focus on the transient memory of the narrator, from his memory of the osteopath as a child to how he remembers the osteopath now as an adult. The narrative plays with this idea of memory as transient, unreliable and it is reflected in the artwork as well.

Dave McKean used an "expressionistic style" for the art in "Violent Cases," Sanderson said, as opposed to a more classical comic book style as described by Scott McCloud in "Making Comics." The classical style is art that "doesn't draw attention to itself," a naturalistic or realistic style conveying the world inside the book.

"Just as in a film where the hand of the director becomes invisible and we buy into the narrative world created onscreen, the artist also stands back in service to the story. Many artists of this mold describe what they do as visual storytelling," said Sanderson.

McKean's early work is a more "expressionistic style from the school of Bill Sienkiewicz," similar to "Elektra:Assassin," where the style is "guided by the emotion of the scene or the artist's interpretation of the characters." Different styles are employed throughout the book, distorting reality rather than representing it. In one key scene of "Violent Cases" in which the narrator tries to recall his first memory of "the aged osteopath," McKean uses two very different styles on two facing pages. In one panel the osteopath is represented by a photorealistic drawing of Albert Einstein, because that is how the child narrator remembered him, "a kindly, old man." A panel on the next page shows two men sitting at a table in the bar where he met the osteopath. The layout of the page does not represent a natural setting, but rather a skewed angle of the table with the entire top facing the reader and McKean using a more caricaturized style. Differing styles allow the artist to get inside the character's head and not just represent the world around him.

Sanderson refers to ancillary texts that can shed light on the themes in "Violent Cases" as well. An essay in the "Neil Gaiman Reader" by JaNell Golden illustrates Gaiman's approach to "Violent Cases," in which Gaiman said, "Storytellers are unreliable." We're told upfront not to rely on the narrative in this story, as the true meaning of things that actually happened are distorted through memory and perception. The adult narrator has a different perspective than the child who lived through these memories. "The giants always look like my father," the narrator said. As the narrator remembers events from his childhood, the adults always tower over him like giants. McKean draws the adults in huge proportion to the child narrator.

"Truth is distorted through the narrator's eyes as he mythologizes the memories of his childhood, mixing a certain element of fantasy with reality," said Sanderson.

Readers of graphic novels like "Violent Cases" often try to distance such mature stories from the genre of fantasy and superheroes so prevalent in comics, but the truth is that while realism intrudes upon such stories, these stories cannot be divorced from the fantasy genre. Certain fantasy elements still serve as allegory for the mature themes presented, just as in "Watchmen," Moore uses the superhero genre and fantasy elements to serve as allegory for mature themes. As Sanderson pointed out in his last lecture, Moore illustrates the artifice of his story and the superhero elements therein for the reader and how they may be used in service to reveal larger themes. Gaiman points out the artifice not only of the narrative presented, but questions the veracity of the narrator and the "reality" of his childhood created through memories. Even a story based on truth has certain embellishments, but none greater than those conveyed by the storyteller.

The veracity of the narrative is always in question, even right up until the end, when three smiling gangsters with baseball bats take the osteopath away. One of the gangsters holds a job as a magician during the day and remains in the child's mind as something mystical, with "stars and moons sticking to his costume." The Magician closes a curtain, quite literally, on the world of the narrator after the osteopath is taken away, signaling the end of the story the same way the curtain would come down on conclusion of a play. Sanderson explains this is tied into the mysticism prevalent throughout the book and another indication to the reader that they are in fact reading a story. Just as the child attempts to make sense of the strange world around him, he views the magician as an evil sorcerer. Even when the osteopath is taken away, the child both fears and romanticizes the gangsters, remarking on the "smile" of one, which were really his clenched teeth. The child's inability to comprehend life's mysteries continues into his adult years, as represented by the symbol of "the star" throughout the book.

Towards the end of the book, the narrator remembers something that happened when he was 16, walking home from a party, most likely inebriated. "When I was 16 . . . I saw a star twinkling coldly . . . a freezing white light . . . illuminated the whole sky." The star becomes an omen, a moment of illumination for the narrator, representing a cold realization ("freezing white light") of how meaningless it all is and how the mysteries of life still elude us into adulthood. The white light of the star washes over everything, nullifying the night, a kind of symbolic death.

Sanderson also points out how the symbolism of the "star" ties into "the party story." A child's birthday party is intercut with scenes of another party at an adjoining bar where the narrator meets the osteopath. As a child, he didn't want to play party games with these other children he despised and so left the party, ending up talking to the osteopath. While the children play musical chairs, the osteopath tells the child narrator a story of how Capone brutally killed his underlings one by one with a baseball bat. We have two different worlds here with striking similarities. In the child's world, the point of the game is to eliminate each child one by one until only one is left. In the adult world, Capone eliminates his opponents one by one in an orgy of senseless violence. The cold light of the star comes into play with the merging of the two stories, the two worlds. As the adult narrator reflects on his past, trying to make sense of it, the child is trying to make sense of the world around him, not quite understanding why or how things are. Maybe this is why he can't make sense of whether or not his father abused him. His past remains shrouded in mystery, in distant memory, and there is no greater understanding. The white light blankets the entire world in its cold realization that life is meaningless, or at least incomprehensible. Just as Spiegleman feels he has come no closer to understanding his father's past in "Maus," the narrator here (Gaiman?) struggles with the elusiveness of his past and of the world itself.

Another theme tied to the star and the party, as Sanderson points out, is the nature of evil and how incomprehensible it can be to us. The child narrator wishes he could do the same thing to the kids at the party that Capone did to his underlings, with dark fantasies of bashing their heads in, not fully comprehending his own nature. Evil exists within us all, even the innocent child or the "kindly old man" (the osteopath).

"In 'Violent Cases,' evil is not only outside of ourselves, an abstract notion beyond our comprehension, but within us all, including a seemingly innocent child," said Sanderson.

Though the osteopath is a doctor, a healer, he seemed amused by causing the child unnecessary pain, revealing a violent streak within him as well.

Similar themes regarding the nature of evil and finding evil in what we've deemed "good" or "benign" can be found in the other 1986 books as well, with superheroes representing the heroic having gone bad and revealing a dark nature, as in "Squadron Supreme" or "Watchmen."

"'Violent Cases' showed how comics can explore characters and morality, themes of life and the human condition, with more complexity than ever before," said Sanderson.

Even the title alludes to the dual nature of the main character, as Sanderson reveals the double meaning. Gangsters carry their "tommy guns" in "Violent Cases," a playful allusion to the violence inherent in the story; but it also references the child's unreliable memory, as at one point in the story he innocently mistakes the words "violin cases" for "violent cases."

Aside from giving us an astute analysis of Gaiman's work, Sanderson also provides his audience with anecdotes about the writer himself, having met Gaiman and his daughter Holly.

When Dave McKean visited with Gaiman recently, Holly (now 18) could not remember what McKean looked like the first time they met, when she was a small child. Sanderson was taken aback that this young woman whom he knew as a child experienced what Gaiman wrote about 20 years ago. "Gaiman himself is no longer the same man he was 20 years ago when he wrote the book," said Sanderson.

Sanderson will begin a new lecture series at the end of February to coincide with an exhibition showcasing Lee's work called "Stan Lee: A Retrospective." Lee himself will appear at MoCCA for the opening of the exhibit on February 23, a special fundraising event with limited tickets available through the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. The event was organized to coincide with the 2007 New York Comic Con being held the same weekend (23-25) at the Jacob Javits Center.

 
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