Precisely 30 years ago, a graphic novel emerged, largely unheralded, into a comics landscape that was already in the throes of massive changes. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns had already shaken up both the industry and the mainstream. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen was doing the same.
Moore had just finished his run on Swamp Thing, and DC comics was on the hunt for UK creators who had similarly cut their teeth on British titles, such as the long-running science fiction weekly 2000AD and the short-lived but beloved magazine Warrior. In Moore's wake would come creators such as Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis … and Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman gets included in the British Invasion thanks to publication of the graphic novel Violent Cases in late 1987. A collaboration between Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, it might not be as well remembered today as it could or should be, but it marked a pivotal point in the history of modern comics. Don't believe me? Have it from the horse's mouth:
"Without Violent Cases, there would have been no Sandman," Gaiman tells SYFY WIRE. "The unfinished version of Violent Cases was what Dave and I showed to DC to get them to take us seriously enough to give us work, which they did, beginning with the Black Orchid miniseries and then Sandman."
Back in 1987, Gaiman and McKean were unknowns in the comics world. Gaiman was "a journalist who was hoping to write prose," and McKean was just finishing up art school. They were both in their 20s and keen to be part of the revolution that was taking place in comics. They didn't know each other before their collaboration, but had both been working up ideas for Escape, a British indie comics magazine run by Paul Gravett.
"Before Violent Cases was published, I had a short Mr. X story published, and I had written, drawn and published my own — very bad — comics at art school," McKean recalls. "I had got to know Paul Gravett at Escape through my dreadful art school comic, and he thought there was something there worth supporting."
Gaiman is fond of referring to Gravett as "The Man at the Crossroads", a nickname given to him by British comics creator Eddie Campbell, for his knack of being at the right place at the right time for often portentous comics events … in this case, suggesting McKean and Gaiman collaborate.
"Paul asked me and Dave to come up with a three-to-five-page story for Escape, a magazine we both loved because it had the same aesthetic we both had," Gaiman remembers. "We went away and had a talk, then we went back to Paul and said we had a story but it would be more like a 64-page graphic novel than a three-page story. To his credit, he didn't even blink."
Violent Cases is an odd little tale with a dreamlike, feverish quality, unsurprising given its genesis. It began life as a prose piece written by Gaiman to take to Milford, a UK writers' workshop, where it would be critiqued by authors and critics including John Clute and Gwyneth Jones. The piece was called "In the Land of the Giants," but writer Garry Kilworth pointed out to Gaiman that there was a line in the story that was a more obvious title: when the young main character misunderstands being told about gangsters keeping their guns in violin cases and thinks of "Violent Cases."
The story is based in part on a real-life incident that occurred to Gaiman when he was just 4 and living near Portsmouth, on the British south coast. His father had dragged a protesting Gaiman off to bed, accidentally dislocating his arm in the process. Gaiman was taken to see a doctor who had once been the osteopath to the gangster Al Capone.
It's a nonlinear mix of real events, a child's wide-eyed take on the stories of gun-toting gangsters as told by the osteopath to the young Gaiman, and an almost fantastical narrative created from the clashing of the other threads.
"It was built up in strange layers," muses Gaiman. "It was the first time I'd written something so genuinely personal, and I didn't do it again for another 25 years or so, until I wrote The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
"I think of Violent Cases as a mosaic: There are red tiles, and they are true, but the others are fiction," he adds. "Part of the story came from half-remembering that visit to the osteopath, and part of it came from putting my own son Mike to bed when he was about 3, and him not wanting to go, and me remembering what had happened to me, and part of it came from a fever dream I had when I had the flu once, and it all came together from that."
Gaiman showed the story to McKean. "It was a text short story, so I was free to adapt it, delete lines that would be covered by the imagery, find visual equivalents, and generally make it into a new piece of work," the artist remembers. "I think we were both hugely enthused by the rush of creativity occurring in comics at the time, in Warrior, Escape and in the more experimental work coming out of America and Europe, but at the same time, we wanted to establish our own personal voices."
It was McKean's idea to have Gaiman appear as the narrator in the graphic novel, and he used photo references of Gaiman's son Mike for the young protagonist. "I've always worked in a very organic way with Dave," Gaiman says. "I don't write scripts for him. We work together on the story, and Dave's storytelling abilities are far better than mine in many ways; he will think of ways of telling stories in comics which I would never have thought of."
While Gaiman and McKean were working on Violent Cases, Paul Gravett sold Escape to the British company Titan, and the new owners committed to bringing the graphic novel out to publish. Aside from a couple of short stories in 2000AD on Gaiman's part, and McKean's Mr. X story, this was their first published work, and certainly their first major work. And it was the dawn of a collaborative relationship that would soon make them both household names in the comics world.
Ahead of publication, they took Violent Cases to DC, where Karen Berger was busy recruiting British creators. She would go on to head up the publisher's mature readers line Vertigo, but in the post-Alan Moore Swamp Thing days she was casting her net for new talent, and as soon as she saw Violent Cases she put Gaiman and McKean on a prestige-format miniseries featuring the half-forgotten character Black Orchid.
In the meantime, Violent Cases was published in the UK in black and white, and then Tundra bought the rights for a U.S. edition. McKean remembers, "It was a noir-ish story, so black and white was appropriate. I did the artwork in shades or cool and warm gray, only because that was the nature of the materials I was using. Oil pastels tended to be cool, inks tended to be warm. Tundra bought the rights to publish in the U.S. and decided to print it in color, I think in the hope that it would reproduce the artwork better. In fact they shot it so poorly, it was bleached out. Since we had color to play with, I added a couple of flashes of red. Since then, for recent Dark Horse editions, I've remastered the whole book from film scans, to try and create digital files that represent the artwork as best as possible."
After Black Orchid, Gaiman was put on Sandman for DC, the comic that brought him to worldwide attention. McKean did every single cover of the 75-issue run. They also worked together again on another graphic novel, Mr. Punch (1994), which was very different from Violent Cases on the surface but thematically of a piece with their debut work.
For Gaiman, Violent Cases and Mr. Punch occupy an unusual space in both his career and the world of comics in general.
"Sandman is still revered and beloved of many people, but those books Dave and I did … it feels like we did something important and new, certainly for their time," he says. "It's almost as if they were done for an audience in a parallel universe, where comics and graphic novels went in a slightly different direction than they did in ours."