Peeking from Behind the Sofa:

The 25th Anniversary of Violent Cases

Violent Cases is the greatest comic ever written about an osteopath. That probably sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it shouldn’t. Both of the creators, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, have made careers out of stretching conventional boundaries, and Violent Cases exemplifies one of Gaiman’s fundamental skills in particular—the ability to find material for stories that most readers neither expect nor even know that they want. It seems that even an osteopath has a story to tell.

Violent Cases was the first major collaboration between Gaiman and McKean, and 25 years later, the book seems as fresh and potent as ever, offering a clear reminder of the ways in which the boundaries between independent art comics and mainstream genre comics began to blur in the 1980s.

Dave McKean had begun writing and drawing self-published comics in the mid-eighties, but as Paul Gravett suggests, “these stories didn’t quite live up to his graphic skills.” Yet, McKean had an incredible vision, influenced in part by the innovative and sophisticated style of Bill Sienkiewicz, though McKean took his art a step further, experimenting with mixed media and producing both realistic and cartoonish effects. For most readers, Violent Cases was the first introduction to the artist who would soon become the premier name in cutting-edge comics art.

Neil Gaiman was new to most readers as well. A journalist with a book about Duran Duran, he had been haunting the outskirts of the comics world and had even written a handful of short scripts. But like McKean, Violent Cases was really Gaiman’s introduction to most readers, if not his literal debut. Even so, he was notably ambitious. He had befriended Alan Moore, who had shown him his own technique for writing a comics script, and Gaiman had been trying to get the professional attention of Karen Berger, the DC editor in charge of Moore’s Swamp Thing. As Berger remembers, Gaiman was quite persistent:

Neil, I had met briefly before, just outside a pub or something, the first time I got to London, and he had sent me a short Swamp Thing story which we eventually published years later, a Jack in the Green story, and he said, “I know Alan Moore and I’ve shown him the story and he thinks I have talent and maybe I can do something for you some day.” And he used to call me and pester me, and he was always really nice, and I was like, “Well, maybe, but not right now.” (Berger)

Violent Cases would change all that. Few creators have enjoyed more extraordinary coming out parties. It was as if the Beatles had skipped the whole Fab Four scene and cut straight to Revolver.

The book was unlike most anything on the market, either then or now. Physically, at 44 pages, it’s nearly twice the length of a typical comic book story, but less than half the length of a typical graphic novel. Unlike the grisly promise of the title, the tone of the story is meditative and reflective—a nuanced effort from a young writer with the audacity to propose for his first graphic novel a childhood memoir featuring an osteopath who used to give massages to Al Capone. However, Gaiman and McKean make it work.  The osteopath tells stories—something that would, of course, become a recurring theme in Gaiman’s work—about his time with Capone, but Gaiman’s narrator can’t trust his own memory. By the end of the book, when the osteopath is taken away and presumably killed by gangsters, the fears of the narrator’s younger self are confirmed: there are dangers hidden beneath the humdrum normalcy of a middle-class childhood.

Throughout the seventies and early eighties, there had largely been two divisions of comic books—mainstream comics and art comics, to borrow Douglas Wolk’s terminology (27). Mainstream comics were, largely defined, genre fiction. Historically, these genres included War comics, Westerns, Humor, Romance, Crime, Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy, but by the early eighties most of these genres had been absorbed by the superhero genre. Want science fiction? Read Green Lantern or Silver Surfer. Crime? Try Batman or Daredevil. Fantasy? There’s always Thor.

Art comics, on the other hand, were perched at the other end of the spectrum. Independently published, they scrupulously avoided popular genres and followed the underground comix tradition of creators like Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Art Spiegelman. The art tended towards the cartoonish and, as Wolk puts it, the “deliberately ugly” (40); personal expression, satire, autobiography, and memoir were the dominant modes.

But somewhere, lurking in the gutter between panels of Harvey Pekar eating a sandwich and Galactus eating a planet, Gaiman and McKean found a narrative sweet spot that could speak to readers of both. In fact, everything about Violent Cases splits the proverbial baby between these two traditions. Although the first printing was in black and white, perfect for the indie, art-comics scene, McKean’s original art included muted colors and washes that were eventually reproduced in later editions. McKean provides a combination of exaggerated, cartoonish panels and realistic, hauntingly detailed drawings. In one striking example, when the narrator remembers his first visit to the osteopath, McKean depicts a collection of older men sitting around a table. The perspective is flattened, giving the table, the table legs, and the men’s faces and hands the distorted, two-dimensional look of the pre-Cubist Picasso (4).

However, on the facing page, when the narrator remembers a recent conversation with his father, McKean lays out a sequence of wide panels, zooming in closer and closer to the father’s face. The style is almost photorealistic, and in the final panel, when the father’s eyes break the fourth wall and he asks, “What do you want to know for?” he’s theoretically talking to his son, but the effect is chilling because he’s looking directly at the reader (5).

Like many of the underground artists, McKean uses plenty of hatching and cross-hatching to produce the “scratchy” look of meticulously and methodically-crafted casualness. He also introduces a flurry of mixed media, incorporating photographs, maps, dictionary entries, and movie posters into his fluid style. In short, McKean’s work here is a tour de force that gives Violent Cases a distinctly unique look—like a mainstream book drawn by an indie creator, or an indie book drawn by a cape-and-mask artist, twice removed.

In the same way, the subject matter of the book crosses over from one tradition to the other and back again. According to Gaiman, both he and McKean were determined to resist traditional genres: “We talked about what we wanted to do: a comic for people who didn’t read comics; something with no super-heroes, no Science Fiction, no overt genre elements” (Introduction). While Gaiman makes clear they were not interested in “overt genre elements,” they nevertheless manage to sneak in at least a couple of “covert” elements from two genres—crime and horror. No doubt, as a childhood memoir, Violent Cases could’ve flashed its “art comics” badge and gotten into the trendiest indie nightclub in the world. However, once inside, its genre-tinged accent would’ve eventually given it away.

But on the surface, Gaiman and McKean were clearly lining up with the art comics tradition. Memoir may be the bread and butter of the indie art comics scene, but among mainstream comics it’s about as common as a Depends commercial on the CW. Violent Cases, while fictionalized, reflects Gaiman’s own childhood memories, and he has referred to it as the first part of “a sequence of unreliable autobiographies” including Mr. Punch and the short story, “Closing Time” (“Wednesday, September 04, 2002”).

However, Violent Cases is more than childhood memoir. Not content with self-exploration or revelation, Gaiman raises fundamental questions about reliability, facts, and memory, giving the book a full dose of post-modernist literary cachet. And in the most politely subversive manner possible, he focuses much of his attention in this childhood memoir on the osteopath and his relationship to that most mythic of American gangsters, Al Capone.

While the indie comics scene was not exactly rolling in gangsters, the fedora and Tommy Gun set has often been prominent in pop culture. This fact was particularly true in the 1980s. The political divisiveness and economic disparity of the Reagan/Thatcher era was inspiring both higher levels of violent crime and renewed interest in the crime genre as a whole. Moreover, with nylon clothing, big hair, synthesized music, and pre-packaged movie blockbusters, the eighties felt like the sorry fulfillment of the “plastics” future first promised to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. This inauthenticity in the culture gave plenty for fictional criminals—those existentialist antiheroes of the imagination—to challenge. Halfway through Ronald Reagan’s first term, Bruce Springsteen released a stark, somber, and violent folk album, Nebraska, giving voice to the forgotten, abused, and disenfranchised, arguing in the title track that “there’s just a meanness in this world.” Popular film, likewise, demonstrated a renewed interest in the myth of the gangster, the funhouse mirror version of the American success story, with a new cycle of high profile crime films including Brian De Palma’s Scarface, Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America, John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, and De Palma’s 1987 Capone film, The Untouchables.

This flurry of crime stories is particularly relevant to Violent Cases. The crime genre had once claimed a proud heritage in comics, particularly back in the days of EC, but the self-censoring Comics Code Authority had largely made crime comics . . . well, criminal. However, crime fiction was sneaking back into mainstream comics, particularly due to Frank Miller, who was using film noir-inspired visuals and hardboiled dialogue in series like Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns. Thus, if Gaiman was looking for a way to appeal to audiences of both mainstream and art comics without using garishly clad superheroes, he couldn’t have done much better than a childhood memoir with special guest star, Al Capone. It was a promise of what mainstream comics could be—smart, genre-influenced comics for adults.

In a more subtle manner, Gaiman and McKean also tap into some conventions of the horror genre. Much like crime, horror was another natural genre for a crossover comic—especially if the creators wanted to avoid more obvious genre signifiers like ray guns, robots, and rocket ships. Alan Moore’s first American comic, Swamp Thing, had fundamentally changed what was possible in mainstream comics, and it focused on a monster living in the superhero universe. If taken further, horror conventions could clearly work in mainstream comics with no reliance on other genres.

Thus, Gaiman and McKean lace this childhood memoir with hints of horror and a palpable, if vague, sense of dread. The story details the horrors of ordinary life—horrors from both the real, rational world and the world of the imagination. In the opening narration we learn that the narrator’s father has injured his son’s arm, requiring the trip to the osteopath. The narrator immediately backs off the suggestion of child abuse, but the seeds are already planted. And just as such real-world horrors loiter around the edge of the narrative, Gaiman also presents the horrors of the imagination as well. At one point, as the narrator flees from a magician at a children’s birthday party, he tells us that he instinctively knew the magician was dangerous—an instinct that is confirmed by the end of the story. The landscape of the world in the story is filled with such implied peril.

Structurally, Gaiman and McKean also tap into one of the most enduring narrative conventions of horror—one with long roots in mainstream comics. Since Gaiman’s script is heavy on narration—essentially a short story broken down into panels—McKean opens the book by presenting the narrator in the opening panels. The narrator sits in a chair, lighting a cigarette, with seemingly no other context or purpose besides introducing and telling the tale (1). Such narrator-hosts have long been a horror staple, from comic book hosts like the Cryptkeeper and DC’s Cain and Abel to sixties television hosts like Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock, and Boris Karloff.

However, the presence of the narrator-host doesn’t just speak to mainstream traditions. If the presence of the narrator is a play on the convention of the horror-host, it’s a revisionist approach. No grisly puns or jokes here. Instead, the narrator’s presence helps Gaiman reinforce his more literary concerns about the unreliability of memory. More self-referential than simple voiceover narration, the initial appearance of the narrator emphasizes the importance of storytelling, making clear that Violent Cases is as much about the process of remembering, telling, and revising stories as anything else.

As the narrator lights his cigarette in the first panel, like some hipster Chorus from a post-modernist Henry V calling on his own nicotine-laced muse of fire, McKean makes sure this host is no moribund, wisecracking ghoul. Gaiman’s narrator is a Cryptkeeper with a better stylist, and he strikes a comfortable, relaxed pose. A thin young man in his twenties, casually dressed with a black t-shirt and dark glasses, the narrator looks almost exactly like the young Gaiman (1). And because we identify the narrator so closely with Gaiman, it seems clear that if any “muse of fire” is being invoked here, it will most likely be the goddess of metafiction. The storyteller is the star.

Or to put it more accurately, the storytelling is the star. The narrator struggles with the murkiness of memory from his very first sentence: “I would not want you to think that I was a battered child” (1). The line implies that a story has already begun and is now being edited. The narrator is worrying about the implications of his opening before he’s even opened it. He then adds that he doesn’t “want to gloss over the true facts,” for “Without true facts, where are we?” (1). This active process of re-writing himself directly on the page continues. In fact, when he struggles to remember what the osteopath looked like, McKean gets in on the act too, Gaiman changing the osteopath’s face with words, McKean matching those changes with images (6-7). This memory and storytelling is tricky stuff, they imply. It’s work. It’s organic. And it constantly changes.

In addition to all of this post-modernist uncertainty, Gaiman’s solution for bridging art comics with the mainstream establishes what will become the primary narrative vision for much of his career. While he is best known for presenting the world with elements of the fantastic, Gaiman often shifts his focus slightly askew, providing his readers with a sustained look at ordinary banalities—albeit banalities charged with electric flickers of horror and violence.

If Violent Cases has a thesis, in addition to the complexities of memory, it’s that there is danger everywhere—even in the most banal of places. It’s like a David Lynch movie, lots of rose-colored, Rockwellian surface detail hiding an underworld full of Dennis Hoppers breathing through oxygen masks. Even the title suggests danger under the surface—the boy is another violent case for the osteopath. Yet, in this book, the underworld is only hinted or glanced at. Gaiman suggests lots of darkness, but never turns off the light. He hints at child abuse, but no. He hints at alcoholism, but no. He hints at murder, but no. Even as a writer, he hints at giving us a real, honest-to-goodness Al Capone story, but no. Yet, all of these flickers of darkness, the suggestion that these elements could emerge at any moment, suggest the type of urban fantasy Gaiman would soon help popularize.

The key moment for everything occurs in the book’s most striking passage, just past the halfway point, when the narrator describes the frightening magician hired to work at a children’s birthday party:

We were seated in rows in front of the stage to watch the bald man come out with his thin balloons and pull flags and billiard balls out of his mouth. I stood up and, unnoticed by any of the parents,—I made my way behind one of the heavy red curtains at the side of the hall. I knew that the bald man was dangerous. Dangerous things are best peeked out at from behind sofas, or from under bedclothes: place yourself in a position where you can see them, —if you choose,—but they cannot see you. (23)

In working out his explanation for the boy’s response to the magician, Gaiman finds his artistic credo—a metaphor for approaching both comics and fiction, and a means for outfoxing the arbitrary boundaries of comic book tradition.

Like Emily Dickinson’s suggestion to “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Gaiman, in this passage, finds his hook. A big part of Gaiman’s appeal has always been this ability to peek at dangerous things, bigger subjects, intimidating projects, from behind the proverbial sofa. While the Sandman begins, in Preludes and Nocturnes, with an intense look at Morpheus and his supernatural world, Gaiman slowly shifts the focus away from fantasy and mythology and onto a variety of human characters who often occupy as much, if not more, narrative space than Morpheus and his siblings among the Endless.

In the same way, when he took up the near impossible task of following Alan Moore on Miracleman, Gaiman all but eliminated the superhero, focusing instead on the personal stories of those influenced by him, only peeking at Miracleman from behind the sofa. In his novel, American Gods, he gives us an epic tale of the most legendary gods from Norse, Middle Eastern, African, and Egyptian mythology, but he grounds everything in the banalities of everyday life—gods smoking cigarettes, gods watching television, gods performing coin tricks, and gods eating in diners.

In his Batman funeral story, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Gaiman shifts the focus away from the story of Batman’s death and on to priceless moments of whimsy, such as the complications of valet parking for super villains and to his Bat-inspired homage to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.

Throughout these works, Gaiman employs the same narrative strategy of peeking from behind the sofa that makes Violent Cases so groundbreaking and effective. Rather than focusing on a boy and his father with hints of child abuse, Gaiman brings in Al Capone and a scary magician—gangsters and monsters intruding on the banalities of the real world and childhood memoir. Even the title is a misnomer—a child’s misunderstanding of how gangsters carry their Tommy Guns—“violent cases” instead of “violin cases.” In the end, we are left unsure of whether Gaiman is giving us a Tommy Gun in a violin case or a violin in a gun case.  Maybe, if we’re lucky, the answer is both.

While it remains in print and has drawn flattering reviews, Violent Cases has not lingered in the public imagination like some of Gaiman and McKean’s more celebrated works. Drowned out by the medium-defining adrenaline that produced Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Gaiman’s own Sandman, Violent Cases now risks falling between the cracks. Yet, after a quarter century, it looks and reads better than almost anything on the shelves today. It speaks hopefully to the promise of a new, adult, mainstream comics while maintaining all the cultural street cred of independent art comics. The marketplace for neither comics nor prose tends to reward work that lives in the amorphous borderlands of style and genre as Violent Cases does. But a quick visit to the osteopath is all we need to remind us just what sweet, bloody music comes out of those violent, violin cases.

Works Cited

Berger, Karen. Personal Interview. 28 Mar 2012.

Gaiman, Neil. Introduction. Violent Cases. by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. 1987. 1st Dark Horse edition. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2003. Print.

—. “Wednesday, September 04, 2002.” Neil Gaiman’s Journal. Harper Collins Publishers. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Gaiman, Neil, and Dave McKean. Violent Cases. 3rd ed. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1997. Print.

Gravett, Paul. Introduction. Violent Cases by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. 1987. 3rd ed. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1997. Print.

Springsteen, Bruce. “Nebraska.” The Official Bruce Springsteen Website. Sony Music Entertainment. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007. Print.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Mississippi and has published essays on a variety of writers including Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams. He is currently writing a book on comics for Sequart and is a frequent contributor to PopMatters. He has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Modern American Literature, Shakespeare, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville. He also holds an M.A. from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a B.A. from Arkansas State University.

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