Signal to Noise Hardcover (New Edition),
Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean,
This is a story about the end of the world, but it’s not a science fiction apocalypse. This is a tale of a dying man, a great director, who is diagnosed with a terminal illness just as he is planning his next film, a story about the End of Days as the Millennium approaches, but not the year 2000, this is 999 AD, and a group of simple villagers are gathering on a mountainside to await the end of the world and God’s judgement on them all.
It’s a film he now knows he will not live to make.
But as he comes to terms with the horror of his own situation, the knowledge that he is facing his own personal apocalypse, he begins to plan his film anyway, in his head, writing lines, blocking scenes, borrowing the faces of people he sees in the street for the cast in his head. To these simple, religious people they know for a fact – just as he now does – that the world is going to end, and they fear it and the wrath of their god for all their sins. Some embrace a late burst of piety, some give away all their possessions, partly because they believe they will soon have no earthly needs any longer, but partly hoping these acts will be seen as selfless and charitable come the Last Judgement, desperately hoping a sudden access of charity in the last days will help them slink into Paradise. Of course, the director knows there is no bargain he can strike with his own disease, no change he can make to his life or offer he can make to appease it.
We know the world didn’t end as 999 became 1000 AD any more than it did come 2000 AD, despite all the millennial doomsayers (who despite being wrong go right back to predicting a new end of the world and someone is always ready to believe it…). But individual worlds… Those, sadly, are always ending. There isn’t a day when some individual and some family somewhere, will not be touched by the spectre of personal extinction. The numb horror of his prognosis is handled with great sensitivity by McKean and Gaiman, and anyone who has experienced loved ones going through the same will recognise the emotional surges and tides that such news brings, and the slow gnawing of disease reducing the person (until at one point he looks into a mirror and seeing his weakened, prematurely older state feels for a moment he is looking not at himself but his old father). We’re in his head with him and his final story and it’s hard not to feel as he does.
“I’m, fifty. That isn’t so old. And I’m thinking about the pain in my chest. And I’m thinking about the end of the world. And I’m thinking… That’s all I see to do. In ten years time I’ll be… (dead) .. sixty.”
But this isn’t just about death, about the end of the self. Nor is it really taking the opposite road and “raging against the dying of the light”. Our director may not be happy about his impending end, but he slowly comes to make his peace with it, and his work helps, as he plots out this film no-one will ever see, a film which will only be projected in the private cinema of his own imagination. And that story of the end of the world isn’t really about the End of Days either, not really – it’s about life, and the fact that even in what seems the bleakest times there will always be some sort of life, that the world will keep turning, day will follow night; we go but life, that stays, stubbornly clinging to the surface of our world and defying the cold cosmos with its simple existence. And so he begins to think about his film and how, perhaps, he will not live to make it, but he can still write it, leave it behind him, a last burst of creation before his own end, a gift to his friends he has worked with so often before. Perhaps it may live on after he is gone.
“It’s been three months, now. Today I did something strange. I started to write. There can be no purpose in this. Still, I am writing.”
It’s a beautiful, haunting tale, originally serialised in the late 1980s for the old Face magazine (remember that?) during that sudden burst of media enthusiasm for more mature comics work around that time. It’s a remarkable piece considering it is such an early work by McKean and Gaiman. Not just in storytelling, but also in the artwork and layout – McKean has always been keen to explore and push what he can do with his art, and even in this early work that is clear. There are some pages which take drawn art, photographs and more collaged into unusual layouts – it looks like the sort of thing you’d see when Desk Top Publishing made it much simpler to manipulate elements on your page, but this is pre-DTP, using printers, cameras and scanners to painstakingly build up those layers. It’s far ahead of its time in terms of art and design, and even now with this fine new edition it still stands up as an unusual and beautiful looking piece of work by two now very (and justly) famous Brit creators right at the start of their careers. A beautiful, emotional tale, well told, and one you will only appreciate more as the years pass.