Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

I found this book when I was working at the Barbarian Book Store in Wheaton in 1992. I picked it up because I was a full-on Sandman devotee and would pick up just about anything with Neil Gaiman’s name on it. In the Spring of 1993, Gaiman signed my copy. I have since misplaced this signed copy.
old cover

Since that time, I have come to realize that Dave McKean’s fingerprints are more obvious in the work than Gaiman’s, which is interesting because it shows much more about my shifts in taste and perspective over the years than it does about the work itself. Last year I was browsing in Big Monkey Comics in DC when I ran across the reissued anniversary edition, which I picked up. As I mentioned, I still don’t know where my original copy is and I really wanted to read the story again – and look at the art.
new cover

My perceptions aside, there are some notable differences between the editions. There is new material in the newer edition, for example – a handful of two-page stories at the beginning of the book and a coda at the end of the book that was written in 2000. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story is fairly straightforward: the main character is a renowned film director who has just found out that he is dying of cancer. Instead of seeking treatment, he throws himself into writing his last film – a film that he knows he will not be alive to see filmed. The film is about the apocalypse that didn’t happen in 999 and the act of writing it becomes a means for him to deal with his impending death.

The story was originally serialized in The Face – a British fashion magazine – and in between chapters, McKean added two page inserts that sampled text from the original script of the story. These chapters add an element of noise to the story, enhancing the thematic power of the whole book. The subject of noise comes up periodically throughout the story as well, most notably in this page (which I still see as a masterwork of layout and design).

You may have noted that the page is done entirely with overlapping photographs – well spotted. A majority of the story is made using McKean’s now-trademark mixed media process. With this work, though, he used a lot of photoreferenced material, as well as a good amount of straight photography.

A friend of mine read this book and told me that she could see exactly where I got my inspiration from. And she’s exactly right. These days, I wear the fact that I am heavily influenced by Dave McKean on my sleeve, but that does not change the impact that the book had on me when I was taking my first, tentative steps into graphic design in college.

Below is another page from the end of the book, showing how the panel breaks are often subtle. It’s an approach that I’ve drawn from more than once, to varied effect.

Overall, you should find a copy of this book and give it read. If you are a Neil Gaiman fan and you do not own this book, you are doing yourself a disservice. This is doubly true if you are a Dave McKean fan.