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Signal to Noise Hardcover – December 18, 2007
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At first glance Signal to Noise is not a horror story. For one thing, it contains none of the genre’s familiar trappings. For another, it reads more like a man’s last confession than a terrifying plunge into the realm of the weird. Despite these differences, the graphic novel offers one of the darker, more unsettling narratives I've come across.
At the onset of the story we are introduced to the narrator, an accomplished film director recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. He tells us he has been given only months to live and must begin to put his things in order. He instead chooses to disconnect from the outside world, limiting his interactions with other people as much as possible. As the days turn to months, and his mortality looms ever closer, he resolves to devote himself to the only thing he has left: creating his magnum opus - a film titled Apocatastasis. Only, with no time to actually produce the film, he begins to shoot the movie in his head.
From this moment we are treated with a meditation on living and dying, escapism and what value our creative endeavors have after we’re gone. In short, the narrator is no longer just facing his own death, he is also facing the death of an idea, perhaps the idea, and by extension his legacy as a creator and a human being.
The book opens on a scene inside the narrator’s head. He describes a group of villagers in the year 999 A.D. that come to the realization their world is about to end with the coming of the millennium. The colors McKean uses in these recurring daydream sequences are muted, relying heavily on black and dark blue in contrast to the yellows and grays of the real world.
Interestingly, as you continue to read, the colors from the dream world begin to bleed into the real world, showing a subtle shift in the emotional proximity of the man to his hopeless actors. This “bleeding” of color eventually culminates in the man imagining himself as one of the people in the film. He soon retreats to their snow-covered hills, joining them as they wait for death.
The voice of the narrator is integral to the story, and Gaiman proves more than capable of giving us the necessary insights into the character. He shows us our world through a drastically different lens than we’re used to, and it is very easy to sympathize with the narrator as he waxes philosophical about his approaching death.
If you read this story casually, which is not advised, you are likely to miss the horror embedded in its narrative. While the plot is mostly overt, the grief the man experiences for his own death is subtle and relies on you being empathic enough to relate to it. If you take time to excavate the themes and the meaning behind the words you will find a gem buried in the bleakness, a light amidst the terror of dying while the world carries on without you.
Signal to Noise tells us that stories can live forever, so long as there are people left to hear them, and that a time will come when they must exist without us.
“And we die, because things that matter end.”
This is a subtle, introspective story that offers the reader an exceptional blend of light and dark. Fans of the Sandman series will feel right at home, and anyone who appreciates McKean’s unique art style will find plenty to gawk at. Highly recommended for those interested in a short, albeit haunting experience.
Normally I would not spoil the ending, but obviously he die and you know that is the end point from the moment you start reading. There is quite a lot after he dies about what happens to his story and the places it goes and I do wonder how much of it was put in because of the original success of this book. There are a mass of editors notes at the beginning detailing its original publication in 1992 as a collection, through plays, radio dramas, rewrites and redraws and on to this second publishing. So when you read through the final few pages it almost blurs that line between the story in the story and the reality of this book and its own story as it has evolved in the real world.
If you enjoy a book that gives a lot of re-reading value, one that you can spend minutes on each page just looking into the art, rereading the words and trying to find hidden meanings, then you will utterly love this. However if you like to read purely for enjoyment and like dynamic art that flows with the writing, neither one requiring effort to fit into the narrative, then you will hate this and even worse, will probably not understand it. From my personal perspective, I am stuck right in the middle. I can appreciate what this is trying to achieve and I think it manages it very well, but it simply is not my idea of a ‘fun’ read. What will stay with me are the last two panels before it goes into the epilogue ‘Millennium’ and it would have been a better ending had it stopped right there.
It's the story of a filmaker who finds out he has cancer. He's working on a film that deals with an apocalypse. The themes of worlds ending is strong in this book. When your world falls apart, do you let your creativity die? Do you try to finish something that might outlive you?
It's a shorter work, but it packs an incredible emotional punch. McKean's work illustrates, but enhances the story. There is an entire story being told in the art alone. Gaiman's work is haunting and memorable. I've been wanting to read this one for a few years and I'm so glad I finally did.
I was given a review copy of this graphic novel by Diamond Book Distributors and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for allowing me to read this excellent and enduring work.