Signal to Noise is another early original collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, falling chronologically between Violent Cases and Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch. It explores similar themes of perception and memory, in this case focusing on the distortions that can happen in communication, particularly when thoughts are writ externally. Hence the title, which refers to the ratio of a signal's strength to any noise that might be disrupting it.
Stripped to its bare bones, the narrative of Signal to Noise follows a dying screen writer as he writes his final movie, taking vivid, unquiet images from his head and setting them paper as his time runs out. He has always had concerns about how his ideas (signal) morph (noise) in the transition from his mind to screenplay, and so is initially loathe to actually script this swan song. ÊBut he does, imagining a group of villagers at the cusp of the last millennium (AD 999), fearfully gathering in the mountains to await almost certain doom. In his mind, he establishes the setting, casts the roles, writes the dialogue and by the end -- his end -- has a completed screenplay for his valiant efforts. A screenplay that may never become a movie despite those efforts.
There is a definite contrast between the imagined villagers' fear and uncertainty about their immediate future with the auteur's stoic resignation and certainty about the inevitability of his own death. Ironically, his cast of villagers survives their millennial changeover while he regrettably doesn't live to see his -- and knows all along that he won't. As he struggles to commit his last thoughts to paper, he must also cope with snatches of memory from a long life, fragments that come to him piecemeal.
McKean's art is, as always, superb, combining various media to show both the unfolding film and the man's real world. Images -- memories, thoughts -- stride across the page, at first crisp and clear, then faded, fuzzy, inverted and perhaps forgotten. The most stunning visuals are his impression of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, each granted their own full page illustration. The layout contributes to the theme as well: multi-page interludes of seemingly random text and visual noise interrupt sections of the dialogue, demanding attention and focus away from the story, just as random things in real life can distract.
By itself, Signal to Noise is a powerful, emotional story with amazing artwork. When read in conjunction with Violent Cases and Mr Punch, their themes resonate even more strongly, and give readers an early glimpse into the breadth of Gaiman's writing.