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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1698

AUTHOR: Gaiman, Neil

ARTIST: Dave McKean (illustrator)

PUBLISHER: Dark Horse Comics

FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: 1987ISBN: 978-1-56971-606-9

SUBGENRE: Alternative

Publication History

Violent Cases, which began as a short story Neil Gaiman authored for a science fiction writer’s workshop, was first published in black-and-white format in London in 1987 by Titan Books. Titan republished it in 1998. U.S. publisher Kitchen Sink Press also published it in 1998. Tundra published the first full-color edition (and the first American edition) in 1991, with a second edition following in 1992. Dark Horse Comics published an edition in 2003.


The nameless adult narrator reflects on the arm injury he suffered at the age of four while living in Portsmouth, England, and his ensuing meetings with an unnamed osteopath, a doctor who was once employed by famous Chicago gangster Al Capone. The boy and the doctor strike up a relationship. The narrator tries to remember events carefully so that he can present facts correctly, but he and his father cannot agree on (or remember) what the osteopath looked like.

The osteopath heightens the boy’s curiosity about gangsters, and he is interested in knowing what Al Capone was like, what gangsters do for a living, and if they go to parties like children do. The osteopath tells the boy about Capone’s violent actions but also about his generosity, such as spending $100,000 on flowers to honor the people he murdered, including a police chief.

The boy tells the osteopath (who apparently is not a licensed doctor but rather an apprentice who became skilled through practice and experience) that he is not looking forward to attending a birthday party at a hotel because he does not like the children, the bald magician, and the musical chairs party game. The osteopath informs the narrator’s father that the boy’s shoulder has healed successfully, so he does not have to return for more visits. However, as the boy is leaving, the osteopath makes the cryptic comment that he will see the boy again.

When the boy subsequently (and reluctantly) attends the birthday party, he moves away from the magician, fearing for his safety, and into the bar area of the hotel, where he encounters the osteopath. As the magician completes his act and the children play musical chairs, the osteopath tells the narrator more stories about Capone, until three men holding baseball bats and wearing hats take the doctor away, punishing him for abandoning Capone after the mobster was imprisoned for tax evasion. The osteopath never appears again. The title, Violent Cases, refers to the cases in which gangsters keep their machine guns; “violent” is a pun on “violin,” for the violin cases that gangsters used to carry the guns.


Narrator is an adult, but he recounts events from when he was four years old. The boy is curious about gangsters but fearful of other children. As an adult, he tries to recall the details of his encounters with Capone’s osteopath. Memory and truth are important but elusive to him. As a child, he lived with his parents in his maternal grandparents’ house. As an adult, the only relative with whom he deals is his father; their relationship seems distant. As an adult, he looks like Gaiman, inviting the possibility that the story is semiautobiographical.

Narrator’s father is a giant of a man, has a violent temper, and might have physically abused his son. The narrator cannot remember whether the injury was the result of an unfortunate accident or child abuse. The father pulled on his son’s arm to drag him upstairs and put him to bed, while the boy wanted to walk downstairs. The nature of the injury suggests the father’s angry disposition and cruelty toward his son. His continuous threats of forcing the boy out of his car to make him walk home exemplify his hot temper and symbolize the dysfunctional relationship between father and son.

The osteopath confesses that he is not an educated doctor. He speaks with a central European accent and is most likely from Poland, although he lived for years in Chicago where he worked for Capone. He is defensive about leaving the employment of Capone after Capone is arrested and feels guilty and disloyal about it. He admires Capone, claiming, unconvincingly, that the gangster was benevolent because he contributed generously to the funerals of the men he murdered. The osteopath forgets periodically that he is speaking with a child, informing the four-year-old boy that he slept with his mentor’s wife, describing men being clubbed to their bloody deaths by baseball bats, mentioning that Capone died of syphilis, and using foul language. When the osteopath hurts the child, readers should consider whether the pain comes from the normal process of a doctor’s examination or whether the osteopath is cruelly and purposely causing the boy pain.

The magician is bald and scary, at least from the perspective of the narrator as a four-year-old child. He makes loud noises in his magic act, which he performs at the birthday party. He seems unconcerned about frightening the boy. The magician speaks to the osteopath, which immediately makes the doctor cry. This happens before three men with baseball bats enter the hotel bar and suggests that the magician is somehow connected to Capone’s henchmen. The magician wears stars, which are an important symbol in this graphic novel.

Artistic Style

ArtistDave McKean employs an expressionistic style to demonstrate tone and emotion. McKean uses mixed media, employing white chalk, charcoal, photographs, pen and ink, brush and ink, Ben-Day dots on the balloon for shading, and even masking tape. He seems to have even drawn on top of photographs. He draws lines on the face of the boy to show contrast; the boy poses in his new thick brown checked coat that the tailor has made. McKean creates drawings of Gaiman to hint that the boy could possibly be the author.

The movie posters that McKean draws link thematically to the impending doom of the osteopath. The poster advertising the film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) appears just as the osteopath is being captured by Capone’s henchmen. Some of the characters are drawn realistically while others are in shadows, and the tailor seems more of a caricature than a real human being. The image of stars, drawn in various forms, permeates the graphic novel. McKean seems to have been influenced by the artistic style of illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz.


A significant theme in Violent Cases is memory and reevaluation of the past. The narrator, now a grown man, wishes to recover his memory of the osteopath, whom he met on three occasions as a four-year-old child. The narrator and his father have markedly different memories of the doctor, including his physical appearance and his accent. The narrator wonders if the osteopath was gray haired or tubby; he cannot decide whether his memories are accurate or distorted.

A theme related to memory is fact versus fiction. The narrator wants to report the facts to the reader (he never does indicate who his audience is), yet he struggles to remember the past, thus becoming an unreliable, albeit captivating, speaker. Gaiman wrestles with the issue of reliable reporting, accuracy, and fact. For example, did the boy’s father physically abuse him, or was his dislocated shoulder an unfortunate accident? Did his father dislocate his arm or merely sprain it? How does the incident on the staircase relate to the father’s threat, once actually realized, that he would remove his son from the car and force him to walk? The narrator remarks, “I wouldn’t want to gloss over the true facts. Without true facts, where are we?” However, the narrator cannot remember the facts and disagrees with his father about the osteopath. Gaiman leaves the reader to ponder what truth is and what is the figment of one’s imagination, particularly when recovering a memory from previous decades and when recovering details from one’s youth.

Another theme in the novel is violence. Capone and his henchmen are violent, yet they are also wealthy and generous. The henchmen kill people with baseball bats, leaving a trail of blood. Perhaps a connection exists between the murders of adults and the hurt suffered by children at parties when they lose at certain games. That is why Gaiman places the two scenes together in the same room and at the same time. The children are eliminated one by one, forced out of the game. The birthday girl cries after losing at musical chairs. The loss is a symbolically and emotionally violent act that makes the girl miserable during her party and explains why the narrator is afraid to participate.


The mid-1980’s was an era when comics were beginning to be taken more seriously by adults. The genre was being written with more mature themes and topics, and writers and illustrators of this time brought with them pioneering methods to explore these issues. Violent Cases, with its complexity and sophistication, not only responded to this trend by addressing the issues of memory, truth, loyalty, and child abuse, but it served to influence many future comics professionals such as fantasy writer Gene Wolfe and colorist Daniel Vozzo. Furthermore, just as Gaiman was influenced significantly by comic book legend Alan Moore, Gaiman had a profound impact on fellow comics and fantasy writer Terry Pratchett.

Further Reading

  • Gaiman, Neil, and Dave McKean. The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994).
  • _______. Signal to Noise (1992).
  • Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. (1986, 1991).


  • Gabilliet, Jean-Paul, and Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, trans. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
  • Guillain, Charlotte. Neil Gaiman: Rock Star Writer. Chicago: Raintree, 2011.
  • Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
  • McCabe, Joseph. Hanging out with the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2004.
  • Petersen, Robert S. Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2011.
  • Violent CasesCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents & Underground Classics Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press

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