The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch
by Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli (Dark Horse, 2008)

This graphic story by Neil Gaiman is an adaptation of a prose short story that first appeared in the annual magazine Tales of the Unanticipated and later in one of his many collections of short stories, Smoke & Mirrors. The title is almost longer than the story, which, given the titles Gaiman bequeaths to his short fiction, is not at all unusual.

A writer, who is an obvious stand-in for Gaiman, has traveled to London to hole up in a hotel in an attempt to finish a novel in solitude. Two married friends drag him out of his self-imposed seclusion with the promise of a sushi dinner, a show and a blind date with a friend of theirs.

The show, as it turns out, is a circus of the absurd type, held in one of the many caverns running under the streets of London. This being a story with a twist, they are, of course, shaken to the core and looking at the world very differently by the time they emerge from the underground. Miss Finch, the writer's blind date, has vanished, although not exactly into thin air.

The circus is a very bizarre affair. Suffice it to say that you could almost expect to hear the Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" blaring from the book as soon as the cover is opened. What is it about circuses that seem so double-sided? On one hand, they can be innocent entertainment; on the other hand, a setting for all sorts of mayhem. Check the horror section of your local video store or Netflix account if you think otherwise. There seems to be no finer catalyst for a trip into the Twilight Zone than a circus, and Gaiman steps right into that realm of weirdness with his usual ease.

The Latin word "circus," which comes from the Greek word "kirkos" for "circle" or "ring," refers to a circular area, surrounded by spectators, in which a variety of events are held. There is another meaning to the word that may apply itself more appropriately to the spectacle that unfolds in the pages of this neat little story: in its most absolute definition, a circus is a place where many roads meet and branch out from a central circular location. The junction of roads is the theme of this story, with past and present colliding and the coming full circle of the titular Miss Finch herself, from a boring, drab, self-righteous know-it-all who is rather stubbornly certain of the world and her place in it, into something very, very different. We should never make the mistake of believing that we know the world too well. If we lose our respect for the many mysteries life still holds, we actually become less human.

In earlier times, people lived and died by their gut instinct. Theirs was an intuitive world, and they were always on guard, always aware of a lurking darkness. The overly-rational Miss Finch's disbelief in that intuitive world, coupled with her refusal to indulge her senses in anything that smacks of coloring outside the lines, such as eating raw fish, practically forecasts her fate from the very beginning. She believes there are no unknowns left in the world; that what we must guard ourselves against is not some mysterious darkness but the everyday, the mundane, the bus that can hit you or a sushi dinner that can turn into a life-threatening case of food poisoning.

Of course, in ancient times, there were many who would view such elitist snobbery as asking for trouble. It would then only be a matter of time before trouble catches up with you....

Michael Zulli's art "reads" very well in this macabre gem, but it does seem to be missing its usual flair. His usually detailed work is very stripped down here, more serviceable than singular, nowhere near as intense as he normally is. It's very clear, done in fine lines with beautifully washed-out colors, and the layout is quite good, reflecting the action exactly as it appears in the prose version of the story. It is not, however, the cerebral, imaginative artwork I have come to expect of him. The material is quite rich with mythology and colorful characters, which could have produced some spectacular imagery along the lines of his best Sandman material. Truthfully, though, any halfway decent artist could have drawn this. It's good but unfortunately there is nothing distinctive about it.

That minor issue aside, TFitCotDoMF is an engaging tale, short but densely packed, and one that comes recommended for all Gaiman fans or those who need a good intro to Gaiman's fiction.

review by
Mary Harvey

17 January 2009

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