“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman

FYI to those who find this book in the comic shop, this is not an all-ages tale.

Longtime readers know I have a complicated reader relationship with Neil Gaiman. I like most of his stuff, love some of it, and don’t care for some of it. These on their own would be fine, but what bugs me is how he is well nigh deified by geek people who embrace all he creates uncritically. I have some criticism of this book.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a fantasy tale set in Scotland, invented by Gaiman from a myth about a cave, and illustrated by Eddie Campbell. It began as a live show, and morphed into this book over time. The narrator is an unnamed man, a little person, who hires another man to take him to the mythic misty isle where there is allegedly a cave of gold.

The story of the two men, and their journey and its end, overall, is a good one, and Campbell’s illustrations, both paint and pen, are great at conveying the story, which is sometimes an illustrated text, sometimes a comic. There are secrets and lies and surprises.

The problem is with the female characters. One is beaten and raped by her husband while the other men listen and do not act. Another is killed which sets the story of one of the men in motion. A third is an old fortune teller. They fit too easily into one of Gaiman’s favorite tropes, mother/maiden/crone.

While reading reviews of this book, I learned a term called “women in refrigerators” coined back in ‘99 by comic-book writer Gail Simone about how minor and under-characterized women were so often brutalized and murdered so that a man’s story may then unfold. This is not only a common trope in comics, but in books, movies and tv.

One character’s sole purpose is to set the two men’s stories in motion. She is not characterized though she is given a name (unlike the poor raped and beaten wife, who is not).

Women are objects of violence in this story, and while that happens in real life, and isn’t something that should be silenced, I feel it’s a poor, poor thing to use violence against women as a plot point to further a male character’s story.

So while the male characters stories are interesting, and the art is arresting, the whole of it left a nasty taste in my brain. Female characters should be more than tropes.

If you’re going to include violence against women in your work, make your character complex, and don’t use her as an object of horror, or the catalyst for some guy.

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