Martin Vaughn-James' The Cage
is far from being a typical comic, or even a typical graphic novel. In its original Coach House Press' edition, The Cage
is an 8.6'' x 12.1'' book. On the cover and back cover we can see the right and left halves of a barbed wire cage. The title has a metal brilliance. The paper is brown. All these aspects are linked to the main theme of the book: loneliness (we protect ourselves with metaphorical metal armours and barbed wire; we're isolated like a space in a cage: our body); and decay (the brown paper mimics what happens when the acid contained in paper makes it brittle, self-destructing from within — it's a similar process to human decay with age). The Cage
further lacks some of the features we usually associate with the art form. In The Cage
there are no balloons; there aren't even any characters. The panels aren't juxtaposed within the page area. Every page has just one panel, or half of a double-page spread bisected into two panels. The descriptive text is above or below the pictures, in machine-set type. What this book shares with most comics is an interplay between words and pictures and the narrative use of panels in succession. The differences spring partly from Martin Vaughn-James' cosmopolitanism. He doesn't really belong in any national comics tradition. Notably, The Cage
wasn't published by a typical comics publisher, but rather by a small, avant-garde literary press.
Martin Vaughn-James was born in Bristol, England, in 1943, and lived in Australia during his youth (he studied art in Sydney), living also in London, Montreal, Paris, Toronto, Brussels. Vaughn-James published four book-length "visual narratives" in Canada during the 1970s: Elephant
(New Press, 1970), The Projector
(1971), The Park (1972), and The Cage
(1975). The last three were published by The Coach House Press1
. In France Vaughn-James published another visual narrative story: Le Chien
(1973). He was also an illustrator for the French magazines Minuit
, La Nouvelle Critique
, and Libération
, among others. His drawings were published in the book Après la Bataille
. The Cage
was also published in France in 1986 and 2001 by Les Impressions Nouvelles. In 1984 he published another visual novel, L'enquêteur
, at Futuropolis (also reprinted recently by Les Impressions Nouvelles). He's been a painter exhibiting his work mainly in Belgium, France and Germany, since the mid-eighties. Strangely enough Martin Vaughn-James is best known for being an actor in François Schuiten's and Benoît Peeters' l'Enfant penchée (the leaning child). Martin Vaughn-James is also a writer, having published two noir books in England: Night Train
(1989) and The Tomb of Zwaab
I think that it is safe to say that The Cage
is a bigger success among the critics (especially in France) than among the public (it's a difficult book). It received critical attention from: Jean-Pierre Vidal (postface to the French edition), Marc Avelot (in Bande dessinée, récit et modernité), Benoît Peeters (in Case, planche, récit
), Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefévre (in Pour une lecture moderne de la bande dessinée), and Thierry Groensteen (in La construction de La Cage
). I'm hugely indebted to the latter.
Most of this critical attention comes from comics scholars, but The Cage
's relationship to comics is complex and ambivalent. The "graphic novel" is a concept that emerged within the comics community to distinguish artists' work from mainstream children's comics. Artists wanted freedom to express themselves and believed that the comics art form could permit that expression as well as any other form. The possibility of the graphic novel as an autonomous subset of the visual/script languages had been recognized since the sixties2
. Even before that we could link the concept of the graphic novel to serious minded visual narratives like Mein Stundenbuch
("My Book of Hours," 1919) and Die Stadt
("The City," 1925) by Frans Masereel; or Gods' Man
(1929) and Vertigo
(1937) by Lynd Ward. These artists never belonged to the comics milieu and were never viewed as comics artists per se3
emerged at roughly the same time as other ambitious comic books which might be seen as the first self-conscious graphic novels, including Gil Kane's His Name is... Savage
(1968) and Blackmark
(1971). Like The Cage
, these early graphic novels also deviated from comic books' particular visual/textual language, utilizing large blocks of mechanically set text to approximate the conventions of "real" novels. As such, The Cage
fits within this germinal graphic novel tradition. In his first book, Elephant
, Martin Vaughn-James toyed with the idea of abolishing the misnomer "comics." On the back cover of said book he invented the goofy neologism "boovie" (an obvious mixture of "book" and "movie"). Five years later, he called The Cage
a "visual-novel," clearly a more serious contender in the semantic game. He knew that The Cage
was as far from your average comic as any Samuel Beckett book. The Cage
comes mainly from the high art field; it's not mass art at all. The book's principle distinguishing characteristic vis-a-vis comics is not its form, but rather the lack of a generic aspect. With The Cage
, Martin Vaughn-James created a genre of his own.
was partly written and drawn in Paris during 1972 - 1973. Vaughn-James was aware of the French novelists who were grouped under the banner of the nouveau roman (the new novel). He even illustrated some of these authors' books (mainly published by another boutique publishing house: Les Editions de Minuit). According to Alain Robbe-Grillet the nouveau roman writers had three enemies: psychology (of the character), the chronological narrative, and humanism as an umbrella to give sense to everything. They were modernists who advocated experimentalism, but they were also post-modernists already because they were very suspicious of every ready-made and grandiose explanation of reality (especially the bourgeois one which they viewed as decadent; hence their suspicions about the typical hero). The nouveau roman writers resented the critics' attachment to the canon of the 19th Century novel and were accused left and right of being formalists. As a matter of fact, form — and the problems a writer faces when he or she is creating — were their main concerns. The Nouveau Romanciers were not interested in metaphysics or transcendental meaning: they were interested in surface (they were also known as l'Ecole du Regard — the Gaze School). As an example, here's a paragraph from Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie
(from Richard Howard's 1959 English translation):
Around the lamp, the circling of the insects is still the same. By examining it closely, however, the eye at last manages to make out some bodies that are larger than others. Yet this is not enough to determine their nature. Against the black background they form only bright points which become increasingly brilliant as they approach the light, turning black as soon as they pass in front of the lamp with the light behind them, then recovering all their brilliance whose intensity now decreases toward the tip of the orbit (102).
The characters don't disappear; what disappears is the omnipresent and omniscient Balzacian narrator. This is a human observer obsessed with reality: obsessed because he was jealous, and very attentive to any signs given to him by the external world. In contrast, there are only things in The Cage
; no humans (apparently) inhabit these parts. This doesn't prevent a tragic and oppressive tone from dominating The Cage
. It's a very violent book.
We see a succession of places (sequences: the desert, a pyramid in Mexico, a room, an electrical pumping station, a museum which Vaughn-James titles "The Crisis" in his notebooks, New York). His black, brilliant surfaces are akin to Victor Moscoso's. Vaughn-James shows us a strange, vertiginous world, but he does so with the utmost clarity. There are no shortcuts in these images. If a thousand flowers are needed he draws a thousand flowers. His use of linear perspective is precise. Infinity isn't a blur; it's there, we see it, and we also feel it even in the more claustrophobic of the rooms.
There's a baroque (Piranesian)4
aspect that exists in many of the panels: our eyes are allowed an escape from the oppressive environment through a door, a picture on the wall, a trompe l'oeil of a torn paper (a self-referenciality to the book itself), etc. The problem is that these other places are no less oppressive than the ones which we are in; There's no escape from a cage that is everywhere. Jorge Luis Borges tells the story of a king who barely escaped alive from another king's labyrinth. As vengeance he captures his captor and puts his prisoner in the centre of the most terrible of all the labyrinths; a labyrinth with no walls: the desert. Martin Vaughn-James himself said that his book was structured as a labyrinth (it appears on page 147).
Since the readers/viewers are the only characters in The Cage5
all points of view are subjective: we are moving along, we (a fictitious "we", of course) are witnessing things. When "we" enter the story "we're" in the wire netting and barbed wire cage already. There's a zoom which puts "us" outside of it. Leading where? As Marc Avelot showed in a memorable essay published in Bande Dessinée Récit et Modernité (1988, "L'encre blanche", page 157), the reader is led to the white (brown) page: a blank, double-page spread, a fictitious page which is in reality a real page. What we see then is an infinite prairie with more empty sheets of paper on top of seemingly metal poles. The ground is covered with eggs (or something like it; the eggs metaphorically mean a beginning). On the next two pages we see the same white pages, but now they have panel borders. The ground is covered with plants that seem to be stained by inkblots (or blood: this is a double reading that we can find all over... art and writing have in themselves their own destruction; black may be translated as red in a black and white book). As we approach the pyramid everything is destroyed (the plants were burned) and the pages have ink/blood blots. Closer, the pyramid is now reconstructed, the only memory of the tragedy being black (burned) distorted sound recorders, writing machines, photo cameras, telephones, etc... The clouds have been replaced by the ink/blood blots already mentioned. A wire is curled up around a piece of cloth. It will be cut to pieces, bleeding as if it was part of a living being, on the next two pages.
The first communicating device that appears in the book is also the most self-referential: the book's pages. The metal poles are the medium through which the messages pass in order to get to the pyramid (notice how nothing reaches the decaying barbed wire — defensive — cage on pages 68, 69). When the message with the ink/blood blots finally arrives at its destination (a warning?) it is too late. The pyramid was already destroyed, the plants are dead. The burned telephones, clocks, etc. are a memento of past destructions; mementos that will disappear too.
Double page 26 - 27 shows us the top of the pyramid. It links the first sequence (Mexico) to the next one (The Room). We see petrified pieces of furniture covered with sheets, the ground has stones and weeds) and the ink/blood blot that's all over the place. The room itself will be gradually filled with sand (as if the desert is inexorably advancing, covering everything). The next sequence (The Electrical Pumping Station) shows the building's decay as if time was accelerated. The Museum is the more complex sequence. The reader enters it through the reconstructed door of the Station. It is now behind a bleeding painting. We walk a corridor that's suddenly filled with stone blocks (in Martin Vaughn-James' first book, Elephant
, stone blocks like these, with isolated people on top of each block, meant solitude, the impossibility to really communicate). An incredible amount of things happen afterwards: flying sheets of paper show us parts of the clothes that were in the aforementioned room; the ground is now filled with plants; a door explodes; etc...
Being without a traditional story, or traditional characters, how should we read The Cage
? Thierry Groensteen, who proudly bought the author's working booklets and all of the book's original pages on behalf of the Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l'Image (CNBDI) quotes one of the aforementioned booklets in his book La construction de La Cage
(page 64): "An image of a bed, for example, presented early in the sequence of events, cannot remain unchanged by the time it reappears later on, for it appears the second time after the presentation of numerous other images, which must, by their very existence within the sequence, affect the way in which we see the new presentation of the earlier image." This gives us a very good clue about how to read this enigmatic book and comics in general. When we follow the doings of any comics character, such as Uncle Scrooge, we must create the illusion that the dozens of Uncle Scrooges that Carl Barks drew are not twins or clones, but just one character evolving in time and space. We connect the drawings on our minds. One drawing affects our way of "reading" the next one.
In one of his booklets Martin Vaughn-James said that The Cage
could be called something like "the story of a bed". We first see the bed on page 56. The text says "...again silence..." It's an important image because we are looking now, through the space left by the exploded door, at the real main character of The Cage
in the center of an empty room. The bed is a person. When the bed tries to leave the room on page 74 disaster occurs. Notice how the wire netting below the mattress links this person to other cages in the book. The bed discovers "the other" and the outside world with its senses (the binoculars, the ear phones, the microscope), but when it tries to reach it directly, it can't. On page 78, 79 we can see what the bed tried to leave behind: a closed room (itself), ink/blood, empty canvases (art, with its fancy frames, is no solution to escape the cage). More dramatically the messengers (i.e. the poles) kill the senses on page 80. The medium of communication tries to crawl from the bed to reach the cage (pages 94, 95, 99, 101) but we see the result on pages 114, 115: not only was it cut to pieces, but the pages of the book also threaten to be ripped to fictional shreds (in trompe l'oeil). The white (brown) sheets of paper of the beginning will be torn at the end as well. Only the desert (which covered the base of the cage already), nothingness, remains in the last double page (180, 181). Shiva triumphs all the time.
All these techniques remind me not of the nouveau roman, but of Stanley Kubrick's last sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey
. Enigmatic images give us a metaphysical sensation (and metaphysics were Robbe-Grillet's enemy). The Cage
has no characters, true, but it has plenty of substitutes. The human made objects, mainly linked with communication, go as far as to mimic the human body. I don't understand why a petty excuse for a human like Mickey Mouse is considered to be "a character" and an Arcimboldian6
arrangement of ear phones, microscope, binoculars (as we can see on page 62), is not.
What's decidedly modern is Vaughn-James' lack of respect for the chronological diegesis. In these metaphysical non-places time ceases to be a meaningful concept (or, to be exact, it is the center of the book's sense, not as something that is passing here and now, but as an abstract concept). If certain sequences, like Mexico and the electrical pumping station, respect the chronological passing of time, others, like The Museum, don't. Images relate back and forth, leaping in time7
. The reader needs to use his or her memory in a very active way because, unlike in more traditional comics, the connection between the images may be pages apart (hence the idea of a labyrinth, or web). The labyrinth also echoes the very complex structure of the interplay between words and pictures: sometimes the words are in accordance with the image that's on the same page, sometimes they aren't, describing things that are somewhere else in the book. Sometimes they describe things can't be found in the pictures at all, because they're sounds.
is a book about our desire to communicate (in the book we were substituted by, we are made of, modern communicating, recording, and measuring devices), our struggle to perpetuate our memory, our ideas, and our feelings against something that's sublimely far bigger than ourselves: Time. We are cages trying to reach other cages. We, the cages, and our pathetic inventions, will inevitably be destroyed.
Even something as grandiose as a pyramid will eventually disappear.
The Press was founded in 1968 and it was destined to be an important part of Canadian publishing history (Michael Ondaatge, for instance, published his first book there). The alley in which it is situated received the name of one of the Press' most important authors: bpNichol. Unfortunately some people don't have any respect for history and the old facilities of The
Coach House Press are in danger. Read all about it here:
and sign the petition:
Even if The Coach House
Press' main line of books isn't comics it continues to publish the avant garde.
The example I'm thinking about is New Motor Queen City
Richard Kyle in Capa-Alpha # 2, November 1964 coined the expression; read a discussion, here:
In France the same feeling that led to May 1968's revolt provoked a similar
urge do produce mature graphic novels. Nicolas Devil's Saga de Xam
(1967) is an example. I can't also resist citing Guido Buzzeli, a personal favourite
artist of mine. I've called him the first self-conscious author in comics.
He published La rivolta dei racchi
("the revolt of the ugly") in 1967. Return...
Will Eisner was the most successful advocate of the graphic novel when he
published his acclaimed book A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories
Other expressions appeared during the sixties: "figuration narrative" in France and
"gekiga" in Japan. "Gekiga" means "image" (ga) and "drama" (geki). Japanese artists
like Yoshihiro Tatsumi (who coined the expression) wanted to tell mature stories in a
less cartoony drawing style. Return...
Giambattista Piranesi (1720 - 1778). His Carceri D'invenzione
, a series of
etchings showing imagined prison interiors, is another forerunner of the graphic novel. Return...
"The purpose of the narrative, then, should not be the presentation of
preformed and sterile conclusions and solutions but rather the evolution of
an arena of words and images within which the reader / spectator can perform an active
and participating role." (Dust jacket of The Projector
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 - 1593) did human portraits laying out
inanimate objects on the canvas:
For instance: the writer's bedroom, that we've seen petrified on top of
the pyramid, looks a certain way in page (98, 99), the next time we see it
(100, 101) we're not in the same place (plus: paintings were added, this is
now the bedroom of the writer/artist; i. e. the comics artist: Vaughn-James
himself). The author himself (as Thierry Groensteen wrote), or a shadow of him,
the artist, appears killed on page 83 and others. Return...