My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of my favorite graphic novels, Dave McKean’s 1990s serial Cages is a magical realist multimedia story about the artists (Leo the painter, Angel the musician, Jonathan the writer) who live in a London apartment building. Cages exhibits a set of influences uncommon in Anglophone comics: Kafka and Schulz in literature, Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay in film, Schiele and Klimt in painting/illustration. The whole feels very Central and Eastern European, even in its depiction of London, which McKean presents as a labyrinth of dim, narrow, winding, deserted, cobbled streets, a maze of cozy paranoia, which reminds me that Kafka cited Dickens as an inspiration.
While McKean tells most of the story through gestural drawing—mostly freehand brushwork—and nine-panel grids colored only with a bluish tone, he also employs photography, painting, collage, and digital art to lift the narrative beyond the London apartment and into realms of myth and subjectivity. This beautifully justifies the term “graphic novel,” because in Cages pictures do—for theme, for character, for symbolism—what words cannot. I think of the scene where Leo the painter meets his neighbor Karen in a jazz club and they talk for hours, falling in love. Instead of giving us the conversation, McKean gives us pages of flowing pictures, a dance of line and shadow, that shows their mutual attraction more than any literal conversation could.
McKean takes real aesthetic risks and tries things that are not guaranteed to work. In another astonishing passage, almost reminiscent of Beckett’s Happy Days, McKean spends 50 pages on the monologue of a lonely old woman in her apartment as she talks to her parrot and avoids the central tragedy of her life. The tone is perfectly balanced between the humor of the woman’s malapropisms and the sorrow of her kind-heartedness and despair. I know of nothing else like it in British or American comics.
McKean writes marvelous dialogue, colloquial and expertly observed. His ventures into more literary territory—the prose creation myths that form the book’s prologue; the excerpts from Jonathan’s novels—are less successful. His recasting of the Rushdie affair as a Christian assault on a white anti-Christian writer is well-meant if geopolitically unpersuasive, but his depiction of Jonathan’s purgatorial exile, in which, due to some Kafkaesque bureaucracy, he “may only keep what cannot console [him,]” is ingenious.
Cages is not overtly polemical—except for an ill-advised high-school lit-mag scene in which a despairing Jesus curses God for not existing—but there is a political undercurrent. McKean insists on showing a multicultural, secular London: our main artist-protagonists, Leo and Angel, are Jewish and black, respectively, while the jazz club in which Angel plays and Leo draws is named the Katakumbe, an allusion to a Weimar-era cabaret shut down by the Nazis. Art’s peculiar discipline of learning to face the uncertain is pitted against the iron discipline of those believe only in the absolute.
There is probably too much quirkiness in the novel’s secondary characters, too much of an English twee tone that bears the now-kitschy impress of Neil Gaiman, and too much of the simplistic atheism that would eventually lead McKean to collaborate with the dunderheaded Richard Dawkins. This is all redeemed, though, by the book’s seemingly endless visual inventiveness and the intense interest of watching an artist really seem to be experimenting, to be taking a journey through his material that surprises him as well as us. And for all the shallowness of some of the book’s skepticism, its main point about art and the world—that the best art must combine mastery of material with humility of character, that a creative god would not be a god at all but only another artist trying to fill the blankness with something new—is moving and persuasive. (This is almost the only graphic novel I know—certainly the only Anglophone graphic novel—that fulfills the aesthetic mandate of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?)
Cages has a plot of sorts, but not one in which all our questions will be answered (who are the agents of Rush’s imprisonment? why does Bill become a cat and then not a cat?), nor one that moves at a brisk clip. It is a book of many things, mysterious objects and mysterious creatures. It creates a world of its own, united in a tone—a tone, ultimately, of beguiled bemusement, of learning to enjoy the shadows, even if life is only a series of escapes into successively larger cages.