My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of my favorite comics. A magical realist multimedia story of artists (Leo the painter, Angel the musician, Jonathan the writer) in a London apartment building, Cages has 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 European, even in its depiction of London, which is shown mostly as dim, narrow, winding, deserted, cobbled streets, a maze of cozy paranoia that reminds me that Kafka cited Dickens as an influence.
While there is a baseline of gestural drawing, mostly freehand brushwork, and nine-panel grids colored with a bluish tone, McKean employs photography, painting, collage, digital art to lift the story beyond the London apartment and into realms of myth and subjectivity. All of this is handled beautifully, justifying the term “graphic novel” in that pictures do—for theme, for character, for symbol—what words cannot. I think of the scene in which Leo the painter meets Karen in a jazz club and they talk for hours, falling into romantic sympathy. But Mckean, instead of giving us the conversation, 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, tries things that are not guaranteed to work. In another astonishing passage, reminiscent of Beckett’s drama, McKean spends fifty pages on the monologue of a lonely old woman in her apartment, talking to her parrot, avoiding 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 Rush’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 Rush’s purgatorial exile, in which, due to some Kafkaesque bureaucracy, he “may only keep what cannot console [him,]” is ingenious. The book is not 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, an insistence on a multicultural secular London in which our main artist-protagonists, Leo and Angel, are Jewish and black. The jazz club in which Angel plays and Leo draws is named Katakumbe, an allusion, I believe, 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 who do not believe in the uncertain.
There is probably too much quirkiness in the secondary characters, too much English twee stuff that bears the now-kitschy impress of Gaiman, too much of a simplistic dismissal of religion that would eventually lead McKean to work with the dunderheaded Richard Dawkins—but this is all redeemed 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 across 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 the only graphic novel I know that fulfills the aesthetic mandate of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?)
There is a plot here 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, ultimately, of beguiled bemusement, of learning to enjoy the shadows even if you only get out of the little cage and into the bigger one.