Martin Vaughn-James has succeeded in bringing the relation between word and image to a higher level, where distance is closeness, where then becomes now, where nowhere is everywhere and where every attempt to escape is at the same time a request for a firmer hold on the bars. This labyrinth renders reference futile, circularity necessary and a back door a one-way entrance.

Martin Vaughn-James, The Ghost of a Character: The Cage,
Coach House Press, 2013. [1975.]

First published by Coach House Press in 1975, The Cage was a graphic novel before there was a name for the medium.

Cryptic and disturbing, it spurns narrative for atmosphere, guiding us through a series of crumbling facades, disarrayed rooms and desolate landscapes, as time stutters backward and forward. Within the cage's barbed-wire confines, we observe humanity only through its traces: a filmic sequence of discarded objects tracking a stuttering and circling time and a sequence of objects — headphones, inky stains, dishevelled bedsheets — scored by a deafening cacophony of breaths, cries and unsettling silence
Considered an early masterpiece of the graphic novel medium, the Canadian cult comic has been out of print for decades in its English version. The new edition includes an introduction by Canadian comics master Seth and a preface by the author to bring Martin Vaughn-James's nightmarish vision to a new generation of readers.

'In the histories of comics in Canada and comics as book–length narratives he played an important and often neglected role. His importance stems not just from the fact that he was a Canadian cartoonist when so few others were out there, or that he created long–form cartoon books when no graphic novel designation yet existed in book stores or libraries. Vaughn–James was also, and remains, a significant figure in comics history because his work was singular, literate, experimental and often unsurpassably good.'— The Walrus

'It is a masterpiece, demonstrating a level of skill and insight very few have even aspired to in the nearly 40 years since its initial publication ... this work is strongly recommended for every true fan of the graphic arts.'
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

'Recalling the impossible landscapes of M.C. Escher, Vaughn-James's surreal visuals encourage readers to lose themselves. ... With every turn of the page, the eye elides the images, creating a kind of floating, amorphous perspective for this abandoned, erratic, irrational world.'— Quill & Quire (starred review)

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 (1991).
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.
The Cage 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.

Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy
The Cage 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).

Sketch 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.

Page 10 Page 14 Page 17 Page 21

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.

Page 68 Page 69

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...

Page 26 Page 27 Page 28 Page 29

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.

Page 74 Page 75 Page 78 Page 79

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.

Page 94 Page 95 Page 114 Page 115

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.

Page 62

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.

Page 180 Page 181

The Cage 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. - Domingos Isabelinho

1 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 by feminist Patricia Seaman: Return...

2 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...

3 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 (1978). 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...

4 Giambattista Piranesi (1720 - 1778). His Carceri D'invenzione, a series of etchings showing imagined prison interiors, is another forerunner of the graphic novel. Return...

5 "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.) Return...

6 Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 - 1593) did human portraits laying out inanimate objects on the canvas: Return...

7 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...

In November of this year, Coach House Books released a new edition of their seminal 1975 graphic work, Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage. When I found this out, I was astounded. I’d been singing the praises of The Cage for years, recognizing it not only as one of the most important (and accomplished) work of graphic fiction ever created, but also insisting upon it being one of the greatest books every produced. Upon its initial publication, there were only 1500 printed copies; beautiful over-sized hardbacks with heavy brown paper inside. The book is a monolith, an object. Just the visual presence matches the title: The Cage, the book, the volume, holds something inside, much as a cage does.
I discovered the book from Richard Kostelanetz’s Dictionary of The Avant-Gardes, a resource that I read from cover to cover, taking note, over the course of the several months I spent reading it, on everything I wanted to learn more about, to discover. And then I spent several months following up on everything I had noted, often not remembering anything about why I had noted a book title or an artist’s name down. I worked in a library at the time, so I would just request anything from Inter-Library-Loan that we didn’t have on our shelves. It was through this process that Martin Vaughn-James’s book came into my life.
I took it home from work and blew through it, realizing that it was doing something heavy, something that I had long wanted the comic form to do, to work with narratives in ways similar to, say, Alain Robbe-Grillet or concrete poets had done, but to make use both of words & images, sequencing and panel development: to open up the tools available to a visual artist who also has a poetic bent. The book accomplishes so much, and I soon became obsessed. I read the book several times while I had it, and then checked it out several more times throughout the year. I desperately wanted to photocopy it (as copies available online were far too expensive) so I could always have it with me, but the book was too big to reasonably photocopy into a facsimile-ish form. I tacked down the three other primarily graphic works from Vaughn-James, again through inter-library loan, and marveled at their contents, but knew that The Cage was his masterpiece. Eventually a copy popped up on the internet for a prize I could sort of afford, so I jumped at it and the book joined my possessions.
To publish this book again in 2013 strikes me as no inconsiderable feat–while comics have certainly gained a larger presence as a “true literary form” (or whatever) by now, most of the dreck that people applaud is, of course, parallel to the novel, “realistic,” though told with pictures in addition to dialog. The Cage takes the height of the 70′s delirious experimentation with form and content, and pushes it into something that, even now, speaks as something new.
As such, I’m pleased to now revisit the work, in two parts. First I will comment upon the initial 1975 release, that is virtually impossible to come by outside of the library at this point, and second, I will consider the reprint, which offers both new front-matter & back-matter, as well as a formally different content, comparing and contrasting the two.
A Note: All photos included in this post were taken on my cellphone and do not necessarily reflect either the colors or the image quality of the printed books themselves

  1. A remembrance: movement, narrative, while lacking characters. Considered an impossibility when I’ve formerly brought it up, at one point this book remained my best defense; a reminder that we can move through narrative, visually & textually, without needing a character to follow.
  2. It is impossible to assume unity between text and image: image does not illustrate text, text does not explicate image–occasionally the two interact, and a resemblance between text and image can be found, but it would be foolish to assume that one always echos (or holds) the other. oddandenigmaticabstraction
  3. There’s a materiality present, both in the mimetic tearing of a photograph, of a page, of a leaf, of the split between words, endless ellipses, repetition (repetition) (visually, sonorously, literally) (repetition), an insistence (resemblance): word to page to sheet to leaf to bed-sheet to plant leaf to X to Y (though never a binary, no none)
  4. A flash occurred to me that perhaps the book is an echo of an idea: it is impossible to both read the text and look at the images simultaneously, and since one does not illustrate the other, the only way to incorporate both into a singular mental space would be to hear the text as we saw the images. So, a performance: the imagery of each page projected as a slide (and a blank slide for the blank page) while the text is read aloud (live or pre-recorded); the time a slide spends on screen predicated by the time the reading of the text takes–textless panels presented in quick secession.
  5. Of course, would would have an entirely different experience in this manner. One would also, but of course, experience something different if there was a decision made to only read the text straight through, or, contrarily, to only follow the narrative of the imagery: the overall experience would be shaped similarly to that of the book as a whole, but what is inside that shape would be entirely different.
  6. There’s an insistence to the way one looks at a page, especially in consideration of two-page spreads. The entire spread to the edges of the book, a closer look inside the margins, the image as entire field of vision, the text, back to the image–and to think narrative is so difficult for some.
    This is an animated gif, so if it's not moving, click it to see it bigger/moving
    This is an animated gif, so if it’s not moving, click it to see it bigger/moving
  7. The words, the language, the experience of such, reads like a brilliant prose poem, long form, an echo of a reminder of something you’ve heard before, an architectural tract into the void: the entropy of ruins re-written into spatial experience, like perhaps one can harken to Land Art (everyone knows Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”), or maybe Michael Heizer’s city-compound, the cage the cage the cage, the cube, temple labyrinthine, interiors, hallways
  8. An insistence upon the literality of recording devices. Ink, sounds, the photograph. The image is at stake as much as the word, as much as the page, as much as the hysterical silence
  9. I’ve insisted, to myself, upon re-reading the book as the original monolith I know it as before approaching the new edition. This insistence comes from a fear: a fear mediated upon the extra information contained in the new edition: an introduction by comic artist Seth, an introduction by Vaughn-James himself. In France there have been entire books of critical studies dedicated to the comic, some based on preliminary sketches & notes for The Cage. Some of these sketches are included on the press release. These things scare me in a way. They exist outside of, but part of, the book as I know it. I don’t want the book explained to me. I want the experience of the book to remain unmediated by anything but materiality. However, I’m also excited. I want to know what this information, this extra content, holds. I want the French critical studies to be translated. I want to see all the notes myself. I both want a blind and a mediated experience. Perhaps one can have both.
  1. Seth’s introduction (“an appreciation”) is good. I can’t imagine it being much appreciated without having delved into the book itself (as such, it seems like it would function better as an afterward), as it doesn’t so much introduce anything but a mystery, Maybe that’s all you need. Seth says a lot of stuff I mention above in different ways. He also points out something that I think is really important: the book is not to be understood as much as it is to be experienced. This, I think, really highlights why both Seth & I, myself, appreciate the book to such an extreme degree. This is a comic-book-degree-zero, so to speak. I just checked, and I haven’t actually read any of Seth’s comics. I had a roommate who swore by George Sprott, but the subject matter (and art style) was never enough to sway me to jump in. However, this intro, undoubtedly enthused about my favorite comic, as well as a mention of Seth’s that Last Year at Marienbad is his favorite movie, has me a little more curious.
  2. The introduction is titled “Man Fears Time, But Time Fears Only The Pyramids.” A variant on the great great great quote of Cheops: Man fears time, but time fears the pyramid. I first encountered this quote as an epigraph for a James Lee Byars catalog. We’re in good company.
  3. Outside of the diegesis of any of his visual-texts (his comic books, of which I’ve tracked down all four, though The Cage is the only one I’ve had the luxury of reading more than once), I’ve never once seen a remark from Martin Vaughn-James himself. The preface, written in 2006, is somewhat of a breakthrough, although not totally surprising. On my initial interaction with the book, I came away thinking of the nouveau-romanciers that I was fully obsessed with at the moment: Robbe-Grillet, Pinget, Simon, Duras, Sarraute, etc etc etc. Vaughn-James himself remarks that it was the reading of Robbe-Grillet’s Towards a New Novel, and then a devouring of the rest of the new-novelists, that lead to The Park and finally The Cage. Later, in Paris, Vaughn-James hooked up with Éditions de Minuit and did work for them, which explains how there’s an “illustration” by Vaughn-James of Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City.
    Scanned from the Alain Robbe-Grillet issue of OBLIQUES
    Scanned from the Alain Robbe-Grillet issue of OBLIQUES
  4. And a difference, of course, immediately presents itself between the reprint & the original: the size. The 1975 edition of The Cage, 9 by 12 1/2 inches, I’ve only ever read (and read many times) laid open on my bed, my body postured horizontal. The book is too big to read sitting up, perched on your lap. The reprint is portable, it can be read in a chair, on the bus, it can be read more easily. It needs no surface to support it. A material difference in a book that is built as experience. But, the experience does not become ruined, rather, it just changes.
  5. Similarly is the decision to change the dark brown, textured pages to a bright white, semi-gloss stock. There’s a difference, but what mental difference this affects is inarticulable. The images become so much more crisp and clinical. There’s a coldness that was present in the original, but carries heavier here. This is, perhaps, to the books advantage. As this ostensibly objective position heightens what occurs on the pages of the book. The horror of the void is the violence of the white page.
  6. The smaller size also doesn’t prevent the image from being as encounterable–while the book, before, could not really be lifted up for close scrutiny, the smaller & lighter reprint carries that advantage. You can hold the book an inch from your face and not have to deal, as much, with the physicality of weight. gutterride
  7. It seems that there’s an eBook available: avoid that like the plague. Vaughn-James’s work is as much about materiality as filmmakers such as Michael Snow, Paul Sharits, etc. A simulacrum would divorce the experience from the material.
  8. A second reading at such close proximity reveals occasional paradox: the text speaks of the cage’s resilience to decay as the image shows the cage in a state of collapse; the text speaks of the sequences moving faster while the text builds up, preventing the page from being turned as rapidly…
  9. A second reading at such close proximity, indeed, sounds intensity. To read the book twice in two days, a heaviness. Having read the book probably five or six times over the last four years, there had always been distance in between, the closest readings being, perhaps, my initial reading and then the follow-up reading done immediately before I had to return the book to the library (before I had committed savings to a copy of the sacred tome I could call my won). Twice in two days throws you into the self-sufficient world of The Cage a world populated by pyramids, labyrinths, cubes, cameras, microphones, beds, sheets, ropes, columns, decay, entropy, bitumen, the spread of ink, the room, space, refusal, destruction, decay. onyxglacier
  10. To be stuck inside forever would surely be lonely, but endlessly fascinating. Decay tourism but without a sense of imperialism–the impossibility of movement, refusing an insistent body, present.
  11. Caveats aside, I would implore readers of this blog to pick up this comic, without expectation of anything resembling a comic; to just be open to the experience of reading. The new edition is a great, and finally widely available, opportunity to encounter this dark and troubling world. templelabyrinth
- Impossible Mike

Martin Vaughn-James (1943 – 2009)

“The very substance of the narrative today should be the destruction from within of the worn-out sign language of our culture.”- Martin Vaughn-James from his introduction to The Cage.

By Sean Rogers

Martin Howard Vaughn-James was born “during an air-raid” in Bristol, England on December 5, 1943 according to a tongue-in-cheek biography in Night Train, his first novel. Whether or not this detail is 100% true, the intent is clear. Vaughn-James’ spent his childhood growing up in postwar British towns such as Birmingham, which exposed him to the kind of bombed-up landscapes that would later inform so much of his imagery. In 1958 he emigrated to Australia with his family, which entailed a six-week voyage by ship, followed by three years living in a migrant camp. He enrolled in the National Art School in Sydney, where he won a painting prize that encouraged him and his lifelong partner, poet Sarah McCoy, to leave the country.
In 1968 the eclectic pair ended up in Toronto, where he began to plot how he could “derange” the conventions of comics, allowing image and text to combine and diverge in perplexing, disarming manners, and eventually produced hundreds of pages of rigorous, demanding visual narratives.
This outburst of creativity saw Vaughn-James produce the imposing full-length proto-graphic novels The Projector (1971), The Cage (1975) and L’Enquêteur [The Investigator] (1984), in addition to a series of impressive shorter pieces in which he tested out his approach to the longer projects. These include Elephant (1970) and The Park (1972), as well as over a dozen short stories, published in the early 1970s and later collected, alongside some of his elaborately detailed drawings, in Après la bataille [After the Battle] in 1982.
Vaughn-James and McCoy spent nearly a decade in Toronto, before uprooting to Paris in 1977 and later settling in Brussels. Even though his time in Canada was short compared to others, the
comics work he produced while in Toronto was certainly the most influential of what would be a varied career.
The bulk of his short strips and a good deal of work on L’Enquêteur were done while in Toronto and became part of a solo exhibition on Vaughn-James that the Art Gallery of Ontario staged in 1975.
It was also in Toronto that Vaughn-James made the first of his associations with historic publishing houses, such as Coach House Press which released his second book, The Projector in 1971. At the time Coach House was a major player in Canada’s burgeoning literary vanguard and was home to kindred spirits who shared Vaughn-James’ subversive spirit. This included the poets bpNichol and Steve McCaffrey, who were also experimenting with the comics form.
After The Projector, Coach House published Vaughn-James’ The Park and The Cage as similarly handsome artist’s books, bestowing upon them a context and seriousness far removed from the pulpy ephemera that marked most comics of the day.
Unlike many of the landmark comics and graphic novels of the past 20 years, Vaughn-James’ comics works are aggressively abstract and difficult to summarize. Decades after their original appearance they are still posing challenges to their readers, especially ones who are accustomed to straight-forward storytelling techniques. Vaughn-James reconfigures his narratives in terms of the interplay of things, or the simple progression through space and time, pushing his reader to look for meaning in a host of physical objects. When characters do appear in his comics, they are marvels of instability. Though largely conventional figures—a bald, bespectacled stand-in for the author; a bunch of mean-spirited funny animals—they metamorphose, disappear, and turn inexplicably into empty suits of clothes without any warning.
The artist thrusts them through surreal cityscapes that comment obliquely on media saturation and the factory-farm nature of the contemporary workplace. This kind of emphasis on setting displaces character entirely in Vaughn-James’s middle works, but when the human figure reappears in L’Enquêteur, it is still the landscapes and the buildings that dominate.
Of the two characters, here, one—the investigator—never appears the same way twice, and the other—the subject of his investigation, variously called Thompson, Tomkins, Tomlinson, Tomassen—never appears at all. Our attention, instead, is drawn to the locations through which these ciphers pursue and evade one another, as well as to their guns, raincoats, fedoras, and valises.
The works that preceded L’Enquêteur were what truly signaled a sea change in Vaughn-James’s approach. In The Park, nothing but the barest trace of humankind remains in any given frame. A photo appears, some scissors, a shirt, a skyscraper, all in various stages of decrepitude. The confused and halting narration no longer seems anchored in the images, preoccupied with things—spots, a watch, a ribbon—that never make an appearance.
Published in 1975, The Cage recapitulates and perfects all these concerns. A breakthrough book for Vaughn-James, The Cage sees a disembodied spectator-reader guided through desolate landscapes, street scenes, wildernesses, to investigate what happens in a hallway, in a room, and in the titular cage. The divorce between frozen image and poetic text, the tension on the page between stable space and advancing time, and the array of objects put into play—a menacing inky stain, twisted and victimized bed-sheets—all become motifs that interact in complex, labyrinthine patterns.
In doing so, Vaughn-James masterfully complicates and disrupts what we understand to be the typical functioning of comics, or narrative, or any similar structure we rely on to make sense of our world. He reveals them each to be, like any object from The Cage, “less an actual machine than an odd and enigmatic abstraction, totally unnatural, its utility obscured.”
Aside from the French books that collected the short stories that he worked on in 1970s, and a final, nominally narrative collection of his drawings and text in 2007 (Chambres noires [Black Rooms]), Vaughn-James largely parted ways with comics after he left Canada for Europe.
Though comics reviewers and academics have since laid claim to The Cage and his other seminal comics-based works, Vaughn-James would never have accepted being called “a cartoonist.” Indeed, he would have balked at any of his books being labeled “comics” (even though there is no disputing that they are) maintaining instead that his works were new—that though they may have hovered above the traditional comic book, they never fully touched down in the field. To that end, he invented new terminology for his output which included “visual-novel” and “boovie” (a mash-up of “book” and “movie” which thankfully never caught on).
Yet despite his recalcitrance, Vaughn-James nevertheless worked tirelessly to challenge and contribute to the language of comics. What we’ve come to think of as “the graphic novel” has endless claimants to the title of inventor, but Vaughn-James’s role as forefather is distinguished by the unparalleled ambition, ability, and merit of his works.
The last 25 years of Martin Vaughn-James’s life were devoted to painting. A practice which resulted in haunting canvases that depict ghostly desiccated images of buildings, objects, and people on the verge of being lost to memory. The induction of Martin Vaughn-James into The Giants of the North ensures that his comics work will not suffer the same fate.
(The preceding article is adapted from text written for the 2010 Doug Wright Awards, during which Vaughn-James was inducted into the Giants of the North.)
In 2011’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, the artist Seth toured an imaginary, fading guild by the same name, interpolating his own pastiches and inventions into national comics history. The most unusual fragment was The Great Machine, a 1970s experiment created by one Henry Pefferlaw. After buying a disused apartment building, its narrator and spectator hears mysterious noises behind a bricked-door down in the basement. “Beyond the door a stair descends … The roar and clatter of machines grows louder with each step down.”
Most of the book-within-a-book is simply first-person exploration of this unmappable and illogical labyrinth, filled with machinery, pipes and gauges and cogs and boilers and generators, some archaic, some modern, others strangely futuristic, all operated by an unseen power. And over one threshold, inside a chamber that extends for miles: “A pool of perfect black stillness … From some distance is heard the tolling of a great bell. The sound of which imparts a deep melancholia to the listener.” There is no conventional narrative, no dialogue, only bewildered description.
The Great Machine was based on the enigmatic comics of Martin Vaughn-James, an obvious connection that Seth humbly avoids mentioning during his introduction for the new Coach House reissue of Vaughn-James’ The Cage. Surveying the book’s desolate environments—ziggurats, a pumping station and, yes, that barbed-wire cage, each devoid of human figures—he asks questions without answers: “What is the cage? Why are we watching from within it? Is the viewer the prisoner in the cage? Locked inside the cage? Is it the cage of time? The cage of perception? Maybe the cage is reality itself?” You could add another: was The Cage, released in 1975, one of the earliest graphic novels?
Will Eisner’s 1978 collection of interlinked stories, A Contract with God, is routinely credited as the very first. Eisner didn’t even coin the term, though, only popularized it, along with the attendant confusion: Does “graphic novel” describe a form or a marketing category? Bookstores stock lots of memoirs under that section. Finding some creation story in cave paintings or ancient vellum is a pointless impossibility, anyway; Cervantes didn’t become a novelist until centuries after his death. What’s fascinating about the proto-graphic-novels that preceded A Contract with God is how their mutant idiosyncrasies intermittently passed down to today’s comics. There are myriad examples: the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong, Jules Feiffer’s Passionella, It Rhymes with Lust. And Martin Vaughn-James.
The last of three comics the Bristol-born Vaughn-James published with Toronto’s avant-garde Coach House Books during his relatively brief stay in Canada, The Cage was more reduction than culmination. As Seth notes, it eschewed much of the medium’s common language: no word balloons, no cartoon stylization, no more than a single panel per page. (None of Vaughn-James’ previous texts had a traditional plot, but there were recognizable living beings.) Tangled clothes, surveillance devices, a trail of black ichor and other ominous motifs rearrange themselves into various diagrammatic formations. Time curls in multiple directions. The Cage’s settings shudder with rot and then look new again after the turn of a page. Its narrator rambles observationally, like a tape reel skipping forwards and backwards: “…the plain…paved across its vast expanse with stones, sweeping like a cobbled sea beneath that line, that perfect horizontal drawn across the void…an arid, inorganic residue, stretching out toward a single, hard, remote and unassailable frontier…the sky…as white as paper…” Now and then the book might be describing itself: A tangle of truncated opaque screens repeating its convulsions. A complex network of forms arranged according to some logic separate and alien. A frozen geometry of mutilated props.
Vaughn-James, who spent most of his career painting and illustrating, didn’t identify as a cartoonist. He was adjacent to the underground comics scene, not of it. If his work resonates through the medium today, it seems to be in Japan, where, like European albums, “graphic novels” long existed under different names; I can see The Cage in Yuichi Yokoyama’s architectural manga, or the limitless, illusory vistas of Suehiro Maruo’s Panorama Island. Vaughn-James himself preferred “visual novel,” and one of his publishers, chased from sleep with the fear that “graphic novelist” might not sound silly enough, appended the subtitle “boovie.” They weren’t wrong, exactly, even if they were ridiculous. He loved the nouveau roman developed by writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, all surface, spurning psychology. Vaughn-James’ masterful, disorienting control of temporality is brilliant cartooning, yet it could equally be filed next to Robbe-Grillet’s and Alain Resnais’ film Last Year at Marienbad, where narrative strolls around a country house. Graphic novels appeared before The Cage, but it was the last of something else, a portmanteau that never stuck. - Chris Randle

'La Cage' by Martin Vaughn-James

Author: Kristien JACOBS

Abstract (E): In "La Cage", Martin Vaughn-James has succeeded in bringing the relation between word and image to a higher level, where distance is closeness, where then becomes now, where nowhere is everywhere and where every attempt to escape is at the same time a request for a firmer hold on the bars. This labyrinth renders reference futile, circularity necessary and a back door a one-way entrance. The only remaining certainty for the caged reader is that nothing is what it seems to be !
Abstract (F): Avec "La Cage", Martin Vaughn-James a complètement redéfini les rapports entre texte et image en bande dessinée: le proche et le lointain, le présent et le passé ou le futur, le contraint et le libéré y deviennent interchangeables.Ce livre-labyrinthe met la référence hors jeu, multiplie la circularité et finit par faire coïncider le début et la fin. Le seul point commun à tous ces mécanismes est que toute apparence y est forcément trompeuse.
Keywords: graphic novel, Nouveau Roman, Vaughn-James

The front entrance

A first exploration of the graphic novel La Cage already strands at a look at the outer cover of the album, more specifically at the front cover. Visually the front cover displays the title, a frame that reveals an image of a plain behind bars, the name of the author and situated more in the margin, the logo of the publisher. The first three elements already evoke some remarks. The logo, however formally very specifically structured, will not be spoken of in the assumption that it involves a full-blown paratextual element. This assumption is based on the fact that there has been an editorial change with the transition from an English to a French edition. Also the conception of the title has been involved in this transition and has been changed in the French edition, but it has come to ears that the original form also displays great visual power. On the basis of these conceptions, I will incorporate an interpretation of the title 'La Cage' in this text.
The title is the first thing (in an arbitrary sequence) that catches the eye. Its handwritten form renders it highly personalized and this impression is reminiscent of the form of handwriting with which you put your name under a text as to signal your approval or personal achievement. Moreover, this 'concept of the signature' is enhanced by the dashing line under the title. This finding could already reveal the paradoxical nature that will seem to characterize the remainder of the album (in reading). The characteristic indication of ending (the concept of the signature) indeed functions as a remarkable beginning of the album, giving rise to the presumption that beginning and end of the album are in fact reversible.
When looking at the transgression of title onto image, the 'g' of La Cage seems to penetrate the image as it were, by fading into the latticework. This results in the interrelating and interacting of word and image, both on a semantic, in the form of a metonymical totum pro parte- or pars pro toto-relationship ('the cage' and 'the latticework' or vice versa), and on a purely graphic level ('the long expressive�'g' and 'the metal bar of the latticework').

In reading the title La Cage, the human being with his typical orientation toward words and images, will almost automatically picture himself a prototypical cage. That same person would probably let that expectation, evoked by the prototypical image or the prototypical definition of 'cage' through the title and/or the image on the front cover, lead him in his reading through the rest of the album. When looking at the pictures and reading the accompanying text, the exact what or where of the cage isn't immediately clear to the reader, only that 'la cage est toujours là, inachevée et déjà en ruines' (p. 10). Text and image seem to manipulate one another paradoxically from the beginning, and seem to push the reader into several directions at the same time. The watchful reader will return to the front cover and will possibly find to his amazement that the interwoven nature of the 'g' and 'the metal bar of the latticework on the picture' could be semantically charged. Suddenly it appears as if the album itself were behind bars; as if, by opening the album, the reader would enter the world within the cage. From this perspective also the frame around the picture presents a certain tension. The Dutch-speaking reader can easily link this idea metaphorically to the expression 'iets kadert in je gedachten' , which can be paraphrased into 'something fits into the frame of your thoughts/mind' . In this way it becomes clear that every single picture can constitute and invoke 'the cage', because the reading 'fits in the frame of the reader's current of thought' that is built up by the way in which he reads and visualizes things and the way in which he lets himself get carried away by the assumptions and expectations that are being evoked by the title and the picture on the front cover. In addition not only the univocal reading is questioned in favour of a range of possible readings, but also the inspiration of the author is ironized, since also this'fits in the frame' of (is steered into the direction of ) his thoughts.

Furthermore, the impact of the frame on the front cover is emphasized by the third element, namely the mentioning of the author's name. Here the textual element (the author's name) clearly respects the borders of the framework. Also in the rest of the album the textual remains within the limitations that are rigorously imposed on it by the frame.

Exploring the cage from within

The suggestive combination of the elements on the front cover - with the suggestive character being raised by the state of setting foot in a domain behind bars, maybe even the enigmatic domain of the imagination - is enhanced, maybe even concretised by the montage of the pictures on pages 3, 5 and 7. The photographic/filmic (is it a rather loose or more fluid sequence of pictures) zooming in, gives the reader the impression that he is gradually approaching the domain and that he eventually finds himself situated in the middle of it (pages 10 to 11). A rather bewildering effect in this sequence of images, is caused by the picture on page 9. Is this white sheet an upward zooming in on the image on page 7 and does it fit into the sequence (pages 3 to 10) in such a way? How plausible this interpretation may seem to be at first, it looses its likelihood when one considers the omnipresence and powerful influence of the frame (cf. supra). For, is it likely that Vaughn-James, who elsewhere plays smoothly with graphic entities, would overlook (precisely in this rather direct sequence!) that with the practice of zooming in, a piece of the frame would inevitably land on page 8? With the prospect of the images on pages 10 to 11, it seems plausible to state that there is a playful preview and enlargement involved of one of the white pages (pictured on pages 10 to 11). The enlargement then results in the extension of the frame to the contours of the A4-format of page 9. Once again, this is a bewildering "operation". Anyone who remembers the expression "(that is) a white spot"�("(that is) unknown"), can easily identify the act of "entering" as the act of "entering the unknown", and even further, in connotation with the white sheet as the act of "entering the imagination".

Still, one can immediately posit a remark here. When one puts the pictures on pages 3, 5 and 7 next to each other, one will have to admit that the act of zooming in is one in which the horizon remains unchanged. In contrast to the pictures that grow from page to page, the drawn horizon always remains identical to the one on the picture of page 3. Only he/she who thinks in terms of the broadening of the horizon (as contradictory to the heightening of the horizon), can possibly discover an expansion within this ingenious montage. Yet, this expanding of the horizon is negligible, since it is a completely passive growing along within the proportions of the extending picture, without the horizon actually being displaced. It seems to be a subtle wink at the reader who, however opening himself to what the album has to offer him, still is forced to approach the imaginative world of the album, of the author or even (most paradoxically) of himself from within his own modest horizon. Imagination and horizon, two concepts that are traditionally in line, now seem to compete with each other.
The last picture of the album (pages 180 to 181) contrasts sharply with the picture on the front cover and the pictures on pages 3 to 7. For, this picture appears without latticework, as if now inviting the reader, who has walked through the landscape of La Cage for 180 pages, to step out of the cage (La Cage). Not such a strange idea for the end of an album, but still, another paradox. Returning to the beginning of La Cage, the reader will come across a similar ambiguity: just when he/she seems to have completely entered the cage and to have left the latticework behind, the words la cage est toujours là catch the reader's attention. The conclusion in both cases is similar: nothing seems to be/is what it seems to be.

It is certainly worth the effort to dwell on this last picture (pages 180 to 181) a little longer. When observing the picture a bit longer, the reader notices that it ironizes itself, as if it wants to say 'I am ambiguous!'. This effect is again present in the frame, to which, as becomes obvious in so many other pictures in the album, the split-panel technique is used. This technique results in a panorama that is cut into two pieces, having the effect of the eye distinguishing at the same time one image as well as two halves. The observation becomes ambiguous as such. Moreover, the image itself falls into two quasi-identical halves. This further accentuates the reduplication and ambiguity of the picture. Even further, the complete emptiness of the landscape (besides the presence of some cobbles) illustrates the fullness of the paradox (and thus creates another one: empty is full and vice versa).
The frame of the picture on pages 180 to 181 throws dust in the eyes of the inattentive reader even in another way: through the relation with the pictures on the front cover and that on page 3. At first glance 'with latticework' versus 'without latticework' seems to be the biggest difference between the picture on the front cover and the one on page 3 on the one hand and the picture on pages 180 to 181 on the other hand. As has been said above, this element functions as a paradox. Furthermore, the last picture seems to have adopted the format of the picture on the front cover and the first picture. This could therefore be a matter of an act of zooming out, by which the last picture is reduced to the original size. Within this context, the thought of this last picture as functioning as a door, only this time to leave 'the cage' (instead of to enter 'the cage'), comes to mind. Also this remains an unstable idea, not only because of the 'with/without latticework' paradox (cf. supra), but also because of the fact that the last picture throws doubt upon itself (and its own format). The explanation for this matter again lies in the split-panel technique: the image that has ambiguously been cut into two pieces - the subtle reduplication - initially also obscures the fact that in reality it concerns twice the format of the picture on the front cover and the first picture.
The pregnancy of the last picture (on the pages 180 to 181), that evokes the thought of "the cage" , even without the latticework, is strongly stimulated by the resounding crackle of words, that accompanies (and "shows out") the pictures from page 170 onward. What remains, is the continually repeating "la cage" , typographically differently displayed than the "ordinary" textual wholes. This invokes, in combination with the tormenting repetition, a magical, even mantra-like atmosphere. The fact that indeed this is a matter of a form of incantation, is confirmed by the text on page 51, where the typographical italicization, that will appear for a first time on page 52, is presented as "une sorte d'incantation".

In the last sequence (from page 170 onward), the italicized "la cage" pops up in very different 'decors'. On page 170 the incantation accompanies the tarnishing of the ultimate fake decor: the 'room with bed', that has a high incidence in the album - on the level of the image a spectacular mise-en-abyme, since it incorporates among others the image of the 'pumping station' and the narratively remarkable transition from boulders to bedroom (cf. infra) - now seems to have known no more than a paper existence. The image that is lurking through the crack in the 'drawing' of the room, is that of the desolate plain from the first pictures (behind the latticework) on pages 3 to 7 and from the very last picture (on pages 180 to 181). But also this image is revealed as only a 'paper reality', since the bars of the latticework of the cage on the background are missing.

Additionally, word and image seem to contradict each other in these last pages. While the words are in fact slowly quieting down, the images seem to be exploding. The resounding incantation spreads out expressively from four times 'la cage' in the top left-hand corner of the picture (page 170), through one time�"la cage" in the bottom (!) left-hand corner (the picture on page 172) and one time in the bottom right-hand (!) corner (the picture on page 175), to nothing more than typographical ellipses (the picture on page 178). Ellipses, as if there was nothing anymore, or from a slightly different perspective, as if everything was and is the cage. The graphical track that is covered by the 'dying' incantation (from four through one to�'...' , from top to bottom and from left to right) can only strengthen this impression. The images, on the contrary, cover an explosive track, from the explosion on pages 170 to 171 (cf. supra) onward, to the complete deconstruction of a network of fake decors on pages 174 to 175. This destructive flow of images however, flows out into the naked image of 'the cage', so that the development of the relation between word and image in these pages can't be described as fully contradictory. For, on page 178 the image of the cage with on the inside the snippets of paper fluttering around, seems to have adopted the incantation of the words. As if word and image, united equally harmonious, come to the same conclusion, only through another way.

Within this context, the apparently serene (because already indicated as ambiguous before) last picture (pages 180 to 181) threatens to burst explosively. Seemingly without words and images, it is in fact a deranged accumulation of images and words, that in their artificial stylisation are evidence of that one certainty: the cage, "la cage est toujours là".

Such a 'discovery' undoubtedly (again) reveals the impact of some 'cage mechanisms'. The superficial reader, who feels invited to leave the cage by the last picture (pages 180 to 181) (something that is paradoxical itself, cf. supra), will also have failed to notice that he/she will keep on dragging his/her track of thoughts along, whatever the case may be. As also the author, seeking inspiration for a new creation, will feel confronted with his very own experience and track of thoughts. The revelation of La Cage as a (sort of) circular structure, also brings some other insights to the surface. Because of the idea of the circle, probably the most idealized form of a cage, the possibility arises to move 'freely' inside the landscape of La Cage. Beginning and end seem to be reversible; each single picture installs a 'new' cage; each single picture contains the narrative 'core' of the album. In the end, the circular structure remains intact. 'Freedom' versus 'the landscape of the cage' : another paradox.

More in things than in people

When returning to the pictures in the beginning, in function of complete clarity from page 3 onward ('because' , will the philosopher say, 'what is beginning and what is end once the circular structure has been recognized'), the desolation of a landscape in cobbles behind cold metal immediately leaps to the eye. Also the rest of the album is controlled by a material 'world' ; human characters are missing. This landscape 'without characters' initially gives the impression of being completely lifeless, what can be deciphered though, as one of the many ambiguous ingredients of the equivocal recipe that is La Cage . An apt illustration of this ambiguity can be found in the poem Meer in dingen dan in mensen ('More in things than in people') by J. Bernlef, and more specifically in the first stanza:

Omdat de dood in mensen huist
de buitenkant van dingen is
kan ik alleen in dingen leven zien

(Because death is present in people
forms the outside of things
I can only see life in things)

Because this stanza, in my opinion, articulates at least one facet of the ambiguous puzzle character of La Cage intensively, I would like to enter at length into it (as a continuation of the discussion raised by R. Kopland in NWT 1985 (2) ). Proceeding on the title, the I obviously experiences�"more in things than in people". This could point at the fact that this I finds things more interesting than people, perhaps because they stimulate the act of thought more, or because they leave more to the imagination (?). When, subsequently, one takes a closer look at the first stanza, firstly, the thought of� 'people being alive, but at the same time harbouring the latent presence of death' can be extracted. Facing that, the things are situated, of which, in line with the thought formed of people, can be said that 'death is the outside of things' . The relation between people and things can thus be situated within this paradigm of life and death. Things show their death honestly and, on this way, preserve their core of life on the inside. The subtle play with contrasts (death - life, people - things) here leads to an absurd inversion of the traditional, human world of thought, but at the same time opens (for who wants to see) the possibility of a completely new perspective, namely that of a formerly 'unknown' reality. A similar 'unknown' reality of 'things' can be found in La Cage.

Still, there are traces of human presence to be detected in La Cage, be it in a faded or ironized manner. This is illustrated by the papers and the apparatus in the picture on page 108, by the sheets on pages 95 and 109 (among others) (the last example appears to be a suddenly permuted variant in sheets of the paper man on page 108), and by the clothing (evidently a sudden variation of the sheets) on page 127, which all take the form of a human body. But then again, an empty body, 'lifeless' and tormented (page 95), reduced to paper and covered with its own appliances (page 108 and cf. infra), scourged by cracked bricks and bleeding ink (page 109), firmly tied up like a scarecrow and therefore a caricature of itself (page 127). Each time subject to some sort of strange power that also seems to steer the objects. Just as the objects, often caught stylishly at the peak of action (page 124), as if a powerfully puzzling lens can, only at the very last moment, prevent the fatal explosion by taking a photographical 'snapshot'.
When seeing the picture on pages 158 to 159 or on pages 164 to 165, the idea arises that not only the photographical lens, but also the frame has a significant role to play in the freezing of the action. By the positioning of the template of the frame on pages 158 to 159 or on pages 164 to 165, a mass of ink is caught in the act of bursting into pieces. With this notion in mind, it also seems plausible that the template of the frame has squeezed itself, as it were into/in between the action, or that it has even just plainly put itself on top of the action and in that way has brought the doors and beams, flying around like a hurricane, to a stop in the middle of their explosion (like in the picture on page 54 to 55). That the doors and beams, that have been catapulted into the air, all approach the form of a possible frame themselves, can represent an, as by the author, intended or unintended, but anyway fully ludicrous accentuation of this element.
Back to the 'characters'. Another trace, let it be a less direct trace, of human presence lies within the objects themselves. For, in one way or the other, they all are appliances or constructions of mankind. As an annotation, one can observe here that this perspective again associates itself with the traditional human world of thought (and this in contrast to the frame of mind sketched in the poem by Bernlef, cf. supra); objects live in as much as they are reflections of mankind's presence. Papers, ink, chairs, beds, closets, paintings, cameras, bandrecorders, even pyramids and skyscrapers: a seemingly endless parade of functional objects in the human world of experience. Only the flourishing vegetation seems to escape the hand of mankind. Still, the human supremacy remains an illusion in this album, even in an indirect way. For, the materialised reality is defined here by an unpredictable, mysterious force, maybe even by the cyclic period of time, that is continually uncovering the decline, or by the imagination 'personified'.
By displaying a picture like that on page 62, the game with the reader is continued. While the textual block, just like in some other pictures, initially gives the impression of describing the human senses "l'oeil et l'oreille", the image shows the material pendants (binoculars, headphone and microscope) of these human functions. Subsequently, a shift occurs within the textual block toward the linguistic usage of the material creation; "poursuivant leurs functions automatiques" . That the objects are visually stylised in such a way that they seem to maintain a certain relation of similarity with a real head, only thickens the puzzling effect.
In connection with this, one can notice that the purely observational objects themselves, as shown for example on page 62, appear to be an indulging (in the direction of the human observation through the senses) reduction of the complex recording apparatus (bandrecorder, camera, typewriter & ), as pictured on pages 16 to 17. But also this piece of the puzzle is ironized when the reader suddenly comes across a multiplication of the observational apparatus and subsequently is confronted increasingly with a new reversal to the complex recording apparatus. The pieces of the puzzle, gathered by the reader, are finally (a word that in fact doesn't belong in the circular labyrinth that is La Cage) pulled out of joint even more when the reader sees the 'scarecrow' (cf. supra) crushed by the observational and recording apparatus on page 131. Wherever the reader thinks he/she can discover remains of human presence, these remains are continually minimized, not just by the mysterious steering force (cf. supra), but also by the completely absent psychological characterization, in aid of a 'universe' directed at the object.

The (anti-)structure of time

In addition, the recording apparatus on pages 16 to 17 opens another structure of thought. For, in the vicinity of the pyramids, these objects constitute an anachronism. Put up as sacral objects along the path leading to the ritual centre of the pyramid, the clash that is brought about by these objects, leaps into the eye even more. To put it in other words, the 'little clock' in La Cage ticks at different paces; one could even state that still another puzzle of different periods of time has evolved within the labyrinth of the cage. Because also the pyramids themselves on pages 16 to 17 clearly stem from different periods. Moreover, maybe to the effect of confusing the puzzle even more, the central, pointed pyramid, underneath her construction, already contains a copy of the other 'pyramids with stairs' surrounding her.

Also leaps in time are inherent to La Cage. Within this context, the picture on pages 22 to 23 suddenly displays a pyramid gone to ruin. In the a-chronological cage the fable time often rushes past the narrative time at top speed. The ellipsis seems to be complete when next to the decayed pyramid on page 24, suddenly an intact pyramid is shown on page 25.

On the level of narrative theory, the landscape of the cage that is La Cage doesn't only catch the eye because of an a-chronological passing of time. Characteristic in this context is also the deconstruction of the traditional relation of causality. The photographic eye or the drawing pen of the author produces a stream of pictures (text and image) in which the normal cause-consequence pattern is thrown overboard. Although the reader is actually looking ahead, and is, for example through the window on pages 34 to 35, looking at the building that will appear on pages 36 to 37 and can also recognize the images on the paintings (pages 34 to 35), in a magnified and transformed state on pages 170 to 171, these are no cases of normal relations of causality. This comes to light even more when the reader considers that the room itself, in a fragmented way or not, is the source of a kaleidoscope of reflections and permutations throughout the entire album. The many accumulations and variants - as for instance the building (mentioned above), that pops up again on pages 66 to 67, pages 90 to 91, pages 112 to 113, pages 124 to 125, page 133 and pages 168 to 169 - make it clear that La Cage develops a circular labyrinth of translinear connections. Also from this perspective, the common narrative appears to be the cyclic returning and always inherently present decay, or put differently, 'the existence of the cage'.

When, in the end, the textual blocks are taken into account, the same elements become prominent. For, these textual wholes often display an a-chronological passing of time as well. Within this context the textual block of the picture on pages 12 to 13 narrates a catastrophic decay "brusquement et inexplicablement figée par quelque événement ou quelque catastrophe (page 12) si violente et inattendue qu' elle réduisit en décombres (page 13)", while on the level of the image a true period of florescence (flourishing vegetation) appears. Here, the text seems to announce and even embody the approaching (and already inherently present) decay at a different speed than the images. However, the reader that looks closely, can also recognize the herald of decay in the images, since the metal bars to which the papers are fastened, are the same metal bars that constitute the�'prototypical' cage a bit further in the album (for example the picture on page 178). But still, everyone will probably admit that especially the prophetic words can evoke this specific emotion in the picture on pages 12 to 13.

The many repetitions of phrases like de nouveau (among others on page 50, page 56 and page 61), as well as the analogously returning sentence structures or fragments (for example "prématurément interrompue" (page 11) - "prématurément arrêtée" (page 50)) and the superfluous occurrence of the present participle - maybe the verb form par excellence to indicate that something is still going on, that something hasn't reached a final ending - all contribute to the circular structure of La Cage. In my opinion, the most amazing example of a circular structure brought about by text and image, is to be found in the picture on pages 164 to 165. Visually, 'a wall with a frame on it' appears, 'in which an image of a pyramid dotted with ink (cf. supra) is shown, that on its turn seems to be standing inside a room'. The text under the image initially seems to describe the image only vaguely, but the reader that opens up to the depth of the words "jusqu'au sommet du tertre, enfin, atteint par des voies bordées, de noires machines votives, obscurci par l'ombre violente de la cage", will notice a shift to the picture on pages 16 to 17 or pages 18 to 19, while the following words "la carcasse emmêlée taillée en pieces, Volant en éclats au bas de l'escalier, réduite en cendre et dispersée (...)" will lead the reader to the picture on pages 20 to 21, after which they will make him/her end up at page 164.

Striking is also the sporadic usage of an italicized typography and of words like énigmatique, which undoubtedly accentuates the powerfully puzzling nature of La Cage. Also well put together, is the combined play of word and image in the transition of the picture on pages 26 to 27 to the picture on pages 28 to 29. On the one hand, the images very subtly bring about a significant shift in the observation of the reader: for, the position of the five boulders on pages 26 to 27 is literally repeated in the position of the furniture in the room on pages 28 to 29! On the other hand, the accompanying words function as a hinge between the two pictures and also as the last paradox that is mentioned in this discussion, since this 'simple' articulation seems to contain the key to every perspective that has been taken up in the 'complex' graphic novel La Cage: "et tous les efforts pour parvenir au centre deviennent superflus" (page 26) "puisque chaque combinaison conduit inévitablement au sommet et à la cage" (page 27).

The back door

Every reader of La Cage will probably agree with me that the album can't be 'written down' in a paper of about ten pages. The expression that "every reading is a different reading", certainly holds true for a complex album like La Cage. A short list of the puzzling terms mentioned in this paper, like circle, paradox, universe, variant and labyrinth, already is a 'silent' witness of this fact. For the curious (and daring) among us, it is therefore a must to enter 'the cage' themselves and to participate, in that way, in the game between album and reader.


Bernlef, J. Winterwegen. Amsterdam: Querido, 1983.
Kopland, R. "Meer in dingen dan in mensen", In: Nieuw Wereldtijdschrift . Antwerpen: Manteau, 1985 (2).
Vaughn-James, M. La Cage . Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 1986


Popular posts from this blog

Daniel Y. Harris has composed a wild poetic drama through realms of eros and spirituality. His writing is simultaneously playful and profound, transmuting ancient symbols and concepts into a contemporary wisdom, heretofore unknown in poetry

James Reich - Giving voice to one of the most enigmatic characters in the literary canon, Reich presents meticulous and controversial solutions to the origins, mystery and messianic deterioration of Mistah Kurtz: company man, elephant man, poet, feral god

Anne Boyer - a book of mostly lyric prose about the conditions that make literature almost impossible. It holds a life story without a life, a lie spread across low-rent apartment complexes, dreamscapes, and information networks, tangled in chronology, landing in a heap of the future impossible