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Cages (25th Anniversary Edition)

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Cages (25th Anniversary Edition) back

Dave McKean


Page 45 Review by Stephen

“It’s just paying attention.”

In which stories are told, rhythms and patterns are perceived, connections spring forth and sweet music is made.

It’s in conversations that we so often discover these connections – of ideas and experiences and perhaps greater truths. They make themselves known in the to and fro, the ebbs and flows, one observation or recollection sparking another in the other. Without conversations we are locked in our own insular little world. They’re my favourite thing in life.

Communication catalyses creativity – and this is a book about both – juggling what you see, what you’ve experienced, what lies in your head and what you hold in your hands to create these rhythms and patterns and connections. It requires judgement, perception and balance; the courage to get started or start again.

It is also, unsurprisingly, a book about cages, for not everyone is blessed with freedom or companionship, and there is a singular sort of loneliness experienced between couples who’ve essentially stopped talking to each other about anything that matters, out of fear of hearing or telling the truth.

After a prologue of Beginnings and Ends – of creation and frustration and doubt; of God’s withdrawal and mankind’s rage – we open with the moon high up in the heavens, its full, perfect orb shining in an open, star-lit sky. Across this slinks a lithe silhouette, unmistakably feline.

Under the moon lie many silent spires and ornate cupolas. The black cat pauses to survey birds in flight before dropping from the rooftop to the tenement’s fire escape to descend, flight by flight and observe what transpires inside.

A lone, anxious man winds his watch to make sure that it’s ticking. This will become funny later on. His window is remarkably high.

Further down a dreadlocked musician whom we’ll come to know as Angel sits outside his own window, playing a wind instrument. He chats to the cat with a charming lilt.

“Yo! Mr. Cat.
“And how are you this fine, fine night.
“You really are de doziest great supine I hever see, y’know?
“Eh? Mister Cat?
“Nothin’ wrong wit’ that now.
“But surely is a perfect raven of a night, Mr. Cat.
“Don’t it feel like de start o’ sometin’.”

The cat is curious but keeps its own council. It passes a pigeon, pausing only briefly to inspect, before peering into another room through cracked glass. There is a shift in style from fluid black ink and blue-grey tone to pencil and soft washes: a man with a ponytail stands frustrated in front of his easel; a couple make love; a couple much older embrace; the room is quite empty.

Back in black and another storey down, we see two sinister, burly men in coats and hats menacing another; a finger points threateningly, a hand is raised in resignation and a painting is removed from its wall.

Descending further still, a white cockatoo caws out from its cage. “What a bugger! What a bugger!” An unseen occupant shoos the cat away.

It leaps down to the ground to be greeted by a man in search of an address. The cat can’t help, but Jeffrey believes he can. Jeffrey is a man with a wire constellation round his head and an insight into God’s grand scheme of things. Later he calls it his “consternation” and he happens to be right. He declares the stranger to be lost, but I rather think that’s Jeffrey’s problem. Fortunately our new lodger is greeted by a homeless man who, as they walk, speaks of spiritual identity and the nourishment of the soul, for which he is given the price of a cup of tea.

“Ahh, you’re a saint an’ a saviour, sir. God grants your wishes, my friend, have a good life.”
“I just want to know where Meru House is!”
“Look around you, son... your wish is granted.”

He’s right on its doorstep. This is Leo Sabarsky, an artist with a ponytail starting again from scratch. Under his arm he carries a blank canvas. It’s time to make contact.

But just before he enters, outside the tenement’s front door and below all its scaffolding, Leo finds a paper page torn from a book called ‘Cages’. It is charred.

The choreography and concept behind this introductory sequence is ever so clever. Although we will wander elsewhere – down narrow side-streets whose lantern-light emanates in white, watery waves, pulsing like music; from the jazz bar where Angel performs; and to one other quite startling, barely possible residence – it firmly establishes the focus on this one particular building and the cages which lie within. To a cat, almost any room must look like a cage. It also poses so many questions which – even if you don’t know quite what they are yet – will all be answered as we encounter each individual again, along with others connected but so far unseen, from different perspectives, in different lights.

It was here that McKean first branched out from the relative photo-realism of BLACK ORCHID, the intense expressionism of ARKHAM ASYLUM and the dense puppetry, photography and full-colour photo-collage of MR PUNCH to something far sleeker to keep your eyes moving across its pages. This was essential for such a big book (nearly five hundred pages), so much of which concentrates on conversations and monologues, and the discipline of a black which glows, a blue-grey which sheens and the white light which shines casts emphasis on the shapes, the textures, the figure forms and expressions which are deliciously lively and angular and energetic – in short, communicative. They add their own lilt and cadence to the conversations.

However, however, if you think McKean has ditched his customary love of the multi-media approach – carefully selecting what will work best for each constituent element – then there are revelations within. There are bursts of full-colour passion which stand out all the more strikingly for their restricted use; though I would remind you that not all human passion is positive.

There’s a haunting reverie rendered in fantastical black and white photography and additional painting then a blaze of iridescent red and electric-blue colour which is sandwiched within a strict nine-panel grid for a desperately sad sequence as delusional old Edie, owner of the cockatoo, busies herself in her husband’s much-missed absence. Afraid to go out without him, her flat may be a cage but so is her head, crammed with a past of herself and her husband, both thwarted.

“KAW! Bill’s not home yet, Bill’s not home yet.”

All the art here is in service to the story. When Angel, on stage, discusses the dissonance of one brother’s music, full of fire but no discipline (as opposed to the other twin’s learning but lack of passion – it’s basically Jane Austen’s ‘Sense And Sensibility’ given a musical context), his words which speak of “a racket” are lost in the visual cacophony.

But perhaps my favourite chapter lies at the graphic novel’s centre / heart when Karen is first introduced at the jazz cafe-bar. Karen we have only seen from afar. She lives in a building opposite Leo’s room and, searching for any inspiration to free him from the fright of a big, blank canvas, he has sketched her as she waters her plants on her balcony. Angel has taken an interest in that sketchbook, borrowed it, and now returns it via Karen.

“A friend asked me to return your book.”
“Ah a...”
“He would have given it back himself...
“Only he’s over there, grinning.”

Angel is indeed at the other side of the bar, smiling knowingly.

“Son of a...”
“So, do you spy on your other neighbours too?”

Leo is at first speechless.

“I’m speechless.”

I told you so. He babbles a bit. Okay, he babbles a lot.

“Christ, listen to me. I’ve forgotten all the words I’ve learned since I was six. I’ll get the drinks.”

It’s enormously sweet. It’s all very natural. Then the art does a similar thing to that which Frederik Peeters would pull off later in BLUE PILLS: it pulls back from their table as the music kicks in, then at the same time focuses solely on their shared space as if everyone else in the busy room had disappeared. That’s what happens when you meet minds with somebody new: the outside world evaporates, you lose track of time and you are lost in the music of conversation. We don’t hear what the couple says; we only see them engrossed in each other, their wine glasses floating in the air as their shared table dances across the page in a liberating, free-form flood of images. It is, I kid you not, ecstatic.

But you wait until you witness Karen’s extraordinary residence. It’s magical, as is Leo’s imaginative line of getting-to-know you questioning which, when I first read this 25 years ago, I swore I would try out on a first or second date. I never did; you certainly should. Take notes, and watch out for waterfalls!

CAGES – as I may have mentioned more than once – is essentially a book of conversations, some of them rhetorical for we all talk to cats, none of them extraneous and all of them riveting. McKean has Alan Bennett’s ear for dialogue and his own for its exchange: for when someone’s listening and when they are not, for when someone blithely goes off on one while the other may be fixated elsewhere, and for when two people seek to get to the bottom of something important by refining their ideas and interpretations of each other’s ideas, together. In McKean’s hands it’s like music, but then he is a musician and has much to say on that subject through Angel. The two come together here.

“The ‘D’ scales are conversational scales.
“When I listen to someone I listen to de tonal modulation of de speech.
“I listen to de shades and pauses an’ phrasings.
“I listen an’ learn what that person is t’inkin’ t’rough de structure of what dey say... not de fabricated meanin’ of de words dey use...
“De message is in de music.”

And I don’t know how often this is pointed, but the conversations in CAGES are – so many of them – very, very funny. The breaks and beats between new tenant Leo Sabarsky and deaf-as-a-doorpost Doris, the concierge, are so astutely observed, while the yelling, swearing, doing-the-minimum delivery guy is a scream. Leaving his elderly minion to heave an impossibly heavy crate up steep flights of stairs, he carries the smaller one under his arm (“UP” pointed down), secures his signature and pins a badge to Sabarsky:

“Joe’s Removal’s: Service Is Our Middle Fuckin’ Name.”

The same could be said of the fickle barman, who is not a people person, proffering one his many conflicting opinions of Angel:

“He’s a poet. An immense, creative force. I mean, the man’s a god, really.”
“I know I know. I’m a conservative sort of guy. Okay, the man’s a glowing, transcendent ball of light. A pure and all embracing power. An opalescent...”
“Yeah, I get the picture.
“You know, when I first came to work here, I asked him where the toilets were. You know what he said. Do you know what he said?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“”Over there.” “Over there,” that’s what he said! “Over there.” Jesus, I cried, you know?”
“”Over there,” that’s what he said.”

I love the way the thought is still lingering there, the barman stroking his own neck in further contemplation. I like the way McKean minimises “I can’t imagine” so that it’s uttered almost under Leo’s breath.

There’s an exquisite conversation between Karen, Leo and the first man we met conducted using – ah, that would constitute spoilers, I fear, but trust me: it’s different and delightful and once again funny.

I’ve not mentioned Jonathan Rush and his wife Ellen yet. Well, I have: they’re the ones who receive hostile visitors. They’re also less than pleased to see Leo, but Leo is new and persistent, wrangling his way through their door with the old cup of sugar routine. To begin with they communicate through the door.

“And what would you want with sugar, Mr. Sabarsky?”
“Ahmm... well, I’d like to make some tea. I only have the wine that I packed to bring with me, and I don’t know where the shops are yet, so I’d really like to borrow some sugar so I could have some tea.”
“I see.”
“And some milk.”
“And milk?”
“Well, and some teabags too, but don’t worry, I’ve got the water and cup.”
“Uh huh.”
“Oh hang on, no, I haven’t. I’ll take a cup as well if I could?”

Strangely, though they have been there a while, Jonathan and Ellen don’t know the area very well. Immediately Leo believes he recognises the man – it’s in his eyes, which are intense, haunting or haunted – and McKean shows a memory of them, then the eyes being sketched, and that’s when Leo remembers, on picking up one of Jonathan’s novels and its author’s photograph on the back.

“I knew I recognised you. I actually drew you once. I remember your eyes. Christ, well, that’s proof that when you draw it’s one of the few times you really concentrate.”

The book is called ‘Cages’.

You’ll discover Jonathan and Ellen’s current predicament during another inventive sequence, as the writer takes one of his own books down from the shelf and reads its dedication, “For my wife Ellen for criticism and hugs, two things I couldn’t live without.” Behind the dedication, then further book spine’s we’re shown Jonathan’s recollections of how each book was received upon publication: happy hugs in the woods, discussions over dinner with friends and peers, delightedly spotting his own books in a with shop window, award nominations, an award ceremony... then the ghosts of the past become stranger, and you may be reminded of what Angel told his audience about illumination. For that, you will have to read the book. It is astonishing how coherent this all is – different elements informing each other – and how many ideas are addressed here.

From the creator of BLACK DOG, THE DREAMS OF PAUL NASH, Page 45’s current Comicbook Of The Month – and so much more; please do pop Dave in our search engine – this is a big book of beliefs, doubts, traps, fears, and new beginnings. Keep moving, keep juggling, keep talking. Keep creating something new.

“Of course, it’s impossible.”
“What is?”
“Trying to make concrete what I can see in my head. It’s impossible.”
“Well, you have to do one or two impossible thing now and again. Otherwise you get complacent.”
“ ...”
“Absolutely right.”
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