Best known for his work with Neil Gaiman, McKean is also an accomplished CAGES. Dave McKean, Author. NBM $50 (p) ISBN Cages opens with an array of short prose pieces, each a variation on the idea of a creation story. This is one of several motifs that McKean. My first encounter with Cages by Dave McKean was not coming upon it in a bookstore, or being recommended it by a more well-read friend.

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In these pages, he pours out a virtual catalog of his visual ideas, from scratchy pen-and-ink linework, to diagrammatic two-color layouts, to rich explosions of his vibrant painting, to photographic collages.

A Love Letter to CAGES by Dave McKean

For McKean, the actual look of each page is a key component in telling the story. Each page crackles with energy and passion, even if the drawings just show a few talking heads having a conversation. Cages has ten chapters. The first six chapters actually make up slightly less than half the book, since the final four chapters each tend to be much longer.

It also makes sense to divide things this way from a structural point of view, since the first six chapters are essentially setting up the characters, situations, and relationships that will form the basis for the action that occurs in the second half of the book.

On Dave McKean’s Cages | Sequart Organization

Cages begins, somewhat incongruously, with a lengthy prologue that consists mainly of typeset text, with incidental paintings and collages alongside the words, laid out more like a picture book than a traditional comic. The text describes four distinct versions of a creation narrative, each significantly different in details, but all of them sharing the theme of God creating the world and then abandoning it in some way forgetting it, pulling away from it, dying, being chased off.

The final illustration is a chilling painting of skeletal, gray-bodied people wandering in a dull fog, with a black vortex swirling above their heads. The sense of absence is palpable.

The artist as God to his creation. The first of these stories seems, on first glance, the most significant, because it represents more a try at creating the world rather than an actual creation story.

A boy and a girl are in a boat on the endless dark water of the pre-universe vacuum. They are bored, and decide to create some land, people, and animals, all created from the muddy clay at the bottom of the water. They soon grow tired of these imperfect creations, abandoning them unfinished and sailing off into the blackness.

The idea of flawed creation, of the struggles and trials of creation, is a central one in Cages. This introductory story is echoed throughout the book in the relationships of characters to each other and to their arts. The building is covered in scaffolding; it is obviously under construction, much like the worlds created in the prologue.

The difference is that, here, the creator or God is McKean, and the construction under way is the creation of a narrative.

Cages can be truly, broadly funny. But McKean leavens his heavier material with quite a bit of humor and lighthearted interaction between his characters, which is one of many things that sets him apart from much of the modern doom-and-gloom generation of cartoonists. How tiny we are? The bulk of the page second chapter is dedicated to a conversation between Leo and his new landlady, with McKean again utilizing classic comedic tropes — mis-hearings and word games — to give their repartee a lively swing.

All this is accomplished almost invisibly, with hints and suggestions, so that the metafictional element never becomes overpowering. Left alone in his room with the aggravating landlady gone, a deeper expression of fear replaces the bemused annoyance that was there throughout his introductory scenes.

In his apartment, Sabarsky stands before a large covered easel, and in the very last panel of the chapter he pulls away the tarp to reveal the blank canvas underneath — a great deal of white space on which to pour out his own thoughts and emotions. As successive panels zoom out, the pipes of the scaffolds become the long, bony fingers of two bizarre skeletal creatures. The creatures are shown as x-rays pasted into the drawing, hovering around and over the building, their delicate appendages stretching down to the ground.

One of the creatures reaches up, its elongated arm ripping the sky open like fabric to reveal a bright white glow beneath. The rest of the chapter is structured as a series of vignettes, following Sabarsky throughout his day as he becomes accustomed to his new surroundings and makes a few abortive attempts at sparking his creativity. To parallel this dry creative process, McKean keeps returning to blank white panels in between scenes. There are pictures clearly missing from the walls, and we and Sabarsky know why, since earlier in the book we caught a mysterious glimpse of some rather shady men leaving the building with them.


He only sporadically reviews books that people send him, most of which he deems worthless and uses for his fireplace.

Towards the end of the encounter, Sabarsky explains how he came to Meru House for a chance to work without restrictions or distractions, and how when he actually did look at the canvas he felt terrified about how to start. In response, Rush delivers a poignant line: Sometimes you fly to a slightly bigger one, but you never quite have the courage to abandon captivity completely. The two artists, Sabarsky and Rush, are of course the most direct stand-ins for McKean himself, for his own attempts as an artist to escape these cages.

And Cages is his greatest, most direct attempt — a sustained effort at breaking boundaries, erasing borders, dodging restrictions.

The next section finds Leo at the jazz club across the street, listening to Angel, the dreadlocked musician from the opening scene, play piano. Nearby, a pair of jazz musicians engage in a debate about music that provides another perspective on the issue of creativity that is so vital to this work.

One musician takes the stance that music should be totally original and constantly developing new techniques, while the other argues that this new, technical music lacks the emotion of older, more unpolished styles.

Later that night, he sees a silhouetted woman standing on a terrace across the street, and he seems immediately inspired, taking up his sketchbook to draw her. The next chapter opens with another metafictional flourish, a series of three mckewn panels that depict a rooftop vista in three stages of completion: For now, though, Sabarsky sets his paintbrush aside and returns to the jazz club, in order to witness a truly strange performance from Angel.

The musician, backed up by a dxve band, in near total darkness, begins speaking into a microphone, delivering a new kind of creation story. This time, the question is not the creation of the world, but the creation of music. Most of the book prior to this point was based on the nine-panel grid and slight modifications of it, with only a few exceptions the skeleton creatures, with their tall, two-to-a-page panels, being one. The nine-panel grid in comics is a symbol of caged, as well as a storytelling form designed to be inconspicuous.

It closes around the characters almost invisibly, and is meant to facilitate a very smooth and quick flow from panel to panel. This subtlety of form actually makes it all the more obvious when the form is broken. McKean has constructed his own cage, so that when he does escape it the freedom will taste that much sweeter. These escapes occur with increasing frequency later in the mxkean, but here McKean is just taking his first tentative steps away from such borders, introducing the first hints of chaos and unfettered creativity to this strictly bounded world.

In this scene, he merely begins to blur the grid a bit, to step outside it, and to play with it in interesting ways. First, Angel goes from being a fully fleshed-out drawing to the barest of rough sketches, his black outline scratched into a blurred grey, standing out starkly against the bare white of the backgrounds.

Angel seems to have shifted out of the panel, out of the world confined by the borders and into the gutter, the layer above.

If the panel is traditionally the boundary of the comics world, characters who step outside of that border are breaking the boundaries of the world, stepping out into territory typically reserved for the author and the reader. For a character to move into this area is then akin to taking a step directly towards the reader. As Angel tells the story of two brothers who set off into the world to develop their music separately, his face hovers between panels, or superimposed over the panels, or overlapping several panels.

Angel steps outside the panel borders. Angel describes how one brother polished his music to a diamond-like level of complexity, but began to lose touch with the meaning behind it. The other brother played spontaneously and wildly, from the heart, but never searched any further to develop his ideas beyond this superficial point.

Here, Sabarsky sees them with a young girl, and he instinctively jumps out of hiding and yells out when they seem to be on the verge of hurting her. As it turns out, things are not quite what they seemed. The men lead her away and beat up Sabarsky, threatening him with their vicious dog.


Instead, he tries to get in through the fire escape.

Looking through his window, he believes his room has been emptied of all his belongings — until he looks again from a different angle, and sees that everything is still there. Finally, he goes to his landlady to let him inside. This is, I must admit, a head-scratching chapter. Neither the girl nor the conceit of the changing view show up again, which makes it doubly puzzling what they could possibly mean here.

The primary purpose of this chapter seems to be to drive Sabarsky to a point of confused frustration, which he takes out on his canvas in a swirl of black paint once he gets back into his apartment.

And the reader — this reader, anyway — goes along for the ride, confronting these absurdities in the same spirit of bewilderment and vague fear as Sabarsky does. Keeping in mind that this was originally published as a issue series, they might also simply be early threads that were never picked up again in later issues. Around him, hints of other tales have begun to come together.

Most interestingly, the encounter with the strange and threatening men indicates new depths of darkness lurking behind the writer Rush, who is tied to the strange men by some sinister unseen threads. The words flow organically across the page, running fluidly from reminiscence about the distant past to worries about preparing dinner to discourses on herbs.

Through it all hovers the specter of her husband Bill, who she seems to be waiting for. Not only is the language realistic and compelling, but the facial expressions truly convey the pathos and conflicted emotional life of this character. But with just body language and the subtleties of his drawing, McKean is able to show occasional glimpses beyond this surface, revealing in this aged form the shade of a woman who must have once been a real beauty.

One sequence, when the old lady catches sight of her own wrinkled face in a mirror and starts with shock, is an achingly wonderful moment. This shift of locale is entirely unexplained: These few wordless pages have a kind of fairy tale quality to them, a fairy tale in the original sense: After spending seven pages in this black-and-white forest, the girl climbs over a hill and into a landscape of pure color, which slowly begins to fill her too — her grey-tone hair becomes streaked with yellow, her eyes fill in with whirlpools of red and green.

And in the midst of a field of brilliant red flowers, the girl dances excitedly, her face turned joyously to the sky. McKean slowly warps the perspective as the girl swings around, turning the field on its side and simultaneously blurring the image into an abstract paint blotch, like a multi-colored Rorschach blot.

Certainly, the idea of lost youth and aging looms large over the whole chapter, so a fantasy of youthful play and dancing makes sense when set off against the nostalgic pining of the rest of the chapter. This interlude may at first glance seem to be an unexplained excuse for visual excess, but it accumulates deeper levels of meaning as events later in the book echo back to it, explaining its dreamlike structure and the possible significance attached to these striking images.

She discourses, ramblingly, about religion, her husband Bill, and her memories of the past.

A Love Letter to CAGES by Dave McKean

Featherskill below the bird, her wrinkled face showing up through the bars of the cage. His genius for facial expressions, which had been used throughout the scene to build depth and nuance, now adds to the devastating effect. This scene ranges the emotional gamut from nostalgia to fear to total abject misery, all the while making this seemingly one-shot character one of the most believable and vibrant in all of comics.

The Meru House is a home for some very strange and compelling characters, all bursting with mystery and life. RSS feed for Ed Howard. See more, including free online content, on Ed Howard’s author page. You must be logged in to post a comment.

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