Dave McKean’s Cages 25th Anniversary Edition Pushes Words & Pictures to Their Limit

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Dave McKean&#8217;s <i>Cages</i> 25th Anniversary Edition Pushes Words & Pictures to Their Limit

Writer/Artist: Dave McKean
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release Date: November 2, 2016

5511328-01.jpg Dave McKean’s array of skills can, at times, induce paroxysms of envy. He’s probably best known for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, on everything from a John Constantine story to the covers for Sandman to the film MirrorMask, where McKean directed Gaiman’s screenplay. But McKean is also a fantastic writer in his own right, and Cages is a sterling example of that fact. Originally released in single-issue form from 1990 to 1996, this latest edition adds a few new features, including a glimpse of McKean’s sketchbook and an introduction by McKean’s cohort in the surreal and multidisciplinary, Terry Gilliam. And it’s a powerful and singular work, one that encompasses the quotidian, the surreal and the grandiose—often on the same page.

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 revisits over the course of the book—both the creation of the cosmos and the making of art. Leo Sabarsky, the central character of Cages, moves into a new apartment and finds that several of his neighbors are also involved in artistic disciplines, including Jonathan, a novelist, and Angel, a musician and poet. Leo struggles with being artistically blocked, wanders through the city, and begins to make connections with some of his fellow residents. Over time, the narrative evokes both the mundane work of attempting to find inspiration alongside surreal moments, including the appearance of a preternaturally intelligent cat and a group of sinister men who seem to have wandered in from a more Kafka-esque narrative.

Cages Interior Art by Dave McKean

The title of the book assumes a host of meanings as the book proceeds: a novel called Cages plays a part in the graphic novel’s plot, and several of the characters are, metaphorically (and, in one case, metaphysically), imprisoned. A parrot residing in a cage factors heavily in one of the sequences. And, more broadly, McKean frequently uses a nine- or sixteen-panel grid, which also imposes a cage-like design on the page.

Cages Interior Art by Dave McKean

McKean structures the story as a showcase for his array of artistic styles: while most of the narrative is told in a boldly black-and-white manner, with impressive linework and spots of color, he occasionally veers into a more lush style to evoke a story being told, or veers into abstraction to document a strong emotional reaction. There are times where Cages reads like a Modernist novel translated into a different medium; a long monologue delivered by one of Leo’s neighbors is evocative in its own right, but the staging of it, which includes shifting between the speaker and her reflection in a window, is utterly stunning. The presence of jazz in the narrative seems telling, too—there’s a glorious sense of freedom here, a sort of transposition of the spirit of free improvisation into panels and words. There’s a moment near the end where, when it seems that McKean has pushed this story through every conceivable iteration of his style, he suddenly produces more, to breathtaking effect.

Cages Interior Art by Dave McKean

While the book’s tone is largely realistic, especially in its first half, there are some jarring moments of surrealism: pairs of sinister men occasionally crop up and cause trouble, menacing Jonathan in particular. There are references made to a novel he wrote that caused a controversy, and has kept him in hiding; the development echoes Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, not the least of which is the fact that Jonathan’s surname is Rush.

Cages Interior Art by Dave McKean

Cages is largely breathtaking in its use of the form. McKean is equally at home working within a rigid page layout as he is veering into a much more abstract system. His use of the occasional phonetic spelling, largely to differentiate characters’ accents, was a little harder to pull off. There’s also some terrific misdirection: a couple of subplots seem bizarrely shoehorned in until late in the narrative, when suddenly a line of dialogue reveals just how they connected to one another and to the larger storyline. It’s one of many moments in this book that serves as a reminder that McKean, a figure of many skills, possesses even more than one might expect, and this 25th anniversary edition featuring a new cover and remastered interior art is a welcome celebration of his myriad talents as a storyteller.

Cages Interior Art by Dave McKean