On Dave McKean’s Cages

If he was only ever known for his famous run of 75 cover collages for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Dave McKean would still be an important name in comics. These groundbreaking works introduced McKean’s inventive, mixed-media style to a wide audience, as well as providing him with a monthly forum for his experimentation. What’s more often overlooked is that, during the same period, McKean was also writing and drawing his own magnum opus, the 500-page graphic novel Cages. The book is McKean’s grandest achievement, an ambitious meditation on creativity, art, romance, spirituality, and the complex links between them. It is, to date, the only comics work on which McKean has been both writer and artist, and with his primary interests now in film and design, it’s likely to stay that way for at least the foreseeable future.

What Cages demonstrates most vividly is the sheer virtuosity and inventiveness of McKean’s imagination. 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. There’s a wealth of visual material here, and the best part is that it’s not just abstracted excess – every shift in style is intricately linked to the story and characters. McKean’s storytelling in Cages is boldly experimental, largely because he uses aesthetics as a primary drive for the narrative, as well as for characterization.

For McKean, the actual look of each page is a key component in telling the story. The visuals not only reveal a great deal about the characters’ emotions and personalities – through McKean’s highly developed sense of facial expressions – but are used to elucidate broader themes, present symbols, and communicate ideas. Each page crackles with energy and passion, even if the drawings just show a few talking heads having a conversation. And when the story breaks down into one of McKean’s more grandiose experimental flights, things really get exciting. He’s relegated these experimental touches and wild compositions to only a handful of moments in the story, so as to heighten their impact.

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. It’s not a perfect divide, but McKean’s slow, patient storytelling techniques cause him to spend nearly half the book on setup and character profiles before he really sets the main action rolling.

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.

This prologue is titled “Scaffolding,” an obvious reference to the construction of the world. McKean’s four tries at this construction narrative themselves make up a kind of meta-construction – creating a story about creating a world. The artist as God to his creation. It’s a familiar idea, but McKean is setting up a rich metaphorical framework that pays off throughout the narrative. 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 opening of the first chapter, after this introduction, is dedicated to following the book’s first major character – a black cat who becomes a silent witness to much of the action – as he prowls around the exterior of an apartment building. 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. Without this subtle connection, the creation story intro could easily be seen as a wry joke – after all, couldn’t you say that the creation of the world could be the prologue for any story? But McKean’s book is, to a large extent, about the process of creation, so it’s fitting that he provides this metafictional referent in the opening chapters. The presence of the scaffolding confirms that we’re witnessing creation happening on the page. The author is in the process of forming these characters for us, shaping them from the momentary glimpses we get here into the fully formed people they’ll later become.

The cat’s stroll provides brief looks at a number of lives which will be expanded upon as the book goes on, and finally winds up at street level, at the feet of the painter Leo Sabarsky. Leo is lost and doesn’t realize he’s standing right in front of the building he’s looking for: Meru House. He’s soon accosted by a rotund young man whose shirt announces, “Hello, my name is Jeffrey” in bold letters across its front, and who has a three-dimensional map of the solar system hovering like a crown over his head.

Upon re-reading , this scene reminded me of something I’d forgotten: Cages can be truly, broadly funny. It’s easy to forget, since what looms large in memory is mostly the heavy philosophical musings and the complex graphics. 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. McKean’s characters have problems, but his perspective on the world is essentially positive, and there’s plenty of room in his stories for joy and laughter and simple conversation.

In this scene, Jeffrey helps Sabarsky find his way (“you’re riiiight… here,” he says, pointing to one of the planets above his head), and delivers some words of wisdom about God. “Don’t you see? How tiny we are? How we are all just prawns in God’s great chess game of existence?” It’s played mainly for laughs – and the back and forth rhythm of the conversation displays some classically perfect comedic timing – but it’s clear that Jeffrey’s words are also meant to have a deeper resonance, especially in relation to the prologue. In any case, Jeffrey soon departs, and a nearby bum, after some more witty banter, points out the apartment building’s sign to Sabarsky, and that’s it for Chapter 1.

The bulk of the 16-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. Even so, there’s a brief moment that provides some deeper insight into Leo’s character. While he’s waiting for the landlady to show him upstairs, he murmurs a quote from the prologue’s first creation story: “She scraped these fragments together and made a small round muddy ball. ‘This,’ she said, ‘is the world.’” He refers to this as a “starting over” story, and it’s clear that he identifies deeply with the idea of a fresh start.

It’s also clear that McKean is in some way speaking through Leo here. Not only does this scene explicitly place McKean’s words (from the prologue) in Leo’s mouth, but it makes it obvious that McKean is placing himself within this character, that to a large extent the author sees himself in this artist and his struggles. All this is accomplished almost invisibly, with hints and suggestions, so that the metafictional element never becomes overpowering. Throughout the book, such threads are subtly woven into the writing, so that McKean’s presence is an invisible and yet powerful one gently guiding everything along.

This chapter ends with a short scene that suggests the troubles at the core of Sabarsky’s character – and the quintessential problem of the artist in general. 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. It’s the fear of creation itself, the fear of the large empty space that needs to be filled with artistic work. 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. It’s a gesture reminiscent of the metaphor used in the prologue’s first creation story, of the vacuum hidden behind a heavy curtain and scaffolding, ready to be revealed at the moment of creation. Here, Leo is ready to create, and he’s pulling back the tarp to reveal the vacuum underneath, ready to be worked upon.

It’s appropriate then, with the curtain drawn and the blank canvas revealed, that the next chapter opens with the departure of the scaffolding. The scene opens on a photo-like shot of the apartment building’s exterior, focused on the scaffolding in close-up. 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 white glow expands as the threads of the sky come apart, and transitions seamlessly into the blank white glow of Sabarsky’s canvas.

The surreal nature of the scene reinforces the scaffolding’s connection to McKean. Although this puzzling occurrence does have an effect on the comic’s reality – the next morning, the scaffolds really are missing – it’s equally clear that these creatures largely exist on a plane above the narrative. They are McKean’s stand-ins here, drawing back the curtain of the sky to reveal a blank white canvas for the artist/creator to work on, and then packing off all the scaffolds and leaving. Sabarsky’s entry into Meru House completes the world of Cages; there’s no more need of scaffolding, because McKean has now put everything into place for his narrative to truly begin. The initial construction phase is over, and all that’s left is to watch the world’s activity.

Removing the scaffolding.

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. After another slapstick humor routine – this time featuring a decrepit, weak-hearted old mover who carries up some of Leo’s belongings – the artist goes to visit his downstairs neighbor, Jonathan Rush, who he’s heard is a writer.

Nearly an entire page is spent looking at the clean white of Rush’s door. Across the top three panels, a pale outline of a bone creature walks along the door and vanishes off-panel, a reminder that McKean is in control, that this white isn’t just a door but an empty canvas. Rush seems reluctant to even acknowledge that he’s inside, and there’s some cautious whispering between him and his wife Ellen, but they finally let the new neighbor in for a chat. Even when the focus is taken off the door, though, there’s a great deal of white in this scene, particularly on the blank apartment walls. 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.

Rush is an author who doesn’t actually write anymore. He only sporadically reviews books that people send him, most of which he deems worthless and uses for his fireplace. There’s a great deal of frustrated creativity seething under this conversation. 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: “Fear of freedom… Everybody’s a bird, locked up in a pretty cage. Sometimes you fly to a slightly bigger one, but you never quite have the courage to abandon captivity completely.”

This is, obviously, central to the theme of McKean’s work. All the characters in this book, as we discover once we’ve met a few more, are struggling to escape some cage, whether externally imposed or erected from inside. 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. McKean has set himself the same challenge in writing and drawing this book as the characters within the work face, and as the book progresses, McKean’s attempts to fly from his cages become ever more inventive and intense.

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. It’s a familiar debate to anyone who’s paid much attention to music criticism over the years, and it is representative of the artist’s divide between heart and intellect. McKean doesn’t quite come down on one side or the other in the debate, but these early chapters shows him constantly dancing around questions like this, introducing the ideas about creativity and art that he’ll be exploring throughout the book.

The chapter ends with Leo’s first spark of promising creativity. 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 horizontal panels that depict a rooftop vista in three stages of completion: first a largely abstract wash of gray brushstrokes, then a series of inked lines sketching out the buildings, and finally a finished drawing with black and blue shadings filling in the buildings with texture.

Inside, Leo’s still working on his drawing of the woman on the balcony, this time transferring his work to canvas, but he gives up after some initial progress. The chapter is titled “The individual lines begin to describe something,” and it does indeed seem like McKean’s picture is starting to come together. His work increasingly feels like he’s guiding his characters towards something, allowing them to piece together ideas and thoughts in a way that is totally organic and real.

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 jazz 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. It’s here that McKean really cuts loose for the first time, delivering the kind of wild, uninhibited graphic beauty that anyone who’s read his older works knows him to be capable of.

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 tradition, 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 seems to be locking himself into this formal rigor so that the times when he does break its rules – even subtly, by allowing the occasional image to stretch across all three “boxes” of a row – have a greater impact. 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 book, 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. Scott McCloud and other comics theorists have pointed out that the “gutter” between panels is where the reader’s imagination does its work, filling in details and gaps between panels. For a character to move into this area is then akin to taking a step directly towards the reader. The gutter is also the author’s domain, the white space he sets aside to offset and complete his drawings.

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. He’s broken the fourth wall here in a very subtle way, stepping just outside what’s happening. Although McKean still largely sticks, superficially, to a nine-panel structure, Angel’s sketched face often serves as the middle panel in a row, hovering in white and partially laid over the drawings in the other panels. His movement into the gutter indicates that he’s the storyteller now, that for these pages he has taken on McKean’s role for himself. McKean obliges his creation by providing Angel’s story with some of his loveliest, wildest imagery, all brushed and charcoaled in rich shades of gray, depicting the brothers and their story.

Angel steps outside the panel borders.

Angel’s tale echoes the theme of the earlier conversation between the two jazz musicians. 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. McKean, in a vivid composition taking up the bottom two-thirds of one page, depicts the chaos of the brothers’ strivings, nearly covering the sketched Angel in a whirlwind of abstract painting and knife marks. McKean, like the musical brothers, is searching for a balance between spontaneity and technique, between abstraction and communication, searching for the focal point that he deems “truth.”

The next chapter begins the next evening, with Angel borrowing Leo’s sketchbook because he likes the drawing of the woman from the balcony. Then Leo finds himself outside, spying on the two trenchcoat-wearing mystery men who he’d seen taking paintings from Rush’s apartment. Although I haven’t mentioned them much yet, these men have been lingering around the edges throughout the book, always glimpsed on the streets around the building. Their purpose is unclear, but they are undoubtedly a sinister presence, and they seem to be a primary source for Rush’s uneasiness and sadness. 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. When the girl turns her head, she’s wearing a creepy blank-faced mask, and she seems to be with the men, not their victim. The men lead her away and beat up Sabarsky, threatening him with their vicious dog. They’re only chased off when the black cat from earlier runs by and causes the dog to give chase. Leo’s left bruised and alone in the rain, with his key missing so he can’t even get back into the building. 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. He then sees shadowy people moving around inside, but he can’t make out their appearance. Finally, he goes to his landlady to let him inside.

This is, I must admit, a head-scratching chapter. I’m not too sure what to make of the window that seems to show different views of the same room, or the little girl who appears with the two sinister men. 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. That’s one theory, anyway. Keeping in mind that this was originally published as a 10-issue series, they might also simply be early threads that were never picked up again in later issues. Though, given the amount of thought and conceptual rigor that McKean applies to virtually every other scene in the book, it’s equally likely that I simply haven’t quite grasped the implications or metaphorical content in these odd detours.

In any case, that’s it for Leo’s story. This lengthy installment is dedicated to a meandering monologue from a character who hasn’t been previously introduced except by name: Mrs. Featherskill, Leo’s downstairs neighbor. This chapter’s placement provides a perfect interlude from the stories that came before, coming at a pivotal point in the book. Leo’s story has arrived at something of an impasse – his artistic struggles spinning him around in circles – and he seems in need of another fresh start. 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. And both Angel and the cat continue to linger around the story’s edges.

Chapter 6, “Time and Origami,” takes a break from this setup, putting the focus squarely on Mrs. Featherskill. An old woman, puttering around her small apartment, talking to her pet parrot (who occasionally squawks a sarcastic rejoinder), she is possibly the book’s saddest character. McKean’s keen ear for dialogue really shows itself here, perfectly capturing the woman’s light Irish brogue, rambling cadence, repetitions, and the doubling back of her thought processes. 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. As her monologue wears on, it becomes increasingly obvious that Bill is not coming home and probably hasn’t been around in a long time.

This section, the book’s centerpiece, is one of McKean’s strongest. Not only is the language realistic and compelling, but the facial expressions truly convey the pathos and conflicted emotional life of this character. Mrs. Featherskill’s face is drawn with feathery swirls of wrinkled lines suggesting her age. 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. This is not an easy feat, but McKean’s deceptively scratchy ink-work is equal to the task. 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. “Oh my God, look at this,” she murmurs, bowing her head. “Oh my God, me face looks like a blind man’s doodle.”

McKean’s “doodles” soon transform, midway through this chapter, into the book’s loveliest artwork, a sweeping flight of fancy that pulls the narrative out of a cramped urban kitchen and into a shadowy forest. This shift of locale is entirely unexplained: it could be a fantasy, a daydream, a reflection of the old lady’s mindscape, an extended metaphor, or any combination of those. Whichever it is, it’s gorgeous. McKean combines blurry, overexposed black-and-white photographs of a wooded area with the sharp, charcoaled figure of a young girl (the old woman’s much younger self?). Bright sunlight streams through a canopy of trees, as the girl wanders around this surreal landscape, finding a small box of treasures (paper word balloon-shaped signs saying “true” and “false,” and an upsetting note saying “stupid bitch”) and a hollow tree trunk filled with water.

These few wordless pages have a kind of fairy tale quality to them, a fairy tale in the original sense: dark and mysterious, inflected with equal measures of dread and wonder. 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. He then performs a deft series of “zooms” back out from this swirl, to reveal its place on the wing of a butterfly, which promptly joins a swarm of similarly blue-hued insects and flies into a lit candle. The fantasy ends with the candle’s flame turning blue as it snuffs out.

The next page opens with a black panel, and a speech balloon pointing off-panel, saying “Well, that’s that.” It’s disorienting, another seeming metafictional intrusion, until the next two panels establish the scene back in the kitchen, with Mrs. Featherskill concluding her remark, “‘E’s missed his dinner now.” The meaning of this mysterious interlude remains unexplained, although it has a certain subtle resonance with the old lady’s surrounding monologue. 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.

The journey through the woods also has another meaning which, however, doesn’t become obvious until a few chapters later. It’s typical of McKean’s work that he provides such delayed gratification built into his narrative. 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.

This fantasy is placed in the middle of the woman’s monologue, and after it ends, she resumes her conversation, which is still directed at her pet parrot. She discourses, ramblingly, about religion, her husband Bill, and her memories of the past. But her remembrances derail when the parrot begins speaking back independently, contradicting her, reminding her that Bill left five years ago and never even said goodbye; that he isn’t coming back.

As the bird’s speech switches from thoughtless echoing to independent pronouncements, McKean frames Mrs. Featherskill below the bird, her wrinkled face showing up through the bars of the cage. The bird may be the one actually in the cage, but McKean’s compositions place the bars so that the old woman appears trapped by them. The frame zooms in panel by panel, slowly pushing the bird off to the left and zooming in on the old woman’s tortured expression, with the bird’s large word balloons above her head. “He didn’t even say goodbye. Stupid bitch,” caws the parrot, echoing the nasty words found in the treasure box from the earlier fantasy.

As usual, it’s McKean’s utter mastery of the form that makes the scene so compelling. It’s obvious of course that the parrot’s not really saying these things – it’s just the old lady’s subconscious finally breaking through the thin patina of her senile fantasy existence – and McKean chooses to highlight her emotional state by slowly zooming around the bird to focus on her. 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 only other comics characters who are this purely alive are wandering through the pages of Jaime Hernandez’s Locas.

McKean’s gift for characterization and nuance has allowed him to establish a truly living, breathing world in Cages thus far. The Meru House is a home for some very strange and compelling characters, all bursting with mystery and life. In the book’s second half, McKean goes for the payoff by really delving into these characters’ inner lives and letting his ideas burst across the page in increasingly wild flights of fancy, pushing the limits of narrative to include all sorts of abstraction and experimentation. So next month I’ll be back with the second half of my Cages analysis, further parsing the complexities of this remarkable work.

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