Escaping the Cage:

Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage and the Question of Comics

In comics studies, there is a great interest in defining what exactly constitutes a comic. Scott McCloud famously begins his Understanding Comics by trying to define exactly what we can and what we cannot consider a comic. And though his definition encapsulates a vast amount of the contributions to the medium, it excludes others. Later thinkers, both practitioners and academics have revised, refuted, and re-written McCloud’s definition, or have come up with definitions of their own, always beginning from the question “What are comics?”

I’ll rebut with this question: “Does it really matter?”

In 1975, Martin Vaughn-James and Coach House Press published The Cage. It has recently come back into print, once more through Coach House, and found its way onto the syllabus of a graduate level comics studies course I took this past fall. The first question put to the class was “Is it a comic?”

Vaughn-James’s book, what cartoonist Seth hails in his introduction as “a masterpiece,” is, arguably, a narrative-less sequence of images and text with no clear setting or characters. I say arguably, because I have my suspicions that we, the readers, are the character in the book, and that the book itself is the setting, the cage that we walk into. But more on that later. The layout of the work (I will refrain, just for the moment, from calling it a comic) is simple: there is one illustration on each page, sometime accompanied by text and sometimes not. The text occasionally seems to be interacting with the illustration, occasionally seems to be interacting with illustrations earlier or later in the book, and occasionally seems to be channeling either the thoughts of the writer or, perhaps, the thoughts of the reader. While there is definitely a movement from left to right, panel to panel, as with a “traditional” comic, the work also features an intense movement inward, like a slowed down and “surreal-ized” version of Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3 Secondes (though perhaps it is more proper to say Mathieu’s work is sped-up and rational version of The Cage). On the surface, it seems to conform to McCloud’s famous definition: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Regardless of whether we accept McCloud’s definition, it is a good basic starting point, and The Cage starts here, surely. It also conforms to Thierry Groensteen’s idea of the “spatio-topia” of a comic, the idea that in composing a work in this medium, the writer intrinsically must conform his or her idea to the physical parameters of the medium. Groensteen says that a “scenario destined for comics…[must] be developed in a dialogue with a certain preliminary idea of the medium.” Again, The Cage appears to conform to this spatio-topic criteria. It is virtually inconceivable to imagine this sequence of images and words appearing in any other medium.

Yet still, in our class, there were voices raised against the idea of it being a comic.

The narrative, so to speak, of The Cage is fairly simple. It begins inside a cage (or does it?), and progressively moves out of that cage, through sometimes surreal, sometimes apocalyptic, landscapes, into buildings that crumble with age, or are reborn, as we move through them. We witness the construction of undefinable machines, made of disparate elements that seem to move as if given life, Frankenstein’s Monsters through the lens of Salvador Dali. Recognizable items, relics of technological culture morph into rounded, organic forms. We never see a human figure, though their presence, their remnants, perhaps, suffuse the book. All the while the prose rambles, describes the scene, or a scene to come, or a scene that is long past, recalling earlier panels to one’s memory, even as the panels recall earlier prose. One becomes enmeshed in the constant swirling of image and text, the maelstrom within the pictures (can you see where I’m going here?). One becomes trapped in The Cage.

(And this is why I would argue that the reader, him- or herself, is the character in this piece, and also why I might suggest that the story actually starts outside of a cage, or rather, outside of The Cage.)

Let’s just jump back to our definitions, or qualifications, for being comics. The vital part of McCloud’s definition that we should pay attention to is the production of an “aesthetic response in the viewer” (I’ve never liked that word, “viewer.” Reader works so much better, especially with McCloud’s, and others’, championing of a visual language to comics). The information The Cage passes along to its reader is facilitated almost entirely by the aesthetic response. We do not process the story rationally or linearly. We process it emotively. Looking to Groensteen, the flashing back and forward, through the body of the text, demonstrates Vaughn-James’s acute awareness of the spatio-topia of the medium. In prose fiction, perhaps we can liken this kind of awareness to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, though there’s a very good argument to be made that that, too, is a comic. Fodder for another conversation, perhaps. So, if The Cage conforms to at least the preliminary aspects (and preliminary is really all we have space for here) of the definitions (or systems, as Groensteen might correct me) of two well-respected scholars of comics, why would we ask the question “Is it a comic?”

To begin, it doesn’t tell us a story. There is no narrative. One does not close the back cover of the book with any sense of beginning, middle, end. There is also a feeling of arbitrariness to the sequence of images. Some series of images obviously belong together. As we witness, over the course of 5 or 10 pages, the aging of the inside of a room, we must admit that it is necessary for those images to be placed in those sequences. But what of the sequence of the series’ of images themselves? Certainly when the scene changes fundamentally, as it does in some places, we could rearrange those sequences with little damage to the “narrative.” A fraught contention, to be sure, and one that would require numerous further readings of the work to prove or disprove. It is hard to think of any other work in comics that evidences this potential arbitrariness of sequence. Further, what of the relationship, or lack thereof, between the text and the illustration. We must ask if they could be separated and still be effective, and we must also ask if the juxtaposition of the two on a single page serves the work as a whole in the same way that a traditional speech bubble might. As I’ve noted, the prose seems to comment on the illustrations, but not always the illustration with which it is juxtaposed. I would argue that this is one of the work’s great strengths, this spatial and temporal mesh within which a reader becomes an actor. But it is also, I will gladly admit, not a traditional use of the elements of the medium.

And so I come again to this question: “Is it a comic?” And back to the fundamental question: “What are comics?”

I’ll offer an opinion, with which you are of course welcome to disagree: Of course it’s a comic. It’s also poetry, and it’s also visual art. It’s both a book and an experience. Surely trying to delineate things in this manner simply limits the things to which we can apply our critical voices. The Cage does things that no other work does, regardless of medium or genre. It does things with the language of comics that no other comic does, and it does this, or did this, in the early seventies, almost forty years ago. Perhaps we should look at it as a post-modern response to the modernist fulcrum of Krazy Kat. Perhaps we should consider it as a forerunner to non-linear narratives like Morrison’s The Invisibles or Priest and Bright’s Quantum and Woody. Perhaps we should consider it a formal experiment along the lines of the aforementioned 3 Secondes, or Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile. But above all, we should consider it comics. Because if we don’t then we admit that the medium we love has boundaries. I truly believe it does not.

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Tom Miller currently resides in Calgary, Alberta, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Calgary which he hopes will not take him the ten years everyone keeps telling him it will. His research interests, aside from the ever-pervasive superhero comics, also encompass popular physics texts, H.P. Lovecraft, psychedelic writing and shamanism, modernist American literature, and the literary theory of Northrup Frye. And superhero comics. Always superhero comics. As well as collecting the aforementioned comics, Tom also collects blogs, though many of them sit empty and forlorn. His comic-related work, when it appears, can be found at

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  1. Really? No one has commented on this?

    I’m with you one hundred percent. In fact, you’ve convinced me to go ahead and hunt down this book/comic because I have many of the same questions about what can be done with comics. I also see how we could consider House of Leaves a comic, but I feel it may straddle the (admittedly shaky) line between mediums. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that HoL is a visual experience, one that challenges notions of space within a text. I’d love to read any more work you have on these topics. Best to you, sir!

    • Tom Miller says:

      Thanks for the reply, Kenneth. The book is worth reading. It’s quite beautiful, and it’s one of those ones that has me wanting to go back again and again, because I feel like there’s something it’s trying to tell me that’s just out of my grasp. Of course, there may be nothing, and maybe that’s what it’s trying to tell me too!
      As far as HoL, I think you’re right that it straddles that line, and we need to reconsider whether those lines are doing more harm than good to the narrative media that we enjoy.

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