Life, the Universe and Sequential Art

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It's a huge hardcover that weighs ton, costs fifty bucks and has become required reading. No, it's not a textbook. It's Dave McKean's "Cages," (NBM Publishing Inc.; 496(!)pp.) A self-described comic novel, "Cages" first appeared as a series of sporadically published books from 1991 through 1996. Then the collected "Cages" became a victim of successive publishing bankruptcies, and has been out of print for some time. As ambitious as it is gigantic, it has now returned. Possibly the most high-end comic ever published, "Cages" combines art-book production values with a story about Life, Death, Art, God and a black cat.

Warning: "Cages" starts badly, with not one but four different silly creation myths, written out with such overcooked prose as "Time, a leaf, a life, a cloud, was forgotten." Skip them and go right to the comix. Here McKean's visual prowess justifies the metaphysical themes. "Cages" mostly takes place in an apartment building that Leo Sabarsky, a painter, has just moved into. There he meets Jonathan Rush, a secretive, Salman Rushdie-like writer whose latest book incites riots. Completing the traditional arts, Angel, a musician who can make stones sing, lives there too. Mixing Ingmar Bergman with Monty Python, strange, vaguely metaphorical characters pop in and out. Pudgy, bowler-hatted men regularly visit the writer to collect anything that he loves, giving them over to a mad doctor who dissects the objects, looking for their soul. The painter receives a visit from a mute gallery owner who keeps word-cards in his pocket and forms malapropisms like, "Oh, sheep I've lost all my sobbing colours."

Leo Sabarsky considers his art in Dave McKean's "Cages"

Lacking a traditional plot, the book has an episodic quality, focusing on an individual, like the woman who cooks dinner for her five-years-late-from-work husband, then moving on to the next. A black cat's wanderings serve as the narrative link between them all. Other connections, less obvious, also slowly appear. A mysterious, cog-filled glass ball appears on the painter's table and again in another character's dream. Most brilliantly, some connections come as a result of matching visual styles — just as it should be for a smart, sophisticated, "graphic" novel. One explosion of color in this otherwise, black, white and soft blue book depicts the destructive rage of a book-burning mob. A later color sequence concludes the book with the big bang of (pro)creation.

Visually, the book is stunning. Going through it, you come to realize how much sense it makes to have it printed in the same way as a western art course book. McKean hits all the styles, from fuzzy iconic images like cave drawings, to representational pen and ink, to painterly abstract expressionism, up through photography and digital effects. But most important, it's all done at the service of a linear narrative, the definition of comix. When the painter meets a woman at a bar the graphics are laid out in clear rows of careful panels. As the couple relaxes into easy conversation, the drawings slip over the edge of the panels until the forms become free, abstract swirls. Then, refocusing, the man looks at his watch and says, "God, what time is it?"

"Cages" will, without question, set people's pretentiousness alerts off to honking and squealing. Dave McKean wants nothing less than to create and explore an entire cosmology. (That he wants to do it through the "lowly" comic book only adds to his challenge.) . But pretentiousness only applies to art that overreaches and fails. McKean, with remarkable talent and nerve, has succeeded in making a comic like no other. "Cages" has all the qualities of a real universe -- sprawling yet contained, chaotic yet organized, mysterious yet discernable, comedic yet serious. Assuming you have a re-enforced bookshelf, $50 doesn't seem too much to ask for both a universe and a work of art.

"Cages" can be found at better comic shops and smart bookstores. Online booksellers have it at a steep discount — "only" $35!

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