There’s a lot to be said for Dave McKean’s Cages – Not least of which how incredibly beautiful it looks, with McKean’s scratchy, off-kilter linework finding both focus and freedom in a way that I’m not sure it’s ever quite managed before or since (Which isn’t meant as an insult to anything else he’s done as an artist; I’m a sucker for almost everything he does, and have been since I first saw his work in… Black Orchid, I think? God, now I feel old) – but what always sticks with me about the massive tome that the series eventually turned into, through multiple publishers and long delays, is the way it just reminds me of the potential of comics as a medium.
For those who haven’t read Cages, firstly, you should fix that; I think it’s in print from Dark Horse Comics these days. Secondly, it’s Dave McKean’s first solo comic, and it’s one that’s as expansive in subject matter – Is it an allegory about creative freedom and the dangers of self-censorship? Is it a romance story? – as it is in format, going between picture book text and illustration to “traditional” comics to silent near-fumetti and back again. It’s a comic that’s entirely in love with comics, with the possibility of them and the freedom they offer, and maybe more rarely, a comic that wants to explore a musicality about comics; not only does jazz play a part in the story itself, but Cages is in many ways a jazz comic, offering McKean the chance to improvise and follow his creative muse in a way not normally “allowed” in comics – or music, outside of jazz, perhaps – and it’s all the better for it.
It helps that Cages is, in so many ways, a non-traditional comic about entirely traditional things. Yes, Cages goes to many unexpected and weird places throughout its 400-odd pages even within the “realism” of the main narrative, but what’s strongest about the book are the parts that are completely true to life: Infatuations, bizarre interactions with animals. Awkward conversations that don’t go anywhere, and even more awkward people who seem to surround us even though we don’t know how. McKean’s approach to all of this – a relaxed naturalism in both dialogue and art that’s unlike most mainstream comics – feels real and honest enough to ease nervous readers – That’d be me, back when I first read the book – past the more outre elements, and give them somewhere to land afterward. It’s a comic that wonderfully balances its experimental curiosity with something akin to… well, heart, really.
There are plenty of examples of creators who’ve made their reputations in Big Two comics – even if it’s the Vertigo side of the Big Two – who go indie only to put out variations on the work that made them famous. Cages is just the opposite: It’s what happens when a creator takes full advantage of what it means to be independent, and in the process, grows past people’s expectations of what they were capable of. There should be more books like this.
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