Comics Unbound

May 20, 2000

mckean-1This review of Dave McKean’s Cages (1998) appeared in an edited form as “Cages Sets Comics Free” in The Straits Times (20 May 2000).

We like to believe that we have outgrown some genres, but the fact of the matter is that genres are ubiquitously governed by the laws of magic beans. Cast by the right hands, given a dash of soil and moisture, and agitated by moonlight, they always grow up faster than we can even imagine for ourselves.

So don’t feel embarrassed the next time you walk into a comic shop because the mental terrains aren’t exactly the same these days. Sure, the regular sagas of superheroes and teenage love are still around — although, in some sectors, those have changed as well — but this argument is increasingly beside the point when one discusses comics.

Take Dave McKean’s Cages, recently released in a collected edition, as an excellent example. One of the boldest efforts in modern “sequential art”, to use a term made famous by Will Eisner, father of the graphic novel, this work contravenes its own generic values by introducing, above all else, an abundance of blank spaces.

With no steady narrative, no hurried pace, and no blood-searing conversation, the visual emptiness finds its rash equivalent all over in the ten-parter. But McKean’s versatility isn’t in his demonstration of how one can always create something out of nothing; it’s in his disclosure that such attempts are essentially impertinent.

If there’s a book that can make both the failing limits of words and pictures speak so rhythmically that they actually meet, this must be the one. Of course, don’t just believe the reviewer: spend an uninterrupted evening going through all 500 pages, the labour of eight years, and see how much ineffable magic goes missing in my next line.

The plot, should you need to know, conveniently revolves around the dwellers of an apartment building and they include a self-driven artist, a writer-in-hiding, a Rastafarian jazz musician, an abandoned middle-aged woman, and a mysterious black cat bringing their separate stories together.

Here is atom-level creativity threatening to become spiritual and, in fact, the book jump-starts with a series of creation myths, some familiar by half, others entirely novel. One tells of a couple — or is it just a man? — adrift on the ocean while another sings of Death; yet another begins with the sleep of God, and a fourth with divine discontent.

Put them all together and, as with the cast of sundry characters, you’ll be at a loss as to what that possibly means. For sure, there’s a valid point in it somewhere although each premature closure seems to declare cacophonously: “No time for that!”, “Go on!”, “The end!”, and “Not the end again!”

What eventually keeps us mesmerised is some kind of philosophical echo which isn’t something we haven’t encountered in daily distractedness. I heard it musing previously: If answers are aplenty, which will you bring to your sleep if you must wake up and embrace a newer one? (The answer isn’t “any one”.)

Curiously enough, it’s McKean’s own fans who need this riddle most, seeing how heavily they gamble on his numinous photo-realistic style, which adorned the covers of Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and filled up graphic novels like Arkham Asylum, Violent Cases, Black Orchid, and Signal to Noise, all must-reads by the way.

If you please, we’re more than elated to hear McKean tell stories now, and so let’s begin by condoning his occasional bad kick-offs to good conversations, like “Imagine you’re walking through a forest”, and his tailspin into geeky axioms like “God is in the details”, after which a Platonic cat-god says: “That’s a nice thought.”

But, for the heck of it all, compared to those costumed poster-coloured cows that used to rule the fields and the many forgettable novels one wouldn’t offer an eye to read, Cages is as grand and gorgeous as great comics can get, and there are certainly more ways of agreeing than just gnashing one’s teeth!

Gwee Li Sui


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