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Good Read Column for August 30, 1998


A Comic Novel
By Dave McKean
496 pages, Kitchen Sink, $44.95 (hardback)

(of a possible five)


When I told my wife I had ordered a $45 comic book, she was dubious. Actually, that's a charitable way of putting it. Of course, my wife has been fairly charitable about my sequential art addiction, but though she wouldn't say much it was clear that she thought I had to be wasting money. And this is a woman who has read and appreciated some of the best things in my collection, mind you, not some philistine who thinks "comic book" equals juvenile and degraded sub-literature. But $45?

Having seen it, even without actually reading it, she agrees that it was worth it. For one thing, it turned out to be a hardcover book, rather than a trade paperback as initially solicited (and the people at Kitchen Sink as well as Dave McKean himself are to be saluted for keeping the price the same, despite what must have been increased production costs and therefore lower profits). At nearly 500 pages and with a generous page size, this book, despite its seemingly outrageous cost, is a bargain.

The production values are exquisite - McKean, for those of you who don't notice the credits pages, designed all the Sandman volumes and did the original covers for that series. So it's no surprise that, as a book, just holding it your hands and turning its pages, you can perceive that this was put together by someone who considers the creation of a book an artform in and of itself.

Of course, I knew I was going to like it. For one thing, McKean's work with Neil Gaiman represents, in my opinion, some of the best work Gaiman has done. For another, the series of magazine-sized comics this book collects, ten issues published over an eight-year period, is the stuff of legend.

One reason it's the stuff of legend, unfortunately, is that it seems as hard to find as the Holy Grail. I've only been able to find three issues, none of them early, and no two together. With neither the beginning nor the end nor even any clear idea of the story, I could nonetheless tell even from the scraps I had that this was a remarkable work of art.

Art is indeed the word. Aside from the fact that McKean is perhaps the most daring as well as the most accomplished formal experimenter in the ranks of comics creator, art in its many forms is the subject and theme of this book. One of the main characters is a painter. Another is a musician. Another is a novelist who now writes only book reviews.

The first character we meet, though, is a cat.

Actually, this is not quite true, for the book begins, after reproducing the original covers, with not one but a series of four prologues. I don't know if these were part of the original series or not - I suspect they were, because one of the characters later refers to one of them. But the full color art is so different from the two-tone (black and greyish blue) of most of the book that I first thought they were added. However, there are later sequences of color interspersed throughout the book, as if McKean wants us to be aware that, yes, he knows what color is and is perfectly willing to use it when he wants to, so please notice that he CHOSE to tell most of the story in this limited two-tone palette, and therefor it probably MEANS something.

As to what it means, I can't tell you.

Not that it's obscure, exactly. Part of it is even obvious, in a way that has made more than one person refer to the ending as "disappointing." I didn't feel that way at all, though I'll admit is was surprising, and seemed to contradict much of what had gone before.

But while parts of it are obvious, much more of it is deep, too deep to absorb on just one reading. This is real literature, that demands more of the reader than most comics fans - or most readers, for that matter - are used to. Frankly, even such works as Maus and Stuck Rubber Baby, though they are undoubtedly excellent, are very much on the surface compared to what McKean is doing here. Cages has more in common with, say, Ulysses than it has with other comics, even good ones. It refuses to be opened all at once, but demands to be reflected on, and reread.

It will be a while - maybe years - before I really understand this book well enough to give it a proper explication, so I won't even try. Yes, it's deep. Yes, it's demanding. It doesn't tell a simple kind of story, like nearly every other comic book you've ever read. It's striving to make a different kind of statement, wrapped up in a different kind of story.

That doesn't mean it isn't a compelling read. I found it hard to put down, though it's length and complexity make reading it at one sitting pretty much impossible. From the first few pages (after the prologue), where we follow a cat down the fire escape of a building, pausing for a conversation with a black man playing some kind of pipe, I found myself fascinated, wanting to turn the next page, and the next. I almost didn't notice the first time I hit a part that I had read already, so seamless the whole experience of this book became.

I have never encountered anything quite like Cages. The works of James Joyce come to mind, and some other novelists, but that is to ignore the tremendous contribution made by the visual art here, an astounding array of styles and techniques from the crudest sketches to photography. This is an amazing book.

The phrase is overused, but for once it is deserved: If you buy only one comic book this year, this should be the one.

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