Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #135: Cages by Dave McKean

Some books are "about" something obvious and clear -- maybe because they're genre entertainments, maybe because the author has Something To Say and is going to say it loudly. Maybe because the author is all about clarity, maybe because it's a screed. Maybe maybe maybe.

But some books are about everything and nothing. They don't tell you how to understand them -- they might not tell you enough to understand them. That doesn't necessarily make them better -- or worse. It might just mean that they're easier books to argue about.

Dave McKean's big graphic novel Cages would be excellent to argue about: it's long and meaty and visually inventive in a dozen different ways and about Art in several different forms and full of events and elements that are either unexplained or explained in a way our world would call insane.

The plot is loose and wandering, very appropriately for a book that came out in ten individual installments over a period of seven years. (For two of those years, in the middle, there were no issues, and we had no idea if Cages would ever come back again.) The final book is five hundred pages long -- big and solid, with evocative art that stays in an angular inky register much of the time and then darts, suddenly, into entirely different styles or media for dream sequences or other major events.

At the center, more or less, is Leo Sabarsky, a painter who arrives on the first pages to take a flat in the building that is one of the two centers of this story. (The other center is a jazz club-slash-bar.) He's looking to get away from his old life, to find a place to do some new work. Already living there, below him, is novelist Jonathan Rush, in Rushdie-esque hiding for what seems to be the Christian equivalent of a fatwa. And above him is the musician Angel, who has his own tragedies and mysteries. Circling around is a black cat.

This is all in England, somewhere, in a city never named. It's clearly some kind of city, but not anywhere famous or central -- it's a place you go to get away, or stay because you've been there for years.

Leo paints, and meets a woman, who becomes a friend and a model and a lover -- but this isn't the story of their relationship.

Jonathan is tormented by a group of fat men in masks -- seemingly sent by the government agency that is keeping him safe -- who invade his apartment randomly, stealing away the things he loves one by one. This isn't the story of the why or how of that, either.

Angel claims he can make stones sing, and gives one such stone to Leo. It's not the story of those stones, either.

It may be the story of the cat, though. It's his story as much as anyone's.

Cages is a book "about" creativity and how that interfaces with life, on one level. On another, it's a somewhat magical-realist look at some ordinary lives. It's a fundamentally positive book, told like an independent movie -- a book that shows and talks and wanders about but never tells.

It's the major comics achievement of Dave McKean, otherwise most famous for illustrating other people's stories (Arkham Asylum) or making covers for those stories (The Sandman). It is quite artsy, in several ways -- if you're not fond of that kind of thing you'll probably want to stay away. But if you know who McKean is to begin with, you likely have a higher tolerance for artsy-ness than most.

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