Today, even some superhero comics can merit being called serious as well, though it often takes a feature film to generate interest in a new generation of comic readers that have long been exposed to books like Blankets, Epileptic, and Fun Home. In its day Cages was sadly overlooked by McKean fans and all but the most serious comic reader. Only now, after the cognoscenti has decided comics can be taken seriously, is it getting a much deserved, and affordable, paperback release from Dark Horse Comics in September.
Cages was originally released somewhat irregularly as a ten issue magazine-sized comic book entirely written and drawn by McKean. McKean is well known for his cover paintings of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which was a mix of mythology, horror and even cultural criticism that had a huge following up until its seventy-fifth and final issue. McKean’s covers are remarkable mixed media paintings, utilizing photographs, shadowboxes, and a myriad of other mediums. One of the first noticeable elements of Cages is that other than the original covers and a few pages here and there, the work is almost entirely done in pen and ink. It is, like most other comic book, done in panels with word balloons for the dialogue. And it is, for lack of any better term, literature.
The story is simple enough. A struggling artist named Leo Sabarsky moves into a rooming house in a shadowy part of London so he can paint without distraction. But the house is not simple at all, and contains an odd assortment of other characters, each with their own history, neurosis and mystery. The landlady, for example, is at one moment stubborn and argumentative and then suddenly almost overly intimate in her gestures and language. Other characters include a cat that walks the alley way behind the house (and serves as a particularly removed third person narrator insofar as we get to see everything he sees); an old woman abandoned by her husband who still waits for him while her parrot mocks her; a cynical writer who has an dark tense relationship with his wife; and a jazz musician who speaks in riddles.
Leo himself is struggling to paint and behind everything he sees and everyone he meets there is the strange shadow of malevolence. Leo watches everything almost without judgment except to judge himself against it. In one chapter, he meets the writer and upon learning that he has read many of the reclusive man’s books, offers him a sketch. The writer hangs it in empty space on the wall where there appears to have been another picture at one time. The next day Leo comes back and the writer is less inviting and keeps Leo in the doorway. Looking over the writer’s shoulder Leo notices the sketch has been taken off the wall. We see what Leo sees, and it is through the actual literal point of view that we are given access to his emotions as well.
The narrative is carefully constructed by McKean by intense, yet simple, pen and ink drawings that at times suddenly break away from the traditional comic book form. Simple panels become multi-layered with photographs and other times the panels themselves are opened up so much that whole pages turn into sweeping black ink strokes. The dialogue is rich and at times baffling, but the facial expressions of every character are perfectly matched to their words.
The story is at times frustrating and enigmatic, and if it is guilty of anything it's a bit of self-consciousness, but the narrative as a whole is a meditation on art and perception, and so this works to its advantage. It’s only real flaw is that of all comics: it reads very quickly.
Cages is an example, coming late when it was one of the first, of the wonder of comics, the sheer joy of reading by panels, and how the medium can be used for real characterization, plot, and narrative in a way that only a series of little pictures can. It is difficult to not take it seriously.