You may well know the artwork of Dave McKean without even realizing it. He has been leaned on heavily by Neil Gaiman in helping create the fantastical world of Sandman. You know those crazy Sandman covers that are part diorama, part painting and all cool? That’s Dave McKean. When you open a Sandman and the characters border on the edge of chaos as they vary between a mass on lines and a multicolored kaleidoscope of mayhem? That’s Dave McKean. He’s the man who made the maniacal Joker of Arkham Asylum, created the whimsical world of The Big Fat Duck Cookbook and again worked with Gaiman to bring Mirror Mask to the big screen. I guess it should come as no surprise that he has a talent for storytelling as well.
Enter Cages, a series that is by no means new but, if it flew under your radar as it had mine, is completely worth the time and effort. The series was originally published by Tundra and Kitchen Sink Press in the early 90’s, had a hardcover edition printed in 1998 and was re-released in a softcover collection by Dark Horse Books in 2010. Cages is a bleak and dark world inside which the characters struggle with inspiration, motivation and their collective grasp on reality. The pages are mostly bereft of color except for a couple of narrative dream-like segments and instead rely on harsh black lines and a grey/blue tinge to color their world. Cages‘ world is populated by a group of characters living in an apartment building each participating in their own struggle, each dealing with their own personal cage as it were. The main protagonist is an artist who is struggling for inspiration to create his next great piece of art.
As the novel progresses he encounters the other oddball members of his building and their lives intertwine as we discover each persons story. Above him is the Jazz musician/poet who crafts musical stones and blows away the local bar regulars with his unearthly performances. Below him is a renowned author who is hiding from the public because of the scandalously blasphemous nature of his last novel. Across from him is an alluring woman whom he sketches as she lounges on her patio and eventually becomes the subject of his artistic ruminations. Elsewhere in the building is an elderly woman who has delusional conversations with her parrot as she waits for her husband to return from his five-year absence. Threading them all together as a silent observer and sometimes participant is a black cat who seems to have an almost human intelligence.
The genius of McKean’s artwork in Cages is that the faces of his characters, despite being featured over and over again sometimes hardly changing from panel to panel compositionally, are never illustrated the same way twice. The faces warp or gain a myriad of lines and the true subtlety of how different someone can look from moment to moment is masterfully captured. McKean’s trademark use of dramatic changes in style, multimedia elements and live action photography are not relied on heavily in Cages but do effectively punctuate key moments of the action.
Cages opens with a series of short stories about the creation of the universe and the theme of creationism is one that is strong throughout the novel. Not of an overly religious tone but of legend, fable and every man’s quest for the answers to the great questions that plague him. These gentle dealings combined with the intensely illustrated world of Cages is perhaps why it won the Harvey, Pantera, Alph Art and Ignatz awards for Best Graphic Novel. If you happen to see this baby kicking around your favorite book store or comic emporium I would definitely recommend picking it up and grazing a page or two before you bring it home to add to your permanent collection.