05 December 2008

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Those of you who know me well enough, know that Dave McKean's graphic novel CAGES is still my single most favorite book in the medium. Hands down.

Before I got into the habit of researching comicbooks online prior to buying, I remember walking past this fat $100 hardcover (500 pages and almost 5cm thick!) in Minotaur bookshop and thinking, "Hmm, not today, but someday I might give it a shot."
I tend to use the rule of thumb that, if Im 50/50 on buying something, I'll walk away, think about it, and if the desire is still there days/weeks/months later... then I'll get it. It avoids me impulse buying.
... well after about 8 months I just threw caution to the wind and bought it.
Here in Melbourne Australia, most comicbook shops have their graphic novels wrapped in plastic, so there's no way to look inside them, so I never knew what the interior pages looked like.
Anyway, after laying down 100 fat ones, I walked to my noisy station, boarded my cattle-filled train, sat down in my cramped seat & unwrapped my heavy book amidst the irritation of yapping and banal conversation. I took hold of the tome in my lap and hinged a few kg's of pages to the left. My God. I was gobsmacked. Seriously floored. Im not kidding... I was so in awe at each successive page turn, that the volume & noise of people around me went down.

It was the most profound visual experience I've had from a book ever.

CAGES covers so much in it's heavy 500 pages, that it's hard to describe it succinctly. On the surface, it's about a frustrated painter named Leo Sarbarsky and his relationship with a controversial author named Jonothan Rush; and Karen... a Botanist with a forest growing in her appartment.

There's a mysterious black cat that pops up throughout the book (who used to be a man), as well as an old delusional woman waiting for her husband to come home after years of absence. There's a Jazz musician named Angel who has a mystical way of exuding deep sounds from stones, as well as 2 mafia-style individuals dressed in black who run the appartment in which they all live. There's even more subtext with a surgeon who dissects things in order to find out what inspires love, and a God that looks like a little man who has conversations with his cat while looking over the world.

Under the surface of CAGES, is Dave McKean espousing the themes of art, creativity, and the price one might pay in pursuing it. There's a lot of intended weight to this book.

The thing that really stands out for me in CAGES, is the way in which Dave McKean experiments with the comic form and pushes it's capablilities. When you read it, you can see that Dave wasn't interested in the 'conventions' of comicbook story telling. He's just done it the way he thought communicated his points best. People throw around the term 'highly original' far too lightly in my thinking when they are simply describing a conventionally great book. But this book really is. Dave produced it as a personal project (in the background) between 1990-1996. That should tell you something.

The majority of the book is done in a very beautiful quick & measured nib-ink style... though the book does diverge into colour and other methods (intentionally) when Dave feels the story will benefit. The conversations, pacing and realism of the stories within are some of the best I've seen anywhere.
On a related note... i just found out that (while CAGES has been out of print for years) Dark Horse are about to re-release it in softcover, along with another of Dave McKean's personal experiments PICTURES THAT TICK. I'm planning on getting both... so i can keep my original hard cover of CAGES in tact.
Keep an eye open for these beauties...

Here are the 'proposed' covers... but who knows what the finals will look like?

Anyway... CAGES is still my favourite. I've learnt more innovative lessons of how to do comics from this book than any other. If you're fortunate enough to come across it... get it.


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