Nuff respect Islington Comics Forum for handing me a copy of Dave McKean's giant graphic novel Cages. The convener Joel read it all in one long evening, which I find pretty extraordinary since I've been reading it (and re-reading it) over something like three months. The book has 10 chapters which are quite self contained (I imagine each one took a long time to complete), and it's impressive how many patterns and repetitions stretch out over the whole book – little motifs and characters being set up, abandoned and only picked up much later. It strikes me that this kind of project would have required, if not a great deal of planning, then at least a great deal of focus.

The book rewards a close look into the workings of the comics page rather than character or theme, which if taken on their own are a bit underwhelming (and not especially enlightening). Once the mystery of Jonathan Rush unravels, what you get is an on-the-nose retelling of the trials of Salman Rushdie (clue's in the name, even!) And because McKean's prose talents ain't all that, the short excerpt we get of the persecuted author's book fails to convince as the cause of so much ire and protest.

But the tone saves it. While more outwardly 'realistic' than the superhero comics McKean wanted to escape from, there is always a degree of witching hour midnight magic to the world of Cages. Rush's torturers are outrageous villains, figments of imagination all the characters buy into. We also get resurrected cats, future-revealing clouded windows and talking birds – the kind of whimsical touch of the fantastic McKean's frequent partner Neil Gaiman built a writing career on. McKean unfortunately shares Gaiman's annoying sense of humour (a kind of childish silliness which I find a bit cloying, I'm more of a grim bastard Ellis/Ennis fan). But the craft saves it. McKean's constructions are more sophisticated than Gaiman's. The way he designs his pages is more detailed. In fact, his focus also makes the ideas of the book more pointed. I find Gaiman scattershot and vague in comparison. While both are exploring themes of faith, creativity and death, I think McKean's achievements here surpass those of his friend and collaborator.

In the spirit of the Habibi post, I'm going to note down a couple of things I spotted so they don't disappear in the fogs of my memory:

The building in which Cages is set serves as a metaphor for a cage, or more a kind of menagerie of cages – the individual apartments as closed cells in which the inhabitants harbour their secrets. When we first meet Angel, a musician and prophet, he is out on the fire escape – at the edge of the world looking out into an abyss of sky. The Drawing A Blank chapter makes the significance of this explicit. Scaffolding monsters pull back the tarp to reveal the universe: suggesting a kind of terror at freedom and creation. A blank canvas presents the unknown firmament before the creation. The different Genesis stories at the beginning link in with the personal God we meet at the end – we all create our own narratives and myths.

McKean draws birds flying out into a white sky, a contrast with the psychopathic (and very foul-mouthed) parrot who is kept in a cage, but also a way to segue into Angel playing the black and white keys of the piano. The book spends a lot of time on the expressive and liberating power of music: in one chapter it warps the bodies of two characters falling in love to reveal the inner lives pulsing beneath their composed arranged surface.

The three Strata chapters all start with lines of stacked sheets of paper. Bits of time are compressed and stored in the paintings Leo produces (echoes of panels we've already seen), and the books Jonathan writes. Those lines reappear as rain, the final strata – the pictures and words in the comic becoming the constitutive elements (the pages) of the lives of the characters.

There is a nice panel in one of the Strata chapters where a finger touches a surface of water at the edge of the panel, a kind of reaching out past the confines of the borders of life and reality and into the imagination. The panels are themselves cages, and they are frequently broken when reality starts to get slippery.

There is also a nice movement in that chapter between a couple getting closer (tied to the completion of a painting one does of the other), and a couple drifting further apart. The latter are caught silhouetted in rain at the end, while Leo sits inside his flat looking out at the rain, shielded from it. The romp through the trees Leo and Karen take (the landscape becoming increasingly impressionistic as the latter's psychoanalysis proceeds) is also linked in with Ellen's memory of trees and how these pleasures have been taken away. The contrasts are subtle (by which I mean I missed a lot of them my first read through) but they are there. It's a superbly crafted issue.

Just as good is Schism. The page divided into two horizons of clouds in the sky and leaves in the gutter, which are flipped as the cat and the man separate. We get alternating panels or the two split points of view. The visions of heaven in this chapter are more revealing than the ending of the book. First we see Jesus crying about wanting his Daddy (boo Christianity!). Then we get an existence full of meaningless sensation without examination or interpretation. Then an existence with all the ambiguities stripped away. The cat refuses a heaven so damn certain of itself, and ends up in an art gallery instead – the best of both and all possible worlds.

Although the next couple of chapters suggest a counter-argument. The fable (told by Karen to Leo's daughter?) of a King building his own Tower of Babel, a work of art to please everyone, leads to disaster. In the end, real life and relationships are more important than work, even if that work is creative. And according to Karen at the end, a full life is one where the patterns and narratives become familiar – surprises become less common and death more acceptable. In the final page, once the cat is done exploring the art gallery it jumps into the frame of a painting and into nothingness.

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