The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James

Martin Vaughn-James, The Cage; 1975.

Like many graphic novels that were published before the term even existed, such as Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660, Martin Vaughn-James has created a work that is more akin to a picture book than a comic book. By this I mean that neither Okubo nor Vaughn-James uses multiple panels on a page and both set the text separately from the image. And neither uses the tropes associated with comics: word balloons, motion lines, onomatpoeias, etc. Vaughn-James goes even further and also gets rid of human characters. The Cage is a visual novel (his term) focused completely on objects and architecture. While Okubo uses art to reclaim the human reality of an inhumane situation, Vaughn-James uses art to show the inhuman reality in the structures around us. The objects we have created to surround us and with which we fill our lives cannot give us meaning. The fact that no people appear in this book underscores that idea.

The introduction that Vaughn-James provides helps us to understand his intent: “my purpose is not so much to illuminate reality (as if reality was an object and art merely an aesthetic flashlight) but to reinvent the narrative form.” Like the deconstructionalists, Vaughn-James is denying the mimetic possibility of art. For him, art does not reveal external truths–it does not “have something to say about a certain issue”–it is its own system, the signs of which relate to other signs within that system.  The signs do not relate to signifieds that are outside of the narrative. For Vaughn-James, the classical considerations of narrative are “anachronistic” and “irrelevant.” And he believes that this worn-out system of language correlates directly to a worn-out society, “a stagnating culture.”

And so this book is full of “worn-out” objects and decaying symbols. We see spotted road signs, crumbling pyramids, sand-filled rooms, and cracked buildings. And the objects that do appear don’t always conform to our expectations. Doorframes and doors swirl together in a passageway. Sheets twist and snake their way through rooms and halls. Plants spring up from floors. Vaughn-James plays with our expectations about representation as well. For instance, we see a painting of a camera, a typewriter, and other objects on page 107. Then on page 108, the same objects are no longer within the frame of the painting and are instead littered upon a bed. This jumping back and forth of an object being an image or being part of the diegesis happens several times. Of course, in all circumstances, nothing actually changes about the object being depicted. The object looks the same in either circumstance and is still a drawn image in the book. It is just the presence of a frame that changes our understanding of that object. Vaughn-James takes this play even further by “tearing” the image plane. The panels on pages 114 and 115 look as if they were ripped and placed back together. The panels are not windows to “reality.” Vaughn-James constantly reminds us of the artifice of everything depicted. And of course, the idea that the panels are torn is itself an artifice.

The images defy mimetic expectation, and the text is similarly disconnected. At times, the text seems to correspond to what is being depicted, yet at other times it is oddly dischordant. On page 36, the text begins describing a noise. This noise builds throughout the following pages. Yet even though the noise is described as a “barrage” and a “cacaphony,” the accompanying images are serene (37, 36). Later the sound comes in “epilectic waves,” but again the image does not depict this. All we see are two dilapidated doors, split to reveal plants growing behind them (48). In other words, the noise is never depicted visually and this creates an odd disconnect between the image and the text. It is hard to mentally place the sound into the images depicted. This disconnect grows when the narrative in the text contradicts what is being shown in the corresponding image. On pages 68 and 69 we are shown the cage. The bars of it are bent and the barbed wire is twisted. It seems broken. Yet the text says “the cage stood as before… immune to chaos and decay.” But obviously it isn’t immune (this of course assumes that what is depicted is “the cage”; it may in fact be something else). And later, the text describes that everything is set within a cylinder and that the cylinder is rotating. While the images show a jumble of unconnected objects, they are often simply strewn on the floor or on the bed. Things do no appear to be tumbling as the text implies. To what is the text referring? Is it nonsense or is there meaning? This is the question the reader must answer.

Visually, the entire book occilates between violence and sedate decay. At times, there is the impression that we are viewing the same scene at different moments in time. Buildings and structures seem more broken as the book progresses. But again, this implies a narrative progression of time than Vaughn-James denies. For instance, we are shown a Mayan pyramid in decay on page 15. All of a sudden on page 16 it appears clean and new. Have we gone back in time? No, because on pillars leading up to the pyramid are modern objects looking as though made of melted black plastic: a typewriter, a phone, a camera, etc. Such objects did not exist when the pyramid was new. The image is intentionally anachronistic. Later in the book, the room depicted on pages 98 and 99 is the same room as on pages 100 and 101. The layout is the same, as is the perspective. Yet on pages 98 and 99, the door is bricked closed and cracks stretch across the pillars. On pages 100 and 101, the door is unblocked and the pillars are clean. Also, the pile of clothes on page 99 has been replaced by a pile of books on page 101. These changes do not seem to be simply the effects of time, but instead seem to be variations on a visual theme. The compositional elements are the same, but the actual details have changed. In other words, the pattern is not temporal, but graphic. Still, while there is no clear narrative, the violence and destruction seem to increase as the book progresses. Objects shatter into more pieces, buildings are more dilapidated, and an inky black mass appears more and more in the scenes. This symphony of destruction culminates in the last view of the cage, which is now, ironically, perfectly formed. All the posts are straight, and all the barbed wire is attached. Yet the last image is not of the cage. We seem to enter it on pages 178 and 179, but then we seem to go through it and are left only with an image of the empty plain on pages 180 and 181.

And so what we are left with is the inability of symbols to signify anything. The objects in this book do not conform to expectation, nor does the narrative. There is no plot, no real characters. Is the cage our system of symbols? Are we trapped within a structure that cannot give us meaning?

I think that looking for a theme like this is perhaps the wrong thing to do with The Cage. It doesn’t seem to be what Vaughn-James wants us to do. As he says, it is “not so much the aim of the narrative which interests [him] but the process of its evolution.” So it’s more important that he defies any narrative expectations, since all such expectations rely on a system that he feels is out of date. He desires to evolve “a new language of signs.”

In the end, I don’t really know what that means and so I don’t know how successful Vaughn-James is. The Cage is fascinating intellectually and visually, but in the end it’s a tiring book. The text is uncomfortable to get through. The fact that it often doesn’t relate to the images increases the pointlessness of it. I think if the text were intriguingly written or captivating in some way, then the book would be more interesting. Actually, I’d prefer this as a wordless novel. The images are definitely intriguing. Still, they are often repetitive. We often see the same images and places, just in different combinations. Like language perhaps, the same symbols get assembled in different ways. And while the observant reader can find these repetitions and see the patterns, the act of doing so seems to be the only reward. Since Vaughn-James doesn’t believe in external referents, the connections are all internal and don’t lead to anything outside the book. It is a puzzle set within a moebius strip. So while The Cage is fascinating and I’m sure I’ll open it many times in the future to look at the drawings, it is a strangely sterile and inhuman book.

Other writings about The Cage:
Kristien Jacobs
Domingos Isabelinho

this was originally posted June 21 2009

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