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#20 [Oct. 17th, 2010|09:23 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#20 CAGES – Dave McKean
(Kitchen Sink/Dark Horse)

“If the artist was trying to say something, surely he would write us a letter.”

Reading Cages is like watching at least three arty French movies that are all happening simultaneously. It’s set in an apartment building that’s home to a painter who is suffering from artist’s block, a novelist in hiding after writing a dangerously controversial book and a jazz musician who knows the secrets of existence. The rest of the building’s occupants form an outlandish supporting cast – the mute art gallery curator, the deaf landlady, the woman who talks to her parrot, the crazy man with a plastic model of the solar system strapped to his head, the cat who gets everywhere – but the focus is on those three artists and their different approaches to creativity. Rather than being about the big montage moment when the painter learns a moral and then turns it into some life-affirming work of art, however, it’s about the creativity of day-to-day living. The most meaningful things they work on are their own lives – forging new relationships, helping each other out and breaking free from their metaphorical cages.

Dave McKean draws with a more restrained touch than his busy cover art collages suggest, though the black ink linework gives way to other styles at various times. When the cat sees the painter lamenting his blank canvas in floods a wealth of rich greys in contrast to that expanse of terrifying white. Talking characters become more abstract as their conversation does and McKean’s dogs are drawn like a cat-lover’s nightmare. Later he slips into colour and montages, usually in the hidden tales that are layered between the arthouse stories, a layer of psychosurreal vignettes that interrupt and interact with the real world. In the middle of Mrs Featherskill nattering to her parrot about herbs and recipes the art abruptly changes again and shows a girl wandering through the woods, finding a field of flowers – here, the pages ripen into colour – at which the viewpoint folds out further, revealing that this is all taking place on the wing of a moth flying into a candle flame. And then we’re back to reality, Mrs Featherskill wondering when her Bill will be home for dinner. These shards of other stories have a mythic quality; several of them are creation stories or explorations of heaven. It’s as if the gods are sharing the same building and occasionally we see what they’re up to, creating their own worlds just to watch them spin as casually as the jazz musician improvises patterns and brings them to a close.

Like improvised jazz Cages teeters on indulgence and you may as well skip the opening to get to the good bits, but this is a weighty, 500-page book that’s full of the good bits.