An Odd & Enigmatic Abstraction: Martin Vaughn-James’s THE CAGE
By Martin Vaughn-James
Coach House Books, November 2013
192 pages / Buy from Coach House Books
In November of this year, Coach House Books released a new edition of their seminal 1975 graphic work, Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage. When I found this out, I was astounded. I’d been singing the praises of The Cage for years, recognizing it not only as one of the most important (and accomplished) work of graphic fiction ever created, but also insisting upon it being one of the greatest books every produced. Upon its initial publication, there were only 1500 printed copies; beautiful over-sized hardbacks with heavy brown paper inside. The book is a monolith, an object. Just the visual presence matches the title: The Cage, the book, the volume, holds something inside, much as a cage does.
I discovered the book from Richard Kostelanetz’s Dictionary of The Avant-Gardes, a resource that I read from cover to cover, taking note, over the course of the several months I spent reading it, on everything I wanted to learn more about, to discover. And then I spent several months following up on everything I had noted, often not remembering anything about why I had noted a book title or an artist’s name down. I worked in a library at the time, so I would just request anything from Inter-Library-Loan that we didn’t have on our shelves. It was through this process that Martin Vaughn-James’s book came into my life.
I took it home from work and blew through it, realizing that it was doing something heavy, something that I had long wanted the comic form to do, to work with narratives in ways similar to, say, Alain Robbe-Grillet or concrete poets had done, but to make use both of words & images, sequencing and panel development: to open up the tools available to a visual artist who also has a poetic bent. The book accomplishes so much, and I soon became obsessed. I read the book several times while I had it, and then checked it out several more times throughout the year. I desperately wanted to photocopy it (as copies available online were far too expensive) so I could always have it with me, but the book was too big to reasonably photocopy into a facsimile-ish form. I tacked down the three other primarily graphic works from Vaughn-James, again through inter-library loan, and marveled at their contents, but knew that The Cage was his masterpiece. Eventually a copy popped up on the internet for a prize I could sort of afford, so I jumped at it and the book joined my possessions.
To publish this book again in 2013 strikes me as no inconsiderable feat–while comics have certainly gained a larger presence as a “true literary form” (or whatever) by now, most of the dreck that people applaud is, of course, parallel to the novel, “realistic,” though told with pictures in addition to dialog. The Cage takes the height of the 70’s delirious experimentation with form and content, and pushes it into something that, even now, speaks as something new.
As such, I’m pleased to now revisit the work, in two parts. First I will comment upon the initial 1975 release, that is virtually impossible to come by outside of the library at this point, and second, I will consider the reprint, which offers both new front-matter & back-matter, as well as a formally different content, comparing and contrasting the two.
A Note: All photos included in this post were taken on my cellphone and do not necessarily reflect either the colors or the image quality of the printed books themselves
December 17th, 2013 / 12:26 pm