In the early 1970s, as Martin Vaughn-James would recall over 30 years later, “the fog of distant revolutions drifted through the safe, tree-lined streets of Canada.” London had had the Swinging Sixties, while the student movement spread across the States, and the barricades went up in Paris in May ’68. Canada, in contrast, had preferred her revolutions to be of the Quiet variety: the tumult of an October Crisis simply would not do, Trudeaumania was but an echo of the rambunctious Beatles’ brand, and even the celebrations of the centennial had been performed with due decorum. For young artists and writers like the British-born Vaughn-James – who in 1975 published a finely tooled whatsit called The Cage, now newly back in print – the Canadian revolutions under way throughout the seventies would not be political so much as artistic in nature.
Vaughn-James was part of a scattered national vanguard, a generation that reinvented the art forms in which they worked. In Toronto, Michael Ondaatje composed a series of “left-handed poems” that read like a novel, incorporating photos, drawings and prose into his poetic project. Michael Snow made films – on the tundra of northern Quebec, in a New York loft – which explored space, not stories, and were more interested in the camera’s zooms than in actors and action. In Montreal, Betty Goodwin made artists’ prints using neither etchings nor photos, but actual gloves and vests, transforming these remnants of human existence into objects of aesthetic contemplation. And at Toronto’s Coach House Press, then a hothouse for radical literature in Canada, Martin Vaughn-James published his oversized, chimeric “visual-novel,” The Cage.
Eschewing both character and storytelling, The Cage is a book that’s famously impossible to summarize. Its labyrinthine structure encourages readers to think of the book in spatial rather than narrative terms – so that, as in Snow’s films, we discover a place to explore, rather than a plot to follow – while its rhythm and verbal motifs induce an experience more musical than literary. But what truly distinguishes The Cage from most other books of the time are the large-scale drawings that appear on every page, each one depicting a single moment in the story, and all accompanied by typeset captions. A series of hand-drawn images progressing through time and space, combining with text to produce meaning – why, Vaughn-James was making comic books!
Understandable, then, that The Cage would come bearing that euphemistic “visual-novel” imprimatur. Avant-garde innovation – like Ondaatje’s, Snow’s, or Goodwin’s – had been around long enough in literature, filmmaking, or art, to become expected and even valued. But comic books? What serious author would deign to take that illiterate stepchild of the other arts seriously enough to try her hand at it, let alone experiment with it? Throughout the seventies, Vaughn-James was among the lonely early adopters who embraced comics as art. And with apprentice works like The Projector and The Park, and his mature masterpiece The Cage, he created comics like no one had seen before – and like few have seen since.
In an era when comic books comprised 32 pages of colourful pulp – stapled together, sold for small change, and quickly disposed of – The Cage stood out in relief. Here were nearly 200 pages of words and images, bound into a spine and resembling nothing so much as a coffee-table art book. No funny animals or superheroes caroused across these pages. Instead there appeared architecturally precise drawings of empty rooms, unmade beds, and ruined skyscrapers, without a hint of a recognizable character or logical sequence of events. This kind of cryptic ambiguity was unusual even during the heyday of underground comix, those grubby handbooks to the hippie lifestyle whose anything-goes treatment of psychedelic sex and drugs was already on the wane when Vaughn-James created his earliest comics.
The underground’s departures from funnybook norms prepared for the shock of The Cage at least a little, but there were fewer precedents for comics that approached the gravity of Vaughn-James’s undertaking. When it was first published, there was no terminology with which to understand this kind of ambitious, long-form comic. Though today The Cage is marketed as a graphic novel, in 1975 that term was still years away from entering the popular lexicon, and the idea itself a full decade removed from its first real florescence with works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Vaughn-James’s precursors instead ranged across art history, from the abstruse visual metaphors of Saul Steinberg in The New Yorker, to the surreal canvases of Magritte and collaged picture-novels of Max Ernst. Crucially, Vaughn-James would look for inspiration to Alain Robbe-Grillet, the chief theorist of the French New Novel, who championed an approach to fiction where mysteries reside less in stories than in the processes by which those stories unfurl.