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Issue 4. Gender issue - guest editor: Heike Jüngst

'La Cage' by Martin Vaughn-James


Author: Kristien JACOBS
Published: September 2002

Abstract (E): In "La Cage", Martin Vaughn-James has succeeded in bringing the relation between word and image to a higher level, where distance is closeness, where then becomes now, where nowhere is everywhere and where every attempt to escape is at the same time a request for a firmer hold on the bars. This labyrinth renders reference futile, circularity necessary and a back door a one-way entrance. The only remaining certainty for the caged reader is that nothing is what it seems to be !

Abstract (F): Avec "La Cage", Martin Vaughn-James a complètement redéfini les rapports entre texte et image en bande dessinée: le proche et le lointain, le présent et le passé ou le futur, le contraint et le libéré y deviennent interchangeables.Ce livre-labyrinthe met la référence hors jeu, multiplie la circularité et finit par faire coïncider le début et la fin. Le seul point commun à tous ces mécanismes est que toute apparence y est forcément trompeuse.

Keywords: graphic novel, Nouveau Roman, Vaughn-James


The front entrance

A first exploration of the graphic novel La Cage already strands at a look at the outer cover of the album, more specifically at the front cover. Visually the front cover displays the title, a frame that reveals an image of a plain behind bars, the name of the author and situated more in the margin, the logo of the publisher. The first three elements already evoke some remarks. The logo, however formally very specifically structured, will not be spoken of in the assumption that it involves a full-blown paratextual element. This assumption is based on the fact that there has been an editorial change with the transition from an English to a French edition. Also the conception of the title has been involved in this transition and has been changed in the French edition, but it has come to ears that the original form also displays great visual power. On the basis of these conceptions, I will incorporate an interpretation of the title 'La Cage' in this text.

The title is the first thing (in an arbitrary sequence) that catches the eye. Its handwritten form renders it highly personalized and this impression is reminiscent of the form of handwriting with which you put your name under a text as to signal your approval or personal achievement. Moreover, this 'concept of the signature' is enhanced by the dashing line under the title. This finding could already reveal the paradoxical nature that will seem to characterize the remainder of the album (in reading). The characteristic indication of ending (the concept of the signature) indeed functions as a remarkable beginning of the album, giving rise to the presumption that beginning and end of the album are in fact reversible.

When looking at the transgression of title onto image, the 'g' of La Cage seems to penetrate the image as it were, by fading into the latticework. This results in the interrelating and interacting of word and image, both on a semantic, in the form of a metonymical totum pro parte- or pars pro toto-relationship ('the cage' and 'the latticework' or vice versa), and on a purely graphic level ('the long expressive 'g' and 'the metal bar of the latticework').

In reading the title La Cage, the human being with his typical orientation toward words and images, will almost automatically picture himself a prototypical cage. That same person would probably let that expectation, evoked by the prototypical image or the prototypical definition of 'cage' through the title and/or the image on the front cover, lead him in his reading through the rest of the album. When looking at the pictures and reading the accompanying text, the exact what or where of the cage isn't immediately clear to the reader, only that 'la cage est toujours là, inachevée et déjà en ruines' (p. 10). Text and image seem to manipulate one another paradoxically from the beginning, and seem to push the reader into several directions at the same time. The watchful reader will return to the front cover and will possibly find to his amazement that the interwoven nature of the 'g' and 'the metal bar of the latticework on the picture' could be semantically charged. Suddenly it appears as if the album itself were behind bars; as if, by opening the album, the reader would enter the world within the cage. From this perspective also the frame around the picture presents a certain tension. The Dutch-speaking reader can easily link this idea metaphorically to the expression 'iets kadert in je gedachten' , which can be paraphrased into 'something fits into the frame of your thoughts/mind' . In this way it becomes clear that every single picture can constitute and invoke 'the cage', because the reading 'fits in the frame of the reader's current of thought' that is built up by the way in which he reads and visualizes things and the way in which he lets himself get carried away by the assumptions and expectations that are being evoked by the title and the picture on the front cover. In addition not only the univocal reading is questioned in favour of a range of possible readings, but also the inspiration of the author is ironized, since also this'fits in the frame' of (is steered into the direction of ) his thoughts.

Furthermore, the impact of the frame on the front cover is emphasized by the third element, namely the mentioning of the author's name. Here the textual element (the author's name) clearly respects the borders of the framework. Also in the rest of the album the textual remains within the limitations that are rigorously imposed on it by the frame.

Exploring the cage from within

The suggestive combination of the elements on the front cover - with the suggestive character being raised by the state of setting foot in a domain behind bars, maybe even the enigmatic domain of the imagination - is enhanced, maybe even concretised by the montage of the pictures on pages 3, 5 and 7. The photographic/filmic (is it a rather loose or more fluid sequence of pictures) zooming in, gives the reader the impression that he is gradually approaching the domain and that he eventually finds himself situated in the middle of it (pages 10 to 11). A rather bewildering effect in this sequence of images, is caused by the picture on page 9. Is this white sheet an upward zooming in on the image on page 7 and does it fit into the sequence (pages 3 to 10) in such a way? How plausible this interpretation may seem to be at first, it looses its likelihood when one considers the omnipresence and powerful influence of the frame (cf. supra). For, is it likely that Vaughn-James, who elsewhere plays smoothly with graphic entities, would overlook (precisely in this rather direct sequence!) that with the practice of zooming in, a piece of the frame would inevitably land on page 8? With the prospect of the images on pages 10 to 11, it seems plausible to state that there is a playful preview and enlargement involved of one of the white pages (pictured on pages 10 to 11). The enlargement then results in the extension of the frame to the contours of the A4-format of page 9. Once again, this is a bewildering "operation". Anyone who remembers the expression "(that is) a white spot" ("(that is) unknown"), can easily identify the act of "entering" as the act of "entering the unknown", and even further, in connotation with the white sheet as the act of "entering the imagination".

Still, one can immediately posit a remark here. When one puts the pictures on pages 3, 5 and 7 next to each other, one will have to admit that the act of zooming in is one in which the horizon remains unchanged. In contrast to the pictures that grow from page to page, the drawn horizon always remains identical to the one on the picture of page 3. Only he/she who thinks in terms of the broadening of the horizon (as contradictory to the heightening of the horizon), can possibly discover an expansion within this ingenious montage. Yet, this expanding of the horizon is negligible, since it is a completely passive growing along within the proportions of the extending picture, without the horizon actually being displaced. It seems to be a subtle wink at the reader who, however opening himself to what the album has to offer him, still is forced to approach the imaginative world of the album, of the author or even (most paradoxically) of himself from within his own modest horizon. Imagination and horizon, two concepts that are traditionally in line, now seem to compete with each other.

The last picture of the album (pages 180 to 181) contrasts sharply with the picture on the front cover and the pictures on pages 3 to 7. For, this picture appears without latticework, as if now inviting the reader, who has walked through the landscape of La Cage for 180 pages, to step out of the cage (La Cage). Not such a strange idea for the end of an album, but still, another paradox. Returning to the beginning of La Cage, the reader will come across a similar ambiguity: just when he/she seems to have completely entered the cage and to have left the latticework behind, the words la cage est toujours là catch the reader's attention. The conclusion in both cases is similar: nothing seems to be/is what it seems to be.

It is certainly worth the effort to dwell on this last picture (pages 180 to 181) a little longer. When observing the picture a bit longer, the reader notices that it ironizes itself, as if it wants to say 'I am ambiguous!'. This effect is again present in the frame, to which, as becomes obvious in so many other pictures in the album, the split-panel technique is used. This technique results in a panorama that is cut into two pieces, having the effect of the eye distinguishing at the same time one image as well as two halves. The observation becomes ambiguous as such. Moreover, the image itself falls into two quasi-identical halves. This further accentuates the reduplication and ambiguity of the picture. Even further, the complete emptiness of the landscape (besides the presence of some cobbles) illustrates the fullness of the paradox (and thus creates another one: empty is full and vice versa).

The frame of the picture on pages 180 to 181 throws dust in the eyes of the inattentive reader even in another way: through the relation with the pictures on the front cover and that on page 3. At first glance 'with latticework' versus 'without latticework' seems to be the biggest difference between the picture on the front cover and the one on page 3 on the one hand and the picture on pages 180 to 181 on the other hand. As has been said above, this element functions as a paradox. Furthermore, the last picture seems to have adopted the format of the picture on the front cover and the first picture. This could therefore be a matter of an act of zooming out, by which the last picture is reduced to the original size. Within this context, the thought of this last picture as functioning as a door, only this time to leave 'the cage' (instead of to enter 'the cage'), comes to mind. Also this remains an unstable idea, not only because of the 'with/without latticework' paradox (cf. supra), but also because of the fact that the last picture throws doubt upon itself (and its own format). The explanation for this matter again lies in the split-panel technique: the image that has ambiguously been cut into two pieces - the subtle reduplication - initially also obscures the fact that in reality it concerns twice the format of the picture on the front cover and the first picture.

The pregnancy of the last picture (on the pages 180 to 181), that evokes the thought of "the cage" , even without the latticework, is strongly stimulated by the resounding crackle of words, that accompanies (and "shows out") the pictures from page 170 onward. What remains, is the continually repeating "la cage" , typographically differently displayed than the "ordinary" textual wholes. This invokes, in combination with the tormenting repetition, a magical, even mantra-like atmosphere. The fact that indeed this is a matter of a form of incantation, is confirmed by the text on page 51, where the typographical italicization, that will appear for a first time on page 52, is presented as "une sorte d'incantation".

In the last sequence (from page 170 onward), the italicized "la cage" pops up in very different 'decors'. On page 170 the incantation accompanies the tarnishing of the ultimate fake decor: the 'room with bed', that has a high incidence in the album - on the level of the image a spectacular mise-en-abyme, since it incorporates among others the image of the 'pumping station' and the narratively remarkable transition from boulders to bedroom (cf. infra) - now seems to have known no more than a paper existence. The image that is lurking through the crack in the 'drawing' of the room, is that of the desolate plain from the first pictures (behind the latticework) on pages 3 to 7 and from the very last picture (on pages 180 to 181). But also this image is revealed as only a 'paper reality', since the bars of the latticework of the cage on the background are missing.

Additionally, word and image seem to contradict each other in these last pages. While the words are in fact slowly quieting down, the images seem to be exploding. The resounding incantation spreads out expressively from four times 'la cage' in the top left-hand corner of the picture (page 170), through one time "la cage" in the bottom (!) left-hand corner (the picture on page 172) and one time in the bottom right-hand (!) corner (the picture on page 175), to nothing more than typographical ellipses (the picture on page 178). Ellipses, as if there was nothing anymore, or from a slightly different perspective, as if everything was and is the cage. The graphical track that is covered by the 'dying' incantation (from four through one to '...' , from top to bottom and from left to right) can only strengthen this impression. The images, on the contrary, cover an explosive track, from the explosion on pages 170 to 171 (cf. supra) onward, to the complete deconstruction of a network of fake decors on pages 174 to 175. This destructive flow of images however, flows out into the naked image of 'the cage', so that the development of the relation between word and image in these pages can't be described as fully contradictory. For, on page 178 the image of the cage with on the inside the snippets of paper fluttering around, seems to have adopted the incantation of the words. As if word and image, united equally harmonious, come to the same conclusion, only through another way.

Within this context, the apparently serene (because already indicated as ambiguous before) last picture (pages 180 to 181) threatens to burst explosively. Seemingly without words and images, it is in fact a deranged accumulation of images and words, that in their artificial stylisation are evidence of that one certainty: the cage, "la cage est toujours là".

Such a 'discovery' undoubtedly (again) reveals the impact of some 'cage mechanisms'. The superficial reader, who feels invited to leave the cage by the last picture (pages 180 to 181) (something that is paradoxical itself, cf. supra), will also have failed to notice that he/she will keep on dragging his/her track of thoughts along, whatever the case may be. As also the author, seeking inspiration for a new creation, will feel confronted with his very own experience and track of thoughts. The revelation of La Cage as a (sort of) circular structure, also brings some other insights to the surface. Because of the idea of the circle, probably the most idealized form of a cage, the possibility arises to move 'freely' inside the landscape of La Cage. Beginning and end seem to be reversible; each single picture installs a 'new' cage; each single picture contains the narrative 'core' of the album. In the end, the circular structure remains intact. 'Freedom' versus 'the landscape of the cage' : another paradox.

More in things than in people

When returning to the pictures in the beginning, in function of complete clarity from page 3 onward ('because' , will the philosopher say, 'what is beginning and what is end once the circular structure has been recognized'), the desolation of a landscape in cobbles behind cold metal immediately leaps to the eye. Also the rest of the album is controlled by a material 'world' ; human characters are missing. This landscape 'without characters' initially gives the impression of being completely lifeless, what can be deciphered though, as one of the many ambiguous ingredients of the equivocal recipe that is La Cage . An apt illustration of this ambiguity can be found in the poem Meer in dingen dan in mensen ('More in things than in people') by J. Bernlef, and more specifically in the first stanza:

Omdat de dood in mensen huist

de buitenkant van dingen is

kan ik alleen in dingen leven zien


(Because death is present in people

forms the outside of things

I can only see life in things)

Because this stanza, in my opinion, articulates at least one facet of the ambiguous puzzle character of La Cage intensively, I would like to enter at length into it (as a continuation of the discussion raised by R. Kopland in NWT 1985 (2) ). Proceeding on the title, the I obviously experiences "more in things than in people". This could point at the fact that this I finds things more interesting than people, perhaps because they stimulate the act of thought more, or because they leave more to the imagination (?). When, subsequently, one takes a closer look at the first stanza, firstly, the thought of  'people being alive, but at the same time harbouring the latent presence of death' can be extracted. Facing that, the things are situated, of which, in line with the thought formed of people, can be said that 'death is the outside of things' . The relation between people and things can thus be situated within this paradigm of life and death. Things show their death honestly and, on this way, preserve their core of life on the inside. The subtle play with contrasts (death - life, people - things) here leads to an absurd inversion of the traditional, human world of thought, but at the same time opens (for who wants to see) the possibility of a completely new perspective, namely that of a formerly 'unknown' reality. A similar 'unknown' reality of 'things' can be found in La Cage.

Still, there are traces of human presence to be detected in La Cage, be it in a faded or ironized manner. This is illustrated by the papers and the apparatus in the picture on page 108, by the sheets on pages 95 and 109 (among others) (the last example appears to be a suddenly permuted variant in sheets of the paper man on page 108), and by the clothing (evidently a sudden variation of the sheets) on page 127, which all take the form of a human body. But then again, an empty body, 'lifeless' and tormented (page 95), reduced to paper and covered with its own appliances (page 108 and cf. infra), scourged by cracked bricks and bleeding ink (page 109), firmly tied up like a scarecrow and therefore a caricature of itself (page 127). Each time subject to some sort of strange power that also seems to steer the objects. Just as the objects, often caught stylishly at the peak of action (page 124), as if a powerfully puzzling lens can, only at the very last moment, prevent the fatal explosion by taking a photographical 'snapshot'.

When seeing the picture on pages 158 to 159 or on pages 164 to 165, the idea arises that not only the photographical lens, but also the frame has a significant role to play in the freezing of the action. By the positioning of the template of the frame on pages 158 to 159 or on pages 164 to 165, a mass of ink is caught in the act of bursting into pieces. With this notion in mind, it also seems plausible that the template of the frame has squeezed itself, as it were into/in between the action, or that it has even just plainly put itself on top of the action and in that way has brought the doors and beams, flying around like a hurricane, to a stop in the middle of their explosion (like in the picture on page 54 to 55). That the doors and beams, that have been catapulted into the air, all approach the form of a possible frame themselves, can represent an, as by the author, intended or unintended, but anyway fully ludicrous accentuation of this element.

Back to the 'characters'. Another trace, let it be a less direct trace, of human presence lies within the objects themselves. For, in one way or the other, they all are appliances or constructions of mankind. As an annotation, one can observe here that this perspective again associates itself with the traditional human world of thought (and this in contrast to the frame of mind sketched in the poem by Bernlef, cf. supra); objects live in as much as they are reflections of mankind's presence. Papers, ink, chairs, beds, closets, paintings, cameras, bandrecorders, even pyramids and skyscrapers: a seemingly endless parade of functional objects in the human world of experience. Only the flourishing vegetation seems to escape the hand of mankind. Still, the human supremacy remains an illusion in this album, even in an indirect way. For, the materialised reality is defined here by an unpredictable, mysterious force, maybe even by the cyclic period of time, that is continually uncovering the decline, or by the imagination 'personified'.

By displaying a picture like that on page 62, the game with the reader is continued. While the textual block, just like in some other pictures, initially gives the impression of describing the human senses "l'oeil et l'oreille", the image shows the material pendants (binoculars, headphone and microscope) of these human functions. Subsequently, a shift occurs within the textual block toward the linguistic usage of the material creation; "poursuivant leurs functions automatiques" . That the objects are visually stylised in such a way that they seem to maintain a certain relation of similarity with a real head, only thickens the puzzling effect.

In connection with this, one can notice that the purely observational objects themselves, as shown for example on page 62, appear to be an indulging (in the direction of the human observation through the senses) reduction of the complex recording apparatus (bandrecorder, camera, typewriter & ), as pictured on pages 16 to 17. But also this piece of the puzzle is ironized when the reader suddenly comes across a multiplication of the observational apparatus and subsequently is confronted increasingly with a new reversal to the complex recording apparatus. The pieces of the puzzle, gathered by the reader, are finally (a word that in fact doesn't belong in the circular labyrinth that is La Cage) pulled out of joint even more when the reader sees the 'scarecrow' (cf. supra) crushed by the observational and recording apparatus on page 131. Wherever the reader thinks he/she can discover remains of human presence, these remains are continually minimized, not just by the mysterious steering force (cf. supra), but also by the completely absent psychological characterization, in aid of a 'universe' directed at the object.

The (anti-)structure of time

In addition, the recording apparatus on pages 16 to 17 opens another structure of thought. For, in the vicinity of the pyramids, these objects constitute an anachronism. Put up as sacral objects along the path leading to the ritual centre of the pyramid, the clash that is brought about by these objects, leaps into the eye even more. To put it in other words, the 'little clock' in La Cage ticks at different paces; one could even state that still another puzzle of different periods of time has evolved within the labyrinth of the cage. Because also the pyramids themselves on pages 16 to 17 clearly stem from different periods. Moreover, maybe to the effect of confusing the puzzle even more, the central, pointed pyramid, underneath her construction, already contains a copy of the other 'pyramids with stairs' surrounding her.

Also leaps in time are inherent to La Cage. Within this context, the picture on pages 22 to 23 suddenly displays a pyramid gone to ruin. In the a-chronological cage the fable time often rushes past the narrative time at top speed. The ellipsis seems to be complete when next to the decayed pyramid on page 24, suddenly an intact pyramid is shown on page 25.

On the level of narrative theory, the landscape of the cage that is La Cage doesn't only catch the eye because of an a-chronological passing of time. Characteristic in this context is also the deconstruction of the traditional relation of causality. The photographic eye or the drawing pen of the author produces a stream of pictures (text and image) in which the normal cause-consequence pattern is thrown overboard. Although the reader is actually looking ahead, and is, for example through the window on pages 34 to 35, looking at the building that will appear on pages 36 to 37 and can also recognize the images on the paintings (pages 34 to 35), in a magnified and transformed state on pages 170 to 171, these are no cases of normal relations of causality. This comes to light even more when the reader considers that the room itself, in a fragmented way or not, is the source of a kaleidoscope of reflections and permutations throughout the entire album. The many accumulations and variants - as for instance the building (mentioned above), that pops up again on pages 66 to 67, pages 90 to 91, pages 112 to 113, pages 124 to 125, page 133 and pages 168 to 169 - make it clear that La Cage develops a circular labyrinth of translinear connections. Also from this perspective, the common narrative appears to be the cyclic returning and always inherently present decay, or put differently, 'the existence of the cage'.

When, in the end, the textual blocks are taken into account, the same elements become prominent. For, these textual wholes often display an a-chronological passing of time as well. Within this context the textual block of the picture on pages 12 to 13 narrates a catastrophic decay "brusquement et inexplicablement figée par quelque événement ou quelque catastrophe (page 12) si violente et inattendue qu' elle réduisit en décombres (page 13)", while on the level of the image a true period of florescence (flourishing vegetation) appears. Here, the text seems to announce and even embody the approaching (and already inherently present) decay at a different speed than the images. However, the reader that looks closely, can also recognize the herald of decay in the images, since the metal bars to which the papers are fastened, are the same metal bars that constitute the 'prototypical' cage a bit further in the album (for example the picture on page 178). But still, everyone will probably admit that especially the prophetic words can evoke this specific emotion in the picture on pages 12 to 13.

The many repetitions of phrases like de nouveau (among others on page 50, page 56 and page 61), as well as the analogously returning sentence structures or fragments (for example "prématurément interrompue" (page 11) - "prématurément arrêtée" (page 50)) and the superfluous occurrence of the present participle - maybe the verb form par excellence to indicate that something is still going on, that something hasn't reached a final ending - all contribute to the circular structure of La Cage. In my opinion, the most amazing example of a circular structure brought about by text and image, is to be found in the picture on pages 164 to 165. Visually, 'a wall with a frame on it' appears, 'in which an image of a pyramid dotted with ink (cf. supra) is shown, that on its turn seems to be standing inside a room'. The text under the image initially seems to describe the image only vaguely, but the reader that opens up to the depth of the words "jusqu'au sommet du tertre, enfin, atteint par des voies bordées, de noires machines votives, obscurci par l'ombre violente de la cage", will notice a shift to the picture on pages 16 to 17 or pages 18 to 19, while the following words "la carcasse emmêlée taillée en pieces, Volant en éclats au bas de l'escalier, réduite en cendre et dispersée (...)" will lead the reader to the picture on pages 20 to 21, after which they will make him/her end up at page 164.

Striking is also the sporadic usage of an italicized typography and of words like énigmatique, which undoubtedly accentuates the powerfully puzzling nature of La Cage. Also well put together, is the combined play of word and image in the transition of the picture on pages 26 to 27 to the picture on pages 28 to 29. On the one hand, the images very subtly bring about a significant shift in the observation of the reader: for, the position of the five boulders on pages 26 to 27 is literally repeated in the position of the furniture in the room on pages 28 to 29! On the other hand, the accompanying words function as a hinge between the two pictures and also as the last paradox that is mentioned in this discussion, since this 'simple' articulation seems to contain the key to every perspective that has been taken up in the 'complex' graphic novel La Cage: "et tous les efforts pour parvenir au centre deviennent superflus" (page 26) "puisque chaque combinaison conduit inévitablement au sommet et à la cage" (page 27).

The back door

Every reader of La Cage will probably agree with me that the album can't be 'written down' in a paper of about ten pages. The expression that "every reading is a different reading", certainly holds true for a complex album like La Cage. A short list of the puzzling terms mentioned in this paper, like circle, paradox, universe, variant and labyrinth, already is a 'silent' witness of this fact. For the curious (and daring) among us, it is therefore a must to enter 'the cage' themselves and to participate, in that way, in the game between album and reader.


Bernlef, J. Winterwegen. Amsterdam: Querido, 1983.

Kopland, R. "Meer in dingen dan in mensen", In: Nieuw Wereldtijdschrift . Antwerpen: Manteau, 1985 (2).

Vaughn-James, M. La Cage . Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 1986



Kristien JACOBS



Maerlant Center Institute for Cultural Studies

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