The English illustrator, painter and comics artist Martin Vaughn-James passed away last week (obits here and here). Perhaps this will be an occasion for comics world to take greater note of this significant artist and innovator in the medium. Owing to his influences and probably especially the fact that he lived in Brussels for the latter part of his life, he is much admired by critics and scholars, if not the comics-reading populace at large, in the Francophone world. In America, however, he lamentably remains largely unknown.

From what little I’ve seen of his work as an illustrator and painter, I would hazard the guess that his work in comics, although comparatively limited — consisting as it does of a mere half a dozen books — is nevertheless his most significant. His approach to the form, both in terms of narration and, more concretely, his blend of words and images, remains unique in the medium, all the while prefiguring important later innovations by direct progeny such as Schuiten and Peeters and Marc-Antoine Mathieu, as well as by such less directly related figures as Richard McGuire and the Fort Thunder cartoonists, different as they are.

He first started stringing words and images together in sequence in the early 70s, with his first book, Elephant, being released by a small art house press in 1970, followed by The Projector (1971), The Park (1972) and The Cage (1975). Here’s his own account, from the foreword to the French edition of the latter:

“The summer of 1968 I left London for Toronto with my wife Sarah and a portfolio full of raw and surrealist drawing. The “counter-culture” was at its height. It was the “Trudeau years” — deserters, the Vietnam War, the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec), Canadian identity, May 68, American assassinations, Watergate, Pop Art, Bacon, Dylan and Zappa, Borges, Bergman and Beckett, Godard and Pasolini. And I was immersed in it. The psychedelic made its presence felt in graphic art and the distant thunder of revolutions could be heard on the calm, green streets of Canada.”

This time of change of course was reflected significantly in the development of the comics medium through the 70s. In this, Vaughn-James did not differ much the American underground cartoonists, and indeed one imagines him taking his cue from some of them — there seem to be traces of both Crumb and, especially, Moscoso in his work. Similarly, he shared artistic concerns with many of his French-speaking peers at the time, but he brought a much more unadulterated literary and fine arts approach to his work than did most of those artists.

Strongly influenced by the nouveau roman novelists, his comics eschew traditional narrative and humanism. All his comics are structured according to systems that are seen to order and invariably alienate the experience of the individual. In his greatest and best-known book, The Cage, this achieves its most powerful articulation. It’s a deeply pessimistic — almost misanthropic — meditation on the state of entrapment that is both creation and life. What makes it not only bearable but hauntingly fascinating, however, is the strange beauty and horror of its systemic vision (I will refrain from going into too much detail here and merely refer you to this fine 2004 essay by Domingos Isabelinho).

The Cage is a constantly changing system whose only rule is entropy. In The Cage, the act of creation is a necessary exercise in futility, a nightmarish march towards the inevitable. The Cage is life itself, but also the work of art made in response, and ultimately the book we are reading. Devoid of human characters, these concerns are addressed by objects and spaces that take on strange meaning and elicit often violent emotion, before it all ends and nothing has changed.

Vaughn-James’ great innovation was to apply the principles of the noveau roman to comics narrative — in doing that, he enriched the descriptive approach of Robbe-Grillet and its other practitioners immeasurably, creating what may be as lasting a contribution to non-humanist literature as any of their work. In terms of comics, The Cage, and to a lesser extent his other works, are amongst the first to entirely eschew the clarity of enunciation that has been the bedrock of comics and cartooning since their modern inception. His work is polysemous in a way few comics, before or since, have been, concerned as it is with suggesting states of mind rather than conveying information.

The Cage, furthermore, differs from most comics in that it is as concerned with space as it is with time. Structured according to the principles of a labyrinth, it presents to us an ever-repetitive and simultaneously permutative set of spaces, anticipating the three-dimensional environments of modern video games as well as certain contemporary comics concerned more with world-building and exploration than story. This approach achieves its power through Vaughn-James’ rare use of the enunciative power of the individual image and its repetition, having meaning build through the recurrence and fluctuation of motifs, achieving a rare blend of sequentiality and simultaneity.

Vaughn-James is gone, but The Cage stands as before.


  1. I’m sorry to hear that MVJ passed away. The Cage fascinated me when I discovered it in my college library over 20 years ago and I was lucky enough to obtain a copy from Coach House in Toronto. His work was far ahead of its time.

  2. Yes, it’s truly extraordinary work. And sad that much of it isn’t available, especially to an English-speaking audience.

    Over at TCJ, there’s a thread going on MVJ and his work, which also includes some lobbying for new editions of his work.

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