“The very substance of the narrative today should be the destruction from within of the worn-out sign language of our culture.”
- Martin Vaughn-James from his introduction to The Cage.
By Sean Rogers
Martin Howard Vaughn-James was born “during an air-raid” in Bristol, England on December 5, 1943 according to a tongue-in-cheek biography in Night Train, his first novel. Whether or not this detail is 100% true, the intent is clear. Vaughn-James’ spent his childhood growing up in postwar British towns such as Birmingham, which exposed him to the kind of bombed-up landscapes that would later inform so much of his imagery. In 1958 he emigrated to Australia with his family, which entailed a six-week voyage by ship, followed by three years living in a migrant camp. He enrolled in the National Art School in Sydney, where he won a painting prize that encouraged him and his lifelong partner, poet Sarah McCoy, to leave the country.
In 1968 the eclectic pair ended up in Toronto, where he began to plot how he could “derange” the conventions of comics, allowing image and text to combine and diverge in perplexing, disarming manners, and eventually produced hundreds of pages of rigorous, demanding visual narratives.
This outburst of creativity saw Vaughn-James produce the imposing full-length proto-graphic novels The Projector (1971), The Cage (1975) and L’Enquêteur [The Investigator] (1984), in addition to a series of impressive shorter pieces in which he tested out his approach to the longer projects. These include Elephant (1970) and The Park (1972), as well as over a dozen short stories, published in the early 1970s and later collected, alongside some of his elaborately detailed drawings, in Après la bataille [After the Battle] in 1982.
Vaughn-James and McCoy spent nearly a decade in Toronto, before uprooting to Paris in 1977 and later settling in Brussels. Even though his time in Canada was short compared to others, the
comics work he produced while in Toronto was certainly the most influential of what would be a varied career.
The bulk of his short strips and a good deal of work on L’Enquêteur were done while in Toronto and became part of a solo exhibition on Vaughn-James that the Art Gallery of Ontario staged in 1975.
It was also in Toronto that Vaughn-James made the first of his associations with historic publishing houses, such as Coach House Press which released his second book, The Projector in 1971. At the time Coach House was a major player in Canada’s burgeoning literary vanguard and was home to kindred spirits who shared Vaughn-James’ subversive spirit. This included the poets bpNichol and Steve McCaffrey, who were also experimenting with the comics form.
After The Projector, Coach House published Vaughn-James’ The Park and The Cage as similarly handsome artist’s books, bestowing upon them a context and seriousness far removed from the pulpy ephemera that marked most comics of the day.
Unlike many of the landmark comics and graphic novels of the past 20 years, Vaughn-James’ comics works are aggressively abstract and difficult to summarize. Decades after their original appearance they are still posing challenges to their readers, especially ones who are accustomed to straight-forward storytelling techniques. Vaughn-James reconfigures his narratives in terms of the interplay of things, or the simple progression through space and time, pushing his reader to look for meaning in a host of physical objects. When characters do appear in his comics, they are marvels of instability. Though largely conventional figures—a bald, bespectacled stand-in for the author; a bunch of mean-spirited funny animals—they metamorphose, disappear, and turn inexplicably into empty suits of clothes without any warning.
The artist thrusts them through surreal cityscapes that comment obliquely on media saturation and the factory-farm nature of the contemporary workplace. This kind of emphasis on setting displaces character entirely in Vaughn-James’s middle works, but when the human figure reappears in L’Enquêteur, it is still the landscapes and the buildings that dominate.
Of the two characters, here, one—the investigator—never appears the same way twice, and the other—the subject of his investigation, variously called Thompson, Tomkins, Tomlinson, Tomassen—never appears at all. Our attention, instead, is drawn to the locations through which these ciphers pursue and evade one another, as well as to their guns, raincoats, fedoras, and valises.
The works that preceded L’Enquêteur were what truly signaled a sea change in Vaughn-James’s approach. In The Park, nothing but the barest trace of humankind remains in any given frame. A photo appears, some scissors, a shirt, a skyscraper, all in various stages of decrepitude. The confused and halting narration no longer seems anchored in the images, preoccupied with things—spots, a watch, a ribbon—that never make an appearance.
Published in 1975, The Cage recapitulates and perfects all these concerns. A breakthrough book for Vaughn-James, The Cage sees a disembodied spectator-reader guided through desolate landscapes, street scenes, wildernesses, to investigate what happens in a hallway, in a room, and in the titular cage. The divorce between frozen image and poetic text, the tension on the page between stable space and advancing time, and the array of objects put into play—a menacing inky stain, twisted and victimized bed-sheets—all become motifs that interact in complex, labyrinthine patterns.
In doing so, Vaughn-James masterfully complicates and disrupts what we understand to be the typical functioning of comics, or narrative, or any similar structure we rely on to make sense of our world. He reveals them each to be, like any object from The Cage, “less an actual machine than an odd and enigmatic abstraction, totally unnatural, its utility obscured.”
Aside from the French books that collected the short stories that he worked on in 1970s, and a final, nominally narrative collection of his drawings and text in 2007 (Chambres noires [Black Rooms]), Vaughn-James largely parted ways with comics after he left Canada for Europe.
Though comics reviewers and academics have since laid claim to The Cage and his other seminal comics-based works, Vaughn-James would never have accepted being called “a cartoonist.” Indeed, he would have balked at any of his books being labeled “comics” (even though there is no disputing that they are) maintaining instead that his works were new—that though they may have hovered above the traditional comic book, they never fully touched down in the field. To that end, he invented new terminology for his output which included “visual-novel” and “boovie” (a mash-up of “book” and “movie” which thankfully never caught on).
Yet despite his recalcitrance, Vaughn-James nevertheless worked tirelessly to challenge and contribute to the language of comics. What we’ve come to think of as “the graphic novel” has endless claimants to the title of inventor, but Vaughn-James’s role as forefather is distinguished by the unparalleled ambition, ability, and merit of his works.
The last 25 years of Martin Vaughn-James’s life were devoted to painting. A practice which resulted in haunting canvases that depict ghostly desiccated images of buildings, objects, and people on the verge of being lost to memory. The induction of Martin Vaughn-James into The Giants of the North ensures that his comics work will not suffer the same fate.
(The preceding article is adapted from text written for the 2010 Doug Wright Awards, during which Vaughn-James was inducted into the Giants of the North.)
- Martin Vaughn-James, RIP from The Walrus
- Obituary from The Comics Reporter
The Ghost of a Character: The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James
- Samples of paintings by Martin Vaughn-James