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Martin Vaughn-James, RIP

An important and neglected Canadian cartoonist for Coach House Books, Martin Vaughn-Smith was

Martin Vaughn-James passed away on July 3. In the histories of comics in Canada and comics as book-length narratives he played an important and often neglected role. His importance stems not just from the fact that he was a Canadian cartoonist when so few others were out there, or that he created long-form cartoon books when no graphic novel designation yet existed in book stores or libraries. Vaughn-James was also, and remains, a significant figure in comics history because his work was singular, literate, experimental, and often unsurpassably good.

I know little about Vaughn-James beyond the books he published during his most fertile comics-making period in the early ’70s. He was born in Bristol in 1943, and spent most of his adult life in Europe—Brussels—as an illustrator, fine artist, and infrequent novelist. In 1968, however, he moved to Toronto, and while in Canada he produced a strong and dense body of comics work in a few short years. 1970 saw Toronto’s New Press release the artist’s first book, a surreal (in the Magrittean sense), psychedelic shaggy-dog story called Elephant. The next year, Vaughn-James began his relationship with the city’s then-young and already great Coach House Press. They published The Projector, a novel-length story told in a dissociated second-person (the “you” of the narrative captions is never apparent in the images) where part of the broad-ranging, discontinuous narrative involves Vaughn-James’s bald-pated stand-in traveling toward, and trying to avoid, a monolithic, meat-grinder-like projector.

The book was far more of an objet d’art than Elephant‘s simple chapbook, and the leap forward in the artist’s abilities and ambitions more than matched the increased production values on display. Vaughn-James had refined his blotchy lines, rendered his narration even more clinical, and further developed some curious, anaesthetic motifs—articles suspended in mid-air and draped in fabric, objects as vague imposing metaphors, architectural drawing devoid of figures, startling and unmotivated panel transitions. As with the considerably looser and more open-concept comics of his Coach House stablemate bpNichol, Vaughn-James had harnessed the anything-goes sensibility of underground comics, only to promptly detour out of the head shop and into the realm of literature and artist’s books.

Also from Coach House, The Park followed in 1972, but it is 1975′s The Cage (once again in print in Canada!) for which Vaughn-James is most lauded and remembered. And rightfully so. Labeled “a visual-novel,” The Cage is comics in the strictest sense, but operates like few other comics I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Each page is a single image, though two images across a spread sometimes combine to form a larger view, while typed narration scrolls above or below each panel, or is absent entirely. That narration is at times copiously worded, straining for the same hyper-reality achieved in the accompanying pictures, while at other times it’s sparse, or eerily silent, so that even an ellipse (“…”) harbours a staggering amount of meaning. The book’s relentless progression through the picture plane feels cinematic—the artist had been exploring the correlations between comics and film explicitly since Elephant, which he termed a “boovie”—and shares a kinship with the shape and rigourous play of Michael Snow’s camera movement films of the period, like 1967′s Wavelength, not least in the intense, spiralling codas both Vaughn-James and Snow append to their works.

A handier cinematic reference, though, is to Last Year at Marienbad, both for its stately treks through hallways and space—a constant in The Cage—as well as for writer Alain Robbe-Grillet’s abstracted, achronological approach to narrative. Indeed, The Cage approaches a kind of nouveau roman ideal: it features no characters and no coherent story, only settings, only confused chronology, and only narrative elements to arrange in different configurations. There is, then, the room, the inky fluid, the pyramid, the plain, the vegetation, the bed, the pumping station, the sound, and above all the cage, the cage, the cage. These fragments are thrown together in elusive but deliberate sequence—Vaughn-James conceived of the book as a labyrinth—and visited in various stages of disarray, destruction, decay, and, perhaps most troublingly, perfect repair. We never learn what the cage is meant to contain—“an empty analogy,” the narration warns us, “a vacuous, stale and airless bag of words”—only that its mute overseeing of chaos, like our own privileged point of view into the story, is as susceptible to oblivion as is every other thing in these pages.

It’s heartening, on Vaughn-James’s passing, to realise the extent to which The Cage is still being praised and talked about and rediscovered (see here, especially), and to be reminded that, with 1984′s L’Enquêteur and 2007′s Chambres noires, the artist still has comics out there I haven’t read. As things stand, though, Martin Vaughn-James’s few extraordinary efforts represent an adventurous avenue of comics-making that even our avant garde hasn’t yet fully found out and followed. So here’s hoping for a future where Vaughn-James becomes ever more acknowledged and admired a presence in comics history—lord knows he deserves it.

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