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July 8, 2009


Martin Vaughn-James, 1943-2009

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The French-language comics news site ActuaBD.com is reporting the passing of Martin Vaughn-James.

The painter and groundbreaking comics-maker was born in Bristol during the latter stages of Great Britain's involvement in World War II (1943). He spent much of his youth in Australia and would live in a variety of places around the world before settling into Brussels during a latter stage of his life.

He is best known for a publishing sequence from the early 1970s -- the artist lived in Canada for a time, in Montreal -- of books from New Press and Coach House Press that stand as either seminal graphic novels from the generation in which that notion finally began to take hold, books that function in many ways like graphic novels but aren't quite the same thing, or works that have informed the development of or suggested possibilities for those kinds of books. That run of works is: Elephant (1970), The Projector (1971), The Park (1972) and The Cage (1975). Of those four, Elephant was from New Press, the other three were from Coach House Press.

In his excellent 2004 essay on The Cage, the writer and critic Domingos Isabelinho summarized the historical impact of those four books, particularly the last.
"The Cage emerged at roughly the same time as other ambitious comic books which might be seen as the first self-conscious graphic novels, including Gil Kane's His Name is... Savage (1968) and Blackmark (1971). Like The Cage, these early graphic novels also deviated from comic books' particular visual/textual language, utilizing large blocks of mechanically set text to approximate the conventions of "real" novels. As such, The Cage fits within this germinal graphic novel tradition. In his first book, Elephant, Martin Vaughn-James toyed with the idea of abolishing the misnomer "comics." On the back cover of said book he invented the goofy neologism 'boovie' (an obvious mixture of 'book' and 'movie'). Five years later, he called The Cage a 'visual-novel,' clearly a more serious contender in the semantic game. He knew that The Cage was as far from your average comic as any Samuel Beckett book. The Cage comes mainly from the high art field; it's not mass art at all. The book's principle distinguishing characteristic vis-a-vis comics is not its form, but rather the lack of a generic aspect. With The Cage, Martin Vaughn-James created a genre of his own."
imageThe subjectively told, largely mysterious The Cage would become a well-known work among hardcore devotees of both the graphic novel and cutting edge fiction, especially in France where it fit nicely in with both certain aspects of the modern novel and the timing of the French-language industry's embrace of the modern graphic novel. The Cage would see several printings and much academic study over the years. The current printing is 2006.

Vaughn-James spent much of the last few decades devoted to painting and illustration, many of which works had a narrative component. As a painter, he enjoyed several personal exhibitions over a range of years starting in 2005 in Toronto. This includes multiple showings in Cologne, in Paris and in his adopted town of Brussels. In addition to the catalogs accompanying some of those shows, Vaughn-James enjoyed two books this decade, Chambres Noires (2007) and L'Enquteur (2002) from Les Impressions Nouvelles. That same group published Thierry Groensteen's La Construction de la Cage in 2002, a 96-page treatment of Vaughn-James' most famous work.

Vaughn-James also published two prose fiction works several years ago: Night Train (1989) and The Tomb of Zwaab (1991). Isabelinho notes that he was a character in the sixth Les Cites Obscures book, L'Enfant Penchee.

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