CREATOR/S: Martin Vaughn-James
YEAR: 1971 (October)
PUBLISHER: Coach House Press
ORIGINAL PRICE: Not known
PRINT RUN: 1,000 (Source: page 123)
WHERE CAN I READ IT FOR MYSELF? Library of Congress
The Projector (c) 1971 M. Vaughn-James. Page 7 (panel 1).
The above image can be found in Sean Rogers’s obituary for Martin Vaughn-James, along with more information about the artist’s life and work
The Projector starts with these words: “You are walking down this street again. Your suitcase is getting heavier. The thunder of the train passing overhead interrupts your thoughts” (5). The accompanying panels seem to take the viewer on a journey through suburban Canadian space: we enter a garden, confront an impressive, empty greenhouse, move closer to this building – and then a horse, with a wrapped and bound humanoid figure writhing on its back, smashes through it (see fig. 1). While this journey is being shown in the panels, the recitative addresses the reader as a commuter carrying an umbrella and suitcase (and scissors) down a street, although not, it would seem, the same street (there’s a railway bridge in this one).
Following this are two panels that each take up an entire page: on page 9, the horse has plunged off the top of a skyscraper, and the tethered figure is dragged down with it (to get an idea of what this looks like, see fig. 2); on the facing page, a suitcase tumbles downwards in front of a skyscraper. Then we switch to a city scene, Macpherson Avenue, apparently Macpherson Avenue in Toronto. Three pigs dressed in human garb sit around an outside table, arguing about whether they need an umbrella and menacing each other with scissors. They are silenced when the suitcase plunges out of the sky, crushing the umbrella. The suitcase springs open and a photograph of the wrapped figure on the horse is inside, which the pigs silently and simultaneously slice up with their scissors. With that, the untitled prologue ends, and the first “passage” of the book – “Fat on the Brain” – begins.
I have started, then, as The Projector starts: the pigs, the figure on the horse, the scissors, the elements introduced here recur throughout the book. Unfortunately I can’t show you many of them – I have only been able to consult The Projector in the Library of Congress, so no photographs or scans of the cover[i] (though isn’t the poster handsome?). I’m grateful for the hours I spent with it; it’s a compelling comic.
The Projector is written and drawn by Martin Vaughn-James, and it’s a long comics narrative (122 pages) published as a large hardcover (I would guess 8 1/2” x 11”). Most of it is black and white, with red ink used on the final pages. The poster suggests it was conceived of as a “Visual-Novel,” which isn’t apparent from the copy I consulted, but it makes sense: “A Visual-Novel” was the subtitle of Vaughn-James’s best-known work The Cage (1975). Awareness of Vaughn-James’s contribution to comics history is stirring: Coach House Books reissued The Cage last year with an introduction from Seth, and it seems to have caught the imagination of comics scholars, praised in blogs and analysed in journal articles. This is not surprising. The Cage has historical interest (there weren’t that many 181-page comic texts published in book form in the mid-1970s) and it’s an enigmatic text that demands sustained philosophical inquiry, eschewing as it does the obvious pegs of character and narrative on which readerly attention is typically hung.
I won’t say too much about The Cage: the book contains a series of panels (one panel per page, except the double-page spreads) which are devoid of human life. The locations shown include a cage in a desolate desert landscape, a Mayan-looking temple complex (visualised in ruins and in a state of seeming newness), a bedroom filling up with sand and a 1906 pumping station. These scenes are not utterly unconnected: the subject of a series of panels might turn up in a later panel within a portrait or seen through a window. While there are no people or animals in The Cage, some of the objects in the panels are animated in a way that seems to give them agency and character (e.g. a sheet knotted up and lashed to a bedspread is reminiscent of a crucifixion), and Vaughn-James’s finely detailed and impossible/fantastical images recall the surrealism of Magritte.
Fig. 3, 4 and 5. The Cage © 2013 The Estate of Martin Vaughn-James. Pages 20, 25 and 29.
Most panels are accompanied by captions outside the frame. The captions do not so much tell a story as relate a series of enigmatic verbal images, not always with any evident relation to the images in the panels, although some sort of correlation can regularly be discerned. For example, on pages 68-69 the cage is shown to have fallen into disrepair and the caption ironically reads: “The cage stood as before… immune to chaos and decay.”
The British-born Martin Vaughn-James (1943-2009) spent the last stage of his life in Brussels, where his reputation as a painter really took off (Spurgeon). Before that he lived in Canada (he moved to Toronto in 1968 [Rogers, “RIP“]), where his 1970-75 books of comics were published[ii] and Sean Rogers locates Vaughn-James in terms of the experimentation that was pulsing away in Canadian arts in the early 1970s:
Vaughn-James was part of a scattered national vanguard, a generation that reinvented the art forms in which they worked. […] [The Cage was published by] Toronto’s Coach House Press, then a hothouse for radical literature in Canada. […] [Vaughn-James] created comics like no one had seen before – and like few have seen since. […] Here were nearly 200 pages of words and images, bound into a spine and resembling nothing so much as a coffee-table art book.
Crucially, Vaughn-James would look for inspiration to Alain Robbe-Grillet, the chief theorist of the French New Novel, who championed an approach to fiction where mysteries reside less in stories than in the processes by which those stories unfurl. […] The Cage is a labyrinth we were never meant to find our way out of. As Vaughn-James wrote in the original jacket copy, “The very substance of the narrative today should be the destruction from within of the worn-out sign-language of our culture.” Our usual ways of understanding a story, or time, or space, have all been obstructed here, in order to shake us out of convention and habit, in “the hope that we might see differently.” Few books indeed – even of the kind without drawings – force us to see the world from quite so alien a vantage. (Rogers, “Cage”; italics not in original)
Vaughn-James produced four books of comics in the first half of the 1970s: Elephant (1970), The Projector (1971), The Park: A Mystery (1972) and The Cage. There is a clear trajectory from Elephant, the most crudely drawn, to The Cage; at each step the conventions of comics (e.g. speech balloons, multi-panel layouts on each page) were being gradually abandoned. The Elephant and The Park: A Mystery are both short-ish, small texts; by my count, the former is 76 pages of comics, B&W on white paper, 8” x 10” and the latter has 32 pages of comics printed on red paper 4” x 6½”.
The Projector is the most interesting of all Vaughn-James’s 1970s books of comics to me, precisely because it is sits somewhere between The Cage’s austere purity of form and the recognisable conventions of North American comics. The Projector does interesting things with those conventions; the sequences with speech balloons and funny animals are surreal carnivals of odd, unsettling actions. Even though we can read the panels in The Projector as successive moments taking place one after the other in time, discerning the logic to the characters’ actions is tricky. AND: the sections where panels follow one another in temporal sequence are not the only type of sequence in the book, they are interspersed with speech-less sections of single-panel pages and double-page spreads (e.g. 63-80) akin to The Park and The Cage. AND: this distinction I have just drawn, between the conventional comic narratives and the wordless tableau in the book, is a shaky one. It won’t hold up in court. There are wordless sequences with people performing actions that unfold in time, five panels to the page (95-96). The Projector is, in the best possible sense, a con-fusion, a profane mixture of Vaughn-James’s trademark enigmatic, silent, unpeopled panels, and the jabbering mischief of funny animals.
Rather than try to do too much with a pleasantly bewildering text, I’ll tease out one line of inquiry: my contention is Vaughn-James connects the arrangement of images in sequence to the selling and consumption of mass-produced commodities, and this commodity world of sequential images is figured as a trap or constraining system that the book’s bald-headed protagonist yearns to transcend. The Projector is about the dangers of being an unthinking consumer of sequential art and it teaches us to read out of sequence, to break with the meanings that successive images are force-feeding us.
The titular machine provides a structuring metaphor that runs throughout the text. There is a giant projector in the narrative, which appears to screen films, but the projector used on the cover of the book looks more like a magic slide projector. The idea of a device that throws images onto a recurring point of visual focus – which need not be the same physical space, per se – is not restricted to actual projecting machines. Other scenarios follow this model, such as billboards on the side of a freeway and the swiftly changing images that one sees through the window of a fast-moving train. This motif of projected images, one after another, seems to bring in a critique of (a) the passive absorption of successive images, which is critiqued because the spectator has abnegated responsibility for the production of meaning, and (b) the capitalist society that deploys a chain of images the better to turn its citizens into unthinking producers and consumers.
So much for the high-altitude generalisations; an example will help here. In one ‘episode’ a torrent of cars fills the freeway, the vehicles queuing to enter one end of a giant projector. At first the cars pass a succession of giant objects, cigarettes, naked women, aerosols, makeup, condiments, wine (27-28), and then out in the desert we see the same objects featured on a succession of billboards (29-30). The nature of the adverts comment on the crassness and grandiosity of mass consumer culture, its garishness, its bad taste, the way sex and nudity is used to sell objects. It’s telling that image follows image follows image, shepherding the travellers as they move in one solid block (the cars are packed so tightly they merge into each other, a molten stream of chrome [25-26]) towards a single destination. Symbolically speaking, advertising culture bombards us with a sequence of images that shape and homogenize our desires, so we all aim in the same direction.
The giant projector that the cars flood towards is complicit in this process. The projector SEEMS to show moving images with sound, but words appear (on the screen and as speech balloons emanating from the screen) the wrong way round. Here’s what I mean: the first word that is projected, “LIFE,” has the letters in the right order but each letter is reversed (56). It is followed by banal scenes in which key words are similarly treated: a car says “Yes, I’d say I was free… yes” (where the individual letters in “free” are reversed), a fridge says “Well yes, that’s what the law’s for… right?” (the letters in “law” are reversed), a man sitting on a sofa with his wife and child says “Uh-uh… I love my wife… I guess…” (the letters in “love” are reversed) and a man with a telephone for a head says “…well… I’d say I was a man…” (the letters in “man” are reversed). These images do not only sucker the spectator (one group of spectators is an audience of pigs, who laugh uproariously) but they actually invert the values that they profess to uphold: life, freedom, law, love and humanity.
Sitting amongst the audience of pigs is the protagonist of The Projector, a bald man wearing glasses who works as a number-crunching bureaucrat. The bald man inhabits a grotesque distortion of the late capitalist world (I’m not sure it is best to call the diegesis a ‘world’ but I’ll keep going now) and the newspaper he reads has adverts selling “personality shields” (so you can wipe out “making contact” with others), “NOFEEL ®” tablets to take all your feelings away so you can “be popular again,” and a “completely automated” device that will do your thinking for you, a “FATFILTER ® MIND.” (46) The routine of commuting and labour has deadened the senses of his peers; at one point he stands on a subway platform amongst a crowd of businessmen, and on the opposite platform a blind man shouts “You’re all on the wrong platform!!” “You’re waiting for the wrong train!!” “You’re in the wrong station!” The blind man is ignored – even as he is murdered by men with shotguns, even as his body is dragged away (36-37).
The bald man, however, stands outside this consumerist society. He sits in the audience of pigs as the giant projector generates images, but he slips further into his chair. He is worn down by the tyranny of the visual, and this whole page (60) is a formal demonstration of the bald man’s break with the regime of the projector and its enforcement of a linear chain of images. Page 59 is full-page spread of the bald man climbing down the rocky slope behind the projector, trying to get away. Then, on the first panel of page 60, we seem to have gone back in time, and the bald man is back in his seat surrounded by pigs. The second panel is the bald man climbing down the slope, the third and fourth are him in his seat again, the fifth is him reaching the bottom of the slope, the six is him slid down in his chair, his mouth open in a (noiseless?) howl of pain. Presumably the reader is meant to read the images of him slipping down in his chair as happening before he climbs down the slope to get away from the projector, even though those panels are intercut. In other words, the reader of The Projector is challenged to make sense of the panels by reconfiguring their sequence; we are being taught not to swallow down the panels as they are delivered to us, to reject the diet of mass consumer culture that decides what images we are to see and in which order.
We could read the book’s middle section, “Scythes in the Night,” as a long sequence in which the bald man runs away from the giant projector, only for it to catch up with him at the end. At the end of the final passage, “Springtime in the Overcoat Pit,” the bald man makes a final, and seemingly successful, attempt to break out of the prison of his society. The bald man loudly complains about his situation in his office, but his words could almost be an attack on the panels of the comic that contain his figure: “Damn this cube!!” “Everything is flat!!” and eventually he seems to be addressing the reader: “But in here are nothing but these regular rows of modest heaps” (109). The bald man gets in a train, and as it passes over a gorge he jumps out shouting “Yes!” (112). The next pages (115-120) show panels of three-dimensional geometric swirls. They start to show dark crimson buds, growing until by pages 119-20 no white space is visible on the page: the panels are full of black and red, a dense thicket of tubes, plant life, squirming two-dimensional geometric shapes…
My hunch is that the train is another symbol of being deadened by a succession of images passing in front of one, flickering and changing in the window as seen through a proscenium arch (see Lynne Kirby’s book on the relationship between rail transport and early cinema). In the narrative the train does not provide escape for the bald man out of the violently competitive world. When he is on the carriage he berates the hippies on board, who proclaim “We’re leaping off! We’re leaving it behind!!” by saying “But you’re still on board.” What is needed is a leap away from the tyranny of images in sequence, into a place where the reader is challenged by infranarrative panels that do not do all the work – and all the thinking – for the reader, but where the reader must exert imaginative effort across temporalities and geographies to find their own meaning in a succession of panels.
I have barely touched upon the complexity of The Projector but I’ve tried to whet your appetite; let us hope that the reissued The Cage is a success and the Vaughn-James renaissance will continue with a reprint volume of The Projector. I may be leaving the reader with more questions than answers, although that is in accord with the text: the contemporary mediascape floods us with the thoughts we are meant to think – the difficult task of the human subject is to find a space in which productive questions can be formulated.
November 2014 (written October 2014)
[i] A simple image of an old-fashioned projector, perhaps a magic lantern slide projector, is printed directly on the front cover of The Projector. I suspect it originally came with a dust-jacket, which I have not been able to consult.
[ii] It appears Vaughn-James was already spending a substantial amount of time in Europe in the early 1970s. At the back of The Cage we are told the book was started in Toronto Jan. 1972 and completed Feb.1974, with most of the work done in Paris 1972-73.
Kirby, Lynne. Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Exeter: U of Exeter P, 1997. Print.
Vaughn-James, Martin. The Cage. Coach House, Toronto, 1975. Print.
—. Elephant. Toronto: new press, 1970. Print.
—. The Park: A Mystery. Coach House, Toronto, 1972. Print.