It feels a little miraculous that this book exists. These few hundred pages of Martin Vaughn-James's hardcore experimental comics, light on character and narrative, fully committed to baffling and unsettling any and all readers, wreathed in a lavish hardcover reprint half a century after they were drawn by a dead creator who was barely a cult figure in his time, make for an unusual book to say the least. Most often the reason such things happen is because the work itself is really good, and that's certainly the case here. That New York Review Comics is able to stay afloat putting out "rediscovered masterworks" like this feels like a gift from the universe to the discerning comics fan.
It's tough to talk about Martin Vaughn-James without acknowledging the shadow cast by his masterpiece, The Cage, a truly sui generis comic that uses the medium with surgical precision to depict something so bizarre and bizarrely specific that it gets closer to its own kind of perfection than more typical comics ever could. Meticulously focused, glowering into an apocalypse only its creator can begin to describe, The Cage is still as unlike anything else as it was on its 1975 publication date. Seemingly aware he'd made his ultimate statement, the proto-graphic novelist Vaughn-James simply stopped making graphic novels after it, opting mainly for single images and the written word. Sometimes these were combined on the page to interesting effect, as in the never-translated 1984 book L'Enquêteur, whose formatting calls back to Jim Steranko's Chandler: Red Tide, of all things; but the closest Vaughn-James got to comics in his last decades of life was modeling for the sole character of Marie-Françoise Plissart‘s photographic sequences in François Schuiten's and Benoît Peeters' 1996 album The Leaning Girl. When an artist produces a work of art as singular as The Cage with their final effort in a form, it's impossible not to see their overall output as a journey to that one point. Vaughn-James' career arc possesses a linear narrative far clearer than anything in his actual comics.
What we have here in The Projector and Elephant are Vaughn-James' first two cracks at longform comics, the originally magazine-format Elephant (1970) and the book-length The Projector (1971). They are inevitably less unique than The Cage (less good too, but that's like saying Frank Miller's Daredevil isn't as good as The Dark Knight Returns; you don't get one without the other coming first and they both kick ass anyway) - but the books stand up on their own merits while providing a strong indication of where their creator was ultimately headed. Where The Cage feels as close as anyone has gotten to a comic made by an alien, truly frightening in its disconnection from anything but the intensity of its own vision, Elephant, especially, feels very much of a piece with the visual culture of the late '60s psychedelic era. With a rounded, detail-rich scrawl, Vaughn-James's drawing evokes the underground comics of Robert Crumb and the precise whimsy of the Push Pin design studio, while the typewritten lettering filling his word balloons betrays a debt to French Situationism.
These influences all had big impacts, and were in the air in 1970 to the extent that they may have been more difficult for a young artist to escape than accept. But dig a level deeper into stuff that didn't take over the art world, and you can find Vaughn-James's real kindred spirits: Crumb's Zap Comix buddy Victor Moscoso flashed a similar drawing style but created sequences of images that, like those in Elephant, really test the reader's ability to link everything together into a single overarching statement. In Japan, Sasaki Maki was drawing evocative, symbol-rich comics whose power lay more in collaged juxtapositions of meaning than any narrative. And fellow NYRC re-publishee Hariton Pushwagner spent the exact same years in which Vaughn-James was making comics on Soft City, a surrealistic opus of modern man's dehumanization that in both graphic approach and thematic concern is astonishingly close to this work.
Both Pushwagner and Vaughn-James focus in on a very "sixties" feeling of unreality, the obvious though often unmentioned artifice of life in a newly post-nuclear, Fordist world where mass reproduction and mass consumption are the basis for both economy and culture. You don't have to be into avant-garde comics to see this state of being get an airing - '60s movies from Billy Wilder's The Apartment to Jacques Tati's Playtime both skewer and are pinned in time by it, and Pop Art was a worldwide mass-cultural expression of the same thing. But Vaughn-James, unlike Wilder and Warhol and even Pushwagner, is not a popular entertainer; he's an avant-gardist. Social satires in which we're amused to recognize ourselves on the other side of the picture plane aren't what this guy's making. Elephant aims below the belt, going psychological and queasy, hoping to tease out power dynamics and humiliations that we'd rather not recognize beneath the identical grey flannel suits of midcentury corporate life.
In some of Elephant's better sequences, a salesman with a toilet for a head pitches you, reader, on your own cranial replacement to reduce "MIND-ODOUR"; and a telephone, a tea kettle, and an alarm clock, huddled close together on a table, discuss their strange dreams and a creeping feeling of the pointlessness of everything. Funny in the former case and poignant in the latter, very weird in both, this is Vaughn-James bringing in content new to the form, doing Surrealism with the plainspoken directness of, well, a comic book. All Vaughn-James's best work captures "objective" reality being pierced by massive intrusions of the hallucinatory, carrying both the shock and terror of realizing one is trapped in the prison of one's own mind, and the implication that this is what's happening to everyone all the time.
Less impressive is Vaughn-James's inability throughout Elephant to transition from one scene into another in a way that builds on the power of what he's just done, or ratchets up the tension or intrigue. Instead, in a way that feels extremely "underground comics", he just slams the Psychedelic Vista button again and again, creating mini-suites of melting, warping imagery that, while well drawn, lack the specificity and focus that makes his high points feel so bracing. Elephant is a fascinating comic, but ultimately a failed experiment, lacking the undergirding structure and feeling of consistent momentum that makes the best comics feel so special. A collection of set pieces placed in random proximity, this feels less like the best possible version of what it is than the first one that Vaughn-James was able to render. The best of the era's more conventional comics, whether they're Gil Kane batting out carefully calculated superhero slush or Greg Irons venting rage on the page of a horror shlockfest, are simply more satisfying to read than this one. It's not very hard to put down.
It's a good thing, then, that Vaughn-James set about immediately improving on it. Jeet Heer's introduction mentions that "Vaughn-James's procedure was to try out a storytelling gambit first in a chapbook and then dive into it at greater length in a book." Hence, we're told, "Elephant is a dry run for The Projector."
It's tough not to be impressed by Vaughn-James's growth between his first two comics - released only a year apart! The Projector immediately announces itself as work of a higher order, with an opening sequence that feels like the comics equivalent of high-pitched, ear-shredding feedback, or a blinding white laser beam. Expert architectural renderings of elaborate Victorian-era buildings, faithful reproductions of Vaughn-James’s real-life environment in Toronto, are suddenly shattered by the appearance of a gargantuan horse ridden by an equally massive bundle of cloth in the shape of a man, while second-person narration places "you" in a similar but different scenario, where the air of creeping wrongness is less explosive, but just as unsettling. What Vaughn-James nails here is a quotidian world that suddenly erupts with disturbing, fantastic visitations that feel just as solid as what we read as "normal". The far-out imagery of Elephant is great for what it is, but in The Projector Vaughn-James creates a psychedelic experience, not just an exhibition. We register time passing, feel the air in the room, and can actually inhabit the boxes that Vaughn-James sends nightmares rampaging through at irregular intervals. Something that feels more real can be a lot more upsetting.
Vaughn-James's drawing gets tighter, more detailed, less "cartoony" both between Elephant and The Projector, and as the latter book wears on, growing in effectiveness all the time. The sense of definiteness that this precisely inked artwork gives to utterly bizarre tableaus is key - you can see how committed this artist is to putting across the particulars of what he's doing, and this creates a gravity plenty of other trippy comics just don't have. It feels serious, not fun. Vaughn-James also fully embraces the elements of comics in The Projector, going from typed balloons to handwritten ones, committing to a consistent gridded page structure, and tightening up his panel-to-panel continuity. This book may be nonsensical, but it really reads, steaming ahead on the power generated by Vaughn-James's newfound mastery of rhythm and transition. Even the way the text is broken up into three chapters (or "passages"), calling back to the old Marvel and DC "book-length epics", imposes structure, making the middle section's burst into wordless double-page freakouts feel far more purposeful than Elephant's many excursions into the same thing.
In some of The Projector's best sequences, a man moves slowly through a crowd of people dressed in formalwear and high fashion whose heads are suddenly replaced with home appliances as they slash at one another with scissors, while in alternating panels an anthropomorphic dog in a straw boater and natty suit reels off increasingly bizarre and racy punchlines. Later, scissors slice apart the cords binding the giant horse from the beginning of the book's rider into the shape of a man, as both plummet from a great height. Elsewhere, floating cream puffs and cubes transform into buds that bloom in a riotous squiggle of abstract forms, their burgundy shapes completely covering over the brown of the book's pages. This stuff all sounds equally weird when you type it out; what gives the passages that feel especially potent their charge is Vaughn-James's cartooning skill, his precise tracking of motion and passing time through the panels, his ability to illustrate subtly progressing changes in a single visual subject, the consistency of his drawing style as it accommodates the entry of each bizarre new story element. By the end of The Projector, Vaughn-James's comics feel far from the druggy undergrounds, fully their own thing: vividly imagined, expertly drafted, pitched perfectly between the realistic and the stylized, seeming to buffet and billow in exceptionally strong, slow-moving winds.
Where The Projector is let down is by its author's continuous assaults on buttoned-up professional life in the post-industrial west. Again and again more visually exciting sequences return to scenes of suited men giving and taking orders, debasing themselves for reasons beyond comprehension. It's hardly an unworthy topic, and you gotta admire Vaughn-James's determination, but these salvos at a system built on stratification and routine are ultimately a one-note joke, not developed obsessively or observed subtly enough to feel original in their critique. A one-panel rimshot at the hippie counterculture toward the end of The Projector is more cutting in its brevity than any of the dozens of panels Vaughn-James spends épatering the bourgeoise.
Of course, he wasn't done improving. As he cut the fat from Elephant and redoubled his focus and intensity for The Projector, so Vaughn-James would delete the human characters and concerns of his earlier work, focusing in on narration, architecture, setting, and time in The Cage. These earlier works can feel messy and uncertain by comparison - but it's great reading, a lot of it, and incredibly inspiring. To see an artist begin by launching himself into unexplored territory, then plant a set of flags in exactly the areas he was committed to exploring, in the process managing to thrill and disturb in equal measure, is pretty incredible to watch. How did he do it? What was he thinking? Was it all planned? Why that decision, at this point? As in everything Vaughn-James did over his few short years in comics, there are no answers. There's just the books.
As I finished reading, closing the flipbook-style volume not at its final page but in the middle, I looked down and realized I had bitten my thumbnail to the quick, and I was bleeding.