(Original post date: 12/1/17)
I trust that my listeners will forgive me for not presenting a Christmas tale this month, but I’d like to celebrate the 55th birthday of an illustrator whose work is way too good not to talk about: Dave McKean. He is perhaps best known for his collaborations with bestselling fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, providing the art for many of his works, such as the famous graphic novel series, The Sandman, and many of his children’s books, like Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. In both art and storytelling, there exist certain teams that go so well together that, while each person may be a great artist in his/her own right, it’s sometimes hard to imagine a piece created by the hand of one without that of the other. Consider these pairs: Singer Elton John and songwriter Bernie Taupin; filmmaker Jim Henson and fantasy artist/art director Brian Froud; and—one of my personal favorites—author Roald Dahl and illustrator Quentin Blake. Ever since I began collecting Gaiman’s work, it’s been near impossible for McKean’s name not to jump to mind as well, and vice versa. That being said, Gaiman didn’t write these books, but Mckean did make the pictures for them, and it was that distinct and instantly recognizable drawing style on the covers that sucked me in and provided the perfect introduction to a fantastic author whose work I might otherwise have passed up.
Varjak Paw is a young Mesopotamian Blue cat living with his family in the home of a kind and wealthy Contessa. His family is content to bask in the luxury and comfort their privileged life provides. Varjak, however, is bored and restless, and—despite his parents’ disapproval and his littermates’ bullying—would much rather listen to his grandfather, Elder Paw, and his stories of their ancestor Jalal, a wise and powerful warrior said to be the greatest Mesopotamian Blue who ever lived. This ordinary routine changes one day when the increasingly ill and little-seen Contessa seems to have at last died, and a strange Gentleman and his two eerily silent twin black cats take over the house. Sensing something dangerously amiss, Elder Paw orders Varjak to go to the Outside to seek out a dog, a monstrous creature said to be the only thing capable of killing a man. During his journey, Varjak learns of the mysterious Vanishings, in which cats simply disappear without a trace. The more immediate threat to his life, though, is the ruthless gang cats that patrol the streets, especially those led by Sally Bones, an evil white cat whose heart is as cold and her claws as sharp as her single ice blue eye. But Varjak receives guidance from an unlikely source: the spirit of Jalal himself, who visits Varjak in his dreams and teaches him the Seven Skills of the Way, an ancient and secret style of feline martial arts. Aided also by his new friends, Holly, a blank-and-white gravelly-voiced cat who hides a lonely heart underneath a harsh demeanor, and Tam, chocolate-colored and cheerfully gluttonous, Varjak must master the Way in order to survive the streets and prove to his family, his enemies, and himself that he is indeed worthy of Jalal’s legacy.
The pacing here is quick and steady throughout, appropriate given the plot’s numerous fight sequences. This is superbly demonstrated by McKean’s monochrome drawings, the streaks of black ink sleek and gritty all at once, giving the cats a fierce and fascinating kind of beauty while complementing all the drama and action. Even though the Varjak Paw books are novels at their core, in the sense that the illustrations either share space with the text on a single page or take up entire pages by themselves, they often read like graphic novels, in that the text is often placed directly inside or over the images in narratively and metaphorically significant ways. In the scene of the first book in which Varjak is beaten unconscious by the arrogant and domineering Ginger, page 102 ends with these lines:
“Already it seemed very far away, like it was happening to someone else. His body felt cold and weightless. As if from a great height, through a curtain of pain, he could hear voices talking. He wondered vaguely whose they were.
‘Leave him alone, Ginger.’ A gravelly voice.
‘Well, look who it is! Friend of yours, is he, Holly?’”
The text continues on page 103, now white against a backdrop of pure black, with a white silhouette of Varjak’s body sprawled out, as if consumed by the darkness of death:
“‘Leave him. He doesn’t know anything.’
‘Ha! He’ll learn.’
Something crunched into Varjak’s ribs. Purple pain seared though his body--
. . . and faded into black.”
Another symbolic aspect of the artwork is demonstrated in Varjak’s dream encounters with Jalal. On these pages, rather than paired with the stark black of reality, the text is written over a contrasting backdrop of grey, pale and soft in the way that only dreams can be—just as Jalal’s calm and dignified manner is so in a way that is one with nature and with life:
He dreamed he was walking by a river in the heat of the night. Zigzag trees swayed in the warm breeze. The air smelled like cinnamon, and tasted of ripe dates. He looked up. The stars were different. They sparkled big and bright in a brilliant sky.
An old cat with silver-blue fur like starlight walked beside him. He looked like a Mesopotamian Blue, but he wore no collar and his eyes were amber like the rising sun.
‘Welcome to the land of your ancestors,’ said the old cat. ‘Welcome to Mesopotamia.’
‘Mesopotamia? Where Jalal came from?’
‘Jalal the Paw, yes indeed. This was his home in olden days.’
Varjak’s pulse beat a little faster. ‘Did you know Jalal?’ he said.
‘And if I did?’
‘Then I’d ask you questions! Are the tales true? Could he really talk to dogs? And—and what would he think of me?’
The old cat cackled. ‘What a question! Why should that matter to you?’
Varjak looked away. ‘My family say I’m a disgrace to the name of Jalal. They say I’m not a proper, pure-bred Mesopotamian Blue.’
‘Oh? And what say you? Are you worthy of your ancestors—or not?’
‘No,’ said Varjak quietly. He hung his head. ‘I’m not.’
‘What if you knew the secret Way of Jalal? Would you then be a proper Mesopotamian Blue?’
Varjak smiled sadly, remembering the Elder Paw. ‘I already know about the Way. And I feel just the same.’
‘You know the Way? How impressive. Perhaps you will demonstrate. Strike me.’
The old cat stopped walking. He blocked Varjak’s path. He wasn’t big, but something about him looked dangerous. Varjak stepped back a pace.
‘Strike me!’ he commanded again. His amber eyes flashed. ‘Strike me now, or die where you stand.’
Well, if that was what he wanted . . . why not?
Varjak swiped gently at the mad old cat, meaning to tap him on the side. But somehow, he didn’t connect. His paw sailed through the air, and thudded harmlessly on the ground. Varjak frowned. How could he have missed?
[. . .]
He slammed out a silver-blue paw, missed completely, and lost his balance. Those alien stars twinkled at him with silent laughter as he rolled onto the riverbank. He sprang up again, furious.
‘Once more!’ goaded the old cat. Varjak’s frustration boiled over. He lashed out. His paw flapped stupidly in space, and he toppled to the ground. He kicked with his back legs, but he was fighting himself now, and he knew it.
He was beaten.
His elderly opponent peered down at him. [. . .]
[. . .] ‘Who are you?’
‘Do you still not know me, my son?’
'Jalal the Paw, that am I.’ He winked. ‘Believe none of the tales.’” (p. 54-58)
The real Mesopotamia eventually becomes what is now most of present-day Iraq. Born in Beirut, Lebanon—bordered by Syria and Israel—and growing up in the Iraqi diasporic community in London, Said flawlessly weaves the exotically beautiful imagery, nature, culture, and wisdom of his ancestry into this contemporary industrial setting. In a very Miyagi-like fashion, Jalal teaches Varjak that his Way applies not only to combat and survival, but to life as a whole. Not every one of the Seven Skills is strictly a fighting move; in some manner they may deal with personal reflection, respect of the self and of others, and above all, living life to the fullest. Similarly, it is through his friendship with Holly that Varjak comes to realize just how misguided his family’s views—and his own— really are, leading him to wonder what a so-called “proper Mesopotamian Blue” really is. His family, especially his jerk of an older brother, Julius, are proud of their heritage, believing themselves to be “special” and condemning Varjak as “a disgrace to the name of Jalal” (p. 32). But Outside, as Holly is quick to point out, Varjak is just another cat. Despite her initial surliness, she is the one who proves a true ally and friend to Varjak, showing him around the city and helping him to stay alive:
“‘I want to go home.’
‘I told you, it’s safer to stay here.’
‘Not that home. My old home, on the hill.’
‘Still thinking about that?’ She shrugged. ‘What’s stopping you?’
‘I can’t. I was supposed to go back with a dog, to save my family from the Gentleman and his cats. I tried to get one, Holly. I stood there, in front of those monsters, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even get them to talk.’ He closed his eyes, the shame still stinging like a new-cut wound. ‘I failed.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ she said gently. ‘Dogs are scary. Stupid, too. I’ve never heard of a cat who could talk to them.’
Varjak sighed. Jalal could do it, he knew that. But he was no Jalal. He wasn’t even a proper Mesopotamian Blue. ‘All I know is I’ve let everyone down. I can never, ever go back. Without a dog, I don’t even have a home any more.’
‘That’s not true. The whole world’s your home now. Even Sally Bones’s territory.’ She winked a mustard eye at him. ‘Let’s get some sleep. It’ll seem better tomorrow. You never know what’s around the corner.’
They settled down, side by side, in the shadows of the alley. There was no invisible barrier between them any more. There hadn’t been for quite a while now.” (p. 159)
Many of the lines Said includes in these books sound like the sort found in fortune cookies (without being as corny as that analogy sounds): profound sayings capable of opening one’s heart and mind with just a few short, simple words. One of my personal favorite of Jalal’s is “A cat is an idea of freedom made flesh” (p. 106), not only an elegantly-worded testament to a cat’s natural grace and beauty, but a point of how only cats that are “truly alive” would never allow themselves be tied down to a single place, or depend on anyone for survival but themselves. But the greatest—said by both Jalal and Holly—is the one that truly captures the essential message of this story: “The only thing that counts is what you do.”
Though children are the target audience here, these books don’t hold back on the action and suspense. The fight sequences can be gruesome at times, but there are plenty of tender and humorous moments to balance out the violence. It’s not only due to being a cat lover and a Dave McKean fan that I still come back to these even as an adult. I think Varjak Paw’s greatest strengths are its cool and unique visuals and its very healthy dose of tangential and philosophical ideas, treating kids like adults, and introducing them to new storytelling techniques, fantastic settings, and mature concepts at a pace both stylish and dignified.
A name is a name is a name, but action leads to change, and even the smallest change can bring about the beginning of something legendary.
Happy Birthday, Mr. McKean! And Happy Holidays, everyone!
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
All book excerpts are from Varjak Paw by S.F. Said (published by Yearling, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc.).
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Living Voyage” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
“Lasting Hope” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
“Isolated Mind” by A Himitsu https://soundcloud.com/a-himitsu
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported— CC BY 3.0
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/whLuoTBsQe8
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