Friday, December 11, 2009
Word Balloon! Kabuki
Kabuki Volume 1- Circle of Blood
This month's installment of the Word Balloon is highlighting one of the first really independent comic books I ever bought, David Mack's Kabuki. Originally published in 1994 by Caliber Comics, Kabuki was another indy book from the huge wave of indy publishers that sprang into existence after the formation of comics super group Image Comics a couple of years earlier. At the time I was very much against reading comics published by either DC or Marvel, and was looking for other books to whet my comics appetite. The first issue that I read of Kabuki was actually published by a studio called London Knight Press called Dance of Death, a one shot not associated with the primary story at all. I only picked up Kabuki because of the publisher, who at the time specialized in creating "bad girl" comics, which were comics known for there penchants for violence and T&A. Admittedly now they are terrible books, really exploitative, but I don't regret that short phase of collecting, because they lead me to this wonderful series called Kabuki.
Kabuki is the code name of a woman named Ukiko, the grand-daughter of a World War 2 general and an Ainu comfort woman. She has grown up to become an Agent of Noh, a highly specialized assassin who is tasked with eliminating and controlling the various Yakuza groups in Japan. When Ukiko comes across the Kai Syndicate and their leader Ryuichi Kai, she disobeys direct orders from her controllers to eliminate him because he has close and painful ties with her own past. The Board Controllers of Noh send the other assassins (all of them are female) to kill her, but she manages to defeat the board before dying. That isn't where the story ends though, Ukiko is revived at a place called the Control Corps, a rehabilitation and prison installation for former operatives, and must fathom a way to break free and forge her own life.
Now all of this sounds like a very straightforward comic book plot. What sets it apart is writer artist David Mack. Mack's singularly unique visual and literary style make this unlike anything you have ever read. I don't want you to get bogged down by the surface story, it's the underlying one that really counts. While the first volume of Kabuki's series is more of a traditionally penciled comic, its the second and third volumes that change the game. Mack's unique visual style and artistic endeavors literally changed how I viewed comics. He doesn't let one look compose his comics style, he uses a myriad of forms, from pencil and paint, to collage, magazine and paper scraps, clipped letters, crayons, even graph paper and paper cutouts to compile his images. Looking at his work I had never seen anything like it and even now, 15 years after the first book was released, he continues to find new media to work into his books. You really see this art style pick up in the second volume, Metamorphosis, which literally chronicles the change and growth of both Kabuki, but of Mack's visual style.
One thing I noticed even before the growth of this new artistic style was the writing though. In the first trade, Circle of Blood, which collected Mack's First miniseries, Mack took what was easily a standard comic book tale, and really made the heroine journey more of one about personal inflection. It's a story about dreams, thoughts, religion, philosophy, and memories. It's about one person finding herself in the world, and through her, finding out more about yourself. The book is a deep journey into the sub-conscious, where the comic becomes so much more than a book about capes, its literally a book that can affect how you see the world.
This really isn't a book that is easy to break down into simple bite size chunks. You can't just look at one element of the comic, you have to look at the digestive whole. The fluid combination of art, words, images, lettering, editing, all combined to form something else entirely. This is not a comic book you give to someone looking to get into reading comic books, this is a comic for people who already love the medium, or who think the medium is childish, to say look at what is possible. It's the unique blend of all of these elements that makes the book special
David Mack's Kabuki is probably the book I have collected for the longest frame of time. Though it wasn't the first indy book I bought, it was the one that changed how I looked at comics. Suddenly it seemed like I could expect more from a comic book, an insight into not just the character, but into the creative mind of the the person making the book. I remember the first time I met David Mack at Con, and gushing how much I liked his book and what kind of impact it had on me. It told me that comics can become something intensely personal, and that the story you told didn't have to conform. He drew a small sketch for me, I watched him in seconds take a series of errant lines, and craft this lovely small picture. What really amazed me was that he drew it upside down, so I could watch the picture form before my eyes.
Mack is a personal inspiration in my writing, and his art continues to impress me. In his latest Kabuki series, The Alchemy, now published by Marvel's ICON imprint, he journeys into self discovery and identity, using collage, cut-outs and repeating imagery to tell the story. Kabuki challenges the conventions of the medium and more importantly it challenges the reader itself. You have to dig deep to find meaning, and can't just relax on the surface story. The true power in the book is in creating your own understanding. I still use the book as a source for inspirations and creativity. Looking at Kabuki is a reminder that within each story, a more personal one can be found.
I can't compliment the book enough. Start out with Circle of Blood to get the back story, but do us both a favor and skim through Skin Deep or Metamorphosis, the next two trades just to get a peak at what's in store. There are few trade collecting one shots as well, but these two are the next long form stories. Kabuki is a beautiful book that deserves wider recognition and while it may not be what you expect, it will be something you cannot forget.
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