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Conjugating the Grammar of Shapes - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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February 23rd, 2010


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12:54 am - Conjugating the Grammar of Shapes
Ever since David Mack handed me an issue of Kabuki at WonderCon 2008, I have been wanting to read the whole series from the beginning, and after finally collecting the seven trades released so far, I was able to experience a comic unlike any other I have read. I savored it over three weeks.

Kabuki is the tale of Kabuki, a operative of the Noh, a Japanese government agency responsible for policing the balance between businesses, the criminal underworld, and the government. In this near-future world, Japan is under a new corporate feudalism, and the Noh have complete media saturation in their dedication to keeping the peace. As one would expect from this setup, Kabuki discovers that the Noh isn't all it's cracked up to be and goes rogue, and the seven remaining operatives—Scarab, Tigerlily, Ice, Snapdragon, Butoh, and Siamese, who function as one—have to hunt her down. This badass ninja assassin plot, while important, is not the main focus of the story.

The true focus of the story is Kabuki herself and her journey of self-discovery. Her Ainu mother died during childbirth, yet she still feels a strong connection to the mother she never knew, and this connection shapes her identity. The operatives of the Noh all wear masks, and this mask, too, becomes part of her identity, as it hides the terrible scars on her face. Throughout the series, Kabuki struggles with her sense of identity and self and learns how to construct her own identity and become her own person, free of any masks, literal or figurative.

Heady stuff for a comic book? Kabuki is no ordinary comic. It's unique in many ways. For one, Mack changes his art style for every book, and some books—hell, some pages—can feature multiple art styles. Black-and-white paneled art. Painted paneled art. Mixed media. Watercolor and pencil. Watercolor paneled art on mixed media. Mack constantly challenges what you can do with a page. Mack's painted art is gorgeous. Pages from Kabuki would not be out of place in a museum. I could stare at some images for hours, they're so pretty. I love the inventive page layouts and the integration of the words into the art, which I loved in his Daredevil work. Comics are a visual medium, and Mack uses that to its fullest potential, often very cleverly. There's a great fight scene where the combatants become kanji, and then musical notes. Another fight scene is depicted as a board game.

Kabuki is also notable in that nearly all the characters are women. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. The major characters are trained killers, and Kabuki may just be the deadliest woman in the world. Yet we do get glimpses behind the masks, showing that there are real people behind them. And in a nod to his belief that art tells the story, Mack gets a different artist to portray the different operatives of the Noh in one book, and Rick Mays gets to draw an entire book about Scarab, who develops a friendship with another operative. There are several female friendships depicted throughout the series, all very important and relevant to the story.

The story, such as it is, can be maddeningly slow since there's so much focus on introspection, character analysis, metaphorical musings, and the like, but that doesn't mean there aren't some awesome plot twists. They're just not served up in the traditional style. One technique Mack uses is revisiting scenes repeatedly to unpack them or looking at them from different perspectives. There's also a lot of repeated imagery and symbolism. Mack doesn't let his worldbuilding go completely to waste, although I will admit that sometimes I longed for less philosophy and more BADASS NINJA ASSASSIN ACTION. Some of the most effective scenes in the series, however, are when the introspection and action go hand-in-hand and both enhance each other. And even when issues consist mostly of philosophical musings, I find a lot of thought-provoking ideas and concepts. And not just thought-provoking: inspiring. As the many letters from readers attest to, this is the sort of comic that can literally change your life.

Kabuki is a very personal work, and it's clear that David Mack has poured himself into it for over fifteen years. And it's not gone unnoticed, having garnered fans like Chuck Palahniuk, Alex Ross, Robin Williams, Lucy Lawless, Tori Amos, and Neil Gaiman. I think more people should read it, if only to see what you can do with the graphic novel medium as an artist and a storyteller. And on top of that, you get a meditation on identity and self and metamorphosis and what shapes who we are and how we can shape ourselves into who we want to be and then express ourselves creatively as part of our cultural obligation to contribute our individual stories to the collective consciousness. Also, badass female ninja assassins.
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: Muse - I Belong to You (+ Mon Coeur S'ouvre À Ta Voix)

(21 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:sisterjune
Date:February 23rd, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
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sir you had me at badass female ninja assasins. (and then again when I saw that gorgeous art work.) I havent sat down with a comic in a long time but I think now's as good a time to start as any :) *goes to search amazon for copies*

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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 23rd, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)
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sir you had me at badass female ninja assasins.
I thought that might be relevant to people's interests!

that gorgeous art work
That is why I provided lots of links! You just have to see it. It isn't like anything else.

I havent sat down with a comic in a long time but I think now's as good a time to start as any :) *goes to search amazon for copies*
Rock. Do let me know what you think. The first trade, Circle of Blood, is about to be reprinted, but there are copies on the Marketplace.
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From:equustel
Date:February 23rd, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
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IT IS getting reprinted? When?! Damn, I am so past ready to dig into this - I keep almost-buying The Alchemy, but I do want to start from the beginning.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 23rd, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)
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It is! Finally! Supposedly this month. Maybe. I can't find a hard release date for it, so it may still be delayed. I think it was supposed to come out last year.

I keep almost-buying The Alchemy, but I do want to start from the beginning.
Here is the thing about The Alchemy: I didn't love the issues as much the second time around. I think it actually works better out of context because it's basically an essay, a presentation of ideas. You may not know what's going on completely with the characters and the very little plot there is, but I found it harder to appreciate all the metaphors and concepts because they were overpowering the story I'd been following for the last six volumes. He says some terrific stuff, mind you, and I love that so many people have been inspired by his work, but I had mixed feelings about it, which was sad since reading the issues on their own without knowing anything about the series or the characters was such an amazing experience.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 1st, 2010 05:27 am (UTC)
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From:equustel
Date:March 1st, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
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OH MY WORD. I'M ON IT.
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From:sisterjune
Date:February 23rd, 2010 08:20 pm (UTC)
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The artwork was really amazing, and I love mixed media so seeing in a comic is super awesome.

Rock. Do let me know what you think. The first trade, Circle of Blood, is about to be reprinted, but there are copies on the Marketplace.

I'll definitely drop a comment here when I get ahold of some copies, unfortunately being that I am a poor college student both my time and money reserves are low but! I do have a bday coming up so hopefully it wont be long before I can partake of the awesome. :D (man that reminds me, I am totes behind on my blade of the immortal comic reading too)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:March 1st, 2010 05:26 am (UTC)
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From:sisterjune
Date:March 1st, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
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Oh awesome! thanks for the heads up man. I will definitely check those out :)

(ahhh that icon brings back memories. oh the days when I used to watch Lost...)
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From:hecubot
Date:February 23rd, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC)
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I'm having a hard time getting past a character named Kabuki working for Noh.

That's like naming a character DeeCee and having them work for Marvel.

(Noh being a separate and distinct Japanese theater tradition from Kabuki.)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 23rd, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
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The names are chosen very deliberately. Kabuki is so named because her mother was kidnapped during the war to be a comfort woman, but instead of sex, she was forced to perform kabuki dramas. And the Noh are obviously so named because of the masks. David Mack is pretty well versed in Japanese culture and language (there are some neat integrations of kanji into the art that I wouldn't have caught if the afterword hadn't told me what the characters meant), and that all informs the story.
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From:the_narration
Date:February 23rd, 2010 11:58 pm (UTC)
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Several years back I came across a few issues of Kabuki selling for cheap at a garage sale. It was strange and interesting, but they were from somewhere in the middle, so I didn't really know much about what was going on.

I was always curious to read from the beginning, but never got around to it.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 24th, 2010 12:12 am (UTC)
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Now is the time! *poke poke poke*

I have once again planted the seed. In a year or two, you will get around to it, as I did. Heh.
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From:the_narration
Date:February 24th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
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Well, I do like stories with badass female assassins....
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 24th, 2010 12:56 am (UTC)
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Why do you think I made sure to repeat it a few times?
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From:the_narration
Date:February 24th, 2010 02:16 am (UTC)
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You know your audience well. :-)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 1st, 2010 05:27 am (UTC)
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From:the_narration
Date:March 1st, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
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Dude.

Awesome. I'm too tired to check it out right now, but I will later. Are those the first volumes?
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 1st, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
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The first three, yeah. I'm not sure how it works, though. I had a hard time navigating it correctly.
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From:drummertobeat
Date:February 24th, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC)
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Kabuki was one of my favorite comics shortly after I discovered it; the art is something I could stare at for hours, looking at it as a whole and picking it apart piece by piece. It's something of a life's work for Mack, I think. I couldn't recommend it enough.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 24th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
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Absolutely. I asked him how long he would be doing it, and he said he'd spend the last fifteen years on it, and he didn't think he would be stopping any time soon. The art is definitely the kind you just want to stare at and pick apart, wondering why he put it together like that, maybe deciding that he didn't actually think about it but it just worked out to mean something anyway.

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