February 23rd, 2010

Azula's grace

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.
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