25 February 2005

Tomboy's Take: Add David Mack's "Kabuki" to Your Collection!

I read the ending first.

The blood and gore had flown, the knives and guns were put away, and the emotional rollercoaster seemed to be rolling to a halt. Kabuki was already sitting in a cell in Control Corps – a "hospital" for the recuperation, reprogramming, and reintegration of injured, insane, or rogue government operatives.

When David Mack first introduced Kabuki in Caliber Comics' Kabuki: Fear the Reaper in November 1994, I was still a diehard fan of my DC and Marvel superheroes — muscle-bound men and busty women in tight outfits and sticky situations that only superpowers and steely-eyed diligence could free them from. Both the outfits and the situations, I mean. I kept reading even though I was already familiar and growing bored with the simple formula: superhero fight villain, villain become superhero, superhero become villain, villain fight superhero, explosions, buildings fall, heroes win, end issue, either clean slate or bad tangle when someone files a contradictory storyline later into the comic book continuum.

When I first met Kabuki in 1996 — tucked away in Control Corps introduced in Caliber's Kabuki: Skin Deep - rehashed, predictable storylines; boring, misogynistic art; and flat characters were already pushing me away from the comic book format.

I was a huge fan of Alex Ross' painted comics, but I was unprepared for the watercolor, pastel, and ink format that Mack used in the Skin Deep series. I've seen few books illustrated so distinctly and innovatively. The cover alone popped up from the rack And not only was the art stunning, but the writing was good — even often poetic — as Mack turns text into word art to bring story background into that latest installment. He used poetic language that even most poets I know have forgotten — stuff like metaphor and symbolism that was beautiful but didn't go over the reader's head. It reminded me of James O'Barr's The Crow. And Kabuki's storyline was profound, driven by psychological depth and energy, while still carrying undertones of right vs. wrong. The characters' mentalities, especially Kabuki's, drove the story; she wasn't expected to act in a certain way just because she was the Good Guy. She had to redefine what she thought she knew were black-and-white boundaries, and that unraveling fueled the story. It brought me back to Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and The Watchmen. I was seeing some of the best aspects of some of the greatest comics I've ever read in a book that was taking a fresh and modern approach to these ideas. I was instantly enamored with Mack's complex characters, break-the-box layouts, superb artistic skill, intriguing dialogue, and entrenching storyline. After I'd read the second issue of Skin Deep, I bought the trades collecting the entire preceding storyline.

Kabuki is set in a futuristic, high-tech Japan whose characters are still heavily influenced by its WWII history. A secret government agency called the Noh enforces a healthy balance between the government and the Yakuza crime organization. The main body of the Kabuki books features sharp, black-and-white layouts and fast-paced, intelligent storytelling. Kabuki and her sister Noh operatives are introduced in Kabuki: Circle of Blood as masked, costumed news anchorwomen with a cult following for Noh Television, which is the Noh's cover. The operatives' public personas give them freer reign through the city and their masks conceal their identity as covert assassins. Kabuki herself is dressed in a costume bearing Japan's rising sun symbol; she is Japan's icon. She wears a kabuki mask detailed with a single tear running from her left eye. Beneath her mask, Kabuki's face is horribly scarred after a man who raped her when she was a child carved the kabuki symbol into her face, marking her with a name associated with forced prostitutes and servants that Japanese soldiers abused during World War II. As Circle of Blood progresses, we learn that the Noh has been corrupted from the inside out, and Kabuki must find the source.

In Kabuki: Masks of the Noh, Mack reveals Kabuki's personal history as she attempts to battle the growing corruption that's taken over the Noh. Mack draws parallels between Kabuki's fight with her former Noh allies and her fight to find peace with her mother's death, who died while giving birth to her. As we learn more about her past and the incidents surrounding her mother's death and her own rape, Kabuki's history and her battle with the Noh draw perilously closer together.

In Skin Deep, published by Image Comics, with Kabuki's mask removed, Mack presents a full-color, flowing format and tells a slower, more poetic story. Even as the Noh operatives penetrate Control Corp and make their way towards Kabuki, we're held in stasis as we become intimately aware of Kabuki's intricate workings while Control Corps tries to reprogram her.

Currently, Mack is in the midst of publising the latest installment of the series, Kabuki: The Alchemy, through Marvel Comics' Icon imprint. He uses an even freer layout and more daring art, now incorporating collage work and allowing the text to be even more of an artistic element as we see another phase of Kabuki's reprogramming and recuperation.

This is the only book I go into the shop to buy.

The Kabuki series will always have a place in my library. Her character isn't all about sex appeal, attitude, or super powers — she's a living legend, full of grace and authority. She maintains her integrity but is still gritty about it. I won't pretend there's no appeal in having an Asian female superhero I can respect. The story shows that there are no solid boundaries defining right and wrong. The good guys can be misled without intentionally becoming bad guys and still be the antagonist. The bad guys didn't always intend to be bad guys and still be a protagonist. Endings don't have to be clean or totally conclusive; you feel a sense of accomplishment after each individual issue, as if progress has been made in moving the story along. These are the traits that make Kabuki an intelligent comic book, and one that belongs in everybody's collection.

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