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Good Read Column for February 7, 1999


Writer, artist, letterer, designer:
David Mack
ongoing series, 32 pages,
Image Comics, $2.95

4 ½ smileys(of a possible five)


This is an amazing work. I avoided it for a long time, because it just seemed like another "bad girl" comic with beautiful art. I can see beautiful art in a museum. I consider comics primarily a literary medium. That doesn't mean I consider the words more important than the pictures. On the contrary, I have enjoyed very much a few comics with no words at all, and while I also have enjoyed books without pictures they are obviously not comics. But I require a story, primarily, or at least something to engage the mind. Something more than just pretty pictures to look at.

In the last few years, a number of comics have come on the market that depict a beautifully rendered, sexually desirable woman engaged in violent pursuits that repeat endlessly, allowing the artists to show their subjects in artfully arranged poses meant to depict both menace and eroticism. They are hollow, empty and artistically worthless, for all the skill their creators display. I figured Kabuki was just another of the same type.

I figured wrong.

I have listed this comic as "ongoing" even though the current series is limited to nine issues. That's because Mack seems to create an ongoing storyline out of a series of miniseries. I believe Paul Chadwick was the first to do this, with his several Concrete series, and the idea seems to be picking up adherents. It is a bit of an inconvenience for readers (especially those whose comic shops are unable or unwilling to accept "any Kabuki series" as a hold order but require each miniseries to be ordered separately), but I think it's generally an excellent idea for creators whose abilities and/or circumstances preclude putting out a monthly comic on a regular schedule over a long period of time. It's probably also a stepping-stone toward the time when the primary unit of comics will be what we now call the "graphic novel."

Be that as it may, Kabuki is currently near the end of a nine issue run at Image which is somewhat misleadingly described as "Volume 1." When it is collected into a book, it will be the 5th volume of the collected story. I'm assuming there will be more. I sure hope so.

I finally decided to give Kabuki a chance after hearing a lot of good things about it on rac.misc, and seeing the beautiful cover on #3 of the current series. I picked it up, and took it home, and read it. Or tried to read it. I couldn't make head or tail out of it. It was strange, confusing, bewildering. It was like no comic I had ever seen. Mack makes most other so-called "experimental" comics creators, from the pre-Maus Art Spiegelman to Dave McKean, look like Jack Kirby. Children's drawings, graffiti, panels that disintegrate into chaos - what in the world is going on here?!

I didn't know, but I was intrigued. Still, the storyline (what I could gather of it) did seem to be about several beautiful women who were secret agent assassins, which reinforced my initial fears. I didn't buy the next issue, or the next, but I did not forget Kabuki, either.

I decided to give it another try and bought issue #6. Again, the daring experiments with the very concept of what "comics" means enthralled me. And I began to see, that, whatever the supposed "theme" of the storyline, there was no way this could be construed as an ordinary action/adventure comic, much less an empty "bad girl/good art" comic. There was a deep introspection here, and a melding of thought and word and picture I have never seen the like of before. It puts all previous visual attempts to render dreams, visions and hallucinations to shame. I was tantalized. I still had no idea what the hell was going on, but I was hooked.

I went out and bought Circle of Blood immediately, and since then have picked up Dreams, but I don't have Masks of the Noh or Skin Deep nor most of the Image run, but I'm hoping that will be collected once it's finished - or I may just order all the back issues I don't have directly from him. I now have at least some idea what's going on in the Image issues I own, but not much.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I bought these two non-consecutive issues, fell in love with the artistic experimentation, decided to overlook the beautiful girl killer angle, which didn't seem to be all that prominent, and went out and bought the first book.

My first reaction was "Ugh! It is a bad girl comic! We have a science fictionalized Japan, a secret government, Yakuza, beautiful female assassins, black-and-white art that is nicely done but a far cry from Mack's later work. A big disappointment.

Except . . . it wasn't quite right. Oh, the prologue was awful enough, told very much in the standard action/adventure format with only traces of innovation or even individuality, mostly in the last part where Kabuki's origin was spoken of. Still, I slogged on. The first act was much better, and used images from the prologue, and other repeated images, in a stylistically interesting way. And the art was stunning. It was still mostly an action/adventure tale, but with a twist - and not just a little twist to make things a bit interesting, but a big Alan Moore-sized twist to skew things in another direction altogether. Is V for Vendetta a futuristic action/adventure story? Well, sure. But it's more than that. And so was this.

And then in the second chapter he completely overturned the rules of comic-book storytelling.

Let me set the scene for you. There are eight secret operatives called "The Noh" who work for a man known as "The General" in maintaining the balance of power between the corrupt official government and the Yakuza (the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia), generally by means of selective assassination. The General has a disinherited son, Kai, who seeks to take over the Yakuza. The Noh operatives - Kabuki, Ice, Scarab, Tiger Lily, Snapdragon, Butch and Siamese (twins joined at the shoulder) have unique technological physical enhancements and each has a special weapon. They take their orders from the Devil, by which I mean their immediate contacts are a pair who are always robed and masked known only by their costumes, Devil and Dove. Since Dove never speaks, the orders always come from the Devil. He has ordered them to each kill a high-ranking Yakuza member who may be secretly making a deal with Kai. In fact, Kai has infiltrated the Noh and is secretly the Devil himself, and is using them to accomplish his take-over by eliminating his rivals.

See what I mean. Dreadfully dreary, terribly trite, oh-so-standard action-adventure fare, right?


When the Noh operatives go after their victims, one expects three or four - or at least two - pages for each "hit" with a thrilling display of each woman's specialty and lots of long stretched-out poses displaying her physical form. That is, as I said back in the beginning, what these comics are, for the most part, all about. This sort of thing is their raison d'etre.

But Mack doesn't give us that. The first sequence, which belongs to Ice, almost does. We see a shot of her hanging off a building with a miniature crossbow in one hand, and a final picture of her triumphant over many dead bodies. But the text carries most of the action, and the next sequence, Tiger Lily's, has simply a two-page spread picture of her holding up a vase, surrounded by other vases and several TVs carrying a distorted image of a face. That's it. The text carries all the action here. The rest are similar. We are not shown what we expect to see. Instead, the words describe the actions, and the pictures do something else entirely.

Whatever happened to "show don't tell"? Whatever happened to long limbs stretched out behind the diving figure of the hero/villain?

David Mack has other interests, other fish to fry. He's not using the medium of comics to tell yet another tired old action/adventure story. He's using the genre of the action/adventure story to say something about the medium of comics.

Could he say it another way, without the pretty girls and their weapons and Yakuza and all that? Possibly. He could certainly tell a story worth reading, I'm sure. But one advantage of doing it this way is that a lot of people who like the kind of trash I dismiss out of hand are going to pick up this book, and before they're finished with it, it's possible they'll have their minds expanded.

That's just a thought. It could be Mack chose the storyline he did because he knew it would sell better, or that he genuinely likes science fiction and Japanese culture and maybe even likes some of those bad girl comics he deconstructs here, choosing them as his subject matter out of genuine affection. I suspect all of those may be true.

What is certain is that he has developed a story that is as far above the typical action/adventure comic - or movie or prose novel, for that matter - as Maus is above Donald Duck. Well, that may be an exaggeration. But only a slight one. And I'm still not sure it is. And yet, at the same time, his story is rooted in that world firmly enough to require that he used at least some of the tropes and cliches of that sort of fiction along the way. Part of his intention seems to be the subversion of those cliches into something unique and valuable. This is a different thing from just producing a unique and valuable work outside a debased genre - indeed, it might be argued that the latter is a far easier task. How much easier was it for Howard Cruse to produce a worthwhile piece of literature in Stuck Ruber Baby, whose themes are of obvious relevance to real people than for Alan Moore to do so in Watchmen, working with people who put on costumes to fight crime and a godlike being with infinite powers? Mack has done something akin to Moore here, and indeed I would put Kabuki: Circle of Blood on a level very near Watchmen.

I'll admit it's not as polished or mature as the latter. Watchmen is a flawless, perfect work, and any criticisms it deserves apply to it as a whole; there are no parts of it that don't measure up. The same cannot be said of Circle of Blood, but it is in its own way even more serious and ambitious, which balances out the flaws. Mack is striving for much more here, and if his reach exceeds his grasp occasionally we are still dazzled by the attempt.

Kabuki: Dreams really starts the visual exploration that first enchanted me in the Image issues. There are hints of it in the first book, but this is where it first really dominates, instead of popping up on an odd page here or there. And it's appropriate, for the entire book consists of dreams, or possibly delusional hallucinations. It picks up where the first book ended and in 38 pages moves the story forward, in the traditional sense, not one damned bit. And yet, it would not be true to say that at the end things are exactly as they were in the beginning.

I know that's a bit of a teasing description, but if I can't say more without giving it away, and I'd really suggest you not read it without reading Circle of Blood first.

I am extremely impressed with David Mack. I haven't dwelt on the flaws in the first book, which I attribute mostly to inexperience (it's much, much better than the first few issues of Cerebus, for instance), but they are there. If you read it and can't figure out why I'm raving about it so much, pick up something more recent, really examine it closely, then look through that first book again and see that it's clear what he was striving for even in the beginning. However, because I really haven't read much of the latest series - and have no idea where he's going - I hesitate to give this my extremely rare five smileys. So I'm giving it four and a half for now, but don't be surprised if someday on the "What's New" page I announce I've upgraded it.

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