Home Interviews AnotherUniverse.com - August 21, 1998
August 21, 1998
Comics You Should Be Reading: Kabuki
by Matt Brady
Writer, artist, letterer, designer - David Mack
Anything else - Connie Jiang
She's beautiful, she's deadly, she's mysterious, and she doesn't fit into any of your stereotypes about female characters in comics, bucko.
She's Kabuki, and just when you think you know her, she's changed again, throwing all your preconceptions to the wind with a smile and wink. Springing from the mind of the immensely talented David Mack, Kabuki has been burning up the buzz for years now, with its intense, beautifully drawn story.
Best to let the man himself describe it. "Kabuki is a character-driven, story-oriented book that chronicles the life of the main character, Ukiko, whose code name in the Noh is Kabuki," Mack says. "That's the basic description. However, the tone and feel of the book changes so much, so it's really hard to give the blanket statement that summarizes that last four years of her story. It's constantly in progression, just like I imagine anybody's life is." Kabuki started off with Circle of Blood, a visually stunning Japanese sci-fi/cyberpunk/crime/action-adventure series owing to the works of William Gibson, Ridley Scott and Jim Steranko. Mack wrote and illustrated Circle of Blood as his senior college project at the University of Northern Kentucky. In Circle of Blood, now collected into a snazzy trade paperback, we meet Kabuki, one of nine 'sisters' of the Noh, a ultra secretive Japanese secret agency devoted to keeping a balance in Japan's power structure between criminal and governmental influences.
The Noh keep the powers that be in line with their own strict agenda, while at the same time hiding their agents in plain sight, as pop icons in Tokyo's culture. Kabuki, the biggest of the star/agents, learns that her half-brother, the son of her mother (whom he killed) and her adoptive father, is the new criminal power in Tokyo, and the Noh's decision is to control him rather than destroy him. This sets Kabuki on a road of bloody vengeance that only ends when she has killed her half-brother and the entire Noh board of directors.
But that's leaving out extensive detail. Safe to say, once you finish reading Circle of Blood, you will have to catch your breath. It's powerful stuff.
Any 20-year comic veteran could've been proud as hell at creating Circle of Blood. For Mack, it was just a debut, and the beginning of a notable career in comics. Looking back on Circle of Blood, Mack sees it not only as a stepping stone, but as an amalgamation of everything he had learned up to that point - a feeling that would return for future Kabuki projects.
"I did the entire Circle of Blood series in college, at a time when I was learning so many different things," Mack says. "I wanted to design a book where I could incorporate all the different disciplines that I was always interested in and always using. I had always done them individually, such as poetry, writing, drawing, painting, photography, and storytelling. I felt that comics were the medium, where I could best integrate all those different elements and put them in one book that was the way the book was designed.
"Also I wanted to design it in a way to tell very personal stories, but through some kind of veil, which is one of the reasons why I made the character a female protagonist. I often notice when people try to tell their own stories through comics their main character becomes an idealized version of themselves. I wanted to avoid that, and I figure that the best way to do that was to go to the opposite end, and make the character the opposite sex that I am, and put her in an opposite type of culture on the opposite side of the world, so that the superficial stuff would be gone, and the universal truths would remain."
Following up on Circle of Blood, Mack moved into color with the Kabuki Color Special and Kabuki: Dreams of the Dead, both gorgeous explorations of his title character presented in a truly haunting manner. These first color projects were readers' first inkling that Mack had something more in mind for Kabuki. The series and future projects weren't going to be slam-bang action. Rather Kabuki was headed inside - becoming filled with introspection and self-exploration.
Before he totally immersed himself in the psychological underpinnings of Kabuki, Mack wrote the Kabuki: Masks of the Noh miniseries, which explored just what her Noh 'sisters' were up to. In Masks of the Noh, Mack gave us another taste of action and intrigue, as the other Noh agents (Scarab, Ice, Snapdragon, Tiger Lily, Siamese, and Butoh) search for the missing Kabuki. While Masks of the Noh is a return to action, you can't help but be impressed by the depth of the other Noh agents' characters, something that clearly demonstrates Mack is a writer to be reckoned with.
From Masks, we catch up with Kabuki again in Skin Deep. The miniseries begins with an intriguing action sequence - the Noh agents have infiltrated a facility where Kabuki is being held, and the mission has gone wrong - the inmates and the guards are after them, intent on killing them - or worse. Discovering a body that they assume is Kabuki's, the agents plant explosives and beat a hasty retreat, convinced that Kabuki is dead, and they destroy all evidence of her - an important function of Noh operatives. The story then flashes back nine months, and we learn that Kabuki had been recovered by Control Corps and institutionalized in a facility for rogue secret agents. Just as the Noh monitored and controlled the government and criminal worlds, Control Corps controls the covert agencies. In the facility, Ukiko is psychoanalyzed and psychologically tormented day and night, in an attempt to break her of her connection with her Kabuki mask and help her carve out a new identity. Ukiko resists as best she is able, and relief finally comes in the form of notes from another inmate, Akemi, that are secretly slipped into her cell.
Together, Akemi and Ukiko plan their escape from Control Corps, unaware that as they are slowly working to break out, the Noh agents are tracking Ukiko down, intent on making sure she does not survive.
Be warned though, while the above description can sound rather trite, to read Kabuki is to enter another world of deep introspection, where every image is filled with meaning and significance. Kabuki falls in with a small cluster of comics that are truly mind-expanding punches in the brain, waking up parts of your head that years of superhero stories had put to sleep. When you read Kabuki, you know it's something different and good. Each issue is guaranteed to place you into a different frame of mind. This is no 'read and forget' comic. The characters, situations, and the mind-blowing art will remain with you for a long, long time.
To the casual observer, Mack's art appears to have many throwaway pages, with nonsense or indecipherable backgrounds, but that's only the first impression.
Looking closer, peeling layers off, you find that Mack has planned even the smallest details of every page, from the color scheme to the scribbled words that may form a border for a particular panel. Reading Kabuki is an experience in learning how to enjoy art. "It's a very story oriented book, and the art is always subordinate to the story," Mack explains. "I want to choose whatever art style and whatever medium is necessary to best communicate that atmosphere for the specific storyline. If you look at the storylines, they all have their own unique look, even though it's all chronological and based in the same world. Each one has a very own individual atmosphere. That's just the way I approached it from the beginning. From my perspective, it's going exactly in the same direction that I started it in."
Fiercely independent and protective of his personal artistic vision of Kabuki, Mack has flatly turned down offers from other publishers to launch a whole series of books based on the sisters of the Noh, each handled by different creators, but under his supervision. He's handling those by himself - sooner or later - but instead of writing and drawing, Mack will only write the series, brining on his pals like Rick Mays to illustrate. "Definitely from the beginning, I intended to do a complete story with all the other agents, comparable to what I did with Kabuki in Circle of Blood - chronicle their childhood on up to the present day, and show exactly who they are and what their motivations are," Mack says. "I've written stories for all the characters. As we hinted in Masks of the Noh, we'll start with Scarab, and probably each year after that, I'll work with an artist and focus on a different character, while I work on the Kabuki series."
Mack reports that the Scarab miniseries is almost finished, but he's waiting until it's 100% complete before soliciting.
So what's coming up in Kabuki? As we've recently seen in issue #4 of the ongoing bimonthly series, Siamese has infiltrated the facility, pointing things in the direction of the opening pages of Skin Deep where the agents find Kabuki's body.
"Issue #5 will have a lot of action in it," Mack says. Recently, there's been a lot of psychological stuff and not much action or fighting. This issue more than makes up for that. Following that, there will be a confrontation between Kabuki and some of the other Noh operatives, and then there will be a resolution of sorts where we'll be at the point where Skin Deep started. Everything will be made clear as to what happened, and what was going on when Skin Deep first started. And after that there will be a next chapter in her life, where she's in a completely different setting."
And beyond that - ultimately? Does Mack have an ultimate end in mind for the Kabuki story? In a word, yes.
"I know there's a point in the story where Kabuki dies, but just before that point, which will be many years from now, I'll be able to decide if I want to stop the story right there, or keep continuing with all the other characters that have been more and more developed over the years," Mack says. "At that time, I'll be able to decide if there are other characters I want to pursue, or start from scratch on a completely different project. Just keeping with the way Kabuki was designed initially, I could do it either way, but there are plenty of more Kabuki stories in the future before we get to that point."
There is one downside, though. Kabuki is filled from cover to cover with lush, intense artwork. Such lush artwork takes Mack a while to produce, resulting in the regular Kabuki series coming out on a bimonthly schedule. Don't worry, however - if you need a Mack/Kabuki fix, he releases material in the intervening months as well. Reflections comes out in a couple of weeks, containing some of Mack's early Kabuki works as well as CD covers, and other artwork. Reflections will be followed by Kabuki #5, which will then be followed by Reflections #2, containing more Mack goodies. And believe it, once you start with Kabuki, you'll be hard pressed to stop.
Its haunting tone and art will hook you and hold on to you for a long, long time. "Most of the letters I get come from people who really haven't been into comics much before, or people who don't care about superheroes, and are looking for something that's a little different and completely unpredictable," Mack says. "I would suggest Kabuki to those people. There's sort of a formula that general pop culture just follows over and over again, and that's definitely not in the Kabuki book. I like to think that it's something different that everything else out there."
· AnotherUniverse.com removed the article in 2001