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#44 [May. 1st, 2009|11:58 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)


“After they take away all they can, what remains is you.”

In all honesty, David Mack’s Kabuki didn’t start out with a lot of promise. In the glut of 1990s’ bad girl comics, in which abused women with dark pasts dressed like hookers to take violent revenge on men, Kabuki seemed like more of the same only with artwork that was slightly more intent on communicating a story than showing off a series of centrefold poses. Kabuki was a member of the Masks Of The Noh, a team of female assassins in leather fetish gear who worked for a shadowy government organisation tasked with eliminating Japan’s organised crime bosses. In Mack’s futuristic Japan, the Noh hide in plain sight as media idols, acting like a cross between theme park mascots and public service announcements while terrorising the underworld.

By the time he’d reached Metamorphosis, the fifth volume in the series, Kabuki had turned renegade and was being pursued by the rest of the Noh. She was simultaneously hidden and trapped in an insane asylum where ‘defective operatives’ are taken to be rehabilitated. Surrounded by crazed spies, she went through an identity crisis of her own and as she reinvented herself, Mack reinvented the comic.

Over the course of the Metamorphosis the pages gradually transition from panels to full-page paintings and the text begins to seep out of the balloons and boxes to become part of the pictures. The asylum’s other inmates are introduced via a tag-team game of crazy-person Scrabble in which each of them adds words to the board while also adding design elements to the pages, as if their personal delusions are blossoming out of their heads and warping the space around them. Watercolour washes begin to replace the detailed backgrounds so that by the end it looks nothing like a traditional comic.

Kabuki’s guide through this transformation is a fellow inmate named Akemi who communicates between cells via notes written on toilet paper (in a homage to V For Vendetta), which are then folded up into origami animals. Though the two agents are attempting to escape, the comic is more concerned with exploring the characters’ psyches than their adventure. Each volume of Kabuki contains some kind of retelling of the first one, but in Metamorphosis Mack takes the opportunity to do more than a token summing up and instead uses the chance to rewrite it with a few years more experience and perspective, taking his simple plot and drawing out deeper meaning, like a psychoanalyst delving into the secret causes of the story’s neurotic tics.

When action does occur it’s all the better for Mack’s more thoughtful approach, as when he renders Kabuki’s strategy for fighting a phalanx of guards by mapping it from above with arrows and dotted lines like a complicated sequence of dance steps. Still, he’d rather devote an entire issue to a conversation in a bathtub and the thoughts and memories it triggers in his characters. From the chrysalis of the asylum, Kabuki – both the character and the series – unfolds like origami into a startlingly different and far more fascinating form.