*Kabuki: The Alchemy — Best of 2009

David Mack brings his long-running series full-circle in Kabuki: The Alchemy with a mind-bending conclusion.

Kabuki, formerly an assassin, has escaped from the institution where she was being kept in Metamorphosis and is seeking the mysterious friend who helped her, a woman she’s never seen. But as the character says to the reader early on, “All you need to know is that there is a scar on my face, I’m starting a new life, and I have a friend who is helping me.” She’s right. It begins as a story of transition, of a woman figuring out where she wants to go and what she wants to do, but it soon becomes much more. (The reader’s given plenty of background information as part of the story, too, enough to understand what happens here. After all, her previous life doesn’t matter; it’s what she’s leaving behind.)

Kabuki: The Alchemy cover
Kabuki: The Alchemy
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Artistically, Mack has moved further into collage and graphic design, combining photographs and objects with his previous painted art. Many panel borders are made up of broken spines from a Japanese fan, and the letter keys of an old typewriter feature in the typography. Iconic symbols, like the woman who means “ladies’ room”, are manipulated, and stamps, coins, and buttons pasted into the art. Text is provided in captions overlaying the gorgeous pages. Mack has created a new way of doing comics, where the story is communicated through a blend of words and images, but the idea of panels is completely left behind. His work is stunning in its beauty and imagination, something to get completely lost in. (This review has a number of sample pages.)

That’s also part of why it’s so refreshing to find that his message reflects the user experience so thoroughly. Kabuki seeks Akemi, which sounds like Alchemy, and that magical transformation happens to all the characters. Kabuki moves from killer to creator, a writer like Mack himself. One can’t help but think that Kabuki’s thoughts — “I’m ready to change my style … to work in new mediums” — are shared by her artist, as Mack takes her story in new, more significant, metafictional directions. Both she and he have moved beyond stories of good and evil, of fighting and blood, in order to explore higher motivations and the world of ideas.

The characters were influenced by the books they read as children, literal examples of the transformative powers of reading. A new friend is a veterinarian and creator of both sculpture and prosthetic limbs, using similar methods to blur the line between art and science, objects on display and those that change people’s lives. She gives Kabuki a children’s book, The Shy Creatures, the text of which is included in full. It was later published separately, born in imagination yet taking on its own existence. Then Mack himself appears as a character, with a story called “Self-Portrait”.

Certain motifs are repeated, like the image of the unfolded die/cube, six boxes arranged in the shape of a cross. New beginnings are emphasized with maps, travel, symbols. Everything has multiple levels of interpretation, and the reader is encouraged to treat the book, and life itself, playfully but with purpose. Items rearranged take on new meaning. Reading and writing, whether letters or stories, become metaphor for journeys and life. There are plenty of big ideas here, culminating in the end sequence, where Kabuki writes her own story, credits it to a male author to protect her identity, and calls it Circle of Blood.

The first three series volumes can be read online. For another work about the transformative power of reading, see Finder: Talisman.

6 Responses to “*Kabuki: The Alchemy — Best of 2009”

  1. jdh417 Says:

    I love David Mack. His work is inspirational, this volume especially. That said, it took him three years to produce the nine issues of The Alchemy. The pain, suffering, and mental anguish of being teased with these issues over and over again in the solicitations was beyond human endurance. By the time the last issue came out, it just wasn’t worth it.

    In sum, buy this trade and be enlightened. (The other Kabuki volumes are great too.) If Mack comes out with another Kabuki series, wait four or five years and get the trade.

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