Kabuki: Skin Deep
The question of “what is comics” is often debated in certain circles (especially those academically inclined). There’s no one definition that satisfies everyone, although most have in common something about combining text and images to tell a story. When asked to think about comics, most visualize panels on a page, rows of boxes containing pictures and word balloons.
Kabuki knocks that definition on its ear. In Skin Deep, artist David Mack demonstrates a different kind of comics, beautifully artistic blends of image and text aimed at exploring the inner life of his title character. When panels do appear — often the page itself is treated as a whole — they’re laid out as synergistic elements, sometimes overlapping or spinning across the page or with their boundaries ignored. Mack combines painting, drawing, calligraphy, layering, and mixed media techniques to create comics that look like nothing else out there. They’re lovely art books, often appealing to those who don’t otherwise read comics because of their unique look.
The book opens with more traditional “comic book” images. Japanese girls with outlandish costumes and guns blazing lead the reader into a black-and-white flashback of Kabuki’s past that also establishes the setting. The line art wouldn’t look out of place in a superhero-style story, and the mood is ever-building suspense, culminating in an explosion. The rest of the book is the opposite in so many ways.
Kabuki is the code name of a former government agent who went rogue. Now, she’s in a kind of institution, under observation and interrogation. She’s someone different now, denouncing her former costume and seeking a new identity. She’s not sure what’s true any more, and neither is the reader.
In a section reminiscent of V for Vendetta, she begins receiving encouraging notes from a friend who claims to be a fellow prisoner, but does this friend actually exist? Should she believe the woman who says she wants to help her regain her mental health? They claim they need to investigate and protect her, but Kabuki wants her mask back, since she’s only herself when playing a different role. Does it matter that they’re manipulating her if it’s claimed to be for her own good? What purpose does she have if she can be replaced?
As suits a psychologically driven tale, the images are multi-layered, with notes handwritten in around the edges. Closer exploration reveals more. Pastel colors are often used, pinks, sea blues, and lavender. The beauty of the pages contrasts with the horror of the story they tell, about a woman used as a tool and now lost to herself. It’s a story with more questions than answers, with pages that, like a Rorschach test, ask the observer to participate in determining what is real.
The David Mack Guide provides more information on the artist’s work.