The Alchemy

November 25, 2012

I’ll be speaking of the series in terms of the Trade Paper Backs, not the saddle-stitch issues.

David Mack’s Kabuki is one of those comics that comes at you sideways. Pick it up, and you’re reading a standard hyper-violent, Japan-themed comic book in black and white. The inking is excellent, the visuals are striking, it’s masterfully accomplished, but it seems pretty normal. Right away, you should notice Mack is doing something different with his ink, though. Balancing negative space, repeated images, objects morphing into symbols and vice versa. Painful subjects including rape and death and cultural annihilation show up. Assassination, cultural decline, and  corporate super-powers show up as well. In the first few pages of volume one.

Afterwards, a child is murdered, but revived, and we get what might feel like a cliche’d story of a child raised to be an assassin. The storytelling and art are fantastic, but I felt, at first, that the story being told was very common. Even the subversive climax is really not that unexpected. But the telling is so brilliant, I came back for volume 2, just to see where he’d go with it. I expected more of the same: a standard action Comic told with masterful skill.

I was wrong on half of that. Dreams was anything but a shoot-em-up violence-laden smash up. Rather, it is a multi-media feast with gorgeous, brilliant, and startling visuals, in an array of carefully picked styles and ideas.the way he plays with the words and lettering add to each image. Mack manages to do something most comic book artists forget about, using the words on the page to add to the visuals. Each moment has its own style, its own ideas generated by the contents of the individual frame (or lack thereof). This is taken further in Masks of the Noh in which Mack continues his tale, but from the point of view of the other agents in Kabuki’s team-each story told through a different artist. The mechanism is a skillful choice for the story telling.

Skin Deep is unique in and of itself, a glance into a fiction institution where reason and sanity and paranoia all exist as illusions and realities. Kabuki gains a friend, but she only speaks to this friend through notes that fall from an overhead air duct. She reads them, and destroys them, least the people holding her learn anything from them. Mack himself, and Kabuki, both talk about what is possible. Perhaps the notes are from a fellow agent, looking to build trust and kill her. Maybe it’s a trick of the institute she is trapped within. Worse, maybe it’s all a trick of her mind. And there’s the slim, but essential possibility that she has a secret friend who loves her simply for being her, the very first person to ever do so.

This has a lot of resonance for me. There is a lot of fear around mental institutions for both the mentally “sound” and those with psychological difficulties. For the “sane”, there is a fear of being surrounded by those with whom one cannot fully connect-no matter how well-trained, how accepting, how caring you are, the people around you are, in some small way at least, on a different wavelength. Maybe they simply commit self-harm, or perhaps they respond to a world entirely unlike the one everyone else shares-regardless, it’s unsettling. Humans like to believe that reality is solid in some way. But we get to thinking, around those whose reality is clearly different, that that may not be the case. It knocks our founding beliefs sideways.

For the handicapped, it’s a place that means you’re broken. Not really-it’s a place that means you need help, and hopefully the institute you’re at is truly trying to do so-but that’s not what it feels like. You feel constantly talked down to, looked down upon. You know these people can’t fully understand, and you’re right. But they still try so damn hard and it is infuriating. They tell you things that aren’t true, not because they’re lying, but because true for you is just plain different. “You don’t need to cut yourself”, they might say. Except that, yes, right this moment I do. Or, “You just have to not listen to them“. You try just not hearing what is being said to you, from a voice that knows everything about you.

This is where Kabuki finds herself, the setting we join her in, and it works perfectly. To progress in this story, Kabuki needs everything called into question, she needs her world shattered. I suppose that’s what I love about Skin Deep, because when Mack needed a place to restructure the story, to set it on a new course, he chose a place that is used to restructure minds. It was, to say the least, apropos. Moreover, this is the volume of Kabuki in which I fell in love with the main character. She is made fully human, with the help of her mysterious friend. This book deals on a very different layer with how people interact, how we communicate, and in doing so, I feel, highlights much of how we should be speaking to one another by removing how we normally can.

But the series continues to delve into these in Metamorphosis, in which we meet new friends, and see more of the Institution that Kabuki is trapped within. This continues Mack’s new extravagance with beautiful colors and inks, and brings us swiftly to Scarab (Yes, I’m skipping past Metamorphosis, essentially. Not because it isn’t good, but because you need to really read it and I really refuse to spoil even a moment of it!). Scarab is one of Kabuki’s former fellow operatives. We learn her story, though the other agents were more background to Kabuki until now. And Scarab is a girl. A normal, young woman in a very strange profession-a profession that means murder and blood shed and paranoia, deceit, and just as we really know and love this new person in our lives, we’re thrown backwards to the opening scene of Skin Deep, and clear up a startling scene in a surprising fashion that breaks your heart.

But the crown of the entire series, in my mind, is so completely different from the rest that I’ve seen many reviews pan it, though not as many as raved. The Alchemy is the grand finale, and takes a different role. There’s no weapons and madness, just a lot of healing-something maybe needed for everyone. There are a lot of fictions, a lot of deceits, and a lot of pseudo sciences, all used to present a truth. The Alchemy is not only a masterful take on multimedia in comics, and a mind-blowing look at how we can interact with and alter our own realities, but it is also a chance to embrace being human, and that essential component of interaction.

The title is apt. Taking one thing and making it another-that is what The Alchemy is all about. A lot of old images and symbols from the series are re-used-not because the artist is lazy-far from it! They’re, just like the main character, filing a new role and in doing so, becoming a new thing all together. Little notes and messages make up a great deal of this story, but as word-dense as this Volume is, the visuals are no less intense-and, in fact, The Alchemy is probably the most complex piece of all, with meanings and hidden details through out. You can read it like a normal comic, or really dissect each page, each image, every inch, and still find something new every read-through. I know, because I read The Alchemy regularly. It keeps me focused.

It also introduced me to an idea which I’m only now, upon writing the article, seeing again: the concept of a “Scar Name”. For Kabuki, this is a literal concept, but isn’t it, at times, true for us as well? I like the idea of a name having so many connotations of our past tied up into them, and furthering the alchemical concept, maybe we can change that. This is another recurrent theme in kabuki-words as part of reality, shapers not merely reflections of. One character says:

“If you don’t like the story your culture is writing, it’s not enough to rail against it or say you don’t subscribe to it. You have the obligation of writing your own story–to be a contributing author of your own culture.”

In this, we step away from words shaping reality in the metaphysical sense, and approach it in the very real sense. And you pick up, perhaps, that we’re not just talking about subversive literature and art and expression altering the culture as a whole, but perhaps also of a more personal level. Mack references the experiments of one Dr. Emoto in which water from fresh, natural, and healthy sources formed ice crystals that were more aesthetically pleasing and regular than water taken from polluted sources. Further, water labelled with words carrying positive connotations formed more appealing and evenly structured ice crystals than those labelled with words having negative connotations. While the science of this is pure bunk, and denied by a direct triple-blind test, the implication for ourselves is just as valuable.

Those whose psyches differ from the assumed concept of “normal” are mostly very aware that reality is in great deal simply perception. If I perceive this as “blue”, it is blue. If I perceive “red”, then red. But the same applies to how I see myself, doesn’t it? If I stop using the term “broken” for my mind and instead think “injured”, does that change things? If we avoid labels that chain and trample, using language that is instead accurate, but supportive, are we not going to see an alteration in behavior and perception, thus altering reality? Are we not on the edge of being the catalyst for our own alchemy every second?

This is what comes from David Mack’s Kabuki. Even if you don’t get the same ideas or see the same plethora of concepts dripping from each page, I’d say it’s worth a look.

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