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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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05/07/2004 Archived Entry: "Graphic Novel Review of "Kabuki: Metamorphosis""

Kabuki: Metamorphosis
By David Mack
Publisher: Image

Reviewed by Sarah Rasher

Kabuki: Metamorphosis is an absolutely beautiful book, upon first glance. David Mack's illustrations, which incorporate both Western and East Asian artistic styles and reference everything from board games to Impressionism and from manga to Japanese calligraphy, are works of art in their own right, and it's easy to see why Marvel recently offered him such a lucrative deal. I would blame no one for flipping through it casually, finding herself captivated by the pictures, and bringing it home. Neither would blame her for hurling it across the room in frustration within an hour of actually trying to read it.

The story is typical comic book fare: a group of undercover assassins that help the government control organized crime, imprisoned in a mental hospital, seek freedom. The assassins are all beautiful, well-stacked women with tragic pasts and intricate tattoos. There are awfully convenient clues and utility ducts, and awfully improbable outfits and lesbian kisses.

It doesn't seem that Mack intends to lure readers with narrative originality, though. The pictures are the attractive thing, and they often seem determined to interfere with whatever plot and characterization there is. Blocks of text run up and down the page, in circles and through mazes, with little concern for legibility. Some pages of text are essentially unreadable because they are almost the same color as the background; others are scrawled childishly. There are a number of misspelled words. If this were a sketchbook in a gallery of contemporary art, it would seem creative and fresh, but this is being marketed as a graphic novel. It seems that the emphasis here is almost entirely on the "graphic," with the "novel" aspect diminished to the point of irrelevance.

Even the graphic aspect is disappointing, when examined closely. While the images are beautiful to flip through, they quickly become repetitive: Mack uses the same few visual tricks over and over. He's partial to large images and complex collages that fill an entire page, rather than more traditional divisions into smaller panels; as a result, most of the pictures do little to advance the plot or enhance the reader's understanding of events. When he does use panels, they are arranged almost randomly on the page. Most of the characters look very similar-- for the most part, they're only differentiable by outfit and haircut-- and seem to have one facial expression: pouty. A good graphic novel's art is a storytelling device, but Metamorphosis's images seem to exist only for the sake of being pretty.

They also reveal a laziness that occasionally crosses the line into racism. While aspects of the art and narrative are well-researched-- Mack is obviously fascinated by the comfort women of World War II, and by the struggles of ethnic Ainu and Koreans-- others are clearly slapdash, operating under the assumption that the book's audience will be more ignorant about Japan than the writer. He underestimates this reader, at least: I lived in Japan for two years.

Most readers would be oblivious to the cultural errors, but that makes them more pernicious: they become misinformation. Not only do all the sexy Asian girls look alike, but none of them look particularly Japanese. Some of the calligraphic characters are written incorrectly or used in very odd combinations, and some plot-essential dialogue and clues are English-centric to the point of implausibility. There are also a variety of cultural gaffes, major and minor. Characters sport large and complex tattoos that they make no effort to hide, behavior that would be taboo in Japan. On a more picayune note, the sun in that child's drawing should not be yellow, but red-- that's the crayon any Japanese schoolchild would reach for.

I would accept these weaknesses more easily if I cared about the characters. A compelling protagonist is often the linchpin of a good graphic novel, as the genre remains tied to superheroes. However, Kabuki's troubled past reads like so much teenage angst, and she is drawn so inconsistently that I occasionally mistook other characters for her. The supporting cast is cryptic and largely interchangeable, with the exception of Kabuki's friend Akemi, who seems intended to be spunky but comes off as grating and one-dimensional. I found myself wishing that these characters would stop whining, and that the author would stop inventing further childhood traumas for them.

Judging from Metamorphosis, it's unfortunate that David Mack has received such attention for his Kabuki work. The art is lovely, but it's largely unsuccessful as the kind of narrative art that the graphic novel medium demands. Mack seems totally disinterested in telling an engaging or even comprehensible story; the words are an afterthought, and the characterization is superficial and juvenile. It's a book easily admired from a far, but up close, it's just another comic for horny teenagers, full of angst and tight t-shirts, amounting to very little.


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