3.03.2009

Graphic Novel Of The Month

Kabuki: Volume 7: The Alchemy (Marvel/ICON): One of the best pieces of advice about writing that I ever received was “open strong.” David Mack is brilliant. He’s a brilliant creator, a true innovator, with an impressive stable of work. This volume, collecting issues 1-9, has proven to be one of his best. That’s not blind hyperbole, but high praise for what should be considered high art. The Alchemy is an intricate work that sees the principal character come full circle and become more self-aware about her place in the world. Part of this mental growth is the recognition and acceptance of her (and her readers) learning that they have the power to exert influence and change their own reality. Speaking from the perspective of my own reality, few books have imparted such a transformative experience that I can recall where I was when I began my journey with them. I picked up my first issue of Kabuki (Skin Deep #2) at the old Lee’s Comics location in Palo Alto, CA. Back when they were still located on El Camino Real, before the eventual move to Mountain View. I can mark personal comic book time before and after that purchase. There are the books that never had such an impact before that, and the vain search for books that would hit me and induce such a strong reaction and enduring love ever since then. That first exposure to Kabuki was fresh, full of intellectual rigor, a feeling of being challenged by an authorial voice, and just beautiful art. It contained no formulaic movie plot, no aping of someone else’s penciling style, it could not be summed up as a pitch line (“it’s like property X meets property Y!”), and dripped with confidence and unique vision. I found myself reeling from a lack of scintillating adjectives and proper turns of phrase to describe contending with his luminous visual shorthand. I simply scrambled to pick up the rest of the issues I could locally, wrote my first fan letter to David Mack (after nearly a quarter century of comic book reading sans letters), and ordered what I’d missed directly from him. If you haven’t tried Kabuki, you owe it to yourself to try the book at least once. For those willing to take a plunge, I highly recommend Volume 5: Metamorphosis or Volume 7: The Alchemy. Those more apprehensive may simply partake of any single issue. Go and see David (who is always) at the Image booth at the San Diego Con. He’ll always make you a deal for a stack of his books, and there’s nothing like meeting the man, who is still full of passion and drive, has something to say, but also understands how to entertain an audience with a multi-year sustained narrative. He still genuinely appreciates feedback and strikes you as a humble guy, not a modern master of the craft whose fictional creations transcend their boundaries and have the power to redefine the medium and give hope to the future of comic books. You’d never guess he was the one showcasing an unprecedented adaptability and compelling evolution of the form. I read a fan letter recently that quietly and elegantly grasped the dynamic he has with an audience. It simply read: “Neil Gaiman has my heart. Chuck Palahniuk has my mind. David Mack has my soul.” Neil Gaiman, from his seminal Sandman to the recent “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” has consistently produced stories that focused in part on the act of storytelling itself. David Mack has also used consistent themes in his work; if I had to summarize in a single word, I’d say the Kabuki epic has been about identity. The Alchemy (of identity), like the title suggests (part “accepted” Western science, part speculative Eastern philosophy), involves crafting a story which is in part about the act of crafting art. A large segment of this volume frames these ideas by citing Steven Pressfield's book The War of Art. Both works deal with the age old dilemma confronting artists in any medium - inspiration vs. creativity. Does the muse inspire work or does doing the work invoke the muse? Pressfield & Mack deliver it this way: "If you do the work, the muse will show up. You don't wait for the muse to show up first... It's not the writing that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write." And that daily struggle is the titular “war.” If Kabuki: Volume 5: Metamorphosis was one of my favorite books of all time, it has slowly become eclipsed by Volume 7: The Alchemy. It’s largely because David Mack's creations transcend the medium and make us consider our place in the world and how we interact with it. This is art in the truest sense, when it allows for an internal examination of ourselves. Sure, it all started with the adventures of a fictional character, then moved on to the composition of her identity, then progressed to the creation of her identity, now finally extending to the craft of creation itself, ultimately allowing the audience, and even the creator, to take a spiritual journey seeking what comprises one's own sense of self. Not only is this cultural impact profound from a sociological standpoint, but they should be studying David Mack in college campuses across the country, seeking to understand how his offerings will influence the future, having altered the traditional comic book paradigm for years to come. There isn't one artistic medium that he hasn't perfected and adapted to graphic storytelling. His blend of photography, collage, re-appropriated items, traditional pencils, watercolors, oils, calligraphy, and imaginative layouts shatter the conventions, boundaries, and confines of the medium. His work has transcended comics and become something unique, he's created a totally original art form, and The Alchemy may be the pinnacle of the dynamic. As I sit and write this, it’s March 1st, yet you can likely sense that I don’t need any Nostradamus-fueled vision to foretell that 9 months from now when I begin collating lists, reviewing past reviews, and identifying books for my Best of 2009 Lists, this will certainly be among them. This book comes out tomorrow and you simply need to own it, not just to possess a wonderful piece of art, but to better yourself. Grade A+.

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