Kabuki was a comic series created by David Mack back in 1994 that has been republished by Dark Horse in the form of a paperback omnibus. This is no random decision to bring back the comic after 25 years, as it has been optioned by Sony for a television series. Kabuki was met with positive reception back in the mid ’90s, but can its alternate-future sexy Japanese assassins live up to over two decades of simmering in the sea of graphic novel maturation?
The bread and butter of Kabuki is the visual artistry that David Mack is known for. The book opens with near 20 pages of watercolor mixed with clipart. This colorful gritty imagery is what drew me to Kabuki to begin with. “Watercolour genius,” a quote by Neil Gaiman that can be found on the cover, does a perfect job of summarizing what the first several pages and the final story at the end give us. Unfortunately, color is dropped the moment the story begins in lieu of black ink. The illustration is still very good, but it’s unfortunate considering this comic book was made to be in color. In fact, I would have even welcomed sparing use of color that really highlight the importance of a scene, object or tattoo. Ultimately, whether it was for budgetary or artistic reasons, I don’t fault David Mack’s decision too much considering it did a good job of separating itself from most other comics coming out at the time and remaining a visually appealing work of art.
Where Kabuki loses me is the story. I do want to throw out a reminder that this was 25 years ago, and our exposure to Japanese culture and sexy lady ninja assassins from the future has increased exponentially. So while this story doesn’t grab my attention today, that was likely a different scenario for audiences of the mid ’90s. However, it all comes off very juvenile, or an excuse to draw mostly naked women donning punk rock gear killing people. Not much is explained throughout the several hundred pages aside from the origin of Kabuki and the antagonist’s brutal arc. While this is the story, it leaves much to be desired. This includes the super secret organization of Noh that the main character is a part of, or why they are tasked with keeping the balance. I’m also not quite sure why the rest of the assassin clan is introduced, as they get little page time outside of their introduction. This is all fine and well if what you’re looking for is periodic, well-drawn violence. While the main arc takes its time in progressing, there is very little world building around it to pull you into the grander picture.
David Mack clearly took inspiration from Neil Gaiman, as some of the expressions of words and imagery feel like they were pulled directly from Sandman. It works in this context, but doesn’t feel wholly original, especially when you consider Kabuki was released at the tail end of Sandman‘s first run. Aeon Flux is another piece of work starring a leather-clad secret agent skilled in aerobatic assassinations that aired on MTV and wrapped up around the mid ’90s that comes to mind. I could see Mack taking influence from both Gaiman and this show — throw in a little Japanese culture obsession and you have Kabuki.
To me, the story doesn’t evoke thought in the way the illustrations or aforementioned works do despite trying to present itself in such a way. While this serves as a very interesting sketch book, I didn’t find much satisfaction when concluding the reading. David Mack does a great job of making you hate the antagonist, Ryuchi Kai, but I didn’t grow attached to Kabuki enough to have emotions one way or the other by book’s end.