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Home Interviews Essays: October 11, 2003 - Professor Andrew Miller (NKU)

David Mack (October 17, 2003): I was just e-mailed this and thought you may be interested.

Writing Professor Andrew Miller gave a lecture and writing workshop at NKU on Oct. 11, 2003. He has also covered Kabuki in his literature and creative writing classes. And he was the first to orchestrate having Neil Gaiman and myself speak at the University. Here is a transcript of his recent lecture on the writing in Kabuki at that workshop.

David Mack: The Writer

I first heard of David Mack when the employees at Comic Book World in Cincinnati learned I was teaching at NKU. “Oh, have you met David Mack? He does comic books.” In fact, David's time here at NKU overlapped with mine, but at the time I was an adjunct instructor, teaching mostly composition and not creative writing.

I was first introduced to Kabuki and David as both writer and artist by one of my students. I was teaching a topics course for the Department of Literature and Language on Cincinnati authors. Someone suggested I take a look at David's collection of his first story arc, Circle of Blood. I did and decided to use the book in the class. David agreed to come and talk to the students and if I remember right, found it a bit surreal to come into a class and see a stack of papers written on his book at the university he had so recently attended. He talked about his work and answered questions from the class. He also confirmed my personal theory: all writers have a cat.

A few years ago, when I proposed the Arts & Sciences Alumni Success Series, a lecture series that would highlight the professional successes of NKU graduates from the College of Arts & Sciences, David was the first person that came to mind. As I still tell my students, since George Clooney didn't actually graduate from here, David is probably our most successful alumni. Even if many of them have never heard of him. Of course, I think that is going to change.

As you look around this room, you can see the scope and complexity of David Mack the artist. You even get a brief introduction to David Mack the writer by seeing his pages laid out not to mention his occasional notes scrawled along the walls. But what I would like to do in the time allotted me is to take a closer look at David the Writer in my role as a writer and teacher of writing.

One of things that I admire about David Mack the writer is the complexity and sophistication of his writing. All stories have basic elements such as setting, characters, and conflict. Better stories develop themes and tone and mood. Memorable stories have complexities and use a variety of literary tools to enhance all of the basic elements. David is good at using such tools to tell his story both through the art and the writing. Such tools include metaphor, symbolism, and allusion. David uses all of these tools from the beginning to the end of his story for Kabuki.

Let's start with characters since it is very hard to have a story without characters. A friend of mine who also teaches creative writing asks his students to create a character that is as opposite from themselves as they can imagine. His young white female students bring in young white female hookers. How are they different? He asks. Are you're saying I'm a tramp they reply. What about an old, poor, African American man? He suggests. With Kabuki, David has created a believable character that is female and Japanese. While they may be about the same age, this is a character that is pretty far the opposite of David. Kabuki, also Ukiko, is Ainu and Japanese, a dual heritage. She is a trained assassin. She is horribly scarred, internally and externally. She is trying to figure out who she is and what her purpose in life is. She is trying to find her face. But the best part of all this is that David makes Kabuki believable. Readers empathize with her. They care about what happens to her. She is fully realized and shaped, not just by the pencil lines and brush strokes but by the writing. And why does she seem real? A few nights ago at his opening, as well as earlier this morning, David mentioned that Kabuki was autobiographical, except that he made the character female and Japanese/Ainu and set in a different culture. It reminded me of what I tell my creative writing classes.

Fiction based on personal events is tough to write. The way something happened it real life does not necessarily translate well to fiction. It is better to take the emotions and feelings that you have experienced and convey those while making the character different from yourself. I think that is why Kabuki is believable. Her emotions and reactions are real. We empathize with her. Readers recognize real feelings.

Of course, Kabuki is not the sole inhabitant of her own universe. David has created a host of other interesting and believable characters. But I don't have time to talk about all of them right now. However, I would like to talk about Akemi, the fellow inmate/prisoner at the Control Corps Asylum that communicates with Kabuki through origami missives. The reason I want to focus on her is that unlike most of the other characters in the comic, we meet her first through the words of her messages before we ever see a visual representation of her on the page.

Akemi communicates by folding pieces of toilet paper into origami figures and then throwing them through the vent into Kabuki's cell. She writes her messages with a pen she keeps hidden in a place the guards will not look. In case you haven't read that far, I won't ruin it for you. But with these notes, David follows the most basic of creative writing rules: Show, Don't Tell. What do these notes show? Akemi is resourceful. She is creative. She is clever. She is intelligent. She is Kabuki's friend. She has a sense of humor. Even when Kabuki herself doesn't know whether to believe in Akemi, the readers do. Or at least believe that there is a real personality behind the notes.

Again, this may come back to the autobiographical nature of this work. One of Akemi's notes reads "I enjoy endowing patterns with meaning..." What a perfect description of David's work. Patterns with meaning. And in fact, David's work can be compared to Akemi's origami. His work, both written and visual, needs to be unfolded by the reader in order for the reader to get meaning from it. Sometimes this unfolding is almost literal as you have to move the book around to read all of the writing on the page. You have to shift the book to odd angles, almost folding it and unfolding it as you go along. And Akemi is another real character that the reader finds in the unfolding.

So what else do you need in a story besides character? You need a setting. The setting for Kabuki echoes what I mentioned earlier about autobiographical writing. David sets his story in a near-futuristic Japan where the Agents of Noh “attempt to neutralize the corruption between the government and organized crime” and Tokyo is a city “who's technology has surpassed it's humanity.”

But this is a setting where trained female assassins are believable. I think they would have been much more conspicuous in Bromley, KY or even Newport. In fact, it is no stretch to describe this futuristic Japan as a dystopia, the opposite of utopia, the worst place to live. Yakuza and Chinese gangs run through the city. The worst of sexual perversions can be found in the Red Light district and assassinations and corruption seem common. But here I want to mention one of a writer's tools that David uses to enhance the dystopian atmosphere of Kabuki's world. On the page and in the descriptions, it is easy to see the city as a horrible place to leave. But through the use of allusion, David has added another layer for those who catch the allusions. You do not have to get the allusions to understand what this world is like, but it does add complexity and another fold in the origami.

The chief allusion in the setting in Circle of Blood is to George Orwell's dystopian classic, 1984. This is apparent when Kabuki, appearing on the Noh channel, tells her viewers that “Little sister is watching.” Even people who cannot trace the phrase back to its original source have heard that “Big Brother is watching.” Besides 1984, the Japan of Kabuki has a cyberpunk feel. In the 1980s, the cyberpunk dystopia was big movement in the science fiction field. Cyberpunk usually dealt with the idea of cybernetic advancements in humans and the effects of a virtual society mixed with punk elements like street gangs and violence. It also acknowledged Japanese influence on American Culture and science. Kai, one of the villain's of Circle of Blood has an adolescent computer hacker genius named, aptly, Link. He is a perfect example of a cyberpunk character. The narration even states that “information is the ultimate weapon and data is status.” One the most famous examples of cyberpunk is William Gibson's Neuromancer. Whether or not David meant this particular part as an allusion, I'm not sure, but one of Kai's henchmen is Cowboy, which is also the slang term for cyber hackers in Neuromancer. Later on in Skin Deep, Akemi directly alludes to William Gibson: “William Gibson called cyberspace 'a fluid origami trick.'” Reading that quote confirmed that David was familiar with Gibson's work and added another fold in the complexity of Kabuki.

The other key elements for stories, conflict and plot, go without saying. You can certainly find plenty of each throughout the books. But again, what makes Kabuki work so well is that there are layers of conflict and plot. For instance, in a Circle of Blood, there are several different conflicts of several different types. We have person vs. person conflict such as Kabuki vs. Kai; person vs. society such as Kabuki vs. the dominant philosophy and corruption of her society; and of course, person vs. self. Kabuki has many internal conflicts about loyalty, her origins, her identity, the ghost of her mother. All of the plots work together and create the rich text that we have here.

I already mentioned some of David's use of allusion in regards to the setting. He also uses allusion to enhance other aspects of the story such as theme. For instance, Circle of Blood, Act 1 is called “Ghosts in the Looking Glass” and Act 5 is called “The Mad Tea Party,” both coming from Lewis Carrol's Alice stories. As David's friend Takashi Hattori points out in his afterword, the allusions are used to indicate that Kabuki is on a journey through a wonderland filled with such odd characters as Alice encounters in her journey. Hattori points out the correlation between the agents of Noh and the characters that Alice encounters such as the twin assassins code named Siamese as being analogous to Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Wonderland is also used in a direct allusion when the prodigy Link wants to know why there are rabbits hopping around. He is directed to follow the rabbits into Wonderland, in this case, cyberspace, as he works out the problems in Kai's Neverland project. Kabuki also shouts out to the directors “You're all just a pack of cards” as she recognizes the insanity and hypocrisy of the situation at the end of the story.

When Akemi is sending her origami messages, she folds them into shapes of animals. At one point, she tosses down a paper unicorn. Kabuki mentions “I'd love to keep them all. I could use the company. I'd have my own 'paper menagerie' complete with unicorn.” It's a small line but again, a loaded allusion to Tennessee William's play The Glass Menagerie. At this point in the story, Kabuki is trapped inside the Control Corps asylum and unable to face or know what reality is. In the play, the character of Laura has her own glass menagerie that she plays with so she doesn't have to deal with the real world and its problems. The allusion is more than showing off or a literary game. It once again adds another layer for those who catch it.

Another literary tool that David uses well is the symbol, something that stands for something else. Symbols are abundant throughout the Kabuki books. Takashi Hattori does an excellent job of pointing out many of the symbols in Circle of Blood, including all the symbolic layers of the title itself, the significance of Kabuki's sickles, and the statue of her mother among others. If you haven't read that afterword, I highly recommend that you do. But I want to talk about some symbols in the last story arc, Metamorphosis. In part three, “Retina Escape,” Akemi tells some of her own background to Kabuki. She mentions seeing a butterfly collection at the Tokyo zoo. Each butterfly was pinned down and labeled. Akemi realizes though that she “much more enjoyed butterflies fluttering about in the air.” It is easy to see the butterfly as symbolic of both Akemi and Kabuki, both being trapped as they are in the asylum. A page or so later, Akemi explicitly connects the butterflies to herself. Since her doctor has been trying to determine Akemi's psychological profile, Akemi decides that she “will not be pin downed and labeled as part of the collection in this human zoo.” Its an effective, explicit symbol.

However, the symbolism of the butterfly doesn't stop there. Besides being symbols of freedom, butterflies are also the quintessential symbol for metamorphosis, for change. After all, the caterpillar becomes the beautiful butterfly. David uses this symbolic aspect of the butterfly as well, both explicitly and subtly. When Kabuki is fighting for her life with one of her sister agents, she mentions that the square of paper that Akemi gave her has changed into a butterfly. “It is my metamorphosis from inside out.” Besides referring to her specific actions in that scene, it also both describes what has happened before and foreshadows the future. Kabuki has been trapped in the asylum, her cocoon, and will soon break free, to fly, without being pinned down. Likewise, much of her mental scars and emotional burdens, her psychological cocoon, is shed as well. Not only does she become physically free, she becomes psychologically free.

Before I talked about the origami working both in the story and as a comparison to the books themselves. Similarly, the idea of metamorphosis can probably be given to David's work on these books. While I'm not suggesting that his earlier work was a cocoon, the volumes of Kabuki show David's change and metamorphosis as a writer and an artist. It is a fitting symbol.

Another symbol used in Metamorphosis is the goldfish. Kabuki tells Akemi about reading a story to her goldfish Mizuko, a name meaning child of the water. Since Kabuki's given name Ukiko means “rain”, we already get an idea of the connection between them. Besides the fact that Mizuko was Kabuki's friend, the General, Kabuki's foster parent, makes her throw the apparently dead fish into the river. Kabuki has always told herself that Mizuko was only sleeping and once in the river, grew to a much larger size. Like the butterfly, Mizuko becomes a symbol of Kabuki and a bit of foreshadowing towards the end. Like Mizuko, Kabuki is believed to be dead. Like Mizuko, she escapes into the water (in this case the rain). The implication, is that once free of Control Corps and the Noh, she will grow to a size fitting of her surroundings, she will reach her full potential. The character of Buddha even tells Kabuki she must take the same path her goldfish took. When Kabuki throws the skinned face of her attacker into the water, the fish, including a giant goldfish Kabuki calls Mizuko, eat it. Since the agents of Noh believe it is Kabuki who is killed, the fish eating the face, represents the fish eating her past, her past identity. She is going to be free from the past as well as the Control Corps asylum.

I would like to talk about one more symbol. The rain. Hattori points out that Circle of Blood starts with the lines “The rainy season” has begun, signifying more than just the weather. Since Kabuki's given name means “Rain,” the very first line of the book gives double meaning. Kabuki's story has begun. At the end of the story, she leaves the Board of Director's office, she walks out wounded, into the rain. When she reaches her mother's grave, the rain stops. At this point, the weather again works symbolically. By having the rain stop, David suggests that Kabuki may stop, may die form her wounds. He leaves us with a final image of the dying Kabuki. Luckily for the readers anyway, Kabuki does not die there. She is taken to Control Corps. At one point she mentions having a dream where the rain washes her scars away. When she finally escapes from Control Corps, she admits that the rain has washed her scars away. Since her physical scars on her face still exist, we know that it is the internal scars that have been washed away, and not by the precipitation falling from the sky. The scars have been washed away by Ukiko, rain, by Kabuki herself. She is the only one who can take her scars away. And structurally, Kabuki's story ends where it started, in the rain.

There is so much more that I could talk about. I could mention the fact that the later books are perfect examples of a post-modern comic book, deliberately deconstructing the normal expectations of the genre and filled with playful self-referential bits to the author. If I knew more about Japan, I'm sure I could talk about David's use of history and cultural references. I could mention so many different things. But I already feel like one of Akemi's zoologists, trying to pin down and label a beautiful butterfly. So, instead of saying more, I will stop and let you experience the butterfly in its natural state for yourself.

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April 11: Webmaster's note

April 7: David Mack attending New York's MoCCA this weekend, MoCCA pre-party, thoughts on two films & more

April 6: Photo of upcoming Dream Logic shirt, David Mack and Tony Solomun art jam zine, David Mack plugged in Qatar newspaper & more

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