This year marks the 20th anniversary of David Mack‘s “Kabuki,” and to celebrate, Dark Horse is releasing four oversized library editions collecting the full series’ run, including the book’s time at Image and Marvel. Clocking in at 400 pages, the first hardcover will contain the first and second volumes of the long-running series, “Circle of Blood” and “Dreams,” with extras including Kabuki illustrations by Brian Michael Bendis, an introduction by Jim Steranko and more. Plus, for the first time ever, “Kabuki” is available digitally today via Dark Horse Digital, bringing the series to more readers than ever before.
CBR News spoke with Mack about looking back over the course of the series for the Library Editions, including the emotional start of the series when he was 20, its longtime appeal to readers, what it’s like to revisit his early work, and how the digital initiative came about. Plus, he tells a story about his first New York Comic Con (after which he developed “Kabuki”) and relates how Bendis was almost the regular artist for “Kabuki.”
CBR News: “Kabuki” getting the library edition treatment is incredibly exciting. That’s over 20 years collected into four massive books of 400 pages. What was the draw for you in collecting the entire run together?
David Mack: This is the 20th anniversary of “Kabuki.” The very first “Kabuki” story came out in 1994, which was a long time ago. There are a lot of readers that have been reading it ever since that time, but there are a lot of new readers that start every time there’s a new volume, and I get the impression from some of them that it’s hard to find the complete sets of the volumes. I’ve tried to keep it in stock in paperbacks and hardcover at Image, and then when it moved to Marvel. The last couple years, some of the volumes have run out of print and have been hard to get back into print. It was at a crossroads, where there were three or four volumes that were all out of print at once, and Dark Horse came to me and offered this opportunity that, instead of putting it back in print in that format, maybe it would be a great opportunity to release it in a new volume that would be very friendly to all-new readers that could find everything all at once.
It’s a treat for me to see it in a larger format. I haven’t seen it that way before, aside from the original artwork.
Many times, these projects give creators a chance to really look back over an entire body of work. Looking back at the very beginnings of Kabuki, were you struck by the change — not only in the art, but in your life as well?
Yeah! That’s a really good point. The very first “Kabuki” volume I did as a student in college as my senior thesis in literature. It’s me as a 20-year-old doing the best version of a comic book that I could at that time. It’s very interesting to look back — it’s an interesting arc for the character to evolve, and it’s almost like a diary of my own work and life and what stages my life was in at the time, too. If I were to do it as the me that I am now, I would do so many things differently — there are moments that I think are a little heavy handed that I would finesse better. There are things that are very raw. It’s almost like looking at the work of a different person, so I can almost look at it without even looking at it through the lens that it’s me. It was so long ago that it’s like, “What an interesting project that this student did.” It kind of has a naive charm to it. There’s an interesting, raw and crude charm that I get a kick out of seeing when I look at it that way.
What’s your feeling about having readers come on to the very first issue, considering how different it is from how your style is now? Are you a little trepidatious in seeing how people respond to that part of your work?
It’s weird, because I was probably more comfortable showing “The Alchemy” to people if they had no pretense of what my work is or what “Kabuki” is. The newest volume is probably the best example of all my work in general, out of what I’ve done as an artist. It probably has the most diversity and evolution in one book. I would probably be most comfortable with people judging my work on that versus judging my work from over 20 years ago as a student! [Laughs] I would hope that they look at it through that context — what an interesting artifact this first volume is, and the origins of this creator and this character when he was a student doing a college project! I would hope that they look at it in a historical context as that kind of artifact.
“Kabuki” has tackled a lot of big, philosophical ideas over the years. When you started the series, did you ever think it would last as long as it has? Did you ever see yourself continuously tackling these big ideas through the lens of these characters?
That’s an interesting question — I don’t think I thought that far ahead. I was in college, I was very young and I was going through a lot of issues at the time. That made its way into the book. I just tried to create a book that I could tell really personal stories through that I could bring a lot of my own interests and passions and things that I was learning in college and in my travels, things that I was dealing with. I — sometimes consciously, but also looking back probably unconsciously, was working out so much of that in my work at the time. The very first “Kabuki” Library Edition will collect the first two “Kabuki” volumes together, and I was doing a lot of the writing and drawing by my mother’s bedside while she was dying. I completed so much of it after she had died, and there were a lot of other things going on in my life that I can look back at it now and I can see it all there in the story. Even things from childhood I can see in the story that I wasn’t even conscious of putting in when I was writing it.
Is it difficult for you to revisit that work, knowing what was going on while you were creating it?
I don’t know if I would exactly say difficult. It crystalizes a lot of memories and details for me that, in a way, is interesting to have in that form. That was a very pre-digital age for me. I was doing “Kabuki” before I was on email. I didn’t have a cell phone, didn’t have a computer. I didn’t have digital photography or videos in my life at the time. So, it’s kind crystalized a lot of those moments and memories for me. Aside from just looking at the pages and what’s going on with the story, I can look at each page and remember exactly where I was when I was making it, when I was writing or drawing it. Maybe that’s a good thing, in some ways.
“Kabuki” has remained relevant to readers throughout the years. What do you think it is about the book that keeps readers coming back?
Well, when I started doing this book, like I said, I was very young. I was 20 years old, I started working on it in January of ’93. Interestingly enough, it was the first time I did a big New York convention — the January ’93 New York convention at the Jacob Javits Center. It was the first time I had been to New York, it was the first time I had ever been to a big convention like that. It was the first time I had a signing at a big convention like that. I was so excited — from meeting all kinds of interesting creators for the first time. After that convention, I was on a 12-hour drive back from New York — I was at school, and my friends are like, “Okay, it looks like we have a tiny bit of room for you in the back of the car if you crouch down in the corner of the backseat with all the boxes.” I told my illustration teacher, “Hey, do I have to be here for this class today? Because I have an opportunity to go to this ridiculous convention in New York tonight.” He said, “Oh, you should do that! You’ll learn way more!”
I left the class with $20 in my pocket, jumped in this person’s car and we did this 12-hour trip to New York. [Laughs] I was able to do enough drawings there that I actually came back with $100 and covered my expenses in New York, doing drawings and signing at the show. I met people — Colleen Doran was sitting across from me, I was sitting next to Jon J. Muth, who was very kind and friendly to me and gave me lots of advice. When the show was over, on the ride home, I was just thinking I had to get started on my own book as soon as possible. It was on that drive home that I started putting the whole “Kabuki” story together — the title, the character — just fleshing it out on the way back. I continued working on it throughout the rest of ’93, and in ’94, I was able to put it together.
That’s a little backstory, but specifically to your question, I was a big fan of autobiographical comics at the time — Ivan Brunetti’s “Schizo,” Joe Matt’s “Peepshow,” “American Splendor” by Harvey Pekar — but I was so young that I didn’t feel fully-formed enough as a human to feel like I could fully do an autobiographical comic, and I didn’t feel un-self-conscious enough to do that either. I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of the main character being fictionalized as an idealized version of myself. I didn’t want people to look at it and think it was me, even though I can’t help but put personal things into it. So I tried to make as many things different as possible — make the main character a different gender, put it in a different part of the world and different culture — and funneled a lot of the things I was learning in Japanese class and mythology and history and my travels as a structure. It’s sort of a metaphor, really, to use those archetypes to tell personal stories. I think that enabled people to read it and see themselves in the story rather than see me in the story.
A lot of the feedback I get from readers is that they relate to the story on a very personal level. I think that’s been the magic of the book for me — different readers connect to it from different access points and like it for different reasons, and relate to it in very personal ways even though each reader might be seeing a completely different story and connecting to it on a very different level than another reader might.
What excites you most about having all the material collected into one place?
There’s been six volumes in paperback and hardcover collected at Image Comics and the seventh volume, “The Alchemy,” was in hardcover collected at Marvel, but “The Alchemy” was all sold out, and it seems like the majority of the paperbacks and hardcovers at Image are currently out of print, which just makes it harder for brand new readers to start if they’re missing the one link in the chain.
For both readers and myself, I thought it was a great opportunity to be able to see all of this at once. There are four different volumes, and each one is 400 pages. It just interestingly worked out that each of the volumes are each their own story, their own style with a different medium, a different tone and different page counts, and somehow it just worked out to be 400 pages each when we added them together. It’s going to be interesting seeing the first volume, collecting the first and second “Kabuki” stories together. The very first story is almost like a crime story set in Japan, so it has a black-and-white noir approach. The volume that follows it directly contrasts so greatly with it because it’s the first time I ever did any comics in color, and it’s the first time I ever did any painted books. You get to read them all together in one volume, and you get to see that interesting contrast and evolution right there.
And, you don’t have to wait two months between every issue. All that time is condensed right there, together.
For those who are familiar with Kabuki and might own the full run already, what kind of extras do you have in place specifically for the Library Editions?
This is an interesting fun fact that most people might not be aware of — for a long time, I had no interest in drawing “Kabuki.” I had written the story, and I was looking for different artists to draw it. In fact, that trip, I went to New York and connected with different artists. There were different artists that I thought were much more skilled than I was at the time. As soon as I wrote the story when I got back from that January ’93 trip, I kept in contact with these other artists, trying to work out a way for them to draw the Kabuki story.
In mid-’93 is when Brian Bendis and I met at a convention in Chicago. We immediately started working together on projects and I told Brian, “I have this story I wrote and there are these other artists that are possibly going to do it and I’m trying to find the right artist.” Brian was like, “Oh, that’s great! I’ll do the artwork for it.” Brian was going to be the artist on that very first “Kabuki” volume for a long time!
I have all these early 1993 Brian Michael Bendis “Kabuki” drawings that I will include in the book and share with people, because there is a very interesting history to it. I had always thought of myself primarily as a writer, and eventually I tricked myself in doing some art for “Kabuki” by saying, “Brian’s going to be doing the main thing, and I can do it with other artists in the future, but just for fun, I’ll do an 8-page ‘Kabuki’ story and just include it.” I kept doing these little 8-page scenes, and if you look at the first “Kabuki” issue, they’re really these little 8-page scenes that I liked on their own and eventually just said, “Oh, I’ll just start putting these together in the right order and maybe I can make a story out of them.” Even then, I hadn’t committed! There’s a lot of that kind of history that we’ll include in the book, like Brian’s early stuff of “Kabuki” which is fascinating to see.
Kabuki is also going to be available on Dark Horse Digital, bringing a new level of access to your work. In fact, it’s the first time the work has been released digitally.
That’s right. Dark Horse came to me with this plan to do the library editions and they had a big [initiative] to get the best versions of artwork for the digital as well. Yeah, right now you can’t go anywhere and get “Kabuki” digitally, so this will be a great opportunity for a bunch of brand new readers to find it.