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Kabuki Agents: Scarab #1-8
Reviewed by Russ Anderson, © 2002

Format: Comics
By:   David Mack (story) and Rick Mays (art)
Review Date:   August 01, 2002
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

You should never, never try to read any of David Mack's Kabuki series one at a time, in a monthly format.

I remembered this rule (one I'd set for myself while nearing the end of the "Metamorphosis" arc in Image's Kabuki run) somewhere around the third issue of Kabuki Agents: Scarab. So I began setting the individual issues aside against the time when I'd be able to read all of them together. There's just too much subtext, too many references to past events in the series that later come back to be major plot points. It's nearly impossible to appreciate fully when there's a two-month lag between new issues.

And if there's a book on the stands that deserves to be appreciated, it is David Mack's Scarab. The series revolves around a member of the order of the Noh, a so-secret-they're-public organization dedicated to maintaining the balance between crime and government in near-future Japan. The star of the piece—a woman codenamed Scarab, coincidentally enough—flashes back to her younger years and the events that led her to her current position as a masked assassin. Meanwhile, in the present, she and the rest of the Noh infiltrate an even-more-secret government facility to neutralize a former ally before she becomes a liability.

The story weaves back and forth and in-between the three major phases in the woman's life, from her younger years, up through her training and first mission, right up to the current mission. Handled in a linear fashion, this story would have come across as any other crime/romance with lots of sexy violence and tear-jerker moments (think Tarantino's True Romance). But I'm not sure David Mack is capable of telling a story in a linear fashion—and that's just one of the things that makes him one of the most distinctive voices in comics today. Make no mistake: Scarab reads like a novel, not a serialized comic book, which is why it's absolutely vital that it all be read together.

The story ties into events in the "Metamorphosis" arc in Image's Kabuki #1-9, and even includes some of Mack's art from that series (even though Rick Mays brilliantly draws everything else in the series . . . more on him in a second). It also delivers the resolution to a dangling plot point from Kabuki, in a final issue that shatters the reader with heartbreak and revelations on every other page.

And then there's Rick Mays.

Kabuki Agents: Scarab #1 was my first introduction to Mays' work (he did a couple of short stories in an earlier series, Kabuki: Masks of the Noh, but I hadn't picked that up yet at the time I began reading Scarab). Since then, he's done some fill-ins on Gen-13 for Wildstorm and a couple issues of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, among other things. None of that work, as pretty as it is, touches his Scarab stuff. Clean, clean lines and a style that shifts from the cartoonier side of manga to the dark-and-dirty, heavily-feathered violence of an assassin's first life-and-death battle. Here is an artist that indisputably works best in black-and-white, and his attractive style is definitely more commercial and easier to lose yourself in than Mack's own Sienkewicz-influenced style on the regular Kabuki book.

Ultimately, if you don't feel like starting the Kabuki saga at the beginning (and once you read one of the arcs, you'll likely want to come back for more), this is probably a good place to sample the feel of the series and see if it's to your liking. Then, once you've read Scarab, go back and read all the other Kabuki stuff—from the Fear the Reaper one-shot to the latest "Metamorphosis" arc in Kabuki #1-9, it's all collected in TPB, so it should be easy to find—and then write Mack and lavish heavy praise on him, while at the same time demanding to know when the next Kabuki Agents series (again drawn by Mays and this time focusing on the Noh agent named Tigerlily) is going to materialize.

Kabuki Agents: Scarab is, as Scarab herself notes in one issue, neither a love story nor a crime story, though it has aspects of both. Like all the Kabuki tales, it's a story of becoming, and it calls into question the extent to which any of us really change when the opportunity to make up for past mistakes comes our way.

Just remember the rule about not reading it in monthly or bi-monthly increments.

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