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KABUKI: THE ALCHEMY: A Roadmap to (My) Creative Enlightenment

“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” – Neil Gaiman

I. Getting Naked (or, “It Is Amazing How The Universe Answers You When You Ask It The Right Questions…”)

I’m about to metaphorically streak down your street, so if you’re offended by that kind of raw honesty, this probably isn’t the article for you. I hear Apple announced a bunch of cool new gadgets, that might be more your speed (or you can read Eric Diaz’s list of Marvel bad guys they should include on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.). I should also say up front that I’m going to be gushing pretty hard about David Mack, specifically his work in Kabuki – Book Seven: Alchemy, so prepare yourselves for that too. Also, I’m probably going to spoil a fair bit of the comic, so if you haven’t read it, stop reading this and GO READ IT NOW. Don’t worry about it being book 7, it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is set up on the inside front cover.

Let me give you a short setup of the series so far:

Kabuki (real name Ukiko) is a former operative of the NOH, a sort of Government-run, shadowy organization in Japan. There was a whole lot of bad shit that went down. You don’t need the details, just know that shit got ugly and Ukiko ended up in a prison. It was there that she met Akemi (Alchemy/Akemi… see what he did there?) a mysterious person who communicated with Ukiko via a series of origami folded notes. Eventually they plan a successful prison break – Akemi actually takes over the NOH, while Ukiko sets off on a path to start a new life for herself. That is where things are at when you start Alchemy.

Another thing you should know about Kabuki is that is it not your typical comic book fair. The Wikipedia entry describes it well:

Unlike most comic series, the plot of Kabuki moves very little over the course of the volumes. Very little fast-paced or violent action takes place. Instead, most of the focus is on memories, dreams, thoughts and philosophy. David Mack’s characters, especially Kabuki herself, revisit the same scenes and memories many times, rethinking them and their significance. Mack uses myriad art styles, not only pencil, ink, and color, but paint, magazine clippings, manga scans, and crayons. In Kabuki: The Alchemy especially, many of the pages are photos (or color scans) of collages using a variety of materials; for example, the fingers of Japanese sandalwood fans become the borders of the comic panels. Imagery is very important and prominent in the series; Mack reuses the same images, often changing them slightly, and focusing on the emotional content of images and the power of memories.

As I mentioned, I’m gonna get (metaphorically) naked in this article, I kinda have to in order to get across what I want to about this book and what it says about creativity and the life/purpose of a creator. It’s also only fair that I bare my soul (or part of it) just as Mack has clearly been barring his since he began the Kabuki series way back in 1994.

My undressing begins with some simple facts about myself: I’m 32 and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for five years. I moved out from Florida to work as a TV writer (or rather to FIND work as a TV writer; the search is ongoing) after several years of self-publishing my own comics. I still write comics, and have been lucky in that I found a home for several of my stories, but unlucky in that the home I’ve found is a small, relatively unknown publisher. It’s a double-edged sword, because, while I like making comics, it often feels like I’m writing in a vacuum.

Lately I’ve been in something of a rut. There’s been this blanket feeling of hopelessness that sort of just hangs over me these days. When I try to hone in on the source of these feeling,s all roads lead back to the same place: What am I doing with my life? More specifically, what am I doing with my creative abilities? What’s the point of writing comics or TV or Nerdist blog posts? I mean, what am I actually contributing to society? More than that, what do I want to contribute? Do I have anything at all to say? And what if I don’t have anything?

I’ve been questioning everything, every choice I’ve made the last few years. Am I not writing enough? Am I writing the wrong things? What’s the right thing to write? How much longer do I push myself to break into a steady writing career? When do the scales tip too far? Have I already crossed the point of no return?  What’s going to happen next, and how can I control what happens? Should I just give up and get a “real job”? Why don’t I consider my chosen career a “real job”? What’s the difference? Is there one?

These questions have been swirling around in my head for the better part of this last year, and while I understand a lot of those questions are common to many people, it wasn’t until I read Alchemy that I realized just how universal my problems were, especially among other creators.

When the book begins, Ukiko is asking herself the same questions. She shed her former life and is now on a search for what’s next. What defines her? The answers unfold (like the origami folded notes Akemi uses) in various forms over the course of the story. Many of the answers come from Akemi, still corresponding via letters with Ukiko. Each correspondence is a study in what it means to create, what it means to be a creator, and the responsibilities that come with that gift. Along her journey, Ukiko encounters others that seem to be on similar paths of creative enlightenment – an animal doctor with a love for prosthetics, a struggling children’s book author who has a very personal comic book that he’s hoping to publish, another former NOH agent with a different kind of creativity, one that takes the form of brilliant and complex designs for massive machines that do amazing things like create an excess of energy by using the ambient energy that is all around us.

Each of these encounters leave Ukiko with another tiny bit of information about what it means to be creative. They also all contain musings, philosophies and theories on the creative process and responsibilities of the creator to their audience and, on a larger scale, to society as a whole. The entire time I was reading this book, my own questions were being answered simultaneous to Ukiko’s.

That’s not to say that the book doesn’t resolve the dangling threads of the previous volumes. It does. It provides closure to the entire epic, but it does so without spilling a drop of blood. This book is about War. A War of Words. I’m getting ahead of myself. See, before you can go to war, you’ve got to be prepared, trained to fight. That training, in this case, begins with the first step down the path to enlightenment. However, sometimes the journey starts before you’ve even noticed, and suddenly you realize you’re already traveling the “path”. That moment for both Ukiko and myself happens in the second chapter. I’ve partially quoted the line in the section heading above, but for the sake of discussion the entire quote is:

“It is amazing how the universe answers you when you ask it the right questions and state your intentions.” 

Huh, I thought, that’s a cool notion. I wish it was true… I’ve been questioning what the point of creativity is and how to harness my own creations to maximize my potential and contribution to society on a grander scale… It’d be cool if the universe would answer me THAT.

I swear I had this exact thought. It’s like I challenged not only the universe, but the book itself to answer my damn questions already, completely unaware that the book I was holding in my hands was about to do just that.

It got even weirder for me on the very next page of the book. The discussion Ukiko is having with the Veterinarian turns to the subject of why the Vet chose to express herself artistically through the creation of artificial limbs as opposed to another artistic medium. She responds by lifting her pant leg and revealing her own prostetic limb, and says,

“I began by solving my own problems. The rest of the pieces of the cycle fit themselves around that action. You learn there are no coincidences. You begin to recognize the signs. You learn to look at everything that happens, at everyone you meet, as a hint, a clue. If you are faced with a certain challenge, perhaps it is the universe’s way of trying to show you something.”

Hmmmm. What are my problems? This is something I’m still examining. You see, this book hasn’t answered my questions, but it’s shown me how to find the answers. The Vet continues, going on to explain that what started out as using art to help herself snowballed into something larger, what Mack refers to as “the ripple effect” several times throughout the book.  It’s here that he introduces the earliest notions of a War of Words. The “ripple effect” implies that art should be about something larger than personal or emotional needs.

Mack’s theory is that we’re all cells in the same organism and that each of us has an individual job within that organism. Certainly an interesting notion; at the very least, it means that no person is more or less important than the next. Each of us, in our own way, is contributing something crucial to the functioning of the larger cause.

II. I’m Naked and Cold… Now What? (or, “…Writing as Magic. As the Groundwork of a Transformational Process.”)

Okay, David Mack, I’m digging what you’re saying, but how do I start? How do I get to the core of what it is I really want to say or do? What’s the problem that I need to solve and which form of my creative abilities will work best to solve it?

He answers. Actually, he answers directly. See there’s a guy that Ukiko meets on a plane, remember that comic book artist I mentioned? It’s David Mack. Well… it’s Det. D.M. from the NYPD (an awesome and bizarre crossover moment with Bendis/Oeming’s Powers comic) – now retired and writing children’s books and graphic novels. He takes the seat next to Ukiko, and they begin to discuss the options for starting a new life, for rediscovering what you really want in order to achieve happiness and satisfaction from your work.  Take a look at the full page below:

Kabuki1

There’s a lot to digest there, so let’s break the page down into sections.

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“Realize there is no security and become comfortable with that. It will free you up to do what you really need to do.”

This is a huge revelation for me, as job security/financial security have been a huge part of this recent crisis of confidence. I mean, let’s face it, I’m not a “successful” writer. I’m not paying my bills writing (not entirely… some…), but Mack’s right: it doesn’t matter what job you have, there is no guarantee. If I can come to terms with the reality of that statement it will free me up to do what I need to do. I’ll spend a lot less energy/time consumed with fiscal worries, freeing myself to focus on what really matters:

Kabuki3

Ukiko’s question in the middle of Mack’s statement isn’t connected by a word balloon or tail to her character on the page, it’s almost as if it’s not her asking, but the reader. Already, Mack seems to be venturing away from a traditional, linear story. The book is becoming less about the settings and characters and more about the message. Here, clearly, the message is to look back at a time in your life when things were a lot more simple, and you took only participated in things you truly enjoyed doing. As he explains:

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Aside from clarifying exactly what he means by “think back to when you were a child,” Mack identifies the source of the problem in getting older with his suggestion that we begin to lose our “natural identity” to the expectations of the adult world (to paraphrase) and that we conform to a preconceived notion of what it means to be “adult”. He goes on to suggest that Ukiko write down a list of things she enjoyed as a child because, “chances are, you have an innate ability to enjoy that, because you were designed to do it. Hardwired for it.”

I have yet to make my list (I needed to write all this out first. Aside from hopefully being an entertaining/informative read this is really a way for me to organize my thoughts on the philosophies of the book), but I’m excited by the very prospect of doing it. The idea that we are hardwired to enjoy the things we were naturally drawn to as children excites me, the possibilities of that reality see vast and unexplored. I’ve never thought about my youth as a proving ground for the talents hardcoded into my DNA, but it sounds right and I can’t wait to start to explore.

Next Mack touches on the very early suggestions of writing as a transformational process. I’m going to post the full page again, and then we’ll break it up and take a closer look:

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Notice he begins to tie in the title of the volume into the story and themes.

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This is not the first time I’ve heard this theory, or something similar. Grant Morrison, a phenomenal comic writer in his own right, has said roughly the same thing: Writing is magic. Morrison, very famously, tells a story about his time writing The Invisibles, in which he had based much of the main character on himself. As Morrison tells it, the more pain and suffering he inflicted on his literary avatar, the worse his own real life became in response.

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Turning your flaws into assets through writing about them is another notion I never considered before. I’ve always understood the theory of writing as a form of catharsis, but never took it the step further to understand that you could reshape your “madness” into a positive, defining quality. Again, Mack doesn’t think of this process as a magical one (at least not entirely…) he considers it a sort of proto-pseudoscience for of chemistry, or in a more poetic term: Alchemy.

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This is all great stuff. As I’m reading the book (for the first time, I’ve since read it about three more times to write this article), I’m understanding this flood of information and trying to process it all. That sense that the universe is answering my questions persists as I continue to delve further into the story.

Eventually Ukiko arrives at a house in America, as per Akemi’s instructions, and she begins to find her place in society. She notices that TV is a massive distraction to her mission, and in her case, a horrible reminder of the transgressions of her past (Kabuki-based TV shows play constantly in the fictional world of Mack’s story). This gives Mack another opportunity to pass on some sage advice, seemingly written directly to me, in the form of another series of letters between the mysterious Akemi and Ukiko.

It boils down to TV as a trap. Mack suggests that you have to decide that your work is most important than anything else. Your thoughts and ideas, your real life needs to take precedence over TV life, or else you’re just subscribing to what someone else wants you to think. As Akemi says, “Propaganda as a slow drip suppository. Distraction of reality, and worship of celebrity.”

My thoughts always seem to revolve around my own ultimate “happiness”. Not in a selfish way, or not an unusually selfish way, but always about happiness specifically. I mean, we all want to be happy, right? Mack, through the voice of Akemi, addresses this as well, and I can’t say I disagree:

“Buddha said to ‘cultivate peace, joy, and bliss.’ Not happiness. Happiness is an illusion attached to the material world. The pursuit of happiness is a trap to get you caught in the cycle of the material world. If you pursue happiness, you become miserable. Because you are never filled.” (Emphasis mine)

The motivational segment of Ukiko’s journey is rounded out by a discussion on how to accomplish the goals she’s now set for her new self. I paid close attention, because if I’ve got one flaw (and I have MANY) it’s a lack of self discipline. I’ve gotten better with age, but advice is always appreciated. Mack… er… Akemi’s advice hit particularly close to home for me, but I’ll let Mack’s gorgeous art and writing speak for itself:

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What hurt/helped the most to read here was the bit about the conventional idea of talent being an illusion. Shit got real for me when I read that. Look, I’m naked already, right, so here’s another confession: I’m not sure I’m even any good at this writing thing. I mean, I’ve read and watched a lot of better writers than I am. What qualifies me for this? Who am I to think that what I create is as good as my betters? This is the kind of shit I think about.

Mack course-corrects my trains of thought a bit (trains of thought becomes important in a minute…) by explaining that you need to keep doing the work in order for that “ripple effect” to kick in. You can’t get frustrated by waiting for something to come to you. You have to just do it, and that no matter how much it sucks, at the end of it all, “every creative endeavor begins with a certain leap of faith.”

I guess that’s the scariest part. That my life is one giant leap and I’m waiting, faithful, that I’ll have a soft landing eventually. While also a little (a lot) terrified that I’ll go SPLAT.

Mack insists that it’s not about being naturally talented, or even having “talent”, so much as it’s about identifying what comes naturally and learning to create from that organic clay. Akemi describes it by writing, “It is not about learning to draw, or learning to write, etc. That is superficial. It is about learning to see. And learning to do.”

III.  The Bitter End and Sweet Beginning (Or, “The Making Is Where You Always Want To Be.”)

The book is filled with wonderful musings on the origins of ideas, varying your sleep cycle to take advantage of your most productive hours, exercising the body in addition to the mind, and so much more. Many of these concepts I was already familiar with, but it serves as a nice reminder, and in many cases, a fresh perspective on older ideas. I realize that this philosophical reshuffling is exactly what I needed to clear the path through some of my mental fog, and just as Ukiko is prepared to enter into the “War of Art” phase of her journey, I find myself scribbling notes for this article, ready to set off on my own adventure.

Finally ready to take on the NOH, Ukiko (formerly Kabuki) begins to write children’s stories that parallel her life. Over time Akemi encourages her to go one step further and literally write her story. Naturally, Ukiko is scared to reach into such a vulnerable place, but with the help of her friend she overcomes her fears and begins to write the story of her life.

Somewhere along the way Ukiko stumbles over a thought I’ve had countless times (as I’m sure most writers, hell… anyone with a career path, have): the constant wonder of when she’ll have “made it.” What constitutes success when you’re creating art? If it’s not material, and it’s not about external validation… then how do you know when you’ve made it?

“There is no having made it. Forget about that. You are always making it. That is the entire point. The making is where you always want to be.”

Maybe that’s obvious advice to some, but for me it was a revelation. Partly because that’s the primary term used to identify success out here in Hollywoodland. Everyone’s always saying, “he finally made it!” or “look at me, I’ve made it!,” as if they’ve reached the end of their journey and I’m somehow failing because I don’t even see a finish line. Mack removes the finish line from the picture. There is no ending because in order to stay at your best you need to be fluid. A constant state of revolution.

I’m reborn as I finish the story, so excited to dive into not only this article but a ton of other projects that I’ve been ignoring that I only barely take in the fantastic theoretical ideas Mack’s layered into the last section of the book. Theories about transmitting ideas through labels, and words on a molecular lever, or how the number 13 is pivotal and pervasive within our universe because of how it ties into the secrets of sacred geometry, which is to say it reflects patterns which can be seen to exist in man, nature, and the heavens.

All these theories help Mack tie the various elements of nearly 20 years worth of Kabuki stories to a very clean and heartfelt ending, but they also serve as a reminder that the greatest mysteries are surrounding us at all times, that sometimes the strangest fiction lies in the facts. This reminder is particularly important to Ukiko’s story, because it helps provide basis for the next big leap of faith she must take: the beginning of a brand new story. Mack concludes the book by printing up an “Artistic License” for each reader to cut out and keep for themselves, as a reminder that all you need to create is permission from yourself to let go and get started.

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I think we could all stand to be reminded that there are powerful, unexplainable, connections between even the smallest things, and that we’re only a tiny part of that complex web. I certainly know I can. Especially as I now begin my own new story, figuring out exactly what I understand the best and applying that to create something that, hopefully, has as a profound impact on someone else as David Mack’s Alchemy has had on me.

Thanks for reading, as always I’m available on Twitter and in the comments below for any discussion or to answer any questions. Also, it might interest you to view David’s TED Talk, as well as a speech he gave at Northern Kentucky University on October 25, 2011.

Find David Mack online here!!

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8 comments

  • Hi, I am at a loss for the most apt response… I just wrote a small entry on my WordPress about the significance of (re) creating the world that you live in and relating it to others. Essentially breathing life into a being that envelops the minds of all it encounters. I was stumped a few days ago because I had the urge to write but no time or energy once I did “find” time. Then this morning, on the radio I heard Neil Gaiman talking about his newest project, The Sandman: Overture. He spoke about the elements of his writing and what he thinks the work of an author is. But in true Gaiman fashion, his delivery was so relatable and weightless that I had forgotten all of my anxiety and writer’s block has simply taken care of itself for the moment. I didn’t think I could be more inspired today. I read your article and was proven wrong. Thank you and keep scribing.

  • author

    Thank you for all the kind words! I’m so pleased others are connection with, not just the article, but David’s work as well. I know this pleases David too. Spread the word around, folks.

  • Wow man, great article. I’ve been a fan of David Mack’s for a while. I’ve read a number of the Kabuki books, but I need to pick this one up. You’re article really paralleled my own thoughts as a creative. I’ve asked myself the same questions and hit the same stumbling blocks that you have.

    As an artist and graphic designer, I’ve wondered the same things: What, if anything, do I have to say? How do I say it? What do I do with my art? I definitely feel I have talent, but it’s also very disconcerting to look at other artists (my “betters”) and think I can’t beat that, so why try?

    I really identified with the section: “And some people know they have a talent and passion for something but do nothing with it because they are waiting for someone to validate them, or give them a job, or give them some kind of security before they pursue it. So they never do it.”

    I just need a good kick in the ass. David Mack’s story (and your article) sound like just what I need right now. Thanks.

  • I read this back some years ago. If you can pick up the series when it originally was published, there was a lot of neat commentary and conversation going on in the fan letters which were published in the back. Might be worth checking into.