Words: Christopher Irving. Pictures: Seth Kushner
“Any time I’m doing any kind of story or book, I’m thinking of myself as a storyteller first,” David Mack says in a Japanese restaurant in the East Village. “Really, when doing a comic book, I think of myself as a writer first, and the art as another arsenal in your toolbox of writing. If you’re not completely identified to a certain style or medium, it gives you that liberty as a writer to ask yourself of each individual project ‘What’s the best way to communicate this particular story?’
“With Kabuki especially, I like that each volume (as well as each chapter within a volume) has a different atmosphere and feel to it. I feel like that gives me extra strength as a writer. If I was working with another artist, I don’t want to insult them by saying ‘You’re known for a certain style, but can you change this, and try this?’
“But I like the idea that it’s not about making a recognizable and constant template of visual work. I like to think I’m fitting it around the story each time, in a ‘form follows function’ idea towards story. That’s what’s very exciting for me about that, and I like the idea that it’s as much the story as well as the storytelling format, the way panels are used, the pace of the storytelling…for each story it’s hopefully personal and individual. Sometimes I might start a story one way, and find that it might help to contrast it, and it’s an opportunity to have it be more poetic, or more dialogue-focused.”
David Mack belies the conventional tenets of cartoonist in more ways than one: brown-haired and fit, he could pass as an actor or model and his work isn’t restricted to any of the usual conventions of the comic book medium. To read his creator-owned series Kabuki, even as a seasoned reader of all things comic book, is to challenge yourself and find new ways to read a story.
“Any time you do something that doesn’t fit into a category that’s already there, it is a challenge,” David admits. “But, it’s worth the experiment.
“A lot of what became my first volume had two stories happening: when you do something that’s kind of science fiction, it gives you permission to turn up the volume on things that are happening currently, to give a picture of what’s happening now. It’s easier for some people to digest if it’s an ambiguous near future so that it doesn’t feel preachy. There’s this social context of things happening, but there’s also a personal story happening, too.”
Mack jokes that he’d consider himself a Renaissance man, but it’s not an unrealistic tag: he’s not only worked in comics as a writer and artist, but has also written and illustrated a children’s book, and established himself as a fine mixed-media artist. He’s created work for no less than Sir Paul McCartney, as well as a future collaboration with musician Tori Amos. Working on so many levels was, apparently, something that only comic books let him pursue:
“For me, high school was the first time I ever did a comic book,” David says. “I’d done all of these other things, but this was the first time I’d found a medium that integrated all of that at once. You know how when you’re in high school, people tell you that you have to choose what direction to take, and what you’ll study in college? It’s not to necessarily put your dreams into a box, but to put things in a category you can make a living from. It wasn’t until I did my first comic book that all of these passions I had, and interests, and disciplines, were able to be integrated together in this medium. I knew comics were the medium for me, and what I wanted to do. In the graphic novel format, you can do anything, and hit it in an incredible way. It’s completely open to your imagination.
“Comics allow that. They’re the rock ‘n’ roll of literature, where they’re not necessarily given a certain amount of respect, but they’re this fascinating and exciting hybrid media. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t exactly one thing. It combined rockabilly and jazz and gospel – all this– and anytime it copies off of itself it becomes boring and stale, but anytime it pulls from outside itself, and absorbs that into what its doing, it’s conceptually vital. You can’t limit it to one thing, because it’s constantly changing. I look at storytelling in comics in the same way. When people are copying off of something already there and trying to make it look like that, it’s not as interesting to me, but when someone is taking that interesting grammar that’s already there and standing on the shoulders of those giants who have taken it there, but adding something new, it’s taking it to the next step and adding a new and interesting vocabulary to the medium. That’s when it’s exciting to me.”
“Sometimes, (regarding different ways of approaching this medium) I’ve heard things from people, where they’ll say ‘If this is the future of comics, I don’t want anything to do with it.’
“I don’t have anything against the way things already are, and I think that the medium is big enough and fertile enough to hold a variety of things in an infinite amount of approaches. I love the six-panel approach, too. It has its merits, but you don’t have to do everything the same way. I like that, And then doing new things, as well. When you contrast them together, that’s when each of them looks better.”
Kabuki started in 1994 as an Orwellian sci-fi comic, about a Japanese woman, Ukiko, who is also a costumed assassin fighting against the criminal syndicate she worked for.
The story takes place amidst a society driven by its popular culture and media influences, and combines Mack’s developing traditional comic art style with tinges of action and social commentary. The first series ends with Kabuki laying, dying, on her mother’s gravestone. Mack, originally, didn’t want to draw Kabuki.
“Brian Michael Bendis and I were at Caliber Comics, the publisher who did The Crow, in the early ‘90s,” David says. “We learned a lot from each other, and they were early and formative years for both of us. At the time, I was already doing a couple of other smaller projects when I met Brian. He was just about to start doing a creator-owned book called Fire, an espionage story. At the time, I had written the Kabuki story, but wasn’t interested in drawing it. I was just going to write it, and was actually looking for an artist to draw it. Brian was doing his creator-owned stuff, but was also trying to get work as a penciler at other places too. I met him in Chicago in ’93 and we hit it off right away. I was looking at his work, and he showed me these early pages of his Fire story, and some of them were inked and others were in pencil.
“He says that I said ‘Hey, this is great storytelling, but some of the inking that you’re using on these panels could be a lot better if you do more solid blacks.’ He says I took my pen or brush while I was saying this, and scribbled on his pencil pages, and he immediately liked that style.
“He said ‘I’m starting to pencil pages somewhere else, and I’d like you to ink them.’ We were a penciling and inking team, and Brian was going to draw Kabuki. There were a couple of other guys before him that I was trying to get together for it, but then I worked with Brian and I was worrying about layout and storytelling for Kabuki. We were constantly talking about this. I went to his place and he showed me some films – there’s a movie called Visions of Shadow and Light, and presents examples of Citizen Kane and other films, and talks about their lighting and cinematography and what they mean for storytelling. He showed me all these things that are his prize films towards how he looked at storytelling, and gave me a crash course education on the theories behind it.
It was still the 1990s, when cell phones were still commodities (and brick-sized), and Internet connections were still on dial-up. Working through fax and FedEx, Bendis and Mack elaborated on the formative stages of Kabuki. Again, David wasn’t planning on drawing the book at first, but he eventually took the plunge:
“I was so focused on the story part of it, and I felt other people could draw it better than me,” David admits, sipping green tea brought out by the waiter, in tiny porcelain cups. “That story in the first volume, that ended up being very black and white, wasn’t the type of work I was doing at the time. I was doing more mixed media and fine art type work, and there was a level of detail in there that I didn’t think I’d be comfortable doing. I thought it’d make more sense if I just ended up writing it and being a part of a team with another person that could do great work. I was even thinking that it could go into more volumes with different artists on each of them. Even though the artists were all really good, it wasn’t fully integrated to me. It felt like there was a difference between the story and art, and maybe it was a failure of mine to communicate it exactly through the script, but I just felt that something was missing. I started doing it myself, chapter by chapter, and it became its own thing, and the words and storytelling became indistinguishable.”
Bendis is one of the writers who turned captions into the new thought balloons, having them reveal characters’ thoughts, almost as a voice-over to the ongoing action. Where David may have started using captions in that vein, he eventually took them down a completely unprecedented road.
“I started with a lot of captions. Most of this came from a conversation with Brian where how, you know when you meet a person for the first time you’re just meeting them externally,” David observes. “You know what’s said about them from other people, how they’re acting, and gradually as you get to know them, you’re getting their point of view and are looking at them differently. Everything they do might even look different. You’ll see some people that look attractive and upon talking to them become less attractive, or they might seem average and then become more attractive. We were trying to do that with our characters, to a certain degree. At the beginning, the environment is very external in Kabuki and the information is very external; there’s a certain amount of captions at the beginning, and gradually you lose those captions and you get to know the person more and more. First it’s from their environment, and the camera then goes closer into them and you go inside of their own minds. I wanted it to feel like you’re meeting somebody slowly.”
In Mack’s Kabuki follow-up, collectively reprinted as Dreams, Ukiko is on death’s door, collapsed and bleeding on her mother’s tombstone. The stories are all Ukiko’s thoughts, as she reflects on life and, especially, her late mother, a Kabuki performer. The story is mostly told in captions, captions that are all written poetry, creating beats and rhythms of Ukiko’s fractured thoughts. The artwork, rather than pen and ink, is mixed media that combines everything from watercolor painting to photography and even more collage.
The third volume has Ukiko revived, and living in a hospital for assassins, by another guild to rename and recruit new agents. Titled Skin Deep with the follow-up Metamorphosis, Kabuki undergoes its own narrative change. Captions aren’t as regularly used, instead swapped out for thoughts written out in spirals and other shapes, behind or around characters. Kabuki was no longer illustrated in a myriad of techniques, it was now designed in a way that blurred the divide between conventional speech and thought devices (word, thought balloons, and captions), and the artwork.
Kabuki, iconic for the character’s Japanese flag-based costume and mask, soon shifted focus to issues of identity, as Ukiko is forced to reevaluate her life, and move forward bravely into a new one.
Kabuki was also optioned at 20th Century Fox to come to life as a feature film. Where Mack’s comic book challenges gravitated towards narrative experimentation, from art approach to the ever-evolving story, the film challenge is less abstract and more straightforward.
“The first thing is that you want to take advantage of what the film medium has to offer, and I would embrace the storytelling changes that are inherent,” David reflects. “A lot of things that people might consider my style in the comic story is just problem solving to communicate ideas and pushing up against the limitations of the medium. Whatever medium you’re in, interesting things happen when you push up against the limitations of what is there on the two-dimensional page. You don’t have actual sounds, and you have to figure out how to show that. Unlike in film, words in comic books take up physical space, so you have to be cognizant of the word to image ratio of the page.
“I write a full script and, without realizing it, I’m fairly wordy. So, after drawing it, and then, in the lettering stage, I cut half the dialogue and words. The subtleties of peoples’ body language or facial expressions can tell you a lot. If you just put all of that extra stuff in there that works on its own at the same time, hits a unique balance on the medium, and you can pare down the written language. With film, you can show as much visual as you’d like, and put as many words as you want. There are differences, further complicated by the fact is that there are a lot of similarities; a lot of people think that if you know one you also know the other, but they’re very different. I really wanted to embrace those differences.”
David was fortunate to get a writer-director dynamo on board, one who was far from a slouch himself:
“Do you know the writer-director John Sayles?” David poses. “He’s really known as an indy guy for most of the stuff he directs, but he’s also a writer and has won the Academy Award, and written for bigger projects like Eight Men Out and Apollo 13. I was doing a lot of writing on the Kabuki film at Fox, and John Sayles wrote several drafts of the screenplay and worked on it a great deal. He is a very smart guy, and understands the language of film and how to marry it with actors. It was a lot of fun working on it with him. A Kabuki film needs the write director with the right vision who understands the subtleties of things and how to finesse them and make them work.
“One of the problems that we ran into was being too ambitious with what we were going to adapt to film. You need to decide what to leave out. After trying so many things, the best thing to do now would be to make the first film based on the first volume. A lot of the executives were in love with some of the later stuff, too, so we were trying to have two timelines moving that eventually converge so the climax to both things can then happen. It’s an interesting idea, and one we tried to work out different times, but we couldn’t get it to fit together in one movie with clarity.”
“If you can master something outside of comics and then bring it into comics in a way that fits accessibly? That [only] adds to this form.”
After a successful run on Kabuki, David received a call from an old friend and colleague, a call that would launch the artist into the comics mainstream.
“I was doing Kabuki, and then got a call out of the blue from Joe Quesada,” David recalls. “He was really supportive of me early on; I met him in ’95, when the first volume came out. He gave me a call and said ‘I like this story, and think you’re a good writer.’ Occasionally he would give me advice on stuff, and I’d call and ask him for advice. He wanted to do a project some time with me writing and him drawing. We thought it would be an Ash series, or something for Event. “Then, cut to I get a call. Kabuki is now at Image Comics in late ’97, early ’98. He calls and says ‘I’m getting my own Marvel imprint of four books called Marvel Knights. Maybe you could write and draw one. What Marvel character would you like? We can start with a four-issue series if you want.’ What an amazing call to get. Marvel Knights hadn’t been announced yet. But I had just started a new Kabuki series at Image Comics that I was writing and drawing. For Kabuki, it takes two months an issue to do it. I was in the middle of that and said ‘First off, it’s a dream to get this kind of call, but there’s no way I could write and draw another story at the same time as drawing this. I have to fulfill this obligation first.’
“He said ‘What about if you just wrote?’
“I said ‘Perfect!’
“He gave me a call later and said Kevin Smith is writing Daredevil and Joe would be drawing it, and I would follow Kevin Smith on Daredevil as the next writer with Joe.
I said ‘Let me digest this. This is amazing.’”
The chance to write Daredevil was both exhilarating for Mack, yet presented it’s fair share of challenges:
“I thought ‘What an amazing collaboration, but so far every character I’ve written is one I’ve created, so I couldn’t really go wrong. I’m writing it as the character’s being created. But Daredevil is a character that’s been around for forty years and has a rich history behind him.’ I really like the two-fold challenge of being respectful to the continuity of the character and what the other creators had brought to the character. Basically, you’re collaborating with the character, and with the continuity of the character. Also, on top of that, the challenge would be to bring something brand new to the approach, which would be something only you could do. Otherwise, there was no reason to ask me to do it.”
The story, “Parts of a Hole”, was the follow-up to filmmaker Kevin Smith’s relaunching “Guardian Devil” story. Rather than use an established antagonist, Mack created his own in Maya Lopez, the Native American woman known as Echo. A deaf protégé whose father was murdered when she was young, Echo emerged as one of Daredevil’s more memorable female counterparts. The story featured Mack’s knack for descriptive first-person captions, something that fit with a character with heightened senses; the art by Quesada has an approach reminiscent of Mack’s own.
“I wrote that story and sometimes the script would be a little unconventional,” David admits. “I would give layouts to Quesada, and he would take what was in the layouts and marry it to his own graphic sensibilities. It was really cool, because you could see bits of my storytelling idea in it, but with his jumping off point. I’m sure I’m biased, but it’s my favorite Quesada work ever, because that story showed an incredible range that he didn’t normally show in a lot of his other projects. I just loved it.”
Mack and Quesada also collaborated on the painted covers, the fruits of which would be Marvel’s gaining a new star writer.
“I would send a layout and Joe would pencil it, Palmiotti would ink it, and then I’d paint on top of it. I would send them Fed Ex packages of painted covers back and forth. In one of those packages, I included a couple of Brian’s Torso comics. Joe called me and said ‘Hey, Dave, what’s this?’
“‘It’s my friend Brian’s, and I wanted you to see some of his crime comics.’
“At the time, my way of saying it is that he didn’t think Brian’s art was right for Marvel, but he could write his ass off. ‘Let’s get this guy writing something immediately.’ That’s how that Daredevil started. It was Bendis’ first script. He did that script, and it got him the offer for Ultimate Spider-Man, which was published first, because Daredevil was a little bit late when that project came out.
“It was amazing to be able to work with Brian, because this was ’99 or 2000; we’d worked on a whole bunch of stuff together in ’93 and ’94, but it wasn’t stuff we would tell you to go get,” David laughs.
“We were finally doing a project that we felt was worthy of our friendship, and it was really fun working with him on that story.”
“Wake Up” details the tribulations of Daredevil’s friend reporter Ben Urich, as he is drawn into the curious case of a catatonic son of a second-rate super-villain. The book starts with Daredevil fighting a costumed archenemy amidst the skyscrapers of New York, as drawn by Joe Quesada. By the third page, when the characters start to fall apart into different styles, we learn we’ve been tricked: It’s been Mack ghosting Quesada the whole time.
“In the script, Joe was going to draw the first three pages,” David reveals. “In coming in as a writer on Daredevil, following Kevin Smith, I wanted to acknowledge the story before me, so I’d have certain references to the Smith story (and even his characters and movies). We wanted to do that, too, because it was going to be a strikingly different art style and wanted to segue way into it. The kid was imagining a Daredevil comic story, and we thought this Quesada artwork would give us this contrast and establish it as different. He was slated to do it, but had just become Editor-in-Chief and realized he couldn’t do it. Brian called and said ‘Just draw like Joe Quesada, but like a distorted version because it was in the kid’s mind.’”
David returned to Daredevil in 2004 to revisit his creation Echo in the “Vision Quest” story, where Echo goes on a journey to answer burning inner questions, encountering Daredevil and Wolverine on the way. Where the last two story arcs were collaborations, “Vision Quest” was full-on David Mack, more reminiscent of his Kabuki work. By the end, he was introduced to a new audience through Marvel, and was gearing up to continue taking Kabuki in an unusual direction.
In the latest Kabuki story, The Alchemy, Ukiko has officially gone from being a destroyer, to becoming a creator.
Kabuki had already become an introspective book, with Ukiko questioning her own identity and purpose, all while reliving the pain of her past life. On the run from the Noh agency, Ukiko is led by her friend Akemi, through notes, towards her new life. Along the way, she encounters a veterinarian who builds prosthetic limbs, and conceals Ukiko’s distinctive facial scars. With a new face, Ukiko meets a man on her airplane flight: David Mack himself, and the pair get to talking.
“Comics are a fascinating art form,” comic book David says. “In this age of media propaganda and corporate information control, like the 24 hour news and so-called reality shows…they are essentially one of the last pirate mediums…
“The format affords and individual to voice a singular vision on an international scale under the radar of big business interest and federal regulation.”
And Kabuki becomes a more autobiographical comic book than David had ever let it openly be. Theories towards creation abound, as do further narrative experimentation: Akiko has a dream that takes her through the fourth wall, off the artboard, and into David’s house; David authors a Seuss-ian children’s book displayed within the pages of Alchemy; realistically-rendered figures sometimes give way to simple iconography, and pages are turned on their ear to follow winding text.
According to Chuck Palahniuk in the introduction to The Alchemy, “David Mack tells you more about his life than he could ever tell you in person”.
The David Mack in Kabuki doesn’t even directly tell his story: it isn’t until he lets Akiko read his autobiography art project that we find out more about him.
“It all began with my mother,” he says in hand-scrawled thoughts. “The art stuff I mean. Just making stuff.”
“Since I was little, I would make all kinds of stuff, like acting things out, or even writing things,” David mentions back in the Japanese restaurant.
In The Alchemy, we get a version of Mack’s childhood, possibly filtered, about his quest for creativity as a child and an adult. The parallels between himself and Ukiko, inheriting their respective sense of art from their mothers, their ongoing motivation to live up to their mother’s memory…
David dedicates every Kabuki to his mother, Ida Mack, who passed away in 1995.
One could conjecture that David Mack’s comics aren’t just his need to create, to blend and mash styles and genres together into a distinctive narrative unlike any other – it’s almost as if, through his comic book work, it gives him a connection to the love of a mother he misses very much.
Not unlike Ukiko herself.
David Mack has managed to transcend just being a cartoonist, and has successfully launched a fine art career. He has recently exhibited alongside celebrated artist Barron Storey in Belgium. Next up for the pair are a Tarot card set for 2010.
“He has a graphic novel called The Marate/Sade Journals that had been out of print for a long time, and they just came back into print this weekend,” David says of his friend and mentor. “They’d asked me to write the introduction for that, and he’s been really kind to me. Whenever I’m in San Francisco, I’ll speak in his class at the California College of Arts. He’s been a very kind and informative person to me. We have the same agent, who is Allen Spiegel, he also represents Dave McKean, Kent Williams, Jon J, Muth.
“I also meet up with them at the Mocca and in San Diego where I had a couple nights of hanging out with them, and shared some late night discussions with Kent Williams and Dave McKean. I love Kent Williams’ stuff, too. He’s been very kind and educational to me.”
On the comic book front, David is bringing on of his favorite authors to sequential life, with help from some of his friends in 2010.
“It’s called Electric Ant, and it’s a Phillip K. Dick short story,” David reveals. “The idea was that we wanted to do his short stories because, if you adapt a novel it’s a reductive process, because you keep cutting things out. But with a short story, you can include everything in the short story, and we have a lot of room visually to let it breathe and let more things happen that might be suggested in the short story, but not explained so much. We have this story Electric Ant, which is the quintessential story as far as Dick-ian themes go, in terms of ‘What is real? Do I have free will? What’s the nature of reality, and can I create my own? Who made me?’ They’re human questions, but best presented by making the character a synthetic human. Electric Ant was the story that the idea for Electric Sheep was based on, which became Bladerunner. Philip K. Dick would sometimes base novels on ideas that he had began in short stories. Electric Ant was the germ of ideas that would later be explored in Bladerunner.
“It’s a great premise: a guy has a traffic accident and wakes up in the hospital. The doctors can’t treat him because he’s not human, he’s actually a robot, but he had no idea before then. It’s then a mystery story, because you say ‘Who built me? Who do I belong to? Is everything I’m doing of my own free choice or is it a program?’ He has a lot of questions he wants answered and, in the process, finds that there’s this reality mechanism in him that generates everything he’s perceiving. Then he finds a way to tinker with the mechanism to create the things that he wants in his life. There’s a question about how real is it?”
With covers by David and then Paul Pope, Electric Ant features art by French artist Pascal Alixe, giving it (according to David) “a really interesting European vibe”.
Mack’s revisiting Daredevil in the upcoming End of Days mini-series, cowritten with Brian Michael Bendis, with art by himself, Alex Maleev, Klaus Janson, and Bill Seinkiewicz – a veritable who’s who of Daredevil artists.
And, on top of all of that, a new children’s book to follow The Shy Creatures, further cementing David Mack’s need to go beyond the panel border, and venture into new venues of storytelling.
See more of David Mack's work please visit davidmackguide.com