Thursday, April 08, 2010

David Mack: Drawing Outside The Lines, Updated

By James Curcio

This interview expands an interview David and I conducted in 2007 for It will be run in the Immanence of Myth anthology along with many other interviews with creators working in the realms of modern myth. (Edit: now available!) 

I still remember the first time I encountered Kabuki. I was just browsing around a Barnes & Noble, buzzing on caffeine, and this beautifully illustrated hardcover book found its way into my hands.
It’s not hard to be taken in by the art, really, it is both graceful and bold- but I actually laughed out loud when I started reading it- there was a section where the characters were talking to one another, and then moving through a building. Now most sequential artists would draw panel after panel of them walking and talking, West Wing style, maybe breaking it up with different angles and whatnot so it’s not just a bunch of talking heads. But you just give us a top down view of the building, and little talk bubbles as they wind their way around the maze. I just thought that was completely brilliant…
I never would have thought of that, but then looking at it, it’s just like “of course!” This is something I’ve seen continuing through these books, that you are really good at finding the straightest line, the best means of telling the story rather than just adhering to whatever storytelling conventions people might be used to.

David Mack: I like how you described that. I think you described it very astutely. That is how I approach the art. As a tool of the writing. I try to consider what pace, or rhythm, or medium or visual personality of style of art will best and most effectively communicate that particular story or scene of the story.

Do you refer back to previous myths and stories when you write? Are there any that you find yourself returning to frequently?

DM: I allude to myth quite a bit in my work.

Certainly, Kabuki often refers to a certain amount of Japanese mythology. The story often incorporates the framework of Japanese myths and the Japanese Ghost Story that was a central theme in the Kabuki plays.

Kabuki also incorporates the traditional “Hero’s Journey”.  The central myth that myths from all cultures and times continue to orbit around.  From Biblical literature (which was probably my introduction to literature & mythology) to Greek Mythology, to folk stories around the globe.  The scholar Joseph Campbell has written some incredible books about this: the journey of the hero, and the use of masks in mythology and storytelling.

But Kabuki also corresponds to a template of children’s literature and the mythology that has grown around that.  Each of the Kabuki volumes alludes to a kind of children’s fairy tail.  Both western and eastern fairy tale mythology & children’s literature is interwoven into the store.  For instance the first volume of Kabuki is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland.  Lewis Carroll told a fantastical story that was essentially the journey of a child into adult consciousness.

Hence the allegory of chess pieces.The story of a pawn into a queen.  If the pawn can make it to the other side of the board they become the most powerful piece on the board.

I used this iconography in Kabuki as well. In KABUKI Vol. 1, each main character pertains to a piece on the chess board.  And each main character correlates to a character from Alice in Wonderland. The Twins, Siamese, are Tweedle Dee & Dum. The General is Humpty Dumpty, Scarab is the Beetle, Tigerlily & Snapdragon are named after the talking flowers in Through the looking glass and so on. When you know this, it is quite easy to correlate the characters.  But when you don’t know it consciously, there is still a mythological iconography that gives weight to the story subconsciously.

This is how I find it best to work as well... you don't depend on your audience to be familiar with a certain myth, but if older myths inform the birth of newer ones, it's almost like people can feel the power of that structure, even if they don't catch the reference...

DM: In the Character of Echo in Daredevil, I told the Vision Quest story using the template of traditional Native American Folk tales & Mythology.  I used the same act structure that the tales use.  The same framing devices. The traditional Vision Quest stories are echoed in this story beat for beat.  The Native American Manitou character is enacted by the Logan or Wolverine character in the story even though we never say his name.  If you know the Marvel universe, you can recognize him as Wolverine.  But if you are reading it as a Native American Vision Quest story, he is the Manitou, one of the animal spirits or nature spirits that appears in the last act of the Vision Quest to deliver helpful information to the questor that will benefit her tribe.

In my childrens book THE SHY CREATURES, mythology is central. All of the characters are mythological or cryptozoological creatures. They are borrowed from Greek myth in the case of the Cyclops, Pegasus, & phoenix, literary mythology in the case of the Push-me-pull-you, and international modern urban mythology in the case of the Latin Chupacabra, the Himalayan Ambominable Snowman, & the Scottish Loch Ness Monster.

Where does the inspiration for you characters come from?

DM: My stories are, in a sense, my playground to make sense of, and give an order to, all the things that I experience and think about.

As such, key inspiration for characters and story comes from my childhood, my family, aspects of myself, people I’ve known, stories I’ve experienced and that have been told to me.
Then the characters take on a life of their own in context of story.

Because the storytelling of comics can oftentimes be so visual- in a way I think even more than film- I often find myself writing for comics in images and then working the writing later. What's your writing process like?

DM:  I always begin with the story.  I write a very full script.  I think of myself as a writer primarily and that gives me the freedom to use the art as another tool of the writing.  As such, I try to think of what visual tone, or media, or art style, colors, or visual rhythm will best communicate each individual story or section of the story.
And then I try to develop a visual look or visual them that will best tell that particular scene or sequence and serve as an overall visual identity to that particular story.

Often, in the scripting stage I may think of several different visual motifs for a particular scene, and I will just write them into the script as notes of possible visual avenues to explore when drawing the scene later.

But on each level there is room for spontaneity and improvement. After I do the art, I will then go back and rewrite and edit the original text to accommodate the new epiphanies that have happened in the visual translation.

Do you start with an image, words, a character, or does it really depend on the circumstance?

DM: It does vary from story to story, but in general, things begin with the character.
Sometimes scenes begin with an idea of a striking visual image. Something that I know begins the scene and an image that may end it.

But character arc is usually where things begin. Where is this character coming from- where do they want to go- what is causing them to behave as they do- if they continue that behavior where does it take them?  Can they change the behavior?  Why would they do that?

External and internal causal incidents. Sometimes this is very conscious in planning and it is also always intertwined to a certain amount of unconscious planning.  The things in your head and soul that are happening and making order of things without you really knowing why at first.

I have come to think the exact same way about writing, no matter the ultimate medium that the story will be told in.
Have you discovered any resistance to these less traditional storytelling devices? I can imagine some people who are really stuck on one method might get frustrated or confused, the same way the linear-obsessed oftentimes go nuts over non-linear narratives…

DM: You mentioned two great points. New forms of storytelling beyond the completely conventional, and non-linear narratives.

I love the traditional and conventional tropes of storytelling and panel design in comics. However, I also feel I would be doing a disservice to the story, if I did not invent new ways of telling the story that are custom designed for the feel of that particular story. It would be ridiculous to tell every story the same way. Not to mention just plain lazy. The conventional and traditional tropes and devices of comics were originally invented for problem solving of specific storytelling situations.

These problem solving techniques contributed and built the early grammar of comics.

I’m actually being traditional in a way by continuing to invent new problem solving for particular stories. And by adding and building to the lexicon of comics, by contributing more options and subtleties to the grammar of comics.

It seems lazy and ignorant to use solutions that were designed for specific storytelling problems, and use those as a rigid template for each and every story. I believe there is actually more clarity to each story, by letting that story solve its own storytelling challenges and have each story and issue that I do add a new dimension to the medium.

I’ve built on so many things that brilliant creators before me have brought to the medium of comics, it is only fair that I give back to the medium with new designs for future stories to build on and revolutionize.
As for linear vs non-linear storytelling: Each are a solution for a particular story that may best be served by it.
I believe what is considered “linear storytelling” is actually the more stylized and fanciful, where “Non-linear storytelling” is closer to how we experience the real world day to day.

I would have to agree.

DM: Non-linear storytelling is the way each of us make our way through the day as we are having a conversation with someone and a physical action, and that conversation or action, triggers a memory of something from the past, and part of us follows the tangent in that direction. Then we think of something we have to do in the future and another part of our consciousness follows that stream of storytelling, and the various streams converge at points back with the physical action or external conversation or interaction we are having. It happens just about every minute of the day. All humans are able to follow that. So I see no reason not to show that in a story if that is the best solution for that particular story. Especially if you are following a story from a specific character’s personal point of view.

I also noticed – at least in Metamorphosis, the Kabuki graphic novel I’ve been reading – that there are multiple overlapping narratives. You can read most of it like a traditional comic, just following the illustrations and the talk bubbles, but worked into the illustrations is a subtext that seems to come from the subconscious of the characters, if you want to call it that. In places it almost seems to come directly from their physical experience, written on their bodies like a tattoo. I’m curious how that storytelling device occurred to you, whether it’s been gestating in your work for a long time or if you just started breaking away like that one day?

DM: A lot of this relates to the so called linear and non-linear storytelling choices. There is a hierarchy of things happening. What is being said, vs what is being done, vs what is being thought. So I figured out ways to show that visually.

Mostly it was problem solving of how to incorporate the lettering with the image. Unlike in film, words in comics take actual physical space. In film a character can talk for paragraphs and none of the words will encroach over the image that you see.
In comics you have to be very mindful of your word to image ratio, and your panel to time, to beat, to word ratio.


DM: When I am lettering a comic book, I find that I have written entirely too many words to fit comfortably with images. So it then forces me to edit very considerately what words must remain for special and pacing reasons.

Tell me about it! I think writing for comics teaches some very important lessons, even for writers who prefer to work primarily within prose.

DM: One of my solutions to this was to put one level of text into the images, so it creates a movement, if the idea it describes is meant to have a movement, and to be a sub-level of wording, if it is a thought or
unconscious, subconscious or private string of words, to contrast the surface wording.
It is a way to establish an order to the wording, and a rhythm to the actions, and an insight of words vs image of the characters.

One of the things that I love about the medium of comics is that if they are done right, you can not distinguish between the art and the story. The art is the story, and words contribute to the design and art. At its most effective, you cannot distinguish where one starts and the other ends.

Can you tell me a bit about your early introduction to visual art and storytelling? How you got interested in it, how you feel you learned your trade?

DM: I’d say my mother has been my biggest artistic influence. She was a first grade teacher, and I was introduced to how she made art as visual learning devices for her students. She also introduced me very early on to visual stories in the form of children’s books. My new children’s book The Shy Creatures is in bookstores this week, as well as It kind of picks up where my memory and experience of children’s books as a kid left off.

With comics, my real introduction of storytelling came when I read a friend’s Daredevil when I was nine years old. It was a Frank Miller issue and it had quite an effect on me. I remember realizing how the writer was using so many visual techniques to set the mood and pacing of the story.

After that, I later searched out more of Frank Miller’s work, and in an interview of Miller and Klaus Jansen, I learned that Miller was inspired by Wil Eisner. So I then sought out Eisner’s work and ordered his book- Comics and Sequential Art and began my study of comic book storytelling.

I should mention that I’m working on a new Daredevil series right now in which I am thrilled to collaborate with some of the creators that inspired me as a kid. It is called Daredevil: End of Days. I’m co-writing it with Brian Michael Bendis, and weare working with Klaus Jansen and Bill Sienkiewicz who are doing the art for it. Alex Maleev is doing the covers, and Brian and I are thrilled to be writing this as our love letter to Daredevil with such incredible artists that have dedicated large chunks of their careers to building the history of this character.

I see you’ve worked with Andy Lee. I had a table at Megacon in 2005 and met him when I was making my rounds, and have been talking off and on since… I’d never seen someone work so fast – a real benefit to him at con’s, I’m sure, when people are paying you $30 an original. He actually struck me with a similar, really open and friendly vibe. You know there’s this conception of comic artists being these kind of socially retarded troglodytes. I keep getting that illusion shattered. What did you collaborate with him on?

DM: I’ve been close friends with Andy Lee for over 15 years. When he was beginning his art career he moved into my house and we shared it as a studio and learned quite a bit from one another. Not unlike the relationship with Kabuki, and Akemi, and M.C. Square working from the House 13 in the current Kabuki – The Alchemy series.

It was kind of like Fight Club. But with art instead of soap.

I learned quite a bit from his Chinese Calligraphy and his quick spontaneous style. And I like to think I contributed some insights to his art approach as well. He was living and working from my house while I created the Kabuki: Metamorphosis volume that you mentioned.

We’ve collaborated a lot on various personal works and paintings as well as some comic book work. For Marvel, we worked on Brian Michael Bendis’ Marvel Team Up story on the Master of Kung Fu issues. Andy Lee contributed some Kabuki gallery work to the Kabuki Images book that included interpretations from some of my favorite artists. Also to Brian Michael Bendis’ Jinx collection and more.

I think you can find more info on this and any of my other work at which is updated with new stuff every day.

David Mack is one of the only creators to be listed in both the Top Ten Writers List, and the Top Ten Artists List in Wizard Magazine. Mack’s writing and art work on KABUKI, have earned him international acclaim for his innovative storytelling, sophisticated content, mixed media painting techniques, and page design. KABUKI is available internationally and has been translated in seven different languages, in addition to nearly two million copies of KABUKI Comics, Paperbacks, and Hard cover graphic novels in print in the U.S. alone. Mack has toured and exhibited his work throughout, Europe, Asia, and America with numerous gallery shows, and book signing tours at premier bookstores in over a dozen countries. He was the first American to be nominated for Germany's most prestigious Max-Und-Moritz award in the category of Best Imported Comic.

Mack has illustrated and designed jazz and rock albums for both American and Japanese Labels (including work for Paul McCartney), painted Tori Amos for her RAINN benefit calendars, designed toys and packaging for companies in Hong Kong, animation art for MTV, ad campaigns for SAKURA art materials, written and designed video games for film director John Woo and Electronic Arts, and contributed the artwork for Dr. Arun Ghandi’s essay on the “Culture of Non-Violence”.

Mack’s KABUKI books have been the subject of under-graduate and graduate university courses in Art and Literature, and listed as required reading. His work has been studied in graduate seminars at USC and hung in the Los Angeles Museum of Art. He’s lectured at universities and taught classes in writing, drawing, and painting all over the world, including a Masterclass at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, for Japan’s School of Communication Arts of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka, and an invitation to speak at Harvard as the Guest of Honor at their annual Science Fiction Writing convention for 2005. Besides working for Twentieth Century Fox as a writer of the treatment to the Kabuki motion picture, Mack’s film credits also include, Visual Designer, Creative Consultant, and Co-Producer.

Currently Mack is working with the Philip K. Dick Estate to adapt the Science Fiction Master's work to graphic novels at Marvel Comics, Co-writing a new Daredevil story with Brian Michael Bendis, and writing his new children's books.

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