Comics as Poetry: An Interview with David Mack (Part One)

The following interview with the comic book artist David Mack appeared in a special issue of the journal, Amerikastudien American Studies, focused on “American Comic Books and Graphic Novels.” This special issue was edited by Daniel Stein, Christina Meyer, and Micha Edlich. Other contributions to the issue include discussions of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum (James F. Wurtz), Arab and Muslim Superheroes in American Comics after 9/11 (Fredrik Stromberg), David Small’s Stitches (Astrid Boger), Howard Cruise’s Stuck Rubber Baby (Simon Dickel), focalization in comics narrative (Kai Mikkonen), and teaching graphic novels in the ESL classroom (Carola Hecke). This interview is being reprinted here with the special permission of the editors.

Most comics are written in prose – more often than not purple prose. They are telling us larger-than-life stories that draw us into close identifications with their characters and immerse us in their world. David Mack (best known for his creator-owned comic series, Kabuki) creates comics that are much closer to poetry. As he suggests later in this interview, the difference has to do with the process of compression on the production side, trying to pack as much meaning into his images as possible, and decryption on the reception side, inviting us to scrutinize the complexly layered images in search of hidden meanings which may emerge only upon the second or third readings.
As an artist, Mack is surprisingly self-conscious about the reading process and about what his fans bring to their experience of his work. In some cases, he draws materials directly from his fans, which he integrated into his collage-like designs. In every case, he argues that the alchemical process of creating meaning through the juxtaposition of words and images is not complete until the page has been processed through the eye and mind of the beholder. For him, the comics page is both raw material out of which the reader produces meaning and a byproduct which can be appreciated on its own terms only after the story has been consumed.

Mack began publishing Kabuki in 1994 while he was still completing a BFA in Graphic Arts at Northern Kentucky University. His close association with Brian Michael Bendis, the award-winning author famous for his work on the Ultimate Spider-Man series, opened up opportunities for Mack at the industry heavyweight Marvel Comics, where he drew covers for Bendis’s Alias and contributed as both a writer and artist to the popular Daredevil series.

What strikes one about David Mack’s career is his ability to move between mainstream and independent comics, often creating surprising hybrid forms where avant-garde practices are applied to the superhero characters who are Marvel’s cash cow. His own Kabuki comics are dazzling in their innovative use of techniques , including the incorporation of everything from tea stains to toy train tracks, into his visual collages, and in his exploration of complex ideas, including those about subjectivity and the experience of mediation. Over the course of the story, his protagonist, a Japanese woman, is a paid assassin in a criminal network, the fictionalized character in a mass media franchise, a prisoner trying to survive, a children’s book author, and a leader in a resistance movement. Each volume introduced new genre and narrative elements, while encouraging us to reread what came before through new conceptual lens.

However, Mack seems equally at home working for Marvel, collaborating as consummate a mainstream craftsman as Joe Quesada (who is now Editor-in-Chief at Marvel) or as commercial a comics author as Bendis. Sometimes, Mack’s interventions into the comics mainstream strike controversy because he is asking readers to embrace a style that takes them out of their comfort zone. Behind these interventions, however, there is a deep respect for the pulp traditions out of which these characters and stories have emerged. Many experimental comics creators seek to escape from the superhero tradition, while Mack hopes to bring something back to it from his own independent practices, adding new layers to our understanding of its iconic characters and expanding its visual vocabulary to create new kinds of emotional experiences for the reader.

I was lucky enough to snag some time with Mack in the aftermath of 2010 San Diego Comic-Con. Sitting in my hotel room in San Diego, Mack shared with me his reflections on everything from his first experiences with comics (and the childhood stories which have shaped his imagination) to his creative process and aesthetic practices. What emerges is a complex picture of a comics artist and storyteller of the highest caliber, someone who is constantly pushing beyond the conventions and limitations of American comic’s dominant genres, experimenting and innovating inside the commercial mainstream and on the fringe, trying to expand the expressive vocabulary of his medium and, in the process, to use the corporate machine to deliver his own distinctive perspective on American culture.

Comics, the Subversive Art

HJ: In Kabuki: The Alchemy, the writer Kabuki meets on the airplane notes that “most widely distributed media tend to be decision by committee. They are beholden to the various interests of a conglomerate umbrella company…Comics are a subversive medium capable of great communication and cultural influence. The format affords an individual to voice a singular vision on an international scale under the radar of big business interests and federal regulation.” Does this reflect your own thoughts about how comics function as a medium?

DM: I’m able to put into the book characters that have strong points of view. You can put one character with a strong view next to another, and you get to have them brush up against each other. Some people think this character is my definite point of view, but it allows me a playground to let these points of view go against each other. When I say it’s a subversive medium, I mean it in two different ways. One has to do with the comics industry as a distribution system, and the other has to do with the way comics work as a medium and how people read them.

As a distribution system, comics are unlike radio or TV where you have a license and regulations and people overseeing you or film distribution where there is a certain amount of money and system involved before you can do anything. One person in their basement can have an idea and immediately make a complete story and reach a pretty fair amount of people through comics – whether the kind you print off and staple together at Kinko’s or the kind you make and distribute through the web. Comics are one of the last pirate media. One person can go and immediately just have an idea in his attic and make a book, and it can be out there. This is why some of the other media, like film and television, use comics as a research and development platform to a degree. I just started making mini-comics and showing that to publishers. I don’t even know if a lot of times what I’m doing can even be classified as comics. I let other people decide what the category is, but I have been able to infiltrate the delivery system that’s there.

And the other way I think comics are subversive has to do with the nature of the medium of comics. Comics start with two images, each slightly different from what came before, but, when you put these two images together, it’s just human nature to construct a dialogue between them. We construct a continuity: whatever happens in this image was before in time, and this happens after it. Nothing’s moving at all; nothing’s said in between. Even if things are completely different from this panel to that panel, our natural instinct is to construct order out of that juxtaposition and to create a narrative in between those images. So what I love about comics is that the readers themselves are really making what’s happening in comics in their own mind. When comics are done right, when they meet the reader halfway, when they don’t give too much… I think if they give the reader too much information, the readers don’t have to use their minds as much. But, if you finesse it and give them just the right amount, the readers then really start actively completing everything inside their minds. This makes the reader an active participant in what’s happening.

HJ: There is an ongoing concern in Kabuki about corporate-controlled media, with entertainment as a form of propaganda, yet you have also chosen to work often for Marvel – one of the two biggest publishers in comics, a company now owned by the Disney corporation. How do you reconcile these two positions?

DM: Kabuki itself is published through Marvel. I started Kabuki as a series of mini-comics, and then I started doing it at a small publisher called Caliber Comics in the early 90s that had published The Crow, and I moved to a larger company (Image) in 1997. And then Brian Bendis, Mike Oeming, and I formed an imprint at Marvel Comics called Icon in 2004 to bring our creator-owned comics to Marvel. Marvel Comics has now been bought by Disney. We were able to carve out a niche at Marvel–a little compartment for creator-owned comic books. We’re given complete autonomy in terms of what we do.

People ask me, “Are you concerned with giving up your rights?” You don’t have to give up any rights–you only give up rights that you agree to give up. And, so we made a contract where we weren’t giving up any rights, and Marvel worked with that. Marvel provides us with distribution and access to their readership and their delivery system, and I guess Marvel felt like us being there was some advantage to them as well. But people ask me that a lot: “Is there some editorial control because it’s a bigger company?” In fact, I don’t think they care. I do a complete Kabuki story. I turn in a finished book. They don’t look at it ahead of time, and they don’t look at it afterwards. Some editors look at the finished story itself, but they don’t give any suggestions at all for creator-owned comics.

I like the idea that you’re living inside a system whether you like it or not. So you have to cohabitate with that system, and hopefully you can meet halfway at certain times, and, hopefully…maybe…you can even influence it to a degree or at least influence the people that are part of its delivery system.

HJ: As The Alchemy continues, it is clear that you also see popular culture as a site of potential resistance to corporate and governmental control. Can you speak to the ways you see popular culture as a potential resource for the people who consume it? Where do your theories of media and cultural change come from?

DM: One of the major themes of the story is that we don’t just have to consume the culture that we are offered, we can create our own culture.
I’m not as interested in consuming a culture that is offered to me and made by someone else for me to buy. I’m much more interested in works and literature, and culture that inspires me to create my own offerings that will be useful to others, and to be an active and meaningful participant in cultural creation.

The Alchemy story deals with two issues of resistance. The external resistance
from an outside power as you mentioned, but also an internal resistance that we face whenever we try to create something. There is a kind of self-censorship people sometimes have built into them. And an “object at rest, tends to remain at rest” force that offers a lot of rational reasons of why not to create what you think of creating, why not to fulfill all of your best and wildest dreams.

Before you ever get the external part, you need to overcome all of these internal walls to actually begin, complete, make real, or share all of your best ideas.
The Alchemy chronicles characters dealing with both of these internal and external battles of control and influence.

As for your question about external media influence… I don’t self-analyze that a lot, but, if I were to…I should say, first of all, I grew up without any television. When I grew up, there was no television in my home. I didn’t get my first television until I got my first comic book paycheck. I was in college the first time I started seeing television a lot. Even when I was in first grade, I felt like I was missing out on some culture that all the other children were talking about. “Oh, did you see that show last night? This happened.” I never knew what they were talking about all the time. So, I did feel a certain distance from other people when they were constantly referencing things and I had no idea what they were talking about. On the other hand, I didn’t have that built-in acceptance of what television and TV commercials are when I started seeing more of television when I was in college.

When I was in college, the first Gulf War was starting, and it was on CNN all the time. There was a TV in the lounge in my building in college, and I would see all these television shows I was fascinated with. I remember I was fascinated with this TV show called Cops that was big at the time. Here’s a television show that we considered entertainment, but we’re also seeing first-person points-of-view of the legal system in action. I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with the legal system being a form of entertainment and being strictly from one point of view. It made me feel very strange. Then, it cuts to a commercial and sells you something. Other people seemed to be a little more used to the commercials, but the commercials were really strange. Watching this many commercials on TV was a little weirder to me than other people seemed to think.
As the Gulf War was launching, there was this big build-up through CNN. The next thing you would see was a very similar show to Cops, but now it was first-person point-of-view of the world police. You see all these first-person point-of-view bombings and, at times, the war even felt like a video games. I was fascinated, but I was also outside my comfort zone.

I don’t know if I was conscious at the time of the connection, but certainly a degree of that experience went into the early books of Kabuki. Where the Kabuki books began, there’s an inter-dependence between a criminal element and a government element, and there’s an agency that polices that independence, but they are also part of the television and media conglomerate which shares a first-person point-of-view television show on their criminal activities. Kabuki was very consciously inspired by George Orwell and 1984, but I probably could not escape the effect that CNN and the Cops TV show and my introduction to more television and commercials were having on the way I saw the world. Comics were my playground to sort through all of that stuff.

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