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

The Reader and the Character

HJ: In general, superhero art works to draw us into the action – and to thus intensify our sense of identification with the protagonist. Your work is far more focused on the emotional reactions of characters and, as such, pulls us deeper into their mental and emotional space. Yet, it is also challenging to read, deploying devices that are often described in art theory as producing some kind of distanciation. What kind of relationship do you want the reader to have to your images and the depicted actions?

DM: That’s a really great point. I had this conversation with Brian Bendis. We’ve been best friends since 1993. We were getting into comics at the same time. We were both doing our early books, and we started to break into bigger books and get our own published around the same time. And we would often have good conversations about this kind of thing. When I was beginning Kabuki, Brian was working on Goldfish or Fire, around the time he was working at JINX. We talked about this idea, that when you’re getting to know somebody, you’re completely experiencing the external first. You’re making judgments on how they look, how they move, their body language, what their reputation is, a lot of external stuff. The more you get to know somebody, the more internal that relationship is and the more you see somebody for who they really are past that veneer.

We were both discussing that that’s what we want to make it like for our characters when you’re reading our books. At the beginning, it would be very focused on external. If you look at the first volume of Kabuki, there’s lots of cityscapes; you’re in an external world. You get a sense of what the world is. You see the Kabuki character on TV screens before you ever meet her on in person, so you have all of this reputation and external cityscape. And, then, one of the next Kabuki volumes is inside a bare room. The setting of the story is completely different. Really, the setting is a character in the story. It gives you a clue of how to read the other characters. If you’re seeing big cityscapes and everything’s about what this world is, you’re seeing the characters in an external way – through how they react in that city. But, when you’re inside of the bare room, it’s about bearing that person’s soul and being inside their head, that kind of thing. Little by little, issue by issue, you get to know the character more. At first, it’s in third-person narrative. Then, as you go forward, it becomes first person.

I would do that with logos and typefaces as well. Without mentioning it, I’ll change the typeface. If the character undergoes changes to such a degree, now they use a different typeface. And I even changed the Kabuki logo without saying anything: this is an issue where I’ll give you a stronger sense of connection with the character, hopefully, and hopefully you will be seeing things the way the character is seeing things.

I tried to do that with the Echo character to a degree also. There’s a certain period at the beginning where we are seeing her in the context of Daredevil in the cityscape and then, eventually, you’re inside her mind. I wanted you to be able to see things the way she is seeing things. A big consideration for me when I was writing Daredevil for the first time was, “Here’s a character who’s been around for many, many years, and people have done a lot of techniques to give you a sense of how to portray a blind man’s world, his senses and how things felt. So I try to do that also in terms of the panel layouts and the way the words line up. I used graphic inventions to portray his unique point of view. I felt like Joe Quesada communicated that very well.

Because the Echo character is deaf, most of her understanding of the world is through sight. Her focus on visuals really translated very well to comics for me, and she gave me something to push against how Daredevil sees the world. They’re both detectives in a way, deciphering–like we all are–all of their input, but in very different ways than most people are. I don’t want Daredevil to be just like Spider-Man. He’s blind, and you have to get the radar. I really wanted his other senses to be working in tandem with how you experience the comic. It was a great opportunity to have that contrasted by how Echo experienced things. So, when I was doing research for the story where she was growing up deaf. I read a lot of autobiographies of people who grew up deaf, and I was fascinated with this idea. I remember this story where a boy saw someone making a reference to the noise that the rain makes and the noise that goes along with lightning. And he thought, “I had no idea that the weather makes noise.” He asks, “What noise does the sunshine make? What noise do the clouds make?’ And you’re like, “Wow.” You really have to think.

So, Echo learns that her parents are moving their mouths, and that means something, and they’re talking to her. When the dog’s moving its mouth, is the dog talking, too? Are the birds talking? Do birds make noises? What are they saying? So there’s this world that many readers don’t have any access to. What sound does the rainbow make? What extra information am I missing from rainbows, and what information am I missing from lightning? What comes with the snow? I wanted you to be able to feel that from her growing up. Her skill-set comes from this kind of pattern recognition in terms of her growing up, trying to pay so much attention to every nuance of visual stimuli from body language to facial expressions to lip reading to the point where she’s able to absorb this pattern recognition. If she sees someone play the piano, she can see the pattern recognition in the same way she can see that someone is saying a paragraph to her. If someone was dancing in a certain way, she has pattern recognition of that. She would be an incredible archeologist. She’s like a Rosetta stone of just about anything, as long as it’s visual. That’s how I look at her skill-set.

HJ: In your writings, there is often a recurring set of references to issues of encryption and decipherment which seems closely connected to the complex visual language you deploy throughout your work. To what degree are such references intended to teach your readers how to process your images and stories?

DM: I love that about the nature of the comics. If you know what medium you’re using to tell the story, really try to take advantage of what that medium is. I’m sure that, if I were doing Kabuki as a film, I would probably think of things in completely different ways. I’m not doing things on a page because I really like them in themselves, I’m really doing them as problem-solving as some kind of solution to communicate in the best way I can in that form. What’s happening with this character in a way that correlates to how that medium communicates to you?

Parts of the Whole

HJ: Am I correct in thinking that many of the techniques you deploy come out of the Art Book movement? If so, can you talk a little about the relationship between the Art Book and the Comic?

DM: I made a lot of handmade books like that when I was in college. I love the idea of handmade books. I love books on their own. I love them as artifacts. I like that aspect of comics, too. I like that it’s a physical piece that you can hold in your hand and turn. I do love artist books in that they have that texture page-for-page. My originals probably do resemble that to a certain degree, so it’s a big change from the printed version. I’m able to have exhibits. I’ve been doing a traveling art exhibit of The Alchemy. I’ve resisted selling any of it, so I have the entire Alchemy story so that it can all be exhibited as one big story. There are larger pages, and you can see each page on its own as a piece of art but, also, if you want to read it, it has all the lettering. It’s a completely different experience, reading it as a book itself.

HJ: There, the focus is on producing books as individual art objects, where-as you are producing comics which will be mass-produced and distributed. What do you see as the status of one of your pages? Is each page an art object on its own? What is the byproduct here – the page or the printed book?

DM: I like how you said that: the product and the by-product: the hierarchy. To be honest with you, neither of those is at the top of the hierarchy to me. I think they’re both by-products. I don’t think the original is the real art. I think that the real art of what happens isn’t in the page; it is what happens in the reader’s mind when they’re connecting it. The actual art page and the printed version of it are really my best way of making a navigational instrument for the reader to complete that piece in their head.

The art of the page is as different from the real art as a map or an atlas is to the real geography. It’s meant to guide you through, so I’m very focused on how someone looks at this page and use it as a jumping-off point. I want their mind, not the panels but their mind, to be moving–connecting things and adding to it, bringing their life experience to it, and completing it all in the mysteries of their head and connecting to it inside them. That’s where the real art of comics are for me. When they’re done right, when they’re done at their best, the real story happens completely in the reader’s head, and the comic itself is just a really fun artifact and by-product to get them there.

HJ: Your pages are published twice, first as part of the story and then in the Kabuki art books. Someone looks at the page very differently if they’re following the story versus looking at it as a straight piece of artwork. I know it changes the way I look at the pages, Does knowing that you’re going to do lead you to do the pages differently?

DM: It doesn’t ahead of time, but it does after. In the process of making the page, I’m having a totally different experience probably than any reader is going to have. I probably can’t have the same experience that the reader has, except occasionally when you come back to something years later and you’ve sort of forgotten about the process of making it, when you can be charmed by it to a degree. Other times, you can feel like you were a little heavy-handed or something, and you think, “Oh, this should’ve been finessed a certain way.” It’s like looking at somebody else’s work. I can look at the first Kabuki volume I did. I was 20 years old, and I can be charmed by the rawness of it and the crudeness of it. It seems like a different person did it. And I feel like this isn’t how I would write or do it at all. I would redo it.
I can be charmed by that in retrospect, but I don’t think that when I’m making it. When I’m including it in later, it’s an opportunity to give people extra input into the stuff that I was thinking about in the process of making it. But it doesn’t alter the way that I make the page knowing that I may also want to use it as a piece of art later or talk about it later. It is interesting to see a page or panel on its own in a book later. Sometimes, that’s the influence of putting it in the book, I’ve come across it and may be struck by it on its own.

At first, you’re in a mad rush to get everything on the deadline and everything synchronized and working together. Years later, you come across the page and you go, “Oh, this is really interesting! What was I even thinking?” Sometimes, you don’t even remember how this happened. And, sometimes, it feels like you are a different person when you’re seeing it. A different version of you did it.

Layers and Folds

HJ: One of the things that make it look like an artist’s book is a collage-like aesthetic: the layering of physical things on top of the page, and so forth. Can you describe a little of your thinking of that technique and how it contributes to your work?

DM: Usually, it’s problem solving. Sometimes, I’m not even planning that to begin with, and I’m trying to just make a hierarchy on the page, as you said. I’m trying to make something work. At a certain point, I’m going to step back from the way I was doing it and start placing things on top of it and moving around. I may not be sure if they work and then come back and look again, thinking it looks like it’s too much and taking something away. But I like that contrast, the tension between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. If you have a two-dimensional image and add something three-dimensional to it, especially if it’s not so much that you start thinking of it as completely separate, it really adds something that I wouldn’t get from simply drawing. Sometimes, it almost validates in reality some of the stuff that’s in there.

For instance, there was a scene in Chapter Two of The Alchemy story where somebody is making Kabuki a fake passport. I used an actual Japanese passport in there. She’s getting these new artifacts, so I like having the real passport. Sometimes, I’ll use photographs themselves. When you have a photograph versus something that’s painted or drawn next to it, it creates extra tension. A photograph on a drawing is one stage up of reality. Then, you can add a three-dimensional object on top of that. So, if you’re completely 3D and then add a photo and then a drawing, they all work together better than they would if it was just two of them .A lot of its just trial and error and problem-solving.

HJ: Part of the mix of 2D and 3D is the metaphor of origami which runs through Kabuki. That sort of reminds us that we’re reading a page. We could, if we chose to, rip it out and fold it into origami, but it’s a really expensive book, so we have to mentally fold it and try to imagine what shape it would produce.

DM: The nature of the story is talking about taking two-dimensional ideas and making a three-dimensional reality. It’s this idea of art in action, synchronized. Ideas in books are not just ideas in books; that’s not where they stay. Through some kind of imagination mitosis, ideas become something real that we live with. So I thought that was an interesting way to use panels in the story. I can take six panels and put them in the shape of a two-dimensional cube with dotted lines. You cut it out, and it gives you a sense that it’s meant to be folded into something real. But it still acts as six individual squares–that sequential story–at the same time. That’s my ode to the six-panel grid. It’s like a very curvy, stylized, six-panel grid. On the very last panel of it, I give it sides so that it looks like a cube all of a sudden. It gives this idea of three-dimensionalizing the six-panel grid. Then, you have this drawn cube. It starts to unfold, and there’s something inside it, and there’s things coming out of it, and it folds back on itself.

Just with the nature of the six-panel grid in comics, there’re boundless opportunities to how you can tell a story. Even starting with a conventional six-panel curvy S grid, you can have things fold inside and moving around. It’s about the nature of how you read it. It’s not really about what’s on the paper itself. It’s about this idea you don’t have to cut out the cube and fold it into 3D. You’ve done it in your mind already. I think that’s similar to the act of reading comics, and I think, story-wise, it’s similar to the act of following an idea out into reality.

People often think ideas aren’t real, but maybe they’re some of “the most realest” things we have. If you just write an idea down on a piece of paper, suddenly it exists in the three-dimensional material world, and its sitting next to you. You can take that thing you wrote and type it up. You can send it to somebody, You can write a paper about it. All of a sudden, you’ve reached all these other people. It can influence their lives, and it becomes your life. The things that you’re writing down and you’re teaching, these ideas become your passport into a variety of different worlds. It can become your career. So, the origami was a metaphor for all of that. Beyond that, if you don’t like the current ideas, you’re obligated to offer your own idea, your own alternative. Each person has a responsibility of finding their culture instead of just buying their culture.