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

Influences - East and West HJ: Kabuki includes several pastiches of children's books, at least one of which has been published independently and can function as a type of children's book. You seem to be suggesting that we are strongly shaped by the books we read as children. Can you share some of your thoughts on the nature of children's literature? What books influenced you as a child?

DM: Our childhood reading does probably have more of an influence certainly than you're conscious of at the time, and I will often look back at things and realize that there's certain things in those formative years that you can't ever escape¬--those first stories you hear about. My introduction to literature was the Bible. My mother would read me Bible stories all the time, and I was very familiar with all the Bible stories. That was a very big part of the way I grew up. There's a certain kind of storytelling structure and a certain kind of hero's journey in Biblical stories that, without even realizing, I probably encrypted into a lot of the stories I'm doing.

Then also, there was Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and Doctor Seuss. I read those books when I was very young, and I like that mythical, haunting, fairy-tale quality. And I did very consciously use those impressions in a lot of the Kabuki tales. Every one of the Kabuki tales-- even the ones that don't have actual children's book stories in them--have quite a bit of children's book literature and fairytale allegory inside them.

When I wrote the first installments of Kabuki, I was taking Western literature, but I was also very influenced by Eastern literature. There's a lot of Japanese children's books that we would probably consider gruesome and really far out that were fascinating to me also. There was this book of hells that children read, and each hell represents a different punishment.

While incorporating some Eastern things in it, such as the structure of the Japanese ghost story, the first volume of Kabuki also in its structure incorporates Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was very much thinking of Alice in Wonderland as this allegory of a story from childhood to adult consciousness: think about the chessboard where Alice starts as a pawn, but, if you make it all the way across the board, then that pawn, the least powerful piece on the board, can then become the most powerful piece, a grownup. You can become Queen, and you can move all the way across the board. That was a visual metaphor I was using in the first Kabuki volume.

Kabuki starts as a pawn, and then, eventually, she's working for the system that she serves in the beginning. She crosses over and comes into direct conflict with the system she serves based on new values that she develops, and she starts using her power to go in the other direction. There's a visual correspondence between each of the characters in the early Kabuki stories and characters from Alice in Wonderland. There's a set of twins called Siamese which are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Scarab, a character in Kabuki, is the beetle in Wonderland. Tiger Lily and Snap Dragon are named after characters in the Garden of Talking Flowers. The General character is the Humpty Dumpty character. These kinds of borrowings from childhood stories hold a lot of feeling and power. They help me to capture the mystery we feel toward the world when we are still children. I want that sense of childhood wonderment to haunt the reader as they read my stories.

HJ: Clearly, Japanese culture has exerted a strong influence on your work - both classical cultural influences such as Noh and Kabuki as well as more contemporary media practices such as the media mix associated with anime and manga. How did you become so invested in Japanese art and culture? How has it influenced both the form and content of your work?

DM: When I was in college, in my painting and drawing class, there was a fellow from Japan that I became friends with. We had to take a foreign language. Since I had taken Spanish in high school, I thought I'd take Japanese because of my friend and his family and the culture of international students that he introduced me to. I had a lot of Japanese friends, and I'd have access to practice it with my friends. And then I became more fascinated with Japan and ended up taking courses in Japanese history and mythology, and my friend was always there to answer my questions firsthand.

I did the first Kabuki volume when I was in college. I wanted to develop a book where I felt like I could tell personal stories about things that I was interested in. I was a big fan of autobiographical comics, but, at the time, I didn't feel un-self-conscious enough to do a fully autobiographical book. I was a big fan of American Splendor, and I liked Joe Matt's Peep Show, and I got Ivan Brunnetti's Schizo. I loved these fantastic autobiographical stories where you take what might seem like the mundane, but you show the fascinating in it. It's more fascinating because it's so from the soul and it's so un-self conscious.

But I was 19, 20 years old and I didn't feel un-self-conscious enough, and I didn't even feel fully enough formed as a human to feel like I had that much of a voice to be able to do it that way. So I felt like that quote from Shakespeare: "Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth." I didn't want to do a fully autobiographical story but rather something that would give me a license to feel comfortable enough to talk about personal things. I didn't want to make the main character an idealized version of myself. That could be a danger if it was a male protagonist. So I made it a female protagonist. I set it in a different part of the world.

I was immersed in learning about Japan, traveling, and learning the language, so I used these metaphors and this mythology from Japan that's so fascinating to me as the structure to tell this story through. Doing this gave me the liberty to be able to do a story that people didn't have to look at and see me in it, but maybe it was universal enough for them to see themselves in it if it was done right.

Alchemy, Improvization, and Process

HJ: The word "alchemy" crops up often, both in your work and in reference to your work. What does this word mean to you, and to what degree do you see your aesthetics as part of an alchemical process?

DM: I like alchemy as a metaphor for making comics. You turn base metals into gold. When you're creating something, you start with a piece of paper or pen or whatever it is that you start with. By the time you're finished, hopefully something of value has been produced from it. But, in terms of content, I like the idea that, even if you're writing about something that's troubling to you or that you're coming to terms with, through the creative process you can often turn that into something that's an asset to you or even helpful to other people or at least entertaining and fun for them. I like that kind of metaphor - transforming pain into something of value through the creative process So Alchemy is a metaphor for that interesting place that you get into when you're making something. You can think about it, and you can plan it as much as you want, but, when you're actually in the act of doing it, new stuff happens that you could not have anticipated. For me, I can have an analytical mind where I can plan as much as I want to. But in actually doing it, the act of creation is also a collaboration with another part of myself that I don't always have constant access to, but it shows up when you're doing it. I like that space.

HJ: You've written that images and incidents often get shuffled as you dig deeper into each new work in the Kabuki series. This is certainly an approach enabled by your more stream-of-consciousness style narratives, but it also suggests to me a kind of improvisational approach to artistic expression. What role does chance and intuition play in your creative process?

DM: That's a good question. Some people often say, "Do you work through a stream-of-consciousness, or were you just making stuff as you go?" At the stage where you're doing notes, that's completely true. Any time an idea occurs to me, I write it down. Even if an idea occurs to me for a story I know I won't even have time to do for a few years from now, I have a filing system. So I just write this idea down, and I put it in the file. In the case of when I was doing Alchemy, for instance, I knew I wanted to do this next story. Every time I had an idea for what this next story was, I wrote it on a napkin or wherever, put it in my file, and said, "This is the next Kabuki story."

Years later, when it comes time to do it, I pull it out, and I have 200 pieces of little papers that have ideas on them--most of which I don't remember writing. Then, it's a great opportunity, because this previous version of myself has really helped out the present version of myself. Now, I have all these pieces of paper and can decide which of these belong in the story and which of these don't belong in here at all. With the ones that are left, what order should they go in? I'm faced with the task of connecting the dots and filling in the spaces in between. That's a really fun stage for me. I really like that conceptual stage.

Once I get that together, I write a pretty detailed script for myself. I do several drafts of it. In fact, in the script, there might be visual solutions that occur to me. I will make notes that might say, "This scene is about this, so use this mobius strip thing," or "This scene is about unfolding into something else, so use these panels that become a two-dimensional cube and three-dimensional panels." So, there's quite a lot of academic and analytical build-up to it. With that said, there's always room for spontaneity. When I actually am doing it, I do think of new ideas, and I do start to move things around.

The first Kabuki book was in black-and-white, but the next volume I did was the first where I was doing all the color. When I did all the layouts, they all made sense in a certain order, but, when I put them together in color, one scene was done with a certain set of colors and the next scene a different way, and I felt like "this page" next to "that page" doesn't look nearly as good as I thought they would just based on the geometric layout that I had thought worked really well. I might not have known why this didn't look quite as good, so I laid out all the pages around my wall or around my desk where I was working, and I'd start taking one page and putting it next to another In the process, I'd go, "Oh, it looks actually better next to this page," and then I'd find another page where I'd go, "Oh, it looks so much better." Then, I started rearranging all the pages and said, "They look twice as good this way as they did that way. I have to do it this way." I would then ask, "Well, can that actually work?"

So I found a way to accommodate the script and the story to fit the change in page order, and I found that it made the script more interesting to me, anyway. I had to do a certain amount of work to finesse it to make it work. Since that time, any time I do a book in color, there are at least one or two pages that I end up changing the order of once the pages are finished. Usually, it adds something to the storytelling. I usually think it's a more interesting way to tell the story when it happens, but I'm probably making it sound easier and simpler than it really is. There's a lot of detail in making it work, too.