Together with several other journalists, I got to speak to comic book artist/writer David Mack, best known for his creator-owned original title Kabuki and for his run on Daredevil. He is famous for his unique collage-style painted artwork and has worked with names synonymous with modern-day Marvel comics, such as Brian Michael Bendis and Joe Quesada.
You're pretty well known as both a writer and an artist, so how did you start in comics?
And there were a couple other artists that I met that I felt were more talented than I was, as an artist who wanted to do Kabuki and had little Kabuki art from them. But eventually, for some reason, I felt there was somewhat of a disconnect between the way I wanted to tell the story visually with the writing and all the art that was coming together. So then one night, it was just late at night, and I thought "why don't I just do like a small...I still plan on having artists draw it, but why not just a small 8-page Kabuki story that I draw myself to see what it's like?" And in doing it, I ended up really liking it, really liked telling the story visually. So I kept making these little chapters and eventually just made a book of it, and did it that way.
And then I did Kabuki all through college, it was being published through college, and while I was in college, and then I met Joe Quesada in 1995 at a convention and I gave him my first Kabuki volume. And he called me like the next week and said he really liked my writing, and that he wanted to work with me as a writer someday. He mentioned a few things that never worked out, when he was at his own publishing company Event comics, he was doing Ash at the time. And then one day, he eventually took Kabuki from Caliber to Image Comics, and did a new series at Image where I was writing and drawing Kabuki, and when that started I got a call out of the blue from Joe Quesada and he said "nobody knows about this yet, but I'm gonna be taking over some books from Marvel Comics and we're gonna call it 'Marvel Knights' and we're gonna...Kevin Smith is going to be writing Daredevil..." and then he asked me if I would write Daredevil with him as an artist, after Kevin Smith. So really Kabuki got me the invite to be a writer at Daredevil for Marvel, so my first work for Marvel was as a writer, but it was based on the Kabuki work. And so eventually I was able to do some art on it too.
The funny story is that while I was then working, writing Daredevil, Joe would ask...we did all the covers together, me, Joe and Jimmy Palmiotti, and he had this idea that...he was so busy, he was becoming editor in chief while we were on the project, so he was getting increasingly busy. He would ask me to do layouts sometimes, and I would send him layouts for all the covers and he would do a drawing based on my layout, and then Jimmy Palmiotti would ink it, and he would FedEx-it to me and I would paint directly on it, try not to mess it up because it was the original art they wanted me to paint on. So it was fun to have like the first design of the cover, like the layout, and then the final word on it with the painting.
And I was sending them back in FedEx boxes so my friend Brian Bendis had these crime comics called Torso, he wrote and drew it himself. So I took all his Torso comics and crammed them in the FedEx package and sent them to Joe, so when he opened the cover he'd be like "what are all these books in here?" and (I'd say) "my friend Bendis, he writes this crime comic and draws it, you should check out his work!" And he'd say "I really don't like his art, but I think he's a really good writer, you guys want to do something together?" And so that's how...and then Brian started writing his Daredevil story right after my Daredevil story, and I did the artwork for him. So that was actually his first, his first Marvel project is that next Daredevil story, even though I think Ultimate Spider-Man might've been published first, but that Daredevil story is what got him the offer to write the Ultimate Spider-Man. That was the cool thing, I met Brian Bendis in '93 and for the last 20 years, we're sort of learning together, this is pre-email and internet for all of us. We had these old fax machines, and I would draw all my pages and send Brian like my new Kabuki page and he'd send me his new Goldfish page and we would like give each other tips and ask questions and...so they were guys who were really helpful to me, like learning from that and we would all learn together and work together and help each other as much as possible.
Could you talk about your Asian influences, because you started out with Kabuki and it's obviously a very Japanese-influenced art, some of your recent exhibtions look like they were really, uh, Asian-centric, so can you talk about that?
Yeah, with Kabuki, I started...I was really young when I started doing it. I was a big fan of autobiographical comics, like Ivan Brunetti's Schizo and Peepshow, American Splendour by Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb...I really loved reading these autobiographical comics, where these guys would just talk about these mundane aspects of their day and their life, and Ivan Brunetti was really adventurous because he would, in his published book, he would draw himself and he would draw his co-workers and he would draw himself fantasizing about the women he worked with and he would draw himself fantasizing about murdering the bosses that he worked with, and then it would come out in his comic! He was so honest and so from the heart, and then next issue in the start, it would show how he got fired because the boss saw his comic book, like all the women saw all his fantasies about them in it...he'd have all these problems and I was fascinated with that. I wanted to do a comic that was like personal to me, but I was so young when I started working on Kabuki, I barely turned 20 years old, I was in college and I didn't feel "un-self-conscious" enough to do an autobiographical book, and I didn't even feel fully-formed as a human enough to do it. And so I felt like, um, and I didn't want to make like the main character a...I felt like if I made the main character some adult male or something it would turn into like an idealized version of myself or something, I thought it would be a trap. So I thought, "I'm gonna have the opportunity like a laboratory to tell personal stories, but I'll tell it through metaphors and make all the surface details really different from myself, so I'll make the main character a different gender, and I'll put it in a different part of the world, with a different culture, and I'll use different metaphors and archetypes, and instead of seeing me when people read it, hopefully they won't see me, they'll see themselves and connect with the characters."
While I was in college I had a...I met a friend in my painting and drawing class, his name was Takashi Yatori from Japan, and I had...so we worked together a lot and we were just friends, so he introduced me to his, you know, international student union at the school and I became involved with his family so when it came time for me to take a foregin language, which was a general studies requirement, I'd already taken Spanish in high school so I thought "I'll take Japanese because I have all these friends to help me." So I did that and became more and more fascinated with it and I would take Japanese history and world religions and philosophy and mythology and so there were a lot of these things that I was learning at the time, it gave me an opportunity to sort of use that as a structure and archetypes for this Kabuki book that I was doing and still, I felt like I still had enough opportunity to bring my own take to it, and I kind of made...I never put a time period on it, so it's like ambiguously in the future, um, so it kind of gave me a license. Like any good science fiction, if you kind of give a license to "turn up the volume” on something, to speak about something that's happening now, a current socio-political context, it can be exaggerated to drive home the point a little bit more.
Do you still speak Japanese?
(In Japanese) <Just a little bit>
How did you feel about getting a shoutout in the Daredevil movie? It was the line "Miller, Mack, Bendis..." and what would you like to see in a new Daredevil movie, your dream version of one?
Well, that was the best part of the film (All laugh). That was my favourite part of the film, definitely! And it was said by that actor Mark Margolis, I'm a big fan of that actor so that was extra special. He's the guy who...he's in Breaking Bad and he was in Scarface, he was in Pi...he's this amazing actor and it was amazing that he said "Miller Mack and Bendis" you know, in the movie. Also, that movie has really good extra features. If you have like the extra features on it, there's this interesting documentary about all the different people, the writers on Daredevil, various creators through the ages on it. As far as a brand new Daredevil film, there's a lot of opportunity. There's so much incredible content to pull from, the source material. You can imagine...you could just do a Born Again story and that would be a great story for it...or maybe do a Daredevil End of Days story as a movie. That would be fun!
Do you have any thoughts on BatAffleck?
Seems like a very nice man. (All laugh) Also I'll say this about Affleck: he started, we became more familiar with him after he won the Oscar (with Matt Damon) for writing, for Good Will Hunting. So clearly he had some filmmaking talent and he got a lot of roles as an actor, some good, some not as good, but then he very much remade his Hollywood career as a director and became really an interesting contemporary film director. So it is interesting that he made...like after establishing himself so much as a wonderful director, had made this choice to do that, so I'm guessing he must've done it for a good reason. Maybe he has, you know, maybe he can reinvent himself and that character in a different way? But I mean I would've been more interested in hearing about like the "new Ben Affleck-directed movie" or something, probably, but I like to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and I'm curious how everything will unfold.
Since you’ve always been into both drawing and writing, do you have a preference and how does one prepare? Do you have a process when you write or draw?
I like ‘em both. One of the things that I love about doing comics is that’s it’s a medium that, for me, I don’t have to choose one way of doing things. Everything I wanted to do in comics – I can paint, I can sculpt, I can do photography, there’s design as a part of it, the composition of it, the sequential narrative aspect of it, I enjoy everything about that and I can pour it into the writing side or the drawing side of the comics and I just love the nature of the books themselves. And I really see comics as kind of this interesting last pirate medium right now, where you can sort of go under the radar of contemporary culture and still be incredibly…you can comment on things and you can have like an effect on things. You’re talking about things in an indirect way, through a comic as a metaphor.
As far as my creative approach, when I’m writing I write as many…I sort of have like two modes of it. When you’re first writing, you sort of have the creative mode and the editing mode. When you’re creating things, it uses a different part of your brain than when you’re editing, and some people try to edit while they’re writing, and they end up second-guessing themselves a lot. It’s tempting to edit everything out of existence before you get it down on the page, so you have to give yourself permission to not be the editor at the beginning, and write down everything you could possibly think of, knowing that later, you can come back and take half of it out. You’re probably going to take most of it out; most of it’s not going to be the best. But if you give yourself permission to be experimental, and whimsical and anything that comes into your mind you just write it down and don’t edit yourself, then you come back to it with a different hat and you say “what is this story really about? What belongs here, what doesn’t belong here? What order should it be in to be told most powerfully? Maybe these are really good ideas but they’re not this story; that’s some other project” and you put it over here for the future.
I kind of do it that way, and I guess artistically it’s sort of a similar solution. It’s all problem-solving and I think as an artist, I just try to use the visuals as another way of storytelling and I try and ask myself all the questions visually as if I was writing. If I’m the writer, I know what the story is, but how is it best told? Is it best told through one person’s perspective, from a third person perspective, everyone else talking about the main character? Is it no dialogue, no one gives their actual thoughts but you see it by actions what’s happening…there’s so many different…what order should it be, should it flash back? And I ask the same sort of story questions with the art, how to communicate it. Like what would be the right colours for it, the right medium, and most of the time these are things I make notes of when I’m writing the story, several possible visual solutions when I’m writing the script of it. But sometimes, there are things that happen in the process. That’s actually the coolest part, when you’re doing all your homework and then something occurs to you that you could never have thought ahead of time, but you’ve done so much hard work that all of a sudden, the story is meeting you halfway and revealing itself to you, what it wants to be. At it’s like “okay, I kind of thought you wanted to be this but it turns out you want to be this, so we’ll kinda try it out.”
Yeah. Well, I probably have a lot of quirks. Say when I’m doing an issue of Kabuki, and I’m doing everything – I’m writing it, I’m doing layouts, I’m drawing it, I’m painting it, I’m lettering it, I’m doing the letters column, I’m doing all these things – I found that you always want to be at your optimum performance, you never want to be like…people talk about “oh, I stayed up all night because of the deadline” but usually I don’t feel like when I’m working for days at a time without sleep, I’m working the best that I could. So you really want to try to engineer your rhythm so that you’re getting the best out of yourself for the project. What I’ve noticed is for each stage of those parts of the book, I operate best by using a different cycle and rhythm for each one. So, I don’t smoke or take any drugs or anything, but I feel that your body has so much natural chemicals in it that you can manipulate those chemicals by three things: what you eat, what your sleep schedule is and what your exercise schedule is, completely manipulates all the chemicals you need, so I adopted different eating, sleeping and exercise schedules for when I’m writing vs. when I’m drawing vs. when I’m painting vs. when I’m lettering.
The quirkiest one is the last stage of it. In general, for contrast, I sort of do a lot of like this: I wake up, I go right to work, then I just work till it’s time to eat, and then when it’s time to eat, you eat, and like you answer all your emails and stuff and then go for a walk or do some exercise, then once you’re done with that, you just go to the next stage; I kind of use when you have to eat to kind and break up stuff. And like when I’m eating, that’s when I take care of emails and the business aspect and when you come back, you’re refreshed, you’re inspired and you go back to work.
On the more extreme side, usually this happens in like the lettering process or the last stage where I have all the sort of raw footage of the book all painted and I have it all set up around myself and I’m looking at it, thinking “I can see how everything fits together.” It’s probably almost like editing film; you have all the raw footage and everything and now, how do you finesse it and fine-tune it to get the most out of everything, and that’s like when I kind of start adding panels or removing panels, changing the order of scenes or changing the order of pages, rewriting to accommodate it, and then really like pairing the script and the lettering with the art. Usually in that stage, I end up cutting out like half of the dialogue in the scripts when I’m doing just to edit it. I started this really interesting sleep schedule, when you wake up you feel refreshed and good, so I thought “it would be nice if you could feel this way more than once a day”, right?
The simple way to do that is to wake up more than once. So I thought…I did some research on it and everybody…you want to get your REM (rapid eye movement) cycle, which is usually like 2.5 – 3 hours of sleep. So most people sleep like two or three REM cycles all at once, so like 2.5 – 3 hours, three of those all at once. But observing my cats, they kind of just do it one at a time: when they’re hungry they eat, when they’re tired they sleep and they do crazy cat business the rest of the time, you know? So I thought, I started doing this where I just sleep one REM cycle at a time, you just sleep 2.5 – 3 hours and then I immediately get to work and I can work fantastic without getting tired for like 10-12 hours. But then the trick is, after 10-12 hours, the minute you feel not the least bit on your A-game, the trick is to immediately go to sleep before you get tired and you’re not up 16-18 hour days, you’re up 10-12, so you only need one REM cycle to refresh you, and then only 2.5 – 3 hours after that. I usually do it like two weeks at a time before I need to get like a whole regular-style sleeping regimen again.
We’re all geeks in this room, there are the stereotypes that we’re socially awkward and things like that but you on the other hand, you started embracing yourself as a comic book writer and artist since you were a really young kid. How have you embraced yourself in that role and what advice would you give to budding artists who are trying to embrace that side of themselves?
Um, I never really think in terms of labels and stuff, so I’ve never really labelled myself so much myself that way. I probably was very awkward when I was younger, but making comics was very helpful. I learned a lot of how to interact with other humans in real life because of my experience making comics. I think when I was younger I was a very different person and I didn’t know what the proper way…I didn’t know how to read social cues or body language or facial expressions and I didn’t understand why people were laughing sometimes and a lot of these other things. But then when I started drawing comics, I realised that you have to put a lot of thought into what body language someone should have, what facial expression, what they’re saying when they’re reacting to something – and I think from that, I started to learn how do it in real life by thinking about it in characters.
Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I’ve been so fortunate to work with such amazing creators: Brian Bendis, Joe Quesada, Paul Pope on Electric Ant, so many great…I did these prints with Neil Gaiman…I’d love to do a story with Neil Gaiman, that would be fun, and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, he wrote an introduction for my recent Kabuki volume. It’ll be fun to do a collaboration with him.
What was the inspiration behind the creation of Echo?
I was writing the Daredevil story; Joe Quesada was going to draw it so I asked him “do you want me to write anything in particular for you?” And he said “write whatever you want, but the one thing I ask you to do is create a brand new character story in this story.” He said because so many of Daredevil’s foes were borrowed from Spider-Man and he felt like, besides Bullseye and Kingpin who was a Spider-Man villain, Elektra, the main ones – there weren’t a lot of new and fresh and interesting Daredevil characters, so he asked me to write a new character. With Echo I thought, with all of Daredevil’s…he has a lot of different love interests and each of them he kind of relates to in a different way but each of them has a lot of blind spots about what kind of person he is. He relates to Black Widow and they’re both superheroes but because he’s blind, he sees the world so differently than everybody else does and he’s piecing it together in a different way, I thought it would be interesting if he met somebody else who was also set aside from most of society by how they see the world, but for it to be different than how that was for him. So, I think I thought he would find that interesting. He doesn’t see anything but he pieces all of his information together from other senses, mostly audible, and she doesn’t hear things and has to rely almost exclusively visually. So it’s an interesting, like possibly a complementary thing, but also an interesting opportunity for them to always kind of miss each other sometimes too. Maybe it’s kind of a commentary on relationships or something.