Drawing Outside The Lines
Interview with David Mack
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 with the art, really, 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.
So how do you go about writing the scripts for these comics? Do some of those approaches occur when you’re working on the illustrations themselves, or is it all preconceived?
DM: I write a full script first. I write several drafts of it and try to fine-tune and polish it to the point that the script is entirely there and intricately thought out. That said, as soon as I start to make the layouts I begin seeing new ways to improve it, and various new solutions and I try to take advantage of the spontaneity and margin for improvement that happens on every level of the process.
You can plan it out as much as you can in advance, but once you get into drawing it, new epiphanies will happen that you could not have possibly thought of in advance. So it really is a collaboration with the planned out and the epiphanies that happen organically in the process.
It is really all problem solving. You figure out as much as you can, but then you have to let the story have its own life. The story and details of it reveal themselves more clearly to you as you go, and corresponding to how much effort you put into it.
You want the story to breath on its own, and the characters have a life of their own so you are collaborating with them as well. And when they say and do things, and have personality quirks that
surface in the process, you have to roll with them and let them be their own people.
Ultimately it is characters that are the star of this story, so the visuals follow and support the visual personalities of the characters. You don’t want plot motivated characters. I enjoy character motivated plot, so the visuals conform to this as well.
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 2 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.
Yeah… There is in my opinion no better form of chops building for novel writers or film writers to try their hand at writing for a comic, for that very reason.
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
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 Amazon.com. 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 we are 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 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 davidmackguide.com which is updated with new stuff every day.
I’ve read that you’re working on a live action film of Kabuki for 20th Century Fox. Film has different requirements, in terms of methods of storytelling, than sequential still art… And Kabuki isn’t exactly a graphic novel that you can just work off of as a series of storyboards. How are you going about adapting this story to that format?
DM: The script is the main challenge. What to fit into the script and what to leave out, and how to take advantage of the medium of film. The main thing is to make a brilliant film.
What stage is the production in?
DM: Still focused on getting the right script. I did quite a lot of writing for Fox when they had the option. John Sayles did several drafts of it. There are quite a lot of opportunities to take advantage of all that film has to offer as a medium, and you want the script to reflect that. You want it to take what is magical about the comic and have that show through but in the language of the film medium. Fortunately films like Sin City and V For Vendetta show that you can do a film like this that reflects the visual spirit of the source material as well as deliver the spirit of its story to great effect.
I can’t wait to see it. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.