David Mack’s resume reads like an enviable laundry list of dream jobs. The native Cincinnatian lists Twentieth Century Fox as an employer and his talents as a college student at Northern Kentucky University got him notice from Marvel Comics, for which he writes the Daredevil series. He’s designed toys and packaging for companies in Hong Kong and created animation art for MTV. His designs appear on the cover of albums, including one for Paul McCartney. And we’re just getting warmed up.
The artist and writer (photo by Seth Kushner for GraphicNYC)
After publishing his book Kabuki, he became a best-selling author and the graphic novel has since been translated into seven languages. His new children’s book, The Shy Creatures, was picked up by MacMillan and is available in stores and on Amazon.com. It’s the kind of dreamy talent that spurred Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk to comment, “Mack’s style takes comic narrative to the art gallery level… Mack’s new children’s book Shy Creatures is more of his genius.”
Did I forget to mention that Mack’s series of tarot card paintings exhibited to great praise in Brussels and Paris last year? Oh, and he also created an animated series of Dexter for Showtime. Seriously, how does this guy even find the time? Well, he graciously shared some with me to answer questions about his brilliant career and his upcoming show, on view at PAC Gallery in Walnut Hills. That is, before he ran off to set up all day and night at the gallery. David Mack: Dream Logic opens Friday, January 21, with a reception from 5-9 pm. It runs through February 21.
from his Tarot series
LW: How did you become involved with Marvel Comics, and were comics something you were drawn to as a child?
DM: I began work at Marvel comics as a writer. Joe Quesada was the editor and artist of Daredevil and other books at Marvel and he’d read my Kabuki books. He called me up one day, inviting me to be write Daredevil based on my writing in Kabuki.
LW: Where did Kabuki stem from?
DM: I did the first Kabuki volume when I was in college at NKU. I turned the published books of it in for my senior thesis in Literature.
I wanted to make a book that was personal and incorporated my passion for learning, experimentation and explorations of life and ideas. I was a big fan of autobiographical comics like American Splendor and Crumb, but didn’t feel unselfconscious enough to do a fully autobiographical comic at that time. And I was so young, 19-20, I didn’t really feel fully formed as a human at that age to be able to do that objectively.
Daredevil comic book
So I decided to write a story where the surface details were very different, the protagonist a different gender, set it in a different part of the world. That way, I could tell personal stories through a veil, though the Japanese mythology and archetypes I was learning about in school and in my travels. I hoped to make the stories have a mythic universal accessibility so that readers could look at the characters and see themselves rather than seeing me.
But at the same time, it gave me an outlet to work out personal things that I was going through at a young age–the death of my mother, some childhood challenges, the formation of self, becoming an adult, being responsible for making my own way in the world, the book became a laboratory for me to attempt to make sense or order of all the things I was experiencing.
As Shakespeare said “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
LW: You earned a full scholarship from Northern Kentucky University. Was it for your writing or your art?
DM: NKU gave me a four-year scholarship for Fine Art and a fifth-year Dean’s Scholarship for academics. I chose Graphic Design for my BFA because it included all the fine arts and design classes, as well as general studies. So it gave me a lot of different disciplines to draw from and funnel into my work.
I knew while in high school that I was responsible for putting myself through college, so I worked hard to apply for as many scholarships as possible, art, academic, etc. My high school art teacher Tamara Smith was very helpful directing and advising me on the best way to present my work for scholarships.
I received partial scholarships from other schools, but was still unable to afford the differences. I was 17 as a college freshman and didn’t have much money. I’d even gone to sign up for the military in order to get them cover my education. In the nick of time, my art teacher Mrs. Smith informed me of the NKU scholarship and I began working in comics professionally during my freshman year there.
LW: Do you consider yourself equally writer and artist?
Kabuki cover, series 1
DM: Well, I’ve made most of my living as a writer. I’ve been working in comics and graphic novels professionally for the last 20 years and I’ve written more books than I’ve drawn. And there were a few years that I was on the payroll of Twentieth Century Fox as a writer for the film. So I’m a writer primarily, but I still make art outside of books as well, and will always do both.
I’m naturally inclined to be a storyteller. The reason I chose to work in graphic novels is because it gives me the liberty to use the visual as another tool of the writing. I can integrate all of my passions and crafts into this medium.
LW: How did Chuck P. come across your work?
DM: Chuck Palahniuk has been very kind to me and has become a great friend. He wrote the introduction to KABUKI: The Alchemy, the newest Kabuki volume which is on exhibit in its entirety at PAC Gallery. (They also have the 320 page hardcover with an original drawing, available at the gallery).
Chuck and I had a letter writing correspondence, and he invited me to meet him for lunch when I was in his neighborhood in Portland. So I meet with him whenever I’m in town and we have some super conversations at the tasty restaurants in Portland.
Someone had forwarded me a link where he had put Kabuki and my children’s book The Shy Creatures on his top 5 Author picks and he said such nice things about my books. And he didn’t even tell me he had done that. When I saw his quotes about my work, I wrote to him and thanked him and eventually asked him to write the introduction to The Alchemy.
LW: You must be so thrilled to work on an animated Dexter series. (I LOVE Dexter). How did the opportunity come about–and is the project completed?
DM: Showtime asked me to create animated episodes, Dark Echo. It’s a six episode story, kind of an origin story of the character in his college years. The episodes were written by the writer of the TV show, Michael C. Hall does the voice over, and I was able to collaborate with one of my close friends Bill Sienkiewicz who’s work I’ve loved since I was a kid. You can watch the episodes for free on YouTube or Showtime’s site Sho.com. Watch Dark Echo, Chapter 5, here. There is a making of episode with me on it that they ran at the end of the TV show.
LW: What are some of your influences?
DM: In my paintings or drawings, Egon Scheele, Gustav Klimt & Picasso are probably primary influences. Even if it’s unconscious. In my stories, I try to create a different style for each story depending on what visual atmosphere is best to communicate that particular story.
LW: What spawned a children’s’ book–and how has it been received?
DM: I did my first children’s book in college in a children’s literature class.
Children’s literature has been a theme in the Kabuki stories. The first Kabuki volume is in a sense a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, the journey from childhood consciousness into adulthood. If you look closely at it, you’ll see that all the characters correspond to characters in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Book cover of The Shy Creatures
The Kabuki stories intertwine themes from eastern and western myth, including children’s stories. In The Alchemy, there was a sequence in which Kabuki is reading a children’s book inside the story. So, I created that book just for that chapter. Kind of in a very simple retro style with brush and ink, and the characters in it are meant to allegorically correspond to themes in the Kabuki story. Macmillan publishing saw it and felt it would make a good children’s book, The Shy Creatures. I like that it’s kind of a material world artifact from the Kabuki story.
LW: You cover so many bases of interest in your work. What gives you the most joy?
DM: I like making things. I like telling stories. And my work has been my vehicle for communicating and for expression, and for just sorting things out for myself. But I love that people find personal connection in the story. I enjoy when readers tell me they found something useful and inspirational from my stories.
LW: Tell me a little about your early life. Where are you from?
DM: I was born in Cincinnati. My father is from New York and my mother is from Pennsylvania. My mother was a first grade teacher in the Sixth District Covington Schools. We would spend summers in Pennsylvania on the farm where she grew up. My mother is definitely the single-most formative influence on me artistically. She would make things by hand to use as lesson plans for her first-grade students. I think I naturally saw art as a means of communication and education because of that. And she had plenty of supplies and materials on hand that I always had access to as a child from my earliest memories.
LW: You’ve received a lot of kudos. What award do you most treasure so far?
DM: NKU awarded me with their Outstanding Alumnus Award in 2003 and it really meant a lot. There are scientists, doctors, and inventors that win that award. I was very touched that they thought of me and it shows their commitment to Arts and Literature, and an open-mindedness to the sequential art medium and its influence and capabilities.
LW: Any favorite tools of the trade?
DM: I use a brush and ink a lot when drawing for fun.
LW: How do you go from inspiration to production? (feel free to give the Cliff Notes version)
DM: I write my ideas down on paper and then I keep developing them into notes and a full script and then draw the story based on many revisions of a full script.
For drawing, I just do it. Just for fun without too much thinking. The danger with too much thinking is that you can censor ideas out of existence. Best to do the work first and consider finessing it after.
But in general terms, not just writing or art, but the “inspiration to application” is important in life. My most recent book The Alchemy is very much about that idea. It documents certain principles and specific practical applications that I have developed over that last 20-plus years that have been very helpful to me in taking things from idea into reality.
another piece by David Mack
The book is very much about imagination and the practical applications for turning your dreams into reality. The original art from the entire book is on exhibit and you can actually read it page by page in its original form. It’s such a different experience than in the book, because the story is surrounding you on walls all around and you’re walking through the story.
You can find daily updates on David Mack’s work at davidmackguide.com, or check him out on Facebook.