David Mack Talks ALCHEMY, the Future of Kabuki, and the Creative Process
By Shawn Depasquale on November 4, 2013
If you haven’t already read the article I wrote about David Mack’s seventh Kabuki volume, Alchemy, you should probably do that before you read this interview, since it will add much needed context to some of the comments below. Using the magic of technology I have created an easy to click portal back to that previous post, a “link” if you will, right here: CLICK ME!
And now, here’s my interview with David Mack himself:
Nerdist: This book hit me at exactly the right time, as I mentioned in the article. So on that note, my first question is when you sat down to write this, was your intent to create a primer of sorts, or a manifesto on creativity?
David Mack: You know, it was a little more organic than that. I had been working professionally for close to 20 years when I started Alchemy. I had spent a lot of that time figuring out ways to give myself principles and rules to follow as a creator. You know, anytime you’re working, you want to feel like you’re working at your peak performance, and when I started this book I was working nonstop to hit deadlines. When you’re working at that pace, you can’t really sit back and let inspiration hit you, you have to push through no matter what. Over that amount of time, I had developed certain things to keep myself on track and focused creatively. When it came time to do this book, the character in the book was at the same place that I was when I first started working on Kabuki back in college. Kabuki, the first book, I wrote as my senior thesis in literature. It felt like the character was where I was, so it gave me the ability to sort of reverse engineer certain principles and ways of going about my art that would give me the best results.
N: So that’s where some of the ideas and ruminations on the nature of creativity come from?
DM: Yeah. I also felt that the character was at a place where a lot of people find themselves after college: You thought your life was going to go a certain way, you were raised for this, but now what? How do you find what your role in life is? Then once you figure that out, what are practical applications for making that happen? It seemed to be an interesting crossroads, where the character in the story crossed paths with this series of principles I had developed for myself over the years. In a way, I was kind of writing it for myself. Almost like an instruction manual that I wish I could’ve read before I started the whole creative process twenty years ago. It’s something I wish I could hand to the college version of myself.
N: It does read like a creative instruction manual in a certain way; I think that’s one of the things that I connected to when I first read it. Before we dive into some of your deeper thoughts on the nature of creativity, I wanted to discuss the book from a more technical storytelling angle. You had a few plot lines dangling at the end of the last book, was there an internal pressure to make sure that you tied up all those loose ends as well as express all these thoughts you’ve had on the nature of creativity?
DM: It was an interesting place to be. Often when I’m writing a story, I’ll think here’s where the character starts and then an inciting incident happens and you wonder where will this take them. Or you have the incident and where it ends but where does it all start? In the past I’ve always sort of known where each character will end up. In this case, I had all these characters that were very fleshed out with very strong points of view, but I thought it would be fun to challenge myself by diving in not knowing how it’s all going to end.
N: It felt like at the end of the previous volume, you had so many questions to answer. Did you sit down with a list of those questions and answer them first? Or did you toss that all aside and just say, I’ll let Kabuki find her own way and see where it goes?
DM: I think it was both of those things. In the previous volumes, I’ve always written out a very thorough script before starting the art. But the art process is very time consuming, so they take a long time to draw. Even though I write a very full script, when I’m doing the art, there’s always a margin for improvements or additional ideas. Then, while I’m working on the current story, the other part of my brain is always thinking what happens next. Where can the story go from here? Where do these characters end up? So a lot of what happens in Alchemy were musings I had working on previous volumes. A lot of it came from ideas that were percolating while working on the other stories.
N: You suggest in the book that the written word can affect the world around it, that what you write can become real life, even as you’re writing it. This is something Grant Morrison has also discussed when it comes to his own work. So I wonder, is this something you’ve experienced or something you read about?
DM: I don’t know that I’ve read about it. For so long I was immersed in making these Kabuki stories, and so much of my life became about making it. Everyday started with a blank page and either writing something or drawing something, then turning those pages into a book and then people respond to that book…. Making these stories have been my vehicle to interact with the world since I was very young. I really started to see that as a metaphor, in that just by creating a page or a story you’re creating your own life. Sort of making your own self-portrait in a way, even on a purely metaphorical lever. In retrospect, I could look back at the first Kabuki volume, and there is so much in it that I wasn’t conscious of at the time. Looking back, it’s clear to me I was working through so many psychological things that I was going through at the time. Things like the death of my mother, childhood issues, a variety of things like that. I realize now I was telling my own story through metaphors. It was my laboratory to make sense of my world.
N: That’s fascinating, because if you look at Alchemy through that same lens, it suggests itself as a metaphor for a more experienced David Mack, who is now questioning what the point of creativity is and how it contributes to society at large. You think that’s accurate?
DM: You know, at a certain point I realized the power you have in terms of putting something out into the world and then it becomes a part of that world and has a ripple effect. Other people read it and react to it and connect to it. Then at a later point, I started to see a certain responsibility in that. Not just what you communicate with other people, but what you kind of make real and bring into the world in your art. Once you see that it makes you conscious about everything you do in your life. Your interaction with other humans, and what you write in stories. You’re not separate from reality, from your world or your culture. You are actively creating your own culture. You’re participating in your own world and what you’re doing is shaping that reality. So then I try to be a little more responsible with that.
N: Does that realization become the basis for the Art of Words in Alchemy? I found it interesting that this book, for a character who was born in blood, has a history as an killer, there’s not a single drop of blood. There’s no violence at all in this volume. Was that a conscious decision you made, once you realized the ripple effect your stories were having in the real world?
DM: That’s a good question. It was a very conscious choice to apply that to the Alchemy story. However, I should also give you some context to the world I was in when I created the very first Kabuki volume. I was seventeen and had just started college in 1990, and the first Gulf War was happening on TV. For further context, you should know that I grew up without a TV. I grew up writing my own stories, but I never watched TV. We didn’t have one. I would go to school and feel very left out of the culture, because all the other kids were talking about movies, and shows and commercials they had seen. So I didn’t have TV until I started college.
DM: Yeah, so the Gulf War is starting and, oh, also there’s the TV show Cops. That was pretty big then. I was so not used to TV, I was struck by a few things. First of all, the amount of commercials and they way they would use sex to sell cars… everyone was conditioned to it from years of growing up watching TV. But to me it was amazing how many commercials there were, and they way they sold things… how they used sex and other things to seduce you. So, that was odd to me. But then the TV show Cops was so strange to me, because I saw the legal system used as entertainment. You know, used as a way to sell commercials. All told through the first person point of view of the law enforcement officer. This felt like a very strange sort of entertainment to me. The song, how the show was packaged, the logo… I was so conflicted and curious about it.
N: Especially not having been desensitized by years of TV watching.
DM: Right? Okay, so then the Gulf War is happening, and that was the start of CNN. There hadn’t really been 24 hour news channels before that. So all of the sudden everyone had CNN going on 24 hours. And now you’re watching like… World Cops. You saw missiles being launched and soldiers on the ground. It was going on 24 hours a day. All these things started hitting me in a very strange way, having not grown up with TV. I had read 1984 by George Orwell in high school, and here I am seeing that reality on television. I think it was striking to me because of how instant the exposure was. It wasn’t a gradual thing I learned to accept as I matured. So that’s sort of the context in which I put the first Kabuki story together. It has all those elements, the legal system as television, the politics and criminal empires, the commercialization of everything… it was all sort of mixed into it. So that was my way of sorting all of that stuff out.
N: Sure. Now that you mention Cops, I can see that as a direct influence.
DM: But also I grew up in what would be considered now to be a house with a lot of domestic violence and, like, beatings and stuff. I grew up with a very violent childhood, I suppose. My parents were from a different era, and I think that’s how people behaved at that time. It was a very conscious decision, though, it’s interesting you mention this, there was so much change that happened with the character. The first story is sort of like a crime story set in Japan. There is a certain amount of violence and action in it, but the character had so many changes and arcs that it didn’t make sense to keep putting her in that kind of jeopardy. This isn’t The A-Team, where each episode is the same structure.
N: I think that’s why the question came up for me. It wouldn’t surprise me if the lack of violence was anything other than story related. It makes sense just from a story standpoint that Kabuki would want to distance herself as much as possible from the violence in her life. If you had done it sooner in the story, it wouldn’t have made sense for her to just stop and say, “I’ve had enough, goodbye everyone.” In Alchemy, you had brought her to a place that felt like an excellent time to drastically change the course of her life. I would’ve been just as happy to see her murder everyone, but felt equal satisfaction at her defeating her foes through story and words.
DM: In the first volume there’s a certain amount of revenge happening, but after that I had to ask myself if I’m telling a genre story or a story about the character. I decided it was about character. I can still follow these characters even if they change, they were bigger than the genre. So making that decision it was a conscious choice in The Alchemy, the seventh volume, which still was about conflict, but the ways to resolve those conflicts had to be a little more thoughtful and grander than a physical attack. So I made a very conscious choice that Alchemy wouldn’t have a single act of violence in the volume. While she has a violent past, my feeling is, I don’t need to have anything else bad ever happen to me and I will still have plenty to draw on from my childhood.
N: I think you’re right; It comes down to telling a genre story or a story of this particular character. Certainly in the case of Kabuki and other creator-owned books, to follow the character and let them lead you into the genre is an exciting way to go. I would happily read more Kabuki stories and not ever have terrible physical things happen to her again. It seems like she’s been through that part of her life, and it’s interesting to me to watch what happens next, which is not something you get in most genre-based fiction. With certain characters, especially in comics, it’s fairly unexplored territory to say, “Okay, they’ve defeated the bad guys, and now here what they do with their lives and how they cope with years of violence and external conflict.” So the idea of the action-movie part of her life being over and watching her move and grow into whatever happens next it appealing to me as a reader. Is that something you hope to explore in future volumes?
DM: Well, there’s a couple things you mentioned I want to address. I feel like when we’re younger, a lot of times, our reptile brain tells us to respond to conflict on a physical level. When we’re children, we act out, and then in your adult life you need to override that and say it’s probably not the best decision to respond to this situation with violence. At a certain point you learn that, either because you go to jail or you’re admonished or it or you hurt someone or they hurt you. At a certain point you realize there has to be a better way to resolve a conflict. If you don’t figure that out, you’re stuck in a crazy cycle. A lot of fictional characters are stuck in that cycle. It’s a psychosis. This is a question that comes up when I’m writing Daredevil. I think, “Here’s this character as an adult, so why is he doing what he’s doing now?” Usually it’s because something formative happened in their childhood that shaped them. At the time it happened, it was outside of their control, and they felt like it happened to them. Now as an adult, they put themselves in the same situation, but as adults, they try to take the control back for themselves and not helpless. Batman and Daredevil are perfect examples of this. Batman spends his adult life putting himself in a confrontation with crime, but in an aspect where he thinks he controls it. You can’t stay in that cycle forever, this was something Brian Bendis and I realized when writing Daredevil: End of Days for Marvel. Daredevil is stuck in that cycle: As a child, he pays the price for heroically saving this man from getting hit by a truck. But then he spends the rest of his adult life – and his father was a fighter who didn’t want him to be a fighter – so now his adult life, he’s a lawyer by day (he’s so compartmentalized), and at night he’s a fighter like his father. He’s still trying to act heroically, as he did when he was a kid, but now he’s in better control of the situation. Now, you can do that a certain amount of times, but eventually you realize, and for the character to grow, the character needs to realize it’s an endless cycle. When Daredevil is 50 years old, it’s not going to work in his favor anymore to be out there.
N: I think you hit the nail on the head with the genre vs character comment. Batman, Daredevil, all these company-owned characters have to stay stagnant to a certain degree. It isn’t until something like “End of Days” that you can break the cycle, thus ending what makes those iconic characters so iconic. But with Kabuki, you’re not trapped into that because she’s yours, freeing you up to tell any story you’re moved to tell.
DM: It’s a good point, because Kabuki is mine, I can go wherever I want. I like working both ways, I should say I love working on Daredevil and writing those stories. Working in those strange bounds of the company-owned character presents its own set of unique challenges. You need to find a way to stay within those boundaries and still get a unique spin on it. You can test the limits; That’s really fun. I realize that Kabuki isn’t that, so I did push myself to go in a different direction with Alchemy. I felt like it was very organic though. It just sort of happened with the character. It’s like one of the metaphors in the story: you just show up to work, and in the process of doing the work, it starts to reveal what it wants to be. I’ll go in with a certain amount of preconceptions, but because I’m dealing with characters that have such specific points of view, I can put them in a room together and an interesting new agenda shapes itself just by having them interact with each other.
N: Do you feel like Alchemy puts a button on Kabuki’s story? Is there more to explore?
DM: You know, every time I finish a Kabuki volume, it’s so much work that as soon as I finish, it’s such a relief to finish the story that I think, you know, this would be a great place to end it. I got that feeling with every volume, but as soon as I finish, I start to explore those future ideas, and soon I’m back into the character’s life. I had a similar feeling with Alchemy. While I was writing it, I kept writing ahead of myself, going, okay, here’s what happens in the next volume and the next. Here’s the ripple effect of this or that. Then once I finished it, I thought about the other creator-owned projects that I’d like to do and thought, in terms of Alchemy, this could be a really good punctuation point for this story. So I’m going to do some other things in the meantime and let this percolate. Plus I really liked writing from Akemi’s point of view and MC Square’s view of science as a theoretical physicist. There was a character that called herself Buddha, and I like her spiritual and religious view of things. I’ve got many notes about her and future stories with her. I think the way I’ll explore some of those things is the same way I explored the Scarab character. I did a complete volume just about her life, starting from childhood all the way up to the present. I think it could be fun to tackle some of the other characters in the same way.
N: That would be great, especially if you bring in other artists to bring your scripts to life.
DM: Another attractive point to that is getting art in from another artist; Seeing them bring something I wrote to life in their own unique way is incredibly satisfying.
N: When you’re able to make a living off of what you’re creating, it takes a pressure off the creator of having to pay bills while also pushing themselves to create. For me, the struggle has always been to push though the personal baggage of paying bills, “breaking in” as it were, not in the sense of making a ton of money. It’s not about that. It’s more about feeling like I’ve reached… I don’t know what. Some unreachable goal I’ve set for myself. Does that ever go away? Is it thoughts like that you tried to address in Alchemy with quotes like, “There is no having made it. Forget about that. You are always making it. That is the entire point. The making is where you always want to be.”
DM: All those feelings you have, I don’t know if you never stop having those feelings. I know people who have a large body of work, and are very successful, especially people who maybe had a lot of their work published when they were a bit younger. Those people stress over, “I wish I had more time to develop before my stuff was thrust into public.” Some people think of it like that. Other people, still making things all the time, even making a living at it, they’re still wondering if they’ve nailed it. Have they hit the work they want to do… you know Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the introduction to Alchemy, he advocates people to not start writing until their 30s. He didn’t start his writing career until later in his life. I advocate people to express things as much and as early as you want. He says it’s not such a good idea, because in your 20s, instead of living in front of a computer and writing it down, you should be living life in the world so that you build up a lot of experiences. This way when you naturally start to slow down, when your body slows down in your 30s or 40s, you can sit down and write knowing that you’ve had a decade or more of actual living. I would also say that you need to look back on the work you have done, the books you’ve had published, and doesn’t each one feel like a success in their own way?
N: Absolutely. I mean it’s amazing to imagine I’ve had a single graphic novel published, let alone four. I can objectively step away and realize my negative feeling are natural doubts, but there are certainly times where the feeling of pointlessness sets in, because it can take so long for projects to come to fruition.
DM: I’ve never felt like once I’ve done one project I know how to do other projects. Alchemy, too. I sat down to do it and I think, “eh, I have really high hopes for this. It’s going to be a lot of effort, and what if it doesn’t come out right, or what if it’s a fruitless endeavor?” Or I’ll look back on older Kabuki volumes and think, “Wow, I used to be good, but now I can’t even figure out how to make this first page work.” That happens every single time I work on something. It never goes away. It’s just part of my process. I think it’s part of the process for a lot of writers. No one ever has that magic key to the kingdom that says you’re going to do this and it’ll be easy and successful. If anything,the only guarantee is that it won’t be easy and success is a total crap shoot. My advice is, every time you do something to the best of your ability, try to keep it in print. Then every time you do something new it’ll bring new readers into your past work. Then you start to make a little money over time, and maybe you build up revenue over the years.
N: I think you’re right. A good friend of mine recently has had some major success in the comic book world, all by his own doing. He’s extremely talented and capable and worked very hard to get where he is. It’s been wonderful and exciting to watch him as his star rises, but it’s been great personally because he’s an incredibly loyal friend who has brought me onto a lot of his gigs as a letterer. This, in turn, has opened up new doors to publishers, and I realized while reading Alchemy that this is all part of my own “ripple effect”.
DM: Here’s another example of the ripple effect: the first Kabuki volume that I did in college, I gave it to Joe Quesada at a convention. He called me up the next week and said, “I really like your writing in this, and we should work on something that you write and I’ll draw.” Then eventually he took over the Marvel Knights line; I got a call out of the blue from him saying I’d like you to write Daredevil, with me drawing it. So then, on that Daredevil story, Joe and I would do covers together. I would do layouts for him and he would send back the inked copy that they would FedEx to me. I would paint over the originals and try not to mess anything up. So I would send a FedEx back to Joe with all my painted pages inside. And this FedEx box would sit right on Joe’s desk. So Brian Bendis had done a graphic novel called Torso at the time that he wrote and drew. So I put all the issues of his Torso comic into the FedEx box with my Daredevil cover art, and Joe opened it up and called me and was like, “Hey what are all these comics?” I told him it was my buddy Brian, he’s great, check it out. So he calls back a bit later and goes, “Wow. I really like his writing. I don’t like his art, but I like his writing.” And that’s what got us Brian’s first job writing Daredevil. So Brian’s joke is that he’s writing and drawing comics for over ten years with no one paying attention to him and then once he stops drawing his own stories, suddenly people start to discover them.
N: Unreal! Well, look, I won’t take up anymore of your time. Thanks again for chatting with me about all this and your positive feedback of the article I wrote.
DM: I’m happy to connect about it. Thanks for writing about the book. Also you can let people know I will have a gallery at Century Guild Gallery in Century City (Los Angeles) on November 16th at 7pm. The show will feature myself, Dave McKean, and Clive Barker.