David Mack is a multimedia artist, writer, and director whose first creator-owned epic graphic novel series, Kabuki, has recently been collected by Dark Horse into four volumes, each over 400 pages. Besides the award-winning series, Mack is also known for his distinctive watercolor and collage art style on covers such as Britannia(Valiant), American Gods (Dark Horse), Sandman (DC) and Fight Club II (Dark Horse) for Chuck Palahniuk. But his most famous collaborations have been with writer Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil, Alias, Jessica Jones, and more.
Mack has also created art for the title credits for the MCU's Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Netflix's Jessica Jones, and directed music videos for Dashboard Confessional, Jack and Amanda Palmer, and a 2016 PSA for PEN America called “Democracy” narrated by Neil Gaiman. But when Mack isn’t creating, he quietly works for the U.S. State Department. This is relevant, because this week, Bendis and Mack dropped COVER, the third Jinxworld offering this year, featuring Max Field, a successful comic book artist whose biggest “fan” just so happens to work for the CIA and decides to recruit him as an agent.
For this week's Indie Comics Spotlight, SYFY WIRE spoke to Mack about his journey from Kabuki to COVER, and his life as a G-Man.
What made you decide to team up with Bendis again for his relaunch of Jinxworld at DC?
David Mack: Brian had a near-death experience last year. His face was swollen shut and he couldn't see, and he didn't know what was gonna happen or if he could recover. He said, “One thing I really regret is we never did that creator-owned book that we always talked about.” The main reasons I'm doing this is because it's like a project with a really longtime friend, and we have a fun time doing it.
What was your first project together?
I first met Brian Bendis in 1993 at a Chicago comic con. At the time I had written Kabuki, but I really considered it a writing exercise. In fact, I started it as my senior thesis in literature when I was in college. When I met Brian Michael Bendis he was making a living as a penciler. I considered myself a writer primarily and I was trying to find other artists to draw Kabuki. He showed me a copy of a new crime book that he was working on and I took a brush and ink and started blacking in more of his stuff on what he had penciled. He really liked that and he immediately got me hired as his inker. So we worked on a few things as a penciler/inker team and one of those things was an HP Lovecraft adaptation. I won't mention the name of it, because I don't want you to run out and buy these books that we're not necessarily proud of. We were just starting out.
How did creator-owned Kabuki lead to Marvel’s Daredevil?
I had met Joe Quesada at a convention and I gave him the collection of Kabuki, and he called me and told me, “I'd love to work with you in some way with you writing and doing art.” It didn’t work out until 1997. Quesada called me again after I took Kabuki to Image Comics to do a series and offered me Daredevil. His company, Event Comics was going to take over four Marvel titles under the banner of Marvel Knights, where they get a little bit of latitude with these stock characters.
So I kind of wrestled with that at first because until then, every time I had written anything, it had always been a character I'd created entirely. With writing Daredevil, the challenge was I had to be very respectful to the rich history that the character had.
I told Joe, “I'm going to write differently for you than I would write for myself. I'm going to write to what I perceive as your strengths.” And he told me to just write any story I want. The only thing he asked is that I create a brand new character in the story.
And that character was Daredevil’s Echo, wasn’t it?
Yes. Later I brought her back again when I co-wrote Daredevil End of Days with Bendis and we had veteran artists Klaus Janson, Alex Maleev, and Bill Sienkiewicz do the art for it. And that was mainly because we grew up reading those guys' work. So it was great to write a story and then just see these guys bring this magic to it.
But you know, one of the reasons I've been doing a lot of covers is I've been overseas a lot the last few years with the State Department.
So how did you initially get to work with the State Department? Did you approach them?
They invited me to work with them and made it public in 2016. My official title is "Cultural Ambassador." I've taught at refugee camps, Schools for the Deaf (in Tunisia, Singapore, Georgia), IDP camps, special needs schools, prisons in the former Soviet areas, and in UNHCR refugee camps.
When I was in North Africa it was under CVE, which is Countering Violent Extremists. The agenda was to interact with at-risk youth and incline them in a positive way and make them less susceptible to recruitment by extremists.
You must have heard some powerful stories.
We had a program in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There’s incredibly bright, talented people there with amazing universities, and there are also refugee camps from people homeless from the last invasion. And UNHCR camps from people fleeing Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
These people also have these incredible stories. Living through all these camps, fleeing the fighting, many of their families have been killed by extremists.
We wanted to encourage them to share their stories and share their unique voice. We taught storytelling classes in these camps as well as the universities.
It’s almost like art therapy. You’re showing them how to express themselves through comics.
I was told that I was selected because they have a rich history and culture in art, and that some of the people that we met had no knowledge of comics and they thought that my approach to comics would bridge that gap in terms of fine arts to comics. These people also need to feel empowered. We want them to be able to tell what they've been through and share it with the rest of the world.
How did you and Brian collaborate to bring that to COVER?
Brian also has some experience at Langley with the CIA because he spoke there. We had another project in mind originally, but I was involved in an event in Libya, in which some people that I had worked with and established a connection with, were captured by extremists and, I'm told, they were tortured and beaten. Behind the scenes I was making efforts to get information to the right people there in terms of helping them get an advocate for their release, medication for their medical conditions, etc. The good news is that eventually they were released. The State Department asked me not to make any public comments until everybody was released.
I was telling Brian about it and he was like, “Hey, this could be our comic book, this is the kind of story we should make.” Someday I would like to do a non-fiction memoir where I write about these experiences and travels and work overseas. In the meantime, we thought we’d do a somewhat fictionalized comic book version of some of the topics that we’ve experienced. We can filter some truths into it, but keep it fiction, to protect the sensitive points.
In parts of this issue, Max looks a lot like you and his buddy looks very much like Bendis.
Originally in the script, Brian at first wanted Max drawn like a 28-year-old me and draw his friend like a 29-year-old him, (even though when Brian and I first met, I was like 20 and he was like 25 or 26). And while I drew it like this at the very beginning, I definitely changed it up from later.
Max is shocked by Julia at first when she comes to his table. Have you had any crazy Artist Alley experiences?
You meet a wide variety of people at conventions. Most of them are awesome and some of them just have a different spectrum of social skills. You don't know if somebody is there to say really nice things to you (which most of them are), or if somebody has decided in their own head that you're secretly writing about their life and you somehow know everything about them and that they are the character that you're writing. They think they need to have some kind of extra relationship with you or later they decide they need to kill you.
Wow. Sounds like there’s a story there.
If there are ten people at your table, nine of them are probably awesome and say nothing but great things, but then there’s one, who might not even mean anything bad, they just have a different relationship with reality.
You also just described Twitter.
When Julia tells Max she’s CIA, he doesn’t believe her. Were you just as suspect of your recruiters?
When I was first doing State Department stuff, I wondered if somebody was trying to pull a prank on me or something for a while. I was talking to people in Washington and trying to get all the information I could from a variety of sources just to double check everything.
So that's sort of Max's reaction, I think. When Julia says she’s CIA and all this stuff to him and then she disappears and leaves him at dinner, he figures maybe she's just delusional.
Can you talk about the multiple art styles you used?
I didn't realize how soon Brian was going to put the comic out. We were in Chicago at C2E2 at the end of April of this year and before we had a contract or script or anything I realized we were soliciting in September. So I was already late.
I told him that the one thing we had to do is have a couple of different kinds of styles that work organically for story reasons. I can tell one story one way and another in another way, and it'll give me a little bit of flexibility in terms of the speed at which I can do one style and the speed of which I can do another.
I paint the Ninja Sword sequesnces, but I've been mostly doing the exterior story with brush and ink, and then our colorist, Zu Orzu, colors it. Occasionally I'll turn certain panels into a painting as well, for when it makes sense in the story.
How did you two balance scriptwriting duties?
Sometimes Brian would say, “I'm not going to direct the scene, I'll just kind of like write it as a play and here's what happens in these pages.” I usually make the art longer than he asks for. So, if he asks for two pages, I might turn in six and then I will end up just writing that part myself.
Is there a theme that you want folks to come away with after reading COVER?
I feel like the story is a very unusual story in comics. I don't think that there's any other comic book like it right now. I don't really have any other agenda, I just hope that people enjoy it.