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David Mack: Genius or Hack?

David Mack is a difficult man to pin down. He’s like a 9th-degree black belt in karate or something, so I’m willing to bet it would be tough to physically grab him and pin him to the ground. You’re welcome to try, and might have an opportunity during con season, but if I were you I’d let that sleeping dog lie. Pencil him in on the short list of comics professionals with whom you should never get froggy: Darwyn Cooke, David Mack, and J. Michael “Left Ear” Straczynski. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

In addition to his “Plus-5″ attribute in hand-to-hand combat, “Kabuki” creator Mack is one of his generation’s most diversely talented artists. He’s found not just success, but accolades and acclaim for his multimedia comic book art, gallery art, comics writing and even children’s books. A new issue of a David Mack project – even a sketchbook/random projects collection like this week’s “Dream Logic” from Marvel’s Icon imprint – deserves both appreciation and scrutiny. And over the last few years, his projects have been lacking in neither.

As his mainstream profile continues to expand, his rep among comics fans has gotten a little tarnished. The glow that seemed to surround him a decade ago dimmed considerably over accusations of swiping and plagiarism. It’s been three years since the completion of “Kabuki: The Alchemy,” and as “Dream Logic” can prove, he’s been working on a lot of other stuff, but Kabuki is always on his mind, and there is always more on the way. Now is probably a good time to bring up the question.

David Mack: Genius or Hack?

No other creator-owned comic has experienced as much change as “Kabuki.” Beginning in the mid-nineties with sadly-gone talent factory Caliber Press, “Kabuki” was a story set in the Japan of the future focusing on the titular character, an assassin and agent of the Noh, the media entity in control of the country. The concept wasn’t that original – during the boom years, it seemed like small-press comics about ninjas in the future were out every other week. Published in black and white, the art is good but not very good. Mack’s sense of visual pacing and a rudimentary understanding of design are present in the earliest pages, when he begins with his version of an old Frank Miller trick – the TV screens over the comic panels. There are a lot of flaws, though. Anatomy is tricky and there are far too many action poses.

Still, there was something unique about “Kabuki” even then. For a ninja revenge story, it involved a lot of symbolism, and tackled issues of nationalism, heritage, memory and pain. Again, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the writing, but Mack’s rugged classicalism and southpaw Philip K. Dick leanings were at least interesting, and brimming with potential. That first series, collected as “Circle of Blood,” is practically nervous with the desire to be great and a solid small-press debut.

After writing some short Kabuki-world stories for other artists and drawing one or two more by himself, Mack got Caliber to spring for full-color on the one-shot “Dreams of the Deep.” The leap in quality from the first series is absolutely remarkable. In the story, as Kabuki lays dying, Mack shows for the first time his true talents, and it’s as if the Beatles had gone straight from “Please Please Me” to “Sgt. Pepper.” Vibrant, striking colors brushed and splattered and scrawled into the pages. Beguiling collages and a bold design complement a measured, dreamlike story.

After a move to Image, Mack’s work continued to improve, in both art and writing. And as the story continued, it became less and less concerned with plot and more with the inner workings of Kabuki herself. Between “Skin Deep” and “Metamorphosis,” there’s very little in the way of actual events. Instead, the writing is more concerned with presenting ideas, from philosophy to theoretical physics. Kabuki is held captive by Control Corps, makes some interesting new friends, and is broken down by a psychiatrist before breaking out with the aforementioned new buddies.

In the most recent series, “The Alchemy,” the autobiographical touches that had made the series unique since the beginning blossomed and bloomed into full metatext, with Kabuki working on a series of, well, “Kabuki” comics, which are then turned into novels by a familiar-looking writer, and used to help expose (remember these guys?) the Noh.

So many fully-painted or multimedia comics just don’t look very good. No, scratch that. They look fantastic. They just don’t feel very good. The problem is that no matter how good a fully-painted comic looks, it just doesn’t translate well into good sequential art. There are the obvious exceptions: Barron Storey and disciples Dave McKean and Bill Sienkewicz, Ashley Wood, etc. In many instances, though, fully-painted books come out lacking… something.

Despite the glaringly obvious talents of John Bolton, Alex Ross, and Jon J. Muth, there’s this neo-classical barrier of stolid realism that seems to stop their comics from actually being comics. (Not all the time. Despite the warranted criticisms, there’s a beauty and energy to Ross’s “Kingdom Come,” and Muth’s work on the penultimate issue of “Sandman” is frigging transcendent.) So the individual pages might be good for a gallery, but the sum collection of them isn’t always good for a comic.

David Mack doesn’t have this problem. And though all the mainstream cred he gets focuses on how his work is fit for MOMA, the important question is does it work as a comic? Does it tell a story? Is there continuum? As much as he relies on multimedia collages and fully-painted pages, “Kabuki” and other works succeed as comics – as sequential art that moves the eye, changes from panel to panel (when panels are used), and never really fails in the attempt to tell a story. It’s in this aspect of his work that his detractors never seem to acknowledge the achievement, and won’t give credit where due. They do have a good point, though. He does do a lot of borrowing.

Over the past couple of years, Mack has been pretty vilified by sections of the comic reader community for his use of photo-reference, and accused of swiping, ripping-off, or plagiarizing artists like Adam Hughes and Alex Maleev. This reached a fever pitch two or three years ago, when panels from “New Avengers” and “Kabuki” seemed to get a write-up in “Lying in the Gutters’” swipe file every other week. Discussion forums went mad with posters claiming that Mack was a talentless thief getting mainstream credit for appropriating others’ work. There was even such a hubbub that Marvel circulated a memo reminding artists never to copy from a photo for which they don’t own the rights.
For his part, Mack has been pretty open and conciliatory, making clear that he draws heavily on source materials, that he’s always felt more like a writer than an artist, and admitting, when pressed, that he needs to give credit to another creator. Back before the fanboys even cared, Mack was borrowing from, quoting, or doing variations on other artists’ work – the Jazz club scene in Dave McKean’s “Cages” being a frequent point of return – but quick to pinpoint the source of inspiration. And it didn’t take a subscription to “Vanity Fair” to know that Mack probably had one too. Even in the writing there are passages that seem similar to, or echo works by writers in both comics and literature.

It’s his nature as a collagist that has gotten him into trouble. The job of the collage-maker is to remake existing materials into something new, and they are always on the hunt for existing materials. Spend a day with a good collage artist and you’ll see them collect magazine clippings, dead leaves, stray paperclips, and even write down random strangers’ conversations. It’s in the nature of a collagist like Mack to be like a sponge, constantly soaking up both inspiration and information in the hopes that it can be remade into something unique.

In that respect, “Kabuki” is a success of the highest order. Quite simply, there are no other comics like it. Even other well-done multimedia books can’t quite match the dreamy cubism of “Kabuki.” It takes only one look to see that those calling Mack talentless are wrong. Hacks don’t make comics that are totally unlike anything else on the stands. But anyone calling him a genius is clearly jumping the gun.

David Mack has a lot left to prove, and the best way to do that may be to go back to basics. While his skills as a graphic designer and page-maker have gotten unquestionably stronger with each volume of “Kabuki,” in “Alchemy” his cartooning made a considerable leap as a result of his work in children’s books. This might be the direction Mack needs to go in with the next arc – stripped-down pen-and-ink, with no fashion magazines for photo-reference, and a tightened-up, more eventful plot.

To strip away those admittedly fantastic tricks, to work outside his comfort zone, might just be exactly what Mack needs.

The primary concern in “Kabuki” is change, and it can be felt clearly in every aspect of the work, even the chapter. Maybe it’s time for Mack to pull back from the elaborately constructed pages, the heavy symbolism, and the constant theorizing at the reader. Maybe that’s the only way to answer the pressing question: genius or hack?

I’m putting my money on sponge.

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