Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Portrait of comic book artist

Northern Kentucky native David Mack brings unusual breadth of knowledge to his illustrated stories

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

He looks like Tom Cruise - a pumped-up Tom Cruise. His affable demeanor belies the stringency of his work regimen. He wanders the world but maintains a residence and studio in his childhood home of Bromley. He's a hero of the comic book elite, creator of the character Kabuki, a masked operative for a clandestine government agency, and artist of Daredevil, one of the top 10 best-selling books in the nation.

David Mack and his partner, Ahn Tran, sometimes the subject of his artwork (for his book Kabuki Dreams and others), hang out in their Bromley home and studio, the same house where Mack grew up.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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David Mack, 31, is a fine artist whose inspiration is limitless. In addition to comic books, he creates album covers (Paul McCartney and Tori Amos are in line), toys, packaging, advertising campaigns and action figures - often at the same time.

Two hundred examples of the last 10 years of his work make up David Mack's Passport to All Worlds on view through Oct. 31 at Northern Kentucky University's Fine Arts Center. It has had the most diverse audience of any show held in the gallery.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday in Greaves Hall, Mack will lecture on his work, including the latest installment in the 40-year Daredevil series, which hit streets Oct. 15. He has been working on Daredevil for the past four years, adding his imprimatur by embedding his own childhood experiences into the character's past.

"I don't think of myself as a cartoonist," he says. "I never felt an internal need to stick to one thing or another. I don't make cartoons. I make books. I use words, and paint and draw and collage, and tell stories in one form or another."

At an all-day seminar at NKU, he perches on the edge of a tall wooden stool, microphone in hand, flashing his pearly whites. He seems so L.A.

But he's not. He's cool and smart and down-to-earth. He is energetic and enthusiastic. He's a human sponge sucking up as much as he can from the world around him, and he's found that comics allow him to pack all his interests and philosophies into a single format.

"I start with the story," he says. "I don't make a distinction between the story and the art. I see them as the same thing. I think comics is the medium that unites them."

Mack lazes before the crowd - calm, confident, charismatic.

Bought family home

"In his senior year of high school, he did a comic book as an independent study," says Kevin Booher, Mack's former professor. "He made $23,000 and bought his mother's house in Bromley (his mother had died) so his brother (Steve) could graduate from the same school. As a young guy he knew what he wanted."

What: Passport to All Worlds
When: Through Oct. 31
Where: Fine Arts Center, third floor, Northern Kentucky University
Information: (859) 572-5148
Lecture: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Greaves Hall, NKU. Cocktail reception will precede the lecture, 6:30-8 p.m. Free.
Books available: Comic Book World, 7130 Turfway Road, Florence; 4016 Harrison Ave., Cheviot.
While studying graphic design at NKU, he created Kabuki, drawing much of it while listening to class lectures. He considers the comic autobiographical.

"It was a way for me to tell personal stories and an outlet for my interests and philosophies," he says. "I was learning so much about Japan - about Kabuki and the ghost plays. I was fascinated."

Kabuki theater, performed by men wearing elaborate masks when impersonating women or supernatural beings, followed a formula where a ghost would appear to a traveler to tell the story of its suffering. Mack took this idea and created a female assassin, a scarred woman who wears a mask.

"Kabuki takes place now or in the future in Japan," he explains. "It's about the interdependence of government and criminal realms. Kabuki is an agent in a police agency known as Noh ... ."

The book, Mack says, is his own mask. "It's about the death of my mother and finding my own niche."

There are more than a million copies in print in the United States. Kabuki has been translated into seven languages and is sold in 39 countries.

Passion for learning

Mack graduated from NKU in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. "I took learning very seriously," he says. "I had a passion for it. Sometimes, teachers limit your dreams to what fits into a box. I didn't just want to swallow things, but chew on them a little bit."

Born: Oct. 7, 1972, in Cincinnati
Occupation: Author-artist
Education: Ludlow High School, 1990; Northern Kentucky University, bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design, 1995
Major awards: Four Eisner Awards (Oscar of the industry) for Best Painter; four International Eagle Awards; Harvey and Kirby Awards for Best New Talent.
Favorite childhood memory: All of it.
My mother always told me to: Be constructive.
What makes me laugh: My friends
Last good book I read: Tesla: Master of Lightning, by Margaret Cheney and Robert Uth
Favorite indoor activity: Painting and drawing friends.
Favorite outdoor activity: Rock climbing.
How I earned my first dollar: I sold drawings in the third grade.
When I was a child, I thought I'd grow up to be: Zorro.
In high school, people thought I was: Zorro. Just kidding. Tom Cruise. Just kidding. Energetic.
Heroes: My parents and my friends.
Three words that best describe me: I love everything.
If I've learned one thing in life: That your life is what you choose it to be. What you make it.
Prize possession (not people): Robots
To me, courage is: Fun.

The best advice I ever got: What you say is what you get.
The best decision I ever made: Doing what comes naturally.
I knew I had made it big when: I stood up to the school bully.
My friends like me because: I bring them my reality.
Secret ambition: Make more films. And dance.
Greatest extravagance: Compulsively buying books. And art
He crammed in courses to improve his writing and art. "While I studied figure drawing by day to learn how light and shadow create volume in the human body, at night I was in anatomy and physiology dissecting people, and memorizing each and every bone and muscle,'' he says. "This inside-out approach enriched my figure drawing skills for comic books where it is necessary to know how to draw the figure from every angle and in any motion."

Mack took entrepreneurship just as seriously. When he was 12 he began raising custom mice that he sold for $3. "You could have a black one or a white one or one with long or short hair," he says. "My brother and I never had a problem occupying ourselves. Our mother used to make our clothes and then we started making them ourselves. I was creating my reality back then, and now."

The Mack brothers grew up under modest circumstances in the same home Mack and his girlfriend, Ahn Tran, live in now. Tran provides editing and design assistance in addition to modeling for Kabuki.

The boys were inseparable and until their mid-20s lived together in the same home. Their mother, Ida, a first-grade teacher in Covington, encouraged her sons in their creative pursuits. Their father, Wilson, is a musician who became a minister. The couple separated when David was 9 and Steve was 7.

"Early on, David saw learning as a joy," says Barbara Martin, Mack's English teacher at Ludlow High School. "He watched his mother prepare lesson plans and got to know his teachers well. He was always comfortable talking about his writing and showing his drawings."

His father wanted him to be a musician. "He always had two or three organs in the house," Mack remembers. "When he brought me home from the hospital he played Bach and Beethoven constantly. He hung a picture of Beethoven over my bed. I called him Beet-Hoven."

It was Mack's father who bought him his first Daredevil when he was 9. Mack later incorporated his father into the Daredevil comics by adding his middle name to the character Kingpin.

"My dad used to dress like a '70s mobster," he says. "We used to call him the kingpin. ... When I wrote the character's origin story I gave him my father's middle name and included personal details: his pet mouse, growing up poor, living with no heat or electricity and shaving his head as a kid because of lice infestation."

Daredevil is the story of a man whose prizefighter father was murdered when he wouldn't throw a fight. The blind son promises his father he will never fight, and goes on to become a lawyer. But the murder has had a profound effect and he becomes a masked vigilante at night.

Ben Affleck starred when the comic book made it to the big screen this spring.

Mack says working on Daredevil gave him the rare opportunity to add something to the mythology that so inspired him as a boy. "I was able to continue with the Daredevil story where I left off as a kid. It was like the adult version of me working in collaboration with the 12-year-old version of me."

'It's very intensive'

"You spend so much time in isolation," says Mack of the creative process. "I spend time anguishing over what to cut out, what to keep in. The fact that I'm drawing it is a side effect of what I'm doing. When I do comics, I use whatever imaging technique I want to express even an emotion. It's very intensive."

One look at the work and there's no question it's intensive. "Like Melville he has a creative work schedule," says Booher. "He sleeps for three hours, then works for 12 hours. It's one REM (Rapid Eye Movement) dream cycle."

Mack discovered that he achieved the level of focus and energy he needed for his work only once a day. So, he experimented with his sleep/wake cycle by sleeping and waking twice a day.

"I understood that in order to have good rest, you need to complete the REM cycle," he explains. "REM cycles tend to be 2 1/2 to three hours long. Most people sleep two or three REM cycles in a row, because they are exhausted from being up all day. So, I began sleeping one REM cycle at a time, waking up refreshed and completely focused, then working 12 hours and sleeping another three-hour REM cycle."

His other work quirk is that he doesn't use a computer. He hand-paints his characters, which is unusual in the field. When an idea strikes him, he writes it down and files it where it waits until he's ready to fold it into a story.

"There's a format, an infrastructure that makes it accessible to readers," he says. "I love the nature of sequence. When I think about something - Kabuki has children or how she will die - I put it in a file. I might not use it for five years, but I will use it.

"The characters create their own realities. External change follows internal change and they choose their own happiness. I think thoughts are real things. When you write a thought down it becomes part of the material world."

Tran is very much a part of Mack's world. They collaborate on covers for Marvel's Alias comic. They met when she was a chemical engineer.

"We met in '97 at the Warehouse dance club," he says. "She has her own line of stuffed creatures, "Tranimals," and is a freelance writer and illustrator. ... For me, she takes care of Kabuki's international publishing and licensing, translations and online sales."

"All of this has enabled David to live his dream," says Paul Mullins owner of Comic Book World in Florence, where Mack bought comics as a boy. "He insisted he was going to work in comics. He never doubted it. He's a Renaissance man as far as the art goes. You can see every imaginable style between the covers of his books."

"My art is all about integrating things and putting them together," Mack says. "Happiness is being in the moment and I find myself most in the moment during art or action. I try to sustain that state by creating a life indistinguishable from my art."

E-mail mbauer@enquirer.com

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