Comics / Back Issues

Backissue Retrospective: On David Mack and "Transcending"


By Dan Horn
June 7, 2012 - 13:27

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Quite a while ago, I had spoken with writer and artist David Mack about his work on the graphic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's science-fiction short The Electric Ant. Mack had enjoyed my analysis of his book, and wondered if I could take a look at a few issues of Dream Logic and the newest print of the Kabuki: The Alchemy collection and give him some feedback.

That was last July.

As my colleague Andy Frisk has noted in his column, many of us comic book pundits work for satisfaction alone. We love comic books, and thusly we love to talk about them. We're not getting paid a single tarnished cent to share our thoughts on the subject; we just feel impelled to do so, and we are exceedingly grateful to our editor-in-chief for the opportunity and the means to do so. Unfortunately, because we have other professions and obligations, there aren't enough hours in the day for some of us to get around to sharing those thoughts. That happened to be my quandary at the time of David's request. I was working--and am still working--on completing my own artistic and creative endeavors, I was separating from the military and shaking off all of the administrative tangles that grueling process includes, and I was preparing for my first semester of college. So, I reluctantly shelved my OpEd on David Mack and the connotations of his work in regard to the comic book medium.

Now, after perusing another issue of Dream Logic, I feel a certain responsibility to myself, and perhaps to the comic book medium itself, to put my thoughts down on paper, however digital and however insubstantial in the constant deluge of mainstream comic promotion. So, without any further delay, I set about to writing...

Author Peter Straub would say that the easiest, perhaps laziest, evaluation a critic can give something that he/she deems rare or original is to say that it "transcends" its genre or even its medium. I'd have to agree with him in almost any context. Most works, whether literary or otherwise creative, that we hastily label as "transcendent" are perhaps anything but. They merely bleed the untapped or underutilized potentiates from their media reservoirs, in turn representing the most exceptional, exemplary uses or manipulations of their respective artistic conduits. Peter Straub's own groundbreaking work in horror fiction was accused many times of transcending the horror genre, but it didn't. Straub's work was simply better than the mediocrity to which niche readers had grown accustomed. It restored horror's literary appeal, harkening back to Poe and Stoker, evoking themes of dark fantasy, instead of following the trend of lurid superficiality and cheap shock fiction for which the genre had become a bastion.
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Similarly, David Mack's Kabuki catalogue and his ongoing Dream Logic series recall the unmapped potentiate of comic books. Kabuki: The Alchemy in particular evokes a surreal collage of the human subconscious under a thin, almost nonexistent gauze of narrative, loosely resembling mainstream linearity.

When writer/artist David Mack asked for my opinion on his lauded graphic album Kabuki: The Alchemy, I knew I had a daunting endeavor ahead of me. Alchemy had been put through the critical wringer and then some a few years back. So, what could I say about Mack's work that hadn't already been said? I could have very easily branded it as "transcending comic book conventions," but I'd have to be uninformed to label it as such. The comic book medium has a wealth of diverse and brilliant creative talent. It might as well be said that most of the genre transcends the very perception that mainstream consumers must have of it. I could have just as easily strung together a bunch of review cliches, including the word "transcendent," and made just as much money as a soldier, a teacher, or a social worker as I churned out half-assed critiques for The New York Times or Rolling Stone.

Alchemy immediately got me to thinking about the quality of a work and that quality's association with advertising. I believe the contemporary American barometer for the success of a work is commerciality. Notice the scores of comic books that flood the market each year with nothing but the utmost commercial appeal. It gets to the point that the consumer even begins viewing certain mainstream works as something other than mainstream because of those works' slightly less culpable commerciality.

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What does commerciality mean in terms of art, then? This was a question that wriggled around uncomfortably in my skull for a minute or two, and then I was reminded of the city of Sao Paulo. In 2006 Sao Paulo passed the Clean City legislature, which eventually eliminated advertising within the city: no bus or taxi ads, no billboards, no posters, no sandwich boards. It sounds impossible, and maybe therein lies the problem. We're so inundated with advertising we can't imagine industry without it. However, the singular implication of the Clean City law that struck me as the most interesting was that, without the ability to advertise, businesses were forced to make products with greater quality than the goods they hocked preceding the law. Word-of-mouth became the new billboard, the new taxi ad, culturally diffusing a business's repute based solely on the merit of its services rendered. Commerciality means mass production and mediocrity, a quality that becomes accepted by a consumer generation over time and is therefore unquestioningly inherited by the following generation. We have magazines and dozens of websites dedicated entirely to constant promotion and advertising of comic books. The more commercial appeal a comic book retains, the more coverage it receives and the more successful that book becomes. Commercial appeal in the medium often, lamentably, also equates to genre conventions that don't offer very redeeming self-representations of comic books.

Then along comes something like Kabuki: Alchemy, which shocks even the stiffest detractors of the comic book medium out of their commercially induced comas. "What the hell is this?" they ask. "This can't be a comic book. It doesn't objectify women or appeal to our reptile brains. It isn't garish or unsubtle. It invokes qualities of fine art. It TRANSCENDS comic books."

My stomach turns at the word.
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"Transcends." It's a common enough assessment of an artistic effort in any media, but I've been reading comics since before I could serviceably read. I have a firsthand knowledge of the potential of the medium, and I feel some strange and chivalrous charge to defend the honor of this pop-cultural niche. There's no shortage of artistic and literary inspiration within comic books; this I know for certain. So, why do others not attribute exemplary works like Alchemy, Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, or Burns' Black Hole to the comic book medium?

The answer lies in the commercial assertion of that medium itself, and the troubling trend of works that lack that commerciality falling into the domain of hipster cult and abstruseness, or being attributed to an entirely different arena of sequential art: the "graphic novel." How sophisticated! Perhaps Alchemy and Dream Logic are themselves abstruse and sophisticated, or is that something mainstream audiences are simply led to believe by marketing? And without overbearing advertising, would those books be less abstruse? Would my non-hipster word of mouth be enough to goad mainstream readership into picking up an issue of Mack's Dream Logic? Would those readers, unaffected by incessant commercial irradiation, say, "This is different from anything I've read before, but it's not inaccessible, and it's beautiful"? Would the genetic strands of "comic book" be more easily discernible within the "graphic novel"?

Or is mass appeal--entertainment value--wholly irreconcilable with art?


Last Updated: July 2, 2020 - 15:05

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