Hero Video Productions has started to carve themselves a niche in the documentary film market, putting together lovingly crafted programs about comic book creators and the art of creation. Their first two features, Paradise Found, focusing on Strangers in Paradise creator Terry Moore and Telling Stories, a collection of writers from different eras, were good, but they also showed the bumps in the road one could expect for a new company trying to establish themselves. Their third DVD, The Alchemy of Art: David Mack, is proof positive that the work and the learning have paid off, as most of those bumps are now smoothed out.
David Mack is a unique artistic talent in the comic book world. A writer and an artist, his work combines a variety of influences, both from within comics and without. His complex scripts fuse the ambiguity and restraint of Asian literature with the dynamism of the more realistic '80s comics, most notably the work of Frank Miller (a topic well discussed here). The art is a hybrid of classical painting, collage, Japanese woodblocks, children's illustration, and really, just about whatever else strikes Mack's fancy. He uses ripped paper for texture, and often incorporates real, three-dimensional objects and photographs into a piece. Since the early 1990s, he has written and drawn his own creation, Kabuki, and worked on a handful of titles for various publishers, most notably Marvel Comics' Daredevil.*
Directed and edited by Greg Jurls, The Alchemy of Art employs the same approach put to use in Paradise Found. The spine of the film is one long conversation with David Mack. Jurls allows the natural outline of the subject's own narrative to guide the way through his creative life. Naturally, The Alchemy of Art starts at the beginning, looking at the influence of Mack's mother, who was a teacher, and their unique upbringing. Splices of an interview with David's younger brother, Steve, add further information, but what really drives the point home are the shots of Mack's contemporary art pieces--his paintings, comic book pages, sculptures, and other art objects--to show how lessons from childhood still effect his creative process today.
Throughout the movie, Jurls keeps the viewer occupied with an endless parade of examples of David's artwork. Sometimes we see isolated pieces floating on a blank background, other times we see them in the context of the artist's studio, and in still others, Mack holds them as he explains what he was going for. His education and early career are explored, as are his techniques and the evolution of his process. It's an extensive run-through of the creator's oeuvre, and it sometimes leaves the studio to go to comic book conventions (where we meet fans and artistic admirers, including the aforementioned Mr. Moore), look at Mack's outdoor workspace and the found materials he often paints on, or follow Mack to his work at the Visionaries and Voices art studio. This latter element is the only thing that gets short shrift. I was unclear within the context of The Alchemy of Art where Mack was in these scenes, even though he touches on it a little in relating his duties there to themes in his stories. Only in the bonus feature "Visionaries and Voices" do we get a full explanation: it's a place for people of various disabilities to go and learn how to express themselves artistically in a comfortable environment. I wish Jurls had kept these scenes in the main body of the picture (the featurette is under four minutes long), because once it is explained, it makes complete sense. It is right in line with how David Mack presents himself. For an artist whose work often has a dark timbre, he's an extremely positive guy, in love with the process of learning and the random connections people make to one another.
The Alchemy of Art: David Mack is not a high-end production. It would easily be more at home on PBS than it would on the big screen. A good portion of the movie is given over to a static shot of the subject talking, rather than a dynamic day-to-day account of his life. That's not really a knock, however, because the movie is nicely done and very effective as a portrait of an artistic mind. Even if you've never encountered David Mack's work before, you will walk away from watching The Alchemy of Art with a clear sense of what his vision is, and you'll probably be intrigued to see more. It's a rare glimpse into one man's creative life, and Mack's drive should be inspiring for anyone who is aspiring to create their own art, or even anyone who already is.
(The availability of The Alchemy of Art: David Mack and the other comic book films by Hero Video is currently somewhat limited. For more information, visit their website: http://herovideoproductions.com.)
Though The Alchemy of Art is shown in a letterbox format, the picture is not anamorphic. Shot on video, the resolution is clear and looks good throughout, however.
Given that The Alchemy of Art primarily concerns itself with the monologue of one man, a high-end sound mix would have been superfluous. As with the film itself, Jurls keeps the focus on David Mack, and so the mix is geared to making sure his words are heard clearly. In that, they succeed greatly.
The main film on the DVD is only 67 minutes long, but Hero Video has loaded up the disc with bonus features so that there is close to two hours of material here. In addition to the previously mentioned short film about Visionaries and Voices, there are two features that take a closer look at specific pieces of Mack's work.
The first is "Shy Creatures" (5 minutes 30 seconds), which is the title of Mack's forthcoming children's book. In this piece, the camera lens is centered on the original black-and-white artwork for the book. Mack reads the text to us and changes the drawing by hand, creating a sort of DVD storybook.
The second is a commentary track for an issue of David's current creator-owned Marvel series, Kabuki: Alchemy. We go through the book page by page for 26 minutes, with Mack explaining how each page was created and the construction of the storytelling. It's a remarkable idea very well executed. Anybody interested in visual storytelling of any kind should spend some time with it, as its rare to hear an artist with this clear of a vision who is willing and able to deconstruct his work so articulately.
Recommended. Whether you're a comic book enthusiast or just someone who is interested in the artistic mind, The Alchemy of Art: David Mack has much to teach you. Prior knowledge of the artist's work is not required, as the film will fully educate you to the man's singular vision. You will most likely walk away a fan, and once you see Mack's approach to painting and life in general, you may just be inspired to try to apply his philosophy to your own endeavors, be they in art or just in getting through the day. This DVD gets added points for some excellent bonus features that not only shed more light on David Mack's work, but stay in the spirit of his own creative process.
* In the interest of full disclosure, David Mack provided a back cover blurb praising my artistic collaborator, Joëlle Jones, on the back of our graphic novel, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.