David Mack on Electric Ant, an amazing in-depth interview / Interview by M. Sean McManus

An ELECTRIC ANT is an organic robot, made up of wires and powered by electricity; it is also a hard covered graphic novel by Marvel Comics.

Created by David Mack (w), Pascal Alixe (a), and Christopher Sotomayor (c), "Philip K. Dick's Electric Ant" adapts the original story behind the future noir classics, "Blade Runner" and subsequently "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep". I don't think I need to explain to you how important those works are to modern pop culture and science fiction, but in case you do-- it's huge.

In the dreamlike tale of "Philip K. Dick's Electric Ant", Garson Poole wakes up to discover he's been in an accident and now his whole world is changed. The doctors tell him he is not the man he thought he was, he's not even a man at all. Poole is an electricant, an "Electric Ant", a machine programmed like any other. Unlike other machines from the future, Garson Poole does not hunt humans-- he hunts reality. Garson wonders why he was programmed, by whom, and to what purpose? When Garson Poole begins tinkering with his internal programming tape-- reality bends, time breaks. Imagine a walking, talking, face tripping terminator; that is "Philip K. Dick's Electric Ant".

I enjoyed the comic thoroughly and I'm honored that David Mack, author of the adaptation, was willing to spend a little of his Thanksgiving holiday talking with me in-depth about "Philip K. Dick's Electric Ant".


MSM: David, thanks for taking time to talk about this with me. To start off, can you tell me how Electric Ant came about? Was it a project you put together and pitched to Marvel and ESP, or did ESP bring it to Marvel and you were approached by Marvel?

David Mack: I offered the project to Marvel after I was already working on it with Philip K. Dick’s daughters, Isa & Laura. The producer of the Scanner Darkly film, Tommy Pallotta introduced me to Isa & Laura after he showed them Kabuki and they had discussed me adapting Philip K. Dick to comics and graphic novels. Tommy Pallotta put the idea in motion for me to adapt PKD. Tommy also produced the film Waking Life (also directed by Richard Linklater) and he had contacted me in 2003 to work on a project with Hampton Fancher, the screenwriter for Blade Runner, and Jonathon Lethem the novelist who happens to be a Philip K. Dick scholar.

Tommy had picked up the Kabuki: Metamorphosis graphic novel in a bookstore in New York and then tracked me down for that project (with Fancher & Lethem) in 2003. Then a couple of years ago, when Tommy had finished the Scanner Darkly film, the latest Kabuki film option had expired at Fox and Tommy was interested in making the Kabuki film as his next film, so we began discussing that. Mostly on long bike rides on the beach at Santa Monica and Malibu. At that time I had just finished reading a biography of Philip K. Dick while working on The Alchemy, and Tommy and I began to discuss PKD quite a bit.

Tommy showed my work to Philip K. Dick’s daughters who run Electric Shepherd Productions and he suggested the idea of adapting PKD stories into graphic novels for the first time. They liked the idea, and Tommy and I, along with advice from Jonathan Lethem went about combing the prolific works of PKD in search for the right story to start with. We decided on Electric Ant for specific reasons and I worked out my approach to the story. Tommy and I met with Philip K. Dick’s daughters Laura and Isa in Santa Monica for a long lunch during which I explained ideas for the approach of the adaptation. They liked the approach and we were all on the same page creatively. Laura and Isa revealed that some publishers had heard that we were developing this and they already had offers from publishers.

I suggested to Isa and Laura that Marvel would be a very interesting publisher for this project. Marvel had great success with adapting author Stephen King to comics, and I offered that it could be an epic event if Marvel were to do the first comic book adaptation of the master of Science Fiction as well. The idea being that we could start with Electric Ant, and if well received, continue adapting more PKD stories. Perhaps choosing a different artist for each different story. I asked Isa and Laura if they would mind if I met with Marvel to offer the project to Marvel. Isa and Laura were intrigued by the idea and gave me their blessing. So after the New York Comic-Con in February 2007, I met with Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley at the Marvel offices to discuss this endeavor. He liked the idea, Marvel, and the Philip K. Dick Estate were introduced to each other, and thus began many, many months of working out the business relationship between the two houses of ideas.

I’ve been pals with Paul Pope since way back, so I knew he was a PKD fan, and I thought he would be perfect to do the covers. So I asked him if he was interested and he was into it. Brian Michael Bendis and I are big admirers of Blade Runner, so I asked him if he was interested in being a part of the project and he was into it.

Then Tommy, the Dick Estate, and I looked at the work of many artists that Marvel editor Mark Paniccia sent our way, and we thought Pascal would be great on it. So I was approached by Tommy Pallotta working with the Dick Estate, and then we worked together to cultivate the project and find the right home for it.

MSM: Awesome, what drew you to this tale of PKD's?

David Mack: We (Jonathon Lethem, Tommy Pallotta & I) chose this story as the first adaptation of PKD into comics because we felt the story has what we considered the classic quintessential Philip K. Dick-ian themes. The Electric Ant is a short story that Philip K. Dick wrote in the sixties. The germ of the idea of Electric Ant became the basis for Electric Sheep which became the film Blade Runner. Philip K. Dick would often take some ideas from his short stories that he thought were gems, and flesh them out into the larger format as a novel.

The Electric Ant asks the enduring existential questions: Who am I? Who created me? What was I created for? What is the meaning of my life? Do I have free will? Am I limited by my programming? Can I evolve into something beyond my original programming? What is reality? Is the way I perceive reality different than a fixed reality? Can I alter my perceptions to transcend my ego and programming limitations and see a pure reality? Does my internal reality affect the external reality? Which is more real?

MSM: Can you speak a little about your writing process? When adapting from one media to another, how did you decide what elements to retain from the original and what to delete or modify?

David Mack: The adaptation is very true to the original story, but there was more room to develop things that are only hinted at in the short story. In this case, that was one of the advantages of adapting a short story instead of a novel. In adapting a novel to film or graphic novel, you may have to edit it down. It can be a reductive process. With this story, I was able to let it develop organically into the new format in ways that expand on ideas and scenes that are only hinted at in the short story. It is not identical to the short story, but we decided early on that it was going to be very true to the source material. We did not want to change it into a different story with only minor similarities. Everything that is in the short story is adapted into this version, but things that are suggested in the original story are given more room to flesh out. Some ideas and details that are mentioned only once at the beginning of the short story now have room to return with a twist. And there is a sort of love story that developed. It is not an action story though there is action in it. It became a kind of mystery and a love story with the mystery being these existential questions that I mentioned, it all begins when the protagonist begins searching for answers.

A man wakes up in the hospital from a traffic accident only to have the doctor tell him they cannot treat him because he is a robot. He then has a lot of questions. Who made him? Who owns him? What is his program? Can he alter it? Has he been walking around seeing things differently than they really are? I wrote the script into the story that I would write if I were turning the short story into a film.

It was most important to me to be respectful to Philip K. Dick’s story, to communicate the themes by taking advantage of the new opportunities that the comic book medium offers, and that my version would ring true to his daughters Laura and Isa. I can’t tell you how happy I was that Philip K. Dick’s daughters liked the script that I wrote. That meant everything to me.

MSM: What was the biggest change from the original material, and why did you feel the need to change it? In other words what were the creative challenges it presented?

David Mack: The biggest challenge was that in the original short story, the main character is mostly alone, and thinking to himself. The characters of Danceman & Sarah are in the short story, but briefly. In my comic book adaptation, I let the characters of Sarah & Danceman develop more and they gave opportunity for the protagonist to voice his thoughts through interaction and discussion with these external characters, instead of him thinking most of the action the way it happened in the original short story. This gave more visual opportunity between the characters and room for all of the characters to develop because of that and it lead to the biggest change from the original story, in that there is a kind of love story that develops in the adaptation.

MSM: David, you are a consummate creator, in that you both write and do your own art-- with that in mind, I was struck by the parallels between your role as a creator, and Garson Poole's experimental manipulation of his reality, of time & space, and the editing of reality as presented in story form. Can you speak a little about that and if there was any aspect of this story you felt a deeper connection with other than simply being a "gig".

David Mack: I like the comparison that you are making and I relate to that in terms of us creating our own reality, our own life narrative, all the time, and the act of creating (writing or drawing) comics and books and films is a perfect metaphor for that, as is the character in this story.

Giving the main character an idea of programming, the idea that he has natural inclinations for what he is “hard wired” to do, to see, to enjoy, to pursue, is something that I think is a good metaphor that most humans can relate too. Also the idea that there are things in his program that are naturally edited out of his daily narrative before they make it to his conscious frontal awareness is also, I think, comparable to the unconscious and conscious editing that happens with all of us on a daily bases.

Once we become aware that our reality is limited by these things, what we perceive, what we project, and that we have blind spots about things that we are not perceiving, that epiphany that we are not at all living in an objective linear reality because of our blind spots and our programming (from nature and nurture)... when we become aware of these things and that our reality can indeed be influenced by our own thought and actions more than we realized, we then have a liberty and a responsibility, even a mission, to be more consciously intent about how we create the narrative of our lives.

I know that I related to this character very much when I was writing this story. They character is, in fact, very close to the way that I often think, act, and speak regarding my interaction with others. People have told me that the character speaks in my voice. He is a very earnest character. He’s trying to do his best. But he becomes aware that there is a gap between how he sees things and reacts to things and how other people see things and how he is expected to react in certain social situations. I relate to this in a very personal way.

I work with an art studio for artists with Autism, Asperger’s and other challenges and there are a lot of correlations between how these people navigate the world and the point of view that is presented in Electric Ant. I have Autism and Asperger's in my family and you could even view the protagonist’s earnest efforts to understand and relate to others and interact with the world while being made aware that he has certain blind spots and “hard-wired” inclinations to those of the person with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

I don’t really talk about this much in a professional setting, but it is something that I deal with everyday and very personal to me and I could not ignore the similarities that occurred to me in writing this story. I very much related to Garson Poole in the story.

I try to avoid labels which is the point of the art studio that I work with (so that people with these challenges can be seen in a venue as artists first for what they can do, rather than through the lens of a label with connotations of what is perceived as their deficiencies), but I think author Chuck Palahniuk mentioned this in regards to me publicly at some point, and it is something that occurred to me in the course of this character.

MSM: That is great, I had no idea of your involvement with all of that, and I'm really glad to find out how personally you connect with this project. Funny enough I do now see a certain resemblance to you and the image of Poole on the Hardcover-- something about the shape of the eyes maybe?

Again, I really enjoyed Electric Ant, I think everyone who's a fan of your work or Philip K. Dick should check it out. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?

David Mack: I’m very happy with the Hard Cover collection of "Philip K. Dick's Electric Ant". It has some extra features in the back as well. There are 16 cover drawings from Paul Pope that have never been seen before and there are character designs and sketchbook images. At my facebook page you can see the step by step art process of my cover painting that is on the Hardcover.

If you are not that familiar with my other work, I’d recommend reading my most recent Kabuki collection called The Alchemy. I think it my most evolved work as a writer and an artist and the most diverse art approaches throughout the story. You can also check out my children’s book The Shy Creatures and I have new series coming out from Marvel called Dream Logic.

You can find detailed information about all of these on my facebook or twitter (davidmackkabuki) or the fan site of my work: Davidmackguide.com which is updated daily.

MSM: One last quick thing since Mary is always talking about food here: What is your favorite meal?

David Mack: I like sashimi. Mackerel, Salmon & eel are my favorite. Also Thai soups.

MSM: Great, thanks again for your time, David.

David Mack: You're welcome. Thank you, Sean.

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