SDCC '08 - David Mack on Adapting PKD's Electric Ant

Philip K. Dick is without a doubt a premier name in the realm of science fiction. He is a master, a legend, and his works have seen successful adaptations both directly and indirectly in nearly every medium. One medium that hasn’t seen Philip K. Dick’s work directly, however, is the realm of comics- until now.

At the “Mondo Marvel” panel at San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel announced that writer David Mack and artist Pascal Alixe will be taking one of Dick’s most celebrated short stories, 1969’s Electric Ant, and adapting it to comics. Mack took time out of his busy SDCC schedule to tell us about how the project developed, who else is involved, and what Dick’s family thinks of his work reaching out to a new audience through a new medium.

Newsarama: David, Is this a project you were approached to do, or one you went after?

David Mack: Both, I suppose.

The producer of the Scanner Darkly film, Tommy Pallotta put it in motion. Tommy also produced the film Waking Life (also directed by Richard Linklater) and he had contacted me about five years ago 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.

It began because Tommy picked up the Kabuki: Metamorphosis graphic novel in a bookstore in New York and then tracked me down for that project 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 a 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. And 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.

NRAMA: So it’s safe to say you’re a fan of PKD’s work. What about his style did you like the most?

DM: Yes. I first became aware of Philip K. Dick after seeing the film Blade Runner as a kid. I like the ideas most. And the art of taking some of the most existential ideas, some of the most enduring human questions, and finding a very fascinating but grounded context in which to explore them.

NRAMA: The Electric Ant is a nearly 40 year-old story. How does something like that still resonate today?

DM: The story has quintessential themes of humanity, and we chose this story to begin with because it has what we considered the classic quintessential Dickian themes.

The story 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?

NRAMA: Is it difficult adapting a story? Is it restraining working from something that's already complete?

DM: Some fascinating films have come from Philip K. Dick’s short stories and novels. It is an incredibly fertile world of ideas. Philip K. Dick himself developed some of his longer form novels from ideas that he first explored in short story form. So it is a matter of adapting an idea from one medium into another, and being open to the opportunities and inspirations that the new medium offers. In fact, this story, Electric Ant, was a short story that the novel that Blade Runner was inspired from. Philip K. Dick had a habit of working out some ideas in short story form, and then later further exploring those ideas in a longer form novel.

So I didn’t feel restrained at all. 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.

NRAMA: Will this series be nearly identical to the original short story, or is some liberty being taken for the comic interpretation?

DM: 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. And 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.

NRAMA: You're known as a writer and an artist; Is there one you like to do more than the other, or does it just depend on the project?

DM: If you limited that question to comic books/ graphic novels and asked me if I could only write them or draw them, which would I choose, it would be writing them. But I do like painting and making things in other mediums outside of comics too. I suppose, in comics, I’ve worked primarily as a writer, but as the writer of Kabuki, I had the opportunity to use the art as another tool of the writing, and use it in a different context in each of the Kabuki volumes. I’ve done the art for most of the Kabuki volumes. Early on, I intended to only write Kabuki and was searching for the right artist to draw it. Brian Michael Bendis was originally going to draw the first volume. But I was delighted with the visual opportunities for changing the tone of the art to reflect the story tones. Designing the visuals on Kabuki is just another stage of writing it

In children’s’ books, I’ll continue to both write and do the art. I’m working on a new children’s book that uses a mixed media approach. But again, if I had to choose to only do one or the other in that medium, it would be the writing. When making books. The writing of it is the most important to me. And I can always do paintings on their own outside of comics.

NRAMA: Does your work as an artist give you an edge over other writers, as far as envisioning scenes?

DM: I don’t think of it in a competitive way with other writers, but as a collaborative way with the artists I’m working with. The experience may give me some insight into ideas and layouts that I can then offer the artist as a jumping off point for them. As another solution for them to choose from. I began working for Marvel as the writer on Daredevil with Joe Quesada doing the art. I wrote with his art in mind and for what I perceived as some of the strengths and panache that he brings as an artist.

NRAMA: What's one "wow" moment from the story that you think really translates well to the comic book medium?

DM: The story has some incredible visual moments. There is a level of surrealism that happens when the main character begins to tamper with his reality program. The visual medium of comics offers exciting possibilities for these moments and twists in the story.

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