During the turbulent atmosphere of September and October 2001, when this interview was conducted, shortly after the World Trade Center (WTC) attack and during the start of the American-British bombing campaign in Afghanistan, it was obvious that the times were changing. One of the most trivial but picturesque signs of the change has been the type of SPAM messages that I received in my email box. Usually, they had been commercials produced to be spread by the means of electronic mail and mostly designed to fit the measure of the richest market in the world -- that is US, of course. Just a few weeks ago, SPAM was just the regular pest stuff, offering magical weight reduction pills, selling Viagra, advertising porno web sites, or whatever. All of a sudden, these messages, sent from the suspicious locations, have started to change their style and content so drastically: now they were selling antibiotic against Anthrax, patriotic T-shirts, American flags of all sizes, copies of the United States Constitution… Even from the perspective of somebody living in Europe, it was obvious that the majority in the US was changing its focus from "regular" consumerism to patriotic stuff. In the midst of such a dramatic change, it was interesting to speak to Mack White, Austin-based cartoonist who is known for his critical view of American mainstream culture and politics. Mack White's comics first attracted attention through some of the best anthologies that came out in the 90s: Buzz, Snake Eyes, Hyena , Zero Zero… His Fantagraphics published title, Villa of the Mysteries, combined humor, somnambular fantasy, contemporary conspiracy theories and ancient mythology. Such an intriguing combination. Recently, White has been active in many different fields, including the Internet.
First, tell me about your recent activities. What are you doing at this moment in your life and in your art?
For the past 10 months I've been on an hiatus from comics. I've been busy with my website http://www.mackwhite.com, plus working as production designer on a film, Cowboys and Martians. I've also been busy with conspiracy research. I've posted some of my investigative journalism on my website, and been interviewed on radio and cable access TV shows about these matters. At some point I'll start working on comics again… But for the present I need to do other things, as well as get some perspective on my comics work and decide where to take it next.
Is Cowboys and Martians a feature film?
Yes, it's a feature film. It takes place in an alternate reality Old West--a parallel universe with steam-driven stagecoaches, strange Masonic conspiracies, and an attack by Martians. The script is based loosely on H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. My role as production designer involves designing a surreal, 19th century San Antonio, as well as all the bizarre Martian machinery. The director is Scott Perry, whose first film was Teenage Catgirls in Heat. The release of his latest film, Jetblast, has been postponed due to prophetic similarities with the recent terrorist incidents at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
While reading your comics like Homunculus or Villa of the Mysteries, I was intrigued by your knowledge and understanding of the Ancient world and Roman/Greek mythology... Where does this interest coming from?
My interest in mythology and ancient history goes back many years. I've always read the Classics, and have had an interest in Classical art. Films like Jason and the Argonauts and The Satyricon always fascinated me. Also, when I was a Psychology student, my main area of study was Freud and Jung, who recognized the psychological importance of mythology.
When did you start building the web site, and what was your initial idea?
I first began building my website about three years ago. My initial idea was to create a virtual theatre to present my comic stories. Later I added the Bison Bill's Weird West section, which is a virtual (and surreal) version of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. My latest addition has been the Worldwide Newslink section, in which can be found links (and a few exclusive articles) related to current events. Presently, on Newslink, I have a large number of articles related to the recent terrorist attacks (which, incidentally, I believe was a CIA black op).
What's your opinion on Buffalo Bill? He was touring around Europe, in the early 20th century. In 1906, he came to Pancevo, the Serbian town where I live. From my window, I can see the place (now part of the town's industrial area) where his show was presented. From what I read about it, it was exceptionally well received theatrical myth-making, based on the "Wild West" iconography, which would be further glorified in the movies and mass media in the 20s and 30s... It's funny that he actually tried to SELL this idea to people all over the world.
The mythological aspect of Buffalo Bill's Wild West is what fascinates me most. Every culture has a mythos, and the mythmaking process has always worked the same way throughout history. What's unusual about the Wild West mythos, though, is the degree to which it was promoted by popular entertainment, first in dime novels and Wild West shows, then later in film. Also, as you mentioned, this mythos was promoted worldwide. Not only did Buffalo Bill take his show to Europe, but later European filmmakers began to make westerns. It's a genre that transcends geographical boundaries.
In the era of new patriotism in US, what's the reaction of people around you when you tell them that you think that attacks against the WTC and Pentagon were in fact a CIA black op?
First of all, there are a lot of people who share my opinion. When I was interviewed on Austin cable access last week, not one caller to the program disagreed. However, I do occasionally encounter people who believe the propaganda coming from the government and corporate media. When that happens, I simply tell them to read up on their history. There has never been an instance in American history when an atrocity which led to war was not actually engineered by our own government. The sinking of the Maine, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin--all were to one degree or another contrived crises. In 1962 our military leaders drew up a plan to attack their own Navy base at Guantanamo in Cuba and blame it on Castro. They felt that a high casualty count would make the American people indignant enough to support an invasion of Cuba. This plan was never put into action because President Kennedy refused to agree to it. Then there's the matter of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; court records prove it was instigated by a FBI informant. The FBI even gave him the timer for the bomb, and when he asked if he should sabotage the plot, the FBI told him no. The Oklahoma City bombing was also perpetrated by government operatives, the motive being to create the hysteria necessary to pass the Anti-Crime and Terrorism Bill. It's an old technique--the Nazis used it when they burned down the Reichstag and blamed it on their political enemies. In regard to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, it is important to know the history of the Bush family--how Prescott Bush (George W.'s grandfather) helped finance Hitler, also how George the elder was involved in the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, Iran-Contra, October Surprise, and many other dark projects. It's also important to know the extent to which the Bush and Bin Laden families are linked via the Carlyle Group, the world's largest defense contractor. If anyone doubts what I'm saying, all they have to do is read the documentation. Links to articles on all these things can be found on my Worldwide Newslink site. None of this is conspiracy theory; it's all conspiracy fact.
Concerning your internet activities, do you have feed back from readers in the US mostly or from other countries as well?
I've been getting a lot of feedback from readers in other countries. That's the great thing about the Worldwide Web--it's worldwide!
It seems that it has become much more difficult to publish comics on paper compared to the early or mid 90s. Do you think that the comics scene, generally speaking, is reaching a point of self-questioning and searching for what's next to do?
Good question. I don't know what the comic scene as a whole is going to do, because I'm still trying to decide what to do as an artist. Suddenly it's more difficult to publish and distribute comics on paper, whereas even a few years ago it was a lively scene. I don't know what's going to happen. I have to trust that the cyclical nature of things will cause a revival of the comics industry. In the meantime there's a worldwide audience to be found on the Internet, which may perhaps help to bring about this revival.
Can you tell me what the start of American-British military operation in Afghanistan seem like, observed from Austin at least, what sort of human reactions do you notice around you?
People are scared, mostly. They're disturbed by the terrorist attacks, and afraid of what might happen next. There's also a lot of patriotism and anger--war fever, a desire for revenge. It's sad, really, to see so much ignorance. But, as I said earlier, I've been surprised by how many people are aware of what this is really about.
How do you work on your comic stories? Do you write the script first, and then work on the images? Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like your comics are mainly based on a carefully created plot, as I can see that you are a very good writer too. That's what I found very interesting, because many of the alternative cartoonists seem to be just exploring the form (even though I don't think that's wrong).
Usually I have a script of some kind to begin with, but it's not all worked out in detail. I like to leave room for improvisation while I'm working. Sometimes I get my best ideas while the story is coming alive on the drawing board. It has happened that I've changed the direction of the plot midway through production.
Do you think that, somehow, sub-conscious material can emerge from the story you are working on? Like something that you didn't think about at first, and that surprises even you, the creator? Do you believe that cartoonist is a kind of a shaman using pen and ink? And what could be the role of an artist in a society that relies so much on rational behavior?
Yes, I think the artist's role is shaman-like. Art alters our perceptions, thus it alters reality. That is why art is such a powerful force and why the Establishment tries so hard to censor it or control it and use it for propaganda.
As regards comics in particular, I think there is something special about the medium that makes it particularly powerful. For one thing, it costs very little to produce a comic. All you need is pen, paper, imagination, ability, and a photocopier (and, these days, preferably, a website) to get your vision, or message out there. This is a great advantage over film, which requires a tremendous amount of money and manpower.
Also, comics require the use of both halves of the brain--left and right, verbal and visual, intuitive and logical and so forth. This gives the brain a full work-out, and creates what I call a "whole brain" experience. It also gives the comics medium a unique kind of power; it can convey visual reality like film, while at the same time being literature, thus utilizing the advantages of the printed page. Words activate the critical, analytical part of the brain; reading is an active process, as opposed to the more passive experience of film, or television. To create a comic that truly meets the potential of the medium, a cartoonist should be as good at writing as is at drawing.
As for the rational-irrational dichotomy, I can only say that a society that relies so much on the rational, as ours does, is a society that is even more desperately in need of the irrational, the ecstatic, and the mystical. To be entirely rational is to be half-brained. If we do not allow expression of the irrational, then we lose an important part of the human experience. In fact, I believe we risk destruction, in the form of the "return of the repressed." There's a quote in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which expresses this concept perfectly: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." Wise words to live by.