Philip K. Dick is a well known font of idea for motion pictures. "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," and "Screamers" are just a few of the film adapted from Dick novels or short stories. However, with the exception of a comic adaptation of "Blade Runner" and a graphic novel derived from the "A Scanner Darkly" movie, Dick's work has never been adapted to the medium of comics. This is about to change with the publication of "The Electric Ant" from Marvel Comics. Writer David Mack spoke to CBR news about the process of adapting a Philip K. Dick (PKD) short and what appeal Dick's work has to offer.
"The Electric Ant" tells the story of a man who discovers he is a synthetic life form. As in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," and many other of Dick's tales, the character goes on a soul-search once his safe reality is shattered by absolute knowledge.
Written in the late 60s, the technology Dick describes in "The Electric Ant" is analog and antiquated by today's standards. Rather than modernizing it, Mack says he will use this to his advantage. "The [main] character himself is an outdated model. There are hints to tie other PKD stories in this one, with the inference that the new model of synthetic human is the Replicant. The old model is the Electricant -- called Electric Ant as the slang term," Mack explained. "It is kind of an antique. So the Electric Ant has an older style of internal mechanism. There is a kind of charm to it, but as you'll see, it is difficult to find replacement parts of such an older model."
Dick's short story is a meditation on one of his favorite themes; the fragility of perceived reality in exposure to absolute reality. "That theme is one of the reasons this story was chosen. 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," Mack said. "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?"
Like many others, Mack was first exposed to Dick's work through the 1982 film "Blade Runner." "I heard that it was based on a book by Philip K. Dick, and that introduced me to his stories," he recalled. To Mack, the philosophical underpinnings appeal to him more than the fantastical settings Dick often utilized. "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. The work is fantastic, but grounded. It is relatable -- and utterly human," Mack explained. "Robots and synthetic beings are employed in the story to ask questions about true humanity. Dick writes about alternate realities to ask questions about the idea of absolute reality."
The project first began with, appropriately enough, synchronicity. "I was reading a biography of Philip K. Dick while working on the recent 'KABUKI: The Alchemy' story, and shortly after that, Tommy Pallotta, the producer of the 'Scanner Darkly' film sent me all of Dick's short stories, and approached me about adapting his work with the Dick Estate." The coincidences continued, as Mack explained, "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."
Pallotta first discovered Mack when he picked up "KABUKI: Metamorphosis" in a bookstore in 2003. It was around this time that Mack was contacted about the Fancher/Lethem project. "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." This was around the time Mack was working on "The Alchemy" and reading the biography of Dick. The writer and producer began discussions about the late author.
"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," Mack recalled. "They liked the idea, and Tommy and I, along with 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 introduced me to Philip K. Dick's daughters, Laura and Isa, in Santa Monica for a long lunch during which I explained to them my ideas of how to approach to the adaptation. They liked my ideas and 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."
At this point, Mack suggested taking the proposal to Marvel Comics. "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." Mack's pitch: "We could start with 'Electric Ant,' and if well received, continue adapting more PKD stories -- perhaps choosing a different artist for each different story." With the daughters' blessing, Mack approached Marvel's Dan Buckley after the New York Comicon in February of 2007. Mack met with Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley at the Marvel offices to discuss the endeavor. After "many, many months of working out the business relationship between the two houses of ideas" the project was a go.
"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," Mack said. "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 saw the work of many artists suggested by Marvel editor Mark Paniccia, and we thought Pascal [Alixe] offered great possibilities for the story."
In adapting Dick's ideas, which are often hazily described, Mack starts with key ingredient of a PKD story: the characters. "They move themselves. ['The Electric Ant'] is actually quite a character motivated story," Mack said. "The female character has the most growth in character from the adaptation. [She] brings to it something of a love story." In the short, Dick glosses over a casual relationship between the characters as quickly as he mentions flying cars. "There are lines and hints from the characters in the short story that have room to turn up later in this story with little twists and pay offs to them."
The flying cars and reliable video-phones Dick mentions in passing can be fleshed out. "In this format, there was an opportunity to follow up on [terms and ideas] and bring them back into the story from different angles. Seeds that Philip K. Dick sowed early on in the story now make more of an appearance."
The project has also offered the opportunity to create a unified look for future adaptations. "This [story] suggests a connection to the world of some of his other stories. There will be some literary allusions to some of his other works. If you look close, or read between the lines, you will see references to other short stories and novels that help flesh out the suggestion of this world," Mack explained. "If you ware a reader of PKD, you'll see catch some references in the story. Perky Pats. Palmer Eldritch. Minority Report. Some things that suggest a bigger world in this story, even though the main action takes place between a handful of people."
Dick's tendency to shatter reality itself will also come into play. "There is also the context of alternate realities in the story, so the world kind of gets even bigger with that and its absolute continuity a little ambiguous," Mack said.
Asked if Dick's lingo, like "splunk" would survive the adaptation, Mack said, "Yes. And the term 'Ident Dart.'" For all the technology, terms, and reality-warping, Dick's stories remain familiar in all the ways they still present our world. Mack explained, "No matter how futuristic and fantastic the world is, in Philip K. Dick stories, you have things like taxi cabs and corporations that ground it into a relatable period."
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