Trying to put a frame around Ales Kot and his works is not easy. The 34-year-old author of Czech origins does not write simple entertainment comics, but challenges the reader with controversial, disturbing stories, which lead to making non-trivial reflections on human existence and society, often leading to unsettling,disturbing conclusions. In his works Kot speaks of love and politics, of language and violence, of racism and denied rights, all set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic landscapes, using the lens of fantasy, thriller, science fiction. We interviewed him to understand the ideas and reflections behind works such as Zero, Secret Avengers, The New World and in particular behind one of his latest and most intense works, Days of Hate, created together with Danijel Žeželj.
Hi Ales and thanks for your time. I would like to start by asking you about the beginning of your career: you were born in the Czech Republic, but then you decided to move to Los Angeles and start writing comics. Why Los Angeles, why comics? And more generally, what is writing for you?
The answer to all, of course, is love.
You have done many creator-owned books, with very different artists. How do you choose the artist to collaborate with? Do you always think about the story first and then you choose the team, or sometimes it happens also vice versa?
It varies. It really comes down to finding a feeling where the synergy between me and the artist, and then me and the artist and the rest of the team, feels like a continuous build-up, a creation something bigger than all of our combined energies. It’s a cliche, but it simply has to feel right. You know when it’s clicking. You learn to know.
During your short career, you have already become a big name in the US comic industry and have made high-impact comics. They are often complex, difficult comics, one needs to read and reread to understand their different shades. And you sew together so many things, from reflections on language and politics, to sci-fi and mysticism. Which is the key element that attracts so much of your stories? Is it maybe the complexity and the intellectual challenge that they represent?
Not anymore. That was a different person’s game, I think. Don’t get me wrong, I love structure and consider it a crucial element, but it really comes down to this: is this a story I need to tell right now? Is this story so alive it feels practically magical in its relation to my internal/external world? If the answers are yes, and they’re holding up, I can proceed.
An interesting aspect for me was seeing you bring this complexity to some Marvel comics series, which have had mixed fortunes. The theme of homeland security and ethnicity in Iron Patriot has not repaid in terms of sales, but it has gone better with the meta-literary madness of your Secret Avengers run. Looking back to those stories, what were the strenght and the weaknesses that you could recognize in them? More in general, what did your work in Marvel teach you?
They’re both beautiful in their own way, and they’re both in the past and there to be read by anyone who wants to read them. I honestly don’t feel like looking at them in points of strengths and weaknesses. It’s art, not math. But I know that’s not what you’re implying at all, so I’ll try to answer a little closer to your intent: I didn’t have the level of mutual trust with editorial on Iron Patriot that I had on Secret Avengers. Thus, there were decisions on Iron Patriot that became compromises, which in turn made the comic less than what it could have been, though I still think it’s fine, and it gave Marvel a new character they lovingly use to this day. Secret Avengers, on the other hand, while also affected by certain small compromises, was almost completely exactly the way I wanted it to be, and I am proud of it.
My work at Marvel taught me a lot, but it also fused with a really rough period in my life where I had to deal with Lyme disease and emerging PTSD from my childhood, so I’m still unpacking what exactly all that taught me as I go. I mostly tend to look at that period of my life with less and less judgment and more and more acceptance.
Do you think that in a future there may be another job for the Big Two or do you feel more comfortable with the total freedom of the creator-owned?
I don’t really think about the Big Two at all. I did, sometimes, over the years, but I don’t have them in any of my plans ahead on the comics side. Does that mean I’ll never work with them again? Of course not. It’s simply a matter of seeing where life takes us. If the project is right, the possibility is always there.
Since I am speaking with you, I cannot fail to mention Zero. I summarize this series with only one word: mind-blowing. How did the idea for this psychedelic, intricate and multilayered comic book come about?
I wanted to make sense of the patriarchal nature of James Bond and similar fictional figures through the lens of a very raw action SF. I knew that doing this would also inevitably help me make sense of the patriarchy I grew up in, and perhaps would also help me disconnect from it, challenge it, and further develop alternatives. Which it did.
Zero starts as a spy story and slowly transforms into something completely different, until it becomes a meta-literary story that leads to a tribute to William S. Burroughs. What role did his figure, and beat poetry more generally, play in the process of you becoming a writer?
It’s not really a tribute to him, but to the woman he murdered and the son he ignored. It’s really about daddy issues, and about letting go. But Zero is not dedicated to him on purpose, it’s dedicated to them.
Burroughs was important because he helped me understand that language is a virus, and that it can be continuously played with. He was far from alone in that, but he was important. Apart from that, the beats were important for me early on because they were some of the first literature of the 1960s I ever got my eyes on. Naturally, one tends to outgrow them once you realize how chauvinistic and lazy most of them were as writers and humans, though I continue to admire individual books of many of them.
Let’s talk about at a sore nerve for you: Material. In an interview you talked about this as one of your most important and personal projects. A story that talks about racism, the police state, the prison system. Some time later, you announced that you would interrupt the series. I don’t want to ask you why, but rather what does it mean for a writer to put an end to his/her own story, moreover, with great awareness and lucidity?
I always planned the series as a series of four-chapter collections, each with its own themes and new characters, so ending after the first one wasn’t really as hard as it may seem. The book simply wasn’t able to commercially sustain itself, and I didn’t want to put my creative team into that situation despite their wonderful and much cherished commitment. What does it mean to me? Everything dies. It’s fine. It can be heartbreaking — it was — and it’s still fine.
Do you exclude any series restart?
Yeah, no interest in that.
Talking about one of your latest work, Days of Hate, I would like to start with a simple question: how did the idea for this series and the collaboration with Danijel Žeželj come about?
I needed to process what I saw as a very possible future. I still see it the same way, sadly. And I always wanted to work with Danijel.
I ask you a couple of questions that I also asked Danijel and that actually can be applied to many of your works, given the recurring themes related to politics, history, language and current events. In Days of Hate you and Danijel, born in Europe but artistically raised in the States, talk about problems rooted in the US territory, although common to many other countries. What is the point of view of a boy born in the Czech Republic in the United States, on its politics and society? What can you see that an American born and raised cannot?
You’re asking me to write a book here, but I already wrote it. I’ll write more, too: The New World, which is about the United States post-WW3, and is currently being turned into a movie I’m producing together with Warner Brothers, say more about it as well. There’s simply too much to say for a simple answer. It’s a continuous processing. I’m not here to assume what an American born and raised in the US can or can not see. I’m interested in exploring what I see, and the way to do that is really through my work. What I can say is that being born into a totalitarian country, seeing the military occupation fall apart and leave, and then growing up in a democracy… that alone taught me so much about fluidity, personal and systemic and universal, and about the differences between the map and the territory, and trauma (again, on all layers of it), and and and… you see? I could really go on for a very long time.
In this comic, in addition to a reflection on the current situation and news, there is also a discussion about language, both verbal and non-verbal. Language which is used for lying, manipulating, misleading. A theme that appears in many of your works. Do you think that today language is used as a weapon, as a way to create factions and clashes? And what role do you think comics have in reflecting on the mechanisms of language?
Language was always used as a weapon. I think it’s worth considering whether language is really necessary, and whether writers are really necessary. Because we had storytelling before we had writers.
In the story there are a handful of characters, in fact the action focuses on four characters representing different ethnic groups. Where does the need to tell the life of people of different ethnicity and culture in the United States of today come from?
I don’t want to be flippant, but what other way to tell stories is there in 2020? It’s bad enough I belong to the white supremacy whether I want to or not because of the way the world is set up, I don’t need to further it through my writing. That doesn’t mean a story entirely about white people, or predominantly white people, shouldn’t be told — but if you’re telling it, are you making whiteness the point, or are you at least making sure you’re very much aware of its place in your story?
Although being strongly political, the story has a large intimate component. What is the key element that links this intimacy to the political and social criticism present in the story?
Everything is political. Including intimacy. Whether we want to or not, the world around us informs us, and we inform the world. Any sort of separation is really an illusion.
Love is another theme that often returns in your stories, and you usually face it from unconventional perspectives. What role does love play for you? Is it a way to fight the system and affirm human rights, like in Days of Hate or The New World? Or is it a way to escape from the system itself?
To try and reduce love into words is to fail to live it.
I asked Danjiel the same question, I’m curious to hear your version too: at the end of Days of Hate I felt fatigued, almost lost. It is a bittersweet ending, with a little hope obscured by a heavy sky. Was this your goal? And what has this comic left for you?
I think it’s a masterpiece, and I wish I never had to write it. But we have to bear witness to what is happening. It’s the very least we have to do.
Let’s close with a classic question: after Days of Hate, what are you working on? What are the plans for the future?
The best way of tracking that is following me at https://twitter.com/ales_kot as well as on my instagram https://www.instagram.com/aleskotsays/ — I tend to post news and sometimes early designs and pages there. I’ll say that there’s a new project with Danijel, a mythical viking horror I’m very excited about, as well as Lost Soldiers, an upcoming comics mini-series set between Vietnam and the US-Mexican border with art by Luca Casalanguida. And so on — much more to come!
Interview made by e-mail between December 2019 and January 2020
Born in Ostrava (Czech Republic) in 1986, Ales Kot is a writer, director, producer of movies, comics, television products and videogames, and he is one of the most creative, prolific and appreciated authors on the US scene at the moment. In 2012 he made his debut in Image Comics with Wild Children and the miniseries Change. Since then he has linked his name to the publishing house with stimulating, interesting and controversial titles such as Zero, The New World, Wolf, Material, Generation Gone, The Surface and Days of Hate. In addition to writing for Image, he has worked for Marvel Comics (Secret Avengers, Iron Patriot, Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier), Valiant (Dead Drop), Titan (Bloodborne) and Dynamite (James Bond: The Body).