If you don't know who Ales Kot is yet, I would say that you're forgiven if only because he's just now getting started in the comics medium, but his first two entries, Wild Children and Change have received quite a bit of critical acclaim (including Wild Children showing up on our Top Ten Graphic Novels of 2012), so you would do well to keep an eye on him, especially considering that he's got two other comics slated for release in 2013 (Zero and The Surface).
Ales took a break from writing and moving to chat with me for a bit about this wonderful medium and his contributions to it. This is the first part of our conversation.
David Fairbanks for Comics Bulletin: While Change is clearly the subject at hand, I hope you don't mind that I'm not about to start with it.
Where the hell did you come from? You can take that in any sense that you want, but what sparked the question was that, as far as I know, Wild Children was your comics debut, was it not? That's a pretty huge rock to toss into what have, up until recently, been rather calm waters in the comics business. What were you up to those previous 25 years or so?
Ales Kot: Born five months and one day after the Chernobyl disaster. Been reading since I was three. Grew up mostly in Czech Republic but also ran around a lot – United Kingdom, Germany, some other places. Quit school when I was seventeen (or eighteen? I forget). Concentrated on girls, underground electronic music, reading, learning about the world my way. Got an office job at a major corporation for a year just to test if it would be really as horrible as I suspected.
Turned as weird as I could, then eventually woke up doing the whole Martin Sheen in the first scene of Apocalypse Now routine, broken mirror, walls buckling and folding, staring at the city from the rooftop… I considered my options and realized I always loved comics, so hey, maybe I should at least make one before I off myself. Started making it, met a girl, moved to Los Angeles – that's all 2009. That comic never came out, but that's fine with me.
As Umberto Eco says, your first book/comic/etc. needs to be written, not read. Wild Children came out in July 2012, a few months before I hit my 26th year.
CB: Why comics?
Kot: Because no other medium ignites my imagination quite the same way comics do. It's all about the empty space between two panels – that's where magic happens, that's the place where the reader and the creator share the common knowledge and trust that comes from the creator saying "I trust you. You can figure out what happens in between."
Comics are a bonding experience.
Ideally, comics remind me that I'm alive, that I can imagine things, that I can call them into being through the act of imagining them. That's a brand of realistic idealism I subscribe to – if I can imagine it, it can be done.
CB: There's a comparison I made with Wild Children, and I have made it again after reading Change: you seem to be channeling quite a few 90s Grant Morrison vibes. There are writers that have tried to explore similar ideas, but I can't really think of many in comics who have managed to pull it off as well as you do. Do you worry about that shadow at all?
Kot: Grant Morrison's shadow? I think about it, because it's clear that we have plenty of shared influences and I don't want to rip off something Grant wrote unless I'm consciously referencing/integrating, but I'm not worried at all. I read a lot of Grant's work and he's one of my favorite comics writers, that's for sure, but I don't want to be Grant Morrison – I'm pretty deeply invested in being me, whatever that means.
People in comics often talk about metafiction, apocalyptic themes, fascination with media, underground culture, fast cuts on the same page and so on as something Morrison invented, and that's simply not the case.
Change is based on myself first and foremost – it's about what makes me tick as a person, and about what I see and feel and think about when I walk on Glendale Boulevard or party in the hills or wake up on the beach in Venice. There are influences and I'm good at understanding them, but Change would be an empty wankfest if I decided to write it the referential sorta-Godardian way I wrote Wild Children. What worked there because I needed to work through some things and influences would be dishonest and lazy here.
That said, influences: with Change, a good case could be made for Tony Scott and Crepax when it comes to the fast cuts, the underground culture permeated my life before I read Morrison's work (but he, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore definitely showed that it can be successfully explored in comics), the paranoia/fear/horror is mostly Ramsey Campbell and Philip K. Dick plus of course Lovecraft, the apocalyptic themes are as old as this universe…the media fascination, you could trace that to Tony Scott, Marshall McLuhan, and Richard Kelly quite easily.
Cronenberg, Lynch, Kubrick are big influences overall. Music by people like Kanye West, Ghostface Killah, The Antlers, Goblin, Animal Collective, Nicolas Jaar, Slint. And perhaps most importantly, I don't think Change would even exist if it weren't for Charlie Kaufman's (metafiction!) BAFTA speech.
But in the end? It all comes down to delivering a story that is born from my insides. From the places that make me feel alive. The deeper I dig, the more interesting the material. Does it hurt? Sure. Is it worth it? Yes.
CB: There's just so much to go from there, and from the first issue alone, it feels like Change is going to deliver on it. Morgan Jeske's art is like little that's on the stands right now, too. How did you two begin to work together?
Kot: Thank you, I hope you're right!
Morgan & I met each other on the internets. When we saw and read each other's work, we broke down in tears. Then we stalked each other until he discovered me hiding behind his trash bin one morning and we've been working together ever since. All of this can be also attributed to Study Group Comics where Morgan publishes his SF epic The Disappearing Town. And to my debut, Wild Children, which Morgan read and liked.
CB: While it'
s clearly early and we have no idea how Change is about to end (although at this point, I'm sure you do), you seem to have developed some pretty interesting characters here; W-2 and Sonia have some great chemistry, and I'm clearly intrigued by the astronaut (also, did I see a cameo from you there as well?).
Since there's the idea of cyclic death and resurrection, do you see yourself returning to these characters again? Of course, I'm asking this as if you won't be busy with work on Zero and The Surface…
Kot: Change is a done-in-one thing. Four issues, then a collection, that's it – at least that's the plan right now. I love the characters, but we packed all four issues with so much emotional and physical hardship…Change feels like a novel to me. I love how Pynchon reads, how Umberto Eco reads…or, in comics, Elektra: Assassin or The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Change is dense; it feels complete. Creating it is a process that's rewiring me in some major ways, in and out. The process is exhausting and exhilarating and horrifying and beautiful. I'll need the rest, and there's no guarantee that W-2, Sonia, and the astronaut even survive the last chapter.
As for a cameo from me – I have no idea who that person is. Unless I'm lying. You're going to have to read the entire thing to figure this one out.
CB: You certainly picked a good time to jump into comics, at Image in particular. This has been a great year for them; while you already mentioned influences, what are some comics you're loving right now? Are there any that you feel aren't getting the attention they deserve?
Kot: This week: Multiple Warheads for its playfulness and gentleness combined with no bullshit approach to craft, Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches, because it's the rawest, most gut-wrenching anti-war comic I ever read, Hawkeye because the creative team is clearly committed to making the best superhero/spy/nice guy action thrilled comedy comic book on the stands and their creative dynamic is a wonder to behold.
I have no idea how to measure what people or things deserve, but when I see the sales figures for most creator-owned comics, I often cringe and sometimes even make noises. I'd like to see comics steadily expand beyond the current limited market. The situation feels better than a year ago – the creators at Image in particular are doing cool things and there are more and more artistic and financial success stories – but I'd like to get to the point where we'll be selling comics on a weekly basis to 10,000,000 people and not roughly 400,000 at most. I think it's doable.
Speaking of attention – Image did a sizable overprint on Change #1 and it's selling very well. I hope the retailers make sure that they have #1 in stock when issue 2 ships. We're packing the issues to make them worth the $2.99 they will cost. The experience of reading a single issue of a new comic book that does (hopefully) unexpected things is something I deeply cherish, so we took advantage of the format. What seems to have happened is a comic that reads differently in single issues than in does in a collection – and both ways seem to complement one another.
CB: You've brought up a problem that I think practically everyone involved with comics on anything more than a reader's level has given a fair bit of thought to: disappointingly low readership. What do you think the industry (or particular publishers/creators if you'd prefer to go that route) is doing right? Wrong?
Tune in next time when we get Ales's answer to these questions and more.
Photo of Ales Kot by Zoetica Ebb (http://www.biorequiem.com/)